The announcement of the Retro Video Game System, a cartridge-based console, is the latest case study in the debate of whether gaming should continue evolving beyond its roots.
Leviathyn Talks Shadowgate, Kickstarter, and Indie Games with Zojoi’s Dave Marsh
The Shadowgate franchise delighted adventure fans throughout the late 1980’s and 90’s, first appearing on the likes of the Macintosh and Commodore 64 before being ported to 10 different platforms over the years. Indie developer/publisher Zojoi recently finished a successful Kickstarter campaign to reinvigorate the Shadowgate license with a brand new point-and-click adventure. The company hopes to bring the game to a new generation of fans, while delighting those with fond memories of playing Shadowgate on older platforms.
Zojoi didn’t pick Shadowgate at random. Owners Dave Marsh and Karl Roelofs are responsible for giving life to the game in 1987, and they have been instrumental in its success ever since. Now with their own indie studio, the duo are hard at work creating the next generation of adventure experiences.
I recently had a chance to speak with Dave Marsh, co-owner of Zojoi, about Shadowgate, the company behind it and the outlook for indie games in the future:
Leviathyn: The Shadowgate Kickstarter is over, and obviously it was a huge success. So, at this stage of development, what’s the next step for you? What are the challenges that you’re facing right now?
Dave Marsh: I think our biggest challenge is making sure that we know that we can finish the game, that we’ve got the resources, we’ve worked it all out financially to make sure we can finish it and ship the rewards and all that. For us right now, it’s about making sure the product that we want to put out — which is much bigger than we’ve ever done in Shadowgate before – we just want to make sure that’s the product we get out. If we can get that done, and we’re still shooting for our November date, that’s great, but if it needs to go a little bit beyond that in order for us to get the product out the way we want it, that’s fine too.
We didn’t just want to do another port, we’ve talked about that, we’ve done that 10 times. We wanted to put out a product that was totally different, and not just by adding new puzzles. That means we’re adding a lot – we’re definitely adding a lot of new content. We’re doing stuff with dynamic music that we’ve never done before. So we’re definitely not in a difficult situation, because we’ve made much bigger games before, but for Shadowgate it’s about being a new company (only a year old), and not having raised the kind of money that a lot of similar games would have raised.
So we’re just trying to make sure we deliver not only what the player expects, but beyond what they expect. That’s our biggest hurdle right now. And of course we’re starting from scratch and building on Unity, which is a new platform for us. So, there definitely are a lot of hurdles, but its going well.
L: So November 2013 is still your target to release Shadowgate?
DM: That’s still our target.
L: Speaking of Zojoi being a new company, but Shadowgate being a very well-known franchise, what does it take for you to reinvigorate the community of Shadowgate fans? What have you had to do to develop a new community around Zojoi, bringing together those old fans and drumming up new interest at the same time?
DM: It’s interesting because Shadowgate is a property that’s a bit unusual, due to the fact that it came out first on the Macintosh in 1987, and then was released on various different resolutions for the PC, Atari ST, and the Commodore 64, and those types of mouse-driven computers. Then in the midst of that, it had this whole new fan base that came from the NES version, and I think for the most part it’s those folks that are the most adamant fans of the franchise. So here you’ve got a product that’s this first-person adventure that came out on the NES when everything was side scrollers, so it was very different. We found that in the Kickstarter, most of the people remembered the music, because it’s very iconic; they remembered how it made them feel when they were seven or eight.
Karl (Roelofs) and I talked about the fact that just porting that is never going to meet that feeling they had when they were seven or eight. Because anything that you remember from your childhood is always going to better than if you experience it again right now. We wanted to give them something new, so we really reached out to the press for our Kickstarter, and you can see on the Zojoi page that we’ve got a ton of coverage. We were kind of in the wake of some big Kickstarters that were just finishing up, so maybe we didn’t get as much coverage as we would have hoped. But it definitely got out there, and people saw the passion in what we’re doing.
As we make the product, we’re just starting again to reach back out to the press to let them know where we are. All of our updates on Kickstarter are for the public. We want to make sure that players get a chance to see what we’re doing, to be as transparent as possible with where we are in the process.
There is an entire new genre of people that are playing hidden treasure games, some first person types of adventure games, especially on the iPad and Android tablets, so I think there is a new generation of people that are playing some of these simple first person games. They’re not text driven, as Shadowgate is, so we’re hoping to go ahead and carve out our own niche.
L: You mentioned the NES fans rallying around the project. What else have you discovered about the demographics of people who are excited for Shadowgate?
DM: I can speak in generalities and say the PC, Mac, and somewhat the Linux users are the ones that are driving it. It’s pretty much the same subset of pledgers that are out there backing five, six, 10, or 20 games, and they’re looking to really just help the smaller independent studios, and some of the larger ones too that have done really well that have raised 2 or 3 million dollars. But especially from the game standpoint, they’re really just targeting mouse driven platforms, and they are less apt to back or get excited about tablets or phones.
I can think of one Kickstarter that came out and raised nearly $100,000 but had to cancel their project. It started off for PC and Mac, and later added tablets. They canceled it, but they came back later and launched again starting with tablets and couldn’t raise that amount again. So we’re actually making these games primarily for Mac and PC, and then a couple of months later we hope to ship the tablet versions. Some people come out and say they’re going to ship all of them out at one time, but we think that one platform or another gets the shaft when you do that, because its not being specifically designed for that platform.
L: Let’s talk about Zojoi. What advantages have you found, or do you plan to find, by focusing the company solely on the point-and-click adventure genre?
DM: In general I’m finding that adventures are what we want to do. Karl and I have a real passion for, obviously, the games that we’ve already created and the games that we have design documents on that were never released. Our goal is to create a great adventure engine that we can use to bring back some of the licenses that we created, and we think there is a market for these types of games, especially with people that have fond memories of Shadowgate or Uninvited or Deja Vu.
We really love Shadowgate, and although when we designed it we were pretty young, we didn’t know much more than playing Dungeons and Dragons, now we look at it and just think, “This is a franchise that we think can have legs, and one that we love.” We have designs of different Shadowgate games in various states that we were working on over the years, and so we think that there is a market for first person adventure games.
We’ve talked about going away from “static screen with animation” to something which is more like walking through a 3d world stuff, and maybe one day that will come about, and we might want to go down that road, but not now. Ours are basically story driven games you can play for a little bit and step away without having to worry about making sure the camera is pointed at the right corner in the exact bit of the room, you know?
L: You mention in your Kickstarter video that one of the first things you did was acquire the license to Shadowgate, but also to Deja Vu and Uninvited. What are your plans for Deja Vu and Uninvited, and do you have plans to develop any brand new IP in the future?
DM: Karl and I talked a lot about Deja Vu and Uninvited. They’re games we really like. We probably talk about Uninvited a little bit more than Deja Vu. When we picked up the licenses we definitely wanted to go ahead and do it. The question is when it fits in.
We’re probably more apt to look at extending the Shadowgate license, at least with one other title, before taking them on, or at least taking one of those two on alongside another Shadowgate. And then, we definitely do want to do some other things. One of the designs that Karl and I worked on a while back was like a Victorian werewolf game that we thought was really fun. There are other ones that we look at, and we’ve been actually talking to a few licensors about their bits, but right now we’re just trying to concentrate on making sure that we concentrate on Shadowgate.
L: In light of the new generation of consoles and a general shift away from traditional PCs towards newer platforms, what role do you think indie developers in general are going to play in the years to come? Where do you think the opportunities and the audiences will be for indie developers and indie games?
DM: I think the biggest hurdle is getting people to know about our product. So, while its great that we can go ahead and develop various games and engines, and use a company like Kickstarter to help fund some of that — while that’s great, getting your game out there so that people can find it is still always going to be our biggest difficulty.
As indie developers are able to get a hold of more robust engines that can actually create great games across multiple platforms, and now we have a proliferation of anybody being able to put out products, which is great, it becomes harder and harder for people to find yours. So its difficult for an indie developer, if you don’t have a big publisher behind you, to get people to notice you, so you need to do whatever you can.
In our case, using the Kickstarter and reengaging with our community – its been easier. But its the shift in how the publisher/developer model that Karl and I grew up with in the 80’s and 90’s is gone forever. I mean it’s now the big three or four publishers only taking A+ titles, so I think that you’ll see some people come out there with some of the smaller developers that come out with a game like Journey, that say, “Hey, we wanted to do what we wanted to do, and we’ve got the right people behind it.” But its always going to be tough. I cant speak a lot to how the landscape is going to change or how its going to be good or bad for indie developers, but I know the challenges that we face today.