Vince D. Weller remembers a better time. A time when CRPGs were turn-based, full of meaningful choices that lead to real consequences, and hard as fucking nails. It’s no surprise then that he (alongside his team at Iron Tower Studio) made Age of Decadence, a multi-layered masterpiece that refuses, as the RPG Codex says, to “scale to your level”. When I was reading his answers, I couldn’t help but imagine him as Walter White, gruffly answering poor dumb Jessie about the chemical intricacies of cooking meth.
The Existential Gamer: You are ten years older than when development began on Age of Decadence. How old were you when it began, and if you could pass your decade-younger self one message, what would it be?
Vince D. Weller: 11 years, actually. I was at the tender age of 34 and had all the time in the world. Message? “You’re never gonna believe it, but in the future people *will* read Playboy for the articles!”
TEG: Vince D. Weller is not your real name. Am I right to assume the D. Weller is a reference to the Fallout protagonist (simply known as “Vault Dweller”), and what role does the relative anonymity of using a pseudonym serve?
VDW: When we first presented the game to public, I was gainfully employed as Vice-President of Sales & Marketing in an advertising company. My employment contract prohibited me from being involved with another company in any capacity. While I’m pretty sure that working on a role-playing game after work isn’t what my employer was concerned about, I didn’t want to create unnecessary complications and took a pseudonym. Now I’m used to it.
TEG: A sense of irreversibility is palpable throughout Age of Decadence: your choices have consequences, and there is often no going back. This goes against the millennial paradigm of “endless choice and freedom”—a sentiment I find to be increasingly present in today’s games. Can you pinpoint the pivotal moment when you learned this lesson in your life? Why was it so important for you to make its presence felt in the game?
VDW: It’s not about my life experience; it’s about my design preferences. I dislike linear RPGs where all events are set in stone and you’re just moving from point A to point B to point C, triggering occasional cutscenes. A non-linear RPG requires choices. Meaningful choices require consequences, otherwise your choices don’t really matter. Simple as that.
TEG: Over the course of the entire game’s development, what was the most hopeless moment? Did you consider abandoning the project?
VDW: No. I guess that’s a side-effect of working with a very small team. You walk away – the entire project falls apart (the same is true for every member of the team, not just me). Giving up is easy. Screwing people who worked with you for years and are counting on you – not so much.
Working for a decade on nothing but faith wasn’t easy but I don’t recall any ‘it’s hopeless!’ moments. There were good days and there were bad days, which is normal.
TEG: Inversely, what was the most glorious moment, and why?
VDW: Every new milestone that got us closer. The first playable, the first demo out, new chapters, etc.
TEG: What game have you spent the most time playing over the course of your life?
VDW: Probably Civilization 1. I was instantly hooked and just couldn’t stop playing. Almost cost me my first job.
TEG: If I tell you: “the best game that most people don’t even know about”, what do you think of?
VDW: If by game you mean RPG, then Prelude to Darkness.
TEG: Age of Decadence is a post-apocalyptic game set in a low-magic world inspired by the fall of the Roman empire. How did you go about doing research for the game, and do you feel the same level of “magic overdose” that some RPG fans (including myself) complain about?
VDW: I like history and read Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire long before I started working on the game. Not that Age of Decadence is a historically accurate game that needed much research in the first place.
Magic overdose? Magic doesn’t bother me. In fact, I’d love to make a high magic game one day. It’s the way it’s usually presented in games that I dislike. A magic user is nothing but a fighter who kills in a fancy way. They don’t play ANY role in the setting and you can easily remove them from the game world without anyone noticing. “Hey, where did all them wizards go?”
TEG: How would you like to see magic portrayed in games? Are there any games you think pull it off well?
VDW: My memory isn’t what it used to be, but the only thing that comes to mind is Baldur’s Gate 2 magic duels and powerful spellcasters in general.
TEG: If not those you’ve seen so far, what kind of game mechanics would you like to see applied to magic?
VDW: I’m looking at it from a different angle. A ‘magic user’ shouldn’t be a pushover that any idiot with a rusty sword can kill if he tries hard enough. They should be very powerful (especially if a deal with the Devil is involved), very dangerous, and if you cross one, you’re fucked unless you figure out a way to save your life (not necessarily to kill whoever’s after you).
If you read the really old folklore tales, they are fairly dark and twisted. It would be interesting to try to recreate such atmosphere in a high fantasy game.
TEG: On a personal level, what draws you to the end of the world as a core theme?
VDW: To create a truly different world you need a factor that makes it significantly different from ours. It can be magic (magic is real and affects everyday life), vampires (there be monsters amongst us), apocalypse (always brings the best out of people), or a generation ship (different societies evolving on a ship flying for hundreds of years).
TEG: How nigh is the (real) world’s end, and how do you envision it happening?
VDW: The ‘end is nigh’ shtick started back in the Middle Ages, if not earlier. It represents a strong but naïve belief that all this shit (insert a list of things that really bothered people for the last thousand years) cannot continue indefinitely. It has to stop at some point. Yet here we are.
My version of the future is Idiocracy not Mad Max.
TEG: The game entered public beta in 2012, then was Steam Greenlit in 2013. I first played the game in Early Access. Throughout this period, what have been the difficulties and advantages of public exposure to your game, and how do you feel the message boards and community at large affected the development of the game?
VDW: You get TONS of feedback, good and bad. If you can handle the bad, the good is well worth it. Basically, you see your game through thousands of eyes and get all the opinions, suggestions, and criticism you can handle. The game would never be as good (assuming one likes it in the first place) if we didn’t go through this process and show everything.
TEG: Has this level of scrutiny by some of the most detail-oriented and openly judgmental minds in the gaming world (hello RPG Codex!) affected your personal life?
VDW: I grew a beard. Does it count?
TEG: What game would people be most surprised to hear you enjoyed (or currently enjoy)?
VDW: I really don’t think of it in such terms, although maybe I should. Once I openly admitted enjoying Wasteland 2 and never heard the end of it.
TEG: How has your taste in games changed over time? What was the first game that hooked you, and how do you feel about it now?
VDW: I assume you mean RPG. It was Dungeon Master. Still love it, have the original boxes (DM and DM2) and replay them occasionally. My taste didn’t change much.
TEG: Is the brutality and level of dishonesty present in the game a reflection of your views on the world?
VDW: The brutality and dishonesty aren’t a social commentary. They fit the setting. Our next full-scale RPG will take place in a different “world” and have different societies with different defining traits.
TEG: What role, if any, do literature and art play in your creative process, and what are some of your major influences in these domains? What else inspires you?
VDW: Um… you do know that I’m an indie game developer, not a Nobel prize winner, right?
TEG: Replaying Age of Decadence is a very rewarding experience, because of how different the game is when played as a thief, mercenary, merchant, etc. How difficult was this to implement?
VDW: Very time-consuming. Towns are the hardest, most time-consuming locations because of the multiple interwoven questlines with double-crossing and multiple solutions. The amount of scripting that goes into it is huge and it takes a long time to sort it out. It took more than a year to do each town.
TEG: What was the biggest challenge in designing the combat system?
VDW: None that I can recall. We knew what we wanted to do (action points, different trade-offs and attacks, etc). It took time to implement and patience to test and balance.
TEG: What’s your favorite activity when you want to take a break from your intellect?
VDW: I don’t know about intellect but when I don’t feel like reading or writing, I play shooters or build awesome forts for my daughter.
TEG: What shooters do you enjoy playing?
VDW: Preferably the fancy ones like Dishonored and the new Deus Ex that offer more than just shooting.
TEG: What’s your favorite activity when you seek an intellectual challenge?
TEG: What are your favorite books?
VDW: Way too many to mention, but here is one that I found absolutely fascinating – City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire.
It’s riddled with choices-n-consequences. Let me just go over the ‘starting location’ and what it meant. No land (they had nothing but marshes) means nothing to grow. Nothing to grow means no feudal system and no ‘knight/serf’ split. No agriculture means that trade is your business. A ‘prince’ isn’t a warlord dominating peasants but a sea captain in charge of men rough enough to sail and fight pirates, which means a completely different social dynamics. Trade means literacy, math to figure out profit, contracts, understanding and manipulating laws, risk taking – all during the time where an average person couldn’t write his own name. Etc.
Another book worth mentioning is The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000.
TEG: The word “RPG” has become an umbrella term for many different types of gaming experiences. Where do you see the “RPG” going in the future, and what function do you think it should have in a player’s life?
VDW: I don’t think games should serve any special function other than providing entertainment and wasting hours of one’s life, which is the noblest of all goals.
Where RPGs are going? The AAAs will continue pushing visual boundaries and making RPGs more accessible. Indies will serve smaller, long abandoned markets. Different markets – different interests, etc.
TEG: Are there any upcoming technological developments that you think will lead to interesting role playing games in the future? What about VR?
VDW: 20 years or so ago, I used to think of the glorious future of computer games, trying to imagine the sheer fucking splendor that we’d undoubtedly get to experience. Now I’m glad I kept the old games because the splendor of Darklands, Realms of Arkania, Fallout, Jagged Alliance 2, Planescape has yet to be surpassed.
But I can build a house in Fallout 4 and my 8 year old is very excited about it. I promised her that she’ll be in charge of the decorations.
TEG: Are you actually going to play Fallout 4 with your daughter?
VDW: Sure, why not? It’s going to be a game of the year.
TEG: Are there any developers and/or game designers that you are excited by creatively? In your opinion, who should we pay close attention to?
VDW: Right now? inXile. They have the right experience and creative freedom (aka “we don’t need no stinking
badges Real Time with Pause”) to do what they want.
TEG: Now that the game is out, how do you feel about the project? Relief? Post-partum depression? Pride?
VDW: It’s kind of like this. You trek through a desert, having a destination in mind (let’s call this destination “making games for a living and never having to wear a suit again”). You know that there is a well up ahead and you pray that it has some water, otherwise you can’t continue and will have to turn back.
You get to it and discover that the water is there, which is a relief, but at the same time you haven’t reached the destination yet. So you refill your flask and hope that you can make it to the next well.
TEG: What’s next for Mr. Weller?
Our short-term project is a party-based dungeon crawler set in the Age of Decadence world. One of the characters mentions a prison-mine called The Second Chance and you’ll be given an opportunity to escape it or die trying. This game will use the existing assets and systems.
Our long-term (i.e. a full scale RPG) project is a “generation ship” game, inspired by Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky. We’re aiming to create a different experience with the same core (‘hardcore’, turn-based, choice & consequence).
So, combat will be turn-based but focused on ranged rather than melee (earth-made laser guns – rare but powerful, ammo even more rare, so save for special occasions v.s. crude ship-manufactured firearms favoring burst rather than precision), level up to distribute skill points and unlock new feats, focus on the individual and more dynamic choice & consequence, focus on exploring rather than working your way up in a faction; you’ll be one of the ‘freemen’ who aren’t born into a caste-like faction, more traditional open level design.