An Interview with James Landes

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An Interview with James Landes

Postby Red » Fri Jun 01, 2018 4:00 am

Hi, everyone!

Joey Peters, a member of our development team had an interesting interview with our Lead Designer and CEO of Gwythdarian LLC, James Landes. This content is meant for Joey's game design and review blog, Jarmachi, that he is currently working on setting up, but he's allowed us to offer it up to you all to check out here as well! We'll be sure to let you know when Jarmachi is going, and be sure to show him some love!

When developing a new game what do you find essential for the player to have a great experience?

The answer to this depends upon the game, and the audience. It is not a one-size-fits-all flavor of question.

I tend to make grand, tactical role-playing simulation games that involve character development set against a dynamic, ever-changing game environment. With this sort of offering, I feel what is essential is "context" as well as the "Unanswered question". The offering must pose a question that the player feels they need to answer.

Consider these two statements.

"We are making a complete role-playing game with no DLC where you take your character and using potions, swords and spells to battle monsters and find loot."


"You play a character who is the last of an ancient bloodline destined to unite a distant fractured kingdom of Pendor. Journey to Pendor to seek answers to your birthright and find companions, and discover the foes who would see you perish beneath their blades.

Most games on the market opt to frame their offerings in features and function rather than create a vision and context which ultimately yields meaning. It is not enough to fight monsters. What must be delivered is "Why".. Why fight the monsters, what does this "Mean?".

Your new game, StariumXCV has several unique playable races and factions with complex backgrounds and histories, What was your process for creating these?

Insightful question.

We first started with the big picture. What was the theme of the game, what were the over arching story-lines in very general terms. There are several themes, some of which will be hidden for now.

One main theme that comes into play is longitudinal perspective. We have noticed that as we get older, the concept of 5 years or 10 years seems to be easily conceptualized where when someone is younger that type of time reference is next to impossible. This begged the question; "How would beings who live 2 to 3 hundred thousand years view time? Would a 20,000 year experiment be outlandish? From there, we drew heavily on Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, with the concept of Hari Seldon's psychohistory.

The next step was to select a perspective from where the players would engage this "Big picture" and what they would know and understand of it.

Then to make the player races something that would appeal to the target market of this type of entertainment product.

We started with identifying specific psychographic profiles of our target market and matching underling motivations using motivational theory.

Then, we looked at the world cultural references including historical cultures, and deliberately combined non-congruent cultures together and mixed in a psychographic profile to create unique races that we felt would appeal to our identified target market. Some of the main themes we used were Honor, Intelligence, Feminine Dominance, Insight, Order, and Mystical to name a few.

For example, the Maratasen, a feline like race that closely resembles 16th century Japan with emphasis on family, clan, honor and concept of violence as an accepted societal mechanism to achieve dominance.

Another example, the human like Valdus where we took two different cultures (India and Nordic) and blended them into a unique culture that looks like the Sidthe, but has a strict caste system along with a societal emphasis on an individuals name. The ending result was something quite unique.

Once the base races were created we then blended them into a shared history and chronicled how they all came to know one another. In this process we created 2000 years of history, struggles, wars, politics, plagues and made many historical characters that would bring all of these races to life.

One interesting aspect of this was our Loremasters (writers and designers) would often create role playing games and scenarios to flesh out racial and societal perspectives. Sometimes, unexpected racial quirks and perspective would manifest. One such example was an early proof of concept game where a Valdus player kept referring to the Tuleonetian race as "Tulies". That nuance stuck and most of our development team refer to that race by their shortened name.

Wow, such a robust answer.

Starium is a game that allows the player to explore millions of planets using procedural generation. With this in mind, how will you avoid the design pitfalls seen in other games using a similar model such as No Man's Sky?

This question poses an interesting dilemma. The basis of the question stems from multiple false assumptions. Let’s see if I can address all of these assumptions in order to arrive at a meaningful position that can be addressed by the intent of your question.

First assumption was that there was a design error in No Mans Sky, a procedurally developed universe put out by Hello Games and helmed by Sean Murray. This team created exactly what they set out to design. This was not the issue.

The second assumption is that procedural generation was somehow at fault for the perceived error, and it was not. Procedural design and generation is a tool or a process where by using mathematical formulas and Algorithms game content can be created. Again, Hello Games developed exactly what they intended to develop.

What happened with No Man’s Sky was what the production that Hello Games made, and how it was positioned to the player community was not aligned. Players heard things and assumed things that were not part of the game and were upset as their preconceived notions and what they “Wanted” was not delivered.

Where missteps occurred was that the PR firms and, in this case, Sean Murray, did not pick up upon the intent of the questions being asked and glossed over specifics and in doing so, appeared to the player community to validate features that were not part of the game. See the Venn diagram below.

pastedImage.png (8.18 KiB) Viewed 2930 times

What Sean Murray designed was an engine that could, through procedural processes, artistically create unlimited worlds or biomes and fill them with procedurally generated flora and fauna. They overlaid a weak story that echoed this procedural process, filled the entire galaxy with one “race” that was hostile that tied to this process, and three races to encounter that had nebulous histories. Add a basic combat system and resource gathering management system and that was No Mans Sky. A casual exploration game designed to show off the game engine that Sean Murray created.

What the players heard, and I feel is important, what they wanted, was an unlimited Galaxy filled with unique worlds, races, cultures histories to interact with in meaningful ways. No Mans Sky is not that offering.

Which brings us to our offering “StariumXCV” and your first question..

No Man’s Sky is a first person game of exploration and personal combat either on foot or in dogfight style in space.

StariumXCV is a grand tactical strategy game that is played from a top down perspective giving orders to Leaders, Agents, Fleets of ships, Armies of Military Units as well as interacting with tens of thousands of different procedurally generated computer controlled races, many of which are fragmented into different cultures, religions, and nations.

The only things that are similar between the two games are that they both involve space exploration, and that we both utilize procedural processes to generate game content.

The main differences are that we use these procedural processes to create races, nations, cultures, histories, religions and tie them together in ways that create meaning for the players.

Meaning is brought forth during diplomacy and how these computer controlled “Nations” interact with the player as well as how, and why, they interact with each other.

Meaning is also brought forth during what we are calling “Missions”, that are procedurally generated based upon the context of where the player leaders and agents currently reside. For example: If we have an emissary (a political agent that is similar to an ambassador), that resides in an area controlled by a computer controlled nation, our procedural processes and AI delve into the diplomatic and historical references of that nation and serve up a mission that this emissary could engage with that may have many different types of outcomes, including rewards and even mission failures that could result in political and diplomatic consequences. The mission could be based upon their religion, their history or even current events dealing with other players.

Interestingly the emphasis of our work is the design, game context and player interaction. Our weakness is our art, which is limited by our chosen platform, the web page. We elected to opt for a product that does not require downloads to play, and can be played on any device that has a current web browser. The cost of that decision is limitations on the artistic immersion that is possible to display.

With such an open and massive project what new things as a creator and a team member have you learned during this game's development history?

Very good question.

This is the most ambitious project I have ever worked on in terms of so many different people working together. I have learned many things in this journey, but I will give you a few interesting aspects.

First, conceptually. One design piece that surprised me is an attributional bias almost everyone has in games and literature when dealing with non-human races. I can trace this back to my early days when making worlds for role playing games and in my literary experience with the hundreds of fantasy and science fiction books I have read. When we talk of humans in any setting, we dissect humans into different cultures. We create a culture that revolves around that nation. We do not do this with non-humans. We generally treat them as a holistic culture rather than a race that could and indeed, should, have many multiple cultures within it. It is always the “Elves are like this” or the “Dwarves are like that”, never the “Elves of the North are physically identical to the elves of the south, but their cultures differ.” We change the race of the elves of the North to “Ice Elves” or to the south to “Wood Elves”. In other words, we tend to change the race to match and compliment the desired culture.

When creating and programming the design for the computer controlled races in Starium XCV, this bias smacked me in the face and made me rethink my assumptions and by extension the approach in solving this problem procedurally. Races are different than cultures. Seems so obvious in retrospect, but an innate bias none the less.

Second, as I have mentioned earlier, this is the most ambitious project I have worked on. I cannot stress the importance of the producer in this process. Our project manager who manages the schedules, files, structure, meetings, agendas, and makes sure everyone is on point and solves the administrative and organizational issues we have as we trudge forward. I am now under the mindset of “If you do not have a great producer then you will fail, no matter the scope of your project.”

Third, the power of a collaborative development team cannot be underestimated. Every time I have a concept, a solid amazing game changing concept, I share it with the team and they find ways to make it better. Every. Single. Time. When you have a great synergistic team focused on the ending project and delivering the best quality possible, magic happens.

Last, I have truly learned the true power of leadership. While I have been in leadership positions in past positions, never have I had to utilize those skills to the degree I must employ now. Create a vision of the future that is impossible for one person to get to. Share that vision and empower others so that together you are reaching that vision together. Impossible things happen.

There are dozens maybe even hundreds of small technical things I learned in this process, and I think these four stand out as something worth sharing and have the most value.

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