How Jeff Vogel Makes Games

Tell us about yourself – Who are you? What do you do?
Hi! I’m Jeff Vogel! In 1994 (not a typo), I founded Spiderweb Software. For the last 25 years, we’ve been writing low-budget, indie, retro, deep, epic, turn-based, huge, story-heavy fantasy role-playing games for Windows, Mac, and iOS.

If I’ve never played your games before, what’s the first one I should try? 
Avernum 3: Ruined World, probably. It’s our biggest game, both in size and sales.

One fact that we probably don’t know about you:
I don’t enjoy writing games very much. It’s a compulsion and a profitable job, but I don’t have fun. After doing it this long, it’s just a grind. But I’m not good for anything else, so I keep doing it.

What games are you playing most right now?
I’m going through a ton of indie games. I’m doing a lot of Subnautica and Beat Hazard 2. I’ll also try Celeste when Epic gives it to me for free.

What are your all-time favorite games?
I’ve been playing video games for as long as they existed, so it’s such a long list. I loved Rock Band. Ultima IV. Dragon Age: Origins. Space Invaders. Adventure for the Atari 2600. The Witcher 3. Did I say Rock Band?

What draws you to make games?
Compulsion. From when I was 5 years old and spent all my time in my room drawing mazes, I have always been compelled by puzzles and games. No matter what I do, I will also be making games. It’s an obsession.

How did you get started making games? Describe your process (or lack thereof) when making games. How do you reach your final product?
When I played my first video game in 1978 or so, I immediately knew that this was my thing. This was just before personal computers in the home became a thing. As soon as I could take local classes to learn how to program, I learned BASIC and wrote little games in it.

Now that I’ve been doing it for a long time, I have a process. I spend months just letting an idea marinate in my head. Then I spend a few months writing the story and designing the system on paper. Then I spend 3-6 months working on the engine for Mac/Windows. Then I spend 5-7 months writing the game world, writing dialogue, making dungeons, etc. Then I spend 2 months in final testing, PR, and setting up online store. Then I press the big red ship button. Then I do the iOS port. Then I’m done.

How do you market your games?
Word of mouth, mostly. We’re too small to do a real marketing push. We write games that are addictive and compelling to a small, niche audience, and then we hope they tell other people about our games. We want a small number of people to be super-passionate about our work.

What game-related or game business-related media do you consume on a regular basis?
Not much. I read Gamasutra sometimes. I read r/games. That provides me all the knowledge about the industry I need. I’m not really involved in the industry. I’m just a weirdo off to the side doin’ my own thing.

What are some tool/programs/supplies that you wouldn’t work without?
Even since I’ve started, I’ve worked on the Mac, and I use a 4 button mouse. I program 3 of the buttons for Cut, Copy, and Paste. It has been an amazing, amazing time-saver for me.

What’s your playtesting philosophy? How often/early do you playtest? How do you find playtesters?
We’re too small to pay for playtesters. We don’t have money. We get volunteer testers (like most indies), and our testers are the most awesome, hard-working people you could imagine. We start testing as early as we can, at least 6 months before release. I want lots of time to get feedback and balance tips. I don’t have time to play my games as much as I should.

What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work, and how have you overcome them?
Nothing really jumps out at me, honestly. There were times when our sales went down, and we worked harder on the next game to get fresh ideas. We’ve had an easy time of it, compared to many. We keep our costs low and our expectations low, and get a decent middle-class living.

How do you handle life/family/work balance?
Over the years, I’ve become a hugely efficient worker. People in the game industry underestimate the value of practice and experience. It takes me far less time to do more work than it did twenty years ago. I’m super-efficient, which gives me plenty of time to live a decent life.

One of the tragedies of the industry is how it drives its workers out before they turn 40. We are wasting so SO much knowledge and experience, and it’s costing more in the long run.

What one piece of advice would you give aspiring game designers?
Get a chair with good back support. You’ll miss your back when it’s gone.

Who would you like to see answer these questions?
Anyone who can actually make a living as an indie. It getting rare these days. Sales are down, competition is murder. Everyone has to follow a wildly different path, and I bet the coolest story will come from someone I’ve never heard of.

What’s the best advice about life that you’ve ever received?
For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

(Meta question: What question did I miss that I should have asked?)
What am I working on now? Our next game is Queen’s Wish: The Conqueror, coming for Windows & Mac, Sept. 11, and iOS out later this year. It’s an all-new, really innovative RPG with a fun story, huge world, and a wild variety of different adventures.
When you write indie games, you always have to hustle for attention.

Thank you so much for your insight, Jeff! You can check out more of his work at SpiderwebSoftware.com, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

If you’re interested in how tabletop games are made as well, check out out tabletop game dev interviews at AndHeGames

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