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Interview with Mousechief Co.

The CMP Game Group (producer of Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra.com, and the Game Developers Conference) established the Independent Games Festival in 1998 to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers. They saw how the Sundance Film Festival benefited the independent film community, and wanted to create a similar event for independent game developers as well as the student population of game developers.

I got to talk to the main man behind The Witch's Yarn, nominated this year for Innovation in Game Design.

Who are you and what was your role on The Witch's Yarn?

Keith: Keith Nemitz is the head cook and bottle washer for Mousechief Co. He designs the games, programs the games, coordinates the efforts of several contractors, and picks up any pieces of work remaining to complete the effort. Right now he's struggling to get a grip on the business side of things.

Congrats on making it into the IGF finals. How does it feel to be back after your last appearance in 1999?

Keith: Much better! Last year we submitted an early Beta of the game and didn't make the cut. Placing in the original IGF was simply amazing, but at that time the industry really wasn't paying attention to indie games. We hope this year we'll find a lot more opportunities.

What made you decide to enter The Witch's Yarn?

Keith: The title was certainly a lot stronger as a completed game, and we also had a better handle on how to describe it's innovation.

How do you view this year's competition? Do you think the IGF is heading in the right direction?

Keith: I think the IGF is still figuring itself out. The staff changes often enough to prevent stagnation but at the risk of losing a strong direction. Personally, I like a little chaos, but I was sad they eliminated the downloadable category. I am confident they understand their mission, to promote independently developed computer games. Their heart is certainly in the right place!

How did the idea for The Witch's Yarn come about?

Keith: It started out as a technology concept. Before there was a game, I had been working on a new method of controlling interactive narrative. This mechanism is called Direct'Nject. Once I was pretty sure the invention worked, I needed an outlet. It's very hard to convince today's publishers to build an adventure game, so I had to make it as an indie. Having little money to fund one, I was delighted to discover the awakening market of casual games. At that year's GDC, I made the decision to build a game primarily for the audience of adult women who like a casual read. One of the strengths of Direct'Nject is it true ease of use. Most casual games are puzzlers and simple action games. I intended to introduce the adventure game to this audience. Having chosen our market and a specific kind of game, we had to create a story that women would enjoy reading.

First I considered common women's issues: community, family, self-empowerment... Humor had to be one foundation. One day, I remembered a spinning wheel my mother had purchased as an adornment for her living room. That single image collapsed all previous explorations, and I had my focus. From spinning wheel to witch to spinning yarn to a witch's purpose in the mortal world... It all came together fairly quickly after that.

How much did the game evolve from its original inception? What drove this evolution?

Keith: Quite a bit and not a lot. It took a month to develop the basic story. Each chapter was to have one kind of gameplay crafted from the capabilities of DirectN'ject. Technically, The Witch's Yarn is a showcase for Direct'Nject's flexibility. Practically, the game was driven by an intense fear of creating challenges that would frustrate a novice adventure gamer. So the in-game puzzles start dead simple, have lots of ways to get around them, and they don't really get difficult (or technically interesting) until chapters 5, 6, and 7.

At one point, after shipping the game, I created an entirely new first chapter with extra gameplay and a more compelling introduction.

What exactly is CineProse(tm)?

Keith: CineProse is the presentation system that let us build the game with pin money (about $10,000). The game is presented on an abstract stage with static characters and comic book word balloons. Truthfully, CineProse has not been successful. The mainstream wants voice acting in their games, not text. However, Direct'Nject is getting a lot of attention.

What's your most enjoyable part of the game and how did that feature come about?

Keith: Personally, chapter 6 continues to delight me, and I've played it hundreds of times. It's the first time in the game where the mechanism of Direct'Nject really soars above most interactive fiction. Chapter 6 brings to a close, the Witch's troubles with her family. And they are plenty of troubles. It's not particularly hard, but to solve it you have to explore the personal struggles of each of the Witch's adult children. Most I.F. follows only the perspective of the protagonist. Direct'Nject lets you follow multiple perspectives that are influencing each other. It came about simply by crafting gameplay from the story. Direct'Nject was invented as a means to break the inherent conflict between a player's control and the storyteller ability to maintain a good story.

That said, most people seem to enjoy chapter 7 best. It's the certainly the most intricate and interesting puzzle in the game, but not the hardest. The hardest puzzle in the game is in the ice cream shop, but a player has two ways of avoiding it.

During the development of The Witch's Yarn, what were some major issues that caused problems and how were they solved?

Keith: The game includes a rewind mechanism that allows the player to back-up (undo) every single decision they've made since the beginning of the game. They player may also fast-forward through the game so they don't have to re-read parts of they story they've already traveled. We had to redesign the scripting language to allow for jumping around the story at will.

What tools/technology was used for the creation of The Witch's Yarn?

Keith: It was written in the Python programming language with the PyGame gaming library. We created our own scripting language by writing a compiler in Python.

What's the one thing about the way you develop games that you think helps you do your job best?

Keith: Again, I have to give kudos to the Python programming language. It's so powerful I can prototype designs very rapidly and still ship the final title, cross-platform, without having to drop down into C.

How long has Mousechief Co. been around? What's a brief history of the company?

Keith: I think Mousechief started the day I married the girl next door, about four years ago. We got the name from the Krazy Kat comic, Malicious Mousechief. (Thank you, Gark!) It's been a crazy company from day one. Here we were making a game about witches, while living on Salem St. in a town with the contraction, E-ville! But basically, we're a one man company with several 'work for hire' contractors. We'd love to have an actual home-office with full-time employees some day. My business goal is to create a game developer co-op.

Being a virtual team, what methods did you use to keep in touch?

Keith: Phone, car, video conferencing... You name it, we used it. Our sound engineer lives in Belgium.

What advice do you have for others looking to work with long-distance team members?

Keith: Patience is not only a virtue, it has to be a renewable resource that you're continually consuming in vast quantities. Never make a schedule that you're unwilling to have broken. This wisdom comes from the indie world were time really is the best money you can have, when you can't afford to hire people for what they're worth.

What's next for Mousechief Co.?

Keith: Our next title is a Fantasy RPG, where the fantasy happens in a 1920's American town. Instead of warriors, rogues, and wizards, you have to build your party of characters from girls in high school. But these aren't ordinary girls. They are larger than life. Imagine May West, Marlena Dietrich, Myrna Loy, and Lauren Bacall. What were they like when they were seniors? What would they do in a town that is strict and intolerant beyond the darkness of Mordor?

Instead of resolving conflicts with axes and spells, you have to outwit, expose, hurl insults at (in the vein of Monkey Island ), and flirt with the dour citizens of Brigiton , USA . Gain useful treasures like lip-rouge, boyfriends, and crowbars. The Roaring Twenties was never like this, except in the lives of 'Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!'

It's the most fun you can have with teenaged girls, without getting arrested. We hope to have it available by the end of summer, but remember what I said about patience!

Interview conducted by Drew "Gaiiden" Sikora

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