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Interview with Nayantra

Star ChamberThe 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.

For this interview I logged on with Nayantra's lead man, Paul Dennen, to learn more about what went into the making of his online card trading game Star Chamber. Once again, the one-man shop proves what can be done, and that the days of garage developers never really did die out.

Who are you and how were you involved in Star Chamber?

Paul Dennen: I'm Paul Dennen, creator of Star Chamber. I designed the game and did all the client programming. I hired contractors to do art, server programming, and web design and programming. And then, after we launched, tech support and community support help as well

Congrats on making the IGF finals. How does it feel?

Paul Dennen: Thanks. It felt good to make the finals. I'm a bit nervous about going to the actual show, because I've never been to a GDC, so I'm not sure what to expect

What made you decide to enter Star Chamber into the IGF?

Paul Dennen: Well, Star Chamber fits the bill of independent game development, and I worked extremely hard on it, so I jumped at the opportunity to enter the contest, which seems to have gotten bigger in terms of press and exposure over the years. I submitted a game years ago to I think the first IGF but that one was rejected (deservedly so)

How did you get into making games?

Paul Dennen: I'd always made games, board and computer, as a hobby. After a few years doing programming for financial and medical software, I decided I'd be much happier by applying my skills toward making games professionally. In other words, that other programming was pretty boring

What made you go indie rather than try and get a job at an established company?

Paul Dennen: Well, I used to have jobs at established companies. I landed a job with Digital Addiction from 1999-2000, but they went bankrupt about a year after I joined. Then I went to EA.com, where I continued as lead programmer on the project that DA was building for them. That job lasted only 3 months, and if I had had an opportunity to go to another established company, I may have taken it. However, at the same time, I was getting fed up with working on games that were getting cancelled. What's the percentage of game projects that don't get cancelled? It's fairly low, isn't it? Anyway, those two factors led to my decision to "go indie" again and build Star Chamber

So where and when did the idea for Star Chamber originate?

Paul Dennen: The idea for Star Chamber originated while I was working for Digital Addiction. Their game was Sanctum, an online fantasy collectible card game. I really loved Sanctum, but it had some tragic flaws. I wanted Digital Addiction to make a science fiction version with deeper and improved gameplay. Unfortunately, DA just couldn't stay afloat financially. So the idea remained just that, an idea, until spring of 2001 when I began turning it into a product

Were you drawn towards the idea of Star Chamber as a fan of real life collectible card games like Magic?

Paul Dennen: Yeah Magic is certainly one influence and I was a big Magic player. It's also heavily influenced by board games; the design is sort of a fusion between American-style and European-style board games

What were some of the challenges in designing Star Chamber?

Paul Dennen: Well, a good CCG should have a lot of mechanics to provide variety and depth, yet not too many so as to flood the players with too many rules. So the biggest initial challenge was coming up with a rule set that struck that balance. Related to that, I also wanted to have the various factions in the game feel different, done by allocating mechanics and strengths and weaknesses to the various techs and thereby races. Making sure each race has interesting and fun game play is quite difficult. And finally, the hardest thing is making the game balanced. With each race having different sorts of things they can do via the hundreds of collectible cards that combine to form the players' decks, the number of game play possibilities is very large, so large that even with a four month beta test, there were still balance problems when the game launched

Was it difficult to add in the whole strategic gameplay layer as well, in addition to the deck gameplay?

Paul Dennen: Well, the strategic layer came first, and the cards and mechanics were built around them. One important decision point that came up during the beta test did involve the importance of cards vs. board play, or in other words how much CCG should the game be and how much board game? For example, at the beginning of beta, you could build citizens for 3 Build Points (aka BPs), scouts for 4 BPs, and cruisers for 6 BPs. The game was balanced, but I decided that the cards weren't affecting the game as much as I wanted them to, because planet-produced units were too cheap. So, what could happen was I could play my cards beautifully and pull off interesting combos, etc. but it didn't really matter much if my opponent was Gary Kasparov, whose command of the strategic board play was really great. So, I made the decision that I wanted the game to be more card play oriented and a little less board play oriented, so the first change was to make units more expensive to build using BPs while keeping card costs the same. The testers agreed that the game became more like a real card game, and less like chess, which made me happy

How were the cards conceived? Were a lot of them created initially, and then others added as the game evolved to help with balance issues?

Paul Dennen: In the first set, Origins, about 90% of the cards were simply created without a lot of regard to certain cards counteracting other cards to preserve a balance. In many ways, this philosophy worked out well because the game lacked a high degree of rock-paper-scissors, unlike many CCGs which when played at a high level, the games almost seem predetermined from the start. But there were definitely balance problems with Origins – and the next sets, Incursions and then Rebellions, had sub-goals to alleviate some of the significant balance problems with the game. It's worked out well; in the Origins environment, the best players tended to play two or three races out of nine. Now, I'm hosting tourneys where I'm seeing eight different races played

What tools were used to create Star Chamber?

Paul Dennen: Visual C++ with a homegrown graphics engine that I had written years before for Subterranean (the game I mentioned earlier that I submitted to the first IGF). So, really nothing to report as far as fancy client tools or engines. On the server side, we chose mySQL as a database because of its excellent price

How long was Star Chamber in development for?

Paul Dennen: It pains me to even think about it, but it was 2.5 years from when I started ‘til when it launched. My initial thought was that I'd crank out a small game in a year. I ran into a bunch of problems, and also expanded the feature set, so it took way longer than I'd expected

What was the biggest problem along the road from start to finish? How did you solve it?

Paul Dennen: The biggest problem was not coming to an acceptable licensing deal with NIOGA (Non-profit International Online Games Association) to use the Sanctum backend solution for Star Chamber, and having been confident that it would happen. So there I was many months into client development without a backend. How was it solved? By a stroke of luck, a friend and excellent programmer Aaron Walker found himself out of work but willing to do some "fun" work for a while between jobs. He was able to develop a new backend solution, while I continued on the client, and it worked out well because I was able to spec out exactly what I wanted, rather than having to fit Star Chamber into the Sanctum solution, which had some serious technical drawbacks

Quality of Life is the new hot topic in the industry today. As indies, we're tasked with our own QoL. What do you do to take off the pressure and keep it fun? Any thoughts on QoL in the industry itself?

Paul Dennen: Yah, well the quality of life in the typical American workplace is pretty bad, and in the gaming industry even more so. I think there needs to be more widespread backing of movements such as Take Back Your Time and we all need to slow down a little and enjoy life. People are more efficient when they're well rested and happy; it's amazing when you hear stories about situations of ongoing 80+ hour work weeks. I don't have any specific ways to fix things other than raising awareness and I think people should demand more vacation and not put up with crap, and be willing to walk

What advice would you give developers who want to make their own CCG?

Paul Dennen: Don't underestimate the time it takes to design, tweak and balance the game. And create a prototype as soon as possible. I had a prototype for Star Chamber within 3 months, and it really helped with ongoing development

What's next for Star Chamber and yourself?

Paul Dennen: I've taken a job at Worlds Apart Productions, the makers of the Lord of the Rings Online Trading Card Game, which is a port of Decipher's paper CCG of the same name. They have a great team and they've built an excellent CCG infrastructure. We're going to port Star Chamber to their infrastructure, which will increase its feature set, adding cool stuff like 4 player play, drafting, and game spectating. We'll also be continuing with new sets of cards, with new races and strategies for players to look forward to. And hopefully, we'll finalize a publishing contract so that Star Chamber can get some good retail distribution!

Well, good luck at GDC. I'll see you on the Expo floor in March

Paul Dennen: Thanks a lot, see you there!

Interview conducted by Drew "Gaiiden" Sikora

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