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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Interview: The developer looking to resurrect SSI with Seven Dragon Saga

Interview by Matt S.

A couple of weeks ago, we saw the very exciting news that a small development team of SSI veterans had formed a new company with the express purpose of recapturing the kind of gameplay that made SSI games so appealing to a generation of players.

The company, TSI, is currently hard at work at its first game, Seven Dragon Saga. We haven't seen much by way of screenshots as yet, but what we do know is that the game is clearly in the spirit of classic Dungeons & Dragons adventures such as Eye of the Beholder and Wake of the Ravager. As big fans of the classic SSI approach to game design, it's something that we have felt has been missing in recent years, and as such we're very excited to be following the development of this particular game.

I had a sit down with David Shelley, the Producer and Lead Designer of Seven Dragon Saga, to talk about what it's like coming back to the SSI mindset so many years after the company folded shop, as well as to get a feel for the kind of game that Seven Dragon Saga might turn out to be.

Digitally Downloaded (DD): One of the things that immediately caught my attention with your press release was with your background at SSI. As one of the most hardcore of SSI fans as a kid, the formation of TSI has immediately caught my attention for that nostalgia value. How heavily are you looking to tap into SSI nostalgia for your own games?
David Shelley (DS): We are looking at pulling in many of the elements we liked from the old SSI games: turn-based combat, player created party, strategic map for long distance travel and exploration. Our games will retain the more open world of most of those games, where exploration provides a lot of fun, as opposed to a linear story on rails.

David Shelley

DD: Could you outline what you have been doing in the interim between your time at SSI and now?
DS: After SSI, I went to work for Namco Hometek, just as they were starting to create original products in the US. We got to struggle with the console transition from Genesis/NES to PS1, working on products for 32X and Saturn before moving on to PS1. The big project there was Pacman World, under its original title Pacman Ghost Zone. When the head of R&D was replaced, many of us moved on.

During the Internet boom of the early Dot.com days there was a push for browser based content. Companies like WildTangent and PopCap were coming up at that time as well. I joined with some friends on a start-up called Nuvo Studios, making web based games for various sites. The initial plan was to produce 'sticky content' for businesses, though that soon morphed into generating web games for Hasbro, Pearson, etc.

After doing that work several years, I really wanted to get back into doing larger projects. I moved on to Global VR, a company focused on the arcades, and helped found their internal dev team. The biggest project there was bringing EA's PGATOUR Golf to the arcades.

Having a passionate for RPG's, I had the opportunity to work on a project called “Kogamu” at Acclaim, where I worked with David Perry. As it moved into playable, the company was sold off to Playdom (then Disney), and I moved on.

A year ago, I joined with Paul Murray and David Klein to form TSI, and we've been developing Seven Dragon Saga ever since.

During the whole of my career (actually from high school on), I've been in a weekly tabletop RPG group, with Paul Murray and Keith Brors, both SSI alumni. Seven Dragon Saga derives from a system we developed in that group.

DD: What do you think it was that made SSI games so special, and do you believe those traits are still applicable now?
DS: In many ways the small, ever changing hardware systems gave us a lot of opportunity for creativity in game play. SSI was also its own publisher, which meant there wasn't a large committee of non-gamers to dilute the vision. Further, art and audio were less prominent, and it was game play which was a key differentiator. I was even doing art for Eternal Dagger.

And, once you had a critical mass of wargamer and RPGers together at SSI, there was plenty of opportunity to cross-pollinate and get good feedback on ideas. The creators of Master of Orion sent their product to us to see if we would publish it. We sent them back eight pages of suggestions, along with our bid. Micropose outbid us, but the majority of our suggestions appeared in the game.



DD: Can you describe for me the kind of game you're looking to build with Seven Dragon Saga?
DS: Tactical control, exploration, and strategic impact are our three main goals.

We had a lot of discussion about which classic elements work well and are underrepresented in today's games. Creating the whole party, and using it turn-based tactical combat was an obvious element, and one we all have enjoyed.

The storyline needs to be open, so players feel free to head off to explore the world and still find a worthwhile and somewhat guided experience. 'What do I do next?' is not a question we want players to be asking. While we enjoy worlds like Skyrim, we chose to use a strategic map for long distance travel. Players can find new map locations through exploration and story. Special encounters may pull the player down into a new area and enemy encounter.

Seven Dragon Saga is designed for starting the game with a reasonable amount of power, precluding the reluctant hero with rusty sword story. The players are already effective fighters and have the backing of the Empire. Using a faction system, in a land verging on civil war, how will players choose to use their powers? I expect many will default to “bull in a china shop”, some will take responsibility, and others reject the great power and support one independent group or another. Making player choices matter, and causing a strong impact on the world are key.

DD: How important is open storytelling to your game design? Are you looking to emulate the Bioware approach to game design in which player decisions really do impact on how the story plays out?
DS: Open storytelling is an important element of Seven Dragon Saga. The players need to be able to alter the outcomes in a meaningful manner. Since the player creates a group of heroes, we will not be emulating Bioware's robust romance and NPC conflict elements.

DD: From the concept art that you have showed so far, it looks like your game is looking to recreate the classical approach to fantasy art. If we were to use Dungeons & Dragons as a point of comparison, would you say the visual style of your game is being more influenced by 2nd edition, or are you looking to do something more modern like 4th or 5th edition?
DS: When we began concept work, we provided our artists with reference from Clyde Caldwell, Larry Elmore, Walter Parkinson and other classic late 80s Dungeons and Dragons artists. We wanted to recreate much of that feel in our artwork, though with a more international flair. Our High Elf Wizard is northern European, while our Dwarf Knight is north African, and our Shade Elf Scout is southeast Asian.



DD: We've seen in recent years the idea that even genres such as the RPG and strategy game need to be more visceral in order to be commercially successful, with action combat systems replacing more traditional turn based pacing. How do you see your game fitting in to the market from a commercial perspective?
DS: We discussed the choices between a real-time paused system (Bioware) and full turn-based in 3D (X-Com). With the success of crowd funded games like Wasteland 2, Torment, Divinity: Original Sin, and so on, we see there is a viable market for turn-based combat. Since turn-based provides the player the more complex and cerebral experience, we chose that option. Using a 3D based world, we will also have the option to use the camera to add visual excitement, setting the scene and so on.

DD: Do you have plans for Seven Dragon Saga to become a franchise, or what will you be looking to do after this game has been released?
DS: We are looking at Seven Dragon Saga being a franchise. Although, we have a lot of ideas and have had some early discussions with various RPG and strategy IP holders to see if we might leverage our expertise. We'd like to strike a balance between the two and continue to make great tactical experiences for our target audience.

Our goal with the first Seven Dragon Saga product is to make a firm commitment to publish on PC/Linux/Mac platforms. I want to see a polished product on one system, then consider how to expand its reach. We are interested in mobile and console, but we feel any port would require a full revision of the UI. Player inputs into each system are significantly different and to saddle the players of one with the interface of another is a disservice we don't wish to commit.

DD: Finally, what games are you playing at the moment?
DS: Currently, Divinity: Original Sin. I'm between MMOs at the moment, though my last were Star Trek Online and Guild Wars 2. I play a FB game called Avengers Alliance in the spare moments. We just got a Wii-U, so I'm exploring some games there with my kids (Skylanders, Mario-Kart). I'm looking forward to Wasteland 2 later this month.

- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
Interview: The developer looking to resurrect SSI with Seven Dragon Saga
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