Jeff Vogel, indie game development’s self-declared “Crazy Old Uncle In the Attic,” has been a one-man production studio for computer RPGs since 1995, when his first game, Exile: Escape From the Pit, was released as shareware. Since then, he’s continued to carve out a niche for himself in the PC games market, publishing series like Geneforge and Avernum through his company, Seattle-based Spiderweb Software.
This past week, he gave a speech at the Game Developers Conference about his time in the industry as a “random shareware weirdo.” In advance of that, he sat down with us to discuss Avernum III, its remaster, and his decades spent singlehandedly developing some truly enormous computer RPGs.
Continue reading for our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Thomas Wilde: You’re mostly a solo act, right?
Jeff Vogel: It’s a mom-and-pop operation. I work with my wife. She is my business manager and does many, many, many jobs interfacing with reality, and I’m the game maker. I just go off into my room for a long time and eventually come out and I have a game. I deal with a lot of freelancers, but the vast majority of our games are just by me.
Wilde: What do your freelancers do for you? I know that you said on Reddit that you code most everything in C++?
Vogel: Yeah, that’s the main thing. We use freelancers for the art. That is one area which we have no talent. We’ve worked with many, many freelance artists over the years. I’m working with a few right now for the new game. Most of my time just art direction, like we’re trying to get a base of art in place and deal with getting a consistent style and stuff like that. But yeah, that’s the main thing we have other people do.
Wilde: So the new game, the one you’re dealing with when you’re done with the iPad port — are you at a place where you can talk about that at all yet?
Vogel: I can give the basic outline I’ve given before. We tend to write one engine just because I’m so small. I have to do a lot of code reuse, so I tend to write one engine and then write a bunch of games in that engine.
I’m making a whole new engine, whole new art, whole new game system, whole new IP, new worlds, new characters. I hope to do a Kickstarter for it sometime in early summer.
I have a couple ideas for a name but we haven’t nailed down the complete name yet. I wish I could give more information about that. All of our games for the last 25 years or so that we’ve been in business have been the same sort of game, basically low-budget, turn-based, very story-heavy, very open-ended fantasy role-playing games. It’s kind of an evergreen genre. It’s a genre that there’s always going to be demand for and that’s something that I have a particular love for and skill with, so the new engine is going to be like that.
There are some people who hope that I’m going to just bust out with this crazy-ass 3D big-budget super fancy thing, but that’s not what I can do, both for lack of budget and lack of interest. And, frankly, lack of technical skill on my part. I’m not the best programmer in the world.
So you know, it’s going to be the same sort of thing we’ve always done and yet very, very different. We need to mix it up a lot every few years just to keep interest.
Wilde: OK, so brand-new everything, but still a single-player CRPG.
Vogel: Yep, it’s still single-player. Multiplayer is something we’ve been asked for again and again, but writing a multiplayer game is very difficult. It requires a lot of technical skill and it’s just, it’s not really something we’re interested in.
We’re a storytelling company. We just telling a single-player story like a novel with lots of fighting, that people can just sort of sit in their room alone and sink into.
Wilde: Playing [the second remaster of] Avernum III, it kind of feels like its time has come around again, that ‘90s-style games are having a renaissance now because of Kickstarter and crowdfunding. I played the Exile demo back in the day. It was on a CD-ROM that came with a Mac magazine.
Vogel: Yep. That used to be where we got a lot of our money.
Wilde: Yeah. You were like my methadone. I had blown through all the old SSI “gold box” [Dungeons & Dragons] games.
Vogel: I’m very familiar with those.
Wilde: I got all the way through to Pools of Darkness, did the bonus dungeon, and… needed more. Then I played a bunch of Exile.
Vogel: Oh, that’s where we always got a lot of our customers.
There are lots of role-playing games out there that are better than ours, I am not gonna deny that, but role-playing game fans, when they finish one role-playing game, they want to play another, and the really big fancy series only come out with games every two or three years. For example, I’m playing Divinity: Original Sin II right now and it’s a very good game. If someone said, hey, I like your game, but I like Divinity more, I’ll just say, enjoy Divinity. You’re going to be done with that, and in six months, you’re going to want another one of those games and I’m going to be here.
Wilde: “The first one’s free, kid.”
Vogel: Pretty much, yeah.
Wilde: That’s awesome.
Vogel: It’s an evergreen genre. There will always be people who want what I sell.
Wilde: This has been your primary job for what, 24 years now?
Vogel: We released our first game for money in January of 1995. We worked through all of 1994. This has been my full-time gig for 24 years now, and it will be for quite a while to come. I think it’s been continuous. I’ve been working on it continuously all that time. I think there are indie developers who might have been working on it continuously for a tiny bit longer than me, but if there are, it’s a very short list. I’ve been doing this longer than just about anybody.
Wilde: You’ve been solo for most, if not all of that time, right?
Vogel: Yeah, I like to keep to myself. I’m a humble toymaker working in my little workshop like Gepetto, making weird entertainments for little boys and girls.
Wilde: I’m talking to enough indie developers right now that that’s really impressive to me. They’ve got a crew behind them and they’re still having a hard time putting out games that, you know, aren’t 40-hour RPGs with huge amounts of stats and lore… but you keep putting these out, one after another, by yourself.
Vogel: I do this for a living because it’s all I’m good for. When I was 5 years old, I would sit in my room for hours at a time with a piece of paper and a pencil, drawing mazes. This is 1975. Nobody had a computer, so I made mazes. From a very young age, doing things like this is just what I do. I was a weird kid.
So one of the reasons I’ve been able to do it for so long is because I’ve gotten really, really good at it. Most developers are young and a lot of them still have rough edges in their workflow or they just haven’t figured out how to do it as efficiently as I have, because I’ve been doing it for so long.
Wilde: So you started with Exile back in 1995.
Vogel: Yes. Avernum III: Ruined World is a remaster of a remaster, which is in itself very unusual. Not many indie game developers have been around long enough to remaster. It’s the same game twice, but yeah, it originally started as our first big hit game, Exile III: Ruined World, which came out in 1997.
Wilde: What got you started on the solo development route? Were you just a garage developer? You said you were born in 1970, so you were 24 when you started working on this?
Vogel: Yes. I was in grad school studying mathematics and I hated it.
Wilde: So in the grand tradition of grad students everywhere, you found something else to do.
Vogel: Pretty much. That’s how you escape grad school. It makes your life so intolerable that you are eventually forced to leave it and figure out what you actually want to do with your life.
My wife at the time had gotten a real job and our dreams came true. We were able to buy an actual computer, so we did that. She was hugely supportive of me and I said, you know, this is driving me crazy. I’ve always wanted to write a real, full-on, put-my-whole-back-into-it computer game. She said, “Great. You do that, and I’ll draw the art for you.” So that was what she did.
I wrote my first game, Exile: Escape From the Pit. During the day, I did my grad school stuff, and at night, I was 24 with unlimited energy. I didn’t need sleep, I didn’t need rest. I just threw myself fully into it and wrote my first game and released it as shareware, which was a thing that existed at the time. And God help me, people bought it.
Wilde: I’m not that much younger than you. Like I said, I knew about you from the old Mac demo discs.
Vogel: Yeah. The term shareware has largely disappeared, thank God. Nobody was happier than me when the term indie game came into common use six or seven years ago, because whenever I’d say I was a shareware developer, people would look at me like I was a loser. Like I was wiping windshields with squeegees for spare change.
But “indie developer” has this sort of aura of mystery about it, like Kurt Cobain, or an indie musician. It made me sound infinitely cooler than I am.
Wilde: Yeah, I can see that. “You can’t constrain me with your rules, man.”
Vogel: Yeah, yeah. I was like, I’m dangerous. I’m fighting the system. I’m fighting the man.
In the end, nothing’s changed. I’m still a humble toymaker in my spare bedroom, sitting by myself every day placing orcs.
Wilde: I think I got my pull quote.
Wilde: The advantage to being indie, I was just talking to another developer about this, is that you can do exactly what you want when you want to do it.
Vogel: Most computer game developers these days have a secret dream of being indie because you just get to sit there and be an artist.
You know, I still get little twitches of pretension when I describe us as artists, but we are. We’re exploring a brand-new art form. Making a living as an indie developer is super difficult because we’re artists; we’re not writing banking software, we’re writing games. It’s really hard to make a living, so since we have all of the disadvantages, all of the difficulties, all of the obstacles to climb over of being professional artists, we might as well call ourselves artists.
Wilde: So what exactly made you do a second remaster of Avernum III?
Vogel: It was time.
Let’s see. It no longer functioned at all on the Macintosh. It was starting to not function on Windows. Remember, Avernum III, that first remaster, came out around 2002. That’s 15 years ago, and the programs just decay over time as the OS upgrades install and accumulate, and the games start working worse. It was frequently crashing on Windows, it wouldn’t work at all on the Mac, and to make it not do that I had to update it to a whole new engine.
One of the advantages of doing that is I also get to port it to portables. I’m going to be making an iPad version of Avernum III, which is you know, extra funding, extra money. I’m just starting that port today, as a matter of fact.
So that was the first reason, just matters of bare functionality. I needed to redo the engine, and if I was going to redo the engine anyway… when I do a remaster, I do it right. I remake the whole game. Taking into account what I’ve learned about game design in the previous 15 years, Avernum III: Ruined World is expanded from the previous game. There are more quests, there’s more stuff. It has a better game system that just runs better, plays better, better special encounters, better stuff like that. I like to just do what I need to stay as true to the original game as much as possible, but once I’ve done that, I like to make it better too, so I spent a long time on it. It was over a year working on this remaster. I don’t half-ass remasters. There was a lot of work on this end of this new game, but that’s a lot of the reason for remastering.
The next thing I’m going to remaster is Geneforge, which was really popular and really beloved. There are people who just love that stuff already bugging me about the remaster for it, which isn’t going to be out for over two years. It came out in like 1999, 2000, and it doesn’t run on the Mac anymore at all. On a computer where it does run, it looks terrible. It has an 800 by 600 play area. It’s the size of a postage stamp in the middle of the monitor. The graphics are humiliating. It absolutely needs a remaster, and it was the same with Avernum III. After 15 years, after 20 years, it’s time.
Wilde: I’m actually kind of surprised to hear that. A lot of developers from the period just let the work stand on its own, and if they do something, it’ll be a sequel or a port but not a full-fledged remaster.
Vogel: That is a choice a lot of them make, and quite frankly, I think that’s a mistake. I mean… remasters are a huge part of the way I stay in business. Remasters enabled us to stay in business. A lot of games from that time are just, by and large, forgotten.
Well, actually, I mean, a lot of indie developers don’t have games from that period, you know, at all, so I’m kind of standing alone in that regard… I mean, thinking back, I can only think of a handful of games that anyone would want remastered at all. Like, Doom is one of them, but Doom is still available and Doom still works.
Wilde: But it did get remastered to play on the Xbox, for example, and on printers and toaster ovens…
Vogel: Yeah, they couldn’t play Doom on everything. And by the way, Doom still holds up. Original Doom is still a lot of fun.
Wilde: Yeah, that’s something that was interesting compared to the 2016 Doom. You play the original Doom and every level in it is meant to be a video game level and has no greater purpose. Whereas in the modern-day, with a lot of shooters like it, it was meant to be a functional place before you ever got there and before the demons showed up. There are a couple of nods to the fact that it’s a game—like who keeps their suits of glowing green power armor in a ventilation shaft?—but there’s a second of placehood there which isn’t there in the original Doom. It kind of looks like it’s set in a military base, but it was made to be a video game level and it is, still, above all else, a video game level.
Vogel: Yeah, it’s the frame. The old designs have a kind of freeness and an unconcern about balance and about reality that I still find delightful.
Modern game design is really good in a lot of senses and in a lot of senses is kind of a plague. Game designers now are so concerned with everything being balanced within an inch of its life and everything being so precise and everything making so much sense.
Another reason I like to remaster the older games is because, you know, when I was a neophyte game designer, I’d just do stuff that was goofy and I don’t feel free to do that anymore. So the old games have this kind of looseness and weirdness and stuff about them that I just can’t get away with anymore. I don’t feel I can get away with it, but I can channel — I can bring back the stuff my young self made.
Wilde: There was certainly some goofy stuff, but to a certain extent, that’s just the nature of the beast. With computer games, especially ‘90s computer games, a lot of them are just weird.
Vogel: There are a lot of games right now that are big hits that maintain that ‘90s goofiness and looseness. Divinity: Original Sin II. They looked at game balance with that and went, nope, we’re not having any of that. We’re just going to let you do the craziest stuff imaginable. If you want to kill the boss by teleporting it into a lava pool with one spell, whatever. It’s your game.
Wilde: Or Goat Simulator. Goat Simulator’s an enormous hit just because, by modern game design standards, it is an objectively terrible game. It’s just silly and fun.
It’s a very good sandbox.
Vogel: Yeah, it’s a cool game, but it’s different from other stuff and that’s important if you want to make money.