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Interview: Vic Davis of Armageddon Empires

There's a new strategy game taking the internet by storm, and it's called Armageddon Empires. Fusing turn-based strategy, traditional board game methodology, and collectible card games, it's an extremely deep and amazingly fun game. Vic Davis recently sat down with Big Download to discuss his game and what it is like being an indie developer making a living off his work.

BD: Just for the record, who are you and what is your current job?

Vic D: My name is Vic Davis and I'm currently a full time indie game developer. Up until just recently I was also doing occasional contract work but since the launch and success of my first game Armageddon Empires, I've been focusing full time on indie work.

BD: So how did you get into computers? And then how did you get into the game business?

Vic D: It just happened. I knew how to program a bit because of an Electrical Engineering degree but after college I went into the US Navy and spent 8 years there as a Cryptologic Officer. I got out in 1996 and went to graduate school thinking that I would go back into the intelligence community. Instead, the internet was exploding at the time and I got interested again in programming and I started a company with my brother called TravelBrains. For 5 years I made cd-roms of US Civil War battlefields which we sold on the internet and at the parks. When it came time to move on to new things, I decided I really wanted to make a computer game. Thus Cryptic Comet was born...

BD: It's got to be interesting being an indie developer making a living off your project.

Vic D: It's wonderful and horrifying at the same instant. I've gotten so used to being my own boss that I don't think I could ever go back to working in a team environment. I get to work at home which has its advantages and disadvantages. It's nice to have that flexibility but it often gets very hard to punch the clock and "go home." From a creative standpoint though, I have the freedom to risk a lot more than a big company could. I can try out themes and game mechanics that just wouldn't provide the revenue stream that a team of 30 would need.

BD: So how did you come up with the whole concept behind Armageddon Empires?

Vic D: I had originally intended to make a classic turn based strategy game. The AI work for that seemed daunting so I decided on an adventure/rpg game idea. It was way too ambitious and I had to drop it after about 5 months of work. I had started playing board games again after a really long hiatus (late 70's early 80's) and the thought occurred to me to take a lot of the technology I had built already and use it for a computer strategy board game. I wanted a theme that was a little unconventional... not historical or fantasy so the post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting seemed perfect.

BD: Where were you at in life when you decided to make this post-apocalyptic strategy game?

Vic D: I started working on the first eventually dropped game in August of 2004 but didn't start work on AE until January of 2005. I was almost 40 years old and taking a bit of a risk. We had just left California at the height of the housing boom because we hadn't bought into the market and we just couldn't afford to live there anymore. My wife got a job in Ohio so we pulled up stakes and never looked back. Ohio has turned out to be a great place to raise kids and start a small business....and the relatively lower cost of living really helps.

BD: Did you start on the game as a hobby, or were you expecting it to turn into your job?

Vic D: It was an almost full time venture from the start. I did some contracting work to pay some bills but I was really hoping to make a full time job of it.

BD: Any funny stories for us?

Vic D: Funny? A post-apocalyptic game is serious business... end of the world type stuff. I did have a lot of fun designing the whole thing. The design process is the most interesting part. Building the game can be pure tedium. I did come up with some sort of inside jokes that were funny just to me. Things like "Maybe this is the year that I finish the game" and "Coffee break is over! Back on your heads." That last one is from a famous joke where I guy shows up in hell and at first thinks the whole deal isn't so bad.

BD: There's been a fair bit of discussion about how Armageddon Empires gained momentum. How did you market the game after release?

Vic D: Not very well at first. I tried to contact reviewers, critics and opinion makers but it was pretty haphazard. I wasn't expecting a tsunami of traffic and sales so I wasn't disappointed. I actually got more immediate response once the game went on sale than I thought I would. After the initial interest died down, I started to get a little worried but beneath the surface momentum was building. The game was well received by many reviewers and strategy game opinion makers and it got a lot of word of mouth publicity. Soon I got some print press coverage and started making end of the year "best of" lists.

BD: I know that a few sites, like Penny Arcade, linked to your site and the demo. How did this affect the server and the sales?

Vic D: The mention on Penny Arcade was a huge coup. Luckily, I had my demo hosted on Amazon's S3 service so it didn't bat an eyelash at the spike in demand. My webhost was able to weather it as well but it was put to the test. Sales naturally got a very nice boost and I started feeling that at the least my next project was going to get out the door.

BD: Are there any tips or tricks you have for fans of Armageddon Empires?

Vic D: Well, the design was intended to be all about interesting choices and tradeoffs. Unlike a traditional war game you can't move every counter on the board. You need to come up with a list of priorities and goals. This is exactly how the AI approaches the game. That said there are some important things to keep in mind.

Intelligence is King: Since you can only see the parts of the board where you have armies you need to come up with a recon system. I like to get at least two recon dedicated armies out there early to find the other players and grab up any specials that are nearby. If you don't patrol along the threat axes then nasty things are going to show up on your doorstep unexpectedly.

Establish a Resource Base: Depending on which faction you choose you will need more resources of some types than others. Use your heroes to establish collectors quickly and get the "spice" flowing. I also usually make a rapid response army and station it on my hub collector so it can defend against enemy resource raiders.

Concentration of Force: Build up a good strike force centered on a hero with a high command rating. The killer stack doesn't have to be huge but the cards in it should work together. Matching up special abilities is the key. Of course you don't always get the unit cards you want so you sometimes just have to improvise.

BD: Do you feel that there are any comic, movie, book, game, or other influences that show through your work?

Vic D: Absolutely. I tried to carefully make small tributes to a lot of different pop culture sources. And computer games like Wasteland and Fallout of course set the stage for the post-apocalyptic genre in computer games. The current renaissance in board games also had a huge impact on my design methods.

BD: It must've been pretty difficult releasing your title independently.

Vic D: Besides the lack of development resources, the biggest hurdle is lack of awareness for your product. The internet is big and getting your game out in front of potential customers isn't easy. You have to view the endeavor as a marathon and be willing to surf the Long Tail for an extended period of time. Success isn't going to come overnight. But if you have a good product you can sell direct to your niche market and provide a game that the big console companies don't want to make anymore. The advent of direct digital distribution is a great thing for indies like me... and it's a great thing for gamers who wouldn't otherwise see any of these games.

BD: The art on the cards is excellent! Did you do them yourself, contract for someone to help you, or have somebody else join the project?

Vic D: I wanted to make sure that the game had something to offer graphically. Since it was a 2-D game and I wasn't looking for a lot of animation, I knew I had to get some real professionals to do the card illustrations. I found some very talented artists from all over the globe. Matt Bradbury (UK) signed up first and then came Zdenek Sasek (Czech Republic). I also had help from Michael Grills (Canada), Jon Hodgson (UK), Ric Lim Boon Keat (Malaysia) and Aaron Porter (USA). Finally my sister Kate Davis helped me out by doing the graphic design for the manual, UI and website.

BD: Did you ever consider releasing the game through Steam as a method of distribution?

Vic D: No, I was really intent on testing out this "Long Tail" idea and trying to generate sales directly from my website. Down the road with some established successes and a good reputation, I'd probably be interested in pursuing something like Steam though.

BD: Without something like Steam or other DRM providers, how did you control piracy?

Vic D: I don't even try actually. My game is really niche and I came to the conclusion that piracy was the least of my problems. Trying to aggressively defeat it would be a waste of my resources. That's not to say that it isn't a problem. I'm 100% against it and don't accept any of the rationalizations offered by software pirates. I've accepted a lot of risks to do this and invested a lot of time and money. If you try my game's demo and want to play the whole thing, I would appreciate it if pay for it.

BD: So what sort of things are headed our way in new patches and mini-expansions?

Vic D: Well, I've already released a free mini expansion pack called "Cults of the Wastelands" which added a series of challenge type missions to the game. Right now I'm working on a free mini expansion pack called "Tip of the Spear" that will boost the infantry type cards up a bit and make them more useful in the game. You will be able to customize them with "Advanced Training" cards that your generals can create at your military academies. Beyond that I haven't done much planning. I'm continually working on fixing any bugs that crop up and tweaking the AI for special cases. The game is complex and has a lot of moving parts like a helicopter. It makes for a fun game I think, but also makes testing difficult and causes maintenance problems as well.

BD: Do you ever plan on making a full expansion pack, or maybe even a sequel?

Vic D: The one thing that I want to avoid is the "booster pack" idea. I have come to hate that personally with collectible cards games and I've just had to go cold turkey and not "invest" in them... I mean play them anymore. I can't ever see myself releasing a $5 expansion pack type thing... micro transactions. It's a personal taste thing.. I just don't like getting nickel and dimed to death because of that feeling that you "gotta catch them all." I can understand that it's a lucrative business model and also that some customers love to spend money this way. There is nothing wrong with it. I just don't want to pursue it myself.

As for sequels, who knows? I have at least 4 other board game prototypes that I would like to bring to digital life so a sequel to Armageddon Empires is something for the future. But when I am ready to take up the radioactive gauntlet again, I'll have a lot more skills and hopefully resources.

BD: Are there any parting thoughts you'd like to give us?

Vic D: Thanks for the opportunity to discuss Armageddon Empires. I think it's a unique game that offers interesting decisions and hopefully has that "one more turn" feeling for most players. I'm also working on a new game called Solium Infernum. It's a grand strategy board game translated to the computer and designed from the ground up to offer multiplayer via Play By Email (PBEM). It will also have a strong single player game against an AI that I am evolving from my AE work. The game lets you battle for the Infernal Throne of Hell. It's a baroque fantasy setting based in large part on the masterpiece Paradise Lost by John Milton. If everything goes according to plan it should be out 1st Quarter 2009.

You can download the Armageddon Empires demo and manual through Big Download. If you like it, you can buy the game on Vic Davis's site!

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