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Big Download Interview: Tilted Mill's Chris Beatrice on Hinterland

Massachusetts based game developer Tilted Mill has been working on both their own projects and games for other publishers for the past several years. This year, however, the developer is taking matters truly into their own hands with the release later this year of the fantasy strategy-RPG Hinterland. Tilted Mill won't be working with a big publisher on this title but rather will make it available via digital download.

Big Download got a chance to chat with Tilted Mill co-founder Chris Beatrice to find out more about their plans for Hinterland along with their recent re-release of their first game Children of the Nile along with his views of the PC game industry in general and where he sees it going in the future.

Gallery: Hinterland

First, Tilted Mill has been in existence for several years and you guys are among the few to develop only PC game titles. What do you think of the current sentiment in the industry that its hard to be a PC only game developer nowadays?

I guess it's hard if you are determined to compete for gaming or shelf space in AAA PC gaming, which granted, is where most of us have been competing for years. There are some great games and franchises that do this, obviously, but there are also a whole lot of opportunities for a really wide variety of fun, innovative and affordable PC games that get skipped because of the focus on the larger titles. The main thing that has changed in the past several years is that big budget PC games don't dominate the traditional retail space – while at the same time, digital distribution is finally starting to come into its own, and also there are great third party technical solutions available as well. When we started in 2001, this was not the case. In general it would take several million dollars to develop a top notch 3d engine from scratch (and then you often find you need to reinvent the wheel with each subsequent game), and then you'd need to get (and hold onto) retail shelf space for a long time, and sell one million+ units just to break even. This is not the right paradigm for a huge swath of the gaming audience, including the surge in 'casual gamers' which has been extremely successful despite ignoring the traditional AAA gaming space. A few traditional PC games will do that, sure, but most won't, but that does not mean they lack an audience, or should not be made available.

You recently released an enhanced version of your first game, Children of the Nile. Why did the team want to go back and revisit and re-release the game?

I think for any independent developer the real question would not be why you would want to control your own game(s), but rather, how the heck did you manage that!?

CotN is a great game which, for a few reasons that are easily remedied now, did not reach as many people initially as we feel it could have or should have. That's the business aspect of it, but you also have to understand that all independent developers feel a profound connection with their games. This is part of the process of putting your heart and soul into something over several years, and this is especially true with Children because it was TMill's first, game, and it was 100% our concept and our "baby." In the process of re-releasing we took it upon ourselves to make some changes that we felt would improve the gameplay experience, and to provide these enhancements free to existing owners of the game as a demonstration of our commitment to the franchise and to our fans. We intend to earn their respect with the quality of our work and the fairness of our dealings with them.

Your most recent game was Sim City Societies with EA. Overall how do you feel about how that game turned out and are there any plans to do sequels beyond the previously announced expansion pack?

We're really happy with the ultimate versions of SCS and Destinations, the challenges and flexibility in play styles they offer, and extraordinarily proud of what we were able to achieve there. I think those games demonstrate what TMill is capable of, and that we are the preeminent developer of city-building games. I can't comment on any future plans regarding the franchise, though.

You just announced your latest game Hinterland. How did the idea for that game come about?

TMill is a really collaborative environment. I mean, even saying that is misleading, because it is so inherent to our nature. Ideas cook here for a long time, and it becomes a bit difficult, or I should say maybe misleading to try to trace back where things like Hinterland "came from." That is, while I could cite other games that have similar aspects, the process is not one of keeping a list of influences and then at some point combining them, or anything like that. It's more like being an artist, where you take in a ton of different influences, many of which are unconscious, you digest them, then at some point you produce your own idea(s). The difference of course is that in this case it's dozens of different people all contributing like that. The only time we really reference other games in our discussions is sort of to test ideas, or gauge how they might work, by looking at how a similar thing may or may not have worked in another game, and why.

From the description of the game, Hinterland combines aspects of your city building genre with more RPG and strategy elements. How hard was it to make the game work with all those kinds of features?

Most, if not all, of our games have been pretty demanding to make, in terms of balancing a lot of interdependent elements into one big living "machine," and we have a lot of institutional knowledge at this point about how to do that, and where the various pitfalls lie. The lack of direct control that characterizes "life-sim" types of games, including city-builders, is certainly one aspect of this. So that's not a huge challenge for Hinterland. If anything I'd say the challenge is that you can't compare the depth of the RPG aspects of Hinterland with a full blown RPG, or the town building aspects of Hinterland with a full blown city-builder. Hinterland is a smaller game than, say, CotN to be sure, and managing user expectation is certainly part of the challenge with it.

How does the village building portion of Hinterland work and how does venturing outside the village help you to build the city more?

As you improve your village or defeat monsters, new citizens show up in town looking to join the community. Assuming you want them, you must have the resources to build them a home, workshop, etc., and only then can they move in and become part of your village. There are a variety of jobs citizens can take, producing food, forging weapons, guarding the town, etc., and they can also accompany you on adventures outside the town, leaving the town to fend for itself. Should your adventure be successful, you pacify the lands, get some resources, perhaps an iron mine for example, maybe some gold to help pay more followers, gain some valuable combat skills, or maybe even acquire better combat gear.

Check out part 2 of Big Download's Hinterland interview right here

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