Longbow Games, an interview with an indie dev

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Yes, I know what you’re thinking, ‘Another game centered interview?’. Well, can I help it if the US Justice Department and President Obama don’t want to be interviewed by me? (I know, this shocks me too.) However, I don’t think you’ll mind too much. Longbow Games is an indie developer that just released Hegemony: Philip of Macedon which is being compared to Total War, R.U.S.E. and Age of Empires by many on the net.

Longbow Games is no stranger to success, having won awards for Best Game, Best Design, and Best Programming at the Independent Games Festival for the game Tread Marks in 2000. Sadly, on the heels of this early success, the founder Seumas McNally passed away very shortly afterwards. However, his family has continued on in his absence. They’ve grown the company and spent the last 6 years creating their latest game. With such a small team, what they have been able to achieve is pretty damned impressive.

This interview, which was jointly answered by Jim McNally, President and Game Designer and also Rick Yorgason, Programmer and Webmaster gives you a bit of an inside look at Longbow Games.

How did Longbow Games come about? It seems quite the family affair, is that how it originally started?

Jim: Longbow Games was founded by the late Seumas McNally. Seumas recruited his younger brother Philippe and his parents, Jim and Wendy, to help with game development. Seumas died of cancer in March 2000, shortly after his game “Tread Marks” had won the IGF Grand Prize, which was renamed in his honour. As a consequence, we moved the family/company from rural Northern Ontario into downtown Toronto.

What aspect of getting Longbow Games together did you find the most frustrating and what part did you find the most satisfying?

Jim: Apart from the ultimate frustration of losing Seumas, the most frustrating part of rebuilding Longbow after Seumas was finding the right team members to add to the family core. The most satisfying part of rebuilding Longbow has been having the pleasure of working with Rob, Rick and most recently Clarissa.

You are quite vocal on your website about your feelings about DRM. Has that always been your opinion of DRM, or was there an incident that perhaps led to that?

Rick: That was mostly my doing; the rest of the guys seem to agree with me, but I’m the loud-mouth around the office when it comes to these things.

For a long time, games have been using the “CD in the drive” trick, and I always found it annoying. There was a sort of ritual to buying a game: as soon as I got it home, I had to visit some illicit website to download a “NOCD” crack. The really frustrating part was that, listed right next to the crack I was looking for, I could find a ZIP file with the full game, and the crack pre-applied. I got better service if I didn’t pay for the game.

It was when developers started imposing installation limits that I got really fed up with the whole thing. I think the game that pushed me over the edge was Dreamfall. I bought it straight from FunCom, and I felt pretty betrayed when I bought that and later realized that I was only allowed to install the game on one machine at a time, and I was only allowed to transfer my license once.

Imagine if DVDs were like that! People would raise hell! I wrote a pretty angry email to FunCom after that.

What are your thoughts on the direction the larger companies are going with DRM?

Rick: Well, it depends on which “larger companies” you’re talking about. I’ve been very disappointed with Ubisoft lately. For over two weeks that legitimate customers were locked out of Settlers 7! Meanwhile, the pirates were having a merry time stealing it. That’s a perfect example of the problem with draconian DRM like this. There’s a few Ubisoft games that I really want to buy right now, but as a matter of principle I refuse to.

Valve, on the other hand, seems to have a much more level-headed approach. My achievements don’t get uploaded to Steam unless I’m online. That seems perfectly reasonable to me.

What games have been your biggest influences?

Rick: We all have really diverse influences. As you would expect, there’s some strategy in there: Civ2, Warlords, Total War, Settlers, X-COM, C&C; but we also have a grab-bag of other influences, like Fallout, Planetscape, the old Sierra/Lucas adventures, Doom, Half-Life, the old Nintendo and Sega classics, or WoW.

Actually, Jim bought WoW accounts for the entire office a few years back, which was promptly followed by plummeting productivity. We’ve all since kicked the habit, but Blizzard did a lot of things very well, and we did take a few notes. The objective system in Hegemony was largely inspired by WoW.

How did you reach the decision to self distribute your game? Was that always the plan, or did you decide that was the best way after studying the alternatives? Any consideration of also having the game sold via other digital distribution outlets?

Jim: We wanted to remain indie and in control and the alternatives just weren’t available. We also had little choice. When you develop something different than what’s out there and build a unique game engine for it, publishers are naturally reluctant: “sounds risky, call us when it’s done”, which is what we’ll start doing now. We’ll consider any mode of distribution or publishing offer. Having our own web store just allows us the luxury of saying “no thanks” if we don’t like a particular deal.

You’re a big fan of digital distribution and you’ve said that one of the good things about it is that it is cheaper for developers than typical methods. Why do you think a lot of the big publishers haven’t passed on the savings from using digital distribution over traditional distribution methods?

Jim: Profits have to come first for any publicly traded publisher! They’ll pass on the saving when they have to.

Rick: Yeah, so far they haven’t actually had to reduce their prices, because customers are willing to pay the full price. Of course, if they reduced their prices they’d attract more customers, but that’s a riskier move.

You also have to consider that the big publishers make most of their money from consoles, and they’re scared of the perceived piracy that the PC platform represents. They’re really comfortable with consoles, and they don’t want to drive customers away by offering lower prices on Steam.

Would you consider selling some of your arcade-style titles on something like PlayStation Network or XBox Live Arcade?

Jim: Yes, if preparing them for each platform didn’t consume too much of our time.

Rick: I think Jonathan Blow ran into that problem with Braid. He ended up handing the porting job over to Hothead, so that he could work on more interesting things. It would be cool to see some of our older games on a new platform, but we don’t really have a lot of free time to spare.

You’ve just released Hegemony: Philip of Macedon. How has interest been in it so far?

Rick: It’s been pretty good. We got a couple of glowing reviews early on, which was very encouraging. We still have some work to do to get the word out there, but such is the life of an indie!

How would you describe Hegemony?

Jim: The historically based strategy wargame that I wanted to play, but no one else had made. We had no choice but to make it ourselves.

What was it about the time period that peaked your interest enough to make a game based on it?

Jim: I was reading up on Alexander the Great when I realized that his father, Philip had developed all of the troop types, tactics and infrastructure that Alexander would later use in his conquest of the Persian Empire. When I researched further it became apparent to me that Philip was the classic rags to riches story and seemed ideal for translation into a game.

Hegemony represents quite a departure from your previous batch of titles. Have you always wanted to get more in to bigger strategy titles?

Jim: Yes, I’ve always been interested in strategy wargames. Seumas and I talked about making this game under the working title “The Philip Project”. After his death it took four years to assemble the right team and make a couple of small games to work up our skill sets and then another six years to develop Hegemony.

What direction do you see your game development moving in now? Will you continue mixing it up in terms of what types of projects you’re working on?

Jim: It will depend on how well Hegemony does. We’ll likely build on what we’ve done, but exactly where we go from here will be a group decision that hasn’t been made yet. Doing more experimental work is both challenging and fun. Surviving financially is a necessity. We’ll push the boundaries as long as we can meet the payroll.

Hegemony is $29.95 at their web store, and they have a demo available to play through as well. It is well worth the time to check it out and see if you like it. Just to give you more of an opinion, here is a review of Hegemony. If Hegemony: Philip of Macedon is any indication, Longbow Games has a very bright future ahead of it. Whatever afterlife you believe in, I am sure you’ll agree that Seumas is looking down and smiling.

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