Well, I would like to relate back to your Kickstarter campaign attempt to resurrect Red Baron, where I’ve clearly seen elements of Ace of Aces’ presentation. I noticed a tech tree laid out in a World of Worldplanes way, but there was also single-player content there. The preview suggested a third-person external view with a reticle, bringing to mind an arcade game. It was very colourful – something which, together with the interface, strongly resembled an action mobile game – thus nothing too close to the original. First of all, how did you regain the license for Red Baron after all those years? Secondly, why do you think the Kickstarter campaign failed, even though it seemed to be aiming at the market you just described.
We got the Red Baron IP because we were working with Instant Action – they got it in a deal with Activision. They had a racing game called Blur, to which they owned the trademark. EA really wanted the name Blur, so they did a deal where they traded a bunch of stuff. They gave Instant Action the trademarks and copyrights for Red Baron and The Incredible Machine, and I think they probably gave them a bunch of money – I don’t know how much it was. Then, they gave up the trademark for Blur. So Instant Action had it, but what were they going to do with it? They didn’t know what to do with it; it was not worth anything to them. So they said, “Hey, do you want this?” Then we did a deal where we said we’ll do an extra milestone on Ace of Aces in exchange for the Red Baron trademark. So basically we did extra work on Ace of Aces for free without getting funded – a month or two of work, something like that.
So it was just a strange, bizarre coincidence because I wasn’t seeking Red Baron. I’d actually tried to get it from Activision probably ten years before that, and they wanted some outrageous amount of money, and I was like, ‘No.’ So that’s how we ended up with Red Baron; it just fell into our lap.
Then the Kickstarter. I think we probably made about ten mistakes on that campaign that I can point to as to why it failed. We made a lot of mistakes. I think the first mistake we made was that we didn’t do any PR and community building before the campaign started. That was on the advice of our PR company, who I have since fired. They said, “Oh, you don’t want to do any of that, you want to keep it secret and then announce it when the Kickstarter is live, so that when people find out about it, they can immediately contribute.” But that’s completely wrong. You have to build your community first; you have to build a peer community and get them excited, and then after two or three months, you start the Kickstarter. That was a big mistake and I really screwed up there.
The other thing was that the engine we pitched it in probably wasn’t good enough. It was in Torque, and even though it looked colorful and stuff, I think it was still pretty weak compared to what we could have done in Unreal or Unity or something. We should have probably put together better graphics and things. Some of the stuff looked a little too arcadey – I think that’s what you were talking about – and that’s not where you want to aim. I still think it could have been an e-sport arena-based thing. But even with that, I think we should have had focused more on the single-player historical part. The dilemma I always have there is that the budget is going up, and I wouldn’t want to do the Star Citizen thing where we promise everything and we can’t deliver because it’s way too much. Your budget’s going to double. You could either do the e-sport thing, the arena thing, or you can do the single-player campaign thing – or you can have a budget twice as big. That’s just what it is; it really is going to be twice as much. But I think that’s what would have tapped more into the people that really love Red Baron. They knew that it wasn’t that so I think we lost that part of the audience. But still, then we would have had to do a bigger Kickstarter or not do the multiplayer thing. So those were the most obvious mistakes, but there were probably a bunch of others as well. And also there was just starting to be Kickstarter fatigue too – that was part of it.
So, can we realistically expect you to return to sim games one day?
I would love to do it. I just haven’t been able to get funding for anything. I’ve tried for investment, I’ve talked to people. I guess we could try another Kickstarter at some point doing a better job, but it still takes a lot of work to do a Kickstarter. It takes like three months with a small team at least part-time just to get it ready. You have to have money just to get prep to do a Kickstarter. I’ve pushed hard for doing something like a Red Baron game; I’ve put really nice perspectives to investors, but I just haven’t been able to attract any funding from anyone. I even talked to Microsoft and Activision, but they just don’t seem interested. I’ve also tried to get angel investors and it’s just tough. I think people are little scared of games cause they are high risk. It’s certainly an unsure thing. That’s the problem I had; we just can’t fund it for free. So, I would do one, but it’s up to fate, I guess. In the meantime, we have a game that’s viable on mobile and it’s making money. That’s where we’re working, because that’s what gives us paychecks.
I understand the struggle, but at the same time know how passionate you are about this matter…
I would love to if I can find the opportunity. A lot of people are like, ‘You really need to do it’ and I am like, ‘Okay, find me some money and I’ll do it!’ [laughing]. Oh, and one thing! This is like a really tiny thing, but to me it’s huge. When we started working on Ace of Aces, nobody had joysticks any more, they were not a thing – well, a niche had them. You are not gonna survive selling a game to a niche; you’ve got to sell it to a wider audience. We knew we had to solve out the mouse problem and we did. I think we are the only ones who have ever solved the mouse problem. Ace of Aces flies really well with the mouse.
I personally hate flying using mouse, to me gamepad is way better controller for arcadey flying.
We supported all of that in Aces of Aces, but I knew that you have to be able to fly well with the mouse, because some people don’t have that stuff. I know it’s a small thing, but for me that was like a critical thing for doing a PC flight game; you’ve got to have good mouse support.
Have you tried to do mouse control on games like World of Warplanes or War Thunder?
Yeah, I did and I don’t think they are as good. They even – I don’t know which of them it is – but they even had a patent they were trying to get for the way they did the mouse control. We actually challenged that patent; we said, “No, we already have something like this.” Otherwise, later on, we’ll release a game using a similar system and they’ll say we are infringing on them. We had to send them a notice saying, “No, we have already done something like that!”
Are you currently playing any war simulation games?
No. When I was working on all of this, I reviewed some gamed like World of Warplanes, War Thunder and World of Tanks – oh and Rise of Flight, that was another one. I reviewed them but I didn’t play them very much. I look at videos and sometimes I’ll download them and play them a little bit, but I don’t get too immersed personally.
Yeah, absolutely, I have the same feeling about it. I played Rise of Flight several times and I think it’s got amazing attention to detail and historical detail but it’s really lacking any immersive single-player content. I’m just always looking for the Red Baron experience and it’s not there. There is one niche game though, which started off as a mod, that actually delivers just that. It’s called Wings Over Flanders Fields that is based on the old Combat Flight Simulator 3 and it’s still being updated. Have you tried it?
I have not played it. I think I watched a video, and everyone mentions it as being one of the best – that’s we should be doing.
In 2014, you released a title probing a whole new territory, as you mentioned before. It’s a free-to-play cross-platform fantasy; an MMORPG game called Villagers & Heroes. What caused this complete change of direction?
Well, for me, there were two inspirations. One of them was that when I first got into making computer games – I started becoming interested in 1979 – I used to play these board games by Steve Jackson. He did little pocket games – he’s still active, do you know the guy?
No, I don’t think so.
So he’s a board game guy, not a computer game guy. He ended up making a competitor for D&D called GURPS, which is the worst name ever – General Universal Role Playing System.
Oh yeah, I know GURPS.
So that was his deal, but he’s a really good designer. Back in ’79, ’80, ’81, he was doing these little games that were just a little bit bigger than my phone here – these little baggy games. They were a little booklet with a map and stuff. He did two kinds of games. He was doing science-fiction games – sci-fi simulation games – including a game called GEV, which stood for Ground Effects Vehicle. It was a little strategy game on a hex grid where you had little units, little hovercrafts and things. Then another one called Ogre – the ogre was this big giant behemoth machine, kind of like a mech or something. They were these little strategy games where you take your little tank guys and try to destroy the ogre. It’s all dice and turn-based – they were really good.
That game was one of the inspirations for Stellar 7 because it had hovercrafts and little units like that. The other ones he did were little fantasy games. He did one called Wizards and another one called Melee, and then later on that became GURPS. When I started, I was originally going to do a fantasy game on the computer. I actually had a hex-grid system worked out on the Apple 2, where you could display things on a hex grid and move them around and things like that. So I wanted to do a fantasy game but I ended up doing sci-fi. Part of me always wanted to go back and do fantasy, so that was the first inspiration. I wanted to do fantasy or sci-fi and I ended up doing simulation.
Then the other inspiration was, we all started playing a game called Kingdom of Drakkar in 1991 or ’92 – no probably ’92/’93. It was the first MMO in the world ever – no one realises that this was the first MMO ever. They credit things like Ultima Online. But it was really Kingdom of Drakkar, and it started as a MUD but they added graphics to it, so I would call it an MMO. It was 2D, not 3D, but it was a great game. There was a really tiny team but it was just really fun. All of us at Dynamix were addicted for a long time, so I always wanted to do one since then. That was my first inspiration for doing an MMO on a computer – and that game’s still alive [laughing].
The last question. Jeff Tunnell has recently retired from the game development. According to him, the market is simply oversaturated. Do you agree with him?
There are tons of games being released and the other big problem is competition from China; it’s huge and that’s a huge problem, obviously. They can fund a team for 25 percent of the cost over there and that’s a real challenge. A studio in San Francisco would be crazy expensive. But, at the same time, we are finding that mobile’s huge and most of what comes out on the mobile is crap. So yeah, the market is saturated with lot of crap and you can almost ignore it. I think players are smart enough to weed it out, so I don’t agree. I think there’s a huge opportunity on mobile. That’s why our MMO is doing really well right now on Android and iOS, we are getting thousands of players a day for free.