| videogames | archon interview

This was from a post in I couldn't find the original location of the interview, presumably a magazine article.

From: rkim@mars.uucp (Richard H.S. Kim)
Subject:INTERVIEW: Jon Freeman && Anne Westfall, Archon, Archon II
Date: 4 May 93 17:53:52 PDT

Okay, here's the interview, dated November 1984....
Archon and Archon II were written by Jon Freeman, Anne Westfall and Paul Reiche, published by EA (Electronic Arts).

[No stupid typo flames! thank you]

Arthur Leyenberger (AL): Where did you get the idea for Archon?

Jon Freeman (JF): That came from a couple of different thoughts. For a long time, I have wanted to do a fantasy chess game. This derived partly from a fantasy-oriented chess set I once saw. It had "Conan" pieces on one side and "Goblin" pieces on the other. The other source was a living chess game I once participated in.

People were dressed in armor and differently armed. They acted as the pieces, while two opponents called out their moves. When a piece moved into an occupied square, the two players had to fight it out for possession. This was done with fake swords, axes and clubs, and -- since I was playing a pawn -- all I had was a small shield and sword.

The first battle was a pawn-to-pawn battle, and I "killed" off the other guy. Another variable in the game was the fighting ability of each of the players. The two strongest players were a warlord (instead of a queen) and a knight. When I came up against this particular knight, I realized that, because of his ability and his equipment, I didn't stand a chance. So I thought that the least I could do was to "kill" him, in addition to him "killing" me. The battle was very short, and we ended up "killing" each other. This is where the notion of the "double-kill" in Archon came about.

(AL): How long did it take to complete the Archon project?

(JF): It took about six months, though we were working on it night and day. Normally a game like this should take about nine months.

Anne Westfall (AW): We had a deadline and we were determined to make it.

(AL): I understand that one of you is the programmer, and one of you is the designer. Who is which, and how does that work out when creating a game?

(AW): I am the programmer, and Jon is the designer. It is a little hard to generalize, but usually Jon comes up with an idea that he likes, then he discusses it with me to see if I like it and if it is technically feasible.

(JF): Regardless of how practical the concept is, if Anne doesn't like it, then it becomes work. We'd rather have fun while we are working. Many times we go back and forth and talk with Paul (Reiche) about the concept until we've come up with a preliminary design. We then produce an outline of the game, and Anne takes that and does a program design and the programming.

(AW): This is really an oversimplification. I would love to have a script to work from, but sometimes the script is evolving while I am actually doing the programming. What we call a script is nothing like a Hollywood script. It is not that detailed.

(AL): It seems that there would have to be a lot of cooperation and role-changing. If Jon did just the design and Anne just the programming, Jon would have nothing to do for most of the time during the game development.

(JF): That's right, so the way that it ends up is that she does all of the programming and program design, but most of the graphics work is done by Paul and I -- because she simply does not have the time. We end up doing a lot of the little things, like shape design and sound effects.

(AW): They will experiment with diferent sounds until they have something they like. The data, such as frequency and duration, is given to me, and I come up with a sound program that will create what they want. Their routines are typically written in BASIC, because it is quickly coded and easily changed. I do the conversion to assembly language, which is quite a bit different.

It is really a dynamic process as we are going along, because they will present an idea of what they want, and I will manage to get it working so that they can see the results. It may not work the way they want it to. So we all sit back and decide what we really want, then come up with several alternatives. Some approaches may require more coding or be more appropriate for the particular game.

(AL): In what way did Archon finally turn out differently than what you first had envisioned?

(AW): Only the tactical board turned out to be different.

(JF): Archon turned out to be pretty much what we had wanted. We did a lot more adjusting with Adept (Archon II) than Archon. The look of the tactical board was a little nebulous at the beginning. We knew that we wanted a tactical board in which the players would fight, but we were also concerned that it be dynamic.

We did not want people to just park the player and wait for the weaker piece or the piece that had to close. We ended up with the disappearing barriers so that nobody could just sit on the board. At one point, we were going to have stationary barriers and change the luminance of the background. It turned out to be a whole lot simpler to do it the other way around and change the colors of the barriers. Having disap- pearing barriers made the tactical board dynamic.

(AW): Aside from that, it was mostly fine tuning, like adjusting the balance of the pieces. Unlike Archon, Adept changed considerably from start to finish. Almost the whole way the game is played -- the strategy -- is very different from what it was in the beginning. In fact, I don't remember what it was at first.

(JF): It changed substantially. At the beginning, for instance, we started people out with a lot of energy, and it could not increase. We dismissed that idea pretty fast, because we felt that players wouldn't pay attention to their resources. They would spend, spend, spend, until they were almost out of energy, and only then start worrying about it. The energy you get from the different squares (the power points) were all the same, including the Void.

(AW): Since the elemental power points would provide energy only when that element was active, every fourth turn, the Void was the only square that counted, since it stayed the same. Getting control of the Void was much more important than getting control of the corners, which wasn't what we had in mind.

What tended to happen was that, as it was so important, you would immediately put an Adept on the Void. Since it took two turns to get any- body else there, and you didn't want the other person getting that much energy, you'd immediately counterattack with an Adept. It ended up being a game of Adepts, attacking and counterattacking on the Void. The game would last five or six turns, and that would be it.

(JF): We kicked around several possibilities, such as eliminating the Adepts or keeping them out of the Void, but we...wanted to give players as many options as possible to build their own armies and use whatever strategies they wanted. We did not want to prohibit Adepts from going into the Void, so we came up with two changes.

One was to reduce the energy you got from the Void, so that it was less than the corners. This brought the overall game back to balance. The second change we made was to strip the Adepts of their advantage while in the Void. Normally, the Adepts' strength is determined in part from how far they are from their home citadel. By making the Void squares absent of magic, we ended up making the Adepts weaker. Then a player will not be so eager to move an Adept onto a Void square. Also, without magic, the Adepts cannot heal themselves in the Void and must be removed to get stronger. This is like pulling a piece back in chess, you really lose two moves.

(AL): In Archon, there is a tendency for the inexperienced player to simply battle it out, without regard to strategy. In what other ways would you characterize the difference between the expert and the inexperienced player?

(JF): With Adept (Archon II), we have not had a chance to watch players as much as we would like to. From what we have seen, new players seem to do a lot of attacking, much of it not making too much strategic sense. Attacking for attacking's sake is not a particulary good long-range strategy.

As you learn the game, you tend only to put pieces on corners and squares around the Void, which are strategically important positions. Secondly, you tend to avoid combat and use your spells a lot. You have to watch your resources, and spells are used to either keep you from having to go to battle or to set up battles in favorable circumstances, like the Weaken spell. You also become more conservative as you realize that you don't have unlimited energy.

(AW): There are two ways to look at the pieces in Adept. Some pieces are best viewed as placeholders or defenders, who just occupy a power point. Then there are the pieces that are good at attacking, which should not be wasted, like some of the Demons. Those are put on the board initaly and then used to attack piece after piece. I think that new players to Adept will be less likely to slug it out than they were with Archon. Once they have played Adept one or two times, they will see the value of strategy.

(AL): Jon, Adept is obviously a sequel to Archon. This is something fairly new in the game world. But I see you cringe every time the word sequel is mentioned. Would you explain how Adept is or is not a sequel to Archon?

(JF): It is a sequel, in the sense that it was an attempt to do a game that would feel -- sensually and emotionally -- like Archon. The planning and pacing is similar. There are times when you sit back and think for a while. These are followed by periods of very intense excitement and action. Then you're back to thinking again. The mechanics -- such as the action board, strategy board, picking pieces and casting spells -- are the same, so that someone who plays Archon can come in, pick up the game and start playing almost at once. So in these ways, it is a sequel. However, they will not be as good at Adept as they would have thought, because the pieces and strategy are so different. Also, the whole idea of resource or energy management is totally new.

(AL): How do you see yourselves -- as artists or as game designers -- fitting into the overall cosmic scheme of things?

(JF): On one level, I view myself as a game designer, and Anne sees her- self as a program designer. But on another level, I think that entertain- ment and fun and games are an important thing, not just a fun thing.

(AW): We were discussing this recently. There currently is kind of a slump in software, and, as I look at it, the economy is doing fine. If you look back, when the economy was doing poorly and the whole world looked grim, the software business was doing great, because people need entertainment. Recreation is an important part of life. You have to have it.

(JF): Doing games that people enjoy playing, that give them pleasure and exercise the mind, is a good thing. It is also the case that I have enough of the ex-teacher in me that there are things that I like to get across. There are certain kinds of philosophical, political or social things that would be nice to be able to influence people in. Some of it is subtle, and some of it is more overt.

The games we have been doing for Electronic Arts are not necessarily political in nature. When I wrote games for Epyx, the content was a lot more political and satirical. Many were libertarian, for instance. In our current games, there are both male and female characters. It is kind of a minor thing, and we are not really saying, "girls are okay, too," but the fact that there are male, female and neuter things in the games is important to us. That is why we put them there.

(AW): "Artist" is a label that people seem to put on other people. It is not a self-imposed label. You don't walk around saying, "I have created a work of art." You don't know that, because art is a process of commu- nication, and you do not know whether you've communicated with anybody. THEY do. If someone says that we have created a great game, then we have created a great game, then we have done a good job. We can't say that until we get feedback from people who play the games.

(JF): Harlan Ellison once made a distinction between writers and authors that may be analogous. He said that real writers don't call themselves authors. That would be too pretentious. An author is a person whose name is on the cover of a book. A writer is somebody who writes. If what we do can be considered a work of art, then by definition, we are artists. I don't think that is unreasonable.

(AL): From what you have already said, you think that a person's beliefs come through in his or her work. To what extent do you think that a programmer's or designer's personality comes through?

(JF): It is not nearly as simple as a one-to-one correspondence, but to a varying degree, it does. Things like humor or the type of violence in a game often reflect the personality of the people who created it.

(AW): If you lool at the diference between M.U.L.E. and Seven Cities of Gold, the personalities of Ozark's team comes through in different ways. In the first, their personalities come through rather directly. It is light, humorous -- almost witty -- and entertaining. Just look at the introduction screen and listen to the music. In Seven Cities, you don't necessarily see their personalities coming through visually until you play it. There is a signature, and when you are familiar with enough games from a particular group, you could line them up and say, "that was done by Free Fall, and that was done by Ozark."

(AL): What would you ultimately like to achieve in your work, and what do you feel is the biggest constraint to doing that right now?

(JF): There are three different things, two of which probably go together. We would like to be very successful sell a lot of games to a lot of people. Partly because we would like to have a lot of money, but also to be able to continue what we are doing now.

I would also like to get recognition for doing a good job. That pretty much goes hand in hand with success. Apart from commericial success, I would like to do things that affect the way people think and how they look at the world.

(AW): I would like to have people question things, rather than telling them that they should think this way or that...have them question the way they themselves think and how they view the world. To broaden people people's horizons.

(AL): What do you see as the main constraint to doing that?

(JF): The main constraint with the latter part is imagination. I have to come up with game designs that manage to be fun and entertaining, and, at the same time, have a point. Doing that is not easy, because I don't want to do things that are heavy-handed. They have got to be fun. You want to charm people into thinking about things differently, rather than beating them over the head with it.

(AL): Which game do you like better: Archon or Adept?

(AW): It's hard to say. It's like having two children and asking which one you like better. But, having seen people playing Archon in tournaments, it became clear to me that I personally like a game with more strategy. Therefore, Adept would be my choice.

(JF): I think I am still too close to them to have a favorite. If I actually had a clear favorite, in one place or another during the design, I would have fallen down on the job. What I do is design games that I like to play and hope that other people will, too. I can't sell a game that only I like and, conversely, I can't work on a game that I don't like. That's too much like work.

(AL): Can you talk about your next project?

(JF): It's too soon to tell. We have a number of projects that we are considering, but none have reached the formal proposal stage. Part of it depends on machines. Wheher we decide to do another Atari/C64 game or maybe try something on the Apple Macintosh, for example, is uncertain. The machines affect the type of game that you can do. For instance, you can't really do a four-player game for the Mac. It's difficult enough to do that type of game for any of these other machines. The Mac is going to probably be a one-person game.

(AL): Do you think that there are too many limitations with the existing low-end computers, such as hardware, processor type and speed, or installed base?

(JF): It seems to us that there are an infinite number of good games which could be done on any of the currently popular machines. I wouldn't want to try to do a game for the VIC-20. It would be too limiting, but the Atari, Commodore and Apple provide the means for a lot of different possibilities.

(AW): The machines' capabilities are not a problem, but the futures of the machines may be. We really like the Atari and have liked it for a long time. But it is really a question of what's going to happen with Atari and the Atari user. That raises questions about how long it will be feasible to do games for the Atari market. I will always have my Atari though. []

me too, Anne.

Rich K.
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