Interview with an Alchemist
Introducing our Design Director/Alchemist - Carl Jackson
How long have you been working in the Games Industry?Almost 20 years! I started back in 1995, on a flight simulator called EF2000 working in the QA department. I spent 5 years working in QA and got to know the games industry very well in that time, but instead of making sure games worked, I wanted to be designing and creating them myself.
How did get into designing computer games?The first design job I had was back in 2002. I was creating tracks for racing games, which was a great experience. Creating and then playing tracks I’d made, and honing them until they delivered the experience we were aiming for was great fun.
As a level designer, I wasn’t in a position back then to do full game design, but I was having a lot of ideas for games, so I kept them all in my head until the time came when I could use them.
What’s the best game you’ve designed and why?Actually, I can’t talk about the best game I’ve designed because we haven’t made it yet! Of the games that I’ve had design input on that have been released, I would say that Talisman is the best. As a Talisman player myself, it was great to work on the digital adaptation of it and make sure it reached a level of quality that other long-term fans would expect. I think we’ve done a great job!
What do you like about Talisman?I like the fact that it’s very difficult to be ‘good’ at it. The game can regularly throw bad things at any player at any time, and I love that. When I go online with other games, such as Battlefield or GTA5 for instance, I spend more time dead than alive as most players are much better at them than I am. Talisman isn’t like that at all. Although there are many very good players out there, who know the best uses of certain spells and characters, generally most players just go with the flow and try their best.
What design changes have you made from the original board game?One of the biggest changes was to allow players to choose their character, and also have more than one of a particular character in a game. The balancing of the Talisman characters is a big issue for a lot of players, and so we decided to allow players to choose. We’re not restricted by physical limitations like an actual board game might be, so we don’t have to worry about printing X number of cards.
The length of Talisman games can be an issue for lots of players, so making the games as short as possible has always been a goal. The Runestones were added as unlockable cards, with the intention that players can use them to speed up their games. Getting strength or craft points quicker or starting with more fate or gold is a great way to customise your game so it might not take so long.
What was your biggest challenge when designing a digital adaptation of a physical game?Dealing with players not being face-to-face has been the biggest challenge by far. The spell-casting system is a good example of why this was such a challenge. When playing the board game, if you have a spell which can only be cast at a specific time, you would just interrupt your friend and announce that you wanted to cast a spell. In our game, an AI player isn’t going to listen if you want to interrupt them, and in online games a stranger you might be playing against isn’t going to give you the opportunity to cast spells. Because of this, we came up with the spell-queue system. You double-click/tap a spell to set it as ‘ready’ and then when the timing is right to cast it, it casts automatically. This makes sure the caster can cast it when they like and other players can’t stop them.
Another aspect of the game that has been a really big challenge is the AI. I never wanted the game to have ‘perfect’ AI, because that would be unrealistic and probably unfair, but making AI characters that provide a solid enough challenge without appearing to be stupid has been very challenging. Even now they still do stupid things occasionally, but that’s not too bad as I’ve seen human players online make terrible mistakes too.
What makes a good game designer?Someone who, as well as making sure a game is fun, can take all aspects of game development into account, including budgets, scale, originality, technology, etc. Being able to come up with a game design and then see it through all the way to the end is very important too. You can’t just have the idea and then lose interest in it when the development has started. Passion for the project is a must!
What’s the proudest moment of your gaming career?Seeing Talisman on the front page of Steam on launch day was a very proud moment, knowing that potentially millions of people were seeing it.
Another proud moment was when I released a product whilst working on the smallest team ever – two people! A programmer and I created a really impressive model railway simulator that sold really well, and whether you’re into model trains or not, that was a very impressive feat for just two guys.