By Raymond Porreca
Special to The Communitarian
Dean Razavi seems determined to carve out his own path in the video game industry. The New York City lawyer- turned-game developer has been hard at work creating “Vidar,” a classically styled role-playing game with a unique twist.
Razavi’s vision for the game is to ensure that its storytelling and various puzzles are always randomized, making for a game that will not only be unique each time it is booted up, but also an experience that is different for every single player of the game.
“Vidar” places players in the shoes of a stranger who has found himself in a dangerous town.
Each night, a mysterious beast stalks the street of the town, slaying a random villager. The random element ensures that the player’s journey through “Vidar” is always a dynamic one.
Razavi has now successfully funded “Vidar” through the popular crowdfunding site, Kickstarter.
The “Vidar” campaign raised $19,530, well over the $18,000 goal. Recently, Razavi and I spoke about “Vidar,” his vision for the game, and the importance of independent video games.
Q: How did you first become interested in video game development?
A: The “Starcraft” Map Editor. Blizzard Entertainment added a ton of possible commands to the trigger editor in “Starcraft” and I just went crazy making different stories and maps. When I was 12, I made a full companion campaign to the game’s actual story, complete with voice acting. After that, I just felt compelled to make games.
Q: “Vidar” is different than many other games that have been released in recent years. Would you mind explaining the basic premise of “Vidar?”
A: Sure. There’s been a lot of emphasis recently – especially by indie developers – to randomize key elements of their games. It’s mainly done in order to compete with the “triple A” studios who are able to put 80 hours of content into a game. Indie developers just don’t have the budget for that, so we started extending the life of play with randomization. Over the past five years we’ve gotten really good at randomizing maps. “Minecraft” is the best testament to that, along with games like “Terraria” and “Spelunky.” “Vidar” is my attempt to see if we can randomize story elements, which I am convinced is the next step in game design.
It starts from the premise that a town is under siege by a monster. That beast kills a villager every night, and it’s up to the player to stop the beast.
But like any community, everyone has reactions to the loss of everyone else – people are coworkers, friends, neighbors, lovers, families, enemies.
Because the order of deaths in each gameisdifferent,thereactionsaredifferent. People’s needs change and ultimately, the plot randomizes going forward.
Q:How did you come up with the idea of making a game that featured randomized story and puzzle mechanics?
A: It was probably just a confluence of events. I lost a dear family member and mentor about a month before I started sketching “Vidar” out, so I had death and grief on the mind. I had been toying with this idea of taking the traditional mechanic of a town which slowly populates, and turning it upside down. What happens if [non-player characters] start disappearing instead? And then the idea of making that random snapped into place.
The random puzzle mechanic came later. For better or worse, I have a pretty good memory for in-game puzzles. I can come back to a game years later and be like, “Oh I remember this. We have to do X, Y,
and Z.” So I knew that if I wanted to come back and see a new story in “Vidar,” it wouldn’t be a challenging game anymore. I decided that the only way to fix that would be to randomize the puzzles as well.
Q: Some gamers may think that “Vidar’s” innovative premise and game mechanics are a great representation of the growing indie game scene. Is there anything that you think AAA developers could learn from the small teams making big games?
A: A willingness to iterate. “Vidar” has taken so many forms over the past year. There used to be combat in this game! There was a time when puzzles weren’t random. All of these things change as I demoed the game to get feedback and see how people interacted with it. AAA developers should be willing to throw the entire thing out if it will make for a better game.
Q: Is there a specific process that you go through when writing the characters and their personal stories for “Vidar”?
A: Originally, all of my characters just had a few lines of description. Knowing that I wanted each character to represent a different facet of a community helped a lot, so I’d jot those notes down.
The nun can represent a zealous patriarchal religion. The blacksmith can represent industry.
Often times, two characters can cover two sides of a coin. The priest is the much more loving, caring part of religion. The alchemist, for example, is the “socially unaware” part of academia and science, and the scholar is the “ivory tower / arrogance” part of academia.
The next thing to figure out was, why do these people not just take up arms and go fight the monster themselves? Now we have a character flaw, and the ball is rolling.
I’ve lived with some of my characters more than others – I know the watchmaker really well, how he’d react in each situation, what his crisis points are. I barely know the
chef at the inn. I’m going to have to spend some more time with him.
Q: The Kickstarter campaign for “Vidar” raised more than $19,000 from its $18,000 goal. Can you explain why you elected to use crowdfunding to aid the game’s development?
Crowdfunding does two things. The obvious answer is that you get money up front to pay for things like an artist to do all the sprite work. It gives you a nice money cushion and helps start building your community.
But the second important thing is that it serves as social proof. I could have saved and invested the $18,000 into the game myself, but I’d have no idea if I was making a game that anyone in the world would be interested in and then when I was done, I’d emerge from my apartment, holding “Vidar” to present to the gaming public and it might be a flop. Kickstarter allows me to test the waters before I waste a year on a bad idea.
Q: Kickstarter has helped fund numerous video games over the last handful of years, from both independent developers and major studios. Do you think crowdfunding will be a mainstay in game development? If so, why?
A: I think we’re starting to see Kickstarter get co-opted by the major studios a bit too much for it to continue as a necessary tool for independent developers. During the entirety of the “Vidar” Kickstarter, I was pushed out of the “hot list” of projects in Kickstarter’s searches by games made by big-name studios. These titles were games that would undoubtedly meet their funding goals.
Situations like this make me think that the Kickstarter market will become too flooded and cause many independent developers to shy away from the platform.
Q: How has the reception to “Vidar” been so far?
A: I seriously can’t even comprehend it. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to demo the game as part of various indie showcases, including Boston FIG, MAGFest, Playcrafting NYC. When I talk to people and explain the concept of “Vidar” and someone’s eyes light up, it’s the best feeling. Hearing people tell me that “Vidar” sounds like their own personal dream game is an amazing experience.
Those events were great for finding a community for the game. Every day, because I’m compulsive, I google “Vidar Kickstarter” to
see if there’s any new coverage of the game or something that I should tweet about. In the first week, someone who I’ve never met posted a link to the campaign in forum they frequented. They liked the game, and wanted to share it with someone. That made me so happy I started crying. The thought that someone else might tell their friends, “Hey, check this out,” had somehow never occurred to
me, and it was just so amazing.
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring gamedevelopers?
A: Fake it until you make it. Seriously. That’s the only way to actually do this. Go to events and introduce yourself as a game developer. It doesn’t matter if you have been working on games for twenty years. You don’t need to have done this for years, or released 20 small apps, to claim that title. And once you own it, and pretend like you know what you’re doing, eventually you come to find out that you’ve learned what to do. Anyone can be a game developer.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to say?
A: I am so excited about the opportunity to go back in hiding and make my game. Kickstarter campaigns are not for the faint of heart. They are a mix of a full-time job and a newborn. They are finicky and require constant attention, and there’s no way to be a developer and run a campaign at the same time. So if you’re going to go the crowdfunding route, congratulations, best of luck, and I hope you have some very patient family and friends.