I recently had a chance to chat with the writer and designer of upcoming Vampire RPG “Nighthawks“, which is being published by Wadjet Eye Games and currently being kickstarted. Considering this is my first interview, I was a little worried but thankfully Mr Cobbett was very cool with how we did things.
Take a look below for the interview and some sweet shots of the game and if you have time check out the games Trailer (linked below).
Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, first of all. Let’s start by asking you who you are, and what role you have in Nighthawks, and what else have you done in the industry to give people a sense of what you are all about.
I’m Richard Cobbett, and I’m the writer, designer and programmer on Nighthawks. Most people probably know me from a couple of decades of games journalism, but in recent years I’ve been more involved on the writing side of the actual games, including Sunless Sea, The Long Journey Home, Not Tonight, and a few more I’m not allowed to talk about yet. Nighthawks largely came about because I was thinking of Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines while working on Sunless Skies, and thinking about how you could fuse the two styles together in an interesting way. A year later, this is the answer.
I also want to ask this early on. What is your design style. What got you into game design and writing, and what drives inspires you as a creator?
I see myself as being from the ‘architect’ school of game design – I like to build foundations and structure and so on, rather than designing by the seat of my pants. This is probably helped by the fact that in journalism you’re encouraged to think heavily in terms of structure from the start, rather than just filling a blank page with whatever feels like a good idea at the time.
I’ve always made games, just not public ones. I coded silly things in GWBasic back on my first PC, I made little adventures in Visual Basic… I’ve always had a love for that stuff, mostly driven by adventure games. When I was younger, I really wanted to make the kind of stuff that Lucasarts and Sierra did – worlds that you could just step into, and which seemed alive beyond the limits of what everyone else was doing. I never saw the credits run on something like Monkey Island without really wishing I could say “I made that. That was me.”
These days, the inspiration tends to be a little more focused. I love games for their ability to create responsive, unique experiences, even within a narrative frame – to be able to give people the chance to not just play through my story, but to work with me with choices to create something that hopefully feels special and sticks. The unique journeys of every captain in Sunless Sea for instance are all the more meaningful for being the results of your choices. Games are unlike any other medium in this respect, and we’re really only scraping the surface of what they can do at this point.
Now you describe Nighthawks as an Interactive Fiction RPG. Watching the trailer it appears very similar to a choose your own adventure style game. Is that pretty accurate? How would you describe the core gameplay loop you are aiming for.
I’d say that the core mechanic is CYOA style, absolutely, however the big question is really what creates those options – your powers, your past decisions, your relationships, etc. It’s also worth noting that ultimately many big AAA games boil down to that, it’s just that the menus are better hidden!
Nighthawks in particular uses choices and descriptive text because they’re the best way to create a world with the amount of choice and freedom that we want to offer. A standard RPG is primarily built around clicking on enemies to hit them with a sword, which is fine, but not so hot if you want to explore the drama of a dinner party or something rather than create a glorified arena. When it comes to their choices, they also typically boil down to picking an option from a menu, it’s just small, and the text is consigned to the bottom of the screen.
(I’d also add that people tend to look down on CYOA unfairly, thinking of the most basic variety. The model becomes much more interesting when you start factoring in books like Sorcery or the Lone Wolf series, which offered deep character interaction, continuity between volumes and so on, rather than just linear sequences of options. There shouldn’t be shame in borrowing from these games, as I know for a fact that they were a formative experience for many an RPG designer, along with the more commonly talked about D&D and so on.)
In Nighthawks, we’re approaching the world a little differently from most RPGs, in that it’s a mix of life simulation and questing. You have that central core of staying alive and boosting your abilities, with the stories springing out from it. Instead of following a set critical path, you instead have more general Objectives that you can go about as you see fit. As an example, the main goal in the first act is simply paying your hotel room bill. In most RPGs, you’d get a quest “Pay Your Hotel Bill” that would send you to one guy who has a job for you. Here, you go find your own opportunities around town. As the game continues, those Objectives get more complicated, but in ways that still allow you freedom of choice, allegiance, and the consequences that come of it.
Is the game going to have a primary narrative thread with side stories? Or will it be more life simulator, where you make your own fun while pursing various character arcs / story arcs / mini stories?
Absolutely. The game takes place over about three years, broken up into (currently) around four months of playable time that focus on key events in your path from rags to riches – from bankrupt vampire to nightclub owner to a key player in the future of both human and vampire society.
How open ended do you intend for the game to be? How replayable? How will advancement or character improvement work given the nature of the game?
Very much so! The core story will be the same each play through, but your abilities, your choices, your allies and so on will offer very different experiences – and of course, your choices will bring things to very different endings.
Character creation is a little different to most games in that you don’t create yourself, you create your Sire – your gender, sexuality, etc, is your own business, not least to allow you to role-play whoever or whatever you want within the structure of the game as a whole. However, your blood origin will definitely have an impact, as will your powers, which we’re treating more as aces in the hole than spells to spam at people – skills like Mesmerise and Corpse-Talking that will open up new avenues for each player.
The goal is that when you play through, you’ll have a wonderfully responsive, customised experience that feels complete. But then when you replay, you’ll see just how differently everything could have gone. Text makes that kind of thing so much easier. For instance, if you as a regular vampire go to the opera, you’ll be told “You hear opera.” If you’ve chosen the Culture sphere of knowledge, that might be, say, “You hear an adequate rendition of Bizet’s Carmen.” Fold that into all the other decisions, big and small, and you get a world that really seems to breathe along with your unique story.
As for character advancement, the current plan is that you’ll earn personal development points – basically XP – which you can spend around the city, along with other resources and time. So if you want to learn languages for instance, that’ll mean spending a few nights at a night school, rather than patrolling and getting into fights and making friends, etc. My rule for freedom is that you should be able to do more or less anything, just not everything.
What are some of your inspirations for the game, and more importantly, how do they inspire you? I know you mention on the kickstarter things like Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines and Urban Fantasy stories, but I want to know what ABOUT these things inspired you to make this game.
Oh, we’d be here all day! Just about every game offers something to learn from, even if it’s just ‘don’t do this’. Key ones I’d pick out beyond Bloodlines include Quest For Glory IV, for the sympathetic antagonist and wonderful sense of progression as you go from a hated stranger to the hero of the city, Baldur’s Gate 2, for how its second chapter inspired the ‘Objectives’ system, the Sunless games for proving that text-driven experiences can be as awesome as anything with expensive graphics… I really could go on and on.
For Bloodlines specifically, it’s a mix of atmosphere and character. Creating memorable NPCs is a skill in itself, and that game is full of them – Smiling Jack, Jeanette, Heather, LaCroix etc. You really feel like part of something special in that game – not just a vampire, but a Kindred, versus just an interchangeable pair of hands holding a gun. A lot of my design is rooted in wanting to dig deeper into the social side of that kind of setting, but you don’t get that if it’s not a setting you feel like you’re invested in to begin with. Then of course you add all the little details, from Deb of Night to the Malkavian script, and you really get a game that drips with love as much as any dark vitae.
You mentioned in our twitter conversation that there will be “some sort” of combat system. Any hints on how you want that to play out? Something like, say, the Fighting Fantasy Novels or games by Tin Man games? Or something more in depth? Obviously it subject to change so early on, but I am curious as to your design process for this.
At the moment, the simple answer is ‘I don’t know!’ I have multiple combat systems planned out, but it remains to be seen. One idea is a card based thing a little like Dream Quest and Slay the Spire, one is more dice based, one is a text-driven approach. Most likely, the final thing will use bits of each, so that at least important fights feel like more than just a street brawl, while quick battles cut to the jelly. But I want to get things up and running and see how they feel.
I have to say I am loving the art style shown in the screenshots on Kickstarter. How much of the design is driven by the art, and how much of the art is driven by the design?
I’d say we’re pretty much in sync! Our lead artist, pixel-wizard Ben Chandler, basically agrees with me on what style we want – a kind of electro-goth world rooted a bit more in the modern world than Victoriana, which isn’t afraid to use colour. We didn’t want to make a game that was all black, red and grey. That’s why you get the electric blue of the nightclub exterior, the green hum of the streets, and so on. It’s just endlessly more fun to explore a world where you don’t know what’s coming next than ‘oh, look, another rainy street’.
(Amusingly, our longest discussions haven’t been about the big details, which we basically agree on immediately, but about bra design – how frilly Becca’s should be, if Lux should wear one under her corset… the actual city and location design has been pretty much ‘Here’s the pitch’, ‘cool, here’s exactly what you were thinking of, only much better drawn’. Games are weird.)
Finally, anything you want to add on your own or what people to know about? Any nuggets of info or words of wisdom for those out there trying to make their way into the world of creative things?
I’ll say that if the Kickstarter doesn’t succeed, then nobody’s allowed to complain that nobody’s tried to make a successor to Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines! Smiley-face. But seriously, I think this is going to be a really cool game. It’s one we want to play ourselves, which I think is a good start, and a chance to do a lot of stuff that we’ve wanted to see more of.
As for words of wisdom… people will tell you a hundred million different things, and usually try to act as if their experiences are in some way a universal truth. Which they’re not. Everyone’s story is different, everyone has different ways of working. Don’t feel bad if you don’t ‘write every day’ or the story you want to tell isn’t the one that people would expect of you, etc. The one cast-iron rule I do think applies is that millions upon millions of people ‘want’ to write a book or a screenplay or a game or whatever else, and then they just sit and watch TV. Simply by dint of actually finishing something, whatever it is, you’re already in the top 1% of creatives worldwide, even if only your cat ever sees it.
All images are used with permission from the Kickstarter promotional package available on the Kickstarter page.