‘Merchant’ Interview – Strictly Business (And A Few Other Things)
You know those classic RPGs so many people love to play? The ones in which you trawl through every nook and cranny of a burgeoning wonderland whilst laying waste to demons, monsters and dragons both great and small? What’s one of the first things you do when you’ve looted the fallen corpses of your unworthy adversaries, raided all those dark, cavernous dungeons and pickpocketed that unsuspecting guildmaster in the local village? Why, you offload it to the nearest trader, of course, exchanging your unwanted trinkets for heirlooms and apparel rarer than a dose of subtlety in an Activision shooter.
And you know what? These guys are always there, always kitted out with everything you need for a night out on the town/archdemon’s lair. But did you ever stop to think about what those plucky businesspeople had to go through in order to ensure that you’re ready to become bastion saviour of the realm? Enter Merchant.
Such a premise involves a bit of investigation thought I, and that’s why I was so pleased to speak with not one, not two, but three members of Retora Studios; the minds behind this interactive foray into the underlying economics of the RPG genre. Here’s a splash of info on the terrific trio:
Tyler Coleman (TC) is the project lead. Merchant is his original concept, and he has worked on various iterations of the game over the past three years.
Winston Powell (WP) is Merchant’s lead artist. Having been working with Tyler on game jams and game projects for just under three years now, Winston was a key figure in crafting an early 2D hex-based prototype version of what would eventually become Merchant.
Eliot Friedman (EF) is the lead programmer on Merchant. He is currently focusing his attention on the backend of the game, and spends the majority of his time working on the systems in the game.
IGM: Greetings, everyone. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedules to talk. Let’s get the basics out of the way first. Could you give us a brief description of Merchant and how its basic game mechanics work?
TC: Merchant is a tycoon game set in a fantasy RPG. As the merchant, you trade with adventurers and craftsmen and create the quests that will influence their destiny. With the growth of your shop, choices you make will empower the next hero or encourage a future overlord.
IGM: Intriguing stuff. Do you have a particular release window in mind at this moment in time?
TC: Right now, we are still early in development. Our upcoming goals involve having a playable version for GDC in March, as well as at E3 in June. Without a publisher, we are planning on offering an alpha preorder (much like Minecraft). We would love to start getting feedback on the game, so we are working towards having a demo playable as soon as possible.
IGM: Looking at some of the media coverage you’ve received so far on the web, many commentators appear to be comparing Merchant with another recent indie hit, Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale. Obviously, the games are, visually speaking, very different animals, but there definitely seems to be at least some form of overlap when it comes to the basic premises. What sets Merchant apart as its own unique entity in the gaming market, if you can excuse the pun?
TC: It’s interesting to see how we have been associated with Recettear so far. Whenever you make a game in a genre that has few competitors, it’s common to compare them. Other than the aesthetic, the biggest difference between the two is the characters. The majority of the characters that enter your shop in Recettear are generic, with a few special characters that follow you through the game. In Merchant, all of the characters are unique. We have put a lot of attention into making the characters one of the vital aspects of the gameplay. It’s important to keep them satisfied, or you lose them as customers.
IGM: Although the basic idea behind Merchant is that you play the role of the titular merchant and, thus, play something of a ‘background’ role to the AI ‘heroes’, has some sort of dynamic reputation system been implemented with regards to the player character? For example, does the merchant’s local fame within the gaming world influence how he or she is regarded by the NPCs and, as a consequence, does this affect how the game plays out?
WP: One of my favourite features of Merchant is that a large portion has to do with the NPCs and how the player interacts with them. Because they are persistent, the relationships the player builds with the NPCs will follow the player till death. One of the many things you could potentially do with an NPC is give him everything he needs for a low price so that he can go out into the world and do his very best. The NPC will most likely feel indebted to you for being so generous and do just about anything you ask of them, whether it be setting out to find a rare treasure free of charge or going on a suicide mission to clear an important area of the map. The humble RPG merchant has a lot more influence than you might think.
IGM: Taking things a step further, are there any elements of moral choice that make their way into the game on the player’s part?
EF: Anyone who tells you that economics doesn’t have anything to do with morality is either wrong or a sociopath. I don’t think we came into this looking to present a particular economic/moral “message”, but that doesn’t mean that the player’s actions won’t have far-reaching effects in the game world. Whether those effects are morally “right” or “wrong” is up to the player.
IGM: With the AI NPCs playing such a fundamental role in the game, what steps have you taken in order to ensure that AI behavioral quirks and bugs are stamped out?
EF: First off, it’s important to draw a line between “bug” and “emergent behavior”. When you’re working with a system that has a lot of dynamically composed agents, you’re bound to run into some behaviours that were just unforeseen. That’s not necessarily bad, though – you can get some really great composite behaviours just on the virtue of random chance.
That being said, to minimize the chance of straight up logical errors, we’re choosing to use a technique called “test-driven development”. Essentially, you create a bunch of small pass/fail tests for each individual component, based on criteria from design. Then, as you implement each component, you can tell if it’s going to work based on whether or not it passes the test.
Additionally, we’ve chosen to completely abstract the gameplay layer from the presentation layer. Among other advantages of doing that, we’ll be able to run tons of test scenarios automatically without the overhead of needing to actually play through the game each time. The nerd in me is pretty psyched to get to the point where I can set up 4-5 instances of our environment, head off to lunch and come back to see what havoc has been wreaked.
IGM: What can you tell us about the art style of the game? Did you have a particular style in mind during the early planning stages of the development process or did it evolve and reinvent itself over a period of time?
WP: Because we are a student project, I knew that there would inevitably be conflicting styles and skill levels. One of the things that set some games apart from others is a consistent art style, so I needed to find something that would work for everyone. By using photo textures, any 2D artist could make texture maps fit into the game along with everything else and, with so many items going into the game, we needed all hands on deck. So, for the most part, the style of this game was born out of necessity but I think that as it progresses, we will continue to make adjustments.
IGM: One of the most valuable facets of the interaction between developers and players, particularly in today’s indie game market, is the capacity for community creation. Do you plan to release any editing tools or customization programs for the community after release?
EF: Short answer: I would love to, and I see it happening eventually. Slightly longer answer: I’m trying to spend as much of my free time as possible streamlining our processes for getting data into the game and changing up the game data. I would love to release whatever tools I can cook up to do so. The final call on exactly how that comes to pass however has yet to be decided.
IGM: On the subject of creativity within the gaming community, what advice could you give any potential indie developers out there?
TC: The best advice is to just do it. There is a quote by Ira Glass that I show to people regularly, the one about our tastes as creatives, and how our first few projects never reach it. I would love to give advice on how to get your name out there, and how to really get recognized, but I honestly have no idea what to say. Make a great game; share it with others. That seems to be it.
IGM: Again, let me express my gratitude for your willingness to answer our questions. How can our readers follow the progress of the game?
TC: Right now, the best way is to keep an eye on our IndieDB page. We’ve been rather quiet over the past few weeks, but you can expect to hear more from us in March.