The Spirit Engine Interview

The Spirit Engine Interview

The release of The Spirit Engine in 2003 wasn’t Mark Pay’s first game, but it did mark the introduction of one of the most inventive and original RPG series to hit the indie scene before there really even was an indie scene to hit. Using a variety of Clickteam products ranging from ‘Klik &Play’ through to ‘Multimedia Fusion’, Mark has shown that inside every dedicated gamer there’s a hidden masterpiece waiting to be discovered. My Boxed Universe manages to grab a few moments of Mark’s time to answer some questions about the Spirit Engine and its sequel.

MBU
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today, for those who haven’t encountered your games before, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your background?

MARK
Thanks for having me on. I’ve been writing games with Clickteam products since the early 90s, and I was around to watch the online independent game development scene grow from an entirely amateur affair to a viable business opportunity with major distribution channels. I have a Computer Science degree and I’ve spent several years employed in the mobile gaming industry as an artist. After a decade of developing freeware games, I made a single independent commercial release, ‘The Spirit Engine 2’, back in 2008.

After that I retired from the indie scene and have been working a rather mundane job as a website load tester whilst drawing in my spare time.

MBU
You’ve previously stated that The Spirit Engine was a reaction to the console RPGs of the 16-bit era. Care to elaborate on the inspirations behind the series and what got you into game production?

MARK
I didn’t play many 16-bit RPGs when they were first released, but came back to play them on emulators while I was at university. I got hooked on Seiken Densetsu 3, which is a top-down action-RPG with a small party of characters and largely real-time gameplay, combined with fantastic music and graphics. It started me thinking about whether I could produce something similar, flattened down to the side-scrolling platform perspective which was well supported by Clickteam products at the time.

Combat is mouse-driven and although the speed can be altered is a frantic rush.

Combat is mouse-driven and although the speed can be altered is a frantic rush.

MBU
What are your personal favourite games?

MARK
Deus Ex (1 & HR) – I enjoy grounded cyberpunk, and the Deus Ex series combines that with compelling gameplay and narrative.
Company of Heroes (1 & 2) – Still the best RTS system around, and I’m a WW2 buff.
Startopia – The atmosphere and sense of humour mean this is still my favourite management sim.
I don’t game as much as I used to, but I’m currently playing through GTAV, a year or so behind everyone else, as usual. That game is a modern marvel of engineering and tremendous fun.

MBU
I’m personally very fond of Clickteam products, using ‘Multimedia Fusion 2 Pro Developer edition’ on a regular basis, what drew you to Clickteam products?

MARK
I started off with Klik & Play back in 1994/95, when I found the demo on a cover disc of PC Gamer UK. Back then I think it was the only games development tool of its type around. The options available to small developers have expanded a lot since then, with more resources and more languages available. Whilst the principles of the Clickteam products have remained largely the same, the visual nature of the editor is still very appealing and easy to work with.

MBU
You’re responsible for drawing, programming and writing both titles with music provided by Josh Whelchel (who released a 4 disc set for the series on his website), what was it like being a development team of one?

MARK
It was great! I like to have complete creative control, and working on so many different aspects of the game gives you a lot of variety in your work.

It’s very difficult to rely on other people, especially when you’re not paying them. I was very fortunate to team up with Josh on this project. I think he was at a similar stage in his life and looking to prove himself. He was a pleasure to work with and very talented.

MBU
The Spirit Engine 2 won ‘Top Indie RPG of 2008’ at Game Tunnel and was voted second place at the Indie Game Awards that same year. How do you feel that the game ultimately did and what were sales like before the game was released as Freeware?

MARK
Total sales were fairly low, I think around 4,000 copies in total. I was still very pleased with that, especially as the fans of the game were so wonderful and supportive. One reason for the low sales was a lack of marketing. I did very little, because I naturally dislike self-promotion, was inexperienced and not confident in the product. For this I earned myself a RockPaperShotgun article by Kieron Gillen on how not to promote an indie game. 🙂 In addition, there were far fewer channels for selling and marketing games online in 2008 than there are now.

Dialogue is well written throughout and helps give characters depth.

Dialogue is well written throughout and helps give characters depth.

MBU
With the release of games such as ‘Darkest Dungeon’ using a similar side-view and combat mechanics, would you say that your Spirit Engine series was ahead of its time?

MARK
I don’t think so. I’ve not kept up with the indie RPG scene in recent years, but to my knowledge, side-scrolling RPGs are still rare. The mechanics of the Spirit Engine series came out of two main design requirements:

1) Simplicity. I often find myself trying to strip down existing game systems to make them simple enough for a single developer to implement without losing the fun of the core gameplay mechanics. Usually this involves removing a dimension or two, in this case stripping a 2D game down to 1D (left or right!)

2) Real-time gameplay. I didn’t want to copy the popular turn-based Final Fantasy combat system and I wanted something that flowed in a kinetic and organic fashion without constantly prompting the user for input.

Once I had those two core requirements: one dimension and real-time gameplay, the rest of the mechanics started to form around that.

I’d certainly like to see more indie RPGs experiment with alternative gameplay mechanics, but I understand the attachment to popular systems.

MBU
What do you think would be different if you went about releasing the games now?

MARK
A properly coded engine. High resolution graphics. Marketing (I might do some!) I’d take a much more professional approach using the experience I’ve gained. Having a distribution platform like Steam available would help a lot as well.

MBU
Can we expect to see a Spirit Engine 3 in the future? There has been speculation, fuelled by the forum on your homepage.

MARK
I would like to! The main thing stopping me is free time. I have another project consuming my attention at the moment, but if that falls through and I find myself free, I’d be strongly tempted to work an a sequel. Hopefully if wouldn’t take 5 years again.

MBU
Have you considered porting the series to touchscreen devices such as mobiles or tablets?

MARK
Not personally, but it’s been suggested many times. Ultimately the source is difficult to port, and I didn’t feel it was worth the significant effort required. I’d rather write a new game from scratch with multiple platforms in mind.

MBU
The Spirit Engine 2 uses a clever mechanic where you can choose a party of three from a selection of 9 characters (3 per class, Knight, Marksman and Priest) and alters the narrative to include the background of those characters. What was the inspiration behind this idea and why do you think we don’t see it more often?

MARK
I was inspired by Baldurs Gate 2 in particular, which let you form a party from a selection of distinct characters. The main narrative arc there was the same each time you played, but there would be custom interactions and side plots depending on who you had in your party.

To keep the conversation paths simple, I locked the party size at 3 and had the characters for each ‘slot’ share key personality traits. I think this helped to add replayablity to the game, combined with the effects of choosing different character class combinations.

There was still a lot of work required to draw the extra graphics for each character. This is difficult for indie developers in particular to justify as they have very limited resources.

MBU
What prompted the decision to go freeware?

MARK
Sales had tapered off and the indie scene was rapidly expanding and improving in quality. I didn’t feel that there was much more to be gained financially from continuing to sell the game, and I felt it was falling behind the increasing quality of commercial releases. A lot had changed in those 5 years of development. So it made sense to make the game free and allow more people to enjoy it.

MBU
Do you have any advice for budding game devs?

MARK
As with any creative endeavour, I’d advise starting with small projects, setting realistic goals and being prepared to work very hard, enduring failure and disappointment along the way. I remember seeing people come into the Klik community, announce they were going to make an enormous MMORPG and then crash, burn and disappear. We all need to strike a balance between ambition and pragmatism.

I’d also advise against working for anyone else in gaming industry. The odds that you will get to do meaningful work on a good game are low, and pay, job security and work-life balance will likely be poor.

MBU
Thanks again for your time today Mark. For those who want to experience the series for themselves the original Spirit Engine can be downloaded free HERE as can its sequel The Spirit Engine 2 HERE. The series’ official website can be found HERE.

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