Thurston Searfoss Interview


Thurston Searfoss and Devoted Fan

Excerpts from an interview with Thurston Searfoss, author of The Lost Admiral Returns. We recently published a comprehensive review of the game.

peterb: “How long was the development cycle for the game?”

Thurston: “It’s been about 4 years, part time. I do a number of other different jobs. So a lot longer than I would have liked. I’m a part time developer, marketer – the whole works, for good or bad – so I have to switch to alternative tasks, and then I get very frustrated at how long it takes to do anything”

What development environment and tools did you use to create the game?

“For tools, the usual C++ environment. A lot of them are actually older, so I’m actually using fastpath for file formats, that kind of stuff. I’m having to use DirectX, of course. I evaluated a couple of 3D engines but rejected them in favor of building a 2D sprite system, where I’d have more control.” Why?

“This is a downloadable product, so I needed to keep the download size reasonable, around 15 megabytes. That’s pretty hard to do when you increase the resolution past 800x600 or when you start going in to 3D. And it just makes it 100 times easier to get reasonable views.”

Who do you perceive as the primary audience for your game? People who played and enjoyed the old QQP Lost Admiral, or new players?

“A big part of it is aimed at the core original audience of all of my original games. At the same time, the core and essence of Lost Admiral is a very simple game; it’s meant to be given a chance to be a breakout. the actual [user] interface has proven to be an obstacle to that. So I’m actually in the middle of rewriting parts of the interface to lean towards the mainstream expectations of the game.”

Why did you build your own UI, rather than using standard Windows (or some well-known toolkit’s) GUI elements?

I had to make the decision early on. [Windows] is a standard, but it doesn’t cater to games that well, because what the heck does “edit” mean? So no, I prefer to have an in-game menu. By the same token, I try to keep all the interface elements simple.”

I found it very easy to make mistakes in-game; for example, I’ll try to select a ship by left-clicking on it, only to realize a moment later that I’ve just given an order to some other ship to move.

“In all my games it was very standard to left click to move and right click to select. The selection box was meant to indicate how far out you could move, and I guesss I never revisted the other side.”

How long does it take to ‘balance’ a new scenario?

“The actual maps go back to the original game, so those aren’t really an issue. The new material I have these days are these missions. The next mission we add to the game will be Bismark, Beachhead, and then Convoy, which is actually in the spirit of the north atlantic convoy. Each one of those is going to be very strongly WWII themed. For the missions I trust my instincts, and my actual users are the testers. Because of the in-game update system, any balance problems that are discovered can be fixed very easily. Players will complain about certain things, so that’s good feedback.

Partially this works because missions are designed to be randomly created, just like the random map is created. So you have the core very balanced game, which has been balanced to work with random maps and then on top of this you blend on each and every mission with its own challenges. Right now there is a small chance you might get, for example, an unfair ‘Secrets’ mission, where the objective it too far away. So the question for me as a designer is how many more safety checks do I put in to detect situations like this?

What’s the most positive, surprising thing about the game now that it’s done?

“The way that the missions really do create a totally new breath of fresh air in the way the game plays. The core game is extremely rich, as you know.”

They’re a great way to make the game about more than just victory points.

“The new missions actually complement the new core of The Lost Admiral very well, once you get into them. They become a different set of victory criteria totally separate from the VP struggle, to the point where it’s a trade-off, balancing which can you get away with. Can you get away with not taking that last city to finish ‘The Trouble Next Door?” Or are you going to blow your VP total if you don’t divert a ship to take a city?

It makes for a richness of strategic decisions. ‘He’s got one sub over there; I don’t have any destroyers in that region. If I move a destroyer over there, I’ll eventually get his sub, but can I afford to do that?’ You don’t just get a free lunch.”

What games, other than your own, have you been playing lately?

“Tons of board games. Not many computer games, actually. So many of them are real-time strategy, and there’s only so much you can do with them. It basically devolves into a puzzle agame: which units do you have to build, and then how quickly can you deliver them? It loses that chess-like feel. I’ve tried some of the remakes of some classic games – Hearts of Iron, for example – and they seem to fall pretty flat.”

_When you started building Lost Admiral Returns, did you expect more people to want to play against the computer, or against other people?_

“When I put my first beta version out, players could only play against each other. I ran into a lot of technical issues with more advanced [network] connections. So I wound up disabling that and going back to the tried and true AI. My surveys repeatedly show that most strategy gamers prefer to play against the AI. No one is saying ‘I’m going to return this game unless it goes multiplayer.’ So there’s a bunch of code in there that is disabled; it’s disabled in the sense that it’s unmaintained, so it probably needs to be reimplemented if we’re going to get it back in to the game.”

You’ve said on your web site that you plan on working on updates of your other classic games, The Grandest Fleet and Conquered Kingdoms_ next. Will the development cycle for those take 4 years also?_

“Based on the engine work, the development time for the next products should be tremendously reduced. It should be 10 times easier going in to Conquered Kingdoms and The Grandest Fleet to deploy them. As long as the engine is not seen as so antiquated that no one wants it, to be quite blunt, it should be good.

The real issue is that I’ve been throwing my home on this project, so I have to balance my books and pay the bills. So how much can I fine-tune the biggest downfalls of the game (user-interface issues) and figure out who is it going to appeal to? Only gamers? Or does it have enough interest for any gamer? So the biggest hinge point for me right now is whether financially whether people will support me enough to go forward.”

What level of sales do you need, realistically, to make continued work on these projects viable?

“To start balancing the books, 200 units/month or so. I’m beginning to wonder if the ‘try before you buy’ model makes it too easy for people to not spend the money. If you buy a game for money the pressure on try-before-you-buy games is to be ‘30 days, full access.’

Who puts that pressure on you?

“The download sites. It used to be, also, word of mouth. So far, for Lost Admiral at least, it isn’t like an arcade game, so most people if they do like it, they do buy it. Its more a question of the user interface, and for some people, the graphics. So that’s another weakness in my marketing model right now – what is the reasonable limit for a number of days?”

_Frankly, 30 days is longer than it takes me to get bored of most games, so for me, at least, I’m probably less likely to buy something if the trial period expires after 30 days than, say, 2 weeks. But I don’t know whether or not I’m typical. Although I really appreciate having all the features active – that makes me more inclined to buy a product, because I know exactly what I’m getting._

“If anything, in my haste to get it out the door, I simply took the easy route and left all the features active. At some point I may start boiling that down to ‘here’s a very small but good taste of it, and buy it to get the rest.”

Thurston, thanks for your time.

It was nice talking to you.