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Exclusive Interview:

Vincent van Geel (Isotx, Inc.) - Part 1

By: John "Award" Del Percio

Vincent van Geel (Isotx, Inc.) Interview: Part 1

I recently got a chance to chat with the multi-talented Vincent van Geel: co-founder of indie developer Isotx, Inc. Perhaps more known for their Half-Life 2 total conversion mods under the Iron Grip title, as well as their MidEast Crisis total conversions for Command & Conquer Generals, they've recently taken their Iron Grip franchise commercial in a full release game. This interview was conducted in two parts via an email Q&A to met with Vincent's busy schedule. In part one of this interview we discuss the business and design side of Warlord and Isotx.

GameVisions: First, welcome to GameVisions! Before we get into the more intricate questions, for our readers who may not be familiar with Isotx, would you mind giving us a brief description of just who Isotx is -- a bit of background and history that may not be on your "About" page?

Vincent van Geel: Hi there! Let me start off by saying I really appreciate GameVisions interest in us and thanks a lot for the opportunity! Anyways, Isotx is a small startup indie-game company, with most of its crew currently spread around the world, but our main office with a small core team being in Athens Greece at the moment. For years we have been making mods (C&C Generals and Half Life 2) and have recently moved into creating commercial games. We like to blend concepts creating new interesting gameplays in existing genre’s hence we started with Iron Grip: Warlord, and one of our main focuses is expanding and growing the Iron Grip universe.

GV: How about your background. How did you come to arrive at Isotx, and what exactly do you do there, both generally, and specifically with regard to your current release title: Iron Grip: Warlord?

Vincent: Well I’m actually co-founder of Isotx, so that’s how I arrived at Isotx, haha. I’m lead product designer and basically setup, lead and design all of our projects, either directly or as producer. We’re still small so it’s still do-able. For Iron Grip: Warlord I was project-manager, lead designer, did some audio work, modeling/texturing, voice acting, etc. The team was very small so almost all of us multi-tasked ;)

GV: Lets talk a little bit about the development of Warlord. Iron Grip: Warlord is titled in succession with the previous Half-Life 2 mods; it takes place in the same story universe. A number of studios have popped up based on previous Half-Life, or Quake, or some popular game modding celebrity, but in most of those cases, the commercial titles are unrelated to the former modding episodes, instead they create new franchises. Isotx has opted to expand the Iron Grip franchise into the commercial release realm. What drove the shift from simply creating mods, to making a full commercial release in the same series. What gameplay or environmental barriers were limiting the Iron Grip universe in a mod-only cage? And why continue with the Iron Grip universe as your first commercial title?

Vincent: The short answer is because we love it enough to be one of the main focuses of the company. We feel that we only barely touched on the vast amount of ideas, designs, and world design we had, thus leaving it at the very small scaled Half Life 2 mod wasn’t doing the universe any justice. We’re constantly working on designs, stories and universe, mostly in-house behind the scenes to fill up the lore + design bible for our projects, and so there’s a ton of stuff that goes into it, especially since we keep scrapping things, and iterating stuff to be better. We want a lot more projects set in the Iron Grip universe, since we’re hoping we can eventually show all this stuff to people.

GV: Obviously, working from scratch in your own engine environment rather than relying on Valve's existing game framework is a more complicated task than a simple mod.

Vincent: well we didn’t create our own engine; we bought the Quake 3 engine and enhanced it to suit our needs since aside from the hard-to-get Source engine, we were familiar with the Quake engines so it was less risky despite the lower tech level.

GV: What were the most significant of the unexpected hurdles, both technical and business, you experienced during (and after) the development?

Vincent: Well from the get-go we wanted to create a small-scaled, yet FPS/RTS hybrid game, not focusing on next-gen graphics like most in this genre do, but focusing entirely on wild arcade-like gameplay that could casually be played at LAN parties and such. It was an insanely risky choice, since most FPS players seem very hooked onto the next- gen appeal of the genre, but we got a good niche-bunch of them to get interested in Warlord. We come from a background of pure gameplay, for instance my personal background is modding Half Life 1 mostly, and I just loved to create wacky gameplays that were easily accessible to many people (thus didn’t require a supercomputer to play). Although I love graphics, I’m more into the slightly illustrated kind; I never cared much for next-gen graphics, although I do think they’re pretty to look at ;). The heavy focus on them in the business I think has killed off a lot of gameplay opportunity.

GV: Let's talk about the business aspect. From a business standpoint, there's been a lot of controversy in the PC gaming world. Between publisher issues, copy protection, distribution, etc, PC is an increasingly unattractive platform in some aspects, though it remains the easiest to develop for and update. Isotx has gone with a somewhat nouveau approach to the sales and distribution of Warlord, opting for first party sale with an download-only distribution model. Has this worked out as well as expected?

Vincent: well PC actually isn’t the easiest platform to develop for, simply because people’s hardware is all so different, you can’t just use tools and take the console- hardware specs (which is the same for everybody with that platform!) and go with that; you need fallback settings, performance on a billion different setups, hardware etc. Then there’s the amazing driver-issues, graphics card problems, etc (pulling hair out atm just thinking about it ;) ).

I actually think developing for consoles might actually be a smarter thing to do these days for indies, simply because it a lot easier (and cheaper, especially with XBLA, PSN etc) and you can focus on the game more than on the tech. We’re simply too addicted to PC to switch, and so won’t be following that trend as a main focus anytime soon ;) How has it worked out business-wise? We’re doing alright, though if we’d done it on XBLA or something sales most likely would have been higher though the gameplay wouldn’t have worked as well I think.

We’re also working on alternate distribution as well as maybe even boxed so we’ll see; at the moment we’re focusing on building patches, expansions and thus growing the product as long as its financially viable (do need to get money to buy food ;) ).

GV: You mentioned boxed. Depending on how sales continue to go, do you think there may be any retail-boxed distribution in the future for Warlord or other close-term projects, or is that too painful a route to consider?

Vincent: Boxed copies is a whole new area we’re not familiar with, so I think we’ll stick with digital methods until we’ve nailed that completely, then work on boxed copies. The thing is that our game I think is timeless in its nature, that it’s almost like a webgame, you can always come back to it and spend some time slaying the hordes of badguys. This means that its lifetime is significantly higher than many 5-hour epic single-player next-gen FPS games with multiplayer slapped on to stretch it a bit.

GV: There's the large PC-centric debate over "DRM." StarForce is still reigning as the champion of evil, at least in the public eye, with SecuROM's uglier features (limited installs) recently coming up as a close second with EA's high profile usage of it in titles like Spore and Mass Effect. Then there's Stardock's early DRM-less model...which was widely welcomed to record sales, but then they stripped back to using their proprietary Steam-like system that required authentication to obtain any updates. How has Isotx handled the DRM issue, especially with a download-only model?

Vincent: well for our own system we’ve bought software to do it for us, and other than that we’re using the services own copy protection, like Stardock and Direct2Drive have their own systems which we simply integrated.

GV: Warlord's model aside, how do you personally view the DRM-scene. There's always the push and pull of publishers demanding higher security, resulting in higher costs, while gamers continue to have problems with the ever-more invasive protection. How do you feel it's affected the PC gaming industry at large, and where do you see it going in the near-future?

Vincent: I think for now a middle-ground is the best choice. You do need some copy protection, as long as it’s not obnoxious to the userbase who’s purchasing the game. Sad but true, every game you hear of, often gets cracked the same day (or even stolen beforehand!) and thus there doesn’t seem to be a single way to properly do it yet, so until there is a way that also doesn’t scare buying customers away, we’ll just calculate the losses due to piracy and focus on the actual customers instead. I think a good strategy is to constantly provide updates which also update the copy protection, that way customers get more value for their money by getting new content, and pirates need to go through the hassle every time, thus it becomes easier to just pay the money and get it over with. I also think making games cost no more than $25 helps a lot, which is getting easier since we’re moving towards a digital distribution world, there’s not a lot of people taking a cut from that, so the cool thing is that we can really push down the price a lot, which I think in return, combined with the patch-strategy will decrease the interest in piracy, but we’ll see ;)

Look out for Part 2 of this interview: Part 2 will be landing on GameVisions August 7th!

This is part one of a multiple-part interview. Check our Interview Listings page for additional parts as they are posted!

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