Tom Hall has had a diverse career, having both helped make the popular PC platformer Commander Keen and create the first-person shooter genre with Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. It doesn't end there, however – he also one of the main forces behind the RPG Anachronox and he more recently developed the social game Pettington Park. At Pieces of Fun, he's now looking to return to his roots with the game Secret Spaceship Club, a very Keen-esque game, wrapped around his new creation tool: Worlds of Wander! He kindly gave some time to talk to us about this Kickstarter project, his attempts to reconnect with old IP and his take on “open source” projects.
[a]list: Tell me why you decided on Worlds of Wander for your next project?
Tom Hall: Well, we tried another a Kickstarter that was sort of a first attempt to see how the process goes. We retooled what we were doing and planned another RPG, but we budgeted that out and it was too ambitious for Kickstarter: it was going to be a spiritual sequel to Anachronox. Then I thought it'd be fun to do Keen again. I've seen people making mods, showing people making new content in Keen games. There are editor tools out there and they're brilliant, but they’re not focused, they don't let you make differently themed games and they're not across all platforms. I want to work with my PC/Mac at home, and on the road I want to work on the same content on my iPad. So that idea bubbled up. Brenda and John suggested that I start a new entity, so that's where Pieces of Fun comes in. I wish I had Anachronox and Keen again, but this opportunity will allow me to build an IP.
[a]list: Did you ever attempt to work with those who currently own the Anachronox and Commander Keen licenses?
Tom Hall: With Anachronox, it's interesting. I created that game at Ion Storm, which was later sold to Eidos, which a dozen years later was acquired by Square Enix. So now Anachronox, a tribute of sorts to the Final Fantasy franchise, is owned by Square Enix, which owns Final Fantasy.
We asked Square Enix and they politely said that they weren't looking to work with outside partners and did not want to part with the IP. If Square Enix circled back around, however, I'd gladly work on Anachronox again.
[a]list: Of course, id Software and all their properties are now owned by Zenimax...
Tom Hall: I asked, and Zenimax sent a flat, lawyer-like business letter rejecting it. Not even entertaining the idea was painful, but it's been 27 years. It's time to move on.
[a]list: You've had a long and storied career in the gaming industry. What pushed you to do something Commander Keen-esque?
Tom Hall: It's been interesting trying all sorts of genres. At Software Disc (Softdisk), we did a variety of software projects, like a magazine for games. There was Gamer's Edge, and I snuck in at night and did fun design work with John Carmack, John Romero, and Adrian Carmack - it was a new game every month and it was fun to explore different genres. Those different experiences has helped me enjoy making different sorts of games. The second time I asked Zenimax about Keen and they said they weren't interested, I decided I had fun making funny sci-fi games and it'd be wonderful to re-explore this sort of universe.
[a]list: Where does the aesthetic inspiration for Worlds of Wander come from?
Tom Hall: Growing up, I loved Star Trek and Star Wars along with cartoons like The Jetsons and Duck Dodgers. Keen was heavily influenced by all that. The cool thing about Worlds of Wander is that it can do a Western game - you can change the theme and the whole world could change. All the art packs will have everything thing you'd need to put in the game and will auto-decorate.
We want to curate it, because I don't want the community to look like MySpace. If there's a good art pack we want to include it – a good example would be Minecraft, which has about 10 art packs that are really done well. We'd like to see art packs that bubble up and are rated high and they are approved for use. If we add something new like a bullwhip, all the art packs have to support that - there has to be a commitment to keeping that alive.
[a]list: Sounds like you're keeping the spirit of open software code alive from your time at id.
Tom Hall: When we founded id, we were excited to just sell games. I credit Carmack to have the desire to say that all information should be open. The more and more we made games, the more we made the data formats open. Where we're currently at... when I looked at all the editors out there, and while they might be brilliant, their barriers to entry are high. Look at Photoshop, people are going to be intimidated by something like that.
[a]list: In some ways, your project sounds similar to LittleBigPlanet.
Tom Hall: LittleBigPlanet is brilliant. Someone made some of the beginning levels of Keen in LittleBigPlanet and it was more awesome than we originally implemented! I want tools like that, but I had a sense that the game needed a simple and advanced mode. The simple mode gets you used to the concept of editing stuff, and the advanced mode is for people who wanted to drill down into the details. I think those tools need to be on whatever device is near. I want to continue to create in an environment that's device agnostic and want the players to know the feeling of being a creator. I hope there's and era where games are democratized like with MP3s. Digital cameras let people take and share photos easily, regardless of if you have a Canon or a Nikon, and I think that's the sort of convenience that should be there for games. And I'd like to enable fun universe because I like to play fun games!
[a]list: You did a Kickstarter with Brenda Brathwaite last year called Shaker. What did you learn from that experience?
Tom Hall: We both developed RPGs that got acclaim back in the day, so I thought, 'let's come together and work with the community and people who loved those games to make what they'd really love to see.' We came forward with more of a collaborative process in mind. That's not what the platform is for - it's more for 'Oh, this is cool; we'll support it' than crowdsourcing.
In hindsight, we'd frame it differently, but now we're trying with a different game and project.
[a]list: Talk to me a little about Kickstarter and what attracts you as it has attracted a lot of other independent game designers.
Tom Hall: It seems to provide a cool platform for games, if there's enough players interested in an odd idea that a publisher might not think will be a big AAA title in Unreal Engine 4. It takes a new idea that people want to exist and lets them execute on it. So it's a special corner of the market and if it works that's great, if not it's over in a month! It's a cool way to try out a new idea.
[a]list: Now, Heaven forbid you don't get funding, but what's the plan B for Pieces of Fun if this doesn't work?
Tom Hall: For context, we have a very small team that's put together a demo and the guy who produced Anachronox put together the video for the game. We're trying to keep it small to see if it works out. If not, we'll work on it the background - it will become a pet project. Adapt and improve, that's what I say!
[a]list: Any final thoughts on the project, Kickstarter or anything else?
Tom Hall: I just like the idea that it's coming at a time that people shouldn't have to care what platform things are on. Mac is just a PC as far as its a hardware spec. Even if the market is not as thunderous as the PC, it should be another SKU. There should come a time when another platform becomes prominent - like Valve wants to support Linux - it should be a the norm. It'd be great when a game comes out if it would come to every platform. I think many developers would applaud that.
[a]list: Tom, thanks.