Interview: Tom from BattleMaster

In addition to writing a post-mortem, I was also able to secure an interview with Tom, the developer of BattleMaster. This is what he had to say:

Tell us a little bit about BattleMaster.

Well, I tend to want to create games in niches where I don’t see anything already. I don’t feel like making just another FPS or RTS or whatever, I’ve always wanted to make the stuff that nobody else had made.

So in the browser-games environment, you have a lot of realm-building games, and you have the old MUD and freeform roleplaying area. But very little that mixes and merges both. I had a freeform e-mail game about 10 years ago, and BattleMaster started out as a strategy extension. Then I found there’s nothing like it on the market, where you have a realm-building game but it’s not one player per realm, but you have internal politics, and characters with enough depth and history to allow roleplaying.

Ever since, I’ve been walking the fine line between RPG and strategy game.

You mentioned in your article that battlemaster has been under development for 8 years – were you ever tempted to give up? What kept you motivated to work on BattleMaster?

Yeah, there have been times. Several times in those 8 years I’ve just taken a step back and not done anything on the game for a month or two. The great thing about BattleMaster is that it runs anyways. Even when there are bad bugs in the game, players will roleplay their way around them, and exploiting bugs is generally frowned upon. I can count on one hand how many times in those 8 years the game was stopped with no turns running, and except for twice it was always something like “moving server to a new hosting center” or “replacing server with a new one”.

What’s kept me motivated has always been the players. There are easily two dozen people playing BattleMaster who are more devoted to and fanatical about it than I am. If you can literally feel how much the game means to some people, that gives you the boost you need to get through those motivational downs.

There’s been one case I know about where a father kept contact with his sons through the game after an ugly divorce. He wrote to me a year or so afterwards and told me how in his view the game had saved what remains of his family. You don’t forget mails like that.

Are you the only developer for Battlemaster, or have you ever hired help?

I’ve hired help many times, and there are half a dozen or so names of additional coders right on the start page. Some of these people have helped for years, some only for a few months, but I couldn’t have done it without them.

How much did/are you paying for battlemaster?

Absolutely no idea. The most valuable commodity is probably time. There’s a couple associated costs that I could or could not attribute to the game, such as software I bought that I use mostly for coding, etc. The highest single expenses have probably gone to hardware (the game runs on a dedicated server I bought specifically for it) – but I don’t really keep a record. Thanks to my work history (I worked for a dot-com company when I started BattleMaster, I work for an ISP now) hosting has never been a problem.

You mentioned in your post-mortem that the players play a big part in helping you decide what features to build into BattleMaster – have there ever been any features they wanted but you didn’t, or vice versa? How did you respond?

Absolutely. There’s always stuff that people want that doesn’t fit into the game. It might be a good idea, just not for this particular game, or it might be something that on second thought really isn’t all that good. When an idea is posted to the discussion list, I usually follow the exchange between the players for a short while before I chime in. There are, however, a couple “over my dead body” requests, and the BattleMaster Wiki contains a “frequently asked, frequently rejected” page.

What plans do you have for battlemaster, going into the future?

Oh, we do have a couple of very exciting changes coming up, with a big one (a new classes system) that just went live, and another big one (new layout with clean xhtml instead of the current frame-based one) in the pipeline, as well as half a dozen or so further down the road. There’s also one big secret project that I’ve recently completed the prototype for that will be included whenever it’s done, but right now I can’t tell what it is.

Do you have anything to say to new browsergame developers?

I’d like to pass on what I consider the most valuable hint I’ve ever read regarding software development:
“Build one to throw away (you will anyway).”

In other places and contexts, that’s phrased as “don’t be afraid of failures” or “there are no errors, only feedback”. What it all means is that your first game will suck. Period. No if’s or but’s. I know my first game sucked. In fact, I’ve got a whole history of failures.

So when you write your first game, and you think that it’s certain to be the next big thing, then you’re creating your own disappointment. Let me repeat that: Your first game will suck. And no, there’s no way to skip it and start with the second. You have to make the sucking one, and maybe two or three of those, before you get something good.

If you want to check out BattleMaster, you can visit http://battlemaster.org/.

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Luke is the primary editor of Building Browsergames, and has written a large portion of the articles that you read here. He generally has no idea what to say when asked to write about himself in the third person.

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Monday, February 9th, 2009 interview
  • jannesiera

    Good interview. Liked the previous articles to btw.

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