Guido Henkel Interview

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We are very pleased to bring you an interview with the author, gaming pioneer, and all around awesome guy, Guido Henkel. We are very honored that he has taken the time to answer some questions for us and we hope you enjoy it!

For the readers that don’t know who you are, can you please introduce yourself and tell us exactly what you do.

Can you talk a little bit about some of the gaming projects you have worked on in the past? Most notably Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny and Neverwinter Nights.

I’ve started writing computer games on the Apple II in the very early 80s and had my first game published in 1983 or so. I was a huge fan of text adventure games in those days and the first few years I focused on that genre. However, I was attracted by role-playing games a lot and eventually let role-playing influences flow into these text adventure games. “Drachen von Laas,” for example, a game that was published in Germany only, already had a full blown phased combat system, even though the game itself was still a text adventure game.

Eventually I made the switch to full role-playing games (RPG) and “Spirit of Adventure” was the first hard core RPG I wrote, together with my friend and business partner Hans-Jürgen Brändle, at the time. The success of that game opened the door for us to obtain the license for “Das Schwarze Auge,” a famous German pen&paper role-playing game. We began developing games in that universe, which were subsequently released as the “Realms of Arkania” trilogy.

After the third game in the series I left Attic Entertainment Software, the company that I had co-founded, and moved to the US where I worked for Interplay Productions for a while. During my tenure there I worked on “Fallout II,” and “Planescape: Torment”, and also helped start up the “Neverwinter Nights” project, among others.

All in all, I’ve been in the games industry for just about 30 years now, pretty much since its infancy, really, when computer games were still sold in Zip-lock bags.

What role did you play in the development of these particular titles? 

“Blade of Destiny” was developed by a very small team. Attic was still pretty much a start-up company at that time. As a result everyone had to multi-task as much as possible, and we tapped into everyone’s full abilities. In my case that meant that I was working on the game as a designer, a programmer, and a producer, and later on also as the publicist and business developer when we began to reach out, looking for partners to release the game internationally. I was wearing every hat imaginable on that project — as well as all the other “Realms of Arkania” games. It was my job at Attic, in a sense, to be the Jack-of-all-Trades.

As for “Neverwinter Nights,” I was Interplay’s internal producer for the game during its start-up phase. As such I was part of various brainstorming sessions where the foundation for the game was laid, and where technical questions and obstacles were tackled. Apart from the look of the game and the technical design of the block-based level design of the game, we did research on the game system itself, as the AD&D 3.0 rule set was just about to be released, and we wanted to see if we should or should not use it for “Neverwinter Nights.”

I was working hand in hand with Trent Oster on this, who was the producer for the game at Bioware. He was really the driving force behind the project while I was there only to lend my experience to the discussions. I left Interplay a few months after “Neverwinter Nights” really went into development, so my contributions to the game happened really just at the beginning.

You shifted your focus to mobile games later in your career. Can you tell us what prompted this?

I did not like the way the games industry had evolved. After a number of disappointments and cancelled projects, I realized that the industry had lost its heart and had become really nothing more than a cash cow for the stockholders of the large publishers. I’ve always made games because I love games, and as such we were at odds, and I left the industry.

At around the same time the first cell phones arrived on the scene that were capable of actually playing games. Really simple games that were highly reminiscent of the old 8-bit games I started with many years earlier. It was like a trip back in time, and it instantly rekindled my love for these kinds of games; the down-to-the-wire kind of game development in assembly language with hand-optimized instructions. So I began playing around with some mobile stuff and began selling small cell phone games I had developed.

It was fascinating, because it truly conjured up the magic of the early days of computer games development once again. We had the same kinds of limitations, the same kinds of games, the same kinds of hardware capabilities… it was truly magical for a while.

What are some of the mobile titles you have helped develop?

I’ve written a number of games during that period, such as “Night Shift,” “Black Jack Pro,” “Video Poker Pro,” and others. I also worked with other developers, publishing and porting their games to the American market and the cell phones and operating systems that were available here, such as “FlipIt!,” “SAS: Commando,” “Cleopatra” and “Bobby Carrot.” I was also doing a lot of contract work during that period for other publishers, where I would work on games like “Jamdat Bowling,” “FIFA Soccer,” “Moorhuhn,” and a whole long list more. Especially in the early years, a lot of publishers were seeking out my expertise in the field because I had all that background in 8-bit games that many other developers did not have.

But the introduction of the iPhone completely changed the mobile landscape in its entirety, and made it virtually impossible to make money in the segment. So I pulled up my stakes and left the mobile space.

In March you announced that you had been working on a new title called Deathfire…

What can you tell us about this upcoming role-playing game?

“Deathfire” is a hardcore role-playing game that is heavily influenced by games of, what I call, the Golden Era of computer role-playing games. Using modern day technology for the visual presentation, under the hood we’re building a game that is every bit as detailed and intricate as the “Realms of Arkania” games used to be, which by many are still considered to be the most hardcore and faithful computer role-playing games ever published.

I feel that over the past 15 years or more, computer role-playing games have become a washed up cartoon of themselves for the most part. Under the dictate of publishers, most games in the genre have been turned into easily digestible mainstream products with glorious graphics but very little gameplay and a bare minimum of actual role-playing mechanics. It suited the publishers well, because these games appealed to wider audiences and made more money, but for people who really loved and enjoyed classic single-player role-playing games, there was not much to play in the market.

Some time ago I began feeling the urge again to create a new game and instantly I knew it would have to be a role-playing game, and drawing on the core of my own expertise, I decided to make it a hardcore game that truly harkens back to those parts of my work that I’ve enjoyed the most.

Therefore, “Deathfire” will be aimed straight at the players who want an experience that goes beyond the glamor of high end graphics. We have a very intricate game system running under the hood that is nearly as complex as that of “Realms of Arkania.” But we’re not simply trying to rehash the old stuff. I’ve tailored the game system more towards the game we’re trying to build and have added a number of new features as well. The biggest departure from the old games will be the interaction between characters. In “Deathfire,” the members of your party will talk to each other and interact with each other, depending on their character traits. They will have conversations, insult each other, possibly even get at each others’ throats, depending on the situation. We currently have 34 character traits in the game, aside from the base attributes, all of which will be used to define the personalities of all player and non-player characters. With the help of these traits we will create a gaming experience that is as rich on a character level, as it is on a story and world level.

In addition to that we’re also bringing back true turn-based combat to the genre. The industry has largely abandoned turn-based combat in the last decade in favor for more action-oriented real time combat. However, we felt that in order to create a true role-playing experience that has the depth and flexibility, as well as the strategic elements, we were looking for, turn-based combat was the only feasible way to go.

For the past few months have also been documenting our progress in the form of a Developer Diary on my blog (http://guidohenkel.com/category/deathfire/), where I regularly post on various aspects of the game. That way people who are interested in the game can take a look and learn more about it, while it also gives me the chance to pull the blanket back and really show people what the process of making such a game looks like. It is not that one day we wake up and have all the answers, and a complete game ready-made. It is a highly iterative process where one decision builds upon another, and I think this process is very exciting to watch, especially for someone who is not familiar with it.

Deathfire

Do you have a target release date?

We are loosely planning to release “Deathfire” some time in 2014, but we’re not really in any kind of hurry at this time. Among other things, the beauty of being a completely independent developer and publisher is that it gives us the luxury to control our own pace as well as the content of the game and every little facet of it. For us it is more important to make the game we want to make as opposed to rushing it to completion for no apparent reason.

You’ve been involved in the gaming industry for nearly 30 years and you show no signs of slowing down.

What drives you to keep going? What is your primary motivation?

It’s the creative fountain in me, I suppose. I’ve often thought about that and realized a long time ago that I could never retire, in the traditional sense in that I would stop working altogether. I think for creative people it is just not possible. My mind is constantly busy, thinking up stuff and if I’d ever retire, it would only be until I had the next bee in my bonnet and would start it up as some sort of endeavor. It’s something I cannot turn off, or tune out, for that matter. I have too many interests and ideas. I am constantly striving to learn new things, expand my horizon and there are too many things that I’m getting excited about and that I want to try out. It is the reason also, why I have been active in so many different disciplines during my career.

Lets shift gears a bit and talk about some of your other work…

Which brings us to the subject of some of your other works… 

For the past few years you have put a heavy focus on your writing. Tell us what promoted you to finally follow this passion?

As I mentioned earlier, the mobile games market imploded a couple of years ago and for me that was the sign to look for something new to do. I had wanted to write books for the better part of 20 years, but never had the guts to actually do it. I always kept telling myself that I had no time, but it was really that I just didn’t have the courage to sit down and truly do it in earnest.

Putting mobile games on the back burner in late 2007, I decided to finally give it an honest shot. I was worried that I may not have the stamina to see through an entire novel, so I looked for something a little more manageable, because at that stage I really just wanted to see if I could do it at all, creative writing, I mean, and create something that people might actually enjoy reading. As a result I decided to opt for the dime novel format I grew up with as a kid, a pulp fiction kind of literature that is periodical and episodic but not too long in itself.

Tell us about some of your work. Most notably  the Jason Dark: Ghost Hunter series.

So that was the genesis of the Jason Dark: Ghost Hunter series?

Yes, it was. In the vein of these dime novels, I needed some kind of a serializable set up, and an occult detective just seemed a cool choice. Since I’m also a sucker for Victorian England, the decision was an easy one for me to create a series in that environment. In my mind, it was an amalgamation of Sherlock Holmes mysteries and the classic horror movies where atmosphere was more important than jump scares or blood.

So, I started writing “Demon’s Night,” and had so much fun doing it that I just continued writing more and more of these supernatural mysteries. I had a blast with each volume, because each story allowed my to tackle a new aspect of the genre, a new monster or supernatural encounter. I also loved the way I could slowly flesh out the world and the characters, adding a bit to it with each new volume to give them depth and dimension.

Because each story is complete and standing on its own, I could really dive into the story’s particular subject matter as I wrote it. I researched the history of that particular point in time the story played in — all the volumes are chronological, which allowed me to create an overall timeline — and I researched people and events of the time. Oftentimes I then used those elements as cornerstones for the story itself and built my own plot around that, creating kind of an alternate history. Lots of fun…

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You have been noted for having a significant impact on the growth of eReaders, such as the Amazon Kindle and Nook.

Coming from a technical background as a programmer, naturally, eBook readers fascinated me from the get go, and I really wanted to see them succeed in the market. Therefore, just as I did in the mobile space, I was working on the bleeding edge of that technology, making my books available on all available platforms from day one, while also putting less emphasis on print editions. That, I hope, helped raise the awareness for digital devices, like the Kindle, which was really just emerging at that time.

Can you tell us a what role you played in helping bring these to the mainstream?

A short time into my eBook publishing efforts, I realized that many authors had serious problems getting their manuscripts onto the platforms because of the technological barrier. I was honestly worried that the eBook market would be hopelessly swamped by mediocre and broken eBooks, turning readers off, as they did not want to deal with books that are virtually unreadable because of formatting issues. So I wrote a nine-part tutorial for my blog in which I explained the process step by step.

It quickly became the de facto standard for the industry and from what I’ve gathered it has empowered many thousands of independent authors to turn their manuscripts into professional-grade eBooks.

When it turned out that that was still too technical for many authors, I began offer this kind of formatting/conversion as a service to authors and publishers. As a result I have formatted over 500 eBooks from the smallest independent authors to New York Times bestsellers, helping to get them all out into the digital market.

It has been a pleasure having you with us today. Do you have an final thoughts or comments for our readers?

I have been incredibly blessed that I’ve had the opportunity to work in the entertainment industry my entire life, and not a day goes by where I’m not thankful for it. It has been made possible by the people who play my games, who read my books, listen to my music or enjoy my other work. With “Deathfire,” I am currently on the ride of my life, enjoying it tremendously, and it is only possible because of all the people and fans who have shown me their support in their past, and for that I would like to send a heartfelt “Thank you” your way. You rock!


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