Interview with Andrew Muir, Lead Programmer of Silverback Entertainment

RPGPlayer: First of all thank you for this interview, RPGPlayer was the first (and we hope not the only one...) to take care about your first project, so we cannot lose this opportunity.
Let's start from the beginning, precisely from you, Silverback Entertainment is a new and promising software house, what have pushed you to make this group and to begin the Harbinger project?

Silverback: Art director Steve Macomber and I had been friends for years while working at Running With Scissors. Like any job, we always had opinions on how management handled certain decisions and what we would do differently if we were in control. Once the opportunity to form our own development house came up, we jumped on it. We handpicked our team from the most talented hardcore gamers that we worked with, and started design work on Harbinger.

RPGPlayer: In the beginning Silverback was composed by six persons, now how many people compose the group? And what are their assignments?
Silverback: We have eight full-time developers, which breaks down into four programmers, three artists, and a level designer. On top of this, we have a clever programming intern that we kick around when we can, and Mark Samuels who we’ve contracted for Harbinger’s soundtrack.

RPGPlayer: As we have said in our game preview, Harbinger is a crpg focused on action, a real time action crpg, why you have choosed this way and not a more classic one, for example a turn based game?
Silverback: Mostly the decision was based on personal preference and what we enjoy playing. A secondary consideration was making our game enjoyable to more casual gamers and being a more action-oriented title made this a lot easier.

RPGPlayer: Frequently when you speak about action crpg, people think about a game where fighting is more important than a good plot or a good story; in Harbinger it seems that story and its development are the most accurate components, how you have joined these two apparently conflicting aspects?
Silverback: I don’t think these two have to necessarily be conflicting aspects. To draw a parallel with movies, the best action movies are still the ones with the most interesting plots. That said, the main steps we took to achieve a good balance between action and story was to include enough story to really satisfy the readers, but allow an early out for the players that want to get right back into the action. It’s the whole pyramid form you learn in journalism. In our dialog, we give the player the most important quest-related information first.
After you digest this, you can go merrily about your way blasting stuff and finding goodies. However, we also provide dialog responses that will lead you much, much deeper into the details of our game world. So in the end, you can basically read to your comfort level and enjoy the game at the depth of your choosing.

RPGPlayer: Harbinger is a sci-fi game free from every movie or TV brands, in your opinion, which are the advantages and disadvantages of this choice? Don't you think that this way could be too dangerous for a new software house like yours?
Silverback: Let’s start with the disadvantages so we can end on a positive note. The worst part of developing your own brand is finding a publisher. Publishers are very conservative and if you haven’t already had success in another field, they’re hesitant to sign on. Even now, there really isn’t a sort of grassroots way for independent developers to find their way on to store shelves. Unlike music where you can play your heart out in clubs until you build up a fan base and then get signed by a major label, we really don’t have anything like that for game developers. Probably the closest you’ll find is the rare occasions when first-person shooter companies snatch up a mod team.
There is just too much resistance from publishers. And I’m not just talking big-name publishers like EA who can afford to pass you over. I’m talking about publishers who haven’t had a top ten game in years. In our case it was really funny because we had an agent representing us. Poor Jeff would give our early builds to publishers for evaluation and we would get top marks for graphics, sound effects and pretty much everything else. So then we would fly out and meet with them (which is really expensive when you’re dirt poor) and after all the small talk they would level with us and tell us they were passing us over because it costs too much money to build brand recognition.
What’s most offensive is the preconceived notion that quality brands can’t be developed on the PC. As if, for some unknown mystical reason, only in television and movies can one create compelling fiction. Don’t get me wrong. I love television and movies as much as the next couch potato, but some of the greatest worlds I’ve ever enjoyed first came to life on the PC.
It’s not all doom and gloom; this story has a happy ending. In the end, we landed with DreamCatcher and life couldn’t be better. They saw what we were doing and where the game was going and they’ve been very supportive. I couldn’t be happier with our relationship. As far as advantages go, you can’t say enough good things about complete creative control. You can do whatever you want to your little universe and that’s a pretty cool feeling.

RPGPlayer: The game development is set only on Harbinger spaceship or there will be other backgrounds?
Silverback: The spaceship is the primary backdrop for the game, but there are off-ship adventures to be had. To be honest, while a lot of the game takes place on the ship, most of the story is focused on the planet currently being ravaged.

RPGPlayer: Now let's talk about game action. Is it possible to make a party, to play alone or with henchman?
Silverback: You only control one character at a time in Harbinger. When you play as the Gladiator, you can control other mechanized units, but only one at a time. This decision was made mostly because we wanted to be accessible to more players and party-based games inherently require a more complex interface. Also, there’s a thin line between party-based RPGs and strategy games. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; it just wasn’t what we felt comfortable developing when we started out.

RPGPlayer: How many races are there in the game, and what are their main properties?
Silverback: There are three races for the player to choose from: the human, the Gladiator and the Culibine. Each of these has their own unique strengths, weaknesses, weapons, gadgets, interfaces and character-specific story and quests. There are a lot of differences because one of our original design goals was to make sure that each character type fostered their own play style. Probably the most immediate difference the player will notice is the character’s gadget use. The human has a selection of mine-type items that are mostly deploy and forget. The Gladiator on the other hand has mechanized helpers that it can control for a more hands-on style of play. Finally, the Culibine has amplifiers that, while deployed, orbit her and provide all sorts of combat benefits. It’s hard to exactly describe how different each character feels from the others, but once you sit down and play the differences are apparent and immediate.

RPGPlayer: During fight is it possible to use in game pause (like Baldur's Gate), or everything is done in real time?
Silverback: You can pause the game at any time, but you cannot issue orders or shuffle your inventory while paused. We avoided this to really keep the pace of the game smooth instead of stop-and-go. One of the reasons it’s not really necessary is that since only one character is controlled at a time, there isn’t the need to arrange your party and issue orders. Another reason is that we streamlined the inventory interface quite a bit. Health packs and gadgets automatically equip when from your inventory when appropriate. Even when equipping weapons and armor you don’t have to worry about precise placement. You just drop the item anywhere in the equip region and it’s smart enough to equip in the proper place. This seems like a small thing, but as much as possible, we like to keep the player in the game world and not in the interfaces.

RPGPlayer: Until now I haven't talk about multiplayer. Is it available? And in what manners?
Silverback: Harbinger is a single-player only game. A lot of this stems from the fact that since it was developed by a small independent team we had to choose whether we wanted to focus all of our energies on either making a great single-player game or a great multiplayer game. Splitting our focus would only have resulted in a mediocre game that boasted both, so that wasn’t an option. There are so many factors involved in properly executing a multiplayer game. Matchmaking, cheat protection, extensive testing just to name a few. Bio Ware even stated in a recent Game Developer article that their multiplayer games required three to five times as many testers as their single-player games; with Neverwinter Nights requiring thirty to fifty testers for three to six months. As a small, independent team, there was simply no way for us to feasibly muster those kinds of numbers, so we went with our strengths. The decision was made to make Harbinger the best single-player game possible, and we haven’t looked back.

RPGPlayer: What can you say about technical aspects of the game? Will it use new graphics effects, such as pixel or vertex shading?
Silverback: We haven’t really explored pixel or vertex shading. The reasoning behind this was simply that we had to set priorities, and since we’ve gotten such an overwhelmingly positive response to the Harbinger’s look, our programming focus was shifted from the graphics to the game play.

RPGPlayer: What are the real minimum requirements for playing Harbinger? Can I use my beloved Athon Xp and Sis Xabre or I must buy an iper-Pentium IV with a ninja-Radeon 9700++?
Silverback: Harbinger’s system requirements are relatively modest. You do need an accelerator, but I’m playing on a PIII 500 with a Voodoo3 card and 128 megs of RAM without any noticeable chugginess. The game obviously looks better on higher-end cards, but the gameplay is not adversely affected on the lower-end systems.

RPGPlayer: Actually If I'm not wrong, Silverback has only a publisher for the USA, what can you say about European and Italian game publishing?
Silverback: DreamCatcher Interactive will be handling our European and Italian publishing.

RPGPlayer: Can we expect a demo? When?
Silverback: This is something we need to discuss with DreamCatcher, but tentatively, we’re planning to release a demo after the game has been thoroughly tested and sent of to production.

Thank you very very much for your time and for the news about your game, what ca we say now? Mmmmhh... good work guys, i hope to quickly see your game in shops.

RPGPlayer Staff

Sito ufficiale: Harbinger
Sito ufficiale 2: Dreamcatcher Harbinger
Sviluppatore: Silverback Entertainment
Publisher: DreamCatcher Interactive
Distributore: Leader
Genere: RPG Action
Data di uscita: 20 Giugno 2003
Anteprima - Intervista - Interview (ENG) - Screenshots 1 - Screenshots 2 - First Look - Screenshots 3