Interview: A Sharp's David Dunham on Six Ages

The cult hit that inspired The Banner Saga and Fallen London is finally getting a sequel. We talk to David Dunham about Six Ages, the successor to King of Dragon Pass...

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Interview: A Sharp's David Dunham on Six Ages

One of the most influential games in the history of RPGs is also one of the most obscure. We recently had the chance to talk to David Dunham, who in the late 1990s got the idea for a kind of game that had never been made before. “The distant origin of the King of Dragon Pass game was actually a merger between two paper and dice games. The first was RuneQuest, which was the game set in the fantasy world of Glorantha. And the second game was Pendragon, which had the feature that you would play a multi-generational game, 75 years before and during the time of King Arthur. I thought it would be cool to do a long-term game set in the fantasy world of Glorantha. 

“The first cut at it was a paper and dice campaign, that I ran, and eventually I was able to do a computer game, that would strongly support a story focus. I hadn’t really seen that in games up to that point.” 

With its fresh, original take on what a computer role-playing game could be, King of Dragon Pass was able to address many little frustrations prevalent in the PC games of the late 20th century. “‘Why do I have to take notes in a game, when I’m running it on a computer?’ Which is how the saga system came about for King of Dragon Pass, and we’ve kept that for Six Ages. That the game tracks the things you do. Because why would it not? It’s a computer.”

Another annoyance addressed by the original was the rampant improper use of olde-Englishy words like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. “I do run across that occasionally in games, and I always cringe. So we’re using straightforward language here. It sometimes feels odd that it’s not going to be quite ‘period’, if you will. But it can’t really be, because we’re not people living in a world with gods and using bronze tools, so we want to make it what normal people would be able to read, and understand.”  

King of Dragon Pass was well-received, and is remembered fondly – so why did it take so long for David to get started on a sequel? Part of the reason is because when it launched back in 1999, the indie market as we know it pretty much didn’t exist. “You had to buy shelf space in the United States. We didn’t have the resources to do that, and the game did not sell a large number of copies. Just as an aside, in countries like Finland, where you do not have to buy shelf space, it did pretty well. I think it hit Top Ten in Finland. Unfortunately, Finland’s not a very large country. So being Top Ten did not help us a great deal. 

“So there wasn’t the immediate push: ‘Oh, we gotta do a sequel now!’ And there is also the issue that I didn’t really know what the sequel could be. I didn’t want to do just the same game exactly. Again. It took a while to suddenly realise about three years ago what that sequel could be.”

David was reluctant to reveal specifics about the plot, but he assured us that fans can expect more of the same. “In the broader sense we wanted to revisit Glorantha, because that has continued to be developed over the years. King of Dragon Pass was unique because it’s a combination of story telling and strategy elements, so we want to do that again. It had really great art, we certainly want to do that again. A lot of people liked the sound, so we’re working with the same musician on Six Ages. He’s done a great job, we think. And we’ll eventually be sharing that too. 

“Basically, it’s the same thing, only better. And hopefully, a little bit more approachable. King of Dragon Pass was a very difficult game. And we certainly don’t want to be dumbing it down, for our new game. But we’d like a few more people to be able to complete it.” 

A key returning feature is a plethora of interesting decisions, all of them with consequences that are largely opaque. “You’re making story choices, and usually none of them are right or wrong, per se. But they all have some kind of impact on the clan you’re running. And so the story can inform the future by the economic model. If you give away cows to a neighbouring clan, they will be friendlier in the future. They may not raid you as much. They may come to your assistance. They may pay you back when you need it. You don’t see that right away. But you’re adjusting the attitudes of your neighbouring clans. And because the game does take place over a generation, you’ll have to deal with issues years in the future.” 

Six Ages will feature an upgraded version of the scripting language used to write King of Dragon Pass, along with some other timely enhancements. “When we first did the game we targeted screens that were 640 by 480 pixels. And our art was done for that size, which made sense in 1997. It made a lot less sense moving into the future. So we’re definitely going to take into account that screen sizes vary these days. And have a more scalable user interface. 

“On the engine side, there’s just a lot more coding with strings instead of hard-coded values. It worked well when we were shipping one game, but it did not help when we tried to even add new scenes to King of Dragon Pass. Clearly, I want to have updates to the game that would add content, and I’ve tried to architect in a way that that’s far easier.”

Easy access to online stores has proved a double-edged sword for today’s indies, as they struggle to stay afloat amid a glut of content. But one way indies can stand out is by looking different, which David has certainly employed with his fine art approach. “Which is pretty much what we did with King of Dragon Pass, having actual physical watercolours and inks back then. So we didn’t have to worry about polygon count or anything like that. Our goal was to have basically art you could put on the wall. And I was recently showing Six Ages to a woman who runs an art gallery. She’s not a gamer, but she said something like: ‘This is like fine art!’ And that was exactly what I was going for. So it was good to hear.”

When it came to refining his game formula, David drew some inspiration from what the Fallen London games did well; one thing he discovered was that he could afford to lower the overall complexity for a similar narrative result. “In our original game, I wanted to make sure that you had a huge amount of re-playability. So every decision point, the story choices tried to give you five options that were basically all usable. And had distinguishable outcomes. That’s probably more than you actually need. Meaningful choices, I want to have more than A or B. But our target goal there has dropped to something like: ‘Well, maybe we can get by with four choices, for a typical scene.’ And that actually seems to work fairly well. I’m not noticing, when I play, that ‘I wish I had more choices!’” 

Another key returning feature is the way your team of trusted lieutenants behaves. “Your advisors not only gave you advice on the economic issues at hand, or how to stay true to your ancestors, but they had their own agenda sometimes. And they have their own personalities. And that’s something that we’ve tried to carry forward in Six Ages, as strongly as we could. You’ll see personalities evolve as you keep seeing the same advisors over the years.” 

And the name, Six Ages – what does it actually mean? “Partly I was hoping that a new game would have it’s own sequels. And there may not be necessarily six games in a series, but if the first game turns out to be successful, I’d like to do additional games. That are in the same family. So it was a vague hint at that.” 

One question on the tips of the tongues of many a King of Dragon Pass fan: will we be seeing more of the Durulz, the infamous race of humanoid ducks? “That’s one of those things that would be too much of a reveal, I’m afraid. It’s definitely Glorantha, you’ll find some elements will definitely be recognisable.” David pointed out that there’s a 700-page source-book on the world of Glorantha, a vast body of lore that King of Dragon Pass only touched upon. He was able to confirm that Six Ages will be delving into different, previously unexplored aspects of the setting. “I think that’s safe enough to say. Yes. But other than that, you’ll have to find out! [laughs]”

Six Ages is due to launch in the near future, possibly before the end of 2017. For more details, visit SixAges.com 

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