Interview : Demigod

A lot of games out there are excellent. The problem lies when some of them get overlooked for reasons beyond their control or through horrific consumer tastes! I’m shining the spotlight on some overlook gems starting with Demigod. I chatted with Bert Bingham (Associate Producer on Demigod), now of Wargaming, about the project from its inception to its troubled launch and beyond.

I was hesitant to fire off a random email to an important man about a game that’s 4 years old, especially about a game that I didn’t know who owned it, but Bert quickly put my mind to rest, “[While] we are rolling heavy with Wargaming now, [we] have been encouraged to preserve much of our GPG [Gas Powered Games] legacy. What kind of questions did you have in mind?” I grinned as I opened my coffee stained notebook, turned to the “Questions about Demigod” section and wondered if Bert knew what he’d got himself into…

A Thing of Beauty: Supreme Commander to Queen of Thorns

CBG: What was the aim for Demigod? Did you guys see a gap in the MOBA market and try to exploit it? Or did you see Demigod trying to move MOBAs forward away from the DOTA model?

Bingham: Your question points to something of a hindsight fallacy. At the time we started developing Demigod, the term MOBA didn’t even exist. There was really just Defense of the Ancients, Aeons of Strife, and perhaps Sacrifice before that to draw inspiration from. The primary inspiration was that Defense of the Ancients was just a grassroots mod movement behind Warcraft 3 with no retail game release, and the initial team assigned to research it was playing DoTA every day at lunch.

We were certain that our Supreme Commander engine (aka MOHO) could handle a significantly larger number of very high detail units than Warcraft 3, with breathtaking 3 dimensional maps, and that the combination of RTS from Supcom, and action RPG from Dungeon Siege could be a very compelling combination. When originally shopped around to publishers, the game was actually called “Dungeon Siege Commander”. The idea of the player avatars being Demigods came later when some of the first concepts made it clear that having the players tower over the battlefields was really sexy.

CBG: That’s a good point – I never considered the time that you guys would have started the project in relation to the ‘MOBA’ movement. There’s a lot I like about the game, but at the risk of putting words in your mouth – what did you guys see as the game’s strengths? Were there any elements that you feel were overlooked by the press, or even the players?

Bingham: As to the strengths, The Citadel, which we viewed as a sort of litmus test of selflessness, still has a lot of unexplored potential in other MOBAs. Demigods from our own mythologies have a lot of acts of self-sacrifice: Purusha, the Aztecs, Odin, even Jesus, and I think we tapped that a bit by giving players a method to sacrifice personal progression for the team, so that even an awful player could feel they were contributing in a meaningful way. If we had more time, the unlocks would have all been less “+15% this”, and more “Add a trebuchet to your keeps”.

We also definitely saw the quality of presentation as principal, every texture, model, and animation was premium and crafted at great cost by very talented artists, but we really felt the game deserved to be viewed as a work of art. It is arguably the most beautiful game we ever created, and that is something I am still proud of.

There was a lot of time spent getting the Demigod AI to present a challenge to a new player who wasn’t interested, or was intimidated by multiplayer games. That alone could have reaped a huge potential audience if we had continued to expand the game onto multiple platforms like Steam, Origin, etc.

Hindsight: Steam, Impulse and a Troubled Launch

CBG: Now this is an area I’ve wanted to ask you about; you talk about the potential audience you could have had on Steam (Demigod was originally released via Impulse) Was that a decision that was taken over your heads? Was Steam ever an option at launch? Or were you guys all committed to making Impulse a successful alternative to Steam?

Bingham: Once Stardock bought publishing rights, we were directed to develop Demigod as a premium exclusive title to draw users and attention to Impulse. That was around the same time that Steam really started gaining momentum and catching on as “the” PC gaming platform. It certainly would have been great to launch on multiple platforms, but that would have defeated the platform exclusivity that Stardock was searching for with Demigod.

CBG: Outside of these external pressures on the project; where do you guys think you fell down with Demigod? Was there stuff in there that just didn’t work?

Bingham: Hindsight only points to a few failings:

1.       The matchmaking server gave us a bad reputation literally before we were supposed to launch. Gamestop released the game several days earlier than they agreed to, so between the servers being only prepared for beta loads and the rampant piracy on our intentionally DRM-light game, numbers spiked into the hundreds of thousands of users, the launch was catastrophic, and it took a few weeks to get things sorted out. By that time most reviewers and players had made their final judgment, so there was no second chance, and unfortunately very few people were even mentioning the gameplay.

2.       There was a single player component, which was intended to be a training gauntlet for multiplayer by facing a variety of AI teams. It turned out to be just barely compelling enough that many players purchased the game only to play single player and skirmishes against bots. We never really intended bot skirmishes to be the primary end-game for anyone, so between messaging and expectations, I think we set ourselves up for failure there.

3.       The expense of making each Demigod and Map were immense because of all the design and art time required. We did end up making a couple more Demigods after release (Oculus and the Demon Assassin), and had plans for many more, but with lukewarm attention from players, the cost could not be supported through traditional retail purchasing only. There wasn’t a monetization model to support ongoing DLC, and what we did release was given away free. Riot proved that the fledgling F2P model was precisely right to support ongoing development of maps and heroes, and Wargaming and a few other new companies have since refined that model quite extensively and with great results.

CBG: Your first point is probably my biggest takeaway from Demigod’s launch as well – how many copies did you guys sell in the end? (I own two copies having bought Demigod recently on Steam)

Bingham: I haven’t seen an update on our sales of Demigod in quite a while, so I am going to have to ballpark it at trending to ½ Million copies and perhaps a little beyond that now.

The Future: What Could Have Been, and What Might Yet Be

CBG: You mentioned briefly that you had plans for the future of Demigod (Citadel changes, additional Demigods etc) – but what other sorts of things did you guys have planned? Was there anything imminent that had to be shut down after launch?

Bingham: I wouldn’t say any of our future Demigod plans were “imminent”, although we would have loved to continue to develop new content, and introduce new game modes as the fanbase continued to mature, which all would have been a reality with sufficient ongoing revenue.

CBG: You mentioned at the start that of this conversation that you guys are encouraged to preserve your GPG legacy but, with regards to Demigod, what happens now? Are there any plans to return to the IP, or perhaps take a second shot at a game in a similar mould using the lessons from first time around? And perhaps, more importantly, where is the IP?

Bingham: That’s a good question, and it’s really not one I can answer at this point. Anything is possible!

CBG: Do you have any final comments about Demigod from a personal perspective? I can tell from talking to you that you remain extremely proud of the project.

Bingham: You are right to observe that I remain immensely proud of what we did with Demigod on a very tight budget. With the cyclical nature of game development, I am sure that even if it isn’t us, someone in the future will eventually reach for that brass ring of extremely high production value in a cohesive world that will make things like e-sports for MOBAs fun and entertaining for a wider audience than simply players of the game. I have seen a number of emails and posts mentioning the unique appeal of Demigod for non-gamer observers. I cannot help but predict that high production values will eventually bridge the gap to bring virtual battlefields into the family viewing rooms of tomorrow.

Bonus Question

CBG: Who’s your favourite Demigod?

Bingham: Regulus, no doubt.

CBG:…..

A huge thank you to Bert for taking the time out to speak to me across a couple of weeks!