Q&A: Neil Rennison, Tin Man Games
With all the movie talk about the Alien prequel, a Blade Runner sequel and the Total Recall remake, it’s easy to forget that a new movie based on the UK’s favourite future crime fighter opens in August.
Written by Alex Garland (Sunshine, 28 Days Later, Halo) and starring Karl Urban (Two Towers, Star Trek, Doom), there’s every hope that Dredd could open the way for more of 2000AD’s characters to head to the big screen. What is a tad strange in this IP-obsessed age, is that there appears to be no game lined up to capitalise on the obvious excitement.
Oh, but there is… Well, kinda.
While Judge Dredd – Countdown: Sector 106 isn’t actually based on the new movie beyond featuring the long-established characters, the fact that it will arrive in the same season as Dredd’s big screen re-introduction makes the timing significant, not least for Australia’s Tin Man Games, who have been quietly making a name for themselves as masters of the 21st Century equivalent of the choose-your-own-adventure gamebook. Indeed, so renowned have Tin Man become, that as well as eight successful iOS games (a couple of which have migrated to Android) and the distinction of adding to 2000AD’s gaming legacy, it was recently awarded the rights to extend the venerable Fighting Fantasy archive. To anyone of a certain age who remembers places such as the Seltsian Void and the Shamutanti Hills, that is a very big deal.
After searching the kitchen and finding nothing of importance, Tin Man’s founder and Creative Director Neil Rennison chose to take a -4 stamina hit by answering a few questions about what players can expect from the Judge Dredd game and whether there might be any further sci-fi episodes beyond Infinite Universe, the most recent addition to Tin Man’s Gamebook Adventure series.
PSF: My understanding is that Rebellion are very “in-house” about their 2000AD properties. How did you come to develop a Judge Dredd game?
Neil Rennison: I joined forces with one of the writers of the Judge Dredd role-playing game and we pitched the idea to them. I gave them a demonstration of Gamebook Adventures on the iPad and they really liked what they saw, so the discussions started from there!
PSF: How involved are Rebellion in the development process?
Neil Rennison: They’ve been really great so far and have approved pretty much everything we’ve sent through so far. It definitely helps that I have a key writer and artist that have dealt with Judge Dredd licenses before so they pretty much get the detail right from the off.
PSF: Does the game have any bearing on the movie coming out in August?
Neil Rennison: No. We’re not allowed to go near that. Our gamebook is more in tune with the comic.
PSF: Just want to be clear; it is a gamebook-style game, right?
Neil Rennison: Yes. So you pick your path through the story and get to roll dice when encountering perps – these could be in the form of shootouts, melee combats or other forms of skill check. Think of it like a solo role-playing game set in Mega-City One where you get to be Judge Dredd!
PSF: Can we expect original art and story, or is the game based on a classic Dredd tale?
Neil Rennison: Completely original! There are a few characters in the background though that will be recognisable to long-term Judge Dredd readers.
PSF: Action fans might be a bit snooty over something as lo-fi as a Fighting Fantasy-style adventure, but what do you think you can give to the characters and bring to the vast setting of Mega-City One that might not be feasible in a more technically ambitious PC or video game?
Neil Rennison: We’re bridging that gap between the written narrative and a video game so we’re hoping in that way it will appeal to broad range of people. The great thing about gamebooks is that the reader directs the narrative as opposed to the passive experience of reading a linear comic story. The other great thing is that we can create interactive scenarios that would be expensive to perhaps simulate in a video game environment. At one point in the story for example there are 5000 people to arrest in one go! It would take a pretty major 3D games engine to cope with that.
One of the ways we have tried to spruce up the action are in the shootouts. Wheras in a FF style adventure battles are turn based rolls, we’ve made ranged combat a decision within the narrative. Do you try and take down all 3 perps in one go? Or maybe aim just for the leader? Another alternative could be taking cover behind a concrete post. These decisions, unique to each encounter, will determine how hard or how easy a roll is. Added to the fact that you can increase or decrease stats based on decisions you make, add an extra dimension too to these decisions.
PSF: Would you say Judge Dredd your most ambitious game to date?
Neil Rennison: Yes I’d say so. Our eigth gamebook, Infinite Universe was pretty complex but I think Dredd takes the biscuit because we’ve added this new shootout functionality in the narrative as well as obviously building a story within a licensed setting. Our user-interface is probably the most beautiful looking we’ve done yet too!
PSF: What’s the biggest challenge in creating a game around such an iconic character?
Neil Rennison: In our fantasy gamebooks, you’re a nobody. That means you can start off with low stats and slowly, during the story, these stats can increase giving the reader/player a sense of accomplishment, especially when they use these advanced abilities later on to defeat difficult bad guys. With Dredd though he’s already the best there is! This caused us a bit of a headache and for that reason you don’t create a character and roll stats like our previous books. One of the ways we got around it was by giving the reader limited options in the Sector House at the beginning so that those decisions increase some of Dredd’s stats or give him advantages later on. You can’t get all of those advantages so must choose wisely. We also have an Authority stat that can be affected by decisions and dictates Dredd’s perception by the inhabitants of Sector 106. If he kills somebody in cold blood then his Authority lowers. At key points, Dredd will need to make an Authority roll to try and get control of a situation – if his Authority is too low then the perps are going to disrepect him and try and do the opposite.
PSF: Are there any innovations we can expect from the game – facets of gameplay that we’ve not seen before in this type of virtual page-turning adventure?
Neil Rennison: As well as the stuff I’ve already outlined, we’re also giving the reader the ability to collect “perps”. Whenever one is arrested or killed, a database about that perp opens up complete with background info and mugshot. We’re hoping people will want to collect the whole lot and add another dimension to the gamebook which runs alongside or normal achievements and image gallery unlocks.
PSF: Is it more difficult to create a sc-fi FF-style gamebook compared to one based on a fantasy world?
Neil Rennison: It’s no more difficult. The only real headache is dealing with ranged combat as sci-fi or futurism generally involves guns, but we have found ways to deal with the immediacy of those forms of combat.
PSF: The sci-fi FF books of the ’80s (Starship Traveller, Space Assassin) were real stand-out books in the FF series (admittedly because they were sci-fi) what are your thoughts on them?
Neil Rennison: Starship Traveller was HARD!! I never actually played Space Asassin although I’ve heard good things about it. Maybe I’ll be getting to read it some time in the future for research purposes?
PSF: You guys are now deeply involved in the future of Fighting Fantasy having signed up with the mighty founders of the adventure gamebooks. Is sci-fi a part of that future?
Neil Rennison: Of course – assuming we do a good enough job on our first few releases and we get to continue!
PSF: What do you say to those who argue gamebooks are a part of gaming’s past and should probably remain there?
Neil Rennison: Gamebooks existed because video games didn’t. It was the earliest form of interactive gaming and at the time nothing could beat it. Since then we’ve seen the video gaming medium evolve to a point where gaming is can provide many visceral experiences. While this certainly is fantastic there is a sense that people are wanting to head back to simpler forms of gaming too, which explains why Double Fine were so succesful with their recent Kickstarter – there is still a huge market for classic gaming experiences. Combined with the fact that the e-book is becoming more and more popular I would argue that gamebooks are a key component in pushing forward digital interactive storytelling. There is a huge percentage of young gamers out there too that were born after the gamebook era who love reading and love gaming but have never heard of gamebooks – until now that is!
PSF: Can you envisage creating a more “traditional” interactive adventure in the future – the kind of thing LucasArts are known for, or that Wadjet Eye are putting out – pointing and clicking on stuff?
Neil Rennison: Maybe. To be honest we like the space we’re in right now. There are many companies doing point and click adventures and doing them very well! It would be hard to compete with them at this stage. We want to become known as the best in our little niche, which is more than enough to be getting on with right now.
PSF: If you could choose any SF IP to base a gamebook around, which would you choose and why?
Neil Rennison: There are so many I’d want to tackle and for some many different reasons. Doctor Who would be fun and having just watched Prometheus, something set in that universe would also be awesome. Do you know Ridley’s phone number?