Digital Eel Interview

Sam enters the bizarre world of independent developer Digital Eel.

What follows is the transcript of a Sam Gibson interview with Digital Eel: Rich Carlson, Iikka Keranen and "Phosphorous". It took place on November 12th, 2003.

SG: Good day to you all. First off you had better introduce yourselves to the gallery.

RC: Well, that's Phosphorous and over there, that's Iikka.

Phos: Hello. I am Phosphorous.

IK: I'm a Finnish game designer and programmer. Lived in the US for the last 6 years working for various game companies.

SG: Okay, let's start off chronologically.

RC: But I'm chronologically-impaired. I have a sticker.

SG: Was there a particular game that you can attribute your involvement in the industry to? Or was it just a case of misspent youth?

Phos: Misspent youth.

IK: I played a lot of games on the C-64 and started writing my own when I got an Amiga in 1992. But I didn't get involved with the games industry until I made some levels for Doom and Quake that caught people's attention.

RC: If I had never played Quake I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now. I made some free levels and got lucky, somehow wrangling a job as a level designer. If I hadn't done that I would never have met Iikka and Bill, and Digital Eel wouldn't exist! D&D and Will Crowther's Adventure got me curious about story-driven games, interactive fiction and role-playing game systems. Titan, Ogre and the original Reach For The Stars computer game got me interested in war games. Then Doom and Quake came along and everything went wonky.

SG: Test Question 1: Which is better, Galaga or Galaxians?

IK: I don't know the difference, is this a trick question? "Galaga" sounds better, it sort of rolls off the tongue all nice-like.

RC: I find Galaga a little gluggy, although it does stand up to a straw. I prefer the clean fresh taste of a sparkling Galaxian on the rocks.

Phos: Don't like either.

SG: At what point did you decide to get creative and make up your own stuff?

Phos: Six.

IK: When I was about three I covered the bottom half of a sliding door in my parents' house with drawings.

RC: It's not like you have a choice if you're cut out for something or if you're extremely curious about it. You can't not do it and it starts early.

SG: How did you guys first meet up?

RC: Psychically. Didn't you know we're all natural ESPers?

Phos: Introduced by Harry Potter.

IK: I met Rich at ION Storm right when I first came to the US (in fact he persuaded me to take the job). Then all three of us worked at KnowWonder (Amaze) at the same time in 2001, although on different projects.

SG: When did you decide to group together and start developing games as your own independent company? And why did you decide to strike out on your own rather then be under the protective arms of a big-boy?

IK: Digital Eel isn't a company, we just make games together because it's fun!

RC: We're not really a company. We're more like a garage band bashing away. I met Iikka in 1997, and we met Bill [Phosphorous] in 2001. We kind of congealed together over time. Disgusting, isn't it? We all have similar interests so making games for fun together was the natural thing to do.

Phos: As soon as I realized that Iikka and Rich were as twisted as I was. I had no choice in the matter. Sucked in from the future.

SG: What do you see the benefits of being an independent are? And those annoying, inescapable downsides that some nasty creator of the universe insists must always accompany the good stuff - what are they like?

RC: As actor Mel Gibson, playing William Wallace, said in his final scene in the movie Braveheart, "Freedom!" The downside is that there is a trade off to be decided upon. The more money you want to make as an indie, the more freedom you're going to have to give up to other parties' suggestions and demands. There's no ultimate good or bad here, it just depends on what your goals are.

Phos: Creative control but not enough piles of cash!

IK: We could sell our IP to corporate overlords for $30 million, but what's the fun in that?

SG: Test Question 2: Amiga or ST?

RC: Well, I'd have to go with Star Trek.

IK: Amiga forever! I still have one, I bought it from Ebay. Unfortunately the US (NTSC) monitor doesn't display my old PAL games quite properly...

Phos: Neither.

SG: Your games all include a healthy dose of humour. Unusually for games, it's not cloyed or crap. Why do you think the industry as a whole does such a terrible job of employing humour in their games?

IK: Because industry people try too hard to entertain some nebulous target audience rather than themselves.

Phos: Because they're soulless stooges. (Goes into a babbling rant...)

RC: Because folks who write these games aren't funny. But thanks for the compliment. We don't think about it or anything. If the stuff we're talking about is making us laugh, we put it in.

SG: Are there any particular inspirations for the team, or are your brains too much of a clutter of cultural and sub-cultural references to be able to point any accusatory fingers?

Phos: The original Outer Limits.

RC: My brain is like a vortex of fuzz. Maybe we're like the Three Stooges of game design. Larry, Moe and Phosphorous. Actually, I think we're very Zappa. We do everything wrong yet we make what I think is terrific stuff. I wouldn't have it any other way.

IK: Almost everything I do is inspired either by the early 90's Finnish demoscene or Master of Orion. Sometimes both.

SG: Of all your games, which was the most fun, liberating experience, and which came closest to being the opposite?

RC: I enjoyed working on Strange Adventures in Infinite Space the most because it's more the kind of game I like to play than the other games we have made. Dr. Blob's Organism was fun because it went from silly idea to game so fast.

IK: Making Dr. Blob's Organism was a ton of fun, it's a totally off-the-wall idea that we turned into a game almost on a whim (and really fast). Sometimes when you're working on a project in your spare time things will drag on and on until you lose your interest. That sort of happened to the old, big Infinite Space 4X game. (Never published.)

SG: Test Question 3: Diet or Regular?

Phos: I consume only photons.

IK: Gimme some sugar, baby.

RC: I prefer 11th dimensional soft drinks that are so advanced they drink you.

SG: How healthy do you see the future of small, independent developers being?

IK: You mean apart from the atrophied muscles, deteriorating eyesight and joints calcified to the point of immobility, thanks to spending all your time in front of a computer?

Phos: Robust and buxom.

RC: I'm not sure. The indie label of my (and others') dreams hasn't materialized yet. That would be a very healthy thing to happen. But game magazines and websites are giving indie games more coverage than ever before, which is great. There are opportunities for online sales and distribution which didn't exist two years ago. That's positive. The Independent Games Festival makes a bigger splash each year at GDC, and that's good news too. But only Criswell could see the future...

SG: Do you see yourselves as part of a movement of independents or as lone-wolves? And how does the experience of marching to your own tune differ from having a bean-counting band-leader?

IK: I won't be the first against the wall when the revolution comes, that's for sure!

Phos: Part of a movement because consumers want and deserve more than they're getting.

RC: I think of us as lifeforms not unlike the blobs in Dr. Blob's mystery kitchen but slightly more evolved, like slugs with little hands. Hey, I've been a bean-counting band leader. Don't knock it until you've tried it. "Playing for beans is better than playing for nothing" is what I used to remind the guys in the band. Then we'd laugh and eat beans like Kings and have a merry old time.

SG: What do you foresee for the future of the gaming industry?

RC: Deathmatch theme parks. Copy-protected babies. Gamepad-controlled breakfast cereal. Interactive entertainment pills. Senator John Carmack.

IK: Blood, mayhem, guillotines? I would say something about the industry splitting up into the megacorporate, Hollywood style productions on one hand and small indie outfits on the other, but that future is NOW.

Phos: More games about giant squids.

SG: What's next on the horizons for Digital Eel?

IK: Hopefully something in the world of Infinite Space. I won't say "sequel".

RC: Cheapass Games will be releasing the CD ROM version of Digital Eel's Big Box of Blox for PC and a new CD ROM for Mac gamers that I can't talk about yet, so we're getting that stuff ready to go.

Phos: A bunch of games about giant squids.

SG: Will you always stay true to the PC or can you foresee yourselves migrating to other platforms, hand-helds for example?

RC: Yes to both parts.

PHOS: I can only hope to get good enough to make text games.

IK: We already have Mac versions of all our games except for Plasmaworm, and there's a handheld SAIS in the works. These are of course made by other people since I don't know a thing about programming such gadgets.

SG: And finally, what do you have to say to those who will only buy from supermarkets and never farmer's market stalls?

RC: I'd shake my fist in the air and shout "Why? Why? Why?"

IK: I don't think this town has a farmers' market.

PHOS: Bite ass.

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