Interview with Scott on BrowserQuests

May 27, 2021 | 0 Comments

Today we have an extensive interview with Scott, the driving force behind BrowserQuests.

Who is Scott?

Growing-up, I was really into amateur filmmaking, producing my own stop-motion animation, experimenting with shorter films and even producing an hour-long fantasy-themed video project. Just before my senior year of high school, I was then introduced to two things that would forever influence my life: Role-Playing Games (specifically Dungeons & Dragons along with Traveller) and Computers (specifically the Commodore VIC-20). I was already into writing stories and even feature-length movie screenplays, and the idea of combining interactive fiction on a computer—and doing so as some sort of game—has stayed with me some 40 years later. After spending four years in the U.S. Air Force and then another four years obtaining a B.S. degree in the Environmental Sciences, I simultaneously worked on several computer-based RPG iterations as well, first on the Commodore 64, then the Commodore Amiga and finally the PC, just as CD-ROMs, sound cards and the ability to play multimedia were coming out.

Front cover

In the early 1990s—after shopping the design of my latest RPG around with potential game publishers throughout the U.S.—I was encouraged to write what would become a “MediaNovel,” a massive, 100,000+ word linear novel that combined the text with appropriate, all-original graphics, music, audio and video; originally named “Convictions” (and later renamed as “Wizard Reborn”), I produced the MediaNovel on my own, hiring a cast from my hometown’s community theater, a professional composer from New York City, a local (but extremely talented) illustrator and everything else needed to develop 800 individual illustrations, 200 music clips, several hundred separate audio clips and another several hundred video clips of characters in costume, speaking into the camera as if telling the story to the reader from their own unique point of view. I spent most of the decade developing and marketing the concept as well as the product, teaching myself to code in Macromedia Authorware, developing the associated delivery CD-ROMs and even building a multimedia business around it all.

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As the demand for CD-ROM development waned and the Internet became wildly popular, I learned how to build Microsoft-centric web applications and essentially migrated my fascination with game-like interactive literature to the Internet, building a series of web-based content management and gaming engines that leveraged an online database and custom programming to deliver its experience to vetted administrators as well as system users. Today, I not only work full-time for a state agency as an Internet web/content developer but I run my own small business (The Huelsman Way, LLC) as well, through which I’m continuing to develop and market my BrowserQuests online RPG platform.

Naturally, I’ve been playing as well as creating games for over 40 years now, starting-out with the classics (such as Colossal Cave/Adventure and the Zork series), the plethora of Commodore 64 RPGs that came out in 1980s (The Bard’s Tale series, the Ultima series, the SSI “Gold Box” collection of D&D-based RPGs, etc.) along with the more modern classics such as the Dragon Age series, the Diablo series and Skyrim (the VR version of which I purchased a few months ago for the PS4 and easily burned 100+ hours playing). My Steam library also includes several Divinity games, Legend of Grimlock, Neverwinter Nights and Neverwinter Nights 2, several of the RPG Maker games, Sword Coast Legends and the Titan Quest series.

Of all of it, however—and what has influenced me the most over nearly four decades now—was Ultima IV (“Quest of the Avatar”) and how it took playing RPGs beyond just fighting monsters and grinding dungeons to a place where truth, love and courage were just as important as hit points, armor class and attack rolls. Further, tools like the SSI “Gold Box” games, the Neverwinter Nights Aurora engine, the online Dungeon Craft system (an open source version of the SSI “Gold Box” games) and even the more recent RPG Maker MV and MZ toolsets all demonstrated how original RPG-based stories could be created on a computer and potentially distributed to other players throughout the world. And so I’ve been obsessed with the development of an online, browser-based RPG system for nearly a decade now, one that would take the experience well beyond the “kill everything, power-up and grind exhaustively” approach to telling powerful, enriching and inspirational stories, all the while allowing others to not just play through that content but, if interested, potentially develop their OWN stories as well. Such is the inspiration for BrowserQuests.

Is BrowserQuests a team effort?

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I am a lone wolf, responsible for everything regarding BrowserQuests. From writing the content modules to doing all the custom programming and database work to cobbling together the artwork (shameless plugs for ePic Character Generator and Worldographer) to playtesting, release and even marketing, it’s essentially just me. Hence, if I’m not working at my day job, helping my own clients with their websites, assisting my wife with her own wedding and mobile DJ service, eating, sleeping or (several times a week) playing basketball at the local health club, I’m working on some aspect of BrowserQuests.

While I handle all aspects of BrowserQuests and do everything myself, the website wasn’t totally developed from scratch and I do have occasional help. First and foremost, the entire BrowserQuests platform is built on top of an extremely popular .NET web application framework called DNN, a system I learned nearly 20 years ago that helps me manage the more mundane aspects of running a large web application (user management, static page content development, system security, digital asset management, etc.). Second, I’ve borrowed heavily from the Basic Fantasy RPG ruleset, helping me to avoid “reinventing the wheel” in terms of fantasy RPG basics (races, classes, inventory items, monsters, spells, turn-based combat mechanics and so forth). I have augmented the ruleset somewhat and even added some of my own elements (such as character “behaviors”), so I’ve developed my own online ruleset to help players with the overall BrowserQuests experience as well.

Finally—but just as importantly—I’ve received a LOT of help from players and game developers over the years with insight and advice, many of whom are documented on my “Fan-based Help & Feedback” page. One person in particular—a fellow in California named Brandon Risberg—helps me playtest everything (and does so freely without charge, believing the platform is that important). So while I continue to do it all myself, I have certainly received some help and advice from folks just as passionate as I over the years.

How did BrowserQuests start?

I started writing games in BASIC way back with the Commodore VIC-20 and have been at it ever since. None of it was ever professionally “published” (although I came CLOSE with Electronic Arts back in the late-1980s). The publishing rights to my MediaNovel “Wizard Reborn” was sold to a local printing company back in the mid-1990s (the rights to which I ultimately had to buy back). So, this time around, I’ve not only developed but funded everything on my own, retaining the rights to everything I’ve developed so far.

Interface

BrowserQuests actually began as a much earlier online RPG experiment around 2008, when I was first learning how to code in .NET and tie that into the DNN web application framework. The premise was fairly simple, more a “choose-your-path” adventure than a full-fledged RPG. Around 2012, I re-wrote the original programming from scratch to try and build a full-fledged RPG which I called “InfiniQuests,” the idea being that I would randomly generate virtually everything (so each play-through for a user would be unique). That, however, proved to be way more work than I had time for, so I ultimately decided on a model by which I could tell stories just as any experienced gamemaster does when playing with a fellow group of players within a traditional, tabletop, pencil-and-paper setting.

BrowserQuests currently is an incredibly-complex online RPG engine, consisting of over 25,000 lines of VB.NET programming code, almost 80 database tables and over 650 individual stored procedures and functions (utilizing tens of thousands of lines of additional SQL code). Additionally, there is a fair amount of JavaScript involved, background music, associated images and, introduced recently, browser-based text-to-speech functionality. With so many moving parts, the biggest challenge of being an administrator is figuring-out what’s gone wrong when a player reports a bug or otherwise can no longer move forward within the game. Sometimes, players provide their username and password so I can log in directly, see what they’re seeing and potentially debug the game directly. Other times, however, I can only speculate to what has gone wrong and try to reproduce it on my own local PC.

What makes BrowserQuests unique?

Player system

Without a doubt, the addition of a virtual gamemaster (GM) to simulate the traditional tabletop, pencil-and-paper experience is what makes BrowserQuests almost unique in terms of online RPG play. Just like a traditional tabletop setting, the virtual GM in BrowserQuests sets the stage for each encounter with the player, describing what is happening and directly refereeing the game, even alerting the player to when a particular ability check, behavioral check or saving throw needs to be made (via electronic dice, of course). Through a collection of context-based buttons and dropdown menus on the screen, the player is given significant latitude to react to the GM during most encounters, with play going back and forth between the GM and the player as if the two were engaged in a highly detailed and imaginative conversation!

For new players who’ve never experienced a persistent browser-based game (or even role-playing game), it feels like reading an interactive novel where the PLAYER is the primary protagonist and, in conjunction with the virtual GM, the game not only offers a lot of choices but then serves-up specific consequences to those choices, recording everything so that when the player logs off the game and returns again in the future, play can continue where the player last logged-off.

The biggest issue I’m having right now with the game is convincing new players to give it a legitimate chance before abandoning it. Of every 20 or so new players who try the platform, only 4-5 get past the first few introductory encounters and only one completes all three modules (about 4-6 hours of game time altogether). BrowserQuests is a text-based RPG, a significant departure from all the image-based action RPGs out there, and I think a lot of new players don’t see the potential in the format and simply abandon it once they’re asked to do a little reading. For the few who HAVE played through the existing modules, however, they absolutely love the format and can’t wait for more!

Subsequently, I’m experimenting right now with a more visual approach to the game, one where potential illustrations of the current encounter are displayed along with the text. I’m struggling with the approach right now and not sure what will come of it, but it’s something I continue to dabble with.

How big is the community?

There are approximately 1500 players in the system right now from all over the world.

BrowserQuests is not an MMORPG, at least not in the sense that players interact directly with one another. Rather, it’s intended for a single player to interact only with the virtual GM, create her own hero that forms the nucleus of an independent adventuring party, and allow that player to basically call all the shots on behalf of that party as it interacts within the fantasy world. Hence, players don’t communicate directly with one another (and would likely give away key aspects of the story if they could).

Given the single player approach, a “points” system has instead been added to the game; as players reach new encounter areas, gain experience and complete quests, their progress is also assigned a running point total and associated ranking. Hence, players are essentially competing with one another, with the current player in the game with the most points ranked #1.

Any funny stories to share?

Again, my wife runs her own wedding, karaoke and mobile DJ business; over the past 8-10 years, we’ve done over 100 wedding receptions and hundreds upon hundreds of parties, karaoke shows and special events (as I write this, my wife is on the phone with the bride and groom we’ll be providing the entertainment for in a few weeks). Hence, I’ve spent a LOT of time directly supporting my wife’s business, and I wrote a significant amount of code for BrowserQuests while attending these many events over the years. Folks at these events would always wonder why I’d be working on my laptop instead of enjoying the party, not realizing that I wasn’t actually part of the festivities and that I had an online RPG system to develop! Indeed, I can drive by past wedding venues even years later and still recall what part of BrowserQuests I developed at that particular time and place.

Any big plans?

My BrowserQuests “platform status” page lists current limitations to the game along with both near-term and longer-term development plans. Currently, I’m working on the fourth module to the game’s sole campaign “The Sorrow of Sisla” and hope to release that later in July. I’m also looking to encourage module authors to start developing their own quests, modules and even entire campaigns, as those players who really enjoy the platform would certainly consume more content if it existed. Hence, I expect to be busy with the platform well into the foreseeable future; I’ve already been at it for seven years now but I think I’m only getting started!

If you got interested by reading Scott's interview, you should definitely check out BrowserQuests.

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