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Declarations of Independents: The Fool and His Money

Posted on 09 May 2008 by Jesse Henning

Declarations of Independents focuses on the most independent of game developers: Small teams or individuals whose games have little or no marketing, advertising, or outreach, yet which have extremely loyal and dedicated followings. These games are the hidden treasures of the game industry, and it is our pleasure to bring you the thoughts and experiences of their creators on what it means to be an independent developer.

Today’s feature looks to a game not yet released, as we speak with Cliff Johnson, creator of The Fool and His Money, the forthcoming sequel to The Fool’s Errand. The original game, a series of standalone puzzles woven together in a narrative through characters and settings from the classic Tarot deck, was released for Macintosh and MS-DOS some twenty years ago. Players, filling the curly shoes of the title character, had to pit themselves against Johnson’s word games and visual riddles — which, when all completed, revealed that the most fiendish brain-bender was yet to come, requiring the use of hidden clues from all the puzzles solved thus far. This overarching system, known as a meta-puzzle, baffled and enthralled players like a computer game never had, making it an instant classic and garnering top ratings from GAMES Magazine and MacWorld. As recently as last year, luminaries of the game industry still refer to The Fool’s Errand as an example of the best in interactive storytelling.

2008 Game Developers Conference: Tuesday afternoon four well-known games industry writers and designers got together to discuss the best storytelling gaming has to offer in a panel entitled “Stories Best Played: Deconstructing the Best Interactive Storytelling.” Each of the authors brought a pair of games that they viewed as some of the narratively strongest yet made. Prior to the panel all four men played the ten titles, and came prepared to talk about the strengths and merits of each. Panelists Richard Rouse (Paranoid Productions), Steve Meretzky (Blue Fang), Marc Laidlaw (Valve Software), and Ken Rolston (Big Huge Games) offered up, in essence, a “top eight” list for gamers looking to get more from exposition than explosions.

The Fool’s Errand: A very quirky title, The Fool’s Errand was introduced by Meretzky as “the most fun hours of gaming he had ever had.” Based on the Tarot deck, the game featured intricate puzzles and an overlapping text-based story. Finishing puzzles opened up additional stories in the game, plus tiles on the Sun’s Map, the game’s final puzzle. Steve was enamored with the game’s use of a simple story to convey a compelling experience. In some ways, it reminded him of Lewis Carrol, describing it as having the “observations and caustic wit of an Alice in Wonderland.” He also noted it is available for free, with a sequel planned in a few months.

In the few years following The Fool’s Errand’s release, Johnson puzzled gamers twice more, releasing At the Carnival and 3 in Three to eager audiences, the latter once again earning high marks from critics. All three of these timeless puzzlers are available, free of charge, from Johnson’s website.

Now, fully two decades later, Johnson is in his sixth year of single-handedly developing The Fool and His Money, adding a new chapter into the story of our simple (yet brilliant) hero. We spoke with Cliff about the process behind his one-man quest for intellectual infamy.

When did you first decide you wanted to develop an independent game?

A confluence of three events. The first was, I decided to create a website in late 2002, The Fool’s Errand et al., where I documented my classic three games and also offered downloads, free of charge, of these games. Because of this, e-mails poured in from all over the world, from folks telling me how the 1987 The Fool’s Errand was their first computer game experience, or how they had discovered the game on their Dad’s ancient Mac, and they all had tall tales of how they approached playing the game, some alone, some in couples, others in groups, what they found difficult and how they cracked it, and many wrote just to say, “I HATE YOU!” The ultimate compliment for my work.

The second event was that Macromedia had evolved their Director and Flash programming languages to create sophisticated audiovisuals, and more importantly, allowing me to create standalone applications for both Macintosh and Windows with absolutely the same code. And the third event was my discovery of PayPal and its increasing popularity as a method of transferring money between individuals.

This lead me to believe that it was possible to create a game by myself and distribute it by myself without the need for a publisher. Frankly, a publisher cannot afford to produce a game for a cult market, and frankly, I cannot afford to live off their wee net royalty percentages. So now, I can reach my market directly and they can reach me.

Tell us about The Fool and His Money.

In The Fool’s Errand, the titular character is persuaded by the Sun to look beyond his foolish ambitions and save the Land from the enchantments of the vengeful High Priestess. The Fool rises to the occasion and gains the Gift of Wisdom, outwitting the High Priestess and restoring the lost 14 treasures of the Land.

The Fool and his Money begins in triumph, with the Fool happily hiking down a hillside, balancing all 14 treasures in his arms, and once again, pondering his foolish ambition of the riches and rewards he might acquire for his great service to the Land. That is, until he is bushwhacked by pirates and left for dead. The Moon counsels him that, this time, the treachery is mortal, and that he should seek his fortune in the Kingdom of the Pentacles to ransom the treasures from the buccaneers. Robbed even of his cap and knapsack, the Fool’s only possession is a Tarot card, the very one inside which he had captured the High Priestess from his Errand. Although the Moon has warned him to never relinquish this card, the Fool is haunted by her malice and is convinced she is plotting to murder him.

Puzzlewise, I’ve invented new variations of familiar word challenges, picture puzzles, memory games, and logic teasers; I’m introducing a new class of money puzzles dealing with bartering and auctioning; and I’ve devised five new Tarot card games: Imperial Tarot, Cutthroat Tarot, Knockdown Tarot, Drunken Tarot, and Kingdom Tarot. Like the Errand, for each puzzle solved, a new piece is added to the Moon’s Map, and ultimately what is left are the clues to reveal the final mysteries contained in that Map.

What inspired the project?

The characters of the Tarot deck were the original inspiration for both games. In the sequel, I decided that the new bewitchment corrupting the Land was the belief that words were the true currency. Not money or property or goods, but plain old words, whether written down or merely spoken aloud. The Fool is quick to employ his Gift of Wisdom and capitalize on this strange monetary conviction. Like the original, I feel the tale requires a balance of whimsy and drama, the latter being the increasingly dangerous influence of the High Priestess card upon the hapless Fool.

How has the development process been treating you?

I have become fond of shooting myself in the foot, it seems. I keep upgrading and improving and adding things. The art direction has gone through three distinct overhauls. The opportunities for inventing new puzzle play seem unending; hence, there are over three times as many puzzles in the sequel. And Also, I’ve had my share of Director/Flash programming upgrades, and then I was stricken by a mysterious memory crash in 2007, caused neither by Director nor Flash individually, but by the interaction between the two; thankfully, that crisis is over.

It’s fortunate that I am my own boss, otherwise I would have been fired by now.

But the good news is the game. It looks great. It plays great. It is a worthy successor to the Errand.

Have you ever worked as part of a larger development team?

Yes, I had a splendid time at Philips for five years where I founded the *FunHouse* division of 30 artists, animators, and programmers, creating three marvelous hand-drawn animated games.

If so, how has it compared to directing your own project independently?

Day and night. Now, I am literally doing each task by myself which affords me the luxury of working all seven days of a given week and any sixteen hours I choose in a given day. But it is work that I love, and that is all I’ve ever asked of life.

How have you managed to sustain the project? Do you make money from sponsorships or pre-orders? What is your “Day Job?”

The Fool and his Money is my only job with one exception. I created David Blaine’s Treasure Hunt in 2002. Between that and the many pre-orders, I manage to keep going.

How has word spread about your game? Has it all been word-of-mouth?

Word-of-mouth to a certain extent, yes, but I feel the buzz grew from my website and from my (arguably) humorous newsletter. There have also been several magazine articles about the project and also Internet articles. I feel the key factor, though, was releasing The Fool’s Errand, At the Carnival, and 3 in Three, free of charge, on my website; that has not only attracted fans of the original games, but has also attracted a tremendous number of first-time players as well.

If you stare long enough at the sample “Compendium of True Believers” page on my website, you can count more than a thousand names of the brave souls who pre-ordered the game over the years. And I have people from all over the world; most recently, I’d like to welcome my first pre-order from Thailand.

Based on my website traffic and the enormous amount of e-mail I receive, I reckon there are somewhere in the vicinity of 100,000 people out there, keeping an eye on my weekly progress. Since “casual games” are the new “gold standard,” once the game is done and out the door, I remain cautiously optimistic.

What has it been like to have such a dedicated fan base? Has it helped or hindered the development process. How receptive are you to suggestions or demands from your community?

I was flabbergasted that I had an on-going fan base at all. I had thought I’d produced three modest off-Broadway shows that opened and closed years ago, and that was that. Once I put up my website, however, I found I’d been completely mistaken. The kind of games I create, well, no one else is doing them. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, time will tell. Some people write to express an preference for “Fool” or for “Three,” but otherwise, I haven’t received a single suggestion or demand, besides “Take your time, but hurry up.”

What’s the best part of being an independent developer?

Authorship. I’ve developed a style of storytelling, puzzling, and presentation that is uniquely my own. After consulting for Disney, Warner Bros., Hanna-Barbera, and Mattel, it is refreshing to be able to do whatever I darn well please.

What’s the worst?

An independent developer implies a staff of some kind. Did I mention I am just one guy?

If you could share one valuable experience or piece of advice with ambitious game designers, what would it be?

Playtest your ideas as soon as you can. With every game, puzzle, or significant component, program a functional version of it using only dummy art and sounds, and then sit back and observe other people playtesting it. In fact, sometimes I can simulate gameplay with only printed materials and paper & pencil, using myself as the computer to accept the player’s input and deliver the proper output without having to program a single line of code.

What can we expect to see from you next?

My hope is that I am able to create 3’s a Crowd. Then The Fool’s Paradise. And then 3’s the Charm. But the game market is changing. Again. Between the new technology and the plummeting price of games... well, we’ll see.

GC: We would like to thank Cliff for taking the time to answer our questions.

The Fool and His Money can be purchased here, and his classic games are available for free download here.