Infrno Mini Interview (2011-03-20)

How long has your VT been in development, what inspired you to create your version of a VT?

Matthew Grau and I started gaming together in Seattle back in 1997. When our group inevitably got spread across the country, we were way to emotionally attached to our characters to just let them go, so we started using Skype and Google Docs to play. We found that it worked well, even better than we had hoped. Being virtual requires that you be a little more present and focused, plus, no more jockeying for the last piece of pizza. It helps with the suspension of disbelief.

We looked at the VTs out there at the time, but they were all too heavy for our style of play, and they all lacked video conferencing. We started brainstorming about what we wanted out of such a tool, and all sorts of off-table features came up. This is where the Facebook, social networking angle came in. Characters and games are their own entities in Infrno. You can have in-character interactions among your party while out-of-game. We have a long list of ideas to pursue in this vein, and Matthew is eager to develop game mechanics leveraging such capabilities.

In short, we saw a market opportunity emerge allowing us to service gamers in ways they never thought possible. That, and we'd get to play more.

I've been coding since 5th grade. Matthew has been involved the gaming industry as a professional since his teens. We've been collaborating on Infrno for almost 2 years. Peter Adkison, founder of Wizards of the Coast, and Adrian Swartout, CEO of Gen Con, are good friends and on our advisory board. We have a strategic partnership with Gen Con, and launched Infrno to the world at their show in 2010.

How many people contribute to developing your VT?

I am the sole full-time developer. There are 6 other coders who pitch in when they can.

Are you targeting a specific RPG system, if so why? Is this likely to change?

We do not target a specific system. Our VT is meant to emulate your kitchen table, allowing you to play anything you want.

The Infrno VT was built to suit our style of play, which is very narrative and light on the crunch. I love a grenade launcher as much as the next guy, but we rarely break down to a battle grid. We want a light, simple tool that emphasizes video interaction over tactical tools. There's a battle grid (as of last week!), and a rudimentary die roller. Things like fog of war and similar GM tools are on our wishlist, but we won't be driving too far in that direction.
Many indy systems are exceptionally well suited for the Infrno VT. Matthew Grau, Adrian Swartout, Peter Adkison and I played an InSpectres game which was simply ridiculous. InSpectres asks players to do ‘confessional’ bits, because their characters are on a reality TV show, and Infrno’s video chat feature was absolutely perfect for this. This game couldn’t have happened without Infrno because Peter and Adrian are in Seattle, I’m in Santa Cruz, and Matthew is in LA. And it was a spectacular game! Check it out: Someting’s Funny in SoCal.
But gamers come in all flavors, and styles of play. Looking at other VTs that cater to a crunchier style, we like d20Pro. Nick Bevilacqua and Mat Morton have a great handle on the space, a solid team, and a superior presence in the market. We had a Saturday breakfast at Gen Con, followed by a handshake, and an integration roll-out announcement in November. It was not a lengthy conversation. The value created by this partnership for the role playing community was quite obvious.
The VT space isn't one-size-fits-all, so offering best-of-breed solutions to the community makes everybody happier. Grau and I get to focus on VT tools that suit our style, the d20Pro team continues to deliver on what they love best, and players get choice.

Do you think your potential user base would be affected by any official system RPGs?

WotC has had a fitful time in this arena, but they have woken up to the burning desire for these tools (notably, this happened shortly after our launch at Gen Con). They do great work, and they will deliver a great product. However, companies who produce official system RPGs won't offer the cross-pollination that Infrno has baked into it, because they don't see the market in any terms other than their product. They are genetically incapable of thinking in terms of how to service the entire community.

That said, if all you play is 4e, you'll probably be happy living in a very nice 4e walled garden. But if you want to play other systems, Infrno can get you into all of them, with all sorts of value-adds like character blogs and game blogs, allowing you to screen potential game-mates.

The real growth will come from getting lapsed players back to the table, and introducing a whole new generation of people to the joy of role playing. By making it easier to find games, and removing the geographic constraints, more people will play.

Infrno will grow the space from 2 million players to 20 million players in 3 years.

Will you offer accessories for your VT, do you think there is a market for this?

Yes. There are lots of neat angles here, but the most interesting is selling virtual goods. We have pilot program under way, and a partnership in place with Crafty Games enabling us to blaze this trail, selling virtual goods on their behalf.

What do you think the strengths of your VT are over the competition, is there an area where you feel it is lacking at the moment?

Being system agnostic is Infrno's greatest strength. We have a suite of tools that enhance your game, no matter what you play. And as a neat side effect of having all these gamers hanging out together, you're sure to find new games that you want to play, and then connect with people to play it with. How many times have you wanted to try something new, but knew you're crew wouldn't be up for it? That problem is solved.

What's lacking? The amount of content on Infrno has become too much to keep track of, let alone browse efficiently. We need better tools for this, like feeds and notifications. Those are coming soon.

What areas / features are you concentrating on, what should we look forward to at release?

Video conferencing stability is our primary focus. Dealing with the vagaries of residential broadband networks is a tricky bit of work. Even Skype isn't bullet proof, and we consider them the gold standard. We'll never be perfect, but we can be a whole lot better. You can follow our progress on my blog, where I talk about the day-to-day challenges of chasing the Next Big Feature. Yesterday, I talked about 'Robot Legs, an MVC+S framework for AS3'.

We ship code daily. We read every feedback email, and strive to turn bug reports and feature requests around asap. If you want or need something, let us know!

Where do you think RPGs and / or VTs will go next?

The iPad, and Microsoft Surface are the next frontier, from a UI perspective.

But the bigger news is this: Imagine sitting at the airport with an hour to kill, and instead of having your intelligence insulted by that cable news program, you can log into Infrno and find a one-hour pickup game, killing zombies with total strangers. And then, have that game play contribute to your character's story arc. We are going to deliver on the promise that MMORPGs failed to keep, and put role playing back in the game.

In one sentence tell me why I should use your VT, over the competition?

Use whatever VT that suits your style, but come to Infrno to find new games to play, and chronicle your exploits!

Thanks to Mike Muldoon at Infrno for taking the time to answer the above questions