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7 Grand Steps Interview: Getting historical with Mousechief

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If you’ve been reading GamerTell the past few days, you’ve probably noticed I’m fascinated with the beta of Mousechief’s 7 Grand Steps. Their last game since Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble, 7 Grand Steps is a simulation were players get to follow and guide a family through various ages, in the hopes of creating a line that will withstand the test of time.

Of course, a game of 7 Grand Steps‘ scale takes a lot of work and Keith Nemitz, Principal Developer and founder of Mousechief, is the one behind it. I was able to touch base with Keith to discuss the game, what went into it and what the future holds for Mousechief.

7 grand steps
GamerTell: How did you come up with the idea of 7 Grand Steps?

Keith Nemitz: I was inspired to make this game after playing Civilization IV for a month. I became frustrated that, at higher challenge levels, Civ devolves into forced militarism. I liked building theaters and libraries. So I thought, “How I would express a grand sweep of history?” In Civ, you rule over nations. What about the people ruled? How did they experience civilization?

Now, I enjoy Edward Rutherfurd’s novels. They depict lives of a few family lineages in a very specific location over thousands of years. They are wonderful historical novels. And I thought about the old TV series, Roots. Family generations are barely explored in games. Showing how the lives of regular people changed with history would be a real challenge, but there’s nothing like an unexploited, popular genre to excite a struggling indie.

My last game, Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble, was one of the first high school games.

GamerTell: What made you choose the unique, token-machine layout and did it take any adjustments or tweaking to get it working with 7 Grand Steps?

Nemitz: We had a working prototype of basic gameplay before deciding on the visual interface. The art director, Bill Stoneham, suggested the Musee Mecanique in San Francisco, for inspiration. I’ve visited it a few times before. It was a great fit. 1930s cabinet games were a perfect style for an interface that had to present numerous phases of history and culture.

GamerTell: 7 Grand Steps begins with a a couple who works in the field in the Copper Age. If someone is successful, how far can the story go?

Nemitz: This game covers the ancients period: copper, bronze, iron. The subtitle is: “Step 1, What Ancients begat.” If successful you’ll spend at least 10 generations in each age, building a family legacy that can survive historical circumstances which ended each age.

The next game, Step 2, will pick up where your family survived the fall of the iron age and challenge them through the middle ages.
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GamerTell: One thing I’ve noticed while playing the 7 Grand Steps beta is that there is no menu with a save option. The only way to save is to quit, then resume the save later. Is this a function that is only present in the beta? Is the final build also like this and, if so, why?

Nemitz: The save system is subtle but more flexible than that. It’s part of the gameplay. Basically, every child in each family can be considered a save game. Players may only follow the life of one child at the end of their parents’ lives. However, if that chosen descendant fails to have children, it’s considered a dead branch of the family. The game then backs up to the nearest ancestors who have children not picked. You can then follow the life of a different descendant.

It’s important to have as many children as you can afford, to recover from failed descendants. For the same reason, all siblings should be well educated and provided with plenty of inheritance tokens.

GamerTell: Sometimes I’ll notice an “ally” pawn on the board, but won’t remember any story events or interactions mentioning someone who could be a potential assistant. How does someone gain an ally in 7 Grand Steps?

Nemitz: Most allies appear after your chosen descendant marries. They were suitors who decided to ‘just be friends’. Allies can also appear as a result of a story event in the life of the current descendant.

GamerTell: The inclusion of allies, enemies and sibling dynamics makes 7 Grand Steps feel more authentic. Did you plan to have these elements in the game for the start, or was it an idea that just came up along the way?

Nemitz: It came up along the way, but early in development.

7 grand steps
GamerTell: I’ve noticed in the Copper Age that the Token inheritance differs for sons and daughters in the beta. Does this change throughout the ages? And if not, how does gender and family size effect distribution of wealth to the next generation?

Nemitz: Token inheritance is not based on gender. Historically, that would be the case, but the game tries not to promote cultural albatrosses. Inheritance does favor first-borns. They get first pick from each type of token, before the ‘goblet’ is ‘passed’.

GamerTell: I’m on my 13th generation of the Bob dynasty in 7 Grand Steps and find myself wishing there was some kind of auto-generating family tree in addition to the ability to click on the graves of past generations to learn their story. Did you ever consider including a function like this?

Nemitz: There are so many features that would have been nice to implement, but we’re starting our fourth year of production…

GamerTell: For fun, since the first two generations of my Bob family mainly had daughters, I decided to see what a matriarchal family would be like. Did you ever consider having the story change depending on whether men or women tended to be heads of the family?

Nemitz: Some of the tales do reflect the head of the household’s gender. The big, technological advance in 7 Grand Steps is how it decides to tell a story. The game matches the state of the family to a giant catalog of short vignettes. My favorite example is, in the case when parents don’t love each other, a tale of possible infidelity may occur. How that vignette turns out is based on the personality type you’ve chosen for the head of the family.

GamerTell: Mousechief is a one-man operation. How long did it take you to make 7 Grand Steps and about how much time would you say you spent on each element, like design, coding, script, etc.?

Nemitz: We spent a year deciding how to go about presenting the experience of family generations through the ages, making prototypes, considering visualization, tone of storytelling and such. Another two of the four years previously mentioned were devoted to writing the short vignettes. They total to about 140,000 words, the equivalent of two novels. Another year and more can be said to be pure game development.

GamerTell: You’ve been selling the 7 Grand Steps beta on the official website. What has the response been like so far?

Nemitz: Lukewarm, because I’m not seriously promoting it. Early purchasers were brave souls who have been terrific when bugs got in their way or stopped them from playing completely. They’re a beta savvy crowd, and they often went out of their way to help me track down problems. But now the game is super close to being worth everyone’s free time. Another couple weeks… (knock on wood) and we’ll be done!

GamerTell: So far, two Mousechief games in a row (Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble and 7 Grand Steps) have been simulations that had a board game presentation. Will you continue this trend with your next game?

Nemitz: It just worked out that way. I have lots of game ideas that are more video-gamey. Mostly, the board game form is less expensive to develop. I have a very small budget for making games. It’s good to know that some board games are as enjoyable and even more fun than the most successful computer game. Quality gameplay is the most important thing to develop and is not tied to expense.

GamerTell: You’ve said before that you wanted 7 Grand Steps to be the first in a series of seven games. Is this still the plan? And, if so, can you provide any hints as to what the next game will be like?

Nemitz: Yes, very much so. As mentioned earlier, the next game, Step 2, will take families who ‘won’ the first game into and through the medieval period, from the Dark Age to the Renaissance. However, it will allow a new player to start a middle ages family, instead of requiring them to play Step 1.

The one caveat is, Step 1, must be successful enough to fund the multi-year development of Step 2 and feed and cloth and house me, my family, and our cats.

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There you go! If you want to see Mousechief’s grand vision come to fruition, you have to support 7 Grand Steps. The full game will be available at the end of the month for Windows and Macs for $15, but if you buy into the beta now, you’ll only pay $12 and be guaranteed the full game and a Steam key.

Site [7 Grand Steps]

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