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[Interview] Tim “Dezartfox” Davis of Vassal40k

Posted under Interviews by Adam Bruno on Wednesday, June 17th, 2009 -

Warhammer40k

The name “Warhammer” is pretty big these days, having been made into a bunch of RTS games and even an MMO, but some of  you youngsters may be unaware of the origins of this beloved IP. If you’re one of the unfortunate that don’t know, here’s a brief introduction: Warhammer and its futuristic counterpart, Warhammer 40K, are tabletop war games created by Games Workshop, featuring fantasy and sci-fi miniatures that are as fun to collect and paint as they are to play with [Painting isn't fun --Chris]. Why are we mentioning this on a video game blog, you ask? Well that’s where Vassal40k comes in.

Vassal40k is a module for the VASSAL Engine, which is a program that allows you to play all kinds of tabletop games online. While there are modules for more of Games Workshop’s products, all of which looked after by the same person, Vassal40k is the only one that I play.

Being a big fan of the Vassal40k module and VASSAL Engine, and curious about its implications for the uncertain future of tabletop gaming, I decided to hunt down the module’s creator for more information. After slaughtering my way through hundreds of grots, I managed to locate Tim Davis, the ipso facto head honcho of Vassal40k, and the man largely responsible for the development and release of the module’s latest versions. He was more than willing to be interviewed, and was kind enough to answer all of my questions.

GD: First off, tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get started on Warhammer 40k? How long have you been gaming and coding?

Tim Davis: Well, I started playing when I was 10 or 11. I’m currently 19, so about 8 or 9 years. I was taught to play by a group of tournament players, which is damn good. I lost the majority of the games I played but was entering tournaments by the time I was 15, I entered my first Grand Tournament underaged (have to be 16 here) and came 30th in the final, which I considered good. As for coding, I’m not a coder; I’m actually an artist. I’ve been drawing for a few years and digitally drawing for about a year and a half. I’m currently a student at Universtiy of Teesside studying Computer Games Art.

GD: Well, that’s pretty incredible. You’re 19 with a Vassal mod. What do you intend to do once you graduate?

TD: My main “dream” job would be work at Valve! Otherwise, I’d like to be either a concept artist or 3d modeler, something along those lines.

GD: Valve’s got some great games under their belt; I hope you get that job! Speaking of concept art though, how long did it take you to create Vassal40k?

TD: I started work on Vassal 40k just over a year ago. Before that, it hopped around forums with random people adding to it. It didn’t really have a home. I came along as a simple artist to help out, but then there was a argument amongst a few of the “team” and everyone went their separate ways. I sort of picked up the module and carried on with it. I built the website, reconstructed the team with a couple of people and split the link between Forums and the module that had always held it down. Back then the Module was called Version 3-5-5. We skipped Version 4 altogether and went to 5 because 5th edition [of Warhammer 40k] was just around the corner. We released Version 5 in August about 4 months later, I think. I re-drew nearly all of the art work that was in the module (except the marines) in that 4 month gap. It was a lot of work and I remember working right up until the last minute before uploading it and releasing it!

GD: So, you’re not the original creator, but you picked it up and carried it along, although you did completely retool it when you got it?

TD: Indeed. I can’t recall who the original creator was as the history we have only goes back as far as Version 2. It had changed hands many times by the time it got to me. In Version 5, we actually rebuilt the entire module from scratch, so all we carried along was the idea. We fully adopted the name Vassal40k around the time of the website too. Before that, it had a whole bunch of names, mainly due to fear of GamesWorkshop. I think one was ForDk.

GD: Very nice. That segues neatly into my next question, actually. Isn’t Warhammer 40k copyrighted by Games Workshop? Are you technically allowed to use their models, even in an online medium? Are they aware of this?

TD: Yeah, it’s their copyright; we’ve followed their IP pretty closely. Basically, Vassal40k is just artwork with some coding attached. No actual rules are represented. What we can’t say is we/I own the copyright to the art work; I can credit myself for creating it, but not claim it as my own as per normal artwork. This is the same for all GW-based art work. They’re aware of it. I don’t know if they’ve forgotten, but we received a warning letter in October just before the release of V5.1 telling us to stop. I cheekily replied to this letter, changed a few wordings on the website and carried on. I haven’t heard anything since. We’re aware that people use V40k to play the game “online” but the main purpose of it officially is to recreate battles and be able to have pretty pictures for battle reports and such.

GD: Honestly, I think the worst thing they can do right now is shut you down. If anything, they should hire you themselves. You could be onto something here. Do you think this is part of a greater trend of board and tabletop games going online?

TD: It’s not the first time someone has said that, that what we have here is wonderful and it would be a damn shame if GW did shut us down. Believe me, there would probably be a lot of people complaining to them. The V40k module does more than simply allow you to post pretty pictures. It allows you to chat with those you’d never chat with, share tactics and recreate games with people on the other side of the world. We’ve never intended to replace the board game, but I feel technology and tabletop games are slowly coming together. I’ve seen examples of games where you have your iPod with the rules, the tables, and everything you need. Simple games like Top Trumps use things like Webcams now. It’s amazing. It’d be a shame to see the original tabletop games disappear altogether though, but [playing] online is a great thing.

GD: Plus, you never lose pieces if you play online. I can’t tell you how many chess sets I’ve seen that are missing pieces. So, have you created or helped out with any other modules besides Vassal40k? On your website, people can see several other modules. Did you make those?

TD: Indeed! I’m forever losing those.  As for the other modules, again all the art is done by me. Vassal Bowl, our module for Blood Bowl is by far the prettiest looking module we have. We’re currently adding the finishing touches to that before release, which is soon! Originally, the VB module was just a little side project I was doing. Then Danjaman came along; he knows the vassal engine extrememly well, more than I can ever hope to, and he’s been adding things to it  for a few months. What the engine is actually capable of is amazing, and a lot of this is in the VB module! The  Epic module we’ve pushed back down to a Beta stage because we weren’t happy with it. It’s still available to download but that’s one of our projects for the summer. We hope to expand into the Warhammer Fantasy games soon; we’re just finishing off the coding for the movement system before I start on the art. Me and Danjaman are always coming up with new ideas and theories that we test out. I know I want to create a Battle Fleet Gothic module, and he wants to venture into Space Hulk. We also have a very early version of Necromunda in the works too. The hardest part of course is the art. This sounds big headed, but there aren’t many willing artists who can match my work and do it all for free.

GD: Unfortunately, you speak the truth. The fact that you’re doing it for free says quite a bit. And still, the quality is undeniable. I can’t really see anything wrong, aside from a few spelling errors that I’m sure’ll be fixed in the future and the fact that you can’t save army lists, which might not be something you can fix anyway.

TD: Spelling has never been my strong point. Sometimes simple things slip. We have to manually add every unit, weapon, base and so on. We name them as we go. As for army lists, we have a “work around” which is in our Users Guide.

GD: Excellent. So, finally, it’s shout-out time. I’ve noticed that you’ve mentioned a team, as well as Danjaman. Is there anyone in particular you’d like to thank or at least give credit to?

TD: Danjaman has been a great help in getting things rolling for VB and keeping me on my toes. There are countless others that have come and gone since I’ve been head honcho; they all know who they are! I’d mostly like to thank the community. Without them and their support, we’d lose all motivation and just give up. There’d be no one downloading our modules if they weren’t here! Plus they help keep us running. As you can tell, I dislike advertising banners on my sites, so I have none. [Instead,] we have a donation feature which keeps us just about even. So a big  “thank you” to everyone who has downloaded and played at some point! I’ve met some great people on the server. Some have become great friends and even followed from the start!

GD: Well, it seems that you’re not the only one that loves your baby. I’m glad people are donating to help Vassal40k stay afloat. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, so do you have anything else you’d like to say that hasn’t already been covered?

TD: Hmm, probably just that we’re always looking for help. It’s hard work managing all this, and I can’t be around forever. Eventually, I will have to take off my top hat and hand the reign over to someone else. University and life in general are extremely time consuming! Art is the main problem as stated, but any help is welcome. We have a contact form which I personally respond to! Again thanks to all our followers and thanks for this interview!

GD: And thank you for agreeing to be intereviewed. I’d have hated to show up outside your shower with a microphone and a recorder.

Check out Vassal40k’s home page to find out more! And stop by Games Workshop’s homepage to buy the physical models.

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