Conducted By Adam Ames
Matthew Griffin (pictured above) spoke to TPG about his NES-inspired RPG, Wanderlust: Rebirth. You will read about how Wanderlust came to be, the successes and failures in doing so, opinions on the PC gaming industry and much more.
In its current form, how close is Wanderlust to your initial vision?
Jason and I looked back at some of our original design documents and aside from the final design of how the characters work, the game is precisely as we had planned from the beginning (with quite a few bonuses like item crafting and additional game modes). Jason and I are very fortunate to have found a time in our lives where we could dedicate so much of our free time to the development of Wanderlust; we look back on our game’s development and realize that there is almost no way we could do it again, now.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Wanderlust.
My name is Matthew Griffin. I am the co-creator, lead designer and programmer/scripter of Wanderlust: Rebirth. I have a Bachelors Degree in Philosophy with a Minor in Mathematics, as well as an Associates Degree in Programming.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Developing games is something I’ve always wanted to do. I started out making board and card games in high school. Later, as computer games became more popular with titles like Doom and X-Wing, I developed a desire to make computer games as well. I started by learning Q-Basic to see if I could produce anything, with little results; as it turned out, programming video games is extremely difficult!
Some time in early 2000s, a friend of mine introduced me to Game Maker 4.2. Game Maker is a lot easier to use for someone with little programming experience, but can be a very productive tool for people who do have some programming background. I didn’t really care how I made games; I just wanted to make them.
Where did the idea for Wanderlust come from?
I had worked on a co-op RPG idea called “Ominous”, which was fairly popular at the Game Maker Community. Jason Gordy and I met because he was a fan of that game. After a couple of years of keeping in touch with one another, we finally formed a team to create a game titled “Wanderlust: The Online Adventure”, which was a 6-player co-op RPG made in Game Maker 5. We later discontinued working on this game because we thought it lacked a clear direction, only to later regroup and create a design document and development plan for “Wanderlust: Rebirth”.
Wanderlust: Rebirth draws influences from many sources ranging from Zelda, Secret of Mana and Gauntlet to Guardian Heroes, Rainbow Six 3 and Geometry Wars. We wanted to create a great co-op RPG where the advancement of your character depended more on the player’s actual skill-level rather than simply the number of hours you committed to playing. The perfect example of this is when a new player joined recently, and has already surpassed Jason and I in her accomplishments in a matter of weeks (whereas we’ve been playing for years) because she is simply more skilled at games than we are! This is what sets Wanderlust apart from other RPGs.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Wanderlust?
We consider Wanderlust: Rebirth a great success as far as being able to stick with the project (for 5 years now) and finally complete it! I’ve personally watched Jason become a fantastic graphic designer over the years; his skillset has far surpassed my own in that he is already finding a door into the professional gaming industry.
When it comes to failures, we’re learning a lot right now. We never considered how difficult it would be to get the proper exposure for our game as an indie-developer! Now, we work around the clock simply trying to get websites to acknowledge our existence! It is very frustrating but we have worked far too hard and far too long to give up now!
Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Wanderlust and if you faced a similar challenge.
YES! This question is priceless! Our game is very ‘sneaky’ in how it calls itself an RPG and then expects the player to use Street-Fighter-like twitch-skills to survive and advance; most people assume RPGs are a click-and-watch affair in contrast to Wanderlust’s intense co-op combat system. In addition to Jason and I becoming experts at our own game, our beta-testers were also experts. Consequently, we had kept making the game more and more difficult to keep challenging them! We had thought that the game was too easy but we ended up making it too hard!
Fortunately, Jason and I have become quite humble over the years and we take all player-feedback very seriously. Over the past months, we have dedicated ourselves to making the game far more balanced in difficulty for the “Normal” mode of the game, from reducing enemy health and damage to giving the player more soul-orbs (which refill your group health and special points) to adding 3 AI companions to Single-Player Mode! Now, Wanderlust has a solid single-player experience to go alongside its more co-op centric modes.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Wanderlust would run on the various PC system configurations?
There were challenges here at first, but as the development time of the game grew, so did the strength of the lowest-common-denominator of gaming PCs. For instance, Wanderlust runs beautifully on my two-year-old laptop that has an integrated graphics card. One aspect we are disappointed in, is the fact that the version of Game Maker we used to develop the game does not provide native Mac support (which has been asked of us a few times now).
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Wanderlust.
I was just talking to Jason about his art style for Wanderlust the other day. In previous projects, Jason would put a ton of detail on every tile, but for Wanderlust I had encouraged him to put fewer details in each tile, but add more tiles to the game. In other words, instead of him making a great-looking wall texture, he’d make a great looking house.
Level design is something both Jason and I worked on together; Jason designed the maps based on where our story was taking the players, and then I would place the monsters based on creating specific types of battles. For example, every level has at least one battle where the players are in a map where more enemies keep appearing in succession, because we found that those battles are the most engaging and fast-paced. Other maps may have light or no combat to either release tension or a build-up anticipation for the next fight (or to allow players to appreciate a particular piece of artwork that Jason wanted them to see).
The music in Wanderlust was developed by Skyler Stone, who had worked on Game Maker projects with Jason in the past. A lot of people don’t like (or appreciate) the music in Wanderlust but when you’re operating on a $0.00 budget it is hard to be selective with what help is offered. In spite of Wanderlust having midi music, I personally enjoy listening to Skyler’s work, and we still hope he’ll find time to re-create the Wanderlust soundtrack in a higher-quality format.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Exposure. Exposure. Exposure. We’ve discovered that, as an indie developer – one that truly has no prior ties to the industry and no budget to work with – it is extremely difficult to spread the word about you game. We’ve agreed to do interviews with every website that has contacted us, and have done giveaways with nearly every site that has responded to our emails, and still I believe the total comes to about 8-10 websites that our game has appeared on. 95% of the websites, bloggers, YouTube channels, and even indie-developers completely ignore our attempts to contact them. It has been very frustrating and quite disheartening to say the least. Still, as I said earlier, we’ve worked far too long and hard to give up now.
How did you go about funding Wanderlust and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
We didn’t receive any funding at all other than some financial support from family (for me, to help pay the bills). Personally, I’d say that I am still in debt due to website, advertising and contracting costs (we paid for our artwork). In my opinion, when it comes to emotional support, it has been hit & miss; I wish my family was more excited about my game projects but I tend to get the impression that they believe it is a waste of time. With that said, I cannot really blame them for their point of view. Fortunately, I have Jason and my personal friend Cole Medeiros (who created “Gubs” the card game) to talk to about the challenges of game development.
Tell us about the process of submitting Wanderlust to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
We were very fortunate to have been contacted by Gamer’s Gate (whom we are still working out a deal with) and to have been accepted to Desura (after placing in the Top 100 Indie Games in both 2010 and 2011 at http://www.indiedb.com). We have applied to Steam but, so far, no dice. The first time we submitted to Steam, they rejected our game without even playing it; very discouraging. We hope that, after being accepted to Desura and Gamer’s Gate, and being nominated for Indie of the Year alongside Indie-RPG stalwarts like Bastion and Terraria, that they’ll give our game a fair shake this time!
How much pull do you have when setting sale and regular pricing through digital distribution channels? Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
Gamer’s Gate and Desura allow us to set the pricing on their platforms. No issues there.
As far as setting our own price, we’ve always compared the amount of content in Wanderlust to professional games rather than other indie games. Wanderlust, being a skill-based game like most shooters or fighting games, has immense replayability; many of our buyers have played over 100 hours with only a single character! So, when comparing hours-played to other indie titles, well, there is no comparison. With this in mind, we feel that $10 is a fantastic bargain, and given the co-op focus you should be able to spend less than $10 per game if you buy multiple copies to give to your friends!
For the most part, big budget studios no longer release PC demos while almost every indie developer does. Why do you think this trend is occurring? Tell us why released a demo for Wanderlust and the difficulties in doing so.
I’m actually not much of a PC gamer so I wasn’t aware of this trend. The only games I have installed are Star Wars: The Old Republic, Wanderlust: Rebirth, and Minecraft! However, I don’t believe either of those games have a demo available. “Demoing” the things that we want to buy is a part of every business, from home theater to automotive to households. Sure, there are some things that we buy without trying it first – like the food that we purchase at restaurants – but I don’t believe video games really fall into the “impulse purchase” category; perhaps for indie games, but not so much the $50 – $60 titles out there. If you were to put me on the spot to answer this question, I’d have to say that not putting out a demo of your game means that you, as a developer, do not have confidence in your product’s ability to sell itself.
As an indie-developer with no prior connections to the industry, releasing a beta was essential for obtaining feedback from our fanbase. We’ve developed a huge game, with tons of balancing issues that couldn’t possibly be addressed by our small beta group or Jason and myself, so the open beta (and the creation of a demo) was just another part of development for us rather than some business tactic. Actually, considering the help that user feedback can provide to any developer, including the man-hours saved by allowing fans to test your game for free, I see no reason why any developer would elect to not provide demo of their game!
How important is it to get instant feedback about Wanderlust from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
This was our primary means of hearing from our users until two nights ago when we added the ability for all players to talk to one another in-game. Now, Jason and I pay close attention to what people say inside the game as well as what is said on our forums.
I cannot stress enough how important it is, to Jason and I, to hear back from the people who are playing our game. We started making this game because it was something that he and I had a desire to play, but now it is a game for everyone! We want to make sure that the game is a blast to play for as many people as possible, so we always consider everything that is said. For example, after our review on Tigsource.com went online (who has been a great supporter of ours), a user commented that they wished our arrow keys were swapped with our wasd keys in the game. It took us about one day to add in a “lefty mode” option to the game!
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Wanderlust professionally?
This is an interesting question. I would have to say when it comes to the popularity and financial viability of a game, developers place great importance on the views of professional review sites. However, when it comes to the “actual” quality of the game, developers listen primarily to fans and the opinions of other developers. This is speculation based on my own personal view as a gamer and developer, but I’m basing my opinion on experiential evidence. With all that said, we personally treat the articles written about our game just as we would any testimony provided by our fans; we will carefully consider any and all criticisms or suggestions while working on the next patch for Wanderlust.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
We are being considered for a huge bundle that operates on this model right now, actually! I don’t know if I am at liberty to say which one, but we are extremely excited to have a chance to be a part of it!
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
As I said, I only have 3 PC games installed on my computer, and as far as I know, none of them have “DRM”. As a result, I don’t have an opinion on DRM from a user standpoint. My opinion regarding piracy may be a bit controversial but it saddened me to hear that a fellow indie developer had to take their game down from their site because it was immediately subjected to piracy as soon as it went online (Project Zomboid). Video games are a luxury, not a necessity, yet as a society we prosecute and punish people under the law if they are found stealing food, while millions of people justify stealing video games on a daily basis. This strikes me as a glaring social hypocrisy.
Perhaps as an indie developer who cannot afford to work on his own games full-time, I have a different perspective and do not quite understand the “pirate condition”. Still, the opportunity to create future games or expansions to Wanderlust would be crushed if our game was subject to rampant theft and misuse. So please, please support the gaming industry if you like video games! I don’t know what else to say here!
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Wanderlust?
We love it! In fact, we collect any YouTube videos that we find on our game and put them in a playlist on our official site! We encourage everyone and anyone to help build a strong community for our game!
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
I am all for it! I might even prefer it to “sequels” in fact. There are a few game companies that basically re-release the same game every year and charge full price for something that could should have been a $15 expansion; this is a slap to the face of gamers everywhere and it shouldn’t be tolerated. However, the fact that these companies continue with this model is evidence enough that a lot of gamers are not willing to take a stand against these practices.
Oh, and my dream DLC is a 2 to 3 player co-op expansion for The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk about modding of PC games and the relationship developers have with modders. How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Wanderlust?
I’m primarily a console gamer so I don’t really have much of an active role in the modding community. Because of this, my view is that the modding community is a bit over-rated by proponents of PC Gaming over Console Gaming in that very few of the hundreds of mods are worthwhile downloads. Still, I think it’s a great opportunity for people to express both their appreciation for the games that they love and their own personal creativity in general! I would also hope that developers take note of the more popular mods when developing sequels or expansions to their own games, and perhaps integrate the same ideas for people not active in the mod community (in particular, console ports). I have no doubt that Wanderlust will be modded if it ever develops a large userbase, and I welcome modders to put their own creative stamp on the game!
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
My advice would be to contact either Jason or myself if Wanderlust: Rebirth happens to take off! We’re intent on giving back to the indie community in any way, including helping promote our fellow indie developers whenever possible! There are a few indie games that have become a huge success this past year, and it is disappointing to see those successful indie-developers not taking a more active role in the solidification and promotion of the indie community as a whole. Team Wanderlust hopes to change this! -End
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