Co-Founder of Moonlight Kids Chris Sumsky talked about the studio's recently released game The Wild at Heart, explained the game's mechanics, and discussed challenges they faced during the production.
Hello! I’m Chris Sumsky, one of the Co-Founders of Moonlight Kids. I spend most of my time programming or doing game design and level design. I studied Computational Media and Digital Media at Georgia Tech, which covered a wide range of disciplines but mostly gave me a solid understanding of code and design theory. I also dabbled a little bit in film, visual design, and 3D modeling. After school I worked at Cartoon Network Games as a producer, collaborating with 3rd party studios all around the world to develop games based on Cartoon Network’s properties. On the side, I also co-owned a small studio called Crystal Fish Games with Ankit Trivedi, where we were trying to make some games of our own.
After three or four years trying to do full-time jobs and our own games, we decided something had to give – we quit our day jobs and went full steam into Crystal Fish. During those years we made many games, mostly work-for-hire. We saved up some cash from those projects in the hope of one day working on our own indie project. Then in the summer of 2018 a developer friend of mine, Justin Baldwin called me about a concept he was working on with his long-time collaborator Alex Kincaid and wanted to know if we were interested in teaming up. The stars sort of aligned for Ankit and me, since we had some money stockpiled, and we were in between contracts, so (after figuring out some logistics and structural details) we agreed! That project was The Wild at Heart, and thus Moonlight Kids was born.
The Wild at Heart
Justin and Alex began concepting the story, characters, and art style for The Wild at Heart as early as 2017. They both were working on other projects at the time as their primary work but were chipping away at Wild in their spare time when they could. There was even a rough prototype made in early 2018. But after teaming up with Ankit and me and forming Moonlight Kids in August of 2018, we were able to focus on the game full time starting in September or so, and that’s when things really started moving. From there it was a matter of getting a polished demo together so we could take it to events and shop it around to publishers.
Justin is the one behind all the art in the game, but I’ll do my best to speak for him here! For Wild, he was drawn to a style that was very illustrative, akin to a child’s storybook. Where the Wild Things Are is one source of inspiration he brings up a lot (for the story too, actually). Other sources of visual inspiration are the animated films of Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, etc) and especially those of Cartoon Saloon, like Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. He wanted lots of detail and texture, with imagery that evoked nostalgia and mirrored the overall childlike wonder of the game.
The main mechanics in The Wild at Heart center around the Spritelings. These are the little magical creatures that you can befriend, and who then start following you around. You can task them to do all sorts of things, like build bridges or break down walls, or combat enemies. As you find more and more Spritelings and grow your herd, you can take on bigger and more interesting tasks. There are also five different types of Spritelings in the game, each with its own abilities and attributes. For example, the Shiverlings can grow ice bridges across the water and are capable of making frosty little clones of themselves, while Barblings can stick to certain contraptions with their spiky barbs and weigh them down.
Another huge part of the gameplay in Wild is about assigning your Spritelings to pick up large, heavy objects and carry them back to certain points, sometimes across long distances. Combine that with an ever-ticking clock that’s bringing the dangerous nightfall closer, and much of the game’s tension comes from the strategy and time management of how and when to accomplish each task.
We knew from the beginning that we wanted a crafting system in the game. We just knew how good it could feel to use your Spritelings to break up veins of shimmering gems or honey-coating beehives, and then have those same Spritelings be able to pick up the resulting loot and carry it back to camp with you. That satisfying loop of resource-collecting and crafting that exists in many games could be amplified by the satisfying Spriteling mechanics.
In practice, we think we were right about the feel of it all, but what became clear was that it was going to be difficult to make crafted items merge seamlessly into the game’s other systems and be useful. So we spent a lot of time toying with what kind of items you could make, who or what they affected, and how easy they were to create. In the end, I think some of the crafting elements are more successful than others.
For example, in a game where most of the combat centers around Spritelings versus enemies, the player characters simply aren’t ever taking that much damage. Thus it can make all the craftable “Meals” feel a little less useful – why do I need to craft healing items if I never need healing? We added extra attributes to the meals (e.g. speed boost, kick strength) to incentivize them in other ways, but it’s still not perfect. (We actually still have hopes of doing some rebalancing here in a future update, so who knows!)
On the other hand, I think the “Tonics” were very successful! Being able to craft these magical potions that boost your Spritelings’ traits in different ways compliments the game’s loop very well. And sort of only enhances that notion that the player characters are more of a support role, while the Spritelings are doing most of the actual action. In the end, while I think we could have improved the crafting loop a bit with more time, I’m still very proud of it. Plus, lots of players really seem to like it!
Environments and Levels
One thing we knew from the beginning is that we wanted all the environments to feel somewhat natural. The game is set in the Pacific Northwest of the United States (albeit in a sort of magical version of it), so we wanted it to feel like you were just naturally progressing through various ecosystems and climates that might actually exist in that area, adjacent to each other. That’s why most of the game is variations on different kinds of forests. But we do still try to get a lot of visual variety out of the direction, hence the stormy coasts of Crystalfall and the moody purples of Wispwagon.
You also might think we stretched the concept a little bit with Frostfields, going straight from green forests to snowy plains, but that’s actually not too far off from reality in some parts of Oregon and Washington, where a bunch of us are from! We exaggerate how quickly the transitions can happen of course, but for the most part, we tried to draw inspiration and guidance from our actual surroundings in this part of the world. From there we just combined those biomes with the fantasy elements we wanted, based on the lore of the Deep Woods – junky TVs and arcade machines that have fallen through from our world, magical plants and animals, and exaggerated proportions and features to draw awe and wonder.
By far the biggest hurdle all throughout the production was Spriteling AI and behavior. Both on a gameplay level (i.e. just getting them to do the right thing at any given time) and a performance level (i.e. keeping the game running smoothly even when you have 60+ extra characters running around with their own logic and pathfinding and animations running). It was a constant, never-ending struggle! Especially as we ported the game to older hardware like the Xbox One. We were tinkering with and improving Spriteling code up until launch, and even beyond with patches. In fact about a month after our initial May release, we had to pull the trigger on some massive code refactors, basically overhauling both how Spritelings are animated and how their behavior code runs, in order to get the game running well on Nintendo Switch. It was worth it in the end, but we learned some very painful lessons along the way about making a game with two playable characters and 60-80 additional player-controlled creatures!
Business Side of the Game
From the very beginning, we knew we just wanted to focus on making the game without having to worry about marketing or PR or any of that, and so we knew we needed a publisher to make that happen. As soon as we had a demo ready in November 2018 we immediately started showing it around to publishers. We also drew some attention from a couple of early shows we went to, and that helped a lot. We signed with Humble Games in the spring of 2019, and they were amazing partners all throughout production. They helped us with funding, QA, localization, as well as a thousand other tiny things people never think about. They also facilitated and negotiated a handful of business deals that helped us with additional sources of revenues, like Microsoft Game Pass and physical releases of the upcoming Switch and PS4 versions of the game.
As for marketing and audience, it’s just always very hard. Even with a publisher backing the project and planning marketing campaigns, you never really know how far an indie game will reach! Or any game for that matter. Game Pass definitely helped us reach a wider audience than we ever would have otherwise, though. And we still have the Switch and PS4 launches coming soon, so we’re far from done. Stay tuned for more news on The Wild at Heart!