Markus Rossé from Stray Fawn Studio talked about their upcoming game The Wandering Village, told us what inspired the game's art style, and explained the nuances of the title's gameplay.
Hi, I'm Markus Rossé, Animator and Tech-Artist at Stray Fawn Studio. We're a 10-person indie gamedev studio located in Zurich, Switzerland. We're now almost 5 years old and have released 3 games on various platforms so far (PC, Consoles, Mobile). Stray Fawn Studio was founded by Philomena Schwab and Micha Stettler on November 28th, 2016 (which is also both their birthday), who banded together to help each other finish their year-long passion projects Niche and Nimbatus. Both projects have a strong focus on biology respectively science in their game mechanics, which became a staple in our games – now especially with The Wandering Village.
At Stray Fawn, I'm mostly a jack of all trades thanks to my diverse background. After compulsory school, I did a 4-year apprenticeship as a Physics Laboratory Assistant, which is a very science-focused education. While I liked science, it wasn't creative enough for me. So afterward, I went to a 1-year preparatory school of arts to be able to study arts at a university. Around this time I found my passion for hand-drawn animation, mostly through the works of Studio Ghibli. I studied Game Design at the Zurich University of the Arts starting in 2011 at the same time as Philomena, so we've been knowing each other since that time. Together with other fellow students we also released a mobile game called Elarooh.
After graduating I was mostly a freelance animator and began studying animation at the Lucerne University for Applied Sciences and Arts, which I quit after a semester. Early 2017 Stray Fawn Studio asked me if I wanted to help them at the GDC booth in San Francisco to display Nimbatus. I went there and started giving feedback on the game. I think we all immediately clicked and after returning to Switzerland I began working as a side-gig on Nimbatus as a Technical Artist, writing shaders and proposing game mechanic ideas. In 2018 I joined them full-time and since then I have helped out with whatever skills I have: Programming, Design, Animation, Art, Marketing, Business Development, etc. For years I have wanted to create something bigger with hand-drawn animation in a Studio Ghibli style and I kept nagging everyone in the team about this. When Nimbatus came closer to its release and it was time to find a new project, I finally got my chance.
The Wandering Village
I think some separate ideas for the game were brewing in our founders’ minds for a long time, but when they both saw a cool illustration of a giant creature with a city on its back at an exhibition, they both immediately knew this was a great basis for the studio's next project. Development began in parallel to the development of Nimbatus under the working title "Big Animal Game". We developed two prototypes in parallel, one focused on gameplay and one which tried to find a working visual style and fitting technology. Those two prototypes were enough to get a small grant from the Swiss government. We developed those two prototypes very quickly, with fast iterations and the mindset that we'll throw everything away. Our first two games slowly grew out of prototypes and were in development for years, so we wanted to improve on this with The Wandering Village. With the learnings taken from the prototypes, we were able to produce a solid basis for the game from scratch.
As for the name, we kept the working title for as long as we could. We started to ask our then slowly growing community of fans which of our name ideas they liked best and together with them we settled on the name "The Wandering Village" because it was easy to remember and communicates what the game is about.
Visually and thematically we are of course directly inspired by Studio Ghibli, especially Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke. Other influences come from the french artist Moebius and other pop culture. The idea of a city on the back of a giant creature is pretty old and we have all seen it in various movies or stories, so we're definitely at least subconsciously inspired by those as well. As for game mechanics, we like survival and base/city-building games like Don't Starve, Rimworld, Frostpunk, and others, and those definitely have an influence and are a good learning resource for us. As the last component, Philomena is our biology geek and tries to make sure that things in the game somewhat make sense and that the topic of symbiosis is a recurring theme.
There are currently 10 people in the studio, most are focusing on The Wandering Village. In our studio, we try to divide the jobs in a way that allows the people to work on the things they like the most. So for us, projects are also always a means to improve the skills that we want to learn. As for tasks specifically, for our last game, we were pretty freestyle and made a huge Google Docs list of things we would be working on over the next 2-3 months, decided who was responsible for a task, and then we just kept working on it until everything was done. We were a smaller team then and if a task needed cooperation, we could easily go to the table of the other person and discuss it. But now with a bigger team and home office thanks to the coronavirus, we needed to improve our workflow. We now do regular sprints every 4 weeks and decide on a concrete list of things that have to be done. Since in this project each person has a lead role assigned to them, most of the time it's pretty clear who has to do what. But we heavily cooperate with each other and we teach each other the things we learned so that everyone learns and grows all the time.
The basis of the game's visual style came from two directions. First was that I wanted to make hand-drawn animation in the style of Studio Ghibli. This already resulted in a certain direction with certain limits. For example, how detailed the characters are in relation to how big they are on the screen and what the line weight is. Or how many frames the animations can have, whether they can have shading, among other things.
Since I'm the sole animator for this game, we had to be realistic very early on. We then designed a basic character as a base, made it one tile big, and used this as a reference for all other assets (buildings, plants, etc). As for the rest of the visuals, we wanted to go with a detailed painterly style, which matches the Ghibli aesthetic (flat characters on detailed backgrounds). This is the strength of our Lead Artist. She studied Scientific Visualization and takes great inspiration from various cultures around the world.
The current visual state of the game was only reached after quite a long phase of experimentation. The earliest experiments were purely top-down 2D, later isometric. Performance was a big concern for us right from the start since we wanted the players to zoom out and see the whole city and maybe even the animal in one view. We weren't happy with anything we did for a long time and made some other experiments with a style inspired by Don't Starve and, just out of curiosity, we added a quick and dirty camera-tilt to the prototype – and then magic happened! Immediately, everyone knew we were onto something special we hadn't seen before in city-building games and we kept improving and tweaking it until it resulted in the visuals we have now. First, you could only see the city, then we asked ourselves, maybe we can zoom out more and see the whole animal? And then later we asked, maybe we can zoom out, even more, and show this huge animal, looking tiny in this huge world? I think we reached a unique style that perfectly communicates the sheer difference in scale of the small people on the back of a giant wandering creature.
We're still working on the details and of course balancing, but the core mechanic is a symbiosis between the people and the big animal, which we call Onbu (Japanese for the piggyback ride). This means that if you did nothing while the game is running, your people and Onbu would slowly starve. So of course you have to find food and build structures to secure the survival of your people. But not every resource is available on the back of the animal, so you have to send out scavenging troops to the dangerous and poisonous ground, which has its risks. Onbu has its own mind and maybe doesn't go where you would prefer it to, so you have to either be nice and hope that it follows your wishes, or you have to force it, which has drawbacks as well. But maybe you can't always be nice to Onbu, because you need some resources for yourself so that your people don't die. Or maybe you need to dig into the back of the animal to extract a certain resource that hurts Onbu. We try to provide many different situations in which you have to make interesting decisions to be able to secure the lives of everyone. The game has a rogue-lite aspect, so if you die you have to start over. A different environment/plateau you start on, different routes/biomes, and events should provide you with a long and ever-changing challenge. At least that is what we hope to achieve.
Balance and Economy
Creating an interesting possibility-space for players and balancing that is the most difficult job of making a game I think. Especially since we want to cater to a wide range of differently experienced players. At this point in time, the only thing we can do is use our experience and gut feeling to make a first rough pass over the game and balance it accordingly. But we plan to playtest the game with our Kickstarter-Backers before a public release, so we hope to get lots of feedback that helps us improve and balance the game. So we need the community to make The Wandering Village a fun and enjoyable experience. Later in the development, we might add options in which players can customize their experience to their liking (as we did with our last two games).
Making a good, fun game in general, marketing, and surviving long enough until the release of the game is a challenge in and of itself. You can make a good game, but if nobody knows about it, then you don't make enough money to survive. You can try to market as much as you want and promise the best game, but if your game is not fun, you can't survive. If you run out of money you can't make any game or spend time telling people about it. It's a very difficult balance, and the more people you have the more expensive and risky it becomes, which also increases the burden on everyone in the company.
We're in the lucky position that our last two games made enough money that we are (albeit just barely) able to bring The Wandering Village into Early Access. This is already something that most indie game companies fail to do, so we're very grateful for this opportunity and chance. But we definitely needed the help of the community, and the overwhelming success of the Kickstarter now allows us to spend a bit more time on the game, polishing and adding features for the initial release. Running a Kickstarter is always a risk and very stressful, but this was our third campaign, so we knew beforehand what to expect and could prepare for it. But it was definitely our biggest yet (the first Kickstarter had a goal of $15k, the second $20k, and this one $30k). In hindsight, you might say its success was obvious, but this was the first time we only had a trailer to show and no playable demo. We were very nervous before launching the Kickstarter. Only after the first successful 24h were we able to relax a bit and resume the “normal” Kickstarter period.
We're located in Switzerland, and while this comes with many perks, a fact that we can't deny is that the studio cost is just crazy expensive. Depending on where you live in the world, making a game in Zurich is maybe 2-5 times more expensive, so we have to factor this into our development and try to be smart in what we can allocate time to. Focussing on procedural generation and systemic simulation games is definitely helpful. Additionally, we're trying to get government grants, but this covers maybe only about 5% of the development cost. Still, every little bit helps us make fun games and provides us with the feedback that we're on the right track
Currently, we only focus on one thing: making a good enjoyable version of The Wandering Village and have it ready for Early Access. We plan to test the game with our Kickstarter backers as soon as we can so we can incorporate their feedback and improve the game for a public release. We focus on making a good game while making sure that everyone at Stray Fawn Studio stays healthy and we don't crunch. Our studio policy is that we value our health more than meeting deadlines. That's also a reason why we try to be independent and self-publish our games. Our current plan is to release in Q4 2021, but we might take a bit more time and reschedule for an early 2022 release.