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Making The Wild at Heart

The Wild at Heart developer Chris Sumsky breaks down the process of developing this unique-looking adventure game.

Hello! I’m Chris Sumsky, one of the developers behind The Wild at Heart. Usually I’m either programming or doing level design, but I handle project management and the business side of things as well. I also tend to spend a good bit of time thinking about or tweaking overall game design systems and mechanics, though we do share those responsibilities across a few of us.

Our studio Moonlight Kids was founded in August of 2018 when we decided to take a leap and make Wild together. Ankit Trivedi and I had already been running our other studio, Crystal Fish Games, for a number of years, mostly creating and developing work-for-hire games (e.g. Super Slime Blitz, Party Dash, Ready, Set, Monsters!).

Meanwhile Justin Baldwin and Alex Kincaid had their own studio SleepNinja Games, makers of Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake and a handful of work-for-hire games (e.g. Phantom Fable, Thirty Days & Seven Seas). And by the way, if you notice, both our teams were making a bunch of games for Cartoon Network - that’s no coincidence! Before going off to do Crystal Fish full-time with Ankit, I was a producer at Cartoon Network Games. While there I produced a couple of SleepNinja’s games, working closely with Justin and Alex. We became friends, and stayed in touch even after I went off to do my own dev thing.
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By late 2017 / early 2018 Alex and Justin were starting to toy around with the art style, characters and story for the game that would become The Wild at Heart. After squeezing in some early concepting and prototyping in their free time, Justin called me up in the summer of 2018 to ask if Ankit and I wanted to help them make Wild into a real thing. And honestly the timing was pretty perfect; we were approaching a gap in our schedule at Crystal Fish, and the whole point of all those work-for-hire contracts was to save up enough cash to eventually make our own thing. So fast-forward to the end of the summer, Moonlight Kids was formed as our new super team and we were off to the races trying to make Wild a reality.

In total The Wild at Heart took us 2 years and 9 months to develop, from formation of Moonlight Kids to release. And it was basically a whirlwind from the very beginning. Within a few weeks of founding the company we were invited (via a Twitter DM) to participate in Days of the Devs 2018. 

The invite was based off a pretty mockup Justin had tweeted, so little did they know we didn’t really even have a game yet! Needless to say, the next few months were a mad scramble as we rushed to get a demo together for the show. But we managed it, and that event really opened a lot of doors for us - some press, some publisher attention, and a small-but-enthusiastic fanbase.

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That was in November, and from then until April of the next year was a wild mix of courting publishers while still working on the game. We knew we definitely needed funding, and we knew we didn’t really want to handle PR or marketing directly, so finding a publishing partner was always a goal of ours.

We talked to a lot of different publishers and some indie funds, trying to find someone who would A) have us, and B) felt like a good creative fit. I’ll fast-forward a bit to move on to more juicy topics of actual production, but in short it was an extremely busy, uncertain period of the development cycle. We absolutely needed money, and while lots of folks seemed interested in the game, there was still no guarantee anything would actually come together. In the end, though, we found a home with Humble Games (then simply the “Presented by Humble Bundle” sub-label of Humble Bundle). With funding secured - and thus a stable development schedule - we were finally able to devote our entire attention to just making the game.

A quick detour. I can’t speak for everyone on my team, but every new step of the indie developer journey always ends up feeling a little bit similar: you’re shooting for the next goal, the next tier up, you put in the hours and work extremely hard, you tell yourself that if you can just get there it’ll all be worth it. 

This was true when Ankit and I quit our day jobs to start Crystal Fish, when we crunched to make our first contract as great as possible, when we first took on multiple games at once to try to grow the company, when we then sunset Crystal Fish to start Moonlight Kids with Justin and Alex, when we rushed a demo together to get to Day of the Devs... on and on and on. But this felt different to me, acquiring the funding to make The Wild at Heart. It felt like reaching a point of real stability, and was a huge sigh of relief. In some sense it felt like we had finally “made it.”

Of course, that feeling would not last long. We had a long dev cycle ahead of us, one that would ultimately have its fair share of delays, crunch and cuts. It wasn’t all bad of course - we were still getting to make the game we wanted to make, on our own schedule, without interference (and we’ll forever be grateful to Humble for that!). It was creatively freeing, to be able to just have cool ideas and then do them. 

We were always tired, but we were having a blast. If anything we probably gave ourselves a little too long of a leash! With the core mechanics of our game already being somewhat complex (3rd person herd strategy puzzles, a la Pikmin), we also wanted to pack the game full of other systems and features: crafting, open-world exploration, day/night cycle, a deep story, vacuum mechanics, two playable characters, side quests, an extensive world map, a codex... all wrapped up in a unique visual style and camera perspective, one that presented an endless amount of problems.

And that doesn’t even count all the things we cut! (A taste of those: craftable costumes, Stardew Valley-esque building construction, mini games.) It was a lot! Had we known then what we know now about how much time just the core stuff would take up, we absolutely would have cut more than half of these ideas. Despite having shipped many games before, we still fell into that classic trap of over-scoping, by a longshot.

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A good example of something that seemed like it would be manageable and then spun far out of scope was the aforementioned camera perspective. Justin’s art style for this game is meant to be pure hand drawn 2D, almost like you’re playing inside a child’s storybook. But for technical reasons (physics, navigation, environment building) we needed to build the game in a 3D space. What we knew we didn’t want was that sort of papery, pop-up look you sometimes get with 2D assets in a 3D space. Think Don’t Starve or Paper Mario - these games went for that look very intentionally, but we wanted to preserve the 2D-ness of Justin’s mockups.

So our first thought was, Ok easy, we’ll just use an orthographic camera. But that squashes the field of view to nothing and makes it really hard to perceive distance as the player moves around, a result we didn’t care for. We wanted to still preserve a sense of parallax and depth. So we switched back to a perspective view and started experimenting with different camera distances and fields of view. What ended up working best was a camera pushed surprisingly far away from the player character, but with a very low field of view that still only showed the amount of game world we wanted on a single screen. From there we had to tilt all the 2D assets at the camera, which we do procedurally at runtime so that we could continue fiddling with the camera settings without having to re-angle everything afterwards. 3D assets (like cliffs) were a little trickier, as we had to tilt those manually as we drew the meshes. 

But we developed a pretty good process for it (using the ProBuilder toolset within Unity) that made it quick for us to create terrain geometry that was at the angle we needed. With all that complete we had a game perspective we were really happy with; it looked like a 2D game at a standstill and in screengrabs, but captured some slight depth and motion of 3D space while the game was in motion. Voila!

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...and then came the render layering... I won’t dive into the issues and technicalities of all that right now, but will mention it to illustrate a point: in a game with so many systems, each new thing added often cascaded into complexities with other parts of the game. 

We wanted to make something epic, beautiful, fun and unique! Each system we thought up along the way seemed feasible on its own, but when you start puzzle-piecing it all together, that’s where the secret scope really starts to creep in. We don’t yet know what game we’re making next, but we do have newfound perspective on what a game of this size and complexity really means for scope, for a team of our size.

As we got into the back third of production and the game was getting more attention, one of the most common questions we would get was “Why this game? What were your inspirations, what was your vision?” I don’t think there can be one single answer to this, but instead a bunch of smaller facts and desires that kind of weave into something approaching an answer. Why this art style? 

Because Justin wanted to make it, and later because people on Twitter liked it (enough to get us into Day of the Devs!). Why this story? Because it’s the story Alex and Justin wanted to tell, and because it was so intrinsically linked to the mood and tone of the art from the very beginning. Why this gameplay? Because little forest creatures are adorable! But also because we really like Pikmin, and saw a hole in the market for games like it. We thought it could be really cool to uproot those mechanics and plop them into a Zelda-like adventure world.

But another truth is that developing games is our livelihood, and we needed to make something that people would want to play. Or more specifically at the time: something that a publisher would believe people would want to play. It’s a strange thing to be at the beginning of a project and have endless creative freedom, and yet still be bound by the fact that you’ll need to convince people that it’s something worth paying for. So you’re not only constrained by practical things like money, time, release windows, etc, but also by more ephemeral things like “is this enough game for a publisher to get excited about?” or “is this conceit too weird for a wide audience?” 

All throughout the pitching process we were looking for a partner that would not only be willing to fund our development, but also jive with us on our vision of the game. We definitely found that in Humble; they were willing to give us the financial support we needed while letting us do what we wanted creatively. Throughout production they trusted us to make the best game possible in our vision, and to their credit never once tried to interfere with or change the game itself. With some minor exceptions (scope cuts, playtesting feedback changes, etc - all done by us), the game is almost identical to what we started pitching in late 2018. So the version of The Wild at Heart you can play today is a combination of all of these things: creative desires, favorite inspirations, the realities of production, and our goal to become a self-sustaining studio.

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The process of making this game was life-changing. And I don’t mean that hyperbolically - we managed to raise enough money to work on a game, in our own vision, for two and half years, as a new team. During that time all of us moved at least once (one across states), one of us got married, and one had a baby. The last five or six months were a blur of 100-hour work weeks, leading to all kinds of physical and emotional unhealthiness. 

And all this while a global pandemic was raging. Needless to say we learned a lot! And there are absolutely a few things we’ll do differently on the next game. But we did it, we finished the game and shipped it, to critical and financial success. It’s hard to look back from there and say you would do something differently, since you just don’t know what kind of domino effect it could have on the larger outcome. There are some smaller things I could pick at. (Like the entire level we cut a few weeks before launch! In retrospect of course I could say we should have cut it earlier and spent that time elsewhere. There are always a handful of things like that.) But in the end the game is all of these things, all of the good and bad decisions. Now that it’s out there and resonating with players, it’s almost impossible to imagine Wild being anything else than what it is. For us, that’s good enough.

...but also we’ll be scoping smarter next time ;P

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