Finding comfort in a pet project: The Bushido Blade-inspired Kyoto Wild

Indie developer Teddy Diefenbach's comfort project while he works on Hyper Light Drifter is a four-player brawler inspired by games like Power Stone, Bushido Blade and Earthbound.
Teddy Diefenbach is an L.A.-based independent game developer and musician who seeks solace from his full-time gig making games by...making other games. I first became acquainted with Diefenbach through his work on The Moonlighters, but many people know him better as a designer and programmer on Heart Machine's ambitious action-RPG Hyper Light Drifter. But in the bits and pieces of his day that aren't devoted to Heart Machine, Diefenbach has been working on another game -- a four-player competitive brawler featuring feudal Japanese ronin tussling out their differences with swords, fans, gardening tools, and a host of other improvised weapons scattered throughout each level. The pitch is simple: four players enter a level, and the one who survives determines where in town the fight goes next. The slain players respawn, and the fight continues. But Diefenbach's relationship to his side project seems complicated; in this edited transcript of an email interview with Gamasutra he opens up about his design process and how his career as an independent developer has affected his personal life, as well as his thoughts about the prospect of burning out on game design.

What inspired you to start Kyoto Wild as a side project while you work on Hyper Light Drifter? How has that affected your personal life?

I actually started Kyoto Wild over a year ago while Alex Preston was secretly bringing Hyper Light Drifter into existence. At the time I was invested full-time in a game called The Moonlighters that I was developing with my friend Mike Sennott. That game was intensely personal to me, and I was feeling the stresses of trying to bring something like that to life and figure out how to get anyone to care. So, for me, Kyoto Wild was what I call a "comfort game" - free of the stresses of deadlines and PR - just my little toy to play with.
Now that our amazing Hyper Light backers have saved me from the dread of penniless indie development, Kyoto Wild has become a design refresher for me. I always find that I do my best work when I have another project to give me regular perspective on my work. We four full-timers of Heart Machine work a full regular work-week like real adults! Alex is a wise leader, and has emphasized sustainable hours for the project to keep us all excited about it every day. We work Monday-Friday, roughly 10-7, plus other commitments that come up like festivals and travel. I devote 10-20 extra hours a week to Kyoto Wild over nights and weekends, and every time I come back to work on Hyper Light I feel enthused! I've sort of thrown [my personal life] into chaos over the last year, and the games I make are my life's grounding agent right now. I have a lot of life to figure out, but I do know that I'm very lucky to be able to make games full-time, and I'm taking advantage of that to the fullest.

Are you concerned about burnout?

[I'm] always mindful of burnout, though truthfully I'm not worried about it. I think I'm a peculiar, specific type of person, and at a particular stage of my creative career where the most relaxing thing for me to do is to create things. Yes, I think that for most developers, working as much as I am would lead to burnout and bad work-life balance. I prefer to consider a "hard-happy" balance: balancing hours in your day that feel hard and trying with those that make you happy, whether these are work or play. I have a great many outlets and opportunities that I have reached in the last year or so, and not taking advantage of those makes me unhappy. I can say from experience over the last year that some of my more stressful times have been when I've tried to vacation away from work. As far as I can see into the future, this is working for me. I love my work. I love the medium of videogames and am passionate about progressing it, and having dialogues with my peers about how we can work together to that end. It's my passion -- and that means intense focus to me.

What inspired and influenced your work on Kyoto Wild?

Most of my big game influences come from the golden era of the late '90s. Bomberman 64, Power Stone 2 and yes, Bushido Blade 2 inspired the core gameplay most. I'm also a huge RPG nerd. My love of visiting towns in Earthbound, Final Fantasy 7 and Super Mario RPG spawned my concept of having players travel around and explore a feudal town while fighting. Visually, Kurosawa films, the color design in Zhang Yimou's "Hero", and Samurai Champloo influenced the direction a lot. Before I made games, I made music, so that tends to drive aesthetic for me first. Every time I work on Kyoto Wild, I listen to my inspiration playlist -- a lot of Ben Howard, Jose Gonzalez and Fink -- real earthy guitar music.

You're not the first indie developer I've met who's also a musician. How does your experience making music influence the way you make games?

In college, I studied game programming and I studied music. I think the two disciplines -- and game design, for that matter -- poke the happy center of the same kind of brain. To understand music, you have to understand its components -- the role each plays -- and how they act different together than they do apart. I could say that same sentence and replace "music" with "game design." I feel with music, and I can find what I love aesthetically most easily with music -- I have more confidence in my ear's taste than my eye's, I suppose. I like to start there, and then derive a visual concept from the sound.

How are you building Kyoto Wild, and what are your thoughts about bringing in more collaborators on the game? I know Tim Reynolds has contributed, but I'm curious to know if it's important to you that this project remain a personal one.

I'm using Unity to develop, and Cinema 4D for art -- no middleware tools at this point, but if I'm smart I'll do that. Tim's work was a big influence on me as I figured out what I wanted the game to look like. I cold-emailed him about it a while back and freaked out that he was willing to work with me a little! But yeah, he's not technically working on the game -- more of a friend/advisor. I'll definitely bring in collaborators some point soon -- I'm loving doing everything (design, code, art, animation) but would be happy to relinquish a few tasks to make the game better. Right now I'm hunting for the right music collaborator, which I've already admitted is crucial to me. I'm not worried about the project getting any less personal for me -- all my work is personal for me in some way, and I'd want collaborators that feel the same way.

Any notable challenges you ran into during development?

I spent 2 months last year transforming Kyoto Wild into a persistent online game, because I had this idea that I wanted to really roam around the world meeting other ronin. I got the server running and online combat functional, and then at that moment decided to kill it.
Concept art from the failed persistent online version of Kyoto Wild.
That process wasn't rewarding for me; the game was harder to playtest (requiring multiple computers), and MMO interaction is still really complex to code with low latency. I knew that if I continued down that path it would pull time away from the combat and aesthetics I cared most about. All I have is my time.

Yeah, the difficulty of implementing online multiplayer has been a bit of a contentious issue recently. How do you feel about the multiplayer systems in Kyoto Wild?

Personally, I enjoy playing multiplayer games on a couch with my friends. I spend enough time alone working, and it's good for me to use my time allocated to games to spend quality time with my friends. You have to make compromises when you implement online because of lag, which normally revolves around rewinding the game state or showing one player an outcome that appears unfair. Beau Blyth (creator of Samurai Gunn and my design/code buddy on Hyper Light Drifter) chose to avoid online because he cares a lot about each single frame of the combat, and I've come to also. There's just no way allowed by physics to transmit data faster than the speed of light, which is pretty fast, but not fast enough. That being said, I understand that many people don't have the luxury I do of spending all day among friends who play games, and I care about supporting them. I'm planning to put online multiplayer in Kyoto Wild by the time I release. I also plan to kidnap my friend Mark Essen to tell me his online multiplayer secrets from Nidhogg.

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