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Q&A: Designing for empathy in wholesome life-sim Cozy Grove

"I think there’s a strong temptation right now to describe the current demonstrable interest in 'wholesome' games as a recent phenomenon, but I’d argue that it has much less to do with demand, and much more to do with supply."

Chris Kerr, News Editor

March 29, 2021

8 Min Read

Cozy Grove is unashamedly, deliberately wholesome. Spry Fox's hand-drawn life-sim asks players to help an eccentric cast of lost souls find peace while making a home for themselves on an ever-changing (and slightly haunted) island. 

Following in the footsteps of genre legends like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley, the wistful title is a laid back affair, letting players build out their new home away from home and unravel its secrets at their own pace. 

Side-quests are designed to span months of play, relieving any pressure to approach the game like a maddening to-do list and instead nudging players to forge meaningful relationships with their island neighbors. Activities like fishing and crafting along with collectibles in the form of spirit animals were implemented with a similar goal in mind: to provide players with a joyful distraction from their daily routine. 

Intrigued by Spry Fox's approach to wholesome game design, the phenomenon that is the 'wholesome' genre, and how the studio intends to iterate on a formula that helped Animal Crossing: New Horizons sell over 31 million copies in under a year, we caught up with studio head David Edery to talk shop.

Gamasutra: Why do you think more and more people are flocking to the 'wholesome' genre -- and what does that word mean to you in design terms?

David Edery: I think there’s a strong temptation right now to describe the current demonstrable interest in "wholesome" games as a recent phenomenon, but I’d argue that it has much less to do with demand (i.e. "more and more people flocking to the genre") and much more to do with supply (and/or perhaps lack of marketing for that supply). The game industry ignored whole segments of the market for decades. Then platforms like the Nintendo Wii, iOS and Android began to demonstrate that, oh, hey, there’s this massive global population of players who like all sorts of games! Including "wholesome" games.

People who (for example) are story lovers, or collectors, or who are craving more social interaction with others, but who don’t want a game where the main mechanics revolve around some form of destruction, or where the game is inherently designed to aggressively absorb as much time as you could possibly put into playing it. Put another way, the market for “wholesome” games has been patiently waiting around for games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley to be made and marketed to them. My sister (who like me is in her 40s) would have loved playing Animal Crossing, but she had no idea that anything other than games about beating up bad guys even existed. My daughter, who is 10 years old, is a different story.

Gamasutra: When it came to conceptualizing the denizens of Cozy Grove, where did you start? How did you land on a style and refine it? Was there a moment when it all clicked into place?

Edery: As is the case with most of our games, we started with a mechanic that we were excited to explore, which in this case was characters who cause the landscape around them to change over time and in doing so, make that landscape more interesting to search for hidden objects. But of course we had to explain why those characters had the power to do that! So we started brainstorming and the idea of them being these sorts of adorable lost souls in a state somewhat like limbo came out of that.

Gamasutra: What were the key design considerations and mantras that informed those early concepts? Were there any specific checkboxes you were determined to hit?

Edery: We wanted to make a "cozy" game, and (very relatedly) we knew that we wanted to draw inspiration from Animal Crossing. Lots of people in the studio had played Animal Crossing and we felt like it was a great genre for Spry Fox given our particular sensibilities. Of course, there was no way we were going to be able to compete with the size and scope of team and budget that Nintendo can afford to throw at a project like Animal Crossing, so we didn’t want to try to "compete with it" so much as make our own game that serves players in the particular ways that Spry Fox is good at.

For example, the NPCs in Animal Crossing, with very few exceptions, are largely cardboard cutouts from a narrative perspective. You’ve got a character who literally cares exclusively about weight lifting, and a museum curator with an encyclopedic knowledge of fossils and insects but apparently no life or personality outside of that. Etcetera. This isn’t a problem for Animal Crossing; if anything, it’s part of the charm. But we felt there was an opportunity to tell stories that people would actually care about, and to tell those stories over a relatively long period of time so that it becomes an epic experience. So we dole out those stories, of which we’ve written a couple dozen, in bite-sized chunks over the course of several months. Hopefully the net result is an experience similar to following along with a TV series that you adore as it is being developed, or a web-comic you love as it is being written.

There’s something wonderful about media that gives you something to look forward to every day (or every # days) for an extended period of time. It becomes a dependable, pleasant ritual in your life. We also felt there was an opportunity to make some of the collection systems in Animal Crossing a bit longer-lived. There were, for example, just a small handful of shells you could find on the beach back when I was playing it. Play for one or two days and you’ve seen them all. We wanted all the major collection aspects of the game to last way longer than that.

We’ve injected some original gameplay mechanics into the genre as well (which is something we generally can’t resist doing.) for example, the world of Cozy Grove is largely uncolored when you first discover it. As a player, one of your jobs is to restore color to the world, which you do in part by helping the ghosts on the island with whatever it is they are struggling with in the moment. Recoloring the island causes trees to sprout fruit, flowers to bloom, and that sort of thing. You can then harvest those items and use them to craft other items. One loop feeds another. 

Gamasutra: The animal spirits and characters in Cozy Grove are (in the nicest possible way) rather rotund. Why did you double down on that blocky shape, and how did you utilize it to imbue each critter with their own unique personality?

Edery: The spirits of Cozy Grove are based on the bears that have been in almost every single Spry Fox game since Triple Town (most people think of them as "Alphabears" now, but of course they existed before then). Giving the bears a unique personality isn’t too difficult given that an Alphabear can literally be anything -- half corn cob, half bear, as just one real example taken from the game!

Gamasutra: Could you talk a bit about the actual process of bringing each bear to life?

Edery: The process we ultimately settled on was: I would write the backstory for a bear, riff on it with my partner Daniel, and once we were happy with it, we’d encourage Noemi Gomez, our wonderful concept artist, to draw something based on the backstory.

We had a rule that we wanted some significant percentage of the bears to be "normal" (i.e. a bear in human clothing, which is about as normal as a Spry Fox bear can get) and the rest could be "weird" (i.e. the aforementioned corn/bear hybrid.) The backstory ultimately tipped it one way or the other for a bear... for example, we have a bear who loves planting flowers and has a very sunny disposition, so she ended up being concepted as a Sunflower Bear.

We have another bear who is utterly obsessed with collecting rocks, so unsurprisingly, he’s a Rock Bear. But then there’s a character that used to be mayor of a small town, and there’s nothing really in their story that would suggest any particular synthesis with any given object, so they look like a normal, nicely-dressed bear.

Gamasutra: You've said you hope players will befriend each spirit over weeks and months, but how do you encourage that camaraderie and compassion through character design? Is it possible to design for empathy?

Edery: That’s a big question. Yes, I think it is very possible to design for empathy. To some extent, we’ve taken the easy way out in Cozy Grove. The most compelling ways to design for empathy are (IMO) exclusive to multiplayer games, and this is not currently a multiplayer game. Having said that, I’ve always felt that it’s easier to be empathetic when you understand and/or can relate to someone else’s suffering. And the more you know about someone’s story, the easier it is to understand where they are coming from. But at the same time, asking players to do a ton of reading in a single sitting about any given story can be quite difficult. Most people who play games don’t have a lot of patience for much text at any given moment. So we spread that story over a very long timeframe, and we hope that as a result, you’ll appreciate it and be willing to digest it a bit more than you might otherwise be.

Gamasutra: Finally, based on everything you've learned working on Cozy Grove, what tips would you give to other devs looking to design characters with a distinctive 'umami' flavour?

Edery: I don’t consider any of us experts in character design and wouldn’t presume to preach about it to other developers. So all that I’ll say is, I’ve been very pleased to observe the enjoyment that our playtesters seem to be getting from the aforementioned dollops of story. It does seem like our theories around that have played out nicely, and I’m very happy about that, because there were no guarantees when we started out.

About the Author(s)

Chris Kerr

News Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Game Developer news editor Chris Kerr is an award-winning journalist and reporter with over a decade of experience in the game industry. His byline has appeared in notable print and digital publications including Edge, Stuff, Wireframe, International Business Times, and PocketGamer.biz. Throughout his career, Chris has covered major industry events including GDC, PAX Australia, Gamescom, Paris Games Week, and Develop Brighton. He has featured on the judging panel at The Develop Star Awards on multiple occasions and appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live to discuss breaking news.

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