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Reeling in players with the design of Call of the Wild: The Angler

Call of the Wild: The Angler game director Paul "Rushy" Rustchynsky explains the appeal of fishing and hunting games.

Expansive Worlds' The Hunter: Call of the Wild is massively popular on Steam—but you probably haven't heard much about it. It's a simulation game that trades away the ease and convenience of most video game hunting mechanics for an experience that more closely resembles the real deal.

The studio's follow-up Call of the Wild: The Angler (the brand name got swapped around from game to game) zeroes in on the experience of recreational fishing. Players navigate an open-world environment (modeled after a nature preserve) to track down and catch dozens of real-world fish. Just like in real-life catch and release, players are also encouraged to be mindful of the stock of fish in the region, so that they don't risk upsetting the delicate balance of nature.

There's also an online component to the game—players can fish with friends or encounter other players as they wander the preserve.

Fishing mechanics appear in many types of adventure games, but Expansive Worlds has a different target audience than that of Animal Crossing or Red Dead Redemption Online. The Angler game director Paul "Rushy" Rustchynsky took some time to chat with us about the appeal of hunting simulators, and share insight on what separates The Angler's fishing system from the ones you're probably familiar with.

Who are the Call of the Wild games for?

Call of the Wild: The Angler is the first title in the series that Rustchynsky has worked on. In his previous roles, he was creating racing games like OnRush at companies like Codemasters. But Rustchynsky told us that even though the fanbases for racing games and hunting games come from different communities, they have quite a lot in common.

"There's a surprising amount of overlap," he observed. "The racing audience—the attention to detail is crazy. [They check] every little stitch on a seat and make sure things are precise to the millimeter in the same way people want open-world games to be authentic and realistic—something that you can be absorbed and immersed in."

If anything doesn't feel "right," or as close to the real-world experience of racing (or fishing), Rustchynsky said it can throw the player off. That's because the Call of the Wild player base consists of people who hunt and fish in real life.

Why would real-life hunters and anglers want to relive the experience in a digital world? Well it's pretty simple—most hunters and fishers can't practice the hobby year-round, and it's expensive to practice their craft in other parts of the world.

"They don't get to travel the world, they don't necessarily get to fish in these locations," said Rustchynsky. "These games offer that type of experience where you get to go globe-trotting...and do all these things which in real life would cost a fortune."

A player character in Call of the Wild: The Angler holds up a fish against the morning sun

Early focus testing with the target audience also revealed that the angling community is particularly sensitive to the seasonal nature of the sport. "For six months out of the year, you can't go fishing," Rustchynsky pointed out. Any outdoor activity is often limited by variables like weather, but recreational fishing and hunting are also strictly regulated in most parts of the globe.

Expansive Worlds' simulation titles fill that gap—and have even managed to attract the interest of players who don't hunt and fish in real life as well.

People want me, fish fear me

Seasoned game developers in the audience have probably already realized that having an audience that knows more about your game's subject matter than you do presents certain...unique challenges. They won't be satisfied with a rhythm minigame or just a simulated vibrating while you're reeling in fish. Players will have expectations about the sound of the rod, the weight of the pull, and even where and when they can find certain fish.

On some level, games like Call of the Wild: The Angler are promising players that if they recreate behaviors they understand from real life, it will work in the game as well. Rustchynsky acknowledged that presented some unique technical and design challenges.

"We've often compared fishing to rocket science in development, because it's so in-depth," Rustchynsky quipped. He made a particular note of the fish behavior and AI systems that drive them around the water. Different types of fish have to have different navigational systems and fight differently when pulling on the rod.

A player fishes at sunset in Call of the Wild: The Angler.

Rustchynsky recalled that the game's spawning system (pun intended?) was "one of the most challenging" areas because the team had to consider how to populate 64 square kilometers of fishing preserve. "With miles upon miles of waterways and deep lakes, and having to actually populate that with fish and make sure they're in the right places relative to the depth for the water, the water speed, the time of day, which affects the temperature..."

"You have all these things that need to go into a system that feeds into where and when they spawn, because you can't just magically make them appear."

Fish in The Angler spawn in a bubble relative to the player, so that if they wander to specific areas of the preserve, they can use the aforementioned real-life knowledge to track down specific prey. Assassin's Creed: Valhalla played with similar systems, but shrugged off the impact that time of day or water temperature might have on fish behavior.

Making games with the real world in mind

Call of the Wild: The Angler doesn't just present a never-ending pool of fish for players to harvest, it also charges them with protecting and preserving the digital natural space they're wandering into. Rustchynsky said that Expansive Worlds has a work culture that celebrates "the love of the great outdoors," and that the team wanted to adopt a "very ethical" stance when making the game.

"Catch and release," a popular practice in the angling world, is where fisherfolk reel in a catch, take photos with it, then return it to the waters from whence it came. Properly fishing in this manner doesn't just mean throwing a fish and being done with it, it also means using special equipment and being mindful of the depth and air pressure at which you caught a fish.

Many of these tools are implemented in The Angler, and Rustchynsky said that Expansive Worlds uses in-game characters to convey a light amount of story and narrative to "reinforce the conversation angle." Players are tasked with finding invasive species of plants out in the preserve, something real-world anglers will report while out in the wilderness.

Implementing preservation mechanics isn't just a question of personal values; it's also one of social responsibility. Expansive Worlds' prior game The Hunter: Call of the Wild has a walloping 96,000 reviews on Steam. Players who come to these games with no prior hunting or fishing experience may be tempted to take up the hobby in real life.

That's not inherently a bad thing, but deploying hundreds or thousands of new hunters into nature has consequences. "We want people to share the experience—not just play in the game but go out and do it [in nature], but also do it responsibly," Rustchynsky said.

Something else that popped up in our conversation was the topic of "the metaverse"—the notion that the internet might soon consist of immersive 3D environments that can become more realistic with the help of virtual reality. With Expansive Worlds' new online features that let players wander into one anothers' games as they explore a preserve, you might wonder if the company has thought about this prospect at all.

Players gather by the water in Call of the Wild: The Angler

"We're always keen to keep an eye on everything going on in the industry," Rustchynsky noted. But he wanted to make one clear distinction between the shared worlds he's working on versus the ones cooked up by Meta, Roblox Corp., and beyond: Expansive Worlds doesn't want to create games that "keep people locked in."

"We want to see them as a method of escapism to complement what [players] do in real life," he explained. He said that the team deliberately designs game loops that keep players invested only for one to two hours of gameplay each day.

"We don't want to exploit player behavior or anything along those lines," he said. "We want players to return and have fun, but we don't want them to burn themselves out."

So while the company is expanding its social multiplayer design, it doesn't have any interest in building a world so immersive that players prefer it over the real one. That makes sense for a team that's trying to work around an authentic love of the natural world.

Expansive Worlds' real-life hunting games are just one example of how designers are finding success by authentically recreating real-world hobbies or jobs. It's an expanding game design space that lets players who are intimately familiar with the topic keep interacting with it even in off-seasons, and also introduces new players to corners of the world they haven't experienced before.

If there's one lesson from Rustchynsky's jump from the world of racing games to recreational angling, it's that developers have plenty of opportunity to capitalize on that hobbyist interest—and that we might see more notable games in this space in the years ahead.

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