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Road to the Student IGF: John Gottschalk on Westerado

March 13, 2014 | By John Polson

March 13, 2014 | By John Polson
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More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Indie, Programming, Art, Audio, Design, Video, IGF

Western game players got a Dutch perspective from Ostrich Banditos' Student IGF Finalist Westerado, with gritty pixels, "gun-versation" mechanics, and a lengthy campaign that caught its browser-based audience by surprise.

Playable for free online at Adult Swim Games, the action exploration game was originally conceived as a cross between Legend of Zelda meets Messhof's Cowboyana. The five-person team from HKU University of the Arts Utrecht wanted to try giving players full agency in the wild West, while also making new gun controls where weight was attached to the player's actions.

As part of our Road to the IGF series, team member John Gottschalk discusses the Ostrich Banditos' approach to player agency and input design, along with Western research and the team's empowering "gun-verstionalist" dev tool.

How did you come up with the concept?

John Gottschalk: Our artist, Jordi Boin, and I were kicking around ideas for a project, and I've always been a fan of Westerns as a film genre. Creating the experience of the West, that sweat-soaked, hot, dirty and often nasty feeling, was something we thought could translate really well to games.

We really loved a whole range of Westerns, from classic Spaghetti Westerns like 'The Dollar Trilogy' or 'The Magnificent Seven' to goofball Westerns like 'Wild Wild West,' 'Maverick,' 'Shanghai Noon,' and even more modern Westerns that really dig into the tense feelings like 'Open Range,' 'The Proposition,' and the Coen Brothers' 'True Grit.'

We really wanted to bring the tension of the West across by giving the player full agency throughout the world. Being able to kill, threaten, or accuse anyone was one of the ways we wanted to accomplish that. Another was deconstructing the gun controls so you really felt like you were taking hold of your actions. Pulling out your gun had weight attached to it by creating anticipation for what you were doing and giving the wold a chance to react to every move you make and shot you take. We were inspired early on by Messhof's little game Cowboyana. which also plays significantly with translating the physicality of a gun to controls.

What in particular inspired the "gun-versations"?

As an extension of wanting to create agency throughout the world, making use of the silent protagonist trope and also by getting extremely annoyed by games that have a 'moral-based' conversation system with 'saint/jerk' options, the gun-versation idea sprung into being.

In so many Westerns, you see a cowboy pull his gun to get info from someone, to have them hand over the money or just to shock them. It's so much more evocative than using words, and it was such a natural extension of the deconstruction of the gun.

Jeroen Wimmers, one of our programmers, recalls the specific scene with Lee van Cleef in 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,' where he's putting tension on the father of the family to give up money and information without hardly saying more than a word.

Also, we love puns.


Being Dutch developers, what research or media informed your decisions on the Western theme?

We are Dutch developers, and 4 out of 5 of us are Dutch, but I am American myself. That being said, not all of the reference material came through me. Everyone in the company was pretty familiar with Westerns because unlike many of its neighbors, The Netherlands has a tendency not to dub movies or media, so a lot of it gets into the culture unfiltered. You still get to hear Clint Eastwood's actual voice and experience all the movies as they were intended.

Jordi, our artist, is also a big fan of the sci-fi Western 'Firefly,' and Yhorik Aarsen, our lead programmer, is a fan of almost anything American.

How were the sounds written and recorded?

A composer at our school, Sam van Lonkhuyzen, joined us on the project; it was his first time writing music for a Western. We introduced him to Ennio Morricone, Aaron Copland, and Ferde Grofe, among others, and really tried to get that classic gallop into the rhythm of the theme song. All of the instruments were played either by Sam or several of his friends, who also chipped in on some of the twangs and finesse in their individual parts.

One thing that might not be as apparent is that we had some trouble getting the right vibe for indoor music and actually ended up and going back and referencing Legend of Zelda for the general sentiment, but with a Western twang thrown at it.

We also liked a lot of soundtracks from other games: Bastion, Red Dead Redemption, and Wild Arms. I'm sure they snuck their way in there a bit, too.

If you want to get the Westerado soundtrack, please visit our composer's Bandcamp.

What development tools did you use?

Our dev tools are actually pretty interesting; aside from using FlashDevelop as our basis for working in AS3, we used a couple of content tools. The first we used is Ogmo as our level editor, it's a great open-source tool, but we've also built in a little bit of our own. We've added our own functionality to Ogmo, which we're calling Blockscript (or Bloxcrypt, name yet to be determined). We have various squares that contain different functions that can execute code in-game, essentially allowing anyone in the team to set up confrontations or have the world adapt to the player's actions. We can control how NPC's move around or react, start gun-versations with characters, start 'Action Scenes' such as the Buffalo Drive or Horde Mode, and a lot of other base functionality throughout the game.

Our second major tool is one we made completely in-house that we like to call the "Gun-versationist." As you might suspect, it handles all the gun-versations throughout the game. Many characters have multiple paths through conversations and multiple plot-lines that depend on the outcome of events. It looks like a pretty basic tool aesthetically, but it's incredibly versatile. At any point in a conversation, the Gun-versationist has to give the player the option to say something, pull out their gun, cock their gun, or put it away again. Which can make creating a conversation a tricky expedition. The tool also allows us to handle the variables that change the plot-paths and adventures the player comes across. It even allows us to change the animations, music, and sound effects accompanying the characters across from you.

These tools were not only super useful because of their versatility, but because it meant anyone in the team could open the tools and add new content to the game without having to bug a programmer about it. It was run-of-the-mill for someone to add a new character to the Gun-versationist, write conversations and place them in the Ogmo project and level without anyone knowing it was even going to be in the game. It was a lot of fun because you could be surprised by content, and be able to explore the world even as one of the developers, also because it was so quick and easy to add content and experiment.

How long did you work on your game, and why did you choose your target platforms?

The game started as a prototype that 3 of us worked on part-time for 2 months, and then we got the whole team of 5 together, and worked 4 months full-time. One of the major reasons for releasing on Adult Swim's online games portal was because we had gotten the chance with them to pitch a project, and we knew they had an opening for January 2013. It fit in with our schedules, paid well, and it meant we also had external deadlines that really helped motivate us through the project. The team at Adult Swim is also really great, and a lot of help throughout the process; it wouldn't be the game it is today without them and their advice and support of the project.

Having the game on a Flash portal also worked out really well in our favor because people just aren't accustomed to seeing games of Westerado's size come out as an in-browser experience. It stood out, and got a lot of attention just for the scale of it, and a lot of fans have been asking us about the possibility of a downloadable version. Fingers crossed!

What lessons did you learn in working together?

A small team is great for its versatility, and especially if you're working in a designer-heavy team, tools are incredibly powerful. Content can be made incredibly quickly if you have the motivation and focus.

Since Westerado, we've really evaluated our positions in projects and in the company. You can find yourself getting stuck in the same kind of work day after day unintentionally because you happen to have momentum towards it. It's really important to make sure everyone knows what they can work on, and that they're happy and motivated for it. If you're not enjoying your job, why are you doing it? Of course, there's an incredible rush as you release a game, but it has to come from loving the process and wanting to challenge yourself and provide the best possible experience for the player.

The content creation of the first Westerado was a bit of a mess, and now we're learning to balance how much we tame the process to make it structured and clear, and how much we leave open for experimentation.

How do you feel your school prepares students for independent game development?

Our school doesn't really focus on preparing students for independent development or triple-A work; our school is really focussed on applied game design. The Dutch games industry is as a whole pretty focused on applied games, although the entertainment side has been growing over the past couple of years, with studios like Ronimo, Vlambeer, GameOven, Sparpweed, and Abbey Games, among many.

The Game Design course at our school grew out of Interaction Design, and as such it really focuses on having intent with your design, and accomplishing a design intent with your audience. You work in teams focused on realizing a concept, rather than technical brilliance. As such, I think it lends itself better towards independent game development because they're really trying to teach you how to think through game design and create experiences with them.

We were the first team to test the HKU's new "Incubator" program, where teams get to work on their own project and company. They're still working out the kinks, but it has served us well so far.

What indie games have you played in the past 12 months that impressed you, and why?

This is a list from everyone in the team, and let me just say it now: we've liked a lot of games this past year.

Papers, Please - The physicality of all the actions is great, the sense of pushing papers, and seeing each person as a piece of paper is just fantastic. It also has an interesting narrative progression, primarily affected by your actions using the tools available to you, approve or deny. - John

Kentucky Route Zero - This must be my favorite game of the past year or two, it's tone and merging of media and history is fantastic. The creator's knowledge, background and research have crystallized to make an incredibly affecting experience about disempowerment and loss of home, family and purpose. And its just DARN gorgeous! - John & Jordi

King Arthur's Gold - It's just a fantastic multiplayer game, with so many fun moving parts to get good or even great at. Finding tactics to dig straight through the opponents defenses, get catapulted across with chickens to aid your flight, or building the perfect defenses is just terribly addictive. I'm not one to get into building games, but because of the relatively short matches it makes the building frantic, but also necessarily iterative and experimental, and attacking them, just the same. - Wytze Kamp & John

The Banner Saga - Of course, the art style has just blown us away, the combat really caught me in the free multiplayer version, and the writing in Chapter 1 is to die for. - John

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons - It makes such simple use of controls and mechanics to build a relationship and make the player actually care for these characters. A nice little example of narrative through mechanics all wrapped up in a bow for a concise and emotionally effecting playthrough. - John

Spelunky - I've loved Spelunky since the 4th time I played the original PC version, the first 3 times I didn't get it, but luckily I tried it one more time, and it's been in my favorites ever since. When the HD PC version came out I had already played it on Xbox 360 and didn't know how much I'd get into it, but having the daily runs, speed runs, competitions and watching Bananasaurus Rex play it, I was head over heels again. It was also my first introduction to roguelikes, and for that I will always be thankful. - Jeroen Wimmers & John

Maverick Bird - This started up some fierce competition in the office, for a Flappy Bird clone it manages to keep it simple but give you just enough options to feel like you are definitely going to beat your fellow Banditos this time round. - Wytze & John

The Stanley Parable - This captured most of the team with the demo alone, and is just such a fantastic deconstruction of game tropes, and while teasing, never comes off as entirely condescending. - Wytze, Jeroen, Jordi & John

The Walking Dead - This game has a great story that engages you all the way to the end. You actually start to care about the characters as you start to take on the responsibility for the group. - Jeroen & Jordi

Dungeon of the Endless - We're looking forward to how this one develops, it's looking very promising, and its pixel style and lighting is just super cool. - Jordi

TowerFall - Competitive, clear design, interesting level designs, cool power-ups and the right customization tools. We've spent quite some time on this already, it's a great local multiplayer game. - Wytze, Jeroen, Yhorik & John

Samurai Gunn - It has very simple, basic mechanics that have been tweaked and polished to nearly perfection. That results in very competitive, twitchy gameplay with graphical details that give the game a very original aesthetic. - Wytze & John

ibb & obb - I haven't played the full game yet, but the bits I've played felt so good. The puzzles are well constructed and use the inverse gravity mechanic incredibly well. And the game looks gorgeous. Waiting for the Steam version. - Wytze, Jeroen & John

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