The Captains of Whalenought Studios

The logo fades in: a triptych of whales hovering above a dark sea, each wielding a formidable chaingun on their dorsal fins. This ominous logo represents Whalenought Studios, my brother and sister-in-law's game company. Married above the riff-raff of Hubbard street in downtown Chicago this past May, the captains of Whalenought -- Joe and Hannah Williams -- currently work from the comforts of their newly rented space in the quieter escape of the Rogers Park neighborhood (in Chicago). The duo have been working on a diverse catalog of apps for over a year now, a few of which are already in the App Store. If their current projects are any indication, upcoming apps from the studio should be pioneering champions of well-established game genres, pushing forward a seriousness that few mobile app developers exhibit.

Whalenough Studios' first release was an interactive children's ebook, Snake Likes to Take. Available as a universal app for both iPhone and iPad, the book challenges children to drag and drop specifically shaped objects that align with a hungry Snake's appetite. I smugly blew through the book's puzzles as a 28-year child.

Their sophomore effort was incarnated in a hardcore "orbital" platforming game called Bridge to the Moon. Released earlier this summer, Bridge to the Moon meets at the intersection of a 2D Mario Galaxy, the animated action of Metal Slug, and the gritty art direction of Metroid. Not quite a traditional platformer, Bridge to the Moon manages to push the familiar 2D platformer gameplay into a niche space all its own.

Upcoming games include a throwback to ARPGs from the 90s and a darkly humorous take on tower defense games (its main defensive structure is a human-powered poop chute).

The duo were kind enough to take some time out of their busy days for an interview to talk about their next, most ambition game yet, Isle of Bxnes, as well as volley opinions on the current state of mobile gaming, and plans for the future.

PW: Whalenought Studios is focused on platformers (of the orbital kind) and ARPG-oriented games with pixel art and mostly isometric views. Why did you pursue this aesthetic and direction for your current game, Isle of Bxnes -- had you explored any other ideas first, or did it come about all at once?

WHALENOUGHT: Animation is on a very high pedestal for us though. We want our worlds to live and breathe in their native pixel world, not have clip art flow around the screen. Pixel art has a timeless appeal that not a lot of other mediums in the industry can say aged as well, and we'd like people to get a refreshing feel of knowing they are playing a video game that could have been from any era.

Being a two-person team means we need to use the resources and knowledge we are already good at, which is pixel art and vector art. Vector art has a tendency to look like clip art for 90% of it's existence until it becomes masterfully polished. Some developers are okay with that, especially those who don't plan on animating art. If you're decent at graphic design and can draw something, then just tween and interpolate it across the screen without animation and you've joined the ranks of almost all 2D physics games.

The isometric perspective is something we're both just really fond of as well, especially for RPGs. Something feels like they just belong in that world - add an adventuring party in a tavern with classic fantasy tavern music and it feels just right. We found a niche missing from the mobile world, which was a lack of 1998-inspired RPGs and action RPGs (ARPGs), something I've always wanted to see a lot more of in general - but especially in mobile.

PW: There has definitely been a dearth of CRPGs and ARPGs on mobile for serious gamers nostalgic for the past. It was great to finally see the Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition come to iOS -- it's a platform that long needed that kind of game to prove the devices suitable for long-form play. And I think we both agree that the resurgance in pixel art across games has been a great thing for indie developers -- a lot of emotion can be conveyed with simpler building blocks now that artists have mastered the form (the recent release, A Ride in the Mountains, is a great example of that -- its fantastically animated horse communicates strideful intensity and weight with minimal animation).

Wanted to talk to you a bit about how you plan and design levels. In Bridge to the Moon, the levels are efficiently mapped, but at first blush, appear dense and complex. How do you go about planning and executing?

WHALENOUGHT: Having Baldur's Gate to play on mobile was an amazing feat, I hope there are more to come from Beamdog. I heard they had some licensing issues with Atari though, I assume they'll come to some agreement if they haven't already.

The levels in Bridge to the Moon were designed for the play mechanics at hand: running around circles and having ample room to guide and dodge missiles. A few early levels just feature a few enemies and lots of breakable walls, while later ones feature tons of enemies and few walls. Game design wise, that made it an easy progression for the difficulty and learning curve.

Isle of Bxnes, and our future planned projects, are using a completely different setup for game design and levels. A lot of how we're planning the levels is dependent on what our current engine can handle. We're switching to Corona Labs after completing Isle of Bxnes to make a larger open ended world possible.

Isle of Bxnes levels fit into nicely compacted islands, which was a size limitation (on mobile and our engine) which greatly influenced our game design. Initial planning was one fairly sizable island where you moved around freely, every level attached to the same map and grid. Having to reduce the size of the levels, we kept all the main elements of the game but added the tribe's raft to get the player from island to island. It makes the player feel a little more involved with their tribe, who is kind of the main character of the game, so that was a great addition.

By making the flow of the gameplay move from raft to island (maybe to cave or second tier of a mountain or dungeon within that island level) and back to raft, we were able to make the islands much more full of life by having the islands more dense with enemies, puzzles, or quests. The experience of traversing a large, maybe more desolate area, was traded for a more action-packed, segmented experience, so good and bad came with that.

Designing is done with lots of sketching and coming up with options for what's on each island. We have a wall full of jotted down levels and level events waiting to find a place. Actually creating the levels is done using a kind of tiling hybrid method - the base of the backgrounds are put together with tiles and then we add animated and still objects on top of them. Performance wise it's bittersweet; we have options for more variety, as we're not actually constrained to a tiling grid, but at the cost of performance and level size. It's an endless struggle working with mobile.

Each island has around three different variations: usually theming what enemies, boss battles, or events take place there. So for a given island, a player could either find giants camped out near their tents waiting to swarm, a hermit looking for boars to sacrifice, or an island post-battle littered with bodies, cannibals, and maggots crawling around. And a player will only see one version of that island during their current playthrough, so it's a comfortably controlled randomization for the player. Nothing is 'procedurally generated', so we can have nicely designed maps without it just being up to chance or an algorithm that they turn out decent. During raft travel you can get ambushed by exotically large sea-life or other tribes on rafts or canoes, so the raft also becomes a level.

We're almost done with all of the features in the game, so we're getting pretty hot and heavy into finishing more maps now.

PW: I'm curious to see the variety of environments now that I know there are going to be more than three main islands to explore. When I first saw the visual style and setting for Isle of Bxnes, I was reminded of Act III in Diablo 2 -- a notoriously brutal segment of the game with similarly maniacal enemies set in a deep, ancient jungle. What kinds of inspiration from other gaming environments, if any, helped inform the world you've been building?

WHALENOUGHT: Our game uses a lot of on-map objects and scenery like Diablo to make the world feel very lively and filled with objects to use for cover, or to run behind during fights. However, I think visually, because our game uses a tile-orientated style, it takes more inspiration from 2D Zelda games. We're making more maze-like dungeons and temples with some prehistoric puzzles that reflect a Zelda design.

To make the art style gritty, there aren't areas of flat colors like a lot of SNES games had. The pixel art is created in a way to give the effect of 3D textures in some areas, lots of subtle noise to make the area look as rich with texture as the characters are with their animations. Most importantly, the characters and trees are always moving and breathing to create the impression of a responsive world. Overall, we tried to replicate the '1998 RPG', the 3D models rendered in 2D in an isometric view, but instead used pixel art. Not hyper-stylized, and very textured and animated.

PW: I can absolutely back a "1998 CRPG" game -- Black Isle Studios stole all my summers in junior high and high school, and I'd sacrifice them again.

So with your current platformer, Bridge to the Moon, some critics have argued that the player is thrust into puzzle-like levels without guidance as to direction or gameplay mechanics. While it took me a few tries to comprehend what exactly to do, it never hampered my experience -- do you think that the simplification of games, especially on mobile, has warped gamers' expectations around the challenge of a game?

WHALENOUGHT: I think different games call for different amounts of hand-holding. The mobile market tends to not leave a lot up to the imagination of the player when starting out - developers are trying to capitalize on the mass market, which means a lot of casual gaming on the go.

I definitely don't think it has to be that way, though - I'd say the first 'level' or few minutes of a game tell the player exactly the kind of experience they are going to have, and that's just so paramount it's sort of a tragedy so many developers throw it away with a lame tutorial level or a hand holding session of exactly what to build or do. I personally love the mystery of discovering mechanics in a game. When I bought Witcher 2 when it first came out, there was a literal trial-by-fire by having your first enemies be full on soldiers and a dragon spewing fire everywhere. It was insane, and I thought it perfectly conveyed the super challenging game design.

There seems to be an unspoken rule about making mobile games hyper-accessible. I definitely can see the point of adding in more instructions for a player in Bridge to the Moon, even if it's just like a slideshow of the controls and gameplay before the first level. We chose not to for a reason, though, and we continue doing a very limited amount in Isle of Bxnes. I think we're making it more clear what's usable for the player so that we don't need anything telling them what to do. It's their adventure, let them make their discoveries on their own terms, with dignity.

PW: Speaking of hand-holding, any thoughts on ’achievements’ in the gaming industry, and why you decided against their use in your games so far? I can guess your answer with certainty, but that wouldn't be as fun.

WHALENOUGHT: I think they are a wonderful addition if you're the kind of person who needs validation from friends and family for clearing a map. One great experience I remember is emerging from the vault in Bethesda's Fallout 3 for the the first time. After a few hours of being stuck underground in tight corridors, I finally open the iconic vault door to a beautifully rendered landscape, mountains, and wasteland as far as the computer can render. Then it happens, a sight to behold in this fantastically and intricately designed moment, and the Xbox UI vomits across my screen: ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: YOU LEFT THE VAULT. Maybe they thought I was blinded by the mere sight of the outdoors.

I remember hearing somewhere that the consoles at least require some amount of achievement tiers or amount you can get, so that's on the console's end for making it part of a game-play experience, if one could call it that. There are of course two sides, and some games can definitely add market-oriented features like this and not necessarily break the flow or experience of the gameplay (puzzlers, for instance).

I refuse to include pop-up and social media achievements mostly because I'm under the impression that achievements and IAP (in-app purchases), especially in the mobile world, come from the same game-design philosophy that is unfortunately dominating the market: quick interest, quickly addicting, quick money. You know the games, the same ones you played years before the mobile market existed in Flash.

Achievements without visual bombardment are harmless enough, but I think that making the player read text to see if they did something important instead of graphically comprehending it is just terribly lazy design.

We are toying with the idea about making a certain character on your raft tell you all the legendary creatures they have heard about - and if you've destroyed any he could tell you when you want to talk to him. It would be an unobtrusive but interesting in-game feature, and it wouldn't break the immersion of traversing the world. I think Castlevania: Symphony of the Night did something similar where you could browse through a catalog of monsters that you had killed. That was a really fun feature and added depth to the game instead of an interruption.

PW: Great example with Bethesda's Fallout 3. Achievements annoyingly ruin gameplay immersion (and let's not excuse notifications in general, like when a buddy initiatives playing a game on Steam); these interruptions grate against expectations a lot of gamers from our generation have about how game experiences should be.

I remember all those cool bestiaries some games had that compiled when you discovered and killed monsters. You're right, pretty sure Castlevania had that. Your implementation of a character-driven bestiary in Isle of Bxnes sounds like a nice evolution of that.

You also seem to to be evolving some new concepts around post-death revival -- namely, the themes around leadership in a tribe and rearing new sons to take your place (essentially a riff on "respawns" and additional lives). How did that idea come about?

WHALENOUGHT: The bestiaries are great, we're currently developing a death screen which shows how many and which enemies you took down with you through your odyssey before dying, or how many you put to the club upon victory. I think it fits nicely as a constant reminder of your perils during smaller gameplay sessions for a more hardcore game where death and restart are commonplace.

The respawn feature came very early as a response to what kind of game we were developing. It's a mobile game, fast paced, super challenging action rpg, and able to be played in short-bursts. The short play sessions directly correlate to the islands, and the game saves itself every time you get back to your raft or anytime you start on an island. The player can't save or load game files himself, their actions are irreversible. To add more onto player choice and the weight of fragility in their situation, he has a maximum number of sons that can replace him.

The sons' initial stats vary, so you can get duds you can choose to dump if you can afford to try mating again, or you can get stuck with a weak son you can try to power up through equipment and totems. It's a brutal world out there, and getting a son without any upper body strength isn't going to help get your tribe across the sea. The cost of mating and adding more lives is steep though, and the currency used -- hearts and furs -- are also for competing for services like healing and training your tribe. When you leave your raft on an island, your health and skills are the only things keeping you alive, so there are some meaningful choices on how the player spends his meaty currency. If the hunter does die and has a son to replace him, he drops his equipment so it can be picked up, safety pending.

PW: Thorough gameplay/story mechanics like these are a pleasure to see invested in game design. And what I've seen in the current alpha build, I can tell it's coming along swimmingly. Can you share any plans for future projects? Where does Whalenought Studios go from here?

WHALENOUGHT: Thank you! The alpha testing has been a tremendous help and we've gotten a lot of feedback. We are taking a lot of suggestions we've gotten from testers and moving it into a beta stage in the coming week, we're just getting finished adding the last of the features we planned for. Looking back at the initial designs of the game, it's crazy how much got added in we didn't plan for, and how all the pipe-dream assets made their way in. We've been in the professional development world before starting the company, and know cutting features is a norm to make deadlines, so to get away with adding additional features beyond the initial scope is an amazing triumph, a testament to hungry creative working by themselves. Also the benefit of being self-publishing, our only deadline is the ones we make for ourselves to keep surviving.

Post Isle of Bxnes, which we're scheduling to release by the end of September, we're moving onto finishing the art and cross platforming optimization for Poop Factory, an action game we already programmed prior to Bxnes. During this time we'll be simultaneously revving up our Corona coding and story boards for our next large project, our flagship, the Traditions of Vol. With Isle of Bxnes, we've learned a lot of what were able to do on mobile and want to do in our future products and RPGs, and high fantasy more traditional table top RPG is the next desired step. More towards a larger world with more character depth, classic role-playing elements, and strategic gameplay. We believe the world could use (desperately needs?) more Infinity Engine-inspired games -- that's what we want to play more of, so that's the obvious and inevitable choice of what we'll aim toward next. Excited to release more info on that later next month!

PW: Awesome. Thanks so much for your time. Good luck wrapping up Isle of Bxnes.

We'll be in touch, I'm sure. Literally. Like, on a screen.