About five months ago Ostrich Banditos, a small independent Dutch games studio, came into existence. Ostrich Banditos counts five guys, all students, who decided to collaborate in an effort to create lively, memorable games. This is the story of developing Westerado, a western action adventure detective RPG for Adult Swim, or simpler: spaghetti western simulator.
Before the summer three of us, John Gottschalk, Jordi Boin and Jeroen Wimmers collaborated on a school project. The goal: to create a rogue-like game, heavily inspired by Western movies. For a couple of months we worked on the game and delivered an immersive yet barebones game where the player could walk around and shoot bandits.
In the following weeks the full team came together to discuss the setup of Ostrich Banditos. After some talking Octrich Banditos was born! Now we were scouting for assignments. The most interesting one was suggested to us by the guys at Vlambeer: Adult Swim was looking for developers to pitch their game ideas. We collected a few ideas we already had, from which Westerado stood out. The game ready to show and we could make a quick and easy start on expanding the game.
In order to see what Adult Swim was looking for in a game we took a look at their previous titles. Each of their games has some sort of weird twist, something odd that would make the game stand out. Westerado, in its current form, lacked focus and structure. This led us to re-defining the experience: we’d have to give our western game more focus and integrate Adult Swim’s twist.
Focusing the game
Westerado already had a scene in place where you’d find your brother and mother murdered near their burning ranch. We took this and expanded upon it, deciding that the player’s goal would be to find this murderous man. It became a revenge story. The game’s new core idea: The player creates his own western movie by interacting with characters, leading to different plot lines based on his choices. With the core idea in place, we were looking for a way to integrate Adult Swim’s twist. We came up with the idea that the player would literally be making his own movie: all the characters are actors, some of the buildings are fake set pieces and the director and his team exist in the game world. All of these elements would break the fourth wall. At first subtly, but gradually more obvious, so the player would slowly discover he’s on a movie set.
We all loved this fourth wall breaking idea and we came up a lot of ideas and a number of concept art pieces based on it. As we progressed, we realized, with help of Adult Swim’s feedback, that the movie world’s and the real world’s goals conflicted. Is it the player’s goal to create a great movie, or is it his goal to find the murderer? Which of the two is more important? Should we have both of these in the game? To prevent player confusion and save ourselves work, we had to reduce the presence of the movie world.
Throughout the entire development process we’ve struggled to keep Westerado as focused as possible. Constantly prioritizing what was essential to improve the game and gradually letting go of features resulted in two core mechanics: shooting and gun-versations (conversations with guns as a conversation option). Had we implemented more features, the full game would have lacked the polish we desired.
Finally, the game world itself went through several iterations. Initially we had one massive world with only house interiors as separated areas. This made it very hard for players to navigate through the world and find important people and places. Then Jeroen suggested a radical change: remove the overworld; keep only the important people and places. After a team discussion, we decided he was right. Players traveled from important area to important area through a menu. This turned out to feel too constraining, we had lost the charm of an open world and players felt a stuck. The final change to the world was simple: we kept the fast traveling option, but connected the separate areas. This resulted in sufficient player direction to keep the player’s attention, while keeping the charm of roaming in an open world.
Tools empower the team
Westerado is a big game. All the Banditos admit, with mixed feelings of shame and pride, that we haven’t even played through every possible scenario ourselves. Creating the content necessary to make the game feel complete and finished was the biggest challenge we faced. Two factors were essential in achieving this: working our buttocks off and creating excellent tools. We created the gun-versationist and an expansion upon the free level editor OGMO. Without these two tools, we would have never been able to generate our content. The time invested in the tools was very well worth it. It proved invaluable to our process and would probably prove invaluable to that of any game developer.
So the first tool we made was the gun-versationist, fully created by Yhorik. As its name suggests it was programmed to create our gun-versations with. The tool itself is quite simple. You place two dots and connect them with a line. The dot indicates what an NPC says, the line indicates the conversation option the player has. Every dot and line has four text fields named ‘voice’, ‘requirements’, ‘changes’ and ‘description’. In ‘voice’ you enter the text of a character. In ‘requirements’ and ‘changes’ you can add any number of variables to manipulate the gun-versation or the game world. ‘Description’ is for ease of use, as it simply displays a text in the editor itself. Different dot and line colours indicate different actions. And quite important: the tool always interprets from left to right.
When we got used to the tool we could make a large amount of gun-versations without ever bothering the programmers about it. This allowed all of our team members, primarily John, to generate a lot of content with ease.
The other tool we used was an expansion upon the free level editor OGMO. Initially it was used only to create the visual layout of the levels, but Yhorik and Jeroen created a ‘trigger’ system that allowed us to easily implement unique gameplay elements in levels without stealing our developers’ time. All the triggers are made up out of blocks: blue blocks indicate when a trigger is executed; green blocks add requirements for the trigger to be executed; and red blocks add the actual functionality. If these blocks are in the same row, they form one function.
Our designers, mainly Wytze and Yhorik, were able to create unique missions, bandit ambushes and a lot of other functionality to make the world feel more alive. Like the gun-versationist, after getting used to the system we could generate a lot of content in relatively little time.
Westerado turned out to be a complicated and large game. First of all, we had the gun-versations with their branching possibilities. Moreover, every segment of the game was handcrafted, each having a number of triggers to control the audio, the areas it connects to and the behaviour of NPCs. Aside from the time spent on level design, we had to spent a lot of time making the different assets of the world. Some assets were recoloured to efficiently create varying areas with a different feel. Aside from that we needed a lot of music, lovingly crafted by Sam van Lonkhuyzen, which adapted to the game situation.
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The content-heavy direction we chose turned out to be an even larger challenge than we had expected. After having created all the content, we ran into the problem of having to test every single bit of it. With the first few gun-versations we created, we discovered how much time went into every one of them, and how much more time we’d have to spend to test all the possibilities. The five of us had more ground to cover than we could. If Adult Swim hadn’t been so awesome and done so much playtesting and bug finding for us, we wouldn’t have been able to bring Westerado to its current level of polish. Even now, the game’s got its irregularities, flaws and bugs that we couldn’t find in time. A next project would have to be set up smaller and more controlled, if we don’t want to run into the same problems all over again. Despite Westerado’s flaws we’re very proud of the result and not having clawed each other’s faces off during the many stressful moments.
Adult Swim and Ostrich Banditos released Westerado on Tuesday 15th of January. Currently they’re happily smirking at the overwhelmingly positive reception of the game. Next up are post-release fixes and a TV commercial for Westerado, made in collaboration with Adult Swim. The next half year Ostrich Banditos will sadly be on hold. Jeroen, John and Jordi are having their internships, while Yhorik and Wytze will be graduating.