Interview

How Waylanders Aims to Exceed Expectations — An Interview With Gato Studio

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When brothers Fernando and Sergio Prieto set up Spanish studio Gato Salvaje, they had an idea to make an RPG with a twist called The Waylanders. Their game would have lore just as complex and intricate as the best of the genre, but it would also seek to innovate, both narratively and in terms of gameplay, expanding on pre-existing ideas to build something with a unique focus.

This vision was not possible for them at first, but eventually, with the aid of a successful Kickstarter campaign and a lot of help from both their team and famous figures in the industry, it is coming to fruition. OnlySP caught up with the pair to discuss their start in gaming, their idea for The Waylanders, and much more.

BEGINNINGS

Of the pair, Sergio was the avid gamer from a young age and was keen on the idea of making video games very early on. Nevertheless, Fernando admitted that he definitely had a role in fostering that ambition. “I am guilty that he got to design video games because I convinced our family to let him study animation and 3D design. I personally never expected to be involved in the video gaming industry, but I think for Sergio, for all his life, he was trying to design games.”

“I began to create games as an amateur at 12,” explained Sergio, following up on Fernando’s comment. “It’s interesting because my brother and I have come full circle. He introduced me to gaming since he let me play my first video games on his computer, and then when I built the company he was working for a big bank. It was curious because he introduced me to gaming, and later I brought him into the company. He placed the first stone for it when I was 11 or 12.”

Needless to say, they were both big gamers, but the idea of starting a company in their native Spain was a challenging one, and the timing was not great either, as Fernando explained.  “I always thought it was a good industry to work in, but not in Spain because there isn’t a big scene here. We have nice companies making good video games but our industry is not as big as the industry in the UK or in France or Canada, so it’s more difficult always to produce games and to take them to the market.

“I remember very well when the conversation was; it was when I went to take Sergio to the airport. In that moment he told me he wanted to create a company. It was 2009, so I told him he was crazy because it was in the middle of the financial crisis, and everything was very difficult, not just making games. Even despite that he didn’t pay any attention to what I was saying and he created a company anyway!”

Soon Fernando decided to help his brother out and use his experience in the finance industry to help make the company more viable. “One thing is to develop video games, another thing is to be an entrepreneur and to manage a company,” said Fernando. “It was a very good mix because now we have the managing and the creative aspect together through both of us. It was difficult to get to this point where we are developing a big project for us, and a big project in Spain like The Waylanders, especially since in today’s market it’s very difficult to get renown for the small games that you might create. It was a path, and we learned step by step, but it wasn’t planned at all. We learned it the hard way, but I think that’s the best way to learn.”

CRAFTING THE WAYLANDERS

The Waylanders is a big project, and so the brothers had to work their way to it, even though it had been in their heads for a long time. Other, smaller projects came first. “Ark is a point-and-click adventure game, and, in the beginning of the company, point-and-click adventures were an easy choice because my previous jobs and studies are from animation, so I selected a genre without most of the programming part,” Sergio told us. “Waylanders is more about all the things we want to put in a video game when we started the company. We first learnt, as Fernando said, how to do video games, and right now is where we feel that we’re in the right moment to try to tell the great story that we have in our mind.”

Since Ark, the company has expanded significantly, growing from a very small team to one more suited to designing and releasing bigger games, as Fernando said. “When we were developing Ark, there were seven or eight people in the company, and we realised that to survive in the video gaming industry we had to grow. It was very difficult to survive without growing because we need to make bigger games to actually get anywhere. I saw a graph at GDC that said that in 2016, more than 80% of the games were below the $19 tier in terms of their retail price, but 80% of the money is made in the $20 above tier. So where would you rather be? Small games and small money, or big games and big money.

“Obviously we thought we had to be in the latter, we had to design and develop a bigger game. Also, because of that, we had the idea for the Waylanders game. We know that RPGs are in a very good moment in the market, there are a lot of gamers that want more RPG stories. In that moment we didn’t even have enough people to hire in our region so what we did was we talked with the local government, and we convinced them to make courses and give information for the people to learn to design video games.”

This was no easy task, and took a lot of cajoling and persuading, but eventually, they managed to get somewhere. “We made the courses, we phoned more than 60 people, and we selected them from the best CVs that we received,” said Fernando. “After that we selected from those 60 people the 24 that we hired for the company. At the end, there were people had never designed a video game but many of them had the right training. They were programming engineers, artists, they were animators, and we told them ‘you can do it if we practice a lot, if we design a good production pipeline, we can do it.’

“In the end we also hired a lot of experienced people as well, in order to help those that are new become very good developers. Nowadays, we have those 24 people that we found in the company, and the rest of the company is made up of more experienced people that have been developing video games for years, so we have a mix of experience and I think it’s working. Especially because everyone who came to make video games with us are so involved in the project. They are so happy developing video games, and you can see that in the game that we’re making.”

With recent developments in video game studios like Telltale and Rockstar around overwork of employees, the brothers are confident that their team is large enough and also has enough time to complete any tasks they have at hand.

“I was very proud because we reached the pre-Alpha demo without any need of crunch. It’s not easy, but in my point of view the people that work happy end up producing a better game. I think that at this moment we don’t have any problems with that,” said Sergio, and Fernando agreed.

WHAT IS THE WAYLANDERS?

So what is the game? It is clearly an RPG on an epic scale, and one that will be crammed with rich lore and a plethora of options for the player. Sergio explained that the story is based on the brothers’ homeland, Galicia. “Waylanders was born because we travelled around Galicia, as well as a good part of England and Ireland,” explained Sergio. “There is a very good background and history. It’s a very beautiful environment. Our land is very special because it is known as Celtic, but it is not one of the Celtic nations, yet we still have a lot of Celtic legends here. There is a lot of magic and mystery in the legends, so we thought a lot about what we can discuss in an RPG. Obviously it’s a very fresh mythology.”

Fernando expanded upon that basis with some more historical context about the medieval setting. “We knew about the story, where it was going to be set and that it was going to use Lebor Gabála Érenn, an Irish book that talks about how the kingdom of Ireland was created in around 500 BCE. It’s a story that tells us about how people from Galicia went to Ireland, so we thought it would be cool to look at that. It is a story that certainly hasn’t been told in video games before, and even hasn’t been touched by cinema, and it involved a lot of magic, a lot of mythology, a lot of fantastical creatures. We thought it was something that would be good to explore be in an RPG, and that’s when we began to grow our idea that could be the perfect idea. The perfect story for the game.”

“The main thing I wanted to talk about in the story was magic and its relationship with religion as two major forces in the game, will be two forces that can’t be together, there is a conflict” added Sergio.

This conflict between magic and religion extends through more than one time period, and as such the game will also explore other relationships and track how they progress through multiple ages, using a take on Celtic legend to allow players to travel through time, Fernando explained. “We wanted to introduce something that makes the narrative very interesting, which is the idea of reincarnation: a major concept for the Celts. They can be reincarnated, and your main character will have to wake them up in the future, in the medieval ages. They can be completely different from what they were in the Celtic period but they will remember who they were so you could be a big warrior in the Celtic period and a housekeeper in the middle ages, for example. This is something we wanted to explore so we can look at all contradictions inside the character in the different periods. We wanted to dive deep into that aspect, and I think it’s going to be quite enjoyable to discover that part of the game as a player.”

What of the antagonist? Understandably, both Fernando and Sergio are coy, but Fernando did offer a little more background. “I think that the most important thing is that the characters at the very beginning will feel that strength and energy, but the bad guys will possess a dark energy that will change people and go through their characters, changing their history. The first thing that they will feel as a character is that the story is not on the correct path, and the main characters will need to fix that. The reason that we went to the Middle Ages is because all that strange energy comes from that moment, an energy that started in the Middle Ages that wants to change the past.”

Fernando’s explanation alluded to quite a complex, intricate story, and, to make sure it did not get out of hand, they sought someone out to help to reel the story in and allow it to maintain its epic sensibility while remaining intelligible. That person, initially, was ex-BioWare creative director Mike Laidlaw. Fernando explained how he came to be involved in the project:

“Five minutes after we heard about Mike resigning from BioWare at the end of 2017, he had an offer from us. He participated in our first crowdfunding campaign in 2013, and we had his private email so we sent him an offer and we explained to him what we wanted to do. After that it was very easy to convince him; we were in fact told by Mike when he first came to our city in January that he loved to see that everyone was so involved in the game, and we are very proud to have the opportunity to work with him because he has a lot of experience when building a game like this and has helped us to design the high-level narrative, which is very important because when you have that you can concentrate on developing it rather than making sure it doesn’t get out of control.”

“He helped us a lot to simplify the ideas we had in that moment. So he took the whole thing and helped us to focus in the things that were special and to clean the things that would be best. He was very involved, and without him the story wouldn’t be the same. A lot of him is in it,” added Sergio.

Not only has Laidlaw joined the team, but noted Telltale alumnus Emily Grace Buck, who has led narrative design in the likes of Telltale’s Batman and Guardians of the Galaxy series, also took a shine to the idea and has joined the team too, with the help of Kickstarter backers. While Laidlaw will be focused on high-level narrative, Buck will add meat to the bones of a vital aspect of any RPG: the character interactions and interpersonal relationships. “Emily is a specialist in romantic relations as a writer and we want that in the game, someone more concentrated in interpersonal relationships to give a deeper element to that aspect,” said Fernando.  “She has helped with all of the close interactions, because right now we have all the epic stuff, but Emily had allowed us to explore the characters more deeply and go closer in,” added Sergio.

Another crucial part of any RPG is the gameplay, which allows the player to delve into the intricate lore woven for them. Originally, the gameplay was not too different from some major titles in the genre, but soon Sergio had come up with an innovative mode for combat and started to formulate a large part of the gameplay around that.

“Our first objective was to have fast gameplay. We wanted to have a combat pause option, so you can pause the game and have all the time you want for the choices you want to make, but when you turn it off the game will be very fast. We wanted slow to decide, but fast to see how your decisions affect the game. So in that view the game is pretty fast.

“The combat formations, the tactical point of view […] are more tactical than is normal for the genre. The combat formations I think are original. I can’t think of a reference; only games like Baldur’s Gate that has formations from a position point of view, but this form that you can take your character and form a phalanx with the others and that phalanx is very powerful, I think our game is unique from that point of view.”

The game does not only focus solely on combat in gameplay terms. It also has a complex system of dialogue choices that do not play out quite like one would expect, as Sergio also explained. “We don’t have a system of morality for the choices. We will have more like a system of perks, like when you are talking […] you will have a lot of choices during the game and those choices will affect the companions, not from a moral point of view, more depending on their personality and situation. It will affect how they react to things. Another thing we wanted to do is more similar to something like Mass Effect, which explored it well. Companions’ loyalty missions. The closer you are to a character, the more loyalty missions you will receive. It will be impossible in the game, in one playthrough, to play all the loyalty missions, because some decisions will make it so that some characters are not as close to you than others, but our intention is not to have characters that have problems with you, but to explore all the loyalty missions you need to be close friends with your companions.”

KICKSTARTER AND FAN RESPONSE

The Kickstarter campaign for The Waylanders raised USD $168,999 over its duration, allowing the team to hire Buck and also providing valuable resources to develop the game. Fernando told OnlySP that although it was at times a taxing process, he would not have done it any other way.

“We wanted to try on Kickstarter from the very beginning, not only to make money, though it’s good for that, but also to help to validate our idea. You receive a lot of feedback from your potential players, and, if you analyse it well, you receive a lot of very useful information for your development. Obviously another characteristic of Kickstarter is that it lets you build an audience, which is important because we want to make a game that people love. If you want to do that, you cannot go to your tower, develop your game, and release it to the market in two years without checking-in with the audience once. You have to be close to the public, close to the gamers, and talk with them, hear what they have to say, and be able to adapt some things about your game if you realise that they are not working very well.

“I think it’s good for the project and I think we are very happy at the moment because many of the innovations that we are using in the game are very well received. Now they are mad at us because we don’t say much about the story! That’s good, they want more from us! And we will give you more, but step by step!”

The game is still a long way away, but Fernando is already sure of the kind of experience he wants fans to have with it. “A role play game is a big story, usually it’s over 40 hours of playing, and hopefully enjoying, the game. If after they finish the game they want more, or if they feel that they want more games like this, we will feel very happy. Hopefully, we will have some humour in the game, some excitement, plot twists, all of that. You need to have a mix of everything.

It’s not just an epic game, it’s not only about fighting, it’s not only about battles. You need more, you need conversations, you need to fall in love with your companions. It’s a mix of all that. It’s like life, sometimes you’re happy, sometimes you’re sad, sometimes you lose, sometimes you win. It has to be the same. We are trying to mix the best writers and best people to give players a fully-rounded experience, and hopefully we will be able to do it.”

The Waylanders is currently projected for release in Q1 or Q2 of 2020 on Steam, and may appear at a later date on consoles. The game’s pre-Alpha demo showcased at select conferences in late 2018. For updates on the game’s progress, you can check out the Kickstarter page here.

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