Always Sometimes Monsters: Vagabond Dog Interview

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Recently, we had the chance to get to know Justin Amirkhani and Jake Reardon of Vagabond Dog, the minds behind the upcoming game Always Sometimes Monsters. We were also pleasantly surprised when we learned that Always Sometimes Monsters was made with our software! Fast forward a bit and I got to ask them a bit about what makes them tick, the game, and even RPG Maker in general. Let’s see what they had to say!

What was it that led you to want to make games?

Jake: I’ve been enamored with games since I was a wee lad. Ever since first beating Donkey Kong and Cosmic Avenger on my Colecovision, games have been my main source of entertainment. Over the years I’ve tinkered with many experiments and half games that I never finished. The creation of a game is something so rewarding that I think everyone should try it. It’s incredibly satisfying to see people playing something you made and enjoying a world you created.

Justin: I grew up with games like pretty much everyone else in the industry, but professionally I first got into the industry as a journalist. I spent years writing reviews and interviews, but never actually making anything myself.

Eventually I grew restless with that path and decided to try something different. I began a project that let me backpack across America visiting game developers and that experience inspired me to start working on Always Sometimes Monsters when I returned home.

What kind of games do you generally like? Which ones do you think influenced this game in particular?

Justin: My tastes are pretty widely ranged and I find myself frequently playing a little bit of everything. Funny enough, I tend towards action games more frequently than narrative ones these days, but if a game is good or doing something interesting it’ll end up on my radar regardless of genre.

It’s hard to say if there are any specific games that Always Sometimes Monsters is directly influenced by, but there are several scenes from a variety of games that inspired content in our game. One weird one I like to mention is the warehouse scene in Mafia II as it helped create the box moving segment we showed off at PAX East. For some reason the monotony of that sequence stuck with me and it was something I wanted to play with design wise, so it was a pretty big contributor.

Jake: I don’t have a specific type of game I play. I pretty much play them all. I do enjoy games that allow you to be wrapped up in their world and lose yourself for a few hours. One of my favorite games is Beyond Good and Evil. Everything in that game just seems like it belongs and is part of the world. From the characters, to the enemies, and locations, that world sucks you in. I’ve enjoyed games like Resident Evil 4, and spent countless hours playing more mindless games like Borderlands 2. As far as influences for Always Sometimes Monsters, there are probably too many to count. A few of the first items we created in the game were a bank card and a little white dog (Earthbound anyone?). I think the original Legend of Zelda is one of the most perfect games ever created. Stick me in a world with an old man and a sword and tell me to go find adventure.

And on the subject of your Always Sometimes Monsters, why this game?

Justin: It’s funny you ask that because I’m still not 100% sure. Unlike most developers I didn’t want to make games, and then decide to make this one. This game (or at least similar versions of it) have been in my head since I was a kid and I think it’s because I’ve always wanted to play something like it.

Knowing that nobody else would make it was a big part of the reason for making it. I’d waited for a long time to see a game reflect the world and reality the way I saw it, but it never came. Eventually after the influence of my experience on the road, I decided it was time to quit waiting and just make it myself. I suppose the answer as to why we made this game is simply because nobody else did.

Jake: For me, I think it was really Justin’s passion about the concept of what the game could be that sold me on it. It sounded like a cool story that could offer people a wide range of experiences. It hearkens back to building a world and systems for people to be let loose in and explore. There is also an opportunity for the game to be a very personal story for every person who plays it. Some friends I’ve watched play craft an entire back story while my wife just wants to make as much money as she can and feed the dog liver treats.

What would you say your game is about? Not just he plot, but what themes will a player get to enjoy with it?

Justin: There’s a lot in there, and it’s a pretty wide range too. It’s fundamentally a story about life and figuring out how you define life for yourself. There’s the basics of course – love, friendship, betrayal, hardship – but then there’s this subtle, almost metaphysical layer as well.

When writing the content I spend a lot of time thinking about choices, both as a game mechanic and as a fundamental principle of the universe. In ways the game asks you to decide for yourself if choice is even real – whether we get the opportunity of choice in life or if circumstance and the momentum of consequence have more control over things than we think.

Jake: Its about life, love, and the lows and highs of the human experience. That probably sounds pretentious, but its not meant to be. It’s about the common human experience we all share. At the end of the day, everyone can identify or has experienced a lot of what we deal with in the game.

What part of making the game did you enjoy the most? Do you have any funny stories to tell about making the game?

Justin: Jake’s probably going to disagree with me here, but there was a period when making the game where I’d spend night after night in my local Tim Hortons making the weirdest stuff during our concept phase. For me there was nothing more fun than watching all the freaks and weirdos of the 24-hour coffee joint while having total freedom to create and experiment with whatever I could think to add into the game world.

Of course that meant every morning Jake’d wake up to the frustration of finding my half-baked code that would completely fall apart under certain conditions and on top of trying to figure out the method behind my madness, he’d have to repair it. I honestly believe this process led us to having great faith in each other’s disciplines.

Jake: I think for me, I enjoy crafting the world and creating the dynamic systems for players to discover. We have something really stupid in the game where you can invest in Sandwich stocks. You could theoretically put all of your money on the Sandwich market, and then monitor the prices daily to maximize profit. We also have a sort of day/night system, where certain events happen on certain days. You actually can’t experience all the game has to offer in one play through, because part of making choices is about deciding what or who is most important to you.

What is it like to try and sell a game in the current indie market? Any advice for other indie hopefuls?

Jake: I can’t really say yet what it’s like, but having the tools and the ability to bring a game like this to millions of potential gamers is something that maybe didn’t exist 5 years ago. It also helps that all of the other developers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting at events like PAX have been incredibly supportive. We all want each other to do well and share our creative visions with as many people as possible. As for advice, all I can say is that if you want to make a game, go make one! It’s as easy as that.

Justin: Today’s gaming market is all about freedom and independence for developers. We live in an age where digital distribution has made games of all sizes viable products. The tools to make games are more affordable than they have ever been in history. Right now you can start making your dream game with no formal training or experience and actually see it to release thanks to all the free information and tutorials available online.

The only advice I’ve got for indie hopefuls is to never forget what a glorious age we live in. The only barrier between you and your dreams is your personal will to succeed. If you want it, it’s there for the taking – all you have to do is work hard and believe in what you’re doing.

What was it like pitching your game to Devolver Digital? What is the relationship like there?

Justin: When I was travelling around America, I had an opportunity to meet with Nigel from Devolver in a seedy little bar in Austin, Texas. There we talked about games and I gave him the basic idea for the game that would become Always Sometimes Monsters would become.

Later that next year, Devolver was seeing games at GDC and so Jake and I flew out for the opportunity to show them. We couldn’t afford to actually get into the show, so we met outside the convention and sat on the floor with our prototype. To our surprise, within a few months we had paperwork and a deal to get the game rolling.

Jake: It was actually pretty nerve racking. When Justin mentioned he had met a few publishers during his travels and suggested pitching our game to them, I really didn’t know what to think. We took a two month prototype out to GDC in San Francisco, and met with Devolver in the hallway outside the show floor. We pretty much spent the entire night before tweaking and perfecting our demo. Our meeting lasted about half an hour but they really only saw about 5 minutes of the demo. It was the only meeting we had and a month later, we ended up signing a deal to work together. I think the best part about Devolver is that they are all good human beings trying to do cool things and aren’t afraid to take a chance on a couple of Canadian yahoos who’ve never made a game before. Their faith in us has helped propel us to the product we have today.

So you made your game with RPG Maker, what is your history with the series?

Jake: Building the prototype for Always Sometimes Monsters was actually my first real experience using RPG Maker. I had build a prototype in XNA and was going back and forth showing Justin and our artist at the time a guy walking around an empty world. It was really slow to create anything of substance. On a whim, I figured I would give RPG Maker a try. We were able to get a few scenes up and running in a much shorter time period, and it’s a great tool for experimentation. Once we started crafting the world we didn’t look back. Of course, every week we would learn something new, or find a new technique so things evolved fairly quickly. One thing I love about RPG Maker is its a great tool for highly technical people like myself to tinker with and get under the hood, but it’s also simple enough for anyone to start prototyping ideas or experimenting with gameplay. What I am finding more and more as I go along that it’s not about the tool you use to create your game, but about the game you create.

Justin: In its various forms, RPG Maker has been part of my life since elementary school. I was 7 or 8 years old when RPG Maker ’95 came out. Between it and RPG Maker 2000 spent a decent amount of my childhood mucking about in the engine, learning the basics. By the time I hit high school, I’d sort of given up on making games and didn’t really touch anything else for years to come.

Now it seems life has come full circle. The tool I trained with as a kid grew up with me and happened to be a fantastic environment for Always Sometimes Monsters. We dove into VX Ace to build a prototype and I was honestly shocked how much of the tool set I remembered. If you’ll pardon the cliche, for me working in RM was like riding a bike – I never really forgot how.

Thanks so much Jake and Justin for taking the time to talk to me, and good luck with your upcoming release!

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