Interview with Vagabond Dog, Part One
Less than a month ago, Always Sometimes Monsters was released by Vagabond Dog as their first project about moral choices in life. Small choices or not, they impact the main character's life and your ability to achieve your only objective: getting the love of your life back.
FogKnight spoke with Vagabond Dog's creative director, Justin Amirkhani, about the very creation of Vagabond Dog and their first project, Always Sometimes Monsters, along with some behind the scenes questions about their decision for making such an ambitious game as their first project.
FogKnight: How was Vagabond Dog born?
Justin: After spending about a year on the road, traveling around North America and meeting a variety of game developers for a journalism project, I returned home with a vision for what ultimately would become Always Sometimes Monsters. With no real experience making games, I reached out to Jake to see if he'd be interested in seeing what could come of it. Once we started working together, the company just sort of fell in place around us as we got our first prototype up and running.
FogKnight: What are Vagabond Dog's goals as an independent game studio?
Justin: We want to provide people with games that can relate to their lives in a meaningful way. We hope people can find something in Always Sometimes Monsters that rings true to their own experiences in life.
FogKnight: How did the team arrive at the concept of making a game about life, and how do you think that is significant as a first studio project?
Justin: The game largely came about during my road trip, and was refined thereafter as we started developing the prototype. Wanting to make a game that captured life and reality in this particular fashion came out of a desire for sharing the feelings I'd had on the road, particularly the dissolving of absolutes and the self-judgment morality that took hold of me while I was out there.
As a first project for the studio, it was probably over ambitious. Sane people start with something they can easily produce in a short time frame and iterate on if it's good. We dove face-first into trying to replicate the complexities of choice in life. Not a smart move, but one that's mostly paid off for us so far.
FogKnight: What were Vagabond Dog's hopes for Always Sometimes Monsters? And what was sacrificed during development?
Justin: Primarily we hoped to create an experience that, despite its hard to classify nature, ASM would find an audience that could appreciate what we saw in it. There was a lot of worry about whether or not the game was too bizarre or too "un-fun" to really catch any attention, but it seems like those fears were completely unjustified as folks have come out of it definitely understanding why it was made.
In terms of sacrifice, there's the obvious time and sleep we all lost getting it finished. During the final days before release, we were awake nearly around the clock only stopping to take naps when we noticed our productivity was suffering. For me personally, there was a lot of sanity lost in the process of deconstructing choice and reality to the level required to make the game work and feel proper. It might sound a little goofy, but there's something almost painful about forcing yourself to see scenarios from as many different perspectives as possible.
FogKnight: Can you talk more about the development process and timeline?
Justin: One of the things I think was particularly unique (for better or for worse) with the development of ASM is that pretty much everything in the game was built from the beginning to the end. Very few elements were built non-sequitur and so there's almost a gradient in the content across the game. There were a lot of tricks in both the art and the writing/scripting that came about at various stages in the development and because everything was sort of generated in a procession, you can see those tricks added throughout your experience in the game. For example, comparing the art from the player's apartment to that of Markansas' trailer and you can see subtle differences because of our development style.
Having been through this now, I think it's something we're going to try and remedy for the next project. Ideally we'd like to have a much more consistent experience through the game, but ultimately that may prove an impossible balance to achieve. No matter what order you make the content in, the most recently developed pieces are going to have the most skilled people behind them.
FogKnight: What were the behind the scenes influences for ASM?
Justin: Jake and I have both played a lot of games and so there's elements of many different genres and franchises that have slipped their way into the game. It's hard to point at specific titles and say they were direct influences - part of what made us enjoy developing this game was that there wasn't really anything like it on the market - but bits and pieces of games made their way into the world. There's obvious parallels to games like Shenmue or ;Earthbound, maybe even something like Postal 2, but those who've played those games and Always Sometimes Monsters will be quick to point out that the differences are stronger than the similarities.
FogKnight: How did Devolver Digital approach Vagabond Dog and ASM? Could you talk about the experience of that relationship?
Justin: Back when I was tripping around America, I managed to meet up with Nigel Lowrie of Devolver Digital in a sketchy little bar on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. There we drank jalapeno vodka and talked about the games industry. At the time the idea for what would become ASM was very faint in my head, and so I asked Nigel what he thought of it. He shrugged and said it sounded cool, and that sort of inspired me to get together with Jake and get the game to a prototype stage.
Flash forward to GDC that next year and we'd set up a meeting to talk to Devolver about the game. Too broke to afford actual tickets to the show, we sat on the floor outside the convention center and showed them the prototype we'd just finished polishing the night before. After that we had paperwork done within a month or so and we had the means to turn this wacky little idea into a legitimate product. If there's one thing I can say about Devolver, it's that they're willing to take a long shot gamble because by all accounts their investment was inanity considering we'd never made a game before. Thankfully, it paid off.
Day 8 | Vagabond Dog