Spry Fox’s David Edery Opens Up About Road Not Taken
Ben Sheene / Jul 31st, 2014 No Comments
Though Road Not Taken is a puzzle game with many roguelike elements, the story behind the game’s creation has much deeper meaning. Throughout a series of posts on the PlayStation Blog and their own website, developer Spry Fox has been very open with players about the process of creating their biggest game yet. From music to mechanics, real life events and randomly generated rooms, there’s more than meets the eye behind Road Not Taken.
Gaming Illustrated’s Ben Sheene had an opportunity to speak with Spry Fox CEO David Edery to talk about the inspiration behind Road Not Taken and the challenges in making a constantly changing puzzle game with an emotional experience.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): I see a lot of visual and gameplay elements from Triple Town in Road Not Taken. How did that title and previous Spry Fox games inspire and guide development into what has become Road Not Taken?
David Edery: One of our frustrations with Triple Town was that while the core mechanic was fun and tight, it was difficult to expand upon. We kept trying to come up with ways to grow the game and kept running into walls. While we came up with several fun modes (the most popular of which is the timed “Boom Town” mode) we were never really able to grow the game into something much bigger. So one of the challenges we set for ourselves with Road Not Taken was “can we make a puzzle game that is really easy to expand and grow in the future?”
In that regard, I think we succeeded. While we had to wrack our brains just to add half a dozen functional new objects to Triple Town in the years following its debut, we find it trivial to add a handful of distinctive, functional new objects to Road Not Taken in any given week. The game is shipping with dozens of objects and creatures and if it’s at all successful, we can easily imagine adding dozens more in the future.
I should also probably point out that the similarities between Triple Town and Road Not Taken are largely skin-deep. Triple Town is a game about leveling up similar objects by matching them together, and you do that by placing new objects on the board anywhere you find a free space; there’s no constraint on your ability to do that. Road Not Taken, on the other hand, is difficult precisely because you can’t just put an object wherever you want; you have to pick it up and throw it into position, and there are innumerable obstacles that might complicate your efforts. And for the most part, unlike Triple Town, similar objects don’t simply collapse into a higher-level object when you match them (though that can occasionally happen).
Objects and creatures in Road Not Taken have dozens of different characteristics individually and in combination with one another. Some objects will open doors when you match them. Some objects seem to do nothing on their own, but can actually be matched with other, different objects to create magic potions, tools, and even negative things, like angry ghosts. Some objects don’t match with anything at all; they’re just there to mystify, frustrate or attack you. In the end, Road Not Taken looks somewhat like Triple Town but doesn’t really play like it at all.
Gaming Illustrated: What will attract fans of roguelikes to the game or possibly make it a good stepping stone for those unfamiliar with the increasingly popular genre?
David Edery: Like any good roguelike, Road Not Taken is all about discovery. We’re launching the game with 200 secrets. Learning those secrets is not just idle fun; it’s actually crucial to becoming really good at the the game. And like any good roguelike, Road Not Taken offers unlimited gameplay through procedurally generated levels, so no playthrough is ever quite the same. Anyone who enjoys a sense of mystery, discovery and exploration should hopefully enjoy Road Not Taken.
Gaming Illustrated: The roots of the game’s story are based on some deeply personal and emotional experiences. While those are likely crucial to the creation and vision of the game, do you expect players to go on that same kind of journey the first time or even after multiple plays? Or do you expect people to draw upon their own individual experiences?
David Edery: I’m quite certain that many people will have different experiences with and interpretations of what the game is trying to say, and that’s completely OK with us. This is a game that is in part about the unexpected directions that life takes you. I’d hope that one consequence of that is some varying perspectives on what the game is all about!
Gaming Illustrated: I detect the slightest bit of venom when the game references having children or getting a job as a kind of “goal” that is, a sort of flag at the end of a level/milestone in life. That’s certainly a pressure of society, having the house and the family and the car. Do you hope people who play the game will think twice about what denotes a successful “win” or life?
David Edery: I hope that people who play the game really enjoy it. Everything else is gravy.
Gaming Illustrated: How does randomly generating the puzzles inside the forest enhance the various mechanics of the game outside of just making every playthrough a bit different?
David Edery: Road Not Taken has dozens of unique objects and creatures, and these things in combination can result in some really wild scenarios. As designers, even if we spend hundreds of hours building levels for the game, we might never realize that putting (for example) three red ghosts, two white ghosts, a stone well, a fox, a wisp, a child, and a bunny in a single room results in delightful chaos. I’ve been playing the game for a long time now and it still manages to surprise me on occasion; there are interactions between objects and creatures that we simply never imagined.
Gaming Illustrated: Experimentation is key to the game. Even when bumping into an animal or object and being hurt, there’s a lesson to be learned whether it is more information or a possible answer to a puzzle. But was it always a decision to have the player discover most things as they go along? Was there any point in development where there was too much or too little hand-holding?
David Edery: Oh sure, we’ve struggled quite a bit with how much hand-holding we should do. In general, we’ve always erred on the side of “let people discover things as they go” but there have been plenty of situations where we’ve realized the game is just too damned hard without a little hand-holding, so we enhanced the tutorial, or we added a post-death help tip, or we added a recipe to the book of secrets (for example, we don’t make you discover how to create an axe; that recipe is already in your book when you start the game). There’s a fine line between frustrating-fun and just frustrating. I don’t know if we nailed it, but we’re certainly closer to the right place than we were six months ago!
Gaming Illustrated: Is it difficult designing boss fights for a game like this that come across as both a tough challenge and an epic encounter?
David Edery: I don’t think so, no. In general, adding new creatures or encounters of any kind is surprisingly easy; that’s one thing we like about the core design of the game. Although it’s worth mentioning that there aren’t many “boss fights” in Road Not Taken. We added a couple to spice things up, but they aren’t even guaranteed to show up every career. The randomly-generated forest is deadly and interesting enough as-is.
Gaming Illustrated: When it came to mapping out how objects and creatures could be combined, what was taken into account? Did you aim for mostly logical combinations or was it more fun to take liberties given the nature of the game?
David Edery: We were happy to throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks. As I mentioned earlier, this game tends to surprise you (at least, it surprised us on a regular basis.) It’s fun to see how things interact in unexpected ways. We certainly discovered that some objects and behaviors are more frustrating than others. For example, objects that cripple you or severely slow you down tend to be bad-frustrating. Really large objects that make it impossible to move around anything in a room tend to be bad-frustrating. We learned those lessons (and several others) mainly via trial and error.
Gaming Illustrated: What is the challenge in making a series of interconnected, random puzzle rooms feel fresh not only visually but thematically? Is there a method of stringing out level motifs as the ranger progresses through the years?
David Edery: We have certain terrains, custom rooms, creatures and objects that you only see as you advance through your career. I can’t say we put a ton of thought into collectively theming those things; it was a big enough challenge simply to get the difficulty of each mission at the right level. Our playtesters seemed pretty content with the theming of the game but difficulty and complexity came up repeatedly as things we needed to help players manage.
Gaming Illustrated: Players can live out the best life possible in 15 years or they could see that time cut quite short. What are you doing to keep the player coming back and living again? I can see rescuing all the children being the game-y end goal but what other secrets are hidden inside the forest?
David Edery: Exploring relationships with the NPCs who live in the town and in the forest is another long-term objective that will keep folks pretty busy. That said, simply rescuing all the kids is something that will take most players at least 50 to 100 hours. It is extremely difficult. The first time I completed a 15 year career, I only rescued about 60% of the kids in the game – barely enough to “win.” And I’d been playing for a while before that happened.
Gaming Illustrated: I detect some of the brutal open-endedness from Don’t Starve in Road Not Taken. Could you cite some of the inspirations behind Road Not Taken?
David Edery: Don’t Starve was definitely an inspiration. Other roguelikes, like Nethack and FTL, were inspirations as well. On the puzzle side, our own game Triple Town was of course an inspiration. Our lead artist Brent Kobayashi has mentioned that he was inspired in part by games like Journey (he also drew inspiration from his previous game, Glitch).
Gaming Illustrated: I’ve noticed that you’ve been very open about the development process for Road Not Taken over the past year both on the Spry Fox website and Sony’s PlayStation blog. It’s a stark contrast to the months of silence seen in a lot of games. I’m sure players feel more connected to the game during all stages of development. Could you talk more about the reasoning behind that?
David Edery: We like writing about the things we do. Our fans seem to enjoy it, and the act of writing helps us clarify our own thoughts on important topics. Sometimes you don’t realize you’ve been thinking or doing something (good or bad) until forced to put it into words.
Gaming Illustrated: How was the Road Not Taken’s reception at E3? I noticed the ranger walking around the show floor which certainly gave the game additional presence. How has Sony’s support been in getting the word out?
David Edery: E3 was a blast; we had a ton of fun showing the game and got a lot of really nice feedback about it. And Sony’s been great in general; we’ve been really impressed with how supportive they’ve been. I couldn’t believe when they put together that ranger costume. I must have taken 50 photos of it.
Gaming Illustrated: While I have no doubt that your focus is on getting Road Not Taken out, do you see it as an important stepping stone for Spry Fox? I don’t just mean that for DLC or a straight sequel but for the company’s process of creating games going forward?
David Edery: Maybe? As a company, we’re kind of addicted to doing weird new things. If Road Not Taken is a huge success, a sane organization would say “cool, that worked, let’s do something else in the same vein for PS4 and Steam.” But we’re just as likely to say “cool, that worked, let’s take all the money and blow it on a genre we’ve never worked with on a platform we know nothing about.” Life is short, but at least it’s not boring.
Gaming Illustrated would like to thank David Edery for taking the time to answer our questions. Road Not Taken will be available Aug. 5 on PlayStation 4.
tags: interview , ps4 , Road Not Taken , Spry Fox , steam