Sunday, October 1, 2023

On Making the RPG Wildsilver: An Interview with Patrick Wunsch

For me, there was always something special about walking up and down the video game aisles at Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. It wasn’t the weird carpet or the jubilation I felt when I found one more copy of a game tucked away behind the display case. What was special about it was literally discovering a game.

In the ’90s and early ’00s, I don’t remember release dates being a huge thing for me, so when I would go to rent games for the weekend, I’d pick games I had no idea had been released yet and other games that I’d never heard of. Admittedly, not every blind pickup was great. I wasted a lot of time trying to make the best of a bad game I was stuck with for the weekend. But I feel nostalgic about not knowing, going in blind, and trying a game simply because the cover art looked cool.

These days, Blockbuster is — obviously — no more, I know about most games months, if not years, in advance, and I don’t often find myself walking through aisles with hundreds of choices. But the closest I get to that feeling is scrolling through the eShop.

The Nintendo eShop is home to thousands of games I’ve never heard of. Yes, a lot of them are shovelware, but there are some true hidden gems in the mix as well. I love scrolling through, looking at the screenshots, and spending a few hours with a game that costs less than what a rental cost back in the day.

Digital game shops have made it so much easier for small developers to get their games in the hands of people who are browsing the digital store shelves, looking for something new, something different. About a month ago, I saw an indie game on the Steam store that caught my eye: Wildsilver, a classic top-down turn-based RPG with an active battle system and a lot of heart.

I downloaded it, played it, and then had to reach out to the indie development team behind it, which turned out to be one guy: Patrick Wunsch — also known as Saireau — from Great Potion Games. From the music and character design to the damage formulas, Patrick made it all.

After playing through a few hours of his adventure, I had to reach out. I wanted to tell him how much I enjoyed Wildsilver, but I also wanted to get at this nagging question: What’s it like to build a turn-based RPG in 2022?

Here’s my full interview with Patrick. I hope you enjoy it.

Justin: Patrick Wunsch is the lone developer behind the turn-based RPG, Wildsilver. Patrick, can you tell me a little bit about Windsilver? What’s it about? What can players expect from it?

Patrick: Wildsilver is a rather classical JRPG. The visuals should be reminiscent of SNES RPGs (albeit with a higher resolution); the game uses grid-based movement and an active-time battle system (as seen in Final Fantasy V to IX). While there’s certainly a great story being told, I hope the gameplay is very fun as well.

Justin: I’m a huge fan of RPGs, especially 16-bit ones. So as soon as I saw Windsilver, I was hooked. Would you give me some background on Wildsilver? How did this project come about?

Patrick: After the somewhat experimental LV99: Final Fortress, I felt that it was time for a more traditional JRPG. To me, that also means telling an emotional story. Me and my girlfriend spent quite some time working on the details before I actually started developing the game.

Initially, Wildsilver was supposed to be a relatively short game again. I definitely wanted to take a quality-over-length approach. Well, while the game is now approximately three times as long as planned (three acts instead of what was basically just the first one), quality is still of the same importance, and thus, development may take a bit longer.

That’s one of the reasons I wanted to release Wildsilver demo as a first glimpse in 2021.

Justin: What were those conversations with your girlfriend like? What kinds of decisions did you have to make before starting the game? 

Patrick: Well, first, I wrote the outline of the story and then worked on it until she approved of it. Haha!

With the basics settled — the major story beats — we had to fill out the blanks and find quite a number of solutions for any discrepancies we discovered. It basically meant sitting next to each other staring at a sheet of paper with notes and scribbled diagrams.

I found that working on a story as long as this one is a lot like working on a game in general: You start with a rough idea, develop it over the course of time and solve issues you find along the way.

It wouldn’t be far-fetched to speak of ‘story design’ as analogous to ‘game design,’ actually. It’s interesting. I wonder if this is the standard process or if I’m just not as talented at creating logical and compelling stories as other writers.

Justin: You’re a writer, a musician, and you’re building this game. There are many examples of great indie games from a single dev, but what’s it like to be the one-man show behind Wildsilver? What are the challenges? What happens when you need help? 

Patrick: I do have a great consultant and supporter in my girlfriend. She isn’t exactly a gamer, which can be an advantage and a disadvantage. But ultimately, most decisions lie solely in my hands. There’s the creative freedom, sure, but game design involves a lot of problem-solving — picture me brooding over a sheet of paper, pen in hand, scribbling, crossing out, groaning.

A great example of this was the damage formula.

For a week or so, I was very desperate because I couldn’t make up my mind about what the best formula would be. I mean, that is a fundamental decision! It affects characters, skills, items, equipment, enemies, buffs, and debuffs.

My girlfriend couldn’t help me, and neither could any of my friends, I thought. You do feel alone and overwhelmed sometimes, and many things seem to take forever.

Justin: You know, figuring out a damage formula is a really great example of a gameplay mechanic that feels so simple to players, but there’s so much work that goes into developing it. Without help, how did you work through it?

Patrick: I tried to tackle the issue from various perspectives. I used spreadsheets and calculated the minimum, average, and maximum damage values for a large number of formulas and scenarios. Then I tried to simply rely on my intuition.

I imagined a character hitting an enemy and asked myself: What actually happens here? What would I expect as a result if the character was weak and the enemy was a boss? What would I expect if the power relations were reversed?

I mean, yes, you’re dealing with numbers here, but ultimately, what they see on the screen needs to feel right to the player. In addition to that, I wanted to keep the formula as simple as possible, so that was another challenge. Funnily, I think I ended up with one of the first formulas I tried because it was still the best option.

Justin: What are some of your favorite RPGs, and which games influenced Wildsilver the most?

Patrick: My favourite RPGs are Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma, no doubt. I think they had a huge impact on me as a child. That said, the main influence for Wildsilver is probably Final Fantasy: Wildsilver is supposed to be a somewhat conventional, fun, and emotional JRPG, which is exactly how I would describe the older Final Fantasy titles — by extension, Bravely Default or Octopath Traveller could also be named as influences. As far as the maps are concerned, I often cite the older Pokémon games as my inspiration.

Justin: So Final Fantasy meets Pokémon… got it!

Let me dig a little deeper into the Pokémon influence. I love the early Pokémon games — they were some of my first handheld gaming experiences — and I really love the map from Red and Blue. The way it circles around, leading the hero right back to where he started, only this time with a totally different perspective — has always been appealing to me.

What about the Pokémon maps stands out to you, and how did they influence Wildsilver’s map?

Patrick: When I compare my maps to Pokémon, I’m only talking about the design of individual maps. So, map design, not level design (which would be the whole looping-around thing, or setting up some sort of tutorial before presenting the player with challenges as platformers often do it).

What I realised when analysing Pokémon maps was that they are — how to put it? — ‘elegantly’ designed. There’s simply not too much detail. I think amateur game designers tend to either create pretty empty maps or clutter them with all sorts of objects until there’s no room left. The whole concept of ‘white space’ seems unknown to many.

There’s not a sweet spot, but a ‘sweet spectrum’ between the two extremes, of course, but I often take some time to actually remove details from my maps until they resemble those tidy Pokémon maps.

There’s that quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: ‘Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.’ I think that sums up my mapping philosophy. Or my philosophy in general. Even though I answered this question in quite a lot of words. Haha!

Justin: At the time of our interview, the game isn’t quite ready yet, but you have a free demo available on Steam. I know you’re spending a lot of time polishing this game.

How much of the game do you have completed, when do you think it will be released, and what kind of polishing are you doing now?

Patrick: The game itself is basically done, meaning it can be played from start to finish. However, there are many things that need polishing.

I am very happy with the first dungeon, in fact, but that’s only because it is so old, and thus, I had a lot of time polishing the graphics as well as the structure. Unless I’m equally satisfied with the rest of the game, I don’t want to release it. I have a very extensive backlog of open tasks, which only seems to grow with every playtesting session, so it’s hard for me to come up with a realistic estimation of a possible release date.

Unless something very unfortunate happens, the game will be released in 2023, though.

Justin: Do you think you’ll release Wildsilver for consoles?

Patrick: At this point, no. Being a huge Nintendo fan since childhood, I’d love to release Wildsilver for Nintendo Switch. But as far as I know, it is quite a complicated process. It takes a lot of time and also a lot of money. I am open to cooperating with an experienced publisher, but as long as I am all by myself, I don’t see a way to make it happen.

Justin: In a world that seems to be moving away from turn-based gaming, why did you decide to build a turn-based RPG?

Patrick: That has two important reasons, which are also fairly simple: First, I like turn-based JRPGs. And second, I am very familiar with RPG Maker by now, which is perfect for creating turn-based JRPGs. That said, I would love to give the Action JRPG genre a try in the future. As I said, I love Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma, and I also like Secret of Mana and a number of other action-focussed games a lot.

Justin: What’s your experience with RPG Maker, and what do you think programs like RPG Maker — and even games like Super Mario Maker and Game Builder Garage — have done for gamers who want to make their own games?

Patrick: RPG Maker, Super Mario Maker, and the like are awesome tools! I wish I had been able to use game-making tools when I was a child.

Since the evening when my father introduced me to the NES (and Super Mario Bros., which is pretty much the ideal start into gaming, right?), I would think of my own games, draw characters and items, and later even maps. But it was all on paper. There was no way to turn these imaginary games into reality back then.

I really hope that game engines become even easier in the future. Sure, there’s the risk that the market is flooded with first or second attempts at game design. But there are many young people with unique talents and a drive to create so that ultimately, I think everyone would benefit from enlargening the user bases of RPG Maker and other engines.

Justin: At the center of every great RPG is a compelling story. As a writer, why do you think stories are so important for RPGs?

Patrick: While I do love those JRPGs that start slow and mundane and end with some crazy twists and some battles against deities, I’m sure the gameplay loop of JRPGs also plays a significant role.

We shouldn’t dismiss how important it is to see your strategies work out and see EXP gauges fill up, eventually culminating in a celebration of the next level-up, which grants you a new skill to try against a challenging boss. I know that as a writer, I am probably expected to play JRPGs for the epic plot, but actually, I think I’m in the gameplay-first camp.

Justin: After Wildsilver, what’s next? Do you have an idea for another game yet?

Patrick: I don’t have much of an idea yet. I will probably buy RPG Maker Unite and see where it takes me. I might actually try to create an Action JRPG with it, should there be some good plugins. But I have also seen another engine that lets you create Fire-Emblem-type games, which is also quite a tempting prospect.

Justin: What are some of your favorite modern games? Are you playing anything interesting right now?

Patrick: I think my favourite modern games are the Xenoblade Chronicles games. The stories have been great, and so has the gameplay. But I also really liked Hades! And since I’ve been playing it since Beta, I guess Hearthstone counts as one of my favourite games as well.

There are many other great games which I would blindly buy every new instalment of, such as Donkey Kong Country, Fire Emblem, Hollow Knight, Metroid, Ori, Pokémon (the mainline games as well as Legends titles, should there be more), Shantae, The Legend of Zelda and The Witcher. At the moment, I’m playing Live A Live, which is a very interesting game indeed.

The Wildsilver demo is available for free right now on Steam for Windows and Mac.

Justin McGee
Justin McGee
Lifelong Nintendo fan. Follow me on Twitter @PuffyRedShirt

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