“The average dog is a nicer person than the average person.” – Andy Rooney
The indie gaming landscape oftentimes tries to challenge the idea of just what a game can do, exploring deeper facets of human emotion or hinting at original mechanics that lurk on the fringes of gaming as a whole.
Developer Clockwork Demon is trying to challenge the gaming status quo with Adopted, a game that takes an un-neutered approach to both interaction and emotion in a furry, four-legged package. Players are cast as Luchador, a rescued Boston Terrier who is both spectator and participant in his new home, observing and interacting with the trials and tribulations of his new owners. I sat down to talk to the Clockwork Demon team regarding Adopted, the challenges of developing such an atypical title, and…musicals?
So, I’m gonna play this one fast and loose. Introductions and roles?
Caleb Moore: I’m Caleb, I do Art and Sound for Adopted. 3d modeling, 2d art and texturing, concept art, sound engineering, mixing and mastering, songwriting, sfx, I also like occasionally wander about our office playing guitar like a minstrel.
Megan Vokal: I do design, dev, & product management. I graduated from college right before we founded the studio, and before that I worked for a mobile game studio doing programming and a bit of design.
Leo Glass: Sure thing. I’m Leo Glass. We all co-founded Clockwork Demon together in Feb. 2015. I work on the narrative design (i.e. writing, progressing, storytelling), the business/marketing stuff, and some of the design work with Megan. Have several years in writing for educational games/gamification stuff. That’s my background.
So what led you to the concept for Adopted?
CM: So we were working together loosely a year or so before we came to this concept. We were working on some other idea that we put back on the shelf because it was more ambitious than we could take on at the time. Anyway, 2013 my wife and I got married and it was awesome, went on a honeymoon and came home. Good times. However, our dog had passed away while we were gone, he was old and apparently just went to sleep and didn’t wake up. We had adopted him when my wife and I started dating. So it was kind of a big downer and got me to thinking a lot about how animals interact with humans. Just how they can really interact and affect people. It’s kinda weird right? Cause they can’t talk, they’re tiny (at least Boston Terriers are) and they are just around. But it’s sort of that unconditional love that they bring to the table that is really pretty cool, right?
CM: So I was talking with Leo about that and he was pretty into how there could be a game in that concept, a really cool story and emotional space for sure. So we sort of riffed on that for a while. Came up with a few ideas, and over the last year have been refining it down to what it is today.
LG: Caleb came back from his honeymoon and was super jazzed up to make an animation he was calling Reason for Being, sort of highlighting that. And then we both agreed there might be a great game there, and pitched it to Megan. One coffee shop session later, we had something we wanted to explore.
CM: Word. It was something that I think we all clicked on as a unique perspective to explore that really weirdly enough hasn’t been done.
I honestly can’t think of any “dog simulators,” except for this weird one back in the 90’s.
CM: Yeah, for sure. And it’s not so much that we’re going for a simulator aspect but yeah, it’s really funny to me that a gap is there.
Now the premise of Adopted is less about direct interaction and more about influencing your owners through action (or inaction). Given that games are more about actions and reactions, what kind of challenges have you faced?
MV: Yeah. As a player, there are a few direct ways you can influence your environment (moving stuff around, chewing stuff up to destroy it), but a lot of the game is focused on the people and getting them to make the choice you want or influencing them to help you in some way.
One challenge from the design side we’ve been working on is how to communicate to the player what options are available to them. Especially since most of our mechanics are pretty unique to our game…like when you’re playing a shooter you know you can click on the bad people to kill them, we don’t have that. We need to be able to train the player “okay here’s how you can use chew, here’s where you’d want to use bark.” But lots of games have that problem, so it’s not unique to us. It’s just something that we’re having to constantly refine. Luckily, most people are familiar with dogs so they’ll think “oh, I want to bark to get my owner’s attention” and we can take advantage of that cultural knowledge people have.
LG: On the writing side, too, we’ve talked about the believability of the fantasy. We know people we’ll suspend disbelief, but we also have thought carefully about how to make the challenges the player will face believable so it doesn’t feel contrived or strung-together. We want the player to feel a bit overwhelmed with regard to how they will prioritize their owners’ struggles, but still have easy mechanisms to act, and act quickly.
And still keep it within the physical constraints of a 10-lb dog.
MV: We’ve also had to go through several iterations of our AI system. How can we get our human agents to respond to the player in a way that’s believable without having thousands of lines of code covering special situations, which would be impossible to maintain. We think we’re pretty close there, but over the summer we tried out several different solutions to come to the one we’re using now.
LG: Yeah we made a board game prototype a long time ago that helped us narrow down what a player should reasonably expect and want to do as a Boston Terrier. Yeah, we figured out what AI wasn’t going to work with that board game, too, and tried something different. Good times.
How much awareness will Luchador have of his situation? There are obvious dangers (a grease fire on the stove, for example), but are you going to attempt more emotional connections? Will a situation arise where your owner will need that bit of canine comfort after, say, a rough break up?
LG: Honestly, that’s one of the challenges we faced very early on too that I think we have a really good answer for now. I think in a lot of ways, it’s difficult to explore internal challenges through a dog’s eyes, but play testing has shown us people really think it’s engaging and want to connect with their owners on a deep level. Our game is going to put the player in the middle of a tough situation where three people who live together are not communicating well with one another. They are lazy, unforgiving, emotional, etc. But Lucahdor can see the good they can’t in the situation, and he has a chance to make a difference. But there’s a lot of work to do, and he can’t help everyone. So yeah, couples could break up. People could torch their lives in really critical ways, all because they couldn’t take the time to work their crap out when they had the chance.
MV: We definitely want the player to feel a connection to the humans, whether that’s a fondness or animosity. We don’t have a specific “comfort” mechanic right now but we do want to find ways to capture those small moments between Luchador and the humans, like them petting you when they walk by. Or maybe if you bring a ball to them they’ll throw it for you.
The cool thing about video games is that we don’t need to explicitly script “now you lick Wyatt’s face ‘cause he’s sad.” We can just include some small ways for player-human interaction that’s maybe not tied to the story, and because players will want to interact in those ways they can choose to at the appropriate moments.
LG: Think of the worst day you’ve ever had. You and two of your closest friends are experiencing that right now…and the only person who can really help is about two feet tall.
There’s a lot of open-endedness to your design. Is there an option for the player just to say “to hell with it” and watch the world around them crumble?
MV: Yeah, the humans will act of their own accord. If the player wants, they can just spectate.
LG: But we are going to invert the usual choice arcs a bit. Just because you think chewing something is a ‘bad dog’ behavior, doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily have a bad result. In some instances, players might think they are doing the right thing and be a little surprised at how things are evolving.
Are there any particular situations you modeled after real life? Is there a memorbale moment that you shared with a pet that you felt needed to be put in the game for posterity or tribute?
CM: Well I can’t speak for everybody else, but the whole chewing a cord thing proved to prophetic, as a few weeks after we put that in my new puppy chewed through our office internet cable.
LG: Well, since you brought up relationships, Caleb, Megan, and I have very unique experiences I think we draw from as we flesh out the story. As to where Caleb got married last year and is in the midst of a successful marriage, I had to cancel a wedding before we made this game. We talk a lot about how our friends, family and even pets support(ed) us in those times. So yeah, I think our unique perspectives about the way relationships grow closer together or divide apart because of the priorities we have and choices we make is essential to why we are working on Adopted.
If you had unlimited funds, unlimited resources, unlimited time and could make WHATEVER you wanted…what would that be?
MV: A musical game. I’m really sad that there’s not, like, a video game version of Wicked or something right now.
CM: I would like to just write and record music forever. So a musical game could fit right into that.
LG: I’m corny, I mean, if I had more money, I’d just try to help us find more good people to work at CD. I love working on games like Adopted, and after this one, I want to keep making games that are slightly off-kilter. I like weird stories, and hey, I’ve never written a musical before so maybe we can kill all the birds on the next game.
So you guys will take all the proceeds from Adopted to make a Fiddler on the Roof RPG.
LG: That sounds delightful. Streetcar? Anybody?
CM: I could be down.
MV: Who knows, I think whatever we work on next will be in the same vein of focusing on narrative and also trying to tell a story you’re not likely to hear in the games space.
So when’s the planned release date for Adopted?
MV: Right now we’re being vague and just saying 2016. We do have a production schedule and have an idea when we want to release the game, but I think there’s still a few unknowns that could shift it around by a few months.
LG: We didn’t want to come out and say it in the press release, but we are planning on a crowdfunding effort very soon, so release will depend on a few things we work out on the production/business side. Either way, this game is getting made if we can. We are very lucky to have a lot of support.
MV: Yeah, definitely.
Any closing thoughts or comments for the BagoGames readers?
CM: I’m abstaining from my usual tomfoolery.
MV: Just that we’re excited to bring this game to production, and we hope that some of your readers out there will also be excited to follow us on this journey. Sorry that’s, like, super cheesy, haha.
LG: I guess I just hope your readers get a chance to consider playing things they maybe normally wouldn’t. Megan has opened my eyes to a world of games out there I would have never touched before working with her, like Dominique Pamplemousse. Play outside your comfort zone. Which is cheesy too.
MV: Also, eat your fruits and veggies.
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