INTERVIEW: Ryan V., Lead Designer of Citizens of Earth

Monday, April 8th, 2013

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A little while back, we reported that an Earthbound-inspired RPG called Citizens of Earth was coming to the Wii U. As you might have figured out by now, Earthbound is one of my favorite RPGs in existence, so it immediately caught my attention. And then, of course, the interesting art style and the recruitment mechanics made me even more intrigued. I managed to get in touch with the game’s lead designer, Ryan Vandendyck, to learn a bit more about the game. He told me more about the game’s mechanics, about the choice to go with a modern, streamlined approach to RPGs, and what it was like working with Nintendo.

Citizens of Earth - VP-House

Kyle Emch: First of all, congratulations on bringing your game to GDC. Did you have a good showing?

Ryan Vandendyck: Thank you! It was a great experience. We got a ton of coverage, especially once the word got out that we were developing Citizens of Earth for the Wii U. So that was very exciting!

K: I take it that those who tried the game really liked it, then?

R: Yeah definitely. Especially anyone who is a fan of Earthbound. I got a ton of ecstatic comparisons to Earthbound at GDC, which of course is very high praise. But the cool thing is that everyone who played it found something to like. More hardcore RPG fans loved the depth of the combat and the customization in the various Citizens you can recruit. But other people loved the setting and humour of the game. So it seems like it’s resonating with a broad audience, which is fantastic.

K: What I find most interesting about this game is the art style. Most old-school styled RPGs tend to go for a retro aesthetic. The art style in Citizens of Earth looks much more modern. What made you want to go with this style over a retro one?

R: Well, there were a couple reasons for it actually. So right now there seems to be a surge in indie RPGs using retro, pixel graphics. While I personally am a fan of that art, I also want to make sure that indie RPGs aren’t confined into that box. So reaching beyond that style was important to me in pushing the envelope of what people think about when they hear “indie RPG”. This pushing the envelope was actually important to us across the board – not only in art aesthetic, but in tech, design, etc. You may notice we have included a number of cool effects in the game like dynamic reflections in glass surfaces, dynamic shadows, and a time of day system. But beyond that, the modern setting of the game kind of implies a modern aesthetic I think. It matches a visual style with your conception of what a modern, humorous world ought to look like.

Citizens of Earth - 2460591-vpsbedroom

K: I see. Now, can you tell us a bit more about the story? What kind of work does the Vice President of the World have to do? And why is he where he is now?

R: Sure, so the game begins shortly after the election ends, so the newly-elected Vice President returns to his home town for some rest and relaxation. You soon discover some odd stuff happening around town, though. And as the elected official, you feel it’s your duty to do something about it! But of course, being a politician, you don’t actually want to get your hands dirty. So, using your charisma and charm you go about town recruiting Citizens to your cause to fight your battles for you – literally!

K: That brings me to my next question. How do you manage these recruits in the game? If you replace on of your recruits with a new one, will you be able to go back and recruit your old companion again?

R: We’ve tried to streamline the process of swapping around the Citizens as much as possible. So you’re actually able to change your party at any time, and even restart a battle to select a new team. The reason we did this was to encourage experimentation amongst all the Citizens. In other games that have recruiting a large number of people as a core mechanic (like Pokemon or Suikoden), I have found changing your party to be a pretty laborious affair. To the point where I generally just pick my main team and rarely change it up. Which sort of defeats the purpose of having the potential for a large number of possible characters! So the idea of encouraging experimentation and character swapping is a core element of the design that runs through the whole game, and we hope will essentially eliminate as many barriers as possible for players to try out as many characters as they are interested in.

K: That’s good to hear. Now, what about the recruits themselves? You previously stated before that, once you’ve swapped them out, the experience they got from battles carries over to their day jobs. Can you explain how exactly that works?

R: Sure, so the way it’s currently implemented (though this may change) is that after a battle each Citizen earns EXP and JP (Job Points). EXP contributes to leveling up in the traditional sense of getting stronger in battle, while JP contributes to leveling up your Job. As their Job levels up, each Citizen is able to do more and more awesome and powerful things outside of combat.

So a character like the Baker will have more and rarer items for sale in the Bakery, and at cheaper prices, as his Job levels up. The Teacher will have an increased number of enrollment slots at school in which to leave Citizens behind to earn EXP passively over time. The Conspiracy Guy will reveal more detailed information in his almanac regarding enemies, even eventually getting to the point where everything about an enemy (stats, abilities, item drops, etc.) will be made known to you. Each Citizen has a unique benefit that they offer through their Job, and earning JP unlocks their full potential.

Citizens of Earth 012313-citizens_02

K: That sounds like it will be really interesting to play around with. In a recent interview, you mentioned that you wanted to make the game “broader, not longer”. What do you mean by that, exactly?

R: Most of the content in the game is optional. A large focus on the game is recruiting and using the Citizens, but you’re free to choose who you recruit to your cause and when. In addition, every main area of the game has optional regions to explore if you’re interested. Exploring these areas will not only provide additional challenges to the player but will also provide cool rewards, the most compelling of which are discovering new Citizens to recruit! These optional areas will also elaborate on the storyline of the game for those players that enjoy digging into the details. The reason we did this was to allow everyone to engage the game at the level they’re interested. People who are hardcore RPG fans will find a ton of content to explore and will, through the use of Citizens both in and out of battle, have a near limitless number of ways to play the game. More casual players, or those with less time on their hands, will be able to hit the highlights of the game without having to devote dozens of hours into a linear slog through the storyline.

Again it really comes back to allowing players to play the game how they want to play. If they want a light-hearted romp through a humorous world, they’ll find it. If they want a deep RPG experience that allows them to master the entire world and create the ultimate team of Citizens, they’ll find that too! In terms of length, we’re planning on a 10 hour core experience that people can play if they just want the highlights of what Citizens of Earth has to offer. But for those who are hungry for content, we’re planning on having about 40 hours. So there’s a ton to do and see, if you’re so inclined. And if you’re not, that’s not a problem.

K: I want to ask about the Wii U version of the game. Can you tell me what was it like working with Nintendo when it came to porting your game to the system?

R: Nintendo have been great actually. I was actually a programmer on a number of Nintendo games, like Mario Strikers: Charged and Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, so I’m very familiar with Nintendo and their hardware. So that certainly made things much easier. But in addition to that they have a lot of faith in the game and sent me a free dev kit to do the port. So that was very nice of them!

K: Oh, I didn’t know that! What was it like working on games like Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, as opposed to your own games?

R: Working on games as just one piece of a larger team (like on Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon) and working on my own games are both awesome experiences, but for very different reasons. Working on my own games is great because as the primary programmer and designer, I can do whatever I want! I can design anything I can imagine, and I can put those designs into the game. But of course along with that is that fact that without a large team to back me up, I end up having to wear a lot of hats. So in addition to doing design and programming I manage the team, do PR, update our website, make particle effects, etc. And that can get quite exhausting! Not to mention if the game is a flop, I’m pretty much the one that (deservedly) takes the blame.

On the flip side, working on a game like Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon allows me to focus on one particular area (in the case of that game, the programming of the ghost AI) and make sure it’s awesome without worrying about too much else. And getting to work alongside a large team of talented people is a very cool experience, especially when it’s on such a beloved property like Luigi’s Mansion!

Citizens of Earth Screenshot 1

K: It’s great to hear you have such respect for Nintendo’s development staff. Since you’ve worked on games for Nintendo’s consoles in the past, I assume that the Wii U version of Citizens of Earth will have some features unique to the console?

R: That’s definitely the plan! I’m not sure yet of the details since we’re still developing the port, but I certainly hope to have Wii U-specific features and content.

K: Even if it’s something as small as off-TV play?

R: At the very least I’m hoping to support that, yeah

K: What about your previous title, Waveform? Do you plan to bring that to Nintendo consoles as well?

R: I am hoping to, yeah. Since Citizens of Earth is built off of the same engine I made for Waveform, I’ll only have to port my engine to the Wii U once in order to support both games.


We thank Ryan Vandendyck for his time, and wish him the best of luck. Citizens of Earth will be available in March 2014.

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About Kyle Emch

Kyle has been studying music at college for about three years now. He's played the piano since he was 6 years old and has been recently been learning how to write music. He has followed the Operation Rainfall movement on Facebook since it started and was happy to volunteer for the website. Just don't mention Earthbound or the Mother franchise around him.