PAX East 2014: Interview: Jools Watsham (Renegade Kid)

Sunday, April 13th, 2014

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My history with Renegade Kid is kind of interesting. Back when they first started, I was certainly aware of Dementium and Moon, but I guess five years ago I never realized who made them. It wasn’t until the release of Mutant Mudds on the 3DS in 2012 that I made a point to find out who Renegade Kid was. Imagine my surprise when I found out the same guys responsible for some of the most unique games on the Nintendo DS also made Mutant Mudds!

At PAX East, I got a chance to sit down with Jools Watsham and discuss all things Renegade Kid, including the recent endeavors regarding Cult County. Here’s how it went down:

Jools Watsham Interview - The PAX East Booth | oprainfall

(Jonathan Higgins): In the past few years, you’ve developed games that cover a wide variety of genres. I definitely consider Renegade Kid a Renaissance developer. Which of your games has been the most fun to develop?

(Jools Watsham): It would have to be Mutant Mudds. Because that’s something I’ve wanted to do for so long, you know? It was mainly when I saw Super Mario World on the SNES. It was the Japanese import, actually. I was like, “What is that?” Visually, I hadn’t seen anything like it–the colors, the style, the sound, the way it moves—what is that? It wasn’t the first platforming game I saw, but…it was just so unique! It was just so vibrant and so awesome. That was definitely the inspiration. I’ve been wanting to do it for twenty-odd years, but I never had the opportunity to actually do it. With Mudds, we were making other games and getting paid to do it…and I was doing Mudds on the side, sort of just chipping away while we were making other games. So it was literally a labor of love.

In the past, I would make games and think of what I call “the three Ps”. It has to please the three Ps: the player, the publisher, and the press. If you please those three, your game has a chance to sell. And the first five years of Renegade Kid was very much about that. We had to convince the publisher to give us money to make a game, of course we’re gonna try to please the player, but the press were a different beast! You know, they look for certain things. You can’t just make a good game, necessarily; you have to hit some notes to impress them. That’s why they’re included in there as well.

With Mudds, I didn’t care about anything besides the player and myself. And, you know…it worked out. I didn’t really expect it–we had a few levels, I went to E3 and met Dan Adleman at Nintendo; he’s a wonderful person. I demoed it to him and everyone was like, “This is great! We love it!” I’m like…are they just being polite? I didn’t really believe them, honestly, but…I liked it, so I didn’t really care. Then everyone else started saying the same things, and they were a little more constructive too, so it was really cool. That was the most exciting for me, because…it was for me. I made it for me.

Jools Watsham Interview - Max in Treasurenauts | oprainfall Jools Watsham Interview - Max in Hex Heroes | oprainfall

I mean, looking back at it now… you’ve got Max appearing in other games…and even games outside of Renegade Kid! How does it make you feel to see your property come so far in such a short time?

It’s really amazing. I mean, to think that little game has, in many ways, defined our company and people know us for that game…which is crazy, to think we started with Dementium. And that’s what defined us for a long time. Last year was our first ever booth at PAX East. People would come up to us and be like, “Oh yeah, you’re the Mutant Mudds guys!” And they didn’t know about Dementium or Moon. It’s interesting that this new audience has become aware of us because of Mudds, which is…very fulfilling. It’s amazing.

You’ve mentioned that Mudds (your platformer) was the most fun game/genre. But which of all those genres was the most challenging?

Hmm. That’s interesting. You’ve got platformers, puzzle games, FPSes… you know, it’s hard to say. They might be similar, in challenge, because I’m always trying to make it as good as it can be within that genre. So the challenge might be somewhat equal. Even Bomb Monkey compared to Dementium compared to Mudds…obviously they’re all very different games, and they took different amounts of time to make. But when you sit back and think about the game developing process…it’s pretty much a similar challenge, really. It’s all gameplay mechanics. But from a game design perspective, the first-person shooters are probably the most challenging. There’s so many assets to create: it has story, it has frame rate…from an art perspective, getting all that done–that’s definitely the most challenging from that end. I think Gregg–Gregg Hargrove–the art guy, would probably say that Dementium II and Moon were the most challenging for him. And then Cult County will be.

It’s interesting you say that first-person shooters may be the most challenging depending on how you look at it. When you first announced that you were launching a Kickstarter on April 2nd, I thought…oh man, is it going to be Mutant Mudds 2?

A lot of people thought that, actually.

Jools Watsham Interview - Cult County | oprainfall

And then you announced Cult County. Knowing that FPS games are so challenging, why did you pick Cult County over all the other possibilities?

We really loved making Dementium, Moon and Dementium II. I mean, really enjoyed it. And that’s why we kicked off the company with that. We’re huge fans of playing games like that. Honestly, Dementium (One) turned out way better than I ever thought it would. We started off, three guys basically, on the DS trying to do something…and it really came together. We thought it was really cool. And then Dementium II was exciting because we had more team members, more variety…the first-person shooter genre’s just a really cool place to be.

We wanted to do Dementium III for a long time, but couldn’t because of publisher stuff. We’ve had a lot of people contacting us asking…Dementium III, where’s that? For the past two years, we’ve done pretty much everything but FPSes. It’s been great, but we were like…let’s get back to that! As far as why we got back into it, I mean…it’s because we love it! It’s fun to get back to our roots, and do a survival horror game. I mean, to make an FPS; that’s challenging by itself. But to make an FPS that’s actually scary–wow that’s really difficult. And I always feel like…”How are we going to do this?” Every time, I think, “How are we actually gonna make someone scared of something in a game?” I never go into it thinking I’ve got this; I’ve totally got this. I’m always the hell did we do this? How did we pull that off?

I think it’s a healthy place to come from because we have that worry, so we try really hard. We probably overcompensate to kind of make sure it has what we want it to do. We definitely pulled off the fear factor with Dementium. But with Cult County we can take what we’ve learned about the fear factor from Dementium (One) and everything else we’ve learned from Dementium II and Moon and Moon Chronicles and kind of put it all into one thing. And it’s been years–so we’ve watched things like Lost and Heroes and The Walking Dead and we think–this stuff’s amazing! We have all those influences, and both Gregg and I have very similar tastes in that regard. Yeah, I guess the short answer would be–we’re just excited to get back to that genre. It’s hard to make, it’s fun to make! If we can pull it off, it’s very gratifying…. to make something that people like and is scary.

Cult County Logo - Jools Watsham Interview | oprainfall Moon Chronicles Logo - Jools Watsham Interview | oprainfall

You’ve got two big first-person shooter games in the works with Moon Chronicles (something people know) and Cult County (something you’re doing with freedom, from the ground up). There are some differences like you’ve described with fear factor, but…what are some other key differences between the two titles?

We’re approaching the two very differently. With Moon Chronicles, a piece of it takes from the game we released on the DS five years ago. And that was made in a different time. Moon was a game in a box: it needed to last about eight hours for people to enjoy it…we had certain market expectations that we needed to meet. And it’s obviously inspired by Metroid Prime and other games like that. It’s traditional for the era, and I think it pulls it off really well on the DS. With Moon Chronicles, we’re approaching it with the DS game in mind.

But looking at Cult County and what’s different…hmm. It’s the same core, for sure. We made Dementium, so we do things a certain way. Cult County’s going to have some of what made Dementium so great. The big difference is we’re going episodic, because we love those TV shows–we like that format. We like that feeling of “Oh, I’ve completed Episode 1, what’s going to happen next?” And the story within each episode will branch across multiple episodes within the season, maybe within the next season.

Are your episodes going to be more “Monster of the Week” style where there’s a major focus from episode to episode, or are they going to be more layered–where one episode steadily builds off the next?

It’s more layered. There’s definitely a story that’s going on and one episode will lead to the next in a linear fashion. And in some ways, there will be self-contained stuff that may show up in episode one that won’t be resolved until later episodes, maybe even the next season. Yeah, there’s definitely lots of layers. And that’s exciting to us! It’s very challenging to do that.

We want to approach the character interactions kind of more like Half-Life in a way where you encounter someone, you trigger the interaction, they have things to say. But if you want to walk away, that’s fine. Because we don’t want to break that flow all the time. I mean, we will have cinematic moments where, maybe there’s a scene on the side of the road that we want to dramatize, so…you get close to it and the camera will cut, sort of this nice panning where we show the player walk towards it and then cut back to player control because it gives an impact, you know. With character interaction, we want that to be a little less, like…we want to give players the option to engage them where they’re just flapping away–then you can just walk off.

But to support the notion of walking away–any important information will be added to your notes, so you can refer back to it. Because that’s something the original FPSes didn’t really do. If you played an hour, stopped, came back a month later–I mean, good luck.

Cult County - Concept Art | oprainfall

So you will have ways to remind players what happened previously.

Oh definitely. With each episode, we’ll recap and sort of have these more “game” focused things as well. What were some tasks I was doing? What was my objective, what was the one thing I was trying to do? What were some tasks I could do if I wanted to? We’ll keep track of all that. We’ll try and help the player in that way.

With Moon Chronicles, even though it’s not a full-on action game, and there are some moments of just exploration where you’re walking around, it’s kind of focused on action. With Cult County, we kind of continue that and…maybe even go a little bit further than that. It’s not really about guns. It’s more about the melee combat and feeling under-powered. Major Kane in Moon Chronicles doesn’t feel under-powered, per se. But Gavin Mellick, the main character in Cult County…he’s just a normal guy! He’s like you and me. He’s walking into town…he doesn’t have a weapon. Why would he have a weapon? I mean…yes, he’s in Texas, but…he’s just walking around, and it’ll kind of me a nice slow burn.

You’ll come into the game, and the story setup is: you’re driving across Texas to find your sister to tell her about your mother who’s dying. You call her and she’s not answering so…you try to find her by talking to some of the townsfolk, and that’s when you find out a little more about what’s going on. It kind of leaves you with this feeling like…something seems a little off, I think. But it’s gonna be subtle! It’s gonna creep in. You’ll explore this nice little small town that’s just inherently a little odd, but the story will kind of grow from there and blossom. It’s something I’m excited about because not many games are doing it. Silent Hill did it pretty well.

Jools Watsham Interview - Silent Hill | oprainfall

I think it’s been a long time since a shooter has shown us “subtle”.

Yeah, it’s been a long time. I mean even Dementium (One) and II were like “Oh, it’s a monster. Boom! Kill me!” And that’s another big difference for us. We kind of want to make it seem somewhat normal and boring to begin with. And then it’ll creep up, so you have that contrast of…where it was in the beginning. Normal life to where the hell am I now. Probably by the end of Episode 1 you’ll be like “Oookay!” Like that’s a little unsettling. What’s going on certainly won’t be revealed quickly. There’s a lot of layers to uncover, which is really fun. We’re excited to see how the player perceives what’s presented to them at first. Who will they think are the enemy characters? We’re excited to see them ask–who’s that? What are they doing?

Jools Watsham - What a collection! | oprainfall

Very nice! Then I guess, as a way to wrap things up…. you’ve gone from Dementium to Mudds and everything in between and now…you’ve launched a Kickstarter. Out of everything you’ve experienced as a developer, what’s the single biggest thing you’ve learned about yourself that you can apply to the things you create in the future–or even to your life itself?

I’ve definitely learned that apparently I like challenge. I like to challenge myself. Not only in the games that we make, but even in the fact that we….started our own company. I think that’s what interests me as a person…. having something that’s difficult to solve, and then solving it. I mean, maybe that’s why we try different genres as well, because it’s different. We think “Why not?” We made Dementium on the DS–we hadn’t really made an FPS before. Then we became someone known for making FPSes–well, that was our first FPS! Mudds was our first platform game, and now we’re known for that. The challenge is not only accomplishing these goals, but trying to do them well and make them something we’re known for. Making a game is bloody hard, making it good is next to impossible. It’s like…what does that mean? What makes it “good”? There are obvious things you can try to achieve, but it’s a very delicate balance. You can change something and break something else–I like all of that.

So you absolutely have faith in your team to not only meet, but exceed some of these challenges you set for yourselves.

Exactly. If you have the desire, just…do it. Just don’t give up. The biggest thing for me, the kind of quote that I’ve stood by for many years, even prior to Renegade Kid, is: “The biggest risk at all is no risk at all.” If you don’t try and risk something, you may not achieve anything. But if you do risk it, and fail…the true test is what you do after. Do you give up, or do you get back up and try again? I’m definitely the type of person where I’ll get up and hopefully be stronger from that. I’ll probably make mistakes–hopefully not the same mistakes–but you know,  I expect that. So when failure happens, it sucks, but…it’s not devastating.

Thank you so much for your time. I wish you nothing but success.

Thank you! Definitely good stuff.

Want more? You can follow Jools Watsham and check out Renegade Kid on Twitter, or visit the official site. Excited for Cult County? Make sure to check the Kickstarter for all the latest updates on Renegade Kid’s latest challenge.