Since I got to check out Blood of the Werewolf at PAX Prime last year, I’ve been following the studio and the game fairly closely. It’s always fascinating to watch a game progress from early stages of development to final product on different platforms, especially when the team behind the game is so passionate about what they’re doing. Than McClure, CEO of Scientifically Proven Entertainment, was not only passionate, but visibly excited to talk platformers with me after the demo. After the initial launch on Steam, the team took feedback and applied it to working on BotW 2.0, which hit Steam last month, and has just launched on Xbox 360 via XBLA.
I got to chat with McClure about the development process, the hardships of being independent, the mixed reception of BotW, and about a shared love of platformers in general. To kick things off, I was curious what exactly his role was at Scientifically Proven Entertainment and in the development of Blood of the Werewolf. “- I am the CEO/EP but we are pretty small, so I rather be called chief, cook, and bottle washer,” he said, seemingly only half joking. He was not, however, the sole source of the concept for BotW saying, “The original concept was the brainchild of our creative lead, Chris Kagel.” McClure went on to explain that the game you see today is a far cry from the original combo-driven concept, and that ultimately “Myself, Jason (designer) and Derek (writer) sat down with Chris and started to discuss what we loved about the platforming genre.” They hashed out core elements that all great platformers seemed to boil down to; “a quest for mastery wrapped in a fun story.”
I was a little surprised to hear that story was a motivator in the conception, given how little story I really remember from most of the platformers I grew up with, but he explained that even something as simple as Mario, roaming from castle to castle looking for Peach was fun, and, to some extent, you get that feeling from BotW. Instead of Bowser, you’re facing classic horror monsters, but you’ll still get the “ongoing carrot” to motivate you to get to, and eventually defeat the next boss, and finally save Nickoli.
I was also particularly interested to know how the team behind the game felt about the mixed reception it’s found on Metacritic. Several of the critics gave it a reduced score because it was “too difficult.” “But isn’t that kind of the point?” I inquired. “We thought so. One of the most common complaints we have seen is reference to knock back. People complaining how horrible and archaic it is. Ideally, if you master the game, you never get hit,” explained McClure, going on to say that he simply “couldn’t be prouder” of some of the challenging elements incorporated into the final product. The negative reviews and complaints of difficulty were actually not a point of concern for McClure and the team, “It’s always tough to ship a game. You put so much into it just to get it out and regardless of what you make some people will hate it. But for the first time in my career it was kind of the goal of this game,” he said, “If everyone had a vanilla response I would feel that we failed at delivering our goals.”
That’s not to say that some of the complaints about difficulty in the original PC release were unfounded, nor did they fall on deaf ears. “The feedback we received allowed us to fine tune a lot of the elements that were simply deemed too punishing,” he explained, citing specifically the “mashers” segments early in the game, as well as the Hyde boss fight. Having played both 1.0 and 2.0, I can attest to the frustration of some of the less-tuned challenges, and how vastly they have been improved with the latest update.
Sales figures are often hard to come by, but McClure couldn’t have been prouder of BotW‘s Steam launch. “Publishing politics aside, I consider the PC launch to be a huge success. 55,000 units from a no-name studio with no development or marketing budget,” he said, “Especially when 30,000 of them have happened within the last month!” With the Xbox 360 release so recent, there’s no data available for that yet, and he didn’t care to speculate, but was eager to share that “The best news is we still have three more consoles coming out this summer. ” PS3 is coming next, with Vita and Wii U versions planned later. Publishing a platformer on a Nintendo console is something of a dream for many members of the team, who, like me, grew up playing Mario, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, and many more on NES and SNES.
Developing a game independently means very little budget, tight deadlines, and little room for error. There are myriad challenges along the way, and I wanted to know what was the most serious challenge faced by McClure and the team on the road to BotW. “The hardest part for me was keeping the team together while trying to deliver a true to its messaging title,” McClure explained, “These guys and gals dedicated so much to try to deliver and sometimes the realities of independent development can be just too tough. We had some very difficult times during this project.” I asked for some elaboration, and he rattled off the anecdote of how the studio ended up in Michigan on the promise of tax incentives, only to have the rug pulled out from underneath them, resulting in a three-year legal battle with the state. That’s three years spent dealing with bureaucracy, rather than developing and shipping games that would pay the bills. With so much invested in legal fees, the studio picked up whatever side work it could to keep the lights on, and allow the continued development of its pet project in BotW.
It’s not all hardship, though, and there are some very gratifying moments in independent development, too. “The look on our developer faces (especially a couple that has never shipped a title before) when they saw our game on the front page of Xbox home for the first time,” he listed off, adding also “Watching my 8 year old blast through the crushers on the second level while we laugh our butts off watching people rage quit the same spot on Twitch.” So, he’s admittedly a bit of a griefer, but you have to be to want to make this kind of game.
I had a few questions about BotW 2.0 as well, specifically the procedurally generated Endless Challenge. For starters, what exactly does “procedurally generated” mean here? “The art is pre-made, the monsters, obstacles, and all of their behaviors are pre-made,” he said, “The generated element comes when you play it. We have a few rule sets for difficulty, so you don’t get some incredibly difficult rooms until you can conquer the less difficult ones.” He further explained that there are basically three columns, rooms, obstacles, and enemies. Each room has a number of variations, offering thousands of different combinations, and the obstacles and enemies are randomly situated in each room as it’s generated during your play session.
As the creators of the game, it’s no surprise that the team has some of the best scores, but I was seriously impressed to learn that the team average for Endless Challenge is around 50 rooms complete (for reference, my fifth run I got to 20). The best of the best there? They can do upwards of 140 rooms in a single run, which is completely unfathomable to me.
As a bit of fun, I asked what the major influence was for BotW and was not at all surprised by the response. He listed off several of my favorite classics from Mega Man to Castlevania to Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, influences from each I found to be evident in the BotW release. If you’re into classic action platformers, indie titles, or just a sucker for punishment, check out my review of Blood of the Werewolf on Xbox 360.