Amber Gibson: Welcome to Inside ACMI X: a series where we discuss TV, film, videogames, virtual, augmented, and mixed reality, with our residents currently making it in Australia. Each fortnight, we interview a resident at ACMI X - which is ACMI's screen-focus coworking space. I'm Amber Gibson, the community coordinator for this space. Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, on whose land we record this podcast here in Melbourne. It always was and always will be Aboriginal land.
Today we're talking to Julian Wilton, who is the creative director at Massive Monster game studio. The very ominous and haunting music you just heard in the introduction to the podcast was from their game, Cult of the Lamb, which is soon to be released. All of their music is composed by Norian Johnson and we'll be adding snippets throughout the episode for you to listen to and get a feel for the game. Welcome, Julian.
Julian Wilton: Hello-hello. How's it going?
AG: Julian's pretty committed to this interview because he broke his toe yesterday.
JW: It's true, it's true. Not to give the deets away, but it went sideways. It was pretty messed up.
AG: So Julian, how did you first get into making games?
JW: I feel like I just stumbled into it a bit. I was playing some online games with my friends. We were playing this game and I realised that the source files were there, so you can see all the images in the game and stuff like that. I went in and changed some of them, and I was like; "whoa, I'm a game maker now. I just changed the art." I found it really interesting and I... me and my friend made a bit of a pact, we're like; "let's make a game. Let's. I'll do some art stuff. You do some programming," and we got on it. My friend quickly gave up the dream, probably a couple of days in, but I kept at it. Here we are 15 years later. But yeah, basically after that I kept at it a bit.
I did try programming as well, but I really sucked at it back then. So I was doing a bit of art stuff and I... Yeah, started getting into the flash games because you could work with a programmer. So, I would go on forums like Newgrounds and Kongregate and stuff like that and I would do little mockups of a game and be like; "yo, does anyone want to work on this game with me?" Or there'd be other people that would be like; "oh, I want to make this game. I'm a programmer, does anyone want to work on it?"
I think I worked on my first big-ish flash game when I was 17 and it sold for like $18,000 USD. I was just like; "what the hell?" Best day ever. It was great, but then PayPal blocked my account because, they're like; "you're under 18 and we're not going to give you the money because you're under 18."
AG: (Gasps) What!
JW: Yes! But because you're turning 18 soon in six months, they were like; "we'll just leave it going and you can get the money in six months," which was really annoying as well because the guy, I was working on with another person, and I had to tell him the whole story. I was like; "yo, I'm sorry, I can't give you the money." We also owed 10% of it to this flash game website, where we sold it through. So, yeah, it was a big kerfuffle. I've hated PayPal since that day (laughs).
AG: Oh my God. What an interesting experience, that's your first...
JW: Yeah. Welcome to the world. But it gave me a taste for it as well - that business side of games as well. For a lot of people, making money in games is a bit frowned upon, people see it as a bit commercial, but I think it can coexist as well, doing g both. And yeah, kept at it. I started working with the other director in the company, Jay, probably 10 years ago. We started a flash game called Super Adventure Pals. Again, that just came about by finding (each other) on forums and I think he posted the game that he was working on and I was just like; "whoa, love it." So we just started working on that and it did pretty well again and we're like, "woo! This is great!"
But then, flash games started to die, so RIP, in terms of the money was just no longer there - stuff like that. So we started to pivot and we were like; "oh, what should we do? Should we make mobile games? Should we do desktop console games?" And obviously, the dream was always desktop console games just because it sounds so cool. You get your game on Xbox or Nintendo and you're like; "oh my God, that's awesome." So yeah, we started doing that and worked on Super Adventure Pals 2, which was going to be a flash game on those and we got some small funding for it from our publisher back then and kept at it, but we realised that flash wasn't cutting it. It was going to be too slow. So we pivoted to using this weird framework called Haxe OpenFL which could export to consoles. And then yeah, four years later we had a desktop console game called The Adventure Pals. That was probably three or four years ago now.
(I) also worked on another game called Boomerang Fu which had a fun story behind it as well, where I saw the game at a playtesting meet-up for game developers. I saw this game; it was just some little squares battling each other, little squares on the ground, throwing boomerangs at each other. I played it and I was just like; "yep, I am in. I want to do art for this game." Even though he wanted to make it a 3D game, (referring to) Paul (who) was the main developer on it, and I could only do 2D. I gave my best shot at some 3D, but I just was not good at it. But yeah, I did concept art for that, drew all the characters and that was really cool way of working as well because I would do all these 2D mockups and then a 3D artist would take it, interpret it and do a 3D version and someone else would animate it. So, I could just do a little bit of work and then it would all get made for me. So, I really enjoyed that.
AG: Has Cult of the Lamb been an evolution of that pivot over time?
JW: Yeah, I think so. On Cult of the Lamb, it's basically a 3D game because it's all in a 3D space, although the shaders are doing a lot of stuff that 3D games do but where everything's still drawn is 2D because again, we can't make 3D stuff and we also refuse to learn (laughs). It's definitely coming from our other games, working on Boomerang Fu and Adventure Pals, they're very cute bright games, which looking at them, definitely appealed more to kids and a younger audience. We knew for the next game we wanted to target more of the core audiences of something like Steam; who are a bit older and a bit more hardcore gamers. They like a bit of a challenge. So yeah, we knew with this one, we're like; "All right, let's target this audience. We'll keep it cute because we don't know how to not draw cute stuff but we'll also give it this darker edge."
AG: Julian, can you describe Cult of the Lamb to new audiences?
JW: Cult of the Lamb is a game about running a cult as this little lamb character, you're running a cult of cute animals. And the way that works is (that) you go out into this dark, dangerous world, you can fight dudes, you find followers, you'll bring them back to your base and then you need to look after them, keep them happy and in exchange, they'll worship you and can praise you, and that feeds your power and you can get stronger.
AG: And how did you develop the original idea for the game?
JW: It was actually quite a process because this was going from our last game, we're like; "what are we going to do?" We started off with this prototype that Jay had developed, who is the programmer at the company. He developed this prototype where, it's pretty similar to the loop we have now where you've got a little base of people that you look after, and then you have this dungeon where you go out and fight stuff. So we started with that. I love it, but I'm like; "how are we going to sell this?" Because part of the process is we need to get publisher funding for it so we can actually work on it and keep our studio viable. So we went through a bunch of ideas.
Originally, it was quite complicated. It was like you're on the back of a flying whale. You'd go down and you'd come back. You'd have your followers, but you'd eat them. It was just a bit complicated and hard to communicate what it actually was. Even for us, we were confused. We're like; "what is this?" So we tried out some more ideas. We went with another one of trying to run your own hell where you had the villages or the people you're looking after, but you had to punish them. But we quickly found that we really didn't want to punish them.
When we got to that point we were like; "we just want to look after them. We like hanging out with them. We want to look after them. Some of them, if they're a bit naughty, we want to punish, but yeah, not the others." So yeah, we kept thinking and this idea of a cult came out, which worked great because you can exploit them. You can be mean to them if you want, or you can just be really nice to them. It's up to you. It's up to the player. So we're not forcing it on them. So yeah, it just came about through a lot of iteration and probably watching a lot of horror movies and stuff like that.
AG: Yeah. There are a lot of cute and horror elements in it. You've been developing the game for almost three years now. As the creative director, can you describe your role at Massive Monster?
JW: Yeah, my role is very varied. When we were starting out, I would do a lot of mockups. I would do a lot of art stuff and just give the vision to the project and try to steer the ship basically; producing the other guys a bit as well. Now I'm just doing a lot of programming as well as writing shaders and a bunch of other random stuff. So, I don't really know exactly my role, but I like to think of it as, yeah, trying to steer the ship, keeping everyone on track, keeping the vision going.
AG: Can we talk a bit about the business side of making games? What have you learned about turning Massive Monster into a sustainable business?
JW: Yeah, so the game development business is really tricky. A lot of game companies are created and they put out their game and then the game might not be that financially successful and the company no longer exists. It is part of the issue with just the culture around it. A lot of studios are betting on the game doing well where a lot of studios need to change the way they think and think more in terms of... the business is getting publisher funding so that you can make your game and then work on the next one, rather than saying the business goal is to release a game and make a lot of money because it's... you always have to think worst-case scenario. If the game's a complete flop, what are we going to do?
For example, Adventure Pals that we made, did moderately okay. We got quite lucky with it. I think it's done over a million in revenue now, over four years or something. But on our next game that the other guys worked on the company, it made about 20K and it had a recoup of about 10 times that. So basically that means that the other guys in the company are never going to see a dollar from it. Through that and through BMH bars learned, we have to create a business in the way where we're not reliant on the game doing well and we can keep money coming in. We can keep people getting paid and not be reliant on that success of a game.
AG: And now you're publishing with Devolver Digital. Congratulations. Awesome. How has that process been?
JW: Yeah, it's been great. Yeah. They're pretty chilled. They're very confident with the game, which is great because we're a bit like (makes a nervous sound). As I was saying, on their previous games we were hustling a lot, trying to do everything as cheap as we can, but with them... spend money to make money. So they're quite liberal with their marketing budget and we're just putting a lot of faith in them that they know what they're doing. And yeah, they've been really relaxed and they have a lot of teams for everything. So even like we're exhibiting a PAX East, and they've got someone designing all the booth, designing all the merch. So we don't have to do anything if we don't want to, but we have helped a bit with the merch designs, but they... Yeah, they've got teams for everything, so they've been great. No complaints.
AG: What advice would you give to indie devs trying to sign with a publisher?
JW: There are a couple of elements to it. I think the main thing is just trying to make something that's you. Make it unique to you, make a product that you really care about, you really like, and that also has a good hook/unique selling point and getting good at communicating what that is. So for us, we're just going down this cult direction, so we're like... it's a game about starting the cult and pivoting everything towards that.
That was a bit strategic because Devolver, if you look at their other games, they are a bit more punkish on the type of games they release. So it was steering towards them with this cult-y game. I think they vibed with it because it goes well with them. That is another thing as well, trying to find a publisher with similar interests or a similar catalogue of games to what you are making. If you make a local multiplayer game, you might try and find publishers that have done local multiplayer games before and have had success with them.
AG: You mentioned that Devolver Digital handle the marketing, but you also have a big following on social channels. You've got like 7,000 followers on Twitter and about 3,000 members on Discord. Have you been continually focused on a marketing strategy independently?
JW: Yeah, so on the other game, we really had to hustle. We had to hustle for every follower we had. I meant that I went all around the world exhibiting the game, which is great, but yeah, we're tweeting every day trying to get those likes. I think we've definitely steered towards an approach with our games of marketing first (and) putting that as a big focus on everything we do, just because you need to find the people that are going to vibe with what you're making and you've got to keep it as a strong element. But it has been hard lately because if you're also trying to make a game and you're trying to prioritise marketing stuff, it's a really hard balance I think.
AG: How do you strike that balance between remaining creative and focusing on the business?
JW: If you can integrate it, it works really well. There are a lot of companies that on their socials and staff, they just have a lot of fun with it and they'll just share what they've been working on for the day or what's been happening. There are a few YouTube channels that just do a Devlog of like; "oh, this is what I've been working on in the last month." I've seen a lot of traction with those working well and getting a behind-the-scenes view of things. So I think, yeah, just working it into what you're already doing.
AG: What keeps you inspired to make videogames?
JW: I like making weird stuff. I want to just keep pushing and exploring different ideas that haven't really been done or making people surprised in a certain way like this game. Giving that really cute but messed-up vibe surprises people and I just like breaking those expectations a bit and making weird stuff.
AG: Cool. Do you have a favourite character in the game? I know you've got the possessed lamb, but...
JW: It's pretty good. I think Lamby or Lambert; he doesn't actually have a name, (some people) call him Lambert for some reason, I just love that name. He's a fav, but I have this fish character I drew and I just love him because he is like a fish but he is pretending to be a human. So, he's got a fake nose and a moustache and when he talks, his mouth opens up like normal and it's pretty fun. And he's like; (makes fish sounds) when he talks, so yeah.
AG: In a few other interviews, you mentioned that Midsommar was a bit of an inspiration for the game. What other horror films or media were you drawing from?
JW: Yeah, so definitely a lot of horror films. Midsommar's great and then Hereditary by the same director; so good. But then there are also quite a few others. I feel like Suspiria and there's one called Climax, which is about a bunch of ballet dancers and they all take acid and end up murdering each other. But even (in) that, they have this really strong visual language with a lot of the stuff they do. So, even (in) the lighting they'll just make everything red, put a big red light on everything, getting these very distinct compositions, which really stood out to me, creating very visually striking imagery in these movies.
And then also, yeah, just the creepy stuff that comes out of it. I love that side. It just adds a lot of mystery and depth to it without actually having to do that much work. You can hint at a lot of stuff and create a lot of narrative without doing as much (laughs), which sounds a bit lazy. We know what's going on, but we can hint at it and we don't need all this dialogue and we can just keep it a bit more ominous and spooky without explicitly saying it.
AG: Yeah. It's good storytelling. What happens once the game is released?
JW: That's a good question. Actually, we had (planned) originally that we're meant to be working on our next game at this point, but I think we're going to be working on it (Cult of the Lamb) the day before it releases. There's just lots of work to do. But I think, going back to what I was talking about before, (we are focused on the idea) of trying to keep your business afloat, even if your games flop. We baked in post-release support for this game, so on Adventure Pals and Never Give Up, which we worked on, the money ran out as soon as the game was meant to release. As well, a lot of the platforms won't pay you out for a certain amount of time and you have to hit a recoup.
So with this one, we thought; "alright, let's bake in." I think we've got nine months of support after it, which means we can do two big content updates with it. And it means that we can keep everyone employed, keep paying the bills and stuff like that, even if the game's a flop or if it takes a long time to recoup, then we should hopefully still be in a good place and it should give us enough time to develop a new game that we can also get funding for and start developing that and keep the money coming just so everyone can eat and be happy.
AG: Well, that's all we have time for, but thanks for joining us, Julian.
JW: Thank you very much.
AG: Thanks for joining us on Inside ACMI X. If you want to find out more about Julian or follow along with Cult of the Lamb; all of their details are in the show notes, alongside information regarding ACMI X.