Interviews: Monster Tale - Dreamrift's Peter Ong

DreamRift's co-founder spins us a tale of two screens

Even though its successor released last month in Europe and North America, the DS was never going to go down without a fight. A new Pokemon generation dominated the handheld's last days as top dog, but right under the radar flew Majesco and DreamRift's excellent platform/pet RPG Monster Tale.

We're ridiculously behind on the Nintendo Life review (it's coming, we promise!), but in the meantime we caught up with Monster Tale director and DreamRift co-founder Peter Ong to learn more about how their new studio came to be, the meshing of genres and the design teachings of Henry Hatsworth's puzzling adventure.

Nintendo Life: Can you tell us a little about how DreamRift came to be?

Peter Ong: Prior to forming DreamRift, I was the lead designer on Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure at Electronic Arts. Although it was an absolute pleasure working on that game, afterwards it seemed like the right time to pursue the creative opportunities that come with full studio independence. Leaving Electronic Arts, I began putting DreamRift into motion. Soon after, I was joined by our co-founder, Ryan Pijai, who also worked on Hatsworth as the Lead Programmer.

Although these events were the most recent ones leading to DreamRift’s formation, we could also trace its inception back further to each of our principal staff members’ experiences throughout veteran careers as professional game makers. I think that all of the lessons learned and relationships that are established with competent peers during previous work at other companies are critical to being able to form a new company correctly with the proper experience and talent.

Where did the idea for Monster Tale come from?

I wouldn’t refer to any single point from which the idea came. As we sat down to consider what DreamRift’s first game should be, we were able to decide with relative ease that we wanted to do something innovative which also plays to the strengths of our team in creating original universes.

With that in mind, one of our goals was to use the two screens on the DS in a unique manner. We felt that the use of the dual-screen feature of the DS was still largely neglected and under-explored. Usually, you’ll see the second screen on the DS used in games in a trivial manner…such as an inventory screen or extended view of the world. We wanted to explore what it’s like when two radically different genres exist on each screen, while attempting to integrate gameplay between the screens together in a way we hadn’t seen before. The rest of the game just evolved logically out of those initial premises.

Hatsworth’s puzzle/platform combination was daring to say the least. What was it about pet simulators that made you go “brilliant, let’s do that next!”?

Before Hatsworth’s release, there were many outside the team who were skeptical about the possibility of merging two seemingly disparate genres and screens together harmoniously. Fortunately, Hatsworth was received very well by audiences once they were able to get their hands on it.

This success bolstered our confidence in being able to combine completely different game styles to produce a new experience, and also inspired us to question how we could explore a new direction. Instead of having two different games that you switch between, we asked ourselves what it would be like to have a character that could move seamlessly between two different screens/games without interrupting the flow of action on either. This ended up being the pet character, Chomp. Having some sort of pet-raising type of game on the bottom screen that focuses on growth and development this time seemed like the best way to fully leverage that mechanic.

Were you considering any other types of genre mash-ups before settling on these, or did you know from the outset that you wanted these specific two?

The decision to go with the action-platforming and pet-raising/RPG genres was made fairly quickly. However, many other interesting ideas came up during our brainstorming sessions. Although those ideas weren’t the right fight for us at the time, we’re actually still very interested in them for the future. We’re sitting on so many great ideas we can’t wait to bring into reality someday, that sometimes it’s frustrating we can’t make 10 games a year while maintaining our current dedication to each one’s quality.

Was there a specific pet-raising sim that you drew inspiration from?

When I played the first Monster Rancher game, I remember two things striking a chord with me: the emotional attachment I felt toward my pet creature, and the feeling of variety presented with the items and activities that you could apply to your pet. We attempted to capture those general sensations in Monster Tale. However, we also wanted to go further with the items and activities in this game by giving them functionality that affects the action in real-time, either directly affecting the top screen, or by instantly changing Chomp’s properties during the action.

A portion of DreamRift’s talent worked in key roles on Henry Hatsworth and the Puzzling Adventure for EA. What sorts of challenges did you face from blending the two genres in Hatsworth and how did they affect your approach to Monster Tale?

With Hatsworth, we learned that it takes a lot of prototyping and iteration to properly allow the player to deal with dual-screen gameplay. It takes just the right execution and little touches in order to provide an experience where the player doesn’t get confused by the presence of two screens, doesn’t forget about one of the screens while playing, and keeps track of necessary information on each screen. All of this has to occur while the game somehow seems like a single coherent game instead of two disconnected separate ones.

In Monster Tale, we wanted to try a more organic method of controlling the two screens, so the player is able to interact with either of the screens without having to pause the action on one of them.

One of the main challenges I faced was to avoid the same solutions to various issues that Hatsworth had. Although one might assume that having prior experience on a related game can make things easier, at times it was as though we were competing with ourselves. There were good reasons why we decided to do things a certain way in Hatsworth, but for the sake of differentiation, we had to rack our brains for ideas that were equal or better than what we came up with before. To that end, I was fortunate to be surrounded by talented individuals such as our Art Director, Michael Veroni, who was instrumental in helping to tackle countless issues from a totally different perspective. Michael is a rarity in that he has an acute design sense in addition to being an amazing artist.

One thing that was equally loved and hated about Hatsworth was its brutal difficulty. Did you try to go a little easier for Monster Tale or would you say the challenge is comparable?

Rather than some absolute measure of difficulty, we believe that the most important things are to have a smooth difficulty ramp, and to avoid sharp spikes in the level of challenge. As long as you have those things, you can get players to accept tall challenges because they face those challenges within a fair framework. We’re always looking to get as close to that ideal as possible with each new game we make, and Monster Tale is no exception.

What sorts of things were left on the cutting room floor?

Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” I’ve never felt that any game I’ve worked on was done. There’s always more that can be put into refining a game. More tuning, more content, more polish. However, I think that it’s actually a good thing when you can reach a point where you know a game has that sort of unlimited potential due to the strength of the core designed systems in place. In fact, something’s probably wrong if it feels like a game’s mechanics don’t allow for more and more interesting content. We would have liked to have more of everything in Monster Tale: bosses, mini bosses, enemies Chomp/Ellie moves, etc. There’s so much that can be done with a sequel!

Is there anything else you’d like to mention before we go?

Thanks to all of our fans. Without their support, games like these wouldn’t exist. With the support of our fans, we hope to continue making these types of games. Our next game, which we are very excited about, will be on the Nintendo 3DS. The continued support of our fans will largely determine the quality and uniqueness of that game.

Also, we’d like to address the requests we’ve been seeing for the official soundtrack to Monster Tale. For those interested in the music our fantastic composer made for this game, it should be available on iTunes soon.

We'd like to thank Peter Ong and Karina Tang for their time. Stay tuned for a full review of Monster Tale, coming soon...hopefully.