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Interviews: Monster Tale - Dreamrift's Peter Ong

Posted by Jon Wahlgren

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.

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User Comments (16)

Philip_J_ReedStaff

#1

Philip_J_Reed said:

I far, far preferred Hatsworth. In fact, I've already traded in Monster Tale. I respect what they tried to do, but to me it felt like everything they added to this game just brought with it a host of new issues as well, and the only things I really enjoyed about it were things that were carried over wholesale from Hatsworth anyway.

It just wasn't that engaging a game to this bird. Most of it felt like a big step backward, and the rest was just unimpressive.

Still, I'd be interested in another game in this vein. Hatsworth was awesome, but had its flaws. This game should have been awesome, but has exponentially more flaws. There's a diamond here to be uncovered; they just haven't revealed it yet.

PSICOffee

#2

PSICOffee said:

I've only played an hours worth of Monster Tale, but I love everything I've seen so far. I like the nods to Metroid while still feeling original. Henry Hatsworth is great too, but it gets very repetitive very fast through the levels, and seeing the same robot animation over and over again gets old. Both games are still better than most of the crap out there.

theblackdragonAdmin

#3

theblackdragon said:

i haven't played Hatsworth... that said, i like Monster Tale so far (my file is about 37-ish % complete, apparently?), but the backtracking in this game is ridiculous. abso-frickin'-lutely ridiculous. i swear to god if i have to go through Meadeland for anything else now that i've completed the freaking map for it i am going to throw this cartridge into a wall — and i'm not looking forward to whatever else i'm going to have to get from Deanuford either now that i'm halfway through Zoe's realm. i think there's another red door in there that hasnt been opened yet... sigh.

It's such a shame, because i really think i'd be flat-out in love with this game if it wasn't for all the backtracking :/

Philip_J_ReedStaff

#4

Philip_J_Reed said:

Yeah, the backtracking is shameless padding, tbd. I have a pretty high tolerance for backtracking overall, and this game well exceeded it before I was halfway through.

I'm also not a fan of having the action stop every minute or so for the somewhat-unskippable (you have to wait a few seconds) fanfare accompanying Chomp's gaining of a level or a skill. Nothing has annoyed me quite that much in recent games, and it never should have brought the action to a screeching halt the way it did...or at least not so frequently.

I loved the first hour or so of the game, because I expected my concerns to be erased as I made more progress through the game. (As they were with Hatsworth, which I will go to the grave saying is one of the best DS games full stop.) Instead, I just got more and more irritated by things to the point that I gave up on it just before the final boss.

warioswoods

#6

warioswoods said:

Hmmm, I do love my Hatsworth... but I was already a fan of Planet Puzzle League and Wario Land, and Hatsworth just cleverly mashed them together. I'm not a fan of pet simulators :-/

Kid_A

#8

Kid_A said:

Really enjoyed the interview. Monster Tale really appeals to me, and it's definitely on my to-buy list!

Stuffgamer1

#9

Stuffgamer1 said:

I don't think "pet simulator" properly describes what goes on in Monster Tale. It's really more RPG in my opinion. You give the monster certain items, and they affect his stats and growth.

Now, there ARE problems with the game. As already stated, backtracking. A LOT of backtracking. The bigger a problem this is for you, the less I recommend this game. Also, I feel that they failed at their goal to avoid a sharp spike in difficulty. For the first few hours of play, the game is really easy. It then suddenly jumps quite a bit in difficulty. Or maybe that's just a result of my style of play, I dunno.

There is what amounts to either a stupid design flaw or an outright bug: When a monster form hits level 30 (the max), it seems to lose all ability to progress towards earning new forms. The game doesn't warn you of this, so you can get stuck unable to finish the game 100% if you're not aware (as I did, forcing me to start the game over). That just plain sucks.

And iTunes for the soundtrack? Really? Why does everybody always insist on using that crap? Sorry guys, you won't be getting my money that way. Which is a crying shame, 'cause the soundtrack is really good.

theblackdragonAdmin

#10

theblackdragon said:

@Stuffo: When you say the difficulty suddenly spikes, how far into the game are you talking? And were you buying upgrades for Ellie at all, or were you just skipping those to focus on Chomp?

also, thanks for the heads-up regarding Chomp's evolutions, i'd'a never known D:

Philip_J_ReedStaff

#11

Philip_J_Reed said:

Stuffo is right about the difficulty spike. IMHO anyway. It's...kinda toward the end of the game. Maybe 70% of the way through or so. Which is odd, because in the interview they acknowledge that they tried to keep the difficulty smoother this time around. In my opinion, it was no more smooth than it was in Hatsworth, where the difficulty level similarly explodes without warning (or reason).

I can't speak for Stuff of course, but I bought as many Ellie upgrades as I could and ignored them for Chomp, as he did plenty of upgrading during the hours of walking back and forth that the game expected of me.

In fact I agree with all of Stuff's comment, barring the soundtrack, which I thought was kind of meh. Maybe that's just me comparing it to Hatsworth's (which was phenomenal), but for whatever reason, I can't recall a single tune in the game.

Stuffgamer1

#12

Stuffgamer1 said:

Yes, I was buying Ellie upgrades, like Chicken says...ignoring Chomp stuff as he upgrades as you go anyway. My first major tough point was the...third boss, I think. Haven't recovered my progress to that point yet. I think it was a crab-like thing...especially young girl for a master...but anyway...the difficulty continued to shove itself in my face throughout the area with all the snow. It was shortly after that when I learned that I was permanently blocked from the baby light form, and stopped playing for a few weeks.

I didn't have as much trouble with exploding Hatsworth difficulty, though...maybe that's just because I have a lot of experience with Puzzle League and was able to compensate by being awesome at the puzzle part. I dunno. Shrug

I will agree that Hatsworth's soundtrack is more memorable. Which, incidentally, EA gave me a FREE download for with game purchase...:P

But that doesn't mean that Monster Tale's soundtrack is bad. Certain tracks have a real Metroid vibe, and plenty of them are catchy, if not earworm-inducing (which isn't necessarily a bad thing).

Also, you're welcome for the warning, TBD. I was not at all happy when I encountered the problem, and had to go to the GameFAQs boards for confirmation. It's not even that it's really difficult to earn forms if you're working towards them...the problem is if you don't know you NEED to, and level up through battling and/or the wrong pet items. While we're on the subject, there's reportedly one form (which I never got to) that requires some amount of Chomp killing enemies on his own (without L/R button skills or Ellie attacks). Just another little heads-up there. You'll know which one because something along the lines of "defeating enemies" is included in the "likes" list.

Malouff

#13

Malouff said:

@stuffgamer1, Thanks for confirming about the level 30 bug.

I did the same thing and can't progress any further.
Got to maze stages with the girl that laughs with the pet alligator.

I have been backtracking all over the place looking to see if it was because I missed something for Chomp or Ellie

Colors

#14

Colors said:

I'm going to miss 2D gaming so much :( The DS was perfect for it, but incorporating 2D into the 3DS would be hard.

Sakura_Moonlight2421

#15

Sakura_Moonlight2421 said:

@12 & 13 - T_T That wasn't a pet alligator or a crab. Zoey's (third boss) partner is a overgrown green rabbit that can stand on two legs. I only upgraded Ellie with things she needed for my playing style. I unlocked all of Chomp's forms by giving him items and making sure that the item corresponded to what the next formed liked.

I really like Monster Tale more than Henry Hatsworth though, it was more of a hassle to make sure the blocks didn't reach the top screen than to nurture a monster. After the fourth boss fight Hatsworth is mentioned in the dialog as arriving ahead of Ellie but was defeated (or something like that i don't really remember that well). :P

Vinsanity

#16

Vinsanity said:

Monster Tale is already my favorite game of the year, across all platforms. Granted, the only others are PS3 games from last year that I've been trying to finish up:) And some other back catalog stuff like - finally! - Beyond Good & Evil for PC. Still, Monster Tale is fantastic. Dreamrift is one of my new favorite developers. I just wish that, like Wayforward, they should move away from the DS and put some of their wonderful sprite art and chiptunes on current gen consoles. Please put up some games on PSN, XBLA, Steam, Wiiware, etc.

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