Now confirmed to arrive on Switch on 10th October, open world adventure Pine puts you in control of a young human named Hue and pits you against tribes and animals in an emergent simulation where territory is constantly shifting, survival is a struggle and there's always something new to discover.
Emergent gameplay? A lone hero? Open world adventuring? Couple that with the screenshots and the launch trailer above and you may well be getting whiffs of Breath of the Wild from this one. We caught up with creative director and co-founder of developer Twirlbound Matthijs van de Laar to find out more about the game and see if those comparisons are accurate or helpful...
NL: Firstly, for those who maybe haven’t been following Pine’s development, tell us a little about the game.
Matthijs van de Laar: Pine is an open world action-adventure game set in a world that doesn’t belong to humans. Players are dropped into Albamare, which has a simulated ecosystem where 5 factions are constantly fighting over territory and resources, even when the player is not involved. You take on the role of Hue, a brave young adult who needs to overcome the humans’ fear of the world beyond their isolated home to find a new place to live, but in order to do that you’ll need to work with or against any of those factions!
It’s a very emergent experience as any village can be occupied (or not) by any of the factions at any time, and you as a player can influence this stirring world and decide who to partner up with or who to sabotage at any point.
From the trailer, many people will be drawing comparisons to certain games already on Switch. What inspirations did you have in mind when creating the world of Albamare?
We looked at pretty much every open world game out there. Initial inspirations were the Legend of Zelda series, but also the Fable trilogy, for its famous systemic good-and-evil systems in an action-adventure game. You’ll also find hints of The Witcher, Horizon: Zero Dawn, the later Assassin’s Creed games and other series.
For the world itself, we mostly look at nature and real life. Shows like Planet Earth gave us a lot of inspiration for animals and landscapes, as they also often cover evolutionary theory, which is the most important core pillar for the concept behind Pine!
The combat system in Pine ‘learns from your every move’ – can you tell us more about that? Who or what will we be fighting?
Throughout the whole game, you’ll have a certain affinity with those 5 factions that were mentioned: the Cariblins (moose-people), Fexels (fox-people), Krockers (crocodile-people), Gobbledews (bird-people) and Litters (lizard-people). If they’re hostile towards you, they’ll attack on sight - if friendly, they’ll actually help you fight others when encountering them in the wild. So your actions and what you do in the game really affect who you’ll be fighting. Apart from that, there’s the Bleeker, a nasty crawling critter that will always attack you.
The combat in Pine is very physical and deliberate, a bit like a dance as we sometimes say. We wanted to steer clear from making it hack-and-slash or semi-automatic; these species are smarter than humans, so they need to act like it. While one of the first concepts of adaptation we wanted to try for this was to use neural networks to train the AI, it ended up not being fun enough, so we favored a complexly-designed combat system instead, where it really matters who you fight in this simulation, rather than making individual fighters follow specific attack patterns.
Visually and conceptually, comparisons to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are inevitable. From a creator’s perspective, how helpful is a comparison like that? Is it daunting to be compared to such a celebrated game?
It’s always been a bit of a double-edged sword. Pine’s development started before any details of Breath of the Wild emerged, in a time where there wasn’t an open-world Zelda on the market yet, so that was a fantastic opportunity waiting to happen. When more details arose, we realized on one end that we were on the right track, because a team of at least 100 times our size was doing similar things in some areas; but on the other end, we needed to make sure Pine stood out by itself. We also had to start managing expectations, as some players were expecting an enormous AAA open world game; it’s obviously a lot smaller than those big titles.
Luckily, our game world and game structure is vastly different, as it all revolves around this continuous simulation, something that’s quite unique to Pine. If anything, Breath of the Wild provided a lot of amazing design inspiration for open world games, but we still looked as much to other open world games as we did to Nintendo’s masterpiece.
Interestingly, people always mention the visual comparison, but Zelda has such a distinctive cell-shaded style, that we think it comes down to the general look and feel. There simply aren’t many stylized open worlds - they usually take a more mature, gritty and realistic approach (like The Witcher, Horizon and Assassin’s Creed) - so we understand why people are reminded of it, of course. We see Pine’s stylized visuals more in line with what Fable would maybe look like in 2019, so a bit less stylized than Breath of the Wild.
With that in mind, in what ways would you say Pine sets itself apart from other open-world games?
That is definitely the simulation that always runs in the background, which gives a pretty unique backdrop to everything in the game. We wanted to make it very holistic in that way - the game is obviously smaller than a AAA studio would make it, so we had the opportunity to make it more focused.
The story in Pine is always the same, but the actors and sets can change for every playthrough and even during every playthrough. The way the player can then influence that simulation, is almost like you’re playing inside somebody’s RTS game. We sometimes call it ‘a god-game with a human hand’ - you have all these systems to play around with, but you do so as a third-person character! There are so many fun, emergent situations coming out of this that we can’t wait to see what people will encounter. Also, in the age of streaming, this will be really fun to watch, as no two playthroughs will be the same.
Pine is built in Unity and is launching on PC and Switch. Presumably there are potential plans for other console releases in the future, but what was behind the decision to come to Switch first? We’re used to seeing a Switch port come along after launches on other platforms.
Almost all 7 of us have a Switch and really love the platform - it genuinely redefined when and how often we play games since it came out. From a development perspective, it’s definitely on the lowest end in terms of performance, which means that if you tackle that and it goes well, you can pretty much be sure you can hit everything in between.
Of course, that’s risky, too. By no means was Pine an easy game to get on Switch - only a few other studios managed to get a seamless open world running on the console. But we started relatively early and wanted to provide the on-the-go experience at the same time as the PC experience, also in due part because some of us are huge Nintendo fans, in general. Getting mentioned in the Nintendo Direct earlier this year was a dream come true!
Your previous game, With The Wind launched for iOS back in 2015. Pine is an ambitious step up from a puzzler, especially for a small development team. Was it a difficult decision to jump into the ‘deep end’ of open world action-adventure simulation?
There’s quite a difference indeed! The decision was never the hard part - any developer has a few ‘dream’ ideas that they want to make, and for us, one of them was an open world action-adventure game - but creating, finding and taking the opportunities to do it this early in our careers was hard.
One important enabler was that we were in gamedev school when we founded the company and released With the Wind. This allowed us to test the waters of actually launching something within the safe context of an education, while learning about AAA development on the side. When the time came to graduate, we saw an opportunity to gather a few more of our friends and do something bigger - so we tried making a Pine prototype in three months.
That prototype turned out pretty well - we won a few awards with it, and, more importantly, saw that there was definitely a market for more 3D action-adventure games. Being a super small team (of 6 at the time), we realized it wasn’t going to be easy, but we would also have a very unique situation if we could pull it off. We started planning for all the stepping stones we would need to get there, and here we are - one Kickstarter, publisher deal and Nintendo Direct later!
You’ve been posting plenty of progress reports on your dev blog as you’ve been making Pine. What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during development?
As much as we liked making them, we unfortunately had to stop writing weekly blogs, which is already the crux of the situation: we are only 7 people. That was a theme throughout the entirety of development of course - for everything we had to make concessions and smart decisions to make it plausible.
For example, building a game like this with some unique features at its core (being the simulation), we actually spent the majority of the time on ‘normal’ things that players just expect - good exploration, movement, combat, open world streaming, a terrain system, etc. The hardest part was combining that ‘classic’ stuff with all the new, experimental things we were trying.
This meant that decisions were always made very quickly and often we didn’t have time to look back. It also means cutting back on a lot of large ideas, which is healthy but not always easy - for example, we had plans for a robust stealth system, but we toned it down a lot simply because of the time.
I think we have been very lucky with our team, in terms of skills and how we mesh, as we’re mostly all on the same page while being able to augment each other’s ideas. With any other combination of people and skills, or if anyone on the team would have been unable to continue, I’m not sure if it would have turned out as well.
As a small developer behind a successful Kickstarter campaign, how have you found the crowdfunding experience?
For us, it was fantastic. We got 4000+ backers who have always been enthusiastic, been responsive with feedback, and gave us a good reason to keep pushing through to make a great game. Being a small team means we all could stay in touch with that community, as opposed to a more corporate image with an external community manager.
I think it’s extremely important to keep touching base with that community - one should never forget that they’re the ones who made your whole project possible, essentially. We always kept talking and updating, even when there wasn’t much to say, and I think that created a good relationship between us and those 4000+ amazing generous people.
Finally, what games have the team been enjoying on Switch recently?
Some of us are still dabbling in Mario Maker 2, while others are finally getting to play some ‘older’ ports like Hollow Knight, Darkest Dungeon and Moonlighter! We’re obviously eagerly awaiting that gorgeous-looking new Zelda on the 20th, as well as Ni No Kuni, Dragon Quest, Ori and the Blind Forest… And, of course, we’re definitely enjoying Pine as we speak.
Many thanks to Matthijs for his time. What are your thoughts on Pine and the launch trailer above? Let us know below and check out the game's website if you're eager to find out more before it launches on 10th October.