Where it all happens

WayForward, the company behind such stand out titles as Shantae and Contra 4, have already released their LIT title on Nintendo's WiiWare serivce, and are currently hard at work on several new projects for Nintendo's Wii console.

We recently got the chance to catch up with three of the creative forces behind WayForward: Creative Director Matt Bozon, Designer/Director Adam Tierney, and Designer/Director Sean Velasco, to find out a bit more about the exciting projects they're currently working on. They were also nice enough to give us a look inside of their headquarters in Valencia, CA which you can check out in the photos accompanying the interview.

Here's part one of the two-part interview with the guys from WayForward.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about how WayForward the company first came together, and how the three of you came into the company?

The stress is getting to Matt!

MATT: Voldi Way started the place up as a solo act back in the early nineties, selling games he developed on floppy discs. For a few years we were making SNES, PC, and Genesis games out of whoever had the biggest apartment. Voldi’s had WayForward running under its own power for just about 20 years now, and the core staff is still together…really amazing. A large part of the company’s success has been Voldi Way’s infectious charisma.

ADAM: Matt brought me onboard in 2004 as an animator, and soon after that I assistant directed on Sigma Star Saga for GBA. The culture at WayForward is great for raising up new talent and allowing people to flex their creativity.

SEAN: Absolutely! For example, I was initially brought on to helm a project that never materialized; shortly thereafter I cut my teeth as assistant director on Contra 4.

Q. It’s impressive that one development house works on such a wide variety of game titles. On one hand you guys work on lighter material like Mighty Flip Champs and Shantae, and then turn around and develop darker titles like LIT. Do you guys make a conscious effort to mix things up a bit when it comes to your decisions on what types of games to develop?

An overlooked GBA classic!

MATT: Not really. I think you’re seeing the personalities of the individual directors coming through in their work. In the Game Boy Color days everything had a unified style, but that was because there was a very small staff. We are still unified in our design sense, but have sometimes very different approaches.

ADAM: The people that work at WayForward are all very dedicated gamers, each with our own tastes in games, and our own game ideas. So when a group of people becomes passionate about one particular idea, the company's usually willing to follow them. I don't think we purposefully set out to make all-ages games, then a dark game, then back to all-ages and so on. It just comes down to what ideas interest our development teams at any given moment.

And as Matt said, I think there’s a lot of underlying unity in our design sensibilities. If you compare a game like Mighty Flip Champs to LIT, the two couldn’t look more different visually. But the gameplay sensibilities behind them aren’t that different. Both are slow to ramp up, guide the player through experimentation and trial (rather than text instructions), and become increasingly challenging as they progress. I think our games are very recognizable in the way they play, even if they might look very dissimilar on the surface.

Fumbling in the dark

SEAN: The creative minds at WayForward excel at being flexible. The environment here is constantly changing, due in part to the licensed games that the company has traditionally developed. Maybe because of this, ideas of varying styles and tones are generated more often.

Q. What type of thought process do you use to decide exactly what games you want to develop and what is the first step in getting a new game title off the ground as far as development goes?

MATT: We try to tap into the interests of the project leads, and really try hard to keep everyone on projects they love, or can find an interest in. And we work with publishers to find good matches within their yearly roster. For internal pitches, it seems to be survival of the fittest. If a game is infectious on paper, it’s got a decent chance at life. Our first step out of the gate is always to propose a scope and key staff. The person driving is likely to significantly shape the title.

Now that's artwork!

ADAM: As far as licensed games, I love comic characters, and WayForward's been very fortunate in getting to play around with a lot of great DC and Marvel characters. Those stories are tailor made for games, because they come with a ton of back story, enemies, environments, and bosses already defined. And as Matt said, with original games it usually comes down to an idea catching fire and getting people excited internally.

Once a game is greenlit internally, the first major step is typically writing out a GDD (game design document). This works like the screenplay for all production from then on. WayForward is a very collaborative environment where anyone can feel free to chime in on the design of a game.

Q. WayForward has come full circle in the development community over the years. You guys began with the revolutionary Game Boy Color title Shantae, then spent a few years developing licensed children’s titles, and now you’re back to developing original IPs, some of which feature a much darker tone to them? Can you describe the trip for us, not to mention how you arrived back to where your focus is currently located?

Busy, Busy, Busy

MATT: Our commitment to original titles never ended, but we had to follow the projects that would keep us afloat. In GBA and DS days we’ve pushed hard for our games, but try telling a major retailer that they should shove out a popular kids brand to make room for a belly dancing genie who whips people with her hair. It doesn’t go over well. While waiting for a window to open, we found ourselves funneling that creativity into our licensed games like Barbie’s and Spongbob’s, superhero and animated TV brands; brands that are consistent with our style of entertainment. Now the window is open again thanks to these download services, so we’re back with the fresh games! But, you’ll still see the licensed games from us at retail, and they’ll be just as good, especially when we get our hands on a property we really feel strongly about.

ADAM: I don't think I could ever give up working in licensed games entirely. As satisfying as it is to work on original properties like LIT and Mighty Flip Champs! there are just too many great worlds out there worth playing in. Especially when we can reinvent a franchise and bring something new to the table, like Sean and his team are doing with A Boy and his Blob on Wii.

SEAN: I haven’t been here as long as my co-workers, but I am absolutely happy with the direction that the company is headed. There are few places that can develop titles in the same vein as WayForward. We look forward to furthering the gaming ideals we all believe in.

Looks flipping awesome!

Q. How many different development teams are there at WayForward and how many members are generally allocated to each individual team?

MATT: Right now I’d call us a company of seven teams. But, it really doesn’t break down by teams, more like number of projects that are sustainable at once. And that depends on how large the projects are. A team like Flip Champs has only 5 people, but Contra had over 30. Generally we try to have at least 6 projects going at all times, regardless of their size. It seems to keep us healthy being just a little spread out.

SEAN: The flexibility of teams also means that we can bring people together for the needs of particular projects.

ADAM: One of the coolest things about WayForward is that we're always open to trying out new talent. We have a serious collection of talented artists, programmers, and designers at the company already, but whenever we stumble upon someone whose work is interesting or matches a particular game's style, we'll try them out. A personal favorite experience of mine was getting to work with comics artist Chris Bachalo, who's been my favorite artist since I was a teenager. Having him render characters for a few of our projects was amazing.

Deep in thought?

Q. When it comes to the vision at WayForward, what is the philosophy as far as what makes a good game and what type of games do you guys like to make?

MATT: First and foremost games must be entertaining. We’ve always favored games with characters, usually where you control a character directly. We’ve stayed away from simulations, racers, anything that has a more fun real life component. So I’d say we focus on fantasy situations that are best expressed though the rules of gaming. I’m a firm believer that real games need clear win and lose conditions. When we’re hired to do “non-games” we still try to find a way to game it up.

ADAM: Sometimes to the confusion of our games’ publishers! If you check out WayForward’s more kid-friendly licensed games like those based on Barbie, Shrek, Looney Tunes, etc. you might be surprised just how much solid gameplay is in there. It’s one of the company’s strengths that we pour our hearts into each title, whether it’s an original one or based on an established brand. We also do a ton of research into those characters and worlds before each game, and pick out the best elements to focus on for each game.

Sppoky stuff!

For our original games, the characters and story tend to come as a result of the gameplay. On a game like LIT, we wanted very tight, restrictive environments so it made sense for that game to take place in a horror setting. A game like Mighty Flip Champs on the other hand, which is very exciting and magical in the way it puzzles, makes sense to have more cheerful, energetic characters. Striking a tone that is then carried through the art, characters, and gameplay is very important.

SEAN: It’s all about the game play, but it shouldn’t go too far! Early in my design days for example, I was very anti-aesthetics. However, I learned that the look and feel of a game, including audio, is extremely important to the play experience. It’s no replacement for excellent game play, but it adds the spice to the experience. WayForward excels at striking that balance.

For A Boy and His Blob, invoking feelings of tenderness and friendship is central to the design philosophy. This feeling pervaded everything, from the design of the characters to the gameplay interactions and AI. By having an abstract goal like this, the game design and aesthetics can work in unison to create something special.


ADAM: Speaking as someone who’s not really involved with the game’s development, I can say I’ve been absolutely blown away by the level of polish and immersion Sean and his team have brought to A Boy and His Blob. It’s an incredibly emotional, sentimental experience that I think is really going to resonate with gamers of all ages.

Q. We know you guys have worked on some amazing games over the years, such as Contra IV, Shantae, and most recently your WiiWare release LIT. Do you have a personal favorite Wayforward project and why?

MATT: I really enjoyed working closely with Jimmy Huey and friends on Shantae and Shantae Advance, even though that second one never came out. Contra 4 and Sigma Star Saga are other favorites of mine. Right now I’m bonding with Mighty Flip Champs.

ADAM: I have to say LIT, just because it was such a personal project for me and my team. But aside from that, Sigma Star Saga is probably the love of my WayForward life. Matt created such a unique, bizarre sci-fi world and it was a lot of fun to think out what kinds of creatures and bosses would inhabit those planets. I'd love to revisit the worlds of Sigma Star Saga again sometime.

Adam likes it!

SEAN: Contra 4 is my old standby, but my new flame is A Boy and His Blob! The stars have really aligned with this one; it was the right idea at the right time. The team is perfect and the game is amazing. It’s been a pleasure to develop in every aspect, and I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to direct it.

Q. As was mentioned, we've already seen LIT released on the North American Virtual Console service. Can we expect a European release for the game and if so, any idea when?

ADAM: Absolutely. LIT is in development for Europe right now and should be available this summer. Apologies to our fans across the pond for the wait, it won't be much longer.

MATT: I’m really glad we’re able to finally reach European gamers. There have been so many letters over the years, and we’ve always had to respond with “sorry, it’s out of our hands.” But fortunately not this time!

Q. One gripe gamers had with LIT was the problematic use of the "A" button. Is there any chance of a fix for the European release?

Shantae rocks!

ADAM: Yes! We've read every review on LIT, which were mostly very positive (it's one of the highest rated WiiWare games out there). But the one thing that was brought up in several reviews was our over-use of the A button. We wanted to make a game that was very simple to control, but since the game used the same button for Jake’s items and for in-room objects, it created some occasional awkward situations. The European version of LIT fixes this, by keeping Jake's items on the A button, while moving room objects to the C button.

There are a few other minor improvements like objects staying lit longer by the flashlight, and we’re adding per-language subtitles to each of Rachael’s phone calls over the Wii Remote. But it's largely the same game that was released in the US.

Q. Are you a bit disappointed that the game didn't sell as well as it should have and do you have any theories on why the game's sales were not better? Timing? Price?

MATT: It would have been great to see bigger numbers on day one, but this is our first time out as a publisher and overall LIT has done well for us. The price seems to have been a major plus…LIT is a very good use of 800 points!

One of the greats!

ADAM: The game isn't selling badly. In fact it seems to have evened out, and has been pushing about the same number of units each week for a while now, with the occasional spike whenever the game gets some new coverage. On that note, last month’s issue of Play Magazine had a 2-page LIT comic at the back of it, illustrated by FSc (who designed the game’s creatures). That was a lot of fun to work on, and basically acts as a prelude to the game.

I do wish more people would pick it up, but the type of game does seem somewhat niche-bound compared to more family-focused titles on the system. One of our big goals with LIT was to create an experience unlike everything else on the Wii, though, and I think we accomplished that. The reviews have been very positive, even moreso than we anticipated, and how the fans respond to our games is ultimately what's most important to us.

Q. What would you guys say to those who've not yet tried LIT to perhaps sway them in the direction of the game?

MATT: It’s rare to see Wii controls put to such good use, so try it for that alone! It’s spooky, and will keep you engaged for many play sessions. And, it’s a great game for rounding out a collection since it engages you in such a different way than most of the WiiWare titles.

DSiWare goodness

ADAM: LIT is a totally unique, weird little game that we poured our hearts into. If you want to see more unique games on the system, rather than retreads of established formulas, please support games like LIT by downloading them. The game offers a lot of content for $8, and it really is unlike anything else you've played before. And it has emo boys and scene girls.

SEAN: Because I wasn’t involved in the development process, I had the chance to play this game from a gamer’s perspective. It is one of the more memorable titles I’ve played on the Wii. The claustrophobic atmosphere and unique boss battles are particular standouts. Believe the hype; it’s very unique and is the perfect title for Nintendo’s download service.

Q. We recently found out some great information on your upcoming DSiWare title "Mighty Flip Champs" through our first interview with Matt Bozon. Any idea when the game might be finished up and released on the DSiWare service?

The therapy isn't working

MATT: We’re done and in the final stages of submission, so we’re expecting it to come out soon. Get your Nintendo Points ready!

Q. Is there any particular aspect of Mighty Flip Champs that you think will be particularly intriguing to DSi owners and might set the game apart from other releases on the service?

MATT: I’m downloading DSiWare games like a fiend and having a very good time, but I’m ready for a larger title now. I think Flip Champs will be the first game to fill that gap.

ADAM: As a fan of the game, I have to say the speed running has been incredibly addicting. Finding the solution to each puzzle is satisfying, but the level grading system that Matt and his team implemented really challenge the player to perform better and better each run. I love finding little methods that shave off a tenth of a second here and there, which all add up toward that perfect "S" ranking on each level.

A Boy and his Blob is coming along

For example, a perfectly-timed page flip can skip Alta’s landing animation on the next page, which doesn’t sound like much but can add up to a 3 or 4 second gain by the end of a puzzle (which is huge in this game).

SEAN: From what I’ve seen, the majority of DSi Ware offerings are non-games and mini games, not full experiences. MFC is a fully-fledged action puzzle game that will have you flipping levels and running around like crazy. The music is catchy, the characters are cute, and the puzzles are devious. Everyone needs this game to get their DSi off to a good start.

Interviews: Matt Bozon, Adam Tierney, and Sean Velasco of WayForward - Part Two