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PAX Australia Interview: Loki Davison

Posted by Joel Guttenberg On Friday 19 July 2013Comments Off

In this special PAX Australia edition of The Black Panel Interview, Joel talks to Wander creator Loki Davison about creating a different kind of fantasy game, the emergence of the Oculus Rift, uneducated graphical expectations and much more. Check out more PAX coverage here.



Joel Guttenberg: I have with me today Loki Davison, Creative Directory on Wander which is described as a collaborative, non-combat, non-competitive PC game. Loki and his team will be showing off Wander, along with the Oculus Rift peripheral at their booth at PAX Australia. Before we chat about PAX, Loki can you tell me a little bit about yourself and basically how you guys got into the game industry, just briefly?

Loki Davison: I’ve been working in various areas of programming, and things like that in the past, and lots of different types of art, but lots of my other history inspired Wander because lots of it is inspired with wandering and I was a Nomad for a while in Central Asia – Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Siberia, and The Arctic and the Himalayas – those kind of areas. But part of that experience of exploration and discovery and beauty is part of the themes that come across in Wander. It was also a lot of other things from my past history because that kind of part of the thing with, especially indie games and art in general, and you take all these experiences you’ve had and stick them into the art that you make.

So a culmination of several experiences and things you’ve drawn on in your background?

Yeah, yeah, like the Griffin – the flying experience in that is from my own experiences as a paraglider pilot, a free-flight kind of thing. In a way – it’s as similar as humans can get to a bird-like experience. And, you know, sky-diving – those kind of experiences give you an idea of what flight should feel like, and give you an idea how the mechanics should be designed. So I kinda have a different way of coming at that than some of the developers.

Awesome. So, what do you actually do as Creative Directory on Wander itself and can you tell our audience a little more about the game.

As Creative Director, I direct the vision. I make sure that the artists have an idea of what things they should be producing. All of the team have got a lot of creative freedom, but I’m there to say, “this should be a little bit more blue”. Usually there is more, “this bit needs to have this kind of feel”, or “this needs to be a little bit more cheerful”, “this needs to suggest that”. It’s mostly an awful lot of project management, and pestering people, and those kind of things, but making sure that the overall idea from the art in the game gets across. There’s a very consistent idea for Wander, and that’s that it is a collaborative, non-combat, non-competitive game, and it has to be about the feeling of it being different creatures because it is an exploration game, but it’s not just about exploring a place, it’s about exploring form. How the form that we are in influences how we see the world, and in lots of games you take on just a single form or forms you are quite familiar with. You might be a space marine that looks very much like you in the normal form. I really thought it would very interesting to see how would a sea creature see the sea, and how would you interact differently with the sea if you’re a sea creature? Or, if you’re a butterfly, how would you interact with things that are much bigger than you, or an Ent or these other kinds of… you know, exploring all those different kind of options instead of just being human and a biped.

My Facebook snooping uncovered a picture of you with a guitar – or maybe another random guy named Loki who like the Wander page – and on the Wander website at www.wanderthegame.com you were quite excited about the inclusion of opera music in Wander.  Please tell us about the importance of music in Wander.

Yeah, the photo of the guy with the guitar was probably me (laughs). Yeah, the music, and the whole audio thing is import to Wander.

While playing and moving through the environment, the sounds change and you hear different things, and it’s quite an interesting audio experience as well.

Yeah, that’s very much what we want to focus on because I think sound design is very important to me. Music is important in Wander but really, I want the sound design to dominate, the sound of the environment, because I think it’s very important that we get across that you’re in this rainforest, and if you listen to real recordings of rain forests, or wander around in a rain forest, you’ll hear that it’s actually very loud. There’s a lot birds, there’s a lot of insects, there’s a lot of random leaves falling. It happens all the time. They’re all around you, and a few of my favourite games for sound design really get across the sound of the environment, how you’re moving through it. I think that really aids with the immersion, and because our game is really about getting across the idea of being something in this environment, we really have to focus on making sure it sounds right. Making it look good is important, but making it sound correct is really important. So, there’s that big sound design idea and Elaine and Chris, our really wonderful sound designers, do a lot of work on making that really good. But music-wise we’ve got these amazing opera singers, so they’re kind of the focal point of the music for Wander. So when you’re wandering, you start off as the Ent and you can discover extra characters as you go along. The unlock stones, the areas where you can unlock these new characters, sing to you, and they sing to you as the opera singers. Each of the opera singers personifies a particular character that sings to you as that unlock stone.

Cool idea.

Well, yeah, it gives you something to look for in the world and the sounds are not – you hear some generic music playing over the top – there’s a reason for them being in the world. The music has a reason for being there. Those lead you in. There’s really great opera singers. I’ve got three different opera singers.

Local artists?

Those three are all based in London. I know them. They’re actually – some of them are originally from Australia and then moved over to London. I used to be in a band with one of them. She’s actually a very good friend of mine. That’s how I got onto the – that’s how I got more exposed to opera singers – being friends with one and then I got more an appreciation for some the classical singing and how it could be blended in. I wanted some of those emotions that classical singing can get across. Getting them to express what it would be like to be an elf wandering through the rain forest kind of vibe. They did an excellent job of that. I wanted it to be inspired with stuff like, Górecki, or some from the 20th century composers, but quite cheerful. We’ve had two different composers that have worked on the project as well – one who did the vocal work, and one that’s done the trailers and the menus and stuff like that.

It seems like more and more indie games are grabbing their share of the attention in gaming media, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced with Wander’s development that you think are unique to indie style gaming development?

I think a huge percentage of the challenges are the same for all of us, I mean, for anybody making games, which is the challenge of working with a large group of people who all have different ideas and you have to work out a way to get all of that across. And running out of money, and those kind of things. I mean every studio of any size is going to have a limited budget that they want to approve and they have large ideas. I think possibly the biggest challenge, well one of the big challenges for me for an indie I think is a slightly strange one, in that I think that there’s a strong suggestion that indie gaming should look a particular way, and be a particular kind of thing. So if you’re making a platformer or something like that, people are like, “yeah, cool. That’s an indie game and we’ll treat it like that.” But if you say to somebody, “I’m making this kind of game then they have quite a different reaction.”

That’s interesting because for an indie game you probably wouldn’t necessarily conform to something, so it seems almost counter intuitive that that might be an issue, so it’s interesting to hear you say that.

Yeah, I think a huge percentage of the indie games fit into an incredibly tiny niche, that are very, very similar. Which I think is one of the many reasons I make Wander, you know we work on making Wander. But it’s not something that already exists.

Yeah, it’s very distinctive.

I think there are indie studios that are making distinctively different stuff. I’m a big fan of Wargaming’s games, World of Tanks, World of Warplanes, and I think they’re an amazing studio that don’t get talked about much in the gaming media who have tried something different and have really pushed for a different style of interaction. And there’s the guys from thatgamecompany, who make fantastic games. There’s what you think of as an indie as well. There’s all that kind of thing. They’re supported by these producers so …

So, Steam Greenlight. You’re associated with that. It actually seems like a pretty good way for indie devs to get some of their titles out there. What can you tell me about your experience with Steam Greenlight and Wander?

It’s probably too early for me to say all that much about it because it’s a process where we’ve put up some screenshots and some videos and get voted on whether people like our stuff.

They don’t make it overly arduous to get registered or anything like at?

No, that’s very straightforward. Their interfaces are a bit confusing, but really getting on there is quite straightforward. It’s difficult to work out when you should put a project on there. We put Wander on there quite a while ago and so, again this is the dichotomy I guess between an indie game and a game that looks like what people think of as an indie game. Because if we go for 8-bit graphics and stuff, people say “oh, it looks great”, whereas when we first put up Wander, there were a few of our textures that we still hadn’t finished. Our screenshots, I still think they look very good, but they didn’t look as polished. So a lot of the comments were, “by the way, the texture on that rock looks wrong”.

What about the experience of putting your game out there for just almost anyone to go and comment on, whereas bigger studios would just bowl though that. They don’t have to worry about having to shine the spotlight on solely to try and get –

That is kind of the issue with that process because if people are only used to seeing the finished final screenshots that have been made carefully made, carefully produced, and are presented in a particular way, versus this is a screenshot of something that will be ready in six months, or this is a screenshot of something that is going to be ready in a year. They’re very different things. Maybe we should’ve only put those screenshots up there of the final finished thing so people could only vote on something they knew exactly what it would look like. I think the process somewhat encourages you to get on relatively early and build a bit of buzz, in which case you’re going to have less polished stuff, which is harder for people to judge where that’s going to end up. It’s also, I think, really difficult to, if you’re just presenting your game as a pile of screenshots or as a video, a lot rides on those. If you’re a corridor shooter, or something, you can spend a lot of time making that small environment fantastically beautiful and put wonderful lighting and really great shaders, because it’s a very small environment, and you know what’s going to be displayed and you can make that beautiful. Whereas, if you look at most of the large scale MMOs or open world games, that actual quality of each scene, in comparison, is very low. Then you get the confusing thing of people comparing them, “ah this game doesn’t look as good in this bit. It must be terrible. It looks like it must be previous gen”. Whereas, they have to evaluate them in the genre in which they exist in.

Oculus Rift has a got a lot of people excited, enough so that it seems like it’s more than just a flash-in-the-pan, rather than the next Virtual Boy. Why do you think Oculus Rift is a good fit for Wander?

I have to say, I don’t really think it’s a good fit, I’d have to say it’s a perfect fit. I think, going forward, there are games that work well in virtual reality, and games that don’t. And games that are very arcadey and have very arcade-style controls that can work very well on traditional interfaces, can feel very strange in virtual reality. So, if you’re in the Rift, and you press the controller to move forward, and you move forward instantaneously and accelerate to 30km an hour and see everything flashing past you, it feels very disconcerting. There’s excellent games, like Skyrim, where if you look in the other direction with the mouse and press forward, you turn instantaneously. Yeah, if you have a look at it in Skyrim just face this direction, put the mouse that direction, press ‘w’ and you turn instantly. If you try those kind of movement controls with the Rift, well, you can throw up straight away. You can’t have those kind of really jarring, instant movements, and so the mechanic for some of those games have to change a lot to suite the Rift. That’s very difficult if you’re a game that is a multiplayer shooter, like an FPS – and playing against people who have the Rift and people that don’t – you have to totally change the mechanics of the game to fit in with how the Rift will move. So really, I think it’s a lot easier for either really, really abstract games or slower moving, more realism based games. The only shooters that I think would work really well in the Rift are ones that are really realism based, where you have to crawl and duck and move very slowly, and one bullet kills you – those kind of ones. That’s an experience that I think would work well because it’s so slow moving in the Rift, which gives you a much more visceral experience of being there. Whereas if it’s very arcadey, then I think you lose some of the “being there” experience a bit. And I think Wander, because it’s quite slow moving, the controls work well with that virtual reality environment, because there aren’t very many (controls). There’s almost no menus.

Yep, it’s very clean, isn’t it?

Yeah, and that’s very much purposeful because, (a) we didn’t want to distract from the environment and (b) in virtual reality having a pile of controls all around you, like a traditional MMO interface, would be very disconcerting in virtual reality, because the side of your eyes would be just ringed with a thousand buttons. I think that other thing is that we’re, as well as using the Rift, we’re really working on controllers correctly.

Like gamepad type controllers?

No, motion controllers. The Razer Hydra. I think if you try a few games with the Rift with traditional controllers like an Xbox controller or a mouse and keyboard, and then try them with things like the Hydra, it’s a very different experience. If you’re playing with a mouse and keyboard you go the traditional, eyes staring straight ahead and think, “I’m attached to this thing”, and that’s not the Rift experience. It doesn’t have that kind of freedom. Whereas, if you have the Hydras, you can map them to the characters hands and then in the world you have hands. That’s just a much nicer experience, because if there’s a button over here, well, you just put your hand out and touch it. And you put your hand out in actual reality and your character puts their hand out. That just gives you a much better connection to the character and I think that’s a really nice way of interacting with the world. Then, in a multiplayer game like Wander, if you want to point at something, you just do. “The thing’s over there”. You get that body language and you can make any kind of gestures then. Then you can use the Hydra controllers, they have joysticks and buttons, and they’ve got six degrees of freedom. They’re positional. They’re not like the Wiimotes. They work via magnetism. Very accurate. So they work very nicely with the flight as well, because giving nice controls for flight is difficult. We had to spend a bit of time working out what were good controls for the Rift in flight. Then you can just move like this and roll. You just float around using easy hand movements. You want to roll that way, well, you just roll the controller that way.

It’s seems a lot more natural, doesn’t it?

Yeah. I mean, how do you represent “roll”, which is a very normal movement? We want to get across that feeling of flight. So if you want to roll, forward and up, and tilt and pitch and roll at the same time, and you’re expressing that with traditional controls, it’s a bit peculiar. Lots of people use joysticks and things like that for flight, and we don’t want to have to do that. A joystick in VR is … Well, you could if you’re thinking you’re in a cockpit, but if you’re thinking that you’re a Griffin, then that’s a different thing. So we have those kinds of deep interaction with different control surfaces which I think makes it a much more fulfilling experience than taking an arcadey PC game with keyboard and mouse and sticking a  serious looking output on it and just having the Rift. It’s a very different kind of interaction. That’s why I think we get across that immersive kind of outlook.

Penny Arcade gave United States the PAX show in 2004, and we finally get a PAX Australia this year. What do you think having a local PAX show means the to the indie community and your team.

I think having an international expo is great for the whole games community, not just indies in Australia, and we’ve got some good game studios of all kinds. I really like to associate with the whole. I don’t think it should just be splitting up into indies and non. The whole industry is together. The whole games industry and the whole art community as a broader thing. I think it’s great to have anything that gets more exposure on games here and also gets gamers in Australia exposure, in general – the gaming community, not just game makers, but the gaming community exposure, and also Australian gamers a chance to meet with locals and internationals and just have a festival to celebrate gaming. There are some great independent game festivals in Australia, like Freeplay, but I think it’s great to have something that can get people having fun together w about gaming and chatting and discussing and looking at new games and having a forum to be involved in that. Anyhow, our team is really excited about that. We have to show off Wander to a lot of people.

Finally, what can visitors to your PAX booth expect to see over the next couple of days?

Well, they can expect to see Wander! They can expect to wander round a rainforest and enjoy the experience of being an elf or griffin or a sea creature, called the Azartash, or a giant moving tree. The excitement of exploring an unknown land and they can do that with a traditional computer setup – a screen and mouse and keyboard – or they can do that with the Oculus Rift and Razer Hydra controllers. So they can try being in that different environment and really feel what flight feels like and look around and explore, and the greatest thing I think, for me about, the thing I really get excited about with Wander is that collaborative exploration experience. So, it’s not solo, you’re wandering around the world. It’s that you’re wandering around with other people and meeting other people in the rainforest. All players are playing in the same place, so you might just wander round and find somebody else in the rainforest and then work out how to do things together. That’s a really important part of the experience and at PAX we’ll have a few machines so we can have people actually playing together and hopefully finding each other in the rainforest. It’s a big rainforest, so hopefully they’ll find each other, and then can explore together.

Cool. That sounds awesome. Okay, I’m going to wrap it up. Loki, thank you very much for chatting with us. We wish you guys the best PAX and we’ll be seeing you there!

Sounds good.

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