By Devon Wiersma
Violence is a common thread in many games.
In fact, anyone browsing through games this holiday season will likely be hard-pressed to find a title that doesn’t feature killing, fighting or shooting in some capacity. Beating and shooting things are as ubiquitous to games as the holidays are to being cold and trudging through the snow; likely due to the quick, instinctual bursts of satisfaction they deliver. Big studios such as Ubisoft even go so far as to incorporate combat systems into a core “pillar” in all the games they design, and some games like the Dishonoured series even have systems which try desperately to steer players away from constantly resorting to outright violence as they play.
So with such a simple and popular means of engaging players, what happens when a studio designs a game with a core tenant of having no violence at all?
Enter Lithic Entertainment, stage right.
I sat down during the first snowfall of the holiday season to speak with Alain Bellemare and Andrea Woodford about the Toronto-based studio’s first game Dwarrows, a hybrid construction/management and adventure game that promises to be a game with no violence, and ran a successful Kickstarter and was approved in under two weeks on Steam Greenlight.
But it wasn’t always that way. Dwarrows was originally developed in 2012 as a competitive multiplayer game built in UDK, the Unreal Development Kit. The team spent a year building a playable demo for the game. Alain, one of two programmers and co-designer on the project, detailed it as being inspired by Unreal Tournament with the addition of “resource management and a little bit of tower defense mixed in there”.
“The previous game was a lot more combat focused, a lot more fighting involved,” Alain admits.
Andrea, lead artist and designer adds, “There’s no combat now”.
Andrea, artist and designer of Dwarrows, felt the old game was a “good exercise,” but the team had hit a wall when they realized it wasn’t the game they wanted to be making. “It was like the kid sticking his finger in the dike just making more water come out. We kept trying to fix problems and just kept creating new ones just trying to fix something that wasn’t [fun]”.
With the release of Unreal Engine 4 and the realization their game was getting further and further from what they envisioned, their old demo was cast aside and old assets were used for a new, less competitive design of Dwarrows.
Setbacks like these aren’t uncommon for the project though — in fact, Dwarrows was ideated way back in 2007, with both creators having spent their time since improving their skills enough to make exactly the game they wanted to create. Back when indie developers were less commonplace, meeting someone else with a drive to create games was enough to spark both to commit themselves to live their dreams.
Andrea and Alain both went to college for art and programming respectively, each working contracts and other jobs after college while working on Dwarrows on the side. Only recently after the success of their Kickstarter has Andrea been able to work full-time on the project.
The removal of combat wasn’t simply a gimmick to put on the back of a box, either. The three developers of Dwarrows, including Andrea’s brother Steven Woodford, came to a consensus on their feelings about combat after playing the completed demo, agreeing it wasn’t an element they wanted in their game. Not only did the team not enjoy implementing combat systems, but they felt it didn’t line up with the world they had created. Even with the new Dwarrows, they had initially attempted to implement combat but found the tone it brought to the game at odds with the rest of their game. “We had a peaceful vision and combat didn’t really fit in there,” Alain admits.
The justification was even more difficult when comparing it to the rest of the workings of the game. Describing the disconnect they noticed, Andrea explains that “everything is about being constructive, and it was like ‘Why do we have random fighting?’”
“It felt like we were adding combat just because every other game has combat”
Removing violence wasn’t just a matter of principles either. They laugh as they mention how they both play Overwatch — Andrea boasts that she “shoots everyone in the face.” She goes on to confide how violence has simply become too prevalent in games and is used as “sort of a crutch to add more content and stuff to do.”
This focus on nonviolence allows them to focus on some of the other needs people feel apart from visceral gratification. Alain draws the scenario where “you come home from a stressful day and you only have so much time to unwind — you could play a violent game, but that’s not always what you’re feeling like. Sometimes you just wanna sit in something peaceful, something that addresses that other side.”
It also helps them to stand out amongst the noise generated by so many other indie games on the market. Alain believes that indie game saturation is “definitely a fight. [But] having gone to the peaceful side of [videogames], it feels less crowded…we can also just stand out by going ‘There’s no combat!’”
“I don’t know how well we’re standing out.” Andrea mentions the social media marketing done by PunchesBears and Rebecca Cordingley, artist for the indie game Ooblets, whose posts often generate significant attention over Twitter. “They work so hard on visibility, I think they’re a good example of standing out.” Lithic only recently started on Twitter and social media, but they feel as though their efforts have been strong.
They’ve also attempted to adopt many Canadian values into their game’s world. “No guns,” joked Alain, as Canadians as friendly ambassadors in the world stage rings true in Dwarrows’ peaceful landscape. But the game is also being designed to incorporate multiculturalism and more diverse representation into the world of Dwarrows. Andrea cites plans to transform their placeholder models to include people with all manners of skin tones and racial backgrounds.
“I want people of different fantasy races to get along and live peacefully amongst each other.”
Imperialism is another concern, as having a player build their town in and among other race’s lands risks carrying tones not quite appropriate for their core message. Andrea adds, “I wanted to make it clear in the story that it was negotiated and peaceful. I didn’t want it to seem like [the player] is just showing up and taking lands, especially since that’s a negative part of our history.”
Their peaceful gameplay doesn’t imply a lack of conflict, either: their game still features puzzles, enemies and plenty of problems to solve. Removing the violence allowed them to focus on other elements of Dwarrows such as how to make it an engaging building game, as well as the game’s many puzzles.
Even in speaking about Dwarrows, it’s evident that it has the potential to be unlike many games before it. With Zelda and Child of Light cited as influences, the pair tell me about the pet collecting mechanic where the player appeals to different animal’s personalities in order to befriend them to gain special bonuses, twisting a turn-based RPG battle system into something that doesn’t involve bashing the wildlife with oversized weaponry.
Their inspiration also draws heavily from other low-violence games like Stardew Valley, which they both speak about with great enthusiasm, especially since gaming is not something they have time for anymore since they have begun development.
“I find playing video games can be very motivating,” Andrea says, “You think it’s just going to distract you, but I find it kinda invigorating…it reminds you what you love about games.” Yet playing games is still a dangerous pastime while they develop, as Alain dictates, “You see a feature and you’re like ‘Oooh, I’d really like that in Dwarrows!’ but then you have to reel yourself back in because, that’s feature creep.”
Dwarrow’s Kickstarter, which ran through October 2016, was successful in raising $15,000 of their $12,000 goal, reaching their first stretch goal which introduced more pets into the game. Andrea’s response to running a Kickstarter echoed the experience many other developers have.
“It was more work than I had anticipated,” especially given the contrast she felt to working on development in isolation for so long. “You’re overexposed and there’s so many questions coming in…I almost miss emails because there’s so many people soliciting you.”
Alain mentions the prevalence of scam artists who attempt to capitalize on their mid-campaign slump, a phase in a Kickstarter where funding naturally slows. They were contacted numerous times by people via form letters which attempted to sell a service to improve their funding, something which surprised them, especially considering how condescending the letters sounded.
Lithic found that preparing early and getting lots of feedback greatly benefited them throughout building their Kickstarter. “You’ll need time to build your audience and you’ll need time to make connections,” Alain claims, adding how the time to do so after your Kickstarter has launched is few and far between. Andrea cites Thomas Brush’s article Why Your Kickstarter Will Fail, based on the Kickstarter for his game Pinstripe, as some of the best advice she received.
“Make sure you have people look at your Kickstarter page and critique it, and get people who know a lot more than you,” she adds, citing the example of when they were about to submit their Kickstarter before recalling the advice from his article the night before. Instead of submitting on schedule, Andrea contacted several indies, including Rebecca Cordingley, and reworked every element of their campaign from top to bottom to better accommodate their feedback “right down to the gradients that we used.”
“If you ask people with very different backgrounds, they’ll all have very different perspectives,” she laughs, adding that, “people are so weirdly supportive in this community — you’re basically getting all this consultation for free.”
The pair have also been overwhelmed with the positive response they’ve received from players, especially considering the negativity they heard being so outward towards some devs.
“I don’t know if it’s because the game we’re making attracts people who like positive things because it’s such a positive game,” Andrea admits, the both of them pleasantly surprised by the reception. She goes on to state how she was personally impressed “seeing how much I could actually do. I did all the art. And knowing I could just build a world — that’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
But with every upside there’s often a down, the immediate response being “time.” Still working at a full-time job, Dwarrows is something Alain only has time for between his regular working hours. Yet it does offer him a little bit of solace, giving him a passion project to look forward to after a busy workday.
It’s these highs and lows which they live by — Alain says his enthusiasm “depends on the era.” While implementing some new, exciting features, he feels as though he never has enough time to work on it as much as he’d like to, while other more tedious developments such as polish tend to bog down his enthusiasm.
“For me, it’s the indie isolation,” Andrea confides. Working constantly on a project both of them are so passionate about leaves them with little time to socialize or do other things, such as going out to Toronto-based events such as Bonus Stage by Eat, Play, Mingle to “socialize with humans.”
To combat the lows in their development Lithic maintains a strict schedule of weekly meetings to ensure they are kept accountable for their tasks, and have a constant pressure driving them forward — their streak of bi-weekly meetings every Wednesday and Saturday hasn’t been broken in four years.
Despite the ceaseless work the pair is confronted with, their enthusiasm shines through, — still very excited about their game and constantly finding their “blue sky phase” to keep them motivated as Dwarrows moves steadily towards their release date of May 2017.
But among this passion there is one core takeaway: Lithic Entertainment is making a game which focuses on peace and nonviolence. No matter what the new year brings, in an era where so many games tout sprawling combat systems and glorify violence against living beings, it’s a refreshing and very welcome direction to know some developers deliberately focus on peaceful, innovative and overall positive gameplay like Lithic Entertainment does.