At Gamescom this year, one of the games that grabbed my attention was a gothic styled 2.5D platformer that looked as if it was the brain-child of American McGee and his Spicy Horse studio. As “an action-platforming fairy tale of death, industrial greed and vengeance”, Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries certainly looked the part, and appeared to be a continuation of Mr McGee’s earlier work where he had taken popular fairy tales and subverted them into the rather more macabre set of Grimm and Alice games. However I soon discovered that Woolfe was actually the brainchild of Wim Wouters and his 6 person Grin studio (in Belgium) who had taken visual cues from Anton Pieck’s work and had created a title with stunning art direction.
So as to find out a little bit more about the game, and why Grin had opted to make Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries a retro inspired platformer, I sat down with Wim Wouters and got to ask him as to why he hadn’t opted to disneyfy his forthcoming game, and make it look like something that didn’t look too out of place from what “The House of Mario” would produce. Enjoy!
Which platforms is the game coming out on?
First it’s coming out on PC and that will be quarter one 2015, hopefully before GDC so we can actually launch at GDC. And for consoles
I know you mentioned Xbox One and PS4… Will the game be coming to mobile platforms such as iPhone, Android, 3DS, Vita?
Maybe for the next generation mobile devices because at the moment we’re quite graphically intense. We’re really pushing the limits. We’re trying to get the casual gamer with the casual PC, [and] give them a playable version, but still we’ve got so much detail in our environment that we don’t want to cut because it might take you out of that fairy tale experience. You see so [many] games that you feel don’t have the detail that the artist really wanted in and as an indie studio, I think we can take the risk to say “Okay, no this game has details and if it doesn’t work today, it will probably work on your next computer”.
Grin’s an indie studio… How many people work in Grin?
We’re with 6 people now, but actually we were with 3 people when we started the project and actually the extra people came in because of the project. We were founded in 2002 actually, we were going to conquer the world with online 3D games at the time, but that didn’t work, so we’ve been mostly doing work for hire, for clients, promo games, marketing stuff, and educational games and a year and a half ago we said, “Okay we’ve had enough of this. We want to go back to our basics and make our games and get recognition for this”. Otherwise, it’s… you can grow and do something, okay you’re making games, but not exactly what you really want to do. So, we tried and we are getting a great response and everybody seems very happy with that.
How would you describe Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries to somebody in an elevator as an elevator pitch [when] they’ve never played or seen the game before?
Okay. It’s a retro inspired cinematic fairy tale platformer. We’re taking inspiration from the earliest Prince of Persia games, I think the first one was called a cinematic platformer with basic platforming puzzles, hack and slash combat, and putting in a totally new environment and something that people recognize and enjoy mostly.
How long [will] the game take for the average player to complete?
We’ve got 5 different environments. Every environment takes about an hour to complete if you’re playing the game for the second time. I think the first time you’ll take longer to play, or maybe good gamers will rush through it as well in about an hour per level, so 5 hours is what we’re experiencing.
So 5 to 8 basically?
Yeah, 5 to 8.
Do you think that that’s maybe a small amount considering how much people…
It is. It is definitely a small amount, but we want to put quality before quantity. At this point we only have a limited budget. We’ve got a loan paying for the game at the moment, so we were lucky to get that. That’s a good thing already, but yeah…
You’ve taken the same kind of approach American McGee [took] with Alice. That darker more surreal tone where it’s basically the most unconventional anti-Disney approach one can expect in traditionally [what is] a family friendly medium. What was the inspiration [for] making Little Red Riding Hood as Gothic as [she] is?
I think, you mentioned American McGee, we’re getting a lot of people saying that. It is true, but I don’t think it was our main inspiration. I think even Tim Burton inspired us more with the earliest ‘Batman’ movies to the latest ‘Alice in Wonderland’ movies. I think they even came out before American McGee’s Alice, so maybe we all got some inspiration from the same side. But, if you go back to the old fairy tales, they all are quite dark and they are really scary. Pinocchio for instance really was not a nice boy. He pestered everybody and actually at the end, he got hung and his limbs pulled apart and stuff like that. Even the writer that wrote Pinocchio, he hated children apparently, so it’s wasn’t a childrens story at the time. Disney made a lot of those stories beautiful and also the times have changed and people want nicer stories to make the bad things seem better and stuff like that. So we were looking back at older stories and we found that they are all kind of gruesome and dangerous, but we still want to get 100% fairy tale feeling and Tim Burton is really the master of that and Anton Pieck, he’s Dutch and designed a theme park called Efteling in Holland and it’s really like you’re walking into a fairy tale. I think those are really the things that inspired us very much.
Now, Woolfe is a platformer as you’ve described yourself. The king of platformers is Nintendo, but they take a very “cutesie” [Disneyfied] approach to their platformers, and their games sell – although that’s a matter of debate in recent times. I’d like to ask two things: 1) why make a platformer in this day and age? 2) why make it a dark platformer when the masses have shown that cute platformers can work?
Well, I think if you look at Prince of Persia (the first one), it was a really hard-core game. You had to finish it in one hour or you just lost. You had all these time limits. It was a lot of fighting. If you look at Abe’s Oddysee, it’s also kind of a dark game where you have to free slaves and we’re getting a lot of inspiration from that also on the puzzle side. Limbo is another example that is also a more recent platformer that actually is one of the games that brought indie back, along with Braid which is also dark, that brought indie back into the market actually.
But with Braid however, at least it dressed all of that darkness in a story that was very colorful and very bright…
True, true, true.
So it’s almost as if…
But we’re also very colorful…
That is true, but you’re very sinister at the same time and obviously when I made [earlier] comparisons between Little Red Riding Hood and your intern, it was because her face was so dark. You could just tell that she was [dressed as] a complete and utter psycho, or at least she looks like that.
Not saying that your intern is a psycho, but you know…
No, no, no, definitely not. I understand what you’re saying. She’s not actually so much a psycho. She looks angry, especially in the posters, but I think if you get to hear more about the story — I think in our Kickstarter trailer, there’s a very nice part near the end about the story where she talks about her memories and her affection with her mother and stuff like that. She’s really a girly girl and she’s not deranged like Alice is deranged, where Alice’s mind is actually the source of everything that goes strange. We’re not like that at all. Red Riding Hood is a sweet girl with revenge on her mind, that’s true, in a fantasy setting and that’s her world where she lives. That’s maybe the difference with Alice.
Although you make comparisons with dark games such as Limbo and Braid, what some of the enemies remind me of from Woolfe is the game called Clockwork Knight on Sega Saturn…
I’ve never played that game, but…
That’s also a very kind of twee, bright sort of game… I know [as you stated] that the source [is] a very dark tale, and Disney kind of like Disneyfied it, and made it suitable for children…
But also the Pied Piper is in there, we’ve got Pinocchio of course in there, we’ve got Sleeping Beauty in there and actually all of those stories have a very dark origin. Even if you look in Wikipedia, you find the origin stories and I think people will be amazed because we’re going to put those origin stories into the game as unlockables as well. They’ll be amazed at how crazy they were and especially how cruel they were. So, we couldn’t just put only Red Riding Hood in. We had to talk about the whole origin of those stories and based on the original story, our game, it’s a pure metaphor for the game because we’re not using the wolf as a warning for girls about evil men or bad men. We’re using the man wolf as a warning to people about evil industry, so there’s a more modern layer to it although it’s probably been ages. It’s something that a lot of people talk about the last few years again with the NSA thing and “Google, don’t be evil” and Microsoft taking over the world, so yeah, it’s got the sign of the times I think.
The game is obviously a platformer, but how much room do you leave for the telling of the story? How will the story be told? Will it be done via cutscenes or will it be done in a more subtle manner where you’re playing the game but the story unfolds whilst you’re playing the game?
Yes and yes. We are using cutscenes. We think that gives an extra to the cinematic camera that we’re already using in games, so while you’re playing, the camera is not just level on one side all the time. Depending how you interact with your environment, the camera comes closer, goes up, goes through the other side and it helps you navigate through the world. That gives a kind of cinematic feel to itself and we think story is important. There’s a lot of discussion going on about that and if cutscenes are important or not. We think it is, and we can put more detail in it. There’s like a father’s workshop in a factory… we’re actually combining the cutscenes with the game play. There’s this scene where you see the doll turning… it’s this wind up music thing, and that’s actually not a cutscene. It’s just a zoom-in with the action camera during game play, so some cutscenes are actually just moving the camera during the same scene as the game play. We’re not pre-rendering anything. Everything you see is rendered [in] real time. We’re not faking that. It’s all live rendered and live playable.
Is the game created using your own engine or is it created using something that is…
It’s Unreal 3 engine. We were hoping to be able to do it with Unreal 4. We’re actually talking with Epic since December last year and they said “Okay, okay. It’s going to cost this much”, but they kept putting us on hold and said “Just wait a bit, wait a bit. Let’s talk later”, and now we know why. At GDC they announced the $19 developer license for Unreal engine 4.
Is that good or bad?
That was great, but only a few months too late for us. It was too late to make the switch. It’s totally not compatible with 3, but we did do the upgrade from UDK. That’s where we started to Unreal engine 3 and we will be able to port to the officially unsupported platforms like XBox One which is not officially supported by 3 and PlayStation 4, so we got support to do that.
How well do you think the game is going to do in a market which has essentially turned its back on the platform genre?
I have no idea. That’s our biggest risk till now. What we are seeing is that people who see it or try to play it now, especially now at Gamescom, they’re really happy with the results and the feel of it. So that makes us a little more confident, but we’re trying to stay very humble and down to earth because we’re investing a lot into it. If we get our investment back we’d be very happy.
You’ve mentioned the word “investment”… How many copies do you think the game has to sell before you break even?
I think… then you’ll know what the investment is… I think we would have to sell about 50,000.
Is that across all of the platforms?
I’d say 70,000 across all platforms.
What sort of price are you targeting?
$15, something like that. Or $14.99.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. So we’re trying to keep it low entry. We know we’re not a AAA studio. We can’t compete with them. We don’t want to compete with them. We’re not offering a game that has loads of re-playability. It still is a story, a fairy tale. We want to give people an amazing experience, maybe a bit like a movie or a roller coaster. Yeah, we think that’s a good price for something like that.
You can customize enemies. Why did you bring that feature into the game and…
It’s only the Kickstarter backers that can customize enemies, so that’s a special thing we want to offer our Kickstarter fans. Why? Because we can. It’s not very expensive for us to do that. We thought it was something really original. We haven’t seen that very much. Actually the Kickstarter backers are making the game harder for everyone and making all the soldiers unique and they’ll be able to upgrade every time Red Riding Hood fights a solider. They’ll get some extra skill points that they can divide over their stats and we’ll have our own Woolfe army. The people that backed us will be in the game forever. I don’t know, we thought it was something really cool, to give people a reward that is more than just the game.
You mentioned the words “stats”. Is Woolfe a “metroidvania” – is it like a back and forth platformer where you go to some place, come back, traverse an environment, unlock doors through that, and level up at the same time? Or is it just a…
Well we’re doing a lot of experiments with that in the city level. That’s the first level that’s in the game. But we found actually that it became quite hard because players got lost and it starts feeling like a very open world. It gets this Assassin’s Creek like feel and people just don’t know what to do anymore and they get stuck because they don’t know which direction they have to go. The world becomes too big and I think that has an effect on the story we want to tell, so we’re taking that out again and most of its quite linear at the moment, but it does give the best playing experience in our opinion. People don’t get the idea of “Okay, what should I do now?”, and that’s something we want to avoid. You should always know what you have to do.