We talk with a local game designer about the unique place video games have among art forms.
We’ve had a heavy few weeks, so we thought we’d have a bit of a palate cleanser episode focused on art. Specifically: video games! Specifically, specifically: The unique place video games have among art forms where decision-making, freedom and choice are foundational to the form itself.
The coming of age story is a huge cultural touchpoint across lots of artistic genres, especially narrative art forms. We love reading stories and watching movies about young people transcending the constraints of childhood, finding their power of self-creation, and becoming the person they will be in adulthood. Video games are the only art form where the viewer can actually control that process. (Apologies to Choose Your Own Adventure books, but it’s not quite the same.)
It’s a fascinating thing to think about, and we have the perfect guest to talk about that with us.
Video games obviously don’t just come into being. Like any piece of art, they have creators. And we happen to know one right here in Spokane.
A couple weeks ago we talked to Justin Baldwin, Creative Lead & Cofounder at Moonlight Kids. He’s one of the creators of a pretty popular indie game called The Wild at Heart. It’s described as cute and cozy, but it introduces important themes to kids and other users, like working through childhood trauma.
We talked about:
- The process of making games, starting with getting a publisher and backing, at around 23:49.
- How games offer things that other art mediums don’t offer: interactivity and escapism (starting at 35:15).
- That the secret to a game that is captivating to both children and adults might just be treating children as humans too (at around 38:00).
“We kind of knew we wanted to make something that was a story about childhood, but a little bit more from an honest perspective. Because him and I went through some things as kids and, you know, whether or not those things are traumatic, they leave imprints on you in certain ways. Like at the end of the day, when you're an adult, whether those things affect you as far as defense mechanisms or anxieties or fears or whatever, they also can somehow define you in positive ways– they can make you a more empathetic person.” - Justin Baldwin, on creating the story for The Wild at Heart (at 33:24).
The Wild At Heart has been met with resounding positivity: it’s even been nominated for multiple awards, including the 2022 SXSW Gaming Awards: Indie Game of the Year and Excellence in Animation, Art, & Visual Achievement. It was also the winner of the Best Visual Artwork award at the NYX Game awards in 2021.
We talk about the process of making video games, how they play into our development, ADHD (because of course we do), and finding agency in fantasy.
Luke gets really existential at the beginning of this, but hang in there.
Listen in where you get your podcasts.
- Nominated for the 2022 SXSW Gaming Awards: Indie Game of the Year and Excellence in Animation, Art, & Visual Achievement.
- Nominated for the Independent Games Festival Excellence in Visual Art Award
- Winner of the Best Visual Artwork award at the NYX Game awards in 2021
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[00:00:00] Luke Baumgarten: Hey, it's Luke. Didn't quite get this one out inside of the holiday- shortened calendar week. Felt ambitious, turned out to be a little too ambitious. Those of you who have been with us long enough, probably could have guessed that, uh, it was too ambitious, you know, just based on all the other times, we've had ambitious plans like this, that haven't quite hammered out.
It's a bit of a pattern, a smarter person than me might say, 'Hey, you know what? We're going to stop making pronouncements like that. We're going to stop promising things,' but no, know what's going to happen? Eventually we're going to nail it and it's going to feel really good. We aren't quitters over here. Okay?
And look here. We are not quite within the calendar week, but still within the seven day definition of a week, it has still been less than a week since we dropped our last pod. So we'll give ourselves partial credit for that. And it is, as promised, after a few months of super heavy episodes, something a little lighter, still not light.
This is RANGE after all, but like. A palate cleanser. If you will speaking about art and art, making art, making both as a passion and art making as a career and about how fantasy and imagination is super vital for all of us, but especially for kids who don't have a lot of power in the world as kids, their life to a large extent is sort of.
Beat it out for them. Oh, because you know, your parents tell you what to do. You also have to go to school, you have to do a lot of stuff you don't like doing. And so often play and imagination becomes not just in the scape, but the first opportunity you get to sort of create the world on your own terms and act in the world the way you would want to, even if it's a fantasy world.
We conducted this interview a couple of weeks ago. And almost immediately afterwards, I got pretty sick under the weather wasn't COVID, but it still wiped me out. And I spent the better part of an entire week trying to avoid anything that I couldn't do just like laying or at least reclining. So I got some good TV in.
I made it through decent chunks of two audio books, one fiction, one nonfiction. I also played a lot of video games. And after this conversation, we're about to introduce, I've been thinking a lot about video games, my relationship to them, I'm a lifelong gamer, but also what makes them unique as an art? Our guest this week is Justin Baldwin, a Spokane based artist and video game developer, who was the co-founder of the indie game studio, Moonlight kits.
Their latest game, the wild at heart came out in 2021. And in the last couple of months, racked up some really impressive nominations at south by Southwest and the independent games festival. And last year it won best visual artwork at the Knicks game awards. Those of you who know south by Southwest know that it's a huge.
Started as a music festival has become maybe even more well known as a tech festival. And the wild at heart was nominated for two of the biggest awards that south by Southwest gives out indie game of the year, where they were up against huge indie games like death store loop, hero, kina bridge of spirits, and Val Haim, Val Haim has sold like over 10 million copies, which is almost unheard of for an indie title.
So whoever did the nominating thought that this little studio partially co-founded in Spokane Washington had one of the five best independent games of the year, which was amazing. It was also nominated for excellence in animation art and visual achievement. And that category was not just indie games.
It had some of the literally the biggest AAA, like the biggest blockbuster titles that came out this year. Games like Forza horizon five, the car racing game and death loop. So again, given the number of games put out every year, some of which meet or exceed the budgets of feature films to make with hundreds of writers, artists, and developers working for years, it's a cliche, but even landing a nomination like this is a big deal for a studio, with a handful of people, one of whom lives just down the road from me..
Beyond the accolades though, which is obviously super validating for the creators and gives all of us a sense that this game really is as good as it feels like it is when you're playing it. The thing that really intrigued me about The Wild at Heart as I was playing is the story. Where the main character, a kid named Wake decides to run away from a tough situation at home and ends up in a forest world full of wonder and peril.
One of the things I found really incredible about the game is how unclear it is. Whether his fantasy world is real or a product of his imagination. And either way it gives this sweet kid an opportunity to have some actual control over his life. Something, he doesn't really have at home allowing him to grow in ways he couldn't in the ostensible real world.
If you aren't a gamer, the story has strong parallels to the films of Hayao Miyazaki, especially My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. You'll hear Justin mention Benicio Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, which is perhaps the most intense example of this kind of story. But one of the things that got me really meditating on is that with video games, autonomy, isn't just a occasional storyline.
It's built into the form itself. The player controls the action by definition. Like all great art games allow you to transcend your, your fleshly confines. It'll just take your mind off of stuff. They put your mind on other things, obviously, great cinema, great books, all, any great work of art can do this as well, frequently at a really amazing movie, or sometimes even a concert or a symphony.
I'll find myself rocketing around my skull with ideas and creative inspiration. It's one of the things I love most about experiencing art and I feel super lucky that I've had so much exposure to art in, in so many different forms, and hopefully that makes me even a teeny bit uniquely situated to say that there's something qualitatively different about gaming.
That control makes it something fundamentally apart from other forms of. Depending on the game, we're talking radical agency and radical autonomy, classic franchises, like civilization, where you literally control thousands of years of cultural evolution and entire civilization. I remember this game from when I was a kid called Populace, it was on the Sega Genesis.
You literally play as God changing the land and helping your believers thrive games like the original Zelda and literally hundreds of sequels and spiritual descendants of those kinds of games gave you very little direction at all about what to do. You just have to like walk around until you figure it out, or you decided to buy the strategy guide, which I actually think might've been an upsell opportunity for those early games that were super hard just by the strategy.
Increasingly, whether it's the modern open world games like grand theft auto or horizon, and on down to cozy games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley or games, you can do pretty much anything or nothing at all. These are games where you can progress. You can move your way through a narrative or build your city like in Animal Crossing or whatever, or grow your farm and just explore in Stardew Valley.
But you can also just do nothing. You can go inhabit the world, walk around, do some random stuff. It isn't like you're trying to get to the next level. Some of these games you can't even die. It's just inhabiting a world and making that world, you know, within the confines of what's programmed into the game, making that world, your own open-world games are obviously massive and most of them are done by a hundred plus person studios.
The Wild at Heart is a much tighter game than that. And in many ways, a much more coherent and crafted narrative, but after an opening section, that's somewhat linear and serves as sort of a tutorial for the gameplay. You're free to play the game. However you think, wake should, you can push straight through and try to save the forest as quickly as possible.
You can spend your time idly exploring or whatever mix makes the most sense for you. And I really love that as sort of a meta narrative in a game where. A lot of the tension or at least the circumstance that instigates the action of the game itself is about Wake's lack of control and his unhappiness with his circumstances.
You can imagine a kid, even if he feels like he's trying to save the world, wanting to drag that out as long as possible, because he's in a world where he at least has a little bit of power over his environment. Even if it's a little bit scary, he's in control. And as players, we are too.
I think that's all I want to say before jumping in and letting Justin tell us about his game. Justin Baldwin, artist, illustrator, video game designer, talking about art, making video games in general and his latest game, the award-winning The Wild at Heart coming up.
I'm Luke Baumgarten, and this is RANGE,
Justin Baldwin. Thanks so much for coming on RANGE, man.
[00:09:43] Justin Baldwin: Thanks for having me.
[00:09:44] Luke Baumgarten: Um, I want to devote most of our time to your latest game, but I thought we could start with a little origin story. So what drew you to making art? Were you, were you always an artist as a kid?
[00:09:55] Justin Baldwin: So i, I honestly can't remember. I was so young when I started trying, but it's kind of like, only-child pasttime kind of thing for me.
So, yeah, I started when I was pretty young, I got pretty heavily into it. I'd say in like second or third grade, and I always wanted to be like a, an animator for like Disney or, um, a super obsessed with Don Bluth movies, all that kind of stuff. So obviously that didn't work out because Disney totally changed their approach to that kind of stuff.
But. Yeah. So a lot of that was being super into cartoons and I used to draw Sonic the hedgehog and dragons constantly when I was younger. Yeah. It's hard to say. Cause I, uh, I don't even remember when I started or who even encouraged me to do it.
[00:10:47] Luke Baumgarten: Deepen the lore. Did you wa what was the commander, mark? The guy on PBS that like taught kids how to do for shortening and stuff?
[00:10:54] Justin Baldwin: Yeah. Uh, he came to our school when I was a kid.
[00:10:58] Luke Baumgarten: Did he come to mine too maybe? I feel like I've got a weird maybe memory of that.
[00:11:03] Justin Baldwin: Art Kissler.
[00:11:04] Luke Baumgarten: Yeah. What was the show called?
[00:11:06] Justin Baldwin: Oh man. I don't remember. I just remember the like shade, shade, shade, high draw, draw, draw, and all that stuff.
[00:11:13] Luke Baumgarten: The foreshortening.
[00:11:15] Justin Baldwin: Yeah. Yeah. I used to watch that all the time when I was a kid. Yeah. I remember he, he came to her, my elementary school and we had like a whole assembly thing around it and he just did like a session and everyone got like sheets of paper and got to draw along with him and stuff. And, um, I remember being pretty stoked about it because art was the only thing I cared about when I was a kid.
[00:11:37] Luke Baumgarten: Yeah. I was going to see if you were comfortable talking about this. This is becoming like a recurring theme on the show because we just realized that every single person that helps us make this show has ADHD. You told me you're like, you're kind of going through a late life evaluation for ADHD too?
[00:11:53] Justin Baldwin: Yep. I'm in the process of, um, I sort of. I've consistently been terrible about self care. Like I don't really pay attention to my needs as a person. Usually I'm trying to be more conscious about that. So I've, I've started therapy again a few months ago. Um, just because the more folks I know who have ADHD. And I have anxiety and depression stuff already anyway, in childhood post-traumatic stress and you know, the whole bundle of fun.
Um, yeah, the more, the more folks that I talk to, the more I learn about it, like I sort of was like, this sounds a lot like me. I should probably look into this. The thing has been though is, um, they can't really treat you or diagnose you unless you have. Treatment in place for your anxiety and other things.
So I've sort of been in the process, but my, my, um, evaluations have indicated that I have a high likelihood that I have some form of that, I guess. Um, just because I'm so chaotic minded and procrastinate on a billion things, um, lose stuff, you know, all the, all the things that come with that.
[00:13:05] Luke Baumgarten: So what was that like for you as a kid? We're going to, we're going to talk about like the, the progression you went on that was partially sort of driven by school. To, to continue cultivating your talents as a, as an artist and illustrator and eventually animator and video game designer. But like, you're so talented at that stuff. And you're really, really smart. How did your teachers sort of reflect yourself back to you? Because like I had teachers who were like, Luke, you're either going to be homeless or you're going to write for Saturday Night Live like, what was it like sort of navigating school for you?
[00:13:38] Justin Baldwin: Um, I had a pretty hard time in school growing up. Like, I mean, obviously there's still issues otherwise, but like there's more awareness around like, oh, different kids learn different ways. Like the way we can't just approach everything. Uh, lecturey structure, whatever. Like for me, it's always been: I need tangible, non hypothetical things to, to learn. Like I have to actually like be putting things into practice and obviously having an interest in it helps, but yeah, it, elementary school was the roughest cause I, I was behind in reading and math and because I didn't care about any of those things. And I had, like, I think we called it like a resource in our school. So I had to like leave class at certain times every day and like go to a different room with other kids who are struggling and learn math and stuff because I was pretty behind on all of that. And I'd say most of my teachers, I got like pretty lucky with them being, not jerks about stuff or anything, but I definitely had experiences, especially later in high school, when I really started like focusing on my interests and not so much, you know, I didn't care about algebra and all those other things. Um, until I started having to like use it for programming, then I actually started caring about it. Cause it like, it applied to like what I wanted to do. I could make things with it as opposed to just it being like, well, this is all hypothetical and you just have to like learn this because we said so, and you know, I had a guidance counselors tell me I wasn't wasn't going to amount to anything, which is kind of like, "cool, you're my guidance counselor. You're supposed to like maybe not.
[00:15:21] Luke Baumgarten: --to guide and counsel me??
[00:15:23] Justin Baldwin: Yeah, exactly. And yeah, so I, I struggled a bit by the time I was a junior though, I got lucky. I went to Mead, we got like this big tech grant thing. And once we got that, our school added like web design classes and like after effects and a bunch of other computer classes.
So I was able to take all these core electives. Oh yeah. That I got just straight A's in because it was all stuff I was already good at knew a bunch of it and it was interesting. So that really like saved my ass essentially, in like graduating, because before that I had below a 2.0 GPA until then, and then I was like, oh, this is stuff I'm actually good at.
I can actually, you know, yeah. Yeah, it's interesting because that, that period, especially my senior year, like my confidence completely changed because of that too. It was like, oh, I'm actually like, I feel like my teachers think I'm smart. And like, I even, like when we had to do PowerPoint presentations, I did them all in flash and had them all like super animated. And like,
[00:16:32] Luke Baumgarten: You told me you also started making kind of rudimentary video games in Flash too right. Adobe flash for those, uh, in the know.
[00:16:40] Justin Baldwin: When I was, I want to say, 14 or 15. I got really into like, learning how to do websites. Cause I, you know, I was in bands since I was a teenager and I wanted us to have a website. I had another friend who was learning how to make like HTML stuff. And he told me about a website that he was learning it off of. So then I, you know, of course. Again, probably with ADHD thing was just like, oh, a new interest. I'm going to just dive into it and like, get like hyper-focused on it and only care about that for awhile.
And so I started learning how to do all that. And then that progressed into learning about flash, because then it was like new grounds was becoming a pretty big thing. And all these other places had these fancy animated websites using flash. And so I picked up a student copy of it at Hastings. And started messing with it.
Yeah. RIP. That was my stomping grounds as a, as a teenager. Yeah, same and started making, um, little animations and, and flash games for, for new grounds or. 15, I would say at some point I eventually even got like a top rating daily rating and a top weekly rating on new grounds and stuff. So that was pretty cool.
[00:17:55] Luke Baumgarten: New grounds was like a kind of a site for publishing games, like indie games that people that do.
[00:18:01] Justin Baldwin: Yeah. It was kind of just like all creator content stuff. So it was like, yeah, anyone. Like anyone could post anything like, um, so it was all just people's animations or people's little games and things that they would make.
And then there was like a community voting process. So like you could up vote, like review things, essentially. And then there was like a leader board type that I don't know what you would call it, but basically like a ranking board and all of those things. Populate and like have awards and all kinds of stuff tied to them.
So if you kind of broke through with something that people really liked, it would highlight you and stuff, but it was mostly just like fart joke, really, just offensive humor, kind of totally all kinds of stuff. But, um, was it a product of the times for sure.
[00:18:51] Luke Baumgarten: I mean, there's like a point in every conversation with an artist where like the whole, like the host puts on their best Terry Gross voice and asks what, you know, when you decided you wanted to make art your career.
But the question I've been asking myself, and I'm going to ask you is like, did you ever really have a plan B at that? You know, you're in a point where you've got, you're starting to have this confidence as a, you know, you're graduating and you're starting to think about what you're going to do as an adult. Like. Where were you at at that point? Like, was it just like, I'm going to figure out how to make video games or how did you, how'd you navigate that?
[00:19:27] Justin Baldwin: Um, yeah, no, I didn't have a plan B. I didn't even know if, well, actually, so I w I was in bands for a while and I was like, taking that pretty seriously around that age.
So like that I had a band. We toured a little bit and I ended up leaving at some point just because I wasn't quite getting along with one of the other members in the band and I just like this isn't worth it. But, you know, I, I looked at, you know, I went to the falls for a while. I looked at, uh, I even looked at like ITT Tech to see if they had like, so that I'm glad I didn't fall into that trap.
[00:20:03] Luke Baumgarten: I almost fell into the ITT Tech too. I think.
[00:20:04] Justin Baldwin: Yeah. And they wanted like 30 grand or something for like how, however, short of a course it was. And it was just like, I can't can't afford that. Um, and I, I didn't do all my high school stuff. Wasn't good enough to get into like a really good school. And I kinda just like had a string of luck with a lot of it.
I did a lot of. Website and like banner ad stuff for just some local businesses. I did a lot of album art things for bands around town, and I kind of just survived off of the scraps I could make from doing that for awhile. Then eventually I. I met two other people that sort of had their own independent, like web design business.
And they came across my work and I worked with them for a little bit on a few things. And then eventually I found out about an agent agency in town and the person I was working with who had their own business told me. About this place hiring and I, I applied and then got hired there at 23. I was pretty young to start working in an agency, um, that I was there for eight years, basically.
[00:21:19] Luke Baumgarten: That's where you and I met where you, and you know, it, it's kind of a traditional, um, like a digital advertising agency, basically. Also made video games for brands. So like, you know, I made it or helped to make a teenage mutant ninja turtles game while I was there. Did you start, were you making games like right away in that job or were you doing design work and, or was it a mix or because when you and I were together, this would have been like 2012 ish era era.
You were almost exclusively on games, but was that how it started for you?
[00:21:49] Justin Baldwin: Um, not exclusively. We kind of had a mix. It depended. Cause when I, when I started there, it was like, 14 people. It was way smaller than, than it became. Cause later on it was like 50 people. Um, the first thing I ever worked on there was like a final fantasy website for one of the DS final fantasy games.
I don't know. That's pretty cool. Yeah. So I was like super stoked. When I started there, he was like, oh, this is the kind of stuff I get to do. Um, and I started with that, but I kind of did a mix of mostly flash website stuff because at the time, like flash was still a pretty big thing before apple killed it.
So I was doing a lot of that just because I had Flash knowledge and animation experience. And then. We had, I can't remember in the old days, other than the feel like Nintendo projects that, that we had that were, they were still websites, but they were for games. Um, so I obviously still had interest in it and, but we did other like small flashes. Like we did like a Tony Hawk. Skating game kind of thing, where you like balanced on this like world that tilted and you just tried to do like tricks while not falling off the little, little stuff like that. But eventually that grew into us having like Nickelodeon as a client. So that really opened up a lot of.
Their games, division stuff, just being like that. And maybe just because I was like super detail oriented and good at like the game stuff that I just fell into sort of being a part, a lot of, a lot of the games thing I'm less involved in. You know, at and T corporate branding kind of stuff, I guess. Um, I still had to do some of that stuff when resources were needed, but, um, yeah, most of the time it was, I would say either the sexier website stuff or, or the games stuff.
[00:23:46] Luke Baumgarten: So while I was the brief window that I was working there, you, you, kick-started your first game, which was called monsters in my birthday. And it was pretty successful. You got, you got like some funding, but you also made a connection with cartoon network who ended up becoming the publisher of that game.
So you're in a situation where you don't quite have enough money to like quit your day job, but you also have a, like one of the biggest names in animation backing the game. So like, What was it? Like, what was it like working nights and weekends on a game you knew it was going to be published by cartoon network or at least could be published by cartoon network.
[00:24:26] Justin Baldwin: I couldn't do it again. I'll tell you that it was pretty rough. Yeah, it, it was, I mean, I'm glad I did it when I was still in my twenties. Um, I think now these days I would die trying to, trying to do that. I was working a lot trying to do all that. Yeah. I think our Kickstarter was like, yeah, it was like a little over 15 grand, I think, after everything was said and done, which is like awesome that we were able to raise that and like, uh, it was stunned by the amount of support we got from people that we knew and everything.
Um, but, uh, yeah, trying, trying to balance that with. Still having to work full time because that's obviously not enough money to be like, oh, I can survive for the two year development cycle that this thing's going to take. You know, I would work 40 to sometimes 80 hour weeks for work and then try to squeeze it.
You know, development time on my own game. So I basically never saw my partner. I basically did not have a life for like yeah. Um, that whole time. And then you also kind of have to like compete with the, uh, I felt like I had to compete with this because at that point I was also working remotely. And, uh, a lot of the other folks where I worked that was kind of like a new thing.
And I, I did kind of have to like contend with a little bit of this perception that like, that's all I was doing. And I wasn't like focusing on work even though I really still was and working a lot. Um, and because obviously we all still have our deadlines that we have to meet and if we don't, then that's a problem.
So, but I think being, being a non present. Like physically and people not being able to look over your shoulder and stuff kind of, kind of made that a little bit of a challenge. Cause it was like, well, how do I keep confidence here? When other people know that I'm also working on this other thing that is probably perceived as like, oh, well this is his exit strategy here or whatever, I guess. Yeah. It was challenging, not easy.
[00:26:29] Luke Baumgarten: That's a really tough interpersonal thing. What was it like for you? These games are, there's like a whole team and also the games are a lot simpler than like a full, distributed game. Even like monsters ate my birthday cake. Which was a cute, simple kind of puzzle puzzle action game is I guess how I would describe it. What was it like doing something that was like a lot more complex. And also not with this team that you were used to working with, or at least having like the resources of a team to share load and stuff.
[00:26:59] Justin Baldwin: It was a learning experience for sure. I think too. What's your, what's your first real like. Premium game, like a game that's more than a mini game or like, uh, you're going to
ask people to pay for too, you know?
Yeah, yeah. And this, this was the time too, when like everything started turning into games where either a dollar on the app store, or they were free to play with ads or free to play with microtransactions, like became a big thing. And I knew. For me personally, I don't like things that pull you out of immersion.
Like I don't like to be reminded over and over that, like I'm playing a game. I want to be able to get into it. So we, we went into that knowing we didn't want to do that. We wanted to make a premium game experience and charge whatever five bucks or whatever it ended up being. But I'd say the big thing too is you just don't have that experience with something that's scale.
So there was a lot of learning about. Well, how do we manage our ambition so that we're not biting off more than we could chew or like I'm signing up for something that's not reasonable to, to do within the constraints that we're in. Yeah. Our development dragged out a lot longer than what you wanted to.
We ended up making. Way more levels and way more content than was honestly needed. You know, I was like, oh, the game will be like eight hours worth of content or what ended up being like 14. That's a lot. Yeah. It's easy for that stuff to kind of kind of snowball, if you don't keep those things in check.
And I was still learning a lot about just, I didn't really know a lot of these. Best practices or things that game studios actually used, which is like design pillars and you know, all these other things. So beyond that, I would say the business side of things was like the other big learning experience, which was, was a big thing later on, too.
When you know, taxes rolled around when we started making money on him and all this other stuff, there's a whole other conversation there with how small businesses are kind of set up to be screwed. With the Kickstarter, you're also answering to a community. Who's expecting things in return for, you know, supporting is so there's the managing of all of that as well.
So, um, it was a lot, it was, it was a, yeah.
[00:29:17] Luke Baumgarten: I mean, you kind of get like, you get enough rope to hang yourself, you know? Cause the, the Kickstarter is awesome, but it puts you on a timeline, right? It's a, it's a validation. And one of the cool things in it, you know, this is like old news at this point, but like Kickstarter, you get money, but it also the implicitly, you're also building an audience.
And so there are these, you've had all these folks that give you kicked in a little bit of money to help you make your game. They all are excited to play this game at some point. And so that's gotta be a pressure as well.
[00:29:47] Justin Baldwin: I think there's a pretty big disconnect with. Folks who play games, don't really fully grasp a lot of the details in terms of what goes into making them, you know, I think there's a little bit of that has been sort of popping up with like more articles about places like making people crunch and, um, pad work, culture, things, and all that kind of stuff.
I do wish that sometimes a lot of other folks, like it could meter their expectations by knowing what it actually takes to make something like that.
[00:30:18] Luke Baumgarten: . And also, you know, I think, I think about like the conversations I can have with my friends who are writers and especially people who've written long form stuff.
It's just, there's like something qualitatively different than even super avid thoughtful readers. People who can like dissect a story and really pull it apart and talk about themes and stuff. All that stuff is like a level beyond like average reading for enjoyment sort of folks and, and still, and yet it's, there's a, another level beyond that.
When you get into talking about craft for something that's even relatively linear, like, you know, writing, um, And with something like a video game, there's multiple dimensions of all of that craft stuff that as a guy who's gotten to write and do some game mechanics on games, I probably don't know half of what it takes to put together something like monster.
[00:31:13] Justin Baldwin: Yeah. And it's also like I'm doing this to myself usually, but it's like, I like to design things. Non-linearly for games too. So it's like, like Zelda and, um, you know, where it's like, you can sort of get dumped into a world and it's like, oh, there's like three different paths I can go down. And there's different dialogue decisions that I can make.
And it's like, how do you make that experience? There'll be cohesive or make sense. Story-wise when you're not being able to just be like, play this level, I'll play this level, I'll play this level, you know, and go through everything in order. And I think that's just because I like those kinds of experiences and I think that's something that games offer that a lot of other mediums.
You know, but I, I continue to do that to myself.
[00:32:05] Luke Baumgarten: I want to talk about interactivity is like a core part of the art, but let's go, let's get to the new game and use that as a lens to talk about this stuff. Maybe like the games called the wild at heart. You, uh, it released in mid may, 2021. It's this really, really beautiful story of a young kid who decides to run away from home, kind of get sucked into a magical forest.
Or he, and eventually I don't want to give too much of the story away, but he, and eventually a friend kind of help a group of guardians save nature from a malevolent force. We talked, you mentioned your Don Bluth influence. You've when we chatted last week, you talked about HIO, Miyazaki being a big influence.
Like I feel like there's a lot of influences on display in this game, even with the premise. So can you talk about what you were drawing on as you were building that world and developing this. Yeah.
[00:32:53] Justin Baldwin: Um, so the core idea was I like a lot of games that have little buddies, so like what we call them, like little buds and we wanted to make a game where you had little creatures essentially, um, like Pokemon or, or whatever. Yeah. So that was kind of like a starting point. And then we knew. Alex and I, who, who wrote most of the story?
[00:33:19] Luke Baumgarten: What's Alex's last name again?
[00:33:21] Justin Baldwin: Kincaid. We kind of knew we wanted to make something that was a story about childhood, but a little bit more from like an honest perspective because him and I went through some things as kids and you know, whether or not those things are traumatic or leave imprints on you in certain ways, like at the end of the day, when you're adult, whether those things affect you as far as defense mechanisms or anxieties or fears or whatever, they also can somehow define you in a, in like positive ways they can make you a more empathetic person.
They can like resiliency, resilience.
Yeah. All that kind of stuff. So thematically, a lot of the idea was. It's like, even if we do harm to people that we love, that doesn't have to like, define like the future of the relationship or whatever. Anyway, a lot of the core of that, at least with Wake's side of the story, who's the, one of the main characters.
There's two was sort of an amalgamation of him and I's experiences. So there's a lot of. Nostalgia and romanticism about like the time, which, you know, the game set in the nineties, but also has some more poignant, serious moments in the game that are, you know, wake has a neglectful father who has a drinking problem and.
You find out later why, and you are able to sort of even gain some empathy, hopefully for his father too, for the situation at the time too, when we were doing this, I was sort of going through some things with my own dad. Learning more things about him and being able to gain some empathy for my, for my own father who I, I sort of had a rough time with relationship wise, um,
[00:35:12] Luke Baumgarten: um, on the top, back to the topic of interactivity. So, you know, it's a pretty non-linear game. You can kind of just explore a lot. It's not quite like a full open world situation like grand theft auto or anything. There is a lot of player choice in that. So is this from a storytelling perspective, as you were trying, you and Alex were working on, you know, how, how this would even work or the story, the sort of the, the fundamental story you wanted to get to, how did player choice and interactivity sort of come into that?
And how did you think about sort of the power you're giving to the player to. Tell the story or progress through the story. However, they ended up progressing through it. Yeah.
[00:35:53] Justin Baldwin: So a lot of the game was structured. Um, we, we kind of went in like knowing we wanted it to, again, I guess folks would have to be familiar with these references, but like legend of Zelda kind of like structure or even like dark souls is a good example, too.
[00:36:10] Luke Baumgarten: Um, you sort of just like dropped in and you have to explore kind of
[00:36:14] Justin Baldwin: yeah. Or things are just sort of like labyrinthian in a way. And there's still sort of barriers around like chunks of it. So it's, it's like, like the beginning of the game, you sort of, once you can split off and sort of explore, so there's sort of like this.
Do I want to find my friend and progress story that way. Do I want to go over here and try to find these other people and learn about them and like what they're doing, or even just basic stuff, which is we try to reward exploration and. If, if you're kind of making your own story on top of that, and that that's something about like giving players, that level of agency that we like as designers.
So you can be like, oh, well I want to go, just find this new zone or I want to go just like explore over here and collect all the. Treasure things that are scattered around or find the notes for the book and kind of learn more about the lore. Yeah. It's really just for us, it's about like giving you that, that agency to kind of make your own decisions and what order you want to do things or what you even want to do, but also sort of put some barriers on those things.
So we have like soft caps for like, okay, well, you can go all the way over here, but you can't go any further in. Right.
[00:37:34] Luke Baumgarten: I mean, the art style is really, really beautiful. The stories, you know, poignant and it's fun too. I mean, it's just like, it's also funny, you know, the characters are funny, the Greenshields are goofy, you know, like their forgetfulness is hilarious and, but it also, you know, it's like, it feels very kid-like or, you know, the, the it's a very, it's a very accessible, um, animation style. What was it like maybe on multiple levels, like the adultness of the story. Did you think about like how that would affect kids playing. Kind of maybe like the Pixar question, like how do you make it fun for kids and adults? And then also like kids kind of suck at video games sometimes.
So it's like, how do you create a game? That's like both it's fun for sort of like all ages. Right?
[00:38:21] Justin Baldwin: Well, we kind of went into it knowing our target was probably like eight, eight to 10 and above. So not like, like super young kids, analysts, analysts, like parents want to play it with their kids. They watch while their parents play or whatever, but I don't know.
Some kids are like way better at games than a lot of adults to be completely honest, doing play testing.
[00:38:42] Luke Baumgarten: My kid was, my brother was amazing at battle toads, which is one of the hardest games of all time when he was like six. He was so much better than me when I was 10, when he was six at battle toads.
[00:38:51] Justin Baldwin: Yeah. Doing all the play tests. And we do, we always see that versus like kids, kids also don't have that like, reinforced way of approaching things that a lot of adults do --that that's sort of learned behavior stuff. so they're more experimental and things, so they're better at figuring stuff out.
But anyway, um, we tried to have some of those things in there, but they all felt like, and again, it's all wrapped in like humor and sort of this. Fantasy worlds. So we try to lighten the mood very often. And I would say those experiences are more frequent then. Like the humorous kind of weird endearing quirky stuff is a little way more present than the more serious stuff.
It's just that, that stuff is there. We try to try to do it in a way where it feels honest, but not like we don't want to like humble you with fields either. Like, uh, we don't, we don't want to beat the crap out of you while you're, while you're playing or our game and try to experience it. So keep that in mind where it's like, yeah, a kid could handle this.
Like I at least feel like they could, like, I think my nieces and nephew could handle it. I think it depends. I mean, it depends on the parents too. Like, thankfully we've had a lot. All the feedback we've done for parents for like, uh, we really felt like these were actually important things to talk to our kids about or like things worth having a conversation about her as kids.
And I sort of subscribe to the idea of treating children. Like they're they're human beings and not just children. They, they can handle more than you think. I mean, it really depends. We kind of went in knowing that that was potentially a risk, you know, but thankfully. Most of the feedback we've gotten has been positive.
Um, we haven't really gotten anything saying like, oh, this was just like too much for, for this or that. Um, for our kids to, to deal with.
[00:40:42] Luke Baumgarten: It's definitely not like mortal combat or anything, but in, in, in some ways it's that those early scenes, when wakes, deciding to run away, I was like, oh, wow, there you go. You know, it's like, there's the flashbacks with the dad, you know, you basically kind of see the, you see the data from behind staring at a TV screen that may or may not just have static on it. And it just there's like this sadness to that, that aspect of the game that as an adult, I felt pretty strongly.
I felt really, you know, sad for wake at the very beginning.
[00:41:12] Justin Baldwin: Yeah. I mean, it's also a mechanism of like, you get emotionally invested in the character from the get-go. Yeah. I mean, yeah. The beginning is. Uh, intense from the start with the fields, for sure. Like, it's funny watching streamers, just like, oh, we're gonna, we're gonna go there immediately.
[00:41:29] Luke Baumgarten: oh, that's gotta be, that's gotta be a really interesting aspect of, from a designer's perspective, you get. There are going to be documents because of streaming culture, like documents of people playing your game in real time, that's gotta be pretty unique. How has that sort of affected you? Um, like, I don't know if my novelist friends would want to like watch a stream, like somebody reading their novel, like I, that would maybe terrify me.
[00:41:54] Justin Baldwin: It does mess with you a bit. I enjoy watching people play. I even recently like watched eight hours of somebody playing through the game. Cause it had been awhile since I watched someone play. I think it's a little easier when the reception is generally like positive watching stuff. That is somebody who doesn't like it or is just saying like negative things.
It's like, I try not to subject myself to that because that just, I'm already the kind of person that latches on to. The negative feedback, as opposed to the positive, which I think humans are just innately good at. Um, it does kind of mess with your head with how do we approach these things in the future?
Did this work or this not work or was this a different reaction than we tried to elicit or whatnot. But, um, even the awards saying kinda like messed with me where I really felt, especially since we're working on a new game, like where I felt like, okay, well we're up best. Uh, of the year for games or we're up for game of the year or whatever you get, like imposter syndrome almost where it's like, do I deserve this a and B like, um, can I ever reach this milestone again?
Um, and, um, so it can really get into your head, especially if you're like me and are a very anxious self-critical person. Like, um, yeah, I can, it can mess with you, but honestly, with the streams. I really enjoy watching them and stuff. The one thing I don't do is read comments like that. That's the, that's the kind of trap is, is comment sections and like on YouTube and
[00:43:31] Luke Baumgarten: yeah, that's definitely smart. Well, maybe this kind of, we talked about this a little bit last week, too. So you've created a game studio and you've made this game. Some people, obviously hate in bad faith, but a lot of people really love. And it's enough to sort of sustain you as a person. It's your job. As you sort of think about your next game, you've got this community that you've cultivated community buying your games is what helps you sort of continue making games.
What's that tension like, you know, how beholden do you feel? How. Do you trust them to come along with you when you, if you were to make a drastic break, either in style or gameplay or story?
[00:44:12] Justin Baldwin: Yeah. I mean, it's definitely a consideration and one that we've been sort of as been enormous. As of recent too, because yeah, the, the new thing we're working on is pretty different and a little more mature in terms of like the vibe, the type of game that it is.
It's, it's not so child-friendly, I guess. Yeah. Like our audience for wild has been a lot of the like cozy culture kind of stuff, which is folks who like to lay more relaxed, sort of, I just want to soak up a, you know, in a charming world and feel cozy while playing something.
[00:44:53] Luke Baumgarten: Grow vegetables for 78 hours.
[00:44:57] Justin Baldwin: Yeah. Um, so a lot of our audiences that, that kind of audience, um, which is, has been great in, in a lot of ways because our community is generally very kind and positive, which has been awesome. Um, I'm glad that. Community has been those folks, as opposed to, you know, some of the other game or folks that are jerks about things.
Um, yeah, so we haven't had to like, feel the whole lot of toxicity or anything, which has been great, but yeah, as far as like feeling beholden to that, To a degree we're trying to like, keep some, some threads of what we're doing as like a Moonlight kids identity kind of thing, which is, I think the way we approach our art and our level design and things like that.
But we're kind of doing this because we want to like make the things that we want to make and we want to take risks. And because if we're not, if we're doing it just to sort of repeat what we've done before, it's kind of. Not that exciting, you know, th this was this game that we're working on now is something that we've all wanted to do for a long time.
And we're, we're kind of just like, it is what it is. I guess, if some people don't latch onto it that are our fans, then I guess they don't, but hopefully we can gain new, new fans of our games with, with this other thing. And, um, you know, art-wise, again, like our style is. Similar, like you'll be able to draw the connections.
[00:46:28] Luke Baumgarten: like with your body of work, how do you think about, you know, like from Tolkien or, uh, George RR, Martin who have like, basically spent their entire careers, building a single world and telling different stories within the world, that sort of everything being in war. And then there are folks who want to do something drastically different every time.
And every story is a little bit different than the last, like where do you fall on that spectrum? Like, do you feel like, is this part of a larger project? Creatively for you or, or how do you think about like one game to the next?
[00:47:01] Justin Baldwin: I mean, I do focus a lot on like world building and stuff, so like there, there is a lot with wild, for instance. So it's like we could do more with it, but. I, I struggled to maintain interest in sort of repeating things for too long. Um, I liked to explore different art styles. I'm not one of the artists that is like, I have a style and I'm just going to refine it for the rest of my career. And like, that's going to be my style.
Like I, I'm not like that. I get, I get bored easily. And, um, I like learning new things. I like exploring new things because my interests change and, um, a lot of what we're kind of all going through also can influence like what we're making in various ways. So it's, it's sort of, um, like wild for instance.
Going through therapy at the time. And like trying to, trying to get living in the past. Like I frequently do out of my system because I don't, I'm not very present usually. Um, and I want to get better at practicing that. And I was like, well, if I get this out of my system, maybe I can be better about it.
So. And that was a product of where it was at at that time. So now I'm in like a different place. So it's like, I want to explore other things. I want to explore other ideas. And I don't know how much of that is the like chaotic brain or add or ADHD or whatever you want to call it. It's just, I, I, I couldn't do that.
I couldn't, I couldn't just like build one world and stick with it for years and years and years and years, like, I don't think I'm. Capable of doing that, even though it's like, I want to build out, you know, the whole world and I fall up doing it. But I mean, who knows, like we might want to revisit that world at some point and make us equal.
We had a bunch of DLC ideas that we just didn't do because. It depended on the performance of the game and the game did well enough, but not enough to justify like a bunch of more content for it. Yeah. But we have a whole bunch of stuff written and things designed and art or concepts for things that we're just didn't use because we're moving on.
But the sales or, you know, an interest or a big indicator of. Right. Okay. Well, we need to try something new because you know, this may have worked out for the stent, but it didn't work out so well that we can continue to just focus on this because this is like lightning in a bottle. It's
[00:49:30] Luke Baumgarten: not like a sports game where you're going to make, you're going to make a very, a variation on it every year.
[00:49:34] Justin Baldwin: So. Yeah, it's not.
[00:49:37] Luke Baumgarten: Yeah. So if people want to find out about you, where should they go? moonlightkids.com?
[00:49:47] Justin Baldwin: Not.com,
[00:49:49] Luke Baumgarten: just like RANGE media.
[00:49:52] Justin Baldwin: I feel silly having this Twitter handle, my Twitter is @Butttoots,
[00:49:57] Luke Baumgarten: B U T T T O O T S?
[00:50:02] Justin Baldwin: And I also have an Instagram, which is themoonlightkid, I believe. Okay. So those would be the best places to find me
[00:50:10] Luke Baumgarten: Are you at the point in the new game where you're starting to share content or just sort of slide stuff out.
[00:50:15] Justin Baldwin: We're still sort of in. Early stages. So we haven't really shared anything yet. Um, might start sharing art sort of relatively soon, hopefully, but, um, so far we're still prototyping ideas and stuff, so we're kind of keeping it close and so we're comfortable with it, uh, showing it. So really,
[00:50:37] Luke Baumgarten: I really enjoyed both with monsters where I got a little closer alert look, cause we were working in the same office for awhile, but even with wild.
With independent developers. It's really fun. If you find one that you like or one that lives in your town, and this is me telling the listeners to go follow you as like, you'll get to see, and it's going to maybe happen roll out over the course of years, probably the way, little snippets of how the game's developing.
It's a really, obviously heavily curated by whatever you decide to post on social, but still it's like you get a really interesting, um, look into. Like the way things like this, these in even simple games are incredibly complex to create and time consuming and require just a ton of iteration, like so much iteration.
And so it's fun to follow along for sure.
[00:51:28] Justin Baldwin: Yeah. I think with this game too, we want to be even more open with, with a lot of that development process. So. Definitely be sharing quite a bit, but yeah, it is, it is also curated at the same time. So it is sort of this like weird position where you have to feel like you have something engaging enough for people to be interested and I guess, or having it be a good representation of like what you're actually trying to make and all that kind of stuff.
Yeah, the hope is to share a lot more even than we did with wild. So hopefully that is how it pans out.
[00:51:58] Luke Baumgarten: And we'll put all that stuff in the show notes. Um, Justin, thank you so much for coming on, man. Appreciate it.
[00:52:04] Justin Baldwin: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
[00:52:06] Luke Baumgarten: Thanks again to Justin for coming on the pod. Thanks to the entire Moonlight kids crew for making such an amazing game.
The music we played at the end of the intro before our theme music was from the soundtrack of the game composed by Amos. This episode was produced by Val Osier . The interview was edited by Steven Smith. As always, if you guys like what we're up to, you can support us monetarily by becoming a paying email@example.com slash actually it's not slash grabbing more, go to range media.com and leave that in rangemedia.co and then click the subscribe button.
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Next time, it's back to the heavy stuff we talked to Samantha Wohlfiel about her cover story in the Inlander contemplating the impacts on the inland Northwest of the impending overturn Roe V. Wade. So hard to say, look forward to that, but it's a really good conversation. Coming soon until then have a great week, everyone.