Vagabond Dog is a small game studio located in Toronto, Canada. Their first game, Always Sometimes Monsters, puts you in the position to choose how you handle what life throws at you. Gamesauce had the chance to discuss both the studio and their game with Justin Amirkhani, Owner and Creative Director of Vagabond Dog, and Chief Logic Officer Jake Reardon.
A Vagabond Philosophy
Vagabond Dog was a mystical and happy accident, according to Justin Amirkhani. Created in April 2013, he insists that it was never his nor Jake Reardon’s intention to create it, but rather an idea they stumbled upon. “The idea was to take two different philosophies and combine them into one unified force,” says Reardon. “If you take the tenacity and will to survive of the Vagabond, and mix it with the heart of an arctic wolf, you get Vagabond Dog.” They continued to transform it as they moved forward, evolving into a studio with a decidedly ambitious mission: to make games that allow people to experience something that leaves them looking at their real world a little bit differently after they finish playing. “If we can pull that off, then I guess we’ve done something kinda cool,” says Amirkhani.
Along with a strong mission, the studio also has a unique work philosophy based on their faith that all team members can achieve more than they think they can. They value autonomy and independence, and emphasize their belief that if they work hard enough, there is no limit to what they can accomplish. Much of this perspective stems from the time Amirkhani spent as a vagabond on the fringes of society, as he puts it. He came away from this experience with a greater awareness of common ailments and his own place within society. He articulates what he learned: “You grow to understand that your problems are far more insignificant than you think, that you can surmount any difficulties life throws at you, and that we all have a personal choice every single minute of whether we will let our hopes fail through our fears.”
Amirkhani insists that there was no challenge to starting the company; all they had to do was fill out the appropriate forms, pay $60, and they had a Canadian business. However, challenges started soon after. They deal with the problems by focusing on them one at a time rather than becoming overwhelmed by the infinite stack of work to be done. As they would overcome any obstacles in life, they handle them as they come and emphasize the importance of never losing faith that they are progressing.
Using Their Strengths
Vagabond Dog is made up of a collection of people who are each really good at one aspect of the work. This diversity of skills, talents, and perspectives on the team allows a well-rounded view of the product they are making. They find their different viewpoints useful in some situations, and although they can also create complications at times, it is very rare, according to Reardon. “Complications don’t really arise because every idea is valid, and no viewpoint is ignored,” says Reardon. “When you work in a collaborative manner, it only leads to a positive attitude and a successfull working relationship.”
The work day at Vagabond Dog can seem a bit unorthodox, as Amirkhani admits they have a rather loose definition of a work day with little emphasis on clocks and calendars. “We’re all kinda always awake, talking through Skype, working autonomously, and getting feedback/responses from the others as we show our work,” says Amirkhani. “We have deadlines and targets and all that nonsense, but it’s really just about everyone individually doing their own thing to the best of their ability and helping each other out as necessary.”
Always Sometimes Monsters - Make a Choice
Always Sometimes Monsters began as a design document Amirkhani had written for a game he called Save The Date. The core element of this first idea, a 30-day window to win back your love, continues to be at the center of Always Sometimes Monsters. At the beginning of development, there was a single, white, male protagonist, but as they worked to increase the number of narrative branches in the game, they discovered making the protagonist a more flexible character offered a greater sense of variety. So the team began implementing different character options, building the systems for everything to work in the engine, and kept going from there. Then a different game called Save The Date was released several months before Vagabond Dog planned to announce their game. Obviously, they needed a new title, and as they looked for one, they realized the tone of the game had shifted. Finding a new title helped them solidify the core themes of the game.
Always Sometimes Monsters is created in a way that offers the players freedom through the choices they make, but when asked how difficult it has been to incorporate this choice into the game, Amirkhani insists, “There is no real choice in life, but the illusion is powerful enough to make choice-based video games possible, so that is something.” The greatest difficulty in making a game with the illusion of choice, as he points out, is that players expect to come into walls and therefore don’t fully immerse themselves in the experience. Unless the game developer has accurately anticipated what players are likely to try to break the game it is difficult to keep them believing in the game’s world. But as Amirkhani reminds us, “It’s all just a ruse. It’s all just a hoax. The questions mean nothing sometimes, and everything at others. It’s impossible to tell which is which though, and that honest deception is the key to keeping things believable – even though it’s nothing but lies.”
When asked about the difficulty of incorporating different types of stories in the same game, Amirkhani compared it to writing for a soap opera. A wide range of emotions and themes are encompassed across interconnected stories that twist and weave within each other. With each story, the developer must ask “What next?” until the story either reaches an end or merges back with the rest of the stories. In the game, a happy or sad story is the result of the choices the player makes; the developer does not create any balance to it.