Microsoft announced a big batch of upcoming [email protected] games for Xbox One at E3 earlier this summer. One of the more interesting titles from that announcement is Woolfe: the Red Hood Diaries from Belgian game developer GriN. Woolfe is a 3D action-platformer starring Little Red Riding Hood. The game intertwines her tale with several other fairy tales, creating a dark and unique fantasy world.
GriNrecently launched a successful Kickstarter campaign (with just over a day left to contribute as of this writing) to help finance Woolfe's development. We reached out to Wim Wouters at GriN to find out more about the studio's plans for the game, as well as their experiences with the [email protected] program and Kickstarter. Continue reading for our first Xbox One developer interview!
Hi Wim! Please tell me a little about yourself outside of the world of gaming.
My name is Wim Wouters. [Besides making games for a living] I am fortunate enough to spend most of my time playing games. Sometimes for entertainment, sometimes a little more serious. With two young kids (a three-year old daughter and 11-month old son), there is always some kind of gamification in progress, be it trying to make eating vegetables fun or finding distraction during diaper changes.
Although I am blessed with being able to work together with my wife (writer of the Woolfe story) and spend quite a lot of time with her, we also try to flee from this wonderful world of games sometimes, with the occasional wining and dining together or with friends.
Forgive me for asking, but this burns on my mind. I understand your studio is located in Belgium. Have you ever had the chance to meet Jean-Claude Van Damme?
Jean-Who? Ha ha, no. :)
What a shame! Getting back to business, how did you end up at GriN?
It seems like such a long time ago already. Before I founded GriN, I was self-employed, making 3D animations and Flash websites as a freelance subcontractor for advertising agencies. In my spare time, I created quite a few little Flash games that occasionally got a lot of attention. It was in 2002 that Director (a software tool from Macromedia) got an update that allowed the creation of online 3D games. This was a revelation. It allowed me to combine the two things I loved doing most: creating 3D worlds and programming.
With two friends also into programming and 3D we believed we could conquer the world via our online 3D games. We started the company GriN and launched a website to showcase our creations ( www.underdog.be – quite abandoned now). In a way, it worked… in the glory days our web games attracted more than 300,000 players per day!
Unfortunately, online advertising (or paying for online content, for that matter) didn't have the popularity it has today (Google ads didn't even exist). The only advertisers were online casinos and porn sites, [things to which] we did not want to subject our young players. So, we earned very little. So little, in fact, we had to find a new business plan. This turned out to be the old business plan, working as a subcontractor again. Soon after, my partners left the company and I was on my own again.
I continued making games after-hours. The company grew and downsized several times over the years, following the tides of the internet bubbles and my attempts to gain independence as a game development company. Today we are at a peak again, with a team of six full-time employees and almost three full-time freelancers, all working on Woolfe.
GriN shares the same name as a defunct Swedish game studio. Have you considered any measures to make the two company names more distinguishable?
The Swedish Grin was founded one year before us, in 2001. At the time we both were not so well-known. We didn't even know of their existence until we met them at a convention in The Netherlands. They were very friendly and we laughed about having the same company name. They were focusing on big titles already while we were struggling to survive, so they didn't really see us as a threat, I think.
Now that we are also starting to roam the seas of entertainment gaming, this question of what to do with our company name has also become an issue in our minds. How we're going to deal with that at this point is not decided yet. Perhaps we start a new company, or we might change our name, or we do nothing and see what happens.
Woolfe will be your studio's first console game. What inspired you to move into console development?
Actually, it was not our ambition to move to consoles in the first place. When we were nominated for "Best Selected Project 2014" at Game Connection (which took place alongside GDC) in San Francisco, one of the prizes was approval from Sony and a Playstation 4 devkit.
Our deal with Microsoft started at Game Connection too. They saw our presentation and found it quite interesting. While we did not fit in their portfolio as a game they would like to publish, three weeks before E3 they contacted us and asked if we would like to be part of their E3 [email protected] presentation. Naturally, we were quite honored.
One issue is that we're still working with Unreal Engine 3. This engine does not officially support PS4 & Xbox One. We're very lucky Epic is such a great company to work with, and they are really helping us quite a lot with… well, everything.
We had no idea these huge companies were so indie-friendly.
Woolfe is a dark, fairytale-themed action platformer. What are some of your inspirations for the game?
Old fairy tale books were the main sources of inspiration for character development. As for the environment, we love Tim Burton (from Batman to Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scisscorhands to Alice in Wonderland and many more), but Dutch painter Anton Pieck was an even greater influence in developing the Woolfe universe.
Gameplay that influenced us can be found in the original Prince of Persia, Crash Bandicoot, Batman, Darksiders, Limbo, Abe's Oddysee, and many many more.
How much story content will Woolfe have? Will there be moments of levity in the narrative, or does it remain serious throughout?
There's quite a lot of story to be told, so we've chosen to integrate the main part into the game through voice-overs, allowing Red to narrate her own history, the city's history and the events which occurred in her family. Additional story content (character backgrounds, fairy tale references, etc.) will be accessible as unlockables and secrets.
The overall story line is quite serious and tragic, but humor and sarcasm will definitely be present too, as Red faces challenges and opponents. We're aiming for a smile and a tear, so to speak.
Woolfe meshes characters and elements from multiple fairy tales. Will any of those characters from other stories be good instead of evil?
We are indeed integrating several characters from other fairy tales. Most of the characters encountered will not be so friendly to our protagonist. But that does not mean they have always been evil or are evil by nature. B.B. Woolfe, our main antagonist, has a very powerful grip on his environment and many have become victim to his reign. All the side-characters have their own back stories as well, which will probably be unlockable secrets or achievements.
Tell us a little about Woolfe's combat. It looks like Red Riding Hood swings a mean axe!
We're trying to create a really smooth hack-and-slash combat style that feels easy, but has a hidden layer of sophistication that will allow the user to execute wild combos and finishers. At the moment we're re-writing the whole combat system.
How much blood and gore will the game have?
It's not really such a bloody game at the moment. Our Gamescom rating was actually 12+, which is really sweet [given] that the German age rating is quite strict. Red Riding Hood only fights fantasy characters and when she dies you get an instant re-spawn – no gruesome death animations.
We saw some green items hidden out of the way in the current alpha build. What do these items do?
I see [you found] some secrets. Those green Ws unlock special content. This can be character trophies, background stories, concept art, and original fairy tales – things like that. [The bonus content] will give curious players a better understanding of the world we are creating.
Will the levels in Woolfe be more open or linear in design?
Actually our city level originally had a very open design, giving the player the freedom to roam and explore, but we noticed people started feeling lost, not knowing how to proceed with the current objective. Our environment design is filled with so much detail that it tends to be a bit overwhelming when we give the player too much freedom. We have made the game design more linear since then, although we have some surprises there too.
What are some of the bosses we'll encounter in Woolfe? Are they all characters from fairy tales?
The first boss Red Riding Hood will encounter is the Pied Piper. He fits really well in the story. You just don't know if you're chasing him, or if he is luring you. We'll also meet Sleeping, or rather, Creeping Beauty, as we call her. Pinocchio is all grown up by the time you fight him. He's one of the bigger bosses, more towards the end.
The others I cannot talk about yet. We want to keep it exciting for the players, but yes, most of them do come from popular fairy tales.
Xbox One and beyond
Woolfe is coming to Xbox One in 2015. Will you be releasing it on Xbox 360 as well?
No, we can't focus on the old-gen consoles anymore as we would need to do too much optimization, which is very time consuming for a team of only six people. Previous consoles are almost 10 years old by now. By the time we launch for consoles (planned for June 2015), we know more people will already own a new console.
Microsoft announced Woolfe as part of the [email protected] program during E3 this year. Can you tell us about your experience with the application and approval process?
It was a breeze. We had no idea communication with Microsoft would be so direct. We already talked to someone from Microsoft at Game Connection where we were nominated. All [of the subsequent] communications were very personal and straightforward.
Have you actually started working with an Xbox One development kit yet? Any challenges there?
We have, although we're not playing Woolfe on the system yet. It takes some time to get everything up and running.
Our biggest problem at the moment is that Unreal Engine 3 does not officially support Xbox One. So we're trying to "hack" our game on the system. Epic is giving us good support with the experience they have, but we're not there yet.
Finally, what has the Kickstarter experience been like for Woolfe? If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything?
We reached our goal, which is awesome! We're over the moon with joy! With the experience we have now, we would change a few things. We tried to go in prepared for everything, but with a limited team it's always hard to manage time. We had hoped to reach our goal a little faster so most of the updates we prepared were focused on stretch goals and extra rewards.
Of course, just like most Kickstarters, after a great start and reaching 50% in three days things started going slower. We needed to reach new audiences and that proves to be quite hard. We're getting quite a lot of attention in Europe, but the US market doesn't know us that well yet. It could be a cultural thing, or just Europeans being proud that not every game is made in the US.