By Ishaan . March 19, 2012 . 2:01pm
North Carolina-based indie developer, Mighty Rabbit Studios, are big fans of Saturday morning cartoons. They’re also big fans of Japanese role-playing games. Company president, Josh Fairhurst, decided that the two would go well together and came up with the concept for Saturday Morning RPG—a game inspired by Saturday morning cartoons like The Transformers and G.I.Joe and RPGs like Pokémon and Paper Mario—all at once.
Slated for release on iOS devices at the end of the month, Saturday Morning RPG is also planned for release on PC and Android at a later date. The game takes a leaf out of Pokémon’s focus on collecting, Paper Mario’s active battle system, and parodies several shows from the 1980s. Like Saturday morning cartoons, the game is divided into individual episodes. Each episode has its own plot and story objectives, so that players can drop in and out of episodes and still enjoy them, even without following the overarching story.
We recently caught up Fairhurst to ask about the game and the thoughts that went into its design. Before you read ahead, take a quick look at the trailer below for a glimpse of what the game looks like.
Which cartoons, specifically, do you think are representative of the 80s? The G.I.Joe influence in the logo is very obvious, for instance.
Josh Fairhurst, president and designer: There is just so many that define the era as a whole. For me, personally, the Sunbow stuff is what resonates the most. That includes G.I.Joe, The Transformers, Visionaries, and Jem among others. When I think about the era as a whole, though, things like Inspector Gadget, He-Man, Voltron, Robotech, Duck Tales, Smurfs, and a smattering of others come to mind.
There really were a ridiculous number of properties that came to prominence in the 80s. With Saturday Morning RPG, we’ve tried our hardest to incorporate as many different influences as we possibly could while still creating a product that could stand on its own.
The screenshots show all sorts of things going on. You call it an RPG, but there’s a multiplier on the screen, and the camera looks like a beat-em-up or fighting game. Other screens show almost a top-down perspective. How does all of this come together?
Saturday Morning RPG works in two different game play phases—there is the “overworld” phase where players explore the game world collecting new items and
completing quests, and the battle phase where the players become engaged in a battle with enemies. During the battle phase players are tasked with resolving the battle quickly and efficiently—they can do this by making proper use of the damage multiplier.
This multiplier is charged by using Marty’s magic power and it directly amplifies the damage output of his next attack. We opted to show the battles from a side-view to create more visual interest and to really show off the awesome attacks Marty can perform. All told, these disparate parts really come together nicely and form an insanely unique game.
Where do the Paper Mario and Pokémon influences come in?
The Pokémon influence mainly comes through with Saturday Morning RPG’s object system. Battles in Saturday Morning RPG revolve around the use and application
of every day objects in battle—these objects are collected by exploring the game’s environments. Players can collect a variety of objects, but they are only allowed to bring five of those into battle. The whole thing kind of lends itself to a “Gotta Catch ‘em All” mentality.
The Paper Mario influence comes through entirely in the battles. The battles in Saturday Morning RPG are incredibly active. During battles, players can defend against enemy attacks by tapping the screen at any point during the attack. The closer the player taps to when they actually get damaged—the better their defense will be. On top of that, certain attacks and actions involve the completion of quick mini-games—for instance, we have a joystick object in the game that will randomly require the player to play one of six Atari influenced mini-games before successfully dealing damage.
It’s a little like WarioWare being mashed into a JRPG battle system. If you’re not a fan of mini-games, don’t worry, we’ve got attacks that don’t require that extra input. The flexibility of the object system allows players to tailor their attacks to personal taste.
The battle system is turn-based, and you’ve said you want it to feel modern. What do you think other turn-based RPGs are lacking, and what are you doing to address some of those concerns?
I’ve noticed that most indie RPGs tend to go the 8-bit route for their battle systems opting for minimal animation and interactivity. With Saturday Morning RPG we wanted to make sure that we had a unique animation and effect for each attack. We also wanted to make sure that we had an engaging, fun, and accessible battle system. I feel like we delivered on both of those counts.
In the case of some of the blockbuster Japanese RPGs on the market today, it seems like the developers were valuing complexity over fun. I just recently played through Final Fantasy XIII-2 by mashing the “Auto-Battle” option. The game was so complex that the developers felt people wouldn’t be able to handle making their own decisions. Decisions are what make battles fun. When you eliminate them, you eliminate the fun. That’s not to say the overall game didn’t end up being fun, it just turned out that the vast majority of the battles felt like a chore (except boss battles, which were usually pretty fun).
When I set out to design Saturday Morning RPG, I wanted to make sure that players never felt like battles were a nuisance. I wanted them to be fun, and I made that the mantra by which to judge every design decision. If it made the battles less fun, it didn’t go into the game.
When you’ve got a game that draws influences from so many different places, what does the design or brainstorming document look like? Do you have any
interesting bits that you could show us?
The design document for Saturday Morning RPG was an absolute beast to get done. When I set out to type it up, I didn’t know where to start. I had never done a design document for an episodic game—so I didn’t know how in depth I needed to go with each feature or piece of functionality. What I opted to do instead was break the design doc into several pieces—I put together a thirty page story bible for all the characters, locations, and unnecessary back-story, I made a fifty page design doc that covered the game’s core functionality that would be present in every episode, and then I made individual design documents covering each episode.
The actual brainstorming has been a very in-the-moment kind of thing where we will all just mention things we’d like to see in the game – unfortunately this doesn’t produce too many documents to share. One idea that had its genesis this way was one of our villain characters, Skeleboar (above). When we set out to create a parody of He-Man, we came up with a really weak parody of Skeletor – Skeleton-Man. Skeleton-Man was an awful idea and sounded like something a Chinese theme park would invent for their bootleg He-Man ride. We wanted to create something stronger so we started off with the idea of a skeleton body with a fleshy head—the opposite of Skeletor.
Our artist at the time, Miri, then suggested making the character have a boar’s head. Thus, Skeleboar was born. We’ve still got the initial concept art for him (which was sketched out by our current art lead, Adric).
You mentioned that you’ll do 20 episodes focused on the 80s, and if those work out, another 20 that are more influenced by the 90s. What do you think the primary difference between the cartoons of those two eras was?
At the start of the 90s there was this period where 80s cartoons were struggling to adapt—we saw some of the most embarrassing G.I.Joe characters during this period, in 1994 Cobra had two ninjas in their ranks that were dressed in HOT PINK (this means they were either the worst or best ninjas ever, I can’t decide).
We also saw the creation of stuff like Captain Planet and Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego—shows that were decidedly different in their message than the cartoons from the 80s. By the mid-90s we started seeing the emergence of 3D animated shows like Reboot and Beast Wars, and by the end of the decade we saw anime reigning supreme with shows like Dragon Ball Z and Pokémon. The end of the decade also marked the start of the decline of Saturday morning cartoons. We really want to show these changes in our game’s world with characters struggling to adapt to a changing public demand. I think it could create some really cool situations and humour.
Provided that you don’t get to develop all 20 episodes as planned, do you intend to skip ahead a few episodes and “complete” the story?
Absolutely, we are committed to finishing out Marty’s initial story arc no matter what happens. We really hope we can develop all 20 episodes, though, as we have some really great stories planned.
You have five fullltime staff and three part-timers. What’s life like, when you’re trying to develop a game with five or six other people? How has it affected daily life?
It’s not that bad because we maintain a pretty strong company culture. When we bring new people into the company, we make sure that they mesh with us on every level. If we feel like they don’t fit we let them go early on before they become a potential problem. Since we all feel very comfortable with each other, it is really easy to work together. It is hard on a company level to support such a “large” team. We’ve had to really try our hardest to keep everyone paid to enough of a level where they can at least survive. We’re all working at hilariously low rates right now because we truly believe that Saturday Morning RPG will succeed.
Mighty Rabbit also does contract work for other companies, in order to stay afloat. What kind of work do you do?
Contract work has been the biggest boon for us so far in our struggle to stay afloat. We can’t delve much into the specifics of what we’ve done (blame the NDAs) but I can mention the types of stuff we’ve worked on. Our first contract was creating an application using the Kinect sensor. It was pretty exciting as it was cool to get to tinker with motion controls.
That contract has made me really want to expand into more Kinect development in the future. We’re also working on a contract at the moment—this contract is an educational game. It’s not too far out of our comfort zone as I had worked on an educational game in the past (the chemistry based first-person puzzle shooter Terraform). Although we don’t get to flex our creative wings with contract work, it’s fun to branch out into things we otherwise would never explore.
What tech or engine or development suite are you using to create the game, and how do you keep studio and technology costs to a minimum while working on a game such as Saturday Morning RPG?
We used the Unity engine for all of our development on Saturday Morning RPG. We made this choice because Unity affords us with the ability to do a literal one-click port to any of the platforms it supports. This helps keep costs low because we only ever have to code the game once; of course we still have to optimize for each platform—but we don’t have to pay for anyone to do an actual port which would in every other case be a huge cost.