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Interview: Spry Fox Explains How Animal Crossing Shaped Cozy Grove

cozy grove interview

In 2021, multiple life sims are heading our way. Among them will be Spry Fox’s Cozy Grove. Players follow a Spirit Scout stranded on an island and associating with ghosts of different bears to help them find peace. It’s also very much inspired by Nintendo’s Animal Crossing. Siliconera caught up with Spry Fox CEO David Edery to talk about the game and its influences, including the company’s past game Beartopia, and what people can expect when it debuts.

Jenni Lada, Siliconera: How did you get started in the industry, and what led to the creation of Spry Fox?

David Edery, Spy Fox CEO: That’s a big question. I’ll try to give you the short answer. My first job in the industry was a marketing intern at EA. That was for three months in the summer. My first real job was portfolio manager of Xbox Live Arcade back in 2006. Xbox Live Arcade doesn’t even really exist anymore, but back then it was the only way to do digitally distributed games on consoles. It was an exciting first job. After about three years of that, I left and started Spry Fox.

Before I broke into the game industry, when I was a student at MIT, I worked with some other students on a project using video games and exercise bicycles. This was before the Wii and all these other things that made it clear that games and exercise were going to be a huge thing. Like we were already making custom games and graphics, using a laptop grafted to an exercise bike to try and get people to exercise more.

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With Cozy Grove, how long has it been in the works? When did you first come up with the concept for this particular life sim?

Edery: It’s been roughly three years in total, give or take. The original concept came from we knew that we wanted to make a “cozy” game. We knew we wanted to make a game that was sort of heavily inspired by Animal Crossing. We weren’t sure what the right opportunity to do that was going to be. And then, we found out that Apple Arcade was out looking for developers to do a variety of things. We pitched them on this and they seemed into it. That, off and running.

Was Cozy Grove in the works at the same time as any other Spry Fox projects? How did any of the projects influence each other?

Edery: Yeah, no. I mean, we had other stuff we were working on, but this was very much its own thing. I guess, if I had to say there was anything that fed this project at all in terms of inspiration, probably the best I could say is we made a game called Beartopia for Google’s Daydream VR device. But of course, as you know, Daydream ended up being kind of a disaster of a platform. It was pretty much dead on arrival. So we had attempted to explore some of the thinking that we’re using in Cozy Grove in that game. To be clear,  they’re pretty different. But there were some similarities like the coziness and the bears and stuff like that. The idea that you have this island that you’re living on.

Maybe there was some influence from Beartopia, where it was like “Okay, that was cool.” We really liked the island vibe with the bears on it and how that all felt. It definitely felt cozy. But Beartopia was much more of a simulation than an Animal Crossing game, and I think that was actually one of the takeaways from working on it. Like, “Hm. Maybe that would have been more fun and delightful had it been more of an Animal Crossing style game.”

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How did you determine the size of the Cozy Grove island and the depth of the relationships between the characters to come up with a good balance where things have the potential to grow while still staying manageable?

Edery: Honestly, it’s just a matter of iteration. We’ve been working on this game a long time. So there was a lot of opportunity to be like, “How does this size feel? How does this size feel?” Initially, people were like, “The island is way too small. I don’t feel like I have enough of a sense of exploration and discovery.” Then we made it a lot bigger. And people were like, “Whoa! Now I can’t find anything. This is super annoying.” You kind of ping pong between the two until you land on the right size.

And did that also go for the cast? Like when you came up with the number of Cozy Grove characters and hearts? Like there’s five hearts for each character.

Edery: It’s less true in that context. I should say, there’s always a lot of iteration. That’s part of anything. It’s not just us. Any studio that’s trying to do something new and original. If they’re any good at it whatsoever, they almost certainly have a highly iterative process where they do a lot of playtesting and a lot of tweaking and responding to playtesting both internally and externally. There’s literally no other good way to make an original game that I can think of.

So for sure, the exact feel of the hearts and how they fill up and all that stuff is a product of that. Having said that, interestingly enough, when you asked about characters, that’s something that was, in large part, locked relatively early on in the process. More so than things typically are for us simply because of the nature of producing those and building the game around them was such that it’s one of the foundational things. If you try to change who the characters are, how they work, and how many there are late in the game, you’re going to have a lot of problems. Because a lot of stuff sort of depends on that being locked down.

For example, the backstories of the characters was something we locked in really early on. Way more than we usually do. Usually, we’re sort of fluid about the narrative of our games. We might lock down most of the key details pretty late in development, actually. In here, we can’t. Like the artists who are creating all the biome assets for each bear, which takes a really long time, need to know what the biome assets are. Like the biome assets are informed by the character’s story. Well, okay, if it’s going to take a year and a half to produce all those biome assets, then we need the story written a year and a half in advance.

If you look at a random bear, like the Veggie Bear, the one who’s like half corn cob/half bear, that bear was locked in a really long time ago. Little tweaks happen. It’s not like every single word of the story was locked in. We more or less knew what Veggie Bear was gonna be a really long time ago and that really didn’t change that much.

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You mentioned Animal Crossing and you mentioned that quite a bit. Are there any other games along the lines of Animal Crossing or Story of Seasons that influenced some idea or element in Cozy Grove?

Edery: Basically, people at Spry Fox have played a lot of games that we call cozy. There are all kinds of influences that end up coming up subtly, whether its Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley, or any number of games in that area. But the only game we sort of regularly evoke is Animal Crossing. Animal Crossing comes up in conversation all the time. Everyone in the studio played the hell out of the game. We all have pretty strong opinions about things we liked about it. Things we didn’t like about it. Things we could do better.

It’s a usual reference point. Look, a lot of people played. The latest version of Animal Crossing ended up being incredibly successful, right? So it’s important to understand that a lot of the people who liked the genre have played that game. As a result of them having played that game, they’re going to have expectations, right? If they hear that this game is sort of an Animal Crossing-like game, or even if they don’t hear that, but they play it and start to get that sense, they’re going to immediately have expectations as a result. And you, as a game developer, you want to be really thoughtful about the ways in which you live up to or don’t live up to or exceed those expectations, right?

As a very concrete example, we decided early on that we wanted to have a deeper and more compelling narrative than Animal Crossing has. And that was a driving factor. Any time there was a question about whether we should do something or not do something, as it pertains to the narrative, one of the questions was, “Is this helping us live up to our promise that we’ll have a deeper and more compelling narrative?”

That’s one example. Another example is, he couldn’t be here for this call, but my partner Daniel [Cook] is the lead designer on the project. For a variety of reasons, [he] was kind of always bummed out that in Animal Crossing the shells, in particular to give an example of something, were at least in the launch version –- I know they continue to update it… There are like eight shells, something like that, you can collect? You can collect them all in the first or second day, and that was done. You never see a new shell ever again. He wasn’t a fan of that, so one way in which we hope to exceed Animal Crossing was like, “Hey, let’s make it so you go way more than a day or two before you run out of new shells and new fish and things like that to collect.” We want the collection side of the game to have a deeper curve to it.

To be very clear, it’s hard. I don’t know the exact specifics, but I think [Nintendo] worked on [Animal Crossing: New Horizons] for like seven years. If you look at the credits, it’s like 200 names. They spent a lot of time and a lot of money, way more than we as a small indie have. Trying to exceed Animal Crossing is not an easy thing to do. But we were very thoughtful about are there parts that we could improve on as little tiny indie developers trying to do this with a fraction of Nintendo’s budget. So these are examples of how we tried to do that.

And there are lots of ways in which it was like, you know, “Hey, this is par for the course.” You need to be able to decorate stuff in an Animal Crossing–style game. If you can’t decorate, it’s not fun. We put a bunch of effort into that.

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I noticed to that with this, you kind of established that with the narrative being there, there is a point where you can have the story end. Was that something you wanted to be conscious of so people would have an option to wrap things up? What led to that?

Edery: That is more of an example of a really concrete discussion we had where members of the team were like, “When you make a game like this, which theoretically can be played forever, at least some percentage of people who are playing the game will really appreciate sort of being, whether its implicit or explicit, kind of told, ‘Hey this is a moment where if you wanted to stop, you could feel good about stopping.’” Sometimes, people just need that. It makes them feel more comfortable putting it down. Obviously, not everyone needs that.

It’s almost like, for a lot of folks, when they’re playing these kinds of games, the end of their experience with the game is kind of disappointing? They basically play it until they’re so sick of it, they don’t want to play it anymore, right? Then they stop. Their final experiences with the game are tedious. And that’s not what you really want. A lot of people don’t need that. A lot of people are good with, “Okay, I had enough” and then they drop it and have fond memories of the game. But not everyone is like that. Some people, they will just keep playing till they’re sick of the game. And then that’s the last memory they have, which is really unfortunate. 

So we have a really concrete conversation at the studio where we were like, “For those people, can we politely show them the door at some point?” Then they can choose to walk through it or not. They could keep playing if they want to. And so we actually ended up adding two doors in the game. There are two different moments when the game kind of tells you. It doesn’t say literally, “Now’s a great time to quit!” But it provides you a feeling of conclusion. A momentous thing happens, where you’re like, “Oh, okay.” Where a major beat of the story has occurred. I feel like I’ve accomplished something. If you want to quit, that’s a great time to quit. We do everything but say the latter.

To be clear, Animal Crossing does do this. You bring K.K. Slider to the island. Then literally, the credits roll. That’s Nintendo’s way of saying, “If you want to quit, now’s a great time to quit.” And it doesn’t mean that because they do that, everyone who should quit at that moment does. But it was nice of them to do it.

So we offer you two of those moments. We have the equivalent of the credits roll and it’s really clear that if you wanted to quit now, now it’s the time to quit. But then there’s another moment that happens much later than that for anyone who didn’t quit at that moment because they were so really into the game. It’s one more opportunity to leave it and feel good about leaving.

But again, I hope that there will also be some people who play well after even the second point and really love it and have fun. That’s great. We’re designing the game so for that person, that’s an option and they’ll really enjoy it. …We’re trying to make sure all those different groups of players are tended to.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Cozy Grove will appear on Apple Arcade, PCs via Steam and Epic Games Store, the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in 2021.

Jenni Lada
Jenni is Editor-in-Chief at Siliconera and has been playing games since getting access to her parents' Intellivision as a toddler. She continues to play on every possible platform and loves all of the systems she owns. (These include a PS4, Switch, Xbox One, WonderSwan Color and even a Vectrex!) You may have also seen her work at GamerTell, Cheat Code Central, Michibiku and PlayStation LifeStyle.