Monster Crown, out on Steam in Early Access later in July 2020, is part of a new wave of monster-collecting games looking to deliver new ideas and alternatives to fans already tired of the latest Pokémon game. We asked the game’s lead developer, Studio Aurum’s Jason Walsh, about its ambitions and what sets it apart from its peers.
Graham Russell, Siliconera: Monster Crown, like a lot of Kickstarter games, feels like a long time coming for a lot of players. How do you manage expectations with a project like this, without the long period of pre-announcement secrecy that comes with a traditional development cycle?
Jason Walsh, Studio Aurum: The project began in early 2016 with my first monster sprite, and we hit Kickstarter in 2018. At the time, the goal was to have the project launch in February 2019, and I honestly felt like the game was about 70 percent done at the time. I was wrong. This is my first serious game development project, and I underestimated the work it would require to finish up Monster Crown‘s massive feature list and world. A lot of people think the bottleneck was the monster designs, with there being such a massive amount of them thanks to our signature crossbreeding system. But that’s actually not the case!
The hardest part was making systems simple and self-explanatory enough for everyone, even those without genre experience. Catching bugs was also a challenge. It seems that no matter what I did, I was subconsciously playing and using features in the “correct” fashion. I was unable to replicate what a new player, completely unfamiliar with any given system, may do. For that reason, the start of the beta was really eye-opening and lead to a lot of hard work. With limited time outside of my full-time job and with very few people able to help out with testing the game, I ended up having to work very closely with the beta players to develop fixes and ensure things were working as they should in all potential situations.
It’s easy to make lofty promises, but I’ve always been careful. I’d rather word things a little conservatively and have people be wowed when they play the finished game, rather than to say something vague that could be blown out of proportion and eventually lead to disappointment. Monster Crown was ambitious from the start, but I think it has remained exactly as ambitious throughout all of development. I have some big secrets that I keep all to myself for now!
There’s long been a desire from fans for more games like this, but it feels like a lot of them are finally releasing this year. Why do you think that is? What does Monster Crown offer that sets it apart?
Walsh: Back in late 2015 when I was getting up the courage to try to make my first monster sprite, I didn’t think I was going to deliver something Pokémon failed to do. I only knew that Pokémon‘s direction didn’t seem to line up with where I wanted the series to go. I wanted something more in line with the world I imagined Pokémon being as a kid, when I put countless hours into Pokémon Blue. Several developers — myself, Temtem, Coromon — got started around the same time. I think a lot of it is coincidence.
If you want a monster-taming game set in a rough-and-tumble world where you have to fend for yourself, if you want to create your own incredibly unique monster species exactly to your tastes, if you want to feel like you’re an explorer in a world that is truly uncharted, then nothing comes close to Monster Crown.
We’re focused on creating a game where you can specialize. If you want to be a competitive battler and duke it out against the best tamers on the planet, you can do that. If you want to focus on breeding the perfect monster, or if you want to be one of the people that know this massive world best and share information on the most tucked-away reaches of the world, Monster Crown is for you. Monster Crown is designed from the ground up to be an experience where if you ask for more, you’ll find it.
Monster Crown‘s breeding process is certainly ambitious. How did you get this working behind-the-scenes, and how did you decide where to draw the line as you pushed toward more and more complex combinations? How many variants are possible?
Walsh: When people learn about Monster Crown‘s signature cross-breeding system we get one of three responses: that it’s all recolors and slight sprite modifications, that it’s procedural generation or that it’s not possible. I want to make it clear that every monster is created by hand with the utmost care.
While I don’t want to spoil all the surprises and depth of the breeding system, I will say that it demanded a totally different typing system, which is why the types in Monster Crown are something that hasn’t been done elsewhere. They aren’t elemental. They’re based on the temperament of the creature. Malicious monsters are devious and dark. Brutes are the wild, roaring, charging type. Will are level-headed, highly defensive monsters. Relentless are the athletic type, and Unstable have power over magic and are often a little unstable of mind as well.
Breeding will allow you to bring out these properties in any monster’s genes and forge new creations. It’s been designed from the start to empower you to create what you want, but often you have to be a bit of a puzzle solver to work out how to get the exact traits you’re after, including appearance and color. The total collection is just a smidge north of 1200 if you don’t seek out alternate colorations.
What’s changed most about the game through its time in beta? What’s the least anticipated adjustment you’ve made after player feedback?
Walsh: Well a big thing is difficulty! Monster Crown was always meant to be tough. However, monster-taming fans have a lot of ingenuity. Tamers on our Discord quickly realized that if they passed the initial difficulty hurdle, they could sweep the game using a single powerful monster, which really is an issue seen in Pokémon as well. Once we fixed that, we realized the typing system wasn’t rewarding enough. Once that was fixed, the biggest issue was how hard it was to get money in the early game, and in Monster Crown’s rougher world, healing when away from home has a fee like in traditional RPGs.
The least anticipated adjustment so far is a big improvement to one of our existing systems. I’m not ready to reveal it just yet, but it’s a small addition that will increase the fun for breeders and battlers in a big way.
Though Pokémon fans will find a lot of familiar elements in Monster Crown, you’ve mentioned in the past that you’ve played games like Digimon, Monster Rancher and even Keitai Denjuu Telefang. (And it definitely shows through in Monster Crown’s gameplay.) What is it about these other takes on monster battling that you find most appealing?
Walsh: I like to play through various monster games, collect all of their monsters, and then move onto the next one. My feverish compulsion to collect every monster increases more the closer I get to completing it, but after I get the last one, I experience a few moments of satisfaction and then get sad that the journey is over. That was a big inspiration to make Monster Crown‘s collection and roster of monsters feel endless.
What ideas from these other games did you bring with you into Monster Crown? How does playing more types of these games influence how you think about how these games should function?
Walsh: Monster Crown‘s original breeding idea actually came from a disappointing moment as a kid. After highly anticipating Pokémon‘s second generation and reading about the new egg system in 1999, I absolutely could not wait to reach that point in the game. I marched to the day care with my Wartortle and Corsola to see what a Warsola looks like, but of course, I just got another Corsola. Corsola is cool but I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed.
The biggest mechanical inspiration outside of Pokémon was actually Dragon Warrior Monsters 2. My good friend Zack [Bertok], developer of the Siralim series, and I played through Dragon Warrior Monsters 2 together last year. At the time I was still refining Monster Crown‘s open-world gameplay, and as I played through I’d sort of imagine how it would change if it was an open-world game. You can easily lose half your money in that game by dying, so I got into the habit of returning to town periodically to purchase items, which you don’t lose when you die, as a store of value. This led me to develop Monster Crown‘s world into something that will reward the prepared explorer and punish those with little care for what they might encounter.
What’s the most off-the-beaten-path monster collection game that you’ve played and loved? And yeah, we realize that we just implied Telefang is mainstream, which is sort of a reach.
Walsh: The most obscure entry I’ve tried has got to be Pocketsman Teal. It’s an itch.io indie game, and it’s poking fun at the idea that all monster-taming games are knock-offs of Pokémon. Beyond the surface level, though, what the developer did is notable. Distilled to its most basic elements, what is still functionally a fun monster-taming game? How mini-fied can it be? You can’t avoid the feeling at every turn that the game is minimal and low on functionality, but you know what? It’s quirky, it’s fun and the monster designs are entertaining (and often funny).
I think it’d be very cool to see a new Telefang one day. [Telefang artist] Saiko Takaki was actually kind enough to produce a design for Monster Crown (which will be a secret legendary), and the online community is so, so passionate. I’m really not sure how well-known it is even in Japan, but maybe all of these new indie entries can make more people aware of Telefang than ever before.
What’s the biggest difference that a Pokémon fan needs to know before jumping into Monster Crown?
Walsh: The world is not a safe place, and monsters are not eager to become your friends. Some people take a look at Monster Crown and think it must be trying to be edgy, but the residents of Crown Island understand that to protect yourself and your family you need power, and without power you can be exploited by others. Generally, each resident you meet is trying their best to put out positivity in the world, but predators in both monster and human form exist.
Lore aside, the starting area of the game is easy to traverse with a clear “route” to the first town, but after that the game truly opens up.
Monster Crown’s art style appeals to fans of the dedicated handheld era, often moving between the looks of Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance tech. How have you managed building that aesthetic? What compromises have you been forced to make along the way for modern screens or other development considerations?
Walsh: Initially Monster Crown used the same dimensions as the Game Boy Color. Then I held a PlayStation Vita for the first time, and I realized that I really wanted Monster Crown to look like a full, real game rather than just a small monster taming demo.
I have never been much of an artist, but I thought that, with enough time, maybe I could make something work. It turns out that my skill level was at a place where I could make things look okay with low color depth or low resolution, but not both. So out of sheer necessity, I came up with a format that looked a little closer to the GBA.
Luckily, it worked out, because thanks to our incredible backers, we could bring Alessandro and Arex into the fold to fill in my weaknesses and revamp all that work.
With the look that it has, Monster Crown looks crisper and more intentional the smaller you see it. What’s your recommended play style? Is it best in a small window, or is the immersion of full-screen play still the way to go?
Walsh: You’re absolutely right! Just like when you play older Game Boy or Super Nintendo games, Monster Crown looks best with pixel-perfect “integer” scaling. I recommend using the straight scaling options, and personally I’m a big fan of the optional scan line filter. I like to use the medium windowed mode; it feels just like I’m playing the games I grew up with!
Of course I also understand the appeal of full screen, and that is certainly what people will enjoy on consoles, so we’ve put a lot of work into ensuring Monster Crown looks great at any screen size.
What’s your number one strategy tip for new players?
Walsh: Familiarize yourself with the type system! We’ve put a lot of work into making the game notify you quite clearly when you find the right type advantage, so you’ll find play a lot more satisfying if you learn the five types and their simple weakness chart. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to experiment, as long as you’re ready to take on a serious challenge!
How much of the game will be implemented and available once the early access build launches? What is your roadmap for updates?
Walsh: About a third of the main campaign content will be available at Early Access launch, but there’s a huge amount of optional content to get lost in as well. Some of our players put in over 100 hours during the beta just experimenting and exploring and collecting.
We have a roadmap that details very frequent updates. Two content packs I am really excited for will offer players the chance to “pick a side,” kind of like when you chose your first Pokémon game. Everyone will get all the content of course, but it’ll be a really fun time for players and for me to see which team (and monsters) win out!
You mentioned in a Kickstarter update that Early Access funds “will not be needed to complete the core game.” Could we see some of that money go toward additional playable content? What should we expect?
Walsh: Yes, absolutely. Ensuring our monster designs are of the highest possible caliber and variety has always been a huge focus for me. Additional resources can also help flesh out features. One example is the My Card Collection feature from our Kickstarter campaign. Originally, it was a single-floor dungeon to explore with monster hybrids based on collectible in-game cards. However, implementation went so well that I’m really happy to say there’ll be a multi-floor dungeon generated in a rogue-like fashion for players to enjoy, multiplying the depth and content of the system.
I’m always mentally “attacking” the game and its systems to try and expose flaws or areas for improvement. Any Early Access funds just multiply the power of those efforts and make for an even better final game.
Thanks to Jason for talking to us! This interview has been edited for clarity. Studio Aurum’s Monster Crown will release on Steam Early Access on July 31, 2020. Stay tuned to Siliconera for more coverage of the game!