I had the opportunity to interview game developer Nathanael Weiss on creating his dream game #Songbringer and on what it takes to empower a solo creator.
“Awaken an ancient evil as Roq Epimetheos when you stumble upon the hidden nanosword in the cave of Ekzerra whilst partying and pumping tunes. Then embark on 9 procedurally generated, sci-fi, Zelda-esque dungeons with your skybot Jib aboard your ship Songbringer.”
All you need to do is follow Nathanael Weiss on Twitter to know that he’s been working hard to produce a special game. Whether he’s on Twitch live streaming his process, sharing his game development skills with the masses, or spreading the generous vibes that are Wizard Fu; it becomes obvious that Songbringer is much more than we expected.
After touring coast to coast at GDC and PAX East, Nathanael spared me some time to talk more about his dream project, Songbringer. Needless to say, we covered a lot of ground.
So, you’re coming off a busy couple of weeks after exhibiting Songbringer at both GDC and PAX. How was it?
It was great! I was lucky enough to be a part of The Mix Showcase, an event where a bunch of indie game developers and press come together to play upcoming indie games. There was also a live stream with Danny O’Ddwyer and the team from Area 5 which was really fun to be a part of. The following day I was fortunate enough to be at the Microsoft ID@Xbox showing off Songbringer once again. All around, I was very humbled to be a part of these awesome events…Oh, and I got to dress as a wizard.
Now, let’s take a step back. Can you tell me a little about yourself and how you got into game development?
Well, in the late 80’s, when I was in grade school, the Nintendo came out and a friend of mine got one. We played Mario Brothers and Zelda and right away I loved video games. I was like, “Wow! These things are so cool.” I especially loved the secrets. For instance, in Mario how you could go from world one all the way to world three. This was when I got interested in video games. At this point I began to think, “wouldn’t it be cool to make my own” and lo and behold, a few years later, I learned how to program and I made my first video game when I was a freshman in high school. Those were the fun days back in DOS.
While you might be older than me, I remember firing up Doom 2 through DOS and feeling like a complete computer wiz.
However, you raise some interesting points tracing back to the beginning of your relationship with video games. I’m interested in how you mentioned secrets and I wonder if that’s a unique aspect of video games pre-internet. Unless you had a manual or a guide, figuring out a secret and sharing it with you friends by word-of-mouth was the only way. There was something very exciting about that and maybe that’s what procedurals are bringing back, that continuous surprise that can’t be sought out on the internet without some self-control.
You claim to have 300 million unique worlds in Songbringer. Tell me how it works.
So, you’re familiar with a rogue-like and it’s really more of a rogue-light inspired by Zelda. The procedural aspect is that you enter a six-letter code at the beginning of your playthrough and that six-letter code is your world seed. This generates your entire over world and your dungeons based on that unique seed. So, for example, the word PEANUT will always generate the same world. It’ll always be the same for me and it’ll always be the same for you. So, if we wanted to play the same world we could both enter in PEANUT and we would have the same locations of secrets, bosses, dungeons, and everything else.
Since it’s not technically a rogue-like, can you tell me more about the game mode(s)?
Well, there’s actually two types of game modes. In the first one, you can save your progress like any other action RPG. Basically, you enter your world seed once and you start your playthrough. From then on, you’ll always be playing that world seed. However, there’s also a permadeath mode for those hardcore gamers. You can enter that same six-letter code, but as soon as you die, you have to start all over again, similar to a rogue-like.
So, for people who want a challenge or punish themselves can go for the ol’ permadeath.
Of course. This will also be great for speed runners. Permadeath mode changes other aspects of the game. For instance, it decreases the time for opening doors and triggering dialogue. It also has a little timer to tell you how fast you are going.
What would you say it is about Zelda that inspired you to make a game like Songbringer?
Well, Songbringer is kind of my dream game. I’ve always wanted to play a Zelda-esque game that had some sort of procedural aspect to it so that it could be different each time. That’s sort of my main gripe with your typical action RPG. You play it once and you already know where everything is and what’s going to happen. I really appreciate surprises in video games. I like when things are different each time and that’s why I wanted to create something that felt like a Zelda game, Solstice, or Secret of Mana. There are so many great action RPGs in that sort of style, yet they could be different each time. They could surprise you each time.
Agreed, surprises can provide some great replay value.
I know I keep bringing it back to nostalgia, but I can’t help myself. I remember growing up playing the same game over and over again because for whatever reason that was all I had and I loved it. For example, I played Super C so many times, that I eventually could finish the game with more lives than I started with (humble brag). However, with Songbringer, I could revisit that game over and over in a different light. Have a new experience.
Let’s talk about the story. What stood out to me immediately, even before I had the pleasure of playing the demo, was the game description and the trailer, which appeared lighthearted and playful. However, the game still manages to hit us with some badass enemies and bosses. Where does the story of Songbringer come from? Was this something you set out to do from the start?
I always had this idea in mind that Songbringer could have this deeper, sort of spiritual sense to it, specifically with eating the cactuses and how the protagonist, Roq, learns to meditate. I think you have to provide the player those fun, lighthearted moments, which sort of ease them into the deeper bits. Then you ease them back out so it’s not too abrupt. Songbringer is definitely a blend of those lighthearted and deeper elements.
I must say, when I ultimately played the demo, the meditation and psychedelic cactus aspects were what surprised me most.
Do you have any rituals, music, or perhaps, meditation you practice to get you into your workflow?
I do yoga in the morning and I’m learning tai chi right now. I also meditate typically on a nightly basis. These things help me put out a lot of time. What I mean by that is, a lot of time goes into making Songbringer and to be able to put out creativity that many hours a day every week, I need to recharge, and these things give me that energy to push forward.
I’m intrigued by Wizard Fu, what is it?
Well Wizard Fu is all about empowering the solo creator. There’s no doubt in my mind that there are people out there with amazing creative talents that can do a lot of different things. Back in the renaissance days, they were called renaissance men, however, that’s a gender bias way to say it, I prefer the word polymath or a person with a wide-range of talents. I believe there are people out there who were in a position like I was 10 years ago. They may have one or two things they are successful at in game development, but they haven’t learned that third or fourth missing piece. I want to empower those people. I want to encourage them to keep growing. I would also love to see someone cultivate a well-balanced game development skill set at an earlier age. For example, see them do these things by the age of 16. That would be so rad to see that.
You stream and share your process and development of Songbringer on Twitch. What do you hope to share? Is this Wizard Fu in action? Are you trying to help the indie community and hopefully inspire someone through this access?
So, a couple things…I’d like to see more people create entire games by themselves because I think you tend to get a different character in a video game when someone is the sole creator. There’s a certain swiftness or efficiency to it. Like you can just think something and make it happen. I would love for that to become more of a thing in our society in general. See more solo creators not only in gaming but in all parts of creativity and development. That’s how huge movements happen. That’s how the renaissance or impressionist paintings began to emerge. The indie development scene we have now is all going to contribute to making something better. I hope to see even better games in the future.
Me too Nathanael, me too…
This article was also featured in the Playsource Indie Spirit Fanzine.