Interview With White Whale Games’ George Royer

White Whale Games is hard at work on the fantastic looking slash ’em up God of Blades, which ran a successful Kickstarter campaign late last year. We chat with the studio’s lead designer and co-founder, George Royer, to find out more about White Whale and their highly anticipated debut iOS project.

Let’s start off by getting the story behind the founding of White Whale Games. It seems you all come from very different walks of life, so how did the core team happen to meet up and decide to strike out as indie game developers?

Jo Lammert, our Studio Director, and I met while we were working on our master’s degrees at the University of Texas. She and I were both studying in the School of Information where I am currently continuing with doctoral work. We worked on a couple of projects together there and I discovered that I had met this incredibly smart, resourceful person that I worked well with. We became great friends and always talked about eventually pursuing a creative project together.  At one point we were planning on doing a crazy podcast about regional folklore coupled with us trying to cook specialty food from that region.

We met Jason Rosenstock, who would go on to become our Creative Director and Lead Artist, while we were out for drinks one night. He was working on a painting of a sasquatch for the Travel Channel (don’t ask) and I thought it was pretty great. We invited him to join us for a beer and we all hit it off. At that time Jason was doing contract work for BioWare on Star Wars: The Old Republic. All three of us love games and have studied things like art, design, user experience, and digital media. We all became great friends and when Jason’s contract at BioWare ended, we decided to make a go of it — forming a studio that would allow work on the kinds of projects that we thought were really cool.

Our programmer, Adrian Lopez-Mobilia, came to us out of the blue, as his wife happened to know Jo and she had him drop by the office. We didn’t have to talk to him very long before we realized that the perfect guy for the project had just materialized out of the blue. It was a pretty magical moment. He started working with us shortly afterwards and he’s done a great job.

Since undertaking this project, we’ve made a lot of friends in the indie community here. Stoic, who we joke is our sister studio, is also made of former BioWare folks and they are currently working on The Banner Saga. They’ve been extremely supportive and we’ve kind of been going through this “new studio” thing together. We’ve also gotten a lot of moral support from the Juegos Rancheros crowd (an independent game developer collective) here in Austin. So far, it’s been a wonderful experience.

It’s really fascinating how you’ve built God of Blades around the idea of stories and cultural memories getting lost over time. There’s got to be something about the digital age that’s brought about a sea change in this phenomenon – it would seem the sheer media production rate could quickly bury older cultural output, but on the other hand, we’ve got obscure books getting preserved through digitization too. What’s your take on this? And what message do you hope players will come away with after experiencing the game?

First, I’ll explain why we chose to focus on this topic. I think there are really two dimensions to this. Firstly, this is a topic that really came naturally to us as people coming out of a school studying information as a phenomenon. Secondly, all three of us are big fans of classic fantasy and sci-fi and all of us encountered it in print form when it was often quite a hassle to get your hands on. We wanted to create a giant homage to a very certain style of fantasy and art, but to take it further and use the disappearance of that style as a vehicle to talk about loss in a broader sense.

To directly answer your question, I think that the current phenomenon of rapid production and instant access has done wonderful things for media — including facilitating the preservation and resurgence of obscure works and allowing people to self-publish. I love my Kindle and I binge on Netflix. However, the ability to instantly access exactly what you are seeking takes away a certain kind of serendipitous chance encounter with information that you didn’t even know you wanted.

This happens when you’re trying to find that book or that movie you’re looking for and you end up stumbling across something you’ve never heard of and discover something fantastic. There’s a certain excitement there that comes from physically being in a space that you just don’t get when you encounter something digitally. This excitement comes from knowing that you hold in your hands something that others have shared, and you kind of get this idea that the thing is about more than just the information in it — it’s about people, communities, and the places you discover things in. I don’t think we have a specific message we’re trying to impart to players. We’re not trying to tell people what to read, what to like, or be ironic about anything. We just hope to encourage in players a sense of wonder at the world around them.

On that note, it seems you’ve found an interesting way to incentivize the occasional library visit! Is the plan still to piggyback on Foursquare for the geolocation function? What determines the bonus sword that gets unlocked when the player takes advantage of this feature – is it randomized, or does the player find them sequentially based on total number of visits?

Yes, the plan is still to use Foursquare’s API to incentivize library visits. Currently, there isn’t a specific order to the swords you unlock by visiting libraries, but rather you have a list to choose from. The library swords aren’t more powerful than the other swords. Rather, we’ve set it up such that the different swords are like different characters: it has much more to do with player preference. I don’t like it when I fall in love with a weapon and a game takes it away because the next weapon makes it obsolete. Every sword is viable, but being able to switch between styles and powers keeps things fresh and makes combat much deeper.