Behind the Game: Wandering Willows

By Erin Bell |

When PlayFirst Lead Designer Dan Chao envisioned a role-playing game without the combat (but with all the other fun stuff, like collecting items, crafting and chatting with characters to complete tasks), the result was Wandering Willows, a unique title that’s at least twice as long as most casual games. Dan sat down with Gamezebo to chat about how the game was made in our latest Behind the Game feature.

Hi Dan, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. First of all, please tell us a little bit about what you do at PlayFirst.

I’m a game designer so that means my day to day responsibilities range from working on internal games to consulting on external games.  I’ll work on game systems, mechanics, tweaking numbers, writing stories, scripting events, or just thinking about new game ideas.  

Tell us about the inspiration for Wandering Willows. I’m definitely seeing some MySims Kingdom in there…

I never actually played MySims.  When I came up with Wandering Willows, I had been playing a bunch of RPGs that had things like gathering, collection, and crafting.  I thought that if I just pulled out the combat that we could have a compelling casual game.  After I came up with the idea, I checked out some similar DS games.  A lot of these felt too complicated or it was collection for collection’s sake.  I’m very functionally focused and I feel that everything that you collect should do something.

A big part of Wandering Willows is the ability to acquire and train pets. What were some of your favorite pets to create?

Our two wonderful artists, DRP and Erin created all the pets.  I suppose I’m particularly fond of Turlie, the fat looking bird, and his cousins.  Who wouldn’t want a Turlie stuffed animal?   

How did you shape Wandering Willows to make sure it would appeal to the casual market?

There were quite a few things.  I tried to make things as digestible and unintimidating as possible.

I tried to make every click be context sensitive.  Basically, every click should just do what you want.  When you click on an unwatered garden plant, you water it.  You don’t have to equip the watering can or select it from a menu.

Adding the task bar at the top to tell you what to do at any given moment really helped the game.  It showed you who needed what items and how many.  Also, if you hover over items, they tell you where they come from.  Normally in RPGs, players just memorize this stuff.

Removing combat out of an RPG actually left a gigantic hole in the game.  We were left with interactions that were only pass/fail.  There was nothing where I was holding my breath to see the outcome.  At that point, we decided to revise charming to what you see now, which I think added a little bit of that feeling back in.

Finally, I think the story and setting had to be something approachable.  I’d like to say that I meditated on the story and setting for awhile and adjusted it to marketing’s requirements, but I think it just came to me.  I’m hoping that it gives it that much more of a true feeling and artistic soul rather than something that panders to the casual audience.

What aspect or aspects of the game are you most proud of?

I’m really proud of the art.  The game looks better than I ever imagined.  This may be a really boring thing to say, but I’m also really proud of the user interface (UI).  This game could’ve had an incredibly complicated, unintuitive UI but instead, it’s really consistent, clean, and understandable.  There was just so much information to pack in and it could have easily gone south had it not been for our very seasoned team. 

Finally, I’m quite proud of the sheer content in the game.  There are a ton of quests, animals, clothes, recipes, etc.  I think it could’ve come out a much thinner experience had we not had all that content.

What challenges did you face during the development process?

The hardest challenge was actually convincing people that this was a worthwhile game to make.  In the casual game industry, RPG isn’t actually a very familiar term and when you say something like ‘an RPG without combat’, they either run scared or say, “R-P-what?”  It was a huge risk and those are never easy to take.

Are there any funny or interesting stories that you can share about the game’s development?

This artist that used to work here would make this sound with his cheek that sounded like a chipmunk.  I was determined to get Turlie to sound that way.

There was also the time that we brought in a focus tester early in development when we still had a ton of placeholder art in and she thought the animal was literally pooping out items during charming.  

How has the response been to the game so far? Would you consider a sequel, or developing further "action RPG-style games?"

The response has been great!  It’s always a gamble to do any new genre. Many people aren’t open to new things and you tend to stick to what you know. However, my theory was that what got me addicted to RPGs would work on the casual audience as well. The biggest challenge for new genres will always be getting people to try them.

As for new things, there’s a part of me that would like to work on a totally new concept and genre but I already know the top 10 things I would add to the sequel if we were to do one. I’d also love to hear what people would like in a sequel.

Any last words for your fans?

I think Wandering Willows will have really made it when we start reading some fan fiction about Art and Whittaker. I’m still hoping for some Wandering Willows cosplay, too.

Chat about this feature in the Wandering Willows forum.

Content writer

More content