[Interview] Talking Game Development with Jools Watsham

Introducing: Jools Watsham Interview

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Jools Watsham, founder of Atooi and longtime game developer. His projects span console generations and genres, as does his expertise and experience. Without further ado, please enjoy our conversation.

You’re a veteran of the industry. You’ve worked all over, and now you find yourself at Atooi. I love the slogan for your studio, “Retro Roots – Modern Mojo.” In addition to just being very catchy, it says a lot about your philosophy. What design principles are central to your identity as a game developer?

What would Nintendo do? Nintendo’s approach to game design is my main inspiration, where design is king. They are very pure about it. All other disciplines support what is needed by design. My goal with game design is to only include what is needed for the game that I am creating. Just because Mario jumps doesn’t mean your character should too. It is your world that you’re creating. Your unique rules. But, you must justify everything’s existence!

You have an incredibly prolific catalog of work that spans from the NES to the Nintendo Switch. You’ve worked on over forty titles, which is crazy to think about. What motivates you to work on project after project?

Yeah, it is quite surprising when I reflect on that. I don’t quite understand how I have worked on so many games, but I can say that I am enjoying the journey. I am lucky that the challenge and process of creating a game is the motivation itself. Can I make a better game than the last? Can it effectively represent the original vision when complete? Will players enjoy it? Will it sell well? I hope I never get tired of making games. So far, so good.

I think any creative-type can relate to the notion of wanting a change of pace. Have there been times that you’ve wanted to step away from game development and do something else?

When game development is going well, everything makes sense. I think it is only when times are difficult or stressful that we question our situation and look for other solutions or outlets to soothe what ails us. You may have noticed that each of the games that I have designed is quite different than the others. I think this is one of the main factors that keeps development interesting for me. Taking on new genres you haven’t created before is thrilling and scary. Always finding new challenges and solutions is a very energizing cycle that feeds the process.

One thing that has really drawn me to you and your work is the way that you’re not just a creator, but a fan. I was reading your Xeodrifter Postmortem on Gamasutra and was struck by the point in the piece where you talk about the inspiration for the game.

You talk about how (at the time time) there was no 2D Metroid on 3DS, and you wanted to fill that void. Well, there is now, with Samus Returns. With the dual identity of game developer and Nintendo fan, what does it mean to you when folks talk about Metroidvanias on the system, mentioning Samus Returns and Xeodrifter in the same breath?

I am in pursuit of making a truly interesting and original game, which is nearly impossible to achieve, but in the meantime I design games that are of personal interest to me for one particular reason or another. The reason could be inspiration from another game or a commercial force that needs to be met in order to generate revenue so we can continue to make games, or it could be a time constraint that is likely money driven but also presents an opportunity to make something greater than the time given to create it.

That was the case for Xeodrifter. We needed to release a new game before the end of 2014, which gave us just a few months to make something. I think we originally tried to design something that would fit in three months, but ended up taking six. Instead of making something that felt like it took two people six months to create, our goal was to create something special that embraced the time constraint to present a worthwhile experience that went beyond the sum of its parts. The reason I preface my answer with this information is because I view Xeodrifter as a successful experiment. One that is clearly an homage to Metroid and made under the extreme development challenge of very limited resources. I am proud of it, but I categorize it as a professional achievement that is perhaps less successful in originality. Therefore, I find it difficult to view it as anything more than a scholarly exercise.

When I see Xeodrifter mentioned in the same sentence as Metroid titles, I am thrilled, of course, but I get a pang of imposter syndrome that pushes my desire to make something original like “Metroid”, instead of something that is an homage to it.

When you sit down to play a Nintendo game, does your personal experience with game development deepen or hinder your appreciation of it? Do you see design choices that you disagree with and become fixated on how you’d approach a design challenge differently yourself? Or, can you dial down that part of your mind when you’re playing others’ work?

Thankfully, I am able to enjoy a game for what it is – especially well-designed games like those from Nintendo and other great developers. Only when a glaring design issue slaps me in the face will the spell be broken and I can’t ignore my inner gamer designer analyzing the problem.

In a similar vein, how are you influenced by the moves that Nintendo makes? How does a game like Super Mario Maker 2 impact the trajectory of a game like Hatch Tales? Does it at all?

Folks may find it hard to believe, but the Super Mario Maker series has not had a big influence on Hatch Tales. I have always had the desire to make some kind of game maker since I was a kid playing Shoot ‘Em Up Construction Kit back in the 1980’s. I approached the design of Hatch Tales with a blank slate. It had to be that way. Trying to figure out how to design an editor that the player will use to create levels was pretty tough, and then you have to think about the ingredients the player will have at their disposal, and then you need to complete all of that before you can make any levels yourself for the final games. It was a real “What comes first? The chicken or the egg?” scenario – no pun intended! I think the blank slate approach enabled us to implement features that are not present in Super Mario Maker, which makes Hatch Tales a unique title when compared to it.

Another reason I admire your work so much is the way that you conduct yourself. I really admire that you’re not afraid to simply call things as you see them. Last Fall, you made a post on the Hatch Tales Kickstarter refuting the idea that backers are akin to publishers – which didn’t go over particularly well if the comments are any indication. Personally, I find this sort of candor to be refreshing.

Have you ever felt pressured by how front-facing you are, and how your opinions can cause a stir? Are there times that you wish you could step away from this part of the song and dance and just work on game development with a degree of anonymity?

Yes, absolutely. I have pulled away quite a bit from personal engagement online. I like to be honest and express my opinion when asked – and even when not asked, sometimes! That can create a backlash that can distract from game development. For the past year or so I have purposely limited and gated my involvement online. It takes some self discipline and training to break ones’ habits, but I am now able to resist reading my notifications on Twitter and reader comments on news articles that cover Atooi news. Unfortunately, for every 10 positive comments I may read, it takes only one negative one to wash all of them away. Perhaps not everyone works this way, but for me it is just easier to avoid all of them and focus on my objective to make great games. I made games before the internet existed, and I survived just fine. I will continue to write blog articles and such, but will limit my reading of reactions to maintain my sanity.

I suppose that feedback – positive or otherwise – simply comes with the territory, though. Along those lines, I’m curious about what a game review means to you today. Back in 2015, you wrote a Gamasutra blog post about this topic, discussing the tensions between outlets and individuals, opinions and analysis. I thought it was a fascinating read.

Games critique has become increasingly personality-based and far more grassroots. Just about anyone with an internet connection can review games. While that was true five years ago, it’s never been truer than now. The marketplace is full of dichotomous voices with respect to all manner of criteria. What sort of critique resonates the most with you today, and what do you pay most attention to, with respect to coverage of your games? Is it fan reviews on YouTube and social media. or more professional reviews? Are you any happier with the game review landscape now than you were in 2015?

Due to today’s landscape of games reviews, they no longer hold much value for me when it comes to measuring the quality of my games against others. My problem with games reviews today is that they are more anecdotal and less empirical. Not much meat. Too much sauce. There are exceptions, of course. I enjoy reading reviews from those who are more scholarly when it comes to their critique. I believe every aspect of every game can be broken down into a good or bad decision. Naturally, there is personal opinion involved in this, but if you can justify why something is good or bad I think that goes a long way and edges towards the science of game design.

Finally, as a bit of fun, I’m sure Cadence of Hyrule got you daydreaming about the possibility of collaborating directly with Nintendo. If you could work with any of Nintendo’s IP, which would you choose, and what direction would you take it in?

Well, actually, I am not keen on the idea of working on a Nintendo IP. Sorry to be a party pooper, but I think it would ruin me. What allows me to enjoy making games is the total freedom that I have with Atooi games. I don’t think I would ever be given that freedom with someone else’s IP, so it’s probably best we don’t let that happen. Haha. 

Thank you very much to Jools Watsham for his time.

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