Windborne Interview with Michael Austin

I snagged some of Michael Austin’s time in the middle of a crazy, crazy week to discuss Windborne. He is the Chief Technology Officer of Hidden Path Entertainment as well as the lead designer / project owner for Windborne. On the Hidden Path forums he is known as Echo. Hidden Path’s site heralds Austin as one of the few experts in the world on Xbox 360 CPU architecture, and his resume includes Call of Duty 2, CS:GO, racing games, and many others. Hidden Path is pretty well known in the PC indie gaming world for their amazing tower defense game Defense Grid, which Austin also lead in design. None of these are social sandbox games.

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Origin of Windborne

Austin said that originally he was messing around with voxel engines, and he found a cool way to do smooth voxels with hard edges. Hidden Path was already looking for another game they could self-finance instead of more work-for-hire jobs. Everybody became really excited about the potential of this simple idea of moving around the voxels in Austin’s prototype engine. That is how Windborne began.

I pushed Austin on Windborne being a completely new genre for Hidden Path. He said with Hidden Path’s history they are more interested in creating “fun, compelling experiences” than sticking to any one or two defined genres. The creative genre has been in Hidden Path’s dream pile for some time, and Minecraft proved that there was an incredible market for the genre. The path they wanted to take in their creative game was to have a very immersive world on top of the creative elements.

They wanted the creations and mechanics of Windborne to provide meaning. There should be a sense of wonder. That was Windborne’s elevator pitch.

World Traveler Update

The recent World Traveler update for Windborne was a heavy hit towards the “connected experience” that Hidden Path wants for the game. They wanted a way to share creations in a very integrated manner, not usually found in the popular creative games. Austin didn’t want players to feel the need to have another browser open. All the connections between players should be found within the Windborne game itself. Eventually Austin wants to add means of communication so that players can leave messages or “thumbs up or down” on the islands. This update also added the ability for players to create a character because, Austin quipped, not everybody wanted to play identical-looking girls in blue outfits.

The Nightshade block set was one of the central features of the update. With the added social connectedness, Austin wanted to provide good reasons for players to go connect with other players in positive ways. The Nightshade blocks were providing the activity to gain another block set with a reason to have more social connections.

Austin brought up Portal 2’s release where Defense Grid took part in the alternate reality game (ARG). They had Glados trying to recruit people in game, where players had to seek out other players that had some criteria the crazy-AI wanted. Austin said the ARG completely took off, and the Nightshade set was a tie-in to that.

Each person in Windborne can only create one of the Nightshade blocks from the Mysterious Lanterns they are attuned with. Players then need to visit other Mysterious Lanterns on other player shared islands to retrieve more blocks. Gaining the block gives the player the ability to craft more of those gained blocks, and so a player could also act as a block dispenser for other players. A player that wanted the complete set could either find all the blocks from Mysterious Lanterns on players’ shared islands, or they could seek out mentors that had the ability to construct a lot of the blocks.

A Tale in the Wind

I brought up how the Nightshade block mechanic felt a lot like something from A Tale in the Desert, an old favorite on this blog. I told Austin that this mechanic was something that I felt really brought Windborne in to the domain of discussion in Kill Ten Rats, where we love games involving unique social mechanics.

Austin said that he and Mark Terrano, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Hidden Path, played A Tale in the Desert quite a bit together. Austin’s favorite memories centered on the puzzles and creative things the players shared with the world. One of his favorite activities was gem crafting, and he loved setting up efficient systems with all the various activities. The hours and hours of charcoal production immediately sprang to my mind.

One of Windborne’s goals is to pull a lot of ideas from games like A Tale in the Desert, but they want mechanics to be much more simplified and streamlined. Austin said that they watched Minecraft feedback and even had some of their own polls aimed at Minecraft players. The results were that complicated crafting is not really something the players got excited about. Building was a key player focus, right after exploration. Austin said that this feedback caused Hidden Path to scale back on some of their more complicated activity plans to move towards “what are cool things we can get to build with.”

Iteration and Small Team Development

I asked about Windborne’s iterative development style that Austin discussed in another interview. He first talked about the speed of the updates. Austin felt that the length of time from the World Traveler Update was a bit too long. Their goal was to move towards 4-6 week cycles because he felt players were starting to wonder whether the game was abandoned.

The Windborne team pays a lot of attention to how the community is voting on features accompanied with stats on how the players are playing. There is an in-game poll that allows players to vote on the direction of future updates. Austin explained that about half of each update would be responsive to the player polls. The other half would be aimed towards making the world more alive with Hidden Path’s vision of Windborne.

I brought up “big ticket items”, such as other player islands floating by your island, a feature listed on Steam’s product page for Windborne. Austin said that the World Traveler update was a first step for that item. There will be incremental directions going towards the big goals.  They could, for example, first put features in to the UI, and then in to the world. They want quests to follow that route later on. Other big items might be worked on across a couple updates. If the bigger items can be incrementally released, they plan to do that, but otherwise they will save those items for their own update.

Windborne’s Favorite Games

Apart from Minecraft, which any player will recognize as being part of Windborne’s recipe, Austin and Hidden Path like to mention three other games that Windborne eventually wants to take inspiration from: Animal Crossing, Dwarf Fortress, and early Zelda games. I asked Austin to explain how those games will eventually become incorporated in to Windborne.

One of the big cores in Windborne’s ultimate vision is to rebuild the civilization of the Jin, from feral Jin on up. They want a core tenet to be the Jin, and updates in the future will focus more on that concept. The interactions with the town’s occupants in Animal Crossing are something Austin wants to incorporate in to Windborne between the players and the Jin. Windborne will have that town-building, but “on a magical island scale”.

Animal Crossing also has the mechanics to create “small spaces”. Austin said in Minecraft he spent a lot of time creating something he loved, but creations were only different on the larger scale. A random house would feel very little different from any other random house. As in Animal Crossing, Windborne will have a lot of small details to allow players to customize those small spaces  Four full block sets are already in place in Windborne each with their own unique chairs, dressers, beds, and much more.

Austin explained that he and the other developers visit the Windborne player gallery as a group to check out the player creations. They are constantly amazed at the creations, but they also use the time as way to gather feedback. The ways that players creatively use certain blocks can provide a lot of feedback to the Windborne team. They can see, perhaps, where a certain player really wanted a certain type of block for her small space or creation, and then they can incorporate those “wants” in to future updates.

Dwarf Fortress also ties in to the Jin. The Jin are not slaves or servants, Austin warned. They are more like kids or friends, which the player is fostering. Dwarf Fortress captured that concept fairly well, explained Austin, where there is a lot of economy with the dwarves within the world. Austin wants Jin to have their own personality, quirks, and preferences, and the players discover those traits to incorporate them into their world.

I mused on whether Jin would have their own little workshops, which is one of the player favorites in Dwarf Fortress where a dwarf will take over a workshop to create an incredibly eccentric item. Austin said I was not too far off in guessing Windborne’s future, but the Jin are definitely going to be useful so that there is an incentive for the player to help the Jin out.

Malik the Cursed was a good tangent because it was the first Jin that wasn’t merely a scared recipe dispenser. Was the Jin just a fluffy bit of lore for the Nightshade block items, which Malik trades for an ingot of gold, or was he going to be used in further updates? Austin said Malik completely fits in to the fiction of Windborne, and he is “very old”. Austin wanted to stay away from other spoilers for now, but Austin seemed to imply that there was more to the old Jin than just providing Nightshade items.

Early Zelda was the next topic of our conversation. Austin said that combat was one of the major things missing, for now, in Windborne, but it was on the list of future items. He also brought up procedural dungeons and community-created puzzles, such as obstacle course or jumping puzzles, as mechanics more like Zelda games. The community can create far more content than the small team of Windborne could ever hope, but Austin said they want to add in cool tools for players to use in content creation. Then they will combine those player creations with more interactivity and rewards.

Water and Beyond

I had to bring up water, which as a large feature to Minecraft is sorely missed in Windborne by Minecraft fans. Austin pronounced that water is the number one requested feature in Windborne, and he has spent a lot of time figuring out how water would work in a “soft voxel” world. Water is a lot more complicated, technically, than in Windborne. Austin said he can’t promise anything, but a lot of time is being spent thinking about solutions that would work for it. He felt that Everquest Next is having much the same issue.

I also asked about the possibility of better shaping tools for the “soft voxels”. Austin agreed that players needed better shaping tools. He felt there was some awkwardness in shaping the blocks. Originally one of the goals of Windborne was to have a very simple interface with only two buttons. Austin said they were going to keep to that design goal, but they would eventually implement tools to allow better shaping by players. The team had been working on design for that already, but Austin was not ready to talk about it yet as it was still in early development.

Austin said for the next update making the world more dynamic was going to be a big focus. The team is working incredibly hard putting in their own extra time on it because there are features the individual devs are very passionate about. They really want to get new features out to the players. Austin claimed it was one of the most high energy and creative teams he has ever worked on.

I told Austin how impressed I was, given the small team, with the amount of art that came with the World Traveler Update. There were 4 new outfits, Malik the Cursed, two new animals, and the new Nightshade Block set (which compared to some Minecraft updates…). Austin laughed and said that they have an extremely productive art team, so much so, that they are having trouble keeping them busy. One of the block artists can go through an entire block set with all variations (~180 models) in about a week. Austin reiterated that the passion of the developers they had directly affected the amount of content they could create.

Closing

Thanks again to Michael Austin for having the interview with me. Windborne is available for Early Access on Steam, and you can check out livestreams of Windborne run by Hidden Path on Twitch. I currently have published the “Desert” island on the Community Islands, and am on under the “Ravious” name if you want to connect with me in game.

–Ravious

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