Interview with Tony Gowland, creative director of Ant Workshop
Tony Gowland has been working in the video games industry for 23 years. His journey took him from most subsidiaries of Rockstar and other AAA-industry giants to eventually establishing his own indie game studio, Ant Workshop. just short of Ant Workshop’s 10th birthday, Tony and his team, have released the v1.0 version of the fun family mini golf party game, Dungeon Golf, after a year of “Steam Early Access”-status. We asked Tony to take us through his career, indie video game development and of course, Dungeon Golf.
Retrolike.net: How does it feel to be partly responsible for the highest rated Nintendo DS game ever released with GTA Chinatown Wars?
Tony Gowland: (Laughs) Take that, Zelda! … Yeah, you’re right. Last time I looked, Chinatown Wars was indeed higher up on Metacritic than Zelda [The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass]. It was a lovely game to work on, and I quite enjoyed it.
You were a senior and lead level designer at Rockstar Leeds, the handheld studio of the video game behemoth Rockstar. How did you experience working in an environment like that?
Really good. On the one hand, you had Rockstar North, who was making GTA 4 at the time we were working on Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories. They obviously had a huge number of people with the immense responsibility of creating a sequel to San Andreas. We [Rockstar Leeds], on the other hand, had about 20 people. It was a very small, tight-knit team working on our games.
With Leeds and North developing GTA games simultaneously, did you follow the course Rockstar North laid out, or were you able to do your own thing?
We were focusing on a more arcade, old-school kind of GTA experience. At that point, North was heading into a grittier version of GTA, with increased realism in physics and driving cars. With Chinatown Wars, we went back to really arcady gameplay with short missions, because we thought it would fit handheld gaming much better. We took the history of GTA and took the old school approach. We did add a lot of the design learnings of later GTAs into that old school concept. Thinks like sat-nav lines on the map, so you can see where the need to go, among other things.
Another significant difference was in the driving aspect of the games. GTA 4 reached a point where escaping the police required a lot of effort—hiding, swapping cars, and such. We had a much more “Burnout: Takedown” approach. To the extent that if you ran down and smashed into a police car, and it hit a lamppost or something, it would explode (laughs). We leaned into old-school car chase scenes from films like “Smokey and the Bandit” and the “Blues Brothers.” We had a lot of fun and discussions on how to create moment like this. A great example is that I was determined to have the ‘sad police car sound’ when a police car smashed in to something.
‘Sad police car sound’ ?
You know, in those ’70s and ’80s movies and series, when a police car crashed or ditched on the side of the road, the siren would slowly fizzle out. ‘WOO WOO Woo woooeeeee.’ I had to get that in the game, whatever happened. Chinatown Wars had a lot of that.
How was developing for the Nintendo DS, in this case?
Just like ‘North’ with GTA4 were pushing hardware limits to the max, on our side, we squeezed everything we could out of the DS. It was completely handwritten from scratch and entirely optimized for that hardware. We were very comfortable at that point with the GTA franchise, having made the PSP games up to that point and developing for handheld hardware.
And in terms of franchise and story, were Rockstar North hands on?
In the case of Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories, they were very hands-on. There was a fair amount of oversight in structuring the missions. In the case of Liberty City Stories, some of North’s writers worked on the mission scripting with us. They also provided a lot of feedback. From that point on, they were more hands-off, fully trusting us with the franchise by then. They were very focused on GTA4, so they didn’t have the time to hold our hands. The great thing about Rockstar was that among all Rockstar studios, it was easy to involve people from the other studios if needed very specific help. There was always someone to contact or turn to.
I would like to think that Liberty City Stories (PSP) set an early standard for production values on the PSP and pushed other non-Rockstar studios to achieve a more console-like experience on the device. How do you view that?
When I had the interview for the job at Rockstar Leeds, they explained the ambitions for the game. They outlined that they wanted to create a full-on GTA experience without compromises. At that point, with the PSP not yet launched, I asked, ‘But without the licensed music, I suppose?’ No, all the music, DJs, everything was included. The next thing I asked was if we were going to use sprites and such. ‘No, fully 3D, the complete GTA experience, basically the same as the PS2 version.’ From that moment, I knew we were going to set the bar pretty high, even before the system was launched.
And then you decide to leave Rockstar and go indie?
Well, not immediately. I worked on a bunch of GTA projects up to that point. The PSP projects were relatively smaller, about a year each. Chinatown Wars took two years. I then moved to San Diego to work on Red Dead Redemption and eventually to Rockstar North to work on GTA 5. When I got the idea of the scope of that project, it dawned on me that I wasn’t really that interested in working heads down on a single game for the next five or six years.
Both Ant Workshop games we’ve released are relatively short projects. Dead and Job took about a year, and Dungeon Golf took two years. I need to scratch that creative itch. Even with Dungeon Golf, I really liked working on it and I’m very proud of what we delivered, but there is a lot of other stuff that we would love to do. When I left Rockstar, I worked at a couple of mobile companies and did some work for the mobile branch of Activision. Those projects were between 6 to 9 months. That was the point I came to realize that you can make a solid game in nine months. While I was doing these projects for hire, I was developing my first solo project, Binaries. So that’s how I got off the ground.
Ant Workshop has been around for a couple of years now, but as a startup indie company with 10 people working with you, how do you get off the ground and make ends meet?
We got a Switch development kit very early on, allowing us to assist other indie companies in getting their games on the Nintendo Switch. The mix of developing our own game, which at the time was ‘Dead End Job,’ and engaging in work-for-hire and porting for other people’s projects makes it viable for us. As far as I’m aware, that is how the majority of indie studios our size tend to earn their living. Relying on your own IP is a risky thing, and it’s a very hit-driven business.
In that regard, did you had the whole team available for Dungeon Golf?
We worked with the complete team on Dungeon Golf. While it might seem like just a mini-golf party game, in the end, it involves eight different 3D character designs, models, and animations. We designed 72 holes across four different stage designs, tackled online and offline multiplayer, and had to figure out CPU AI, which is challenging. We introduced the ‘sponsorship’ mechanic, where your character can take a sponsorship that gives you a specific buff or power-up. We had to come up with 30 of those. There’s a whole load of stuff in there, so it took the whole team.
Talking about the sponsorships in the game, against the trend of the moment, you didn’t went completely roguelike with the game. I personally applaud that, but did it ever crossed your mind?
We did play around with the idea. We also considered procedurally generated holes and rewarding the player with loot. But fairly early on, we discovered that none of those things gelled with mini-golf. Finding different clubs and stuff like that, whereas finding different guns with clear characteristics in a shooter makes sense, you can’t add meaningful characteristics to a club that would make sense in a mini-golf setting.
The procedural levels never really worked; ‘hole design’ is a very intricate part of the game. You need certain lines you can play through, and obstacles need to be in very specific places to make it engaging. We just decided this should be a golf game and sports game, but we did want to add the ‘hero’ element with the characters.
I think we would lose a lot of personality in the levels. The game provides a good challenge where opponents, obstacles, and enemies within the levels, many times, create a situation where you have to divert from your preferred route, which will mix up the gameplay enormously. So, we didn’t need procedurally generated levels, and it has the added bonus that we can be very specific in the level design.
Who did you tackle character design?
We want to mix up the gameplay with the variety of characters we have, leveraging their unique abilities to provide players with a different experience. Playing a hole as Jojo Croaker, the frog, can be a very different experience than playing as Astrid the Barbarian. They each have strengths and weaknesses. In terms of visual design, we went for recognizable fantasy characters. We have a Wizard and Barbarian and such. But we wanted to give them a bit of a twist. For example, our bard is a frog, our barbarian is a female war chief named Astrid Yeetballur. Instead of a knight on a horse, we have the knight’s horse as a character instead (laughs).
Graphically the game has a bit of a Gamecube or Dreamcast aesthetic, how did you end up there?
I’ve always liked the style of games like Spyro the Dragon and Daxter and stuff like that. The rest of the team grew up on Crash Bandicoot. The reason for this style is the same as the reason why the game is a mini-golf game and not a ‘proper’ golf game. We want it to be accessible for young and old, with different generations playing the game together. The whole reason why I wanted to make a mini-golf game came up at a family holiday where our family came together with my parents, siblings, and nieces and nephews. All these generations were playing this game and having fun. The skill it takes, along with the randomness, transcends quite well over different types and age groups of players. We wanted everyone to be comfortable with the graphic style.
As a player, you have the ability to earn a gold, silver, or bronze medal when you meet certain goals (in single-player story mode). Is every hole designed with an ideal route for getting a gold medal?
We set out the gold cup to be our team’s personal best efforts while playing the game. Then we added some comfort for the silver and again for the bronze. We have been playing the game for months and months and created a certain way of approaching each hole and see it as such. So it isn’t supposed to be easy to win the gold cup. Then it’s always refreshing to see someone outside the studio take an entirely fresh approach and go a totally different way. We definitely see people, in testing and early access, crushing the gold cups. Sometimes you see the hole ‘click’ with the player; other times, it can be just a completely lucky shot, and it feels to the player as if they break the game to a certain extent.
You launched the game in early access, why did you take this approach?
Mainly for the feedback from players to help us tweak the game. Early on, we introduced a feature in the game to easily report bugs or suggestions. At any point in the game, a player can press F8 and have the possibility to leave feedback with screenshots, etc. Many times, feedback we got was very easy and quick to implement but just hadn’t occurred to us in the development process. So, for us, that was extremely useful to make it a better game and get more in tune with what gamers expected from a game like this.
For example, every hole has a short fly-through and ends with a shot of your character to set the scene. If you wanted to restart the hole because you messed up your shot, that sequence would play again. A player suggested to us that it would be much better to not start that sequence on restart. It was a really quick fix and a real quality-of-life improvement.
Dungeon Golf features online multiplayer, a feature you see less and less in indie games, mostly to skip the burden of having to develop and test netcode. How did you experience that while developing Dungeon Golf?
Those are very wise developers (laughs). For us, the single player came into scope very late in the development process. From the outset, local and online multiplayer were the heart of the game. With our next project or anything we will ever make, we will certainly look very closely to see if online multiplayer is really, really needed. Let’s say it is an experience.
Talking about fellow indie developers; Do you have any tips for (aspiring) indie developers who are starting up?
Don’t do online multiplayer. No, just kidding. I always struggle with giving tips. The industry moves very fast, and I’ve been in the industry for 23 years now, with Ant Workshop being nine years old. So any advice on setting up a studio is probably very out of date. The most important thing is always to have a backup plan, like doing work for hire on the side or at least having something outside the business to fall back on when it doesn’t pan out.
We would like to thank Tony and the PR team for giving us the opportunity to talk for an hour of his schedule to talk to us. Dungeon Golf has now officially released on Steam and is available now with a 30% discount for €/$ 11,89 !
We are reviewing Dungeon Golf right now and we hope to share our opinion in due time.