Tunic creator Andrew Shouldice on indie gaming success

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Through no fault of its own, indie game Tunic had a mountainous task ahead of it on release. Its launch date, March 16, was sandwiched between several of 2022’s biggest releases, including Elden Ring (February 22), Horizon: Forbidden West (February 18), Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin (March 18), Kirby and the Forgotten Land (March 25), and others.

It could have disappeared among that many tall poppies. Instead, it garnered lots of positive attention and praise from both critics and gamers alike. I gave the game four stars out of five in my review, complimenting its design and inherent character.

I got the chance to speak with Andrew Shouldice, the developer who created Tunic, about the feedback for his game, the development process, and what it was like releasing so close to Elden Ring.

Tunic Forest Screenshot
Tunic Forest Screenshot

GamesBeat: How have you been since Tunic has launched? How has the response been?

Shouldice: It’s been incredible. I need to remind myself of how I was feeling just before launch, because the change at that moment was so dramatic. People really seem to like it. The most surprising thing is that what I assumed to be — not necessarily a niche game, but something that has a particular sensibility about secrets and not telling you what to do and all that sort of thing — it made me think that some people would really like it and some people wouldn’t. But the broadness of the appeal has been surprising to me, and delightful. It’s been pretty exciting. A little bit overwhelming. But overall very positive.

GamesBeat: Have you had any significant pieces of feedback you’ve received on the game?

Shouldice: People have really identified with the manual as something that they particularly enjoy. Which is — yes, it’s an important part of the game, and we’ve talked about it plenty in previous interviews, but I think being able to actually sit down and play the game, people started to realize how fundamental a part of the experience it was, how it’s not just a collectible. It’s more of an intrinsic part of the experience of playing the game. There’s been other feedback. We’ve been doing bug fixes and stuff like that for some issues that folks have had. Usually it’s just, oh, the character cuts out here. But we’ve been fixing those. We’re going to be rolling out more of those fixes in the coming weeks.

GamesBeat: What can you tell me about developing Tunic? Can we go back to the beginning and work our way from there?

Shouldice: It’s a story as old as indie game development, really. “Boy, I work in tech, maybe even in games, but I love video games and I want to make something that speaks to me, some personal project, a labor of love, blah blah blah.” Save up money, quit your job. That’s what happened with me.

I quickly realized that I was going to need help to do things like sound effects and audio, so I partnered with Power Up Audio, as well as Lifeformed and Janice Kwan, who are the duo that do the music for the game. I also needed a little bit of business help, because I had no idea what I was doing entering this world, so Felix Kramer and later Finji helped to set me on the right track and get this game in front of as many people as it is now in front of. Most recently Eric Billingsley came on to help polish things up. Even though the project started as this typical solo developer, it’s grown into a small team. It’s not just a single person anymore.

GamesBeat: What inspired this particular kind of gameplay?

Shouldice: People look at the game and say, oh, it’s Zelda. That’s not a bad comparison. There’s definitely some aesthetic inspiration from Zelda games. But mostly it’s emotional inspiration. That feeling of exploring a big world full of secret nooks and crannies all over the place is definitely the sort of emotional feeling. Aesthetically I really like isometric–not just games, but anything isometric. I find that very satisfying. Maps or buildings, exploded diagrams of castles and engines and stuff, all that stuff is really cool to me. It allows for things to be hidden in plain sight in a lot of ways. It made a lot of sense when I was thinking about how I’d always wanted to make this game about secrets. I love how isometric things just sort of look and feel. It made a lot of sense that that’s where the game ended up starting.

There are other things as well. Gameplay-wise, people will often say this is more technical than they expected. I have a soft spot for the Souls games, in particular Bloodborne. Playing those games and thinking, oh, you can have something that is both deliberate and requires careful thought and encourages observation and patience, but also have something that comes down to the satisfaction of dodging at just the right time. That sort of thing.

GamesBeat: The art of the world is also adorable. I love it so much.

Shouldice: Thank you. One of my favorite things to do is animation and bringing life to things.

GamesBeat: Can I ask why the hero was a fox?

Shouldice: Very early on I was not especially confident or skilled at 3D modeling. I really liked the idea of shortening the distance between the player and the player character, so you could feel yourself as the character in the world. The straightforward way to do that, which a lot of games use, is with a character creator. I was not able to make a convincing person, even if it was cartoonish. The idea of saying, hey, it’s just going to be an anthropomorphic character of some kind, a fox — I think it just popped in my head pretty soon after having that first thought. I didn’t look back. It made a lot of sense. Foxes get into trouble. That’s another good reason for it, I think. It worked out. The fox seems to be pretty popular.

GamesBeat: It’s a color contrast, too, because the world is primarily green.

Shouldice: Yeah, exactly.

GamesBeat: You mentioned that a lot of people liked the manual. What can you tell me about what it was like creating that?

Shouldice: It went through a lot of iterations. Obviously early on I needed to know if it was an aesthetic that would even work. I made some early mockups of pages that are available in demos and things like that. But it evolved over the years. For the vast majority of development, the manual was just blank white pages with a few notes on them. It made it very difficult to playtest, because you would be watching someone play, and they’d get to a point where the manual page would just say, “Player now learns …” or “Here’s a map.” If you’re playtesting it’s impossible to internalize that and imagine how you would feel if you actually had a map or whatever. That was tricky. But it meant that it was very satisfying, in the last four to six months — I just went on this manual layout bender. I poured a lot of time and energy into laying out the pages, hiding little secrets in there, making all the maps, stuff like that.

GamesBeat: It does remind me a lot of playing the ‘90s adventure game style. How do you balance that mechanic of “here’s where you find something, and you discover other things about the world,” but it’s a more open world?

Shouldice: It’s tricky. I like adventure games a lot, traditional point-and-click adventure games. Before I started working on this game, I made a lot of hidden object casual games, which are basically point-and-click adventures. One of the techniques that I used there was building a sort of graph of dependencies. You need to obtain key before you can open lock, and after you open lock you get the MacGuffin that you use somewhere else. There’s a series of hard constraints that stack on top of one another, and eventually culminate in, “You Win.”

I tried constructing something like that for this game, and it never really worked. I needed to come up with new ways of expressing the way that you move through the space. First of all, the spatial consideration is a lot more important in a game like this. Also, many of the gates, what we would traditionally consider to be hard games, nodes in that graph — they’re meant to be circumvented in Tunic. Sure, you’re encouraged to have the shield here, but maybe you can get past this challenge without the shield. There are some that are a bit more firm. You definitely need this item to progress, you need this key to open this door, blah blah blah. But some of them, like using the sword to chop down bushes, it’s not necessarily–there are other ways to do that.

Coming up with a fairly — a path through the game that is bounded on all sides by fairly firm, but not perfectly hard gates, means that people will be able to explore. The path of least resistance will help them move through the game, but at any moment they could do something especially clever and find themselves in a place they’re not ready for. A place that has cool treasures that they can collect and exploit. They can discover secrets they’re not meant to find. All the feelings of, wow, I really discovered something! Those are feelings you get when you just let people discover things.

GamesBeat: In a broader sense, how did you balance the game’s difficulty?

Shouldice: Iteration and playtesting, mostly. Talking to people who had to play the game a fair amount, like the QA team. Talking to people who had not played the game very much, with fresh eyes, playtesters. Observing where they had difficulty and doing my best to not try and adjust too dramatically. The advantage of working on a team, whether it’s the publisher or the QA team, is having people that can tell you, no, it’s good the way it is, don’t change it too dramatically. Or, well, this person tried this boss 12 times, and they were close to getting it, but they didn’t. Having someone to remind me that that’s the idea. You want to have a challenge that you’re just about to get, so that when you do accomplish it you feel good about yourself.

That being said, one of maybe the best design decisions this game saw was the inclusion of a no-fail mode. If you are not interested in the combat difficulty, or you find a particular challenge just too much — aw, I don’t care for this right now — slam on that no-fail, have fun, and move to the part you do like. You can turn that on and off if you deem it necessary.

Tunic House Screenshot
Tunic House Screenshot

GamesBeat: Do you think that falls into the category of a sort of accessibility feature?

Shouldice: We have it literally socketed under the accessibility menu. So yeah, I guess so. It’s interesting, because many accessibility options also overlap with what might be called a difficulty setting. But they’re two orthogonal concepts that happen — certain things are — this is a difficulty setting, and I guess technically an accessibility setting as well. Exactly the nomenclature of that, it’s hard to say. But the idea that anybody who is interested in playing the game can do so, even if some circumstance means that certain inputs or whatever are difficult for them, allowing them to progress is a decision that made a lot of sense.

GamesBeat: What is it like releasing during this particular launch window?

Shouldice: Good question, and I mean that because I mentioned this before, but one of the benefits of working with a team is that the wisdom that they have far outstrips mine in many areas, specifically in publishing. This is the first time I’ve published an indie action game in a commercial context. It’s hard to say exactly how this would compare with any other year, any other time slot. But the thought that the Souls series has inspired a lot of my feelings of mystery and wonder and exploration, that sort of thing — the fact that Tunic’s launch happened within, what, a month of the magnum opus as far as — I haven’t played it yet. But it’s weird timing.

At a certain point I felt like, oh, it’s going to swamp everything. Nobody’s going to pay attention to this silly little game about a fox if they’ve got this thing. But people have been extremely kind. There have been some — I don’t know if there’s been straight-out nitty-gritty comparisons or anything like that. But the fact that people are putting it on the same lists, even, is a wonderful feeling.

GamesBeat: I’ve seen the game described as a good game to play in between very large open world releases, which is strange to me, because this is an open world release. I do wonder if there’s a difference in the way people feel about an indie isometric game, rather than a Horizon or an Elden Ring.

Shouldice: It’s a good question. I don’t have a sense of what goes on in the minds of gamers. But yeah, maybe — I’ll take being a palate cleanser between these grand things. Despite the fact that Tunic, at the end of the day, it can be quite a big game, relatively speaking, for an indie. People have spent 20-plus hours finding all the secrets. But it still feels to me like a small game in a certain sense. You’re playing a small character. You’re exploring a world where everything has this cuteness to it. It’s all wrapped around a few core ideas. I like to think of it as, yeah, maybe a treat between having your bones ground to dust in Elden Ring or whatever.

GamesBeat: I’ve seen the two set beside each other, and I wonder what it’s like, having this game come out and being compared — favorably, especially — to Elden Ring.

Shouldice: I’m excited to try it myself and see what the buzz is about. It sounds like it’s good.

GamesBeat: What is it like working with Microsoft? Tunic launched day one on Game Pass. What was that like?

Shouldice: Fantastic. Super great. Microsoft has, since the beginning, been very supportive. I think the moment for me that the game felt like it switched over from, hey, I’m working on this cool little thing and it’s gotten some press — when that changed to, oh wow, was the 2018 Microsoft Theater press conference where they had the trailer on the big screen. Everybody was there. Phil Spencer was talking about my hometown. It was truly amazing. The fact that they did that for, like I said — it’s not actually a “small” game. It’s not tiny. But it feels small to me, you know what I mean? Having them do that for something like that was very cool.

Similarly, there are so many people — I don’t know the numbers, but the number of people out there with Xbox Game Pass means that the audience for this game is just — where else are you going to get that number of people playing your cool little fox game? It’s really amazing.

GamesBeat: I know you just launched a game. It’s probably not a question you want to answer right now. But what do you do next?

Shouldice: Take a break! For a little while. I’m I’m going to kick it and play some Elden Ring, I think, fire that up. That’s my treat now that the game is out. But yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think I will stop making things in general. I really like making video games. So who knows? Maybe I have another one in me at some point. But for now I’m going to take a bit of a breather.

GamesBeat: You mentioned that you worked with a lot of other people, so this wasn’t just a solo endeavor. Would you want to do that again, work with a team?

Shouldice: Yeah, for sure. There are certain things that I would like to do as a cathartic, personal endeavor, where I’m not holding anybody else up. I’m taking as long as I want to make some tiny — probably a recreational programming project or something like that. But one of the most stressful things in making a game is the design part of it. Making the decisions about how things work. The next project I work on, maybe I’m not going to be in the driver’s seat design-wise. Maybe I’ll be helping make someone else’s dream happen.

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