Miaoyi Wang's apartment is rigged for high level game development. Many monitors and multiple PC’s occupies her living room, and in the further end of the room I spot a glass cabinet with an impressive collection of console games. This is the home of a hard worker, and a real video game enthusiast.
Since quitting her job at China's second biggest game company, NetEase Games, she has been working ten hours a day with her passion project, Will: A Wonderful World. The first year she was soloing the project by both programing and writing the plot on which the game is based. Later some old classmates from her time as a software student joined up to participate in the development. That is how 4D Door was born.
“They saw great potential in the project”, Wang explains. “They thought the game would generate a lot of money.” This was not the motivating factor for herself however, and this difference in attitude was also what lead to the disbandment of 4D Door.
Other contributions to the project, such as the graphics, was outsourced:
“It is easy to find talented 2D artists in China, and cheap to hire students in particular.” This is of course a great access for a struggling, zero-budget developer like Wang. Without a publisher to pour money into the project and handle marketing, she has been relying on word-of-mouth to reach out, or as she put it herself, she “let the game spread naturally”. It strikes me that this attitude requires great confidence in her product and its potential to attract dedicated fans - an attitude that was proven justified considering the attention that has been given.
It is not like publishers hasn’t had an interest in her game. She has already been approached by Tencent, the biggest game company in the world, but has declined the offer.
“Working with publishers is risky”, she explains. “They might have a lot of opinion about the content.” Wang was understandably reluctant to compromise the vision of her game. The first publishers she has let in to the process are the ones helping her to localize in other countries, like Japan and USA. While the primary translation has been made by friends, the publishers are helping to refine the text.
I ask her what other ways there are to reach out as an indie without a publisher in China. “You become the hot topic, and make your own news”, she replies and laughs. “When 4D Door split up, we actually got a boost in sales. People were talking about us. When people start talking about you that has a snowballing effect.”
Wang shows me to her computer where the upcoming English version of the game is open in the Unity editor. When I first came in contact with people from the Chinese indie game community, Will: A Wonderful Life was frequently mentioned, so it is with some anticipation I press the engines play button.
The game comes in the shape of a visual novel, but is significantly more interactive, which I realize as soon as I press “New Game” and a difficulty setting pops up. In fact, the unique dialogue system which makes up the core gameplay is intriguing, and beside the engaging plot, probably what captivated the players to begin with.
In Will: A Wonderful World you get to help and decide the fate of a wide variety characters. While the main plot is fairly linear, the outcome of all these characters varies significantly based on your choices and often intertwine heavily with each other. It was this idea of helping people by twisting their destiny that constituted the basic concept of the game. The inspiration for this came from a rather unexpected source, namely a Japanese TV series by the name of Midnight Diner. The show revolves around a diner where the chef, known only as "The Master", helps his troubled customers in various ways. Rather than master chefs, the main characters in Will: A Wonderful World are gods in the shape of a girl in a qipao and a horned dog.
It is clear that Wang has a true passion for storytelling, and that the narrative is more than mere building blocks of the innovative dialogue system. She has a true meaning to convey, and there are real depth to the game’s story.
“It was an interesting process to come up with the story, even though I found it difficult”, she explains. “I really wanted it to be emotionally triggering to the player. To make them feel something, and to think.” It seem like she succeeded with that aspiration, considering the game’s reception, in spite of the fact that she doesn't consider herself to be a good writer.
The narrative network of intertwining fates seem complex and fragile in theory. In many games where “choices matter”, choices actually do not matter that much. This is understandable, considering the exponential amount of work the implementation of many different and yet meaningful outcomes would imply. For Wang, this was the case, as she had to go back and forth between Word and Excel, mapping out the causes, effects and relations of the plot in adjusting it to fit the dialogue system. It is a true example of “narrative design” if I ever seen one.
Wang's apartment is half-home, half-indie dev workstation. She’s been working here since the disbandment of the team that previously made up 4D Door. I ask her if this is the plan now, or if she want to expand the main work force from one to many for the next project. She thinks for a bit. This might not be something she has spent a lot of time thinking about yet. After all, she has been pretty occupied with the present:
“I don’t think the type of game that I am making is a realistic project for a bigger studio”, she replies. “Games that focuses on mechanics rather than narrative is more popular. That is what the big indie studios produce, like Klei’s new Oxygen not included for example.”
Wang finds the smaller projects to be the more interesting ones anyway. Bigger doesn’t equal better in today’s game industry. And she is not alone in this opinion. There is a trend in China making indie games popular at the moment, she tells me. It is a new gaming culture favouring indie games, not least among college student and educated people. They are not interested in AAA characteristics like hyper realistic graphics. They look for novelty and uniqueness. This is just one of many trends that contribute to the rapid changes within the Chinese game industry.
To focus on business focused games is not the indie way to Wang. Will: A Wonderful World was made without the creative influence of a publisher, and this is important to Wang, who has no interest in compromising her vision in the name of business. Creative freedom is the strength of indie.
At the time of writing, Will: A Wonderful World has just been released in English, and the Japanese version is still underway. Go check it out now and see what last years Chinese indie hit number one is all about!