Necronator: Dead Wrong, described as a “a deck building roguelike with an RTS twist,” is the latest title to come from publisher Modern Wolf, and Indonesia-based indie developer Toge Productions.
The game has just left early access, doing so during an incredibly unique time – during a global pandemic, that has turned both consumer’s playing habits and development schedules upside down, as we all continue to work from home remotely.
Developer Toge Productions got their start in development a decade ago producing Flash games. Their work on Necronator: Dead Wrong is an evolution on one of their early Flash titles, Necronator, expanded into a fully-fledged PC title with Modern Wolf’s support.
It’s an impressive achievement from a studio with such humble beginnings. Especially considering their association with Modern Wolf, a publisher who, as they explained to us last year, allows their developers a great amount of creative freedom. It’s a lot of trust to put in a team, particularly one working remotely during a lockdown.
Additionally, in that same interview, Modern Wolf revealed its focus on caring for the mental health of its developers. Of course, our interview last year took place long before COVID-19 came to dominate our lives. How has the publisher’s approach changed during these presecendented times?
To answer all these questions, and expand on the logistics of handling a game like this during a pandemic, we sat down with Fernando Rizo Co-Founder & CEO at Modern Wolf.
What is the inspiration behind Necronator: Dead Wrong?
Our partners, Toge Productions, got their start making truly incredible Flash games over 10 years ago. One of their favourites (and ours too) was Necronator, a zombie RTS game with gorgeous pixel art. We wanted to see what a full-fat PC game version of Necronator could be, taking inspiration from contemporary classics like Slay the Spire and Dream Quest. I’m thrilled with how it’s turned out. It’s a genuinely innovative spin on the Slay/Dream Quest formula and it’s a ton of fun.
Modern Wolf is known for allowing its developers a large amount of creative control. What is it about this project and Toge Productions that inspires this confidence?
I think the reason that we can give such wide latitude to our developers is that we are very picky about who we sign. Toge are great custodians of our trust: they are world-class devs with a clear vision for what they were trying to create from the very outset. They sold us on that vision and they’ve absolutely delivered on it.
How smooth has been the transition from Early Access to a full release, given you are presumably working remotely?
It hasn’t been without its problems but I think our struggles have been relatively minor. Modern Wolf has staff based remotely and our developers are scattered all over the globe from Indonesia to Poland to New York. So, because of that we were already used to conducting day-to-day business on Slack and Google Meet; transitioning to doing that full-time was an incremental change. We’re lucky: if we were in the musical theatre or close-up magic business we’d be properly screwed. No complaints.
“We are always on the lookout for signs that our devs need help and we are doing our best to be good partners for them.”
Is Modern Wolf looking to publish further titles in Early Access?
Our next game, Ostranauts, will be an Early Access title as well but that is strictly a coincidence. None of our other announced games are planned for Early Access. It’s great for some games, like Necronator, where getting feedback from hundreds, thousands of players can help you achieve game balance. Not every title needs it so you won’t see it too much from us in 2021.
What are the challenges of launching a title during a pandemic?
The death of the trade show circuit has definitely been a blow. It’s been interesting to watch the transition to digital events: it feels very 1st-gen right now, with a lot of growing pains and questionable consumer engagement. We got to play a part in Guerrilla Collective which was a wonderful grassroots experience, and watching some of the bigger established names in the show business struggle to insta-pivot to digital events is a bit painful.
Again, I don’t want to tempt the universe by bellyaching here: at least we can still sell our products and, if anything, there’s probably a whole new cohort of people out there who have taken up gaming during lockdown. We’ve got nothing to whinge about, relatively.
In a previous interview with us, you said that you wanted to make indie developers a sustainable business. Do you feel your offer of job security?
I think we genuinely have helped our devs make better games and we’ve provided business coaching, too, when folks needed it. Our devs also have access to our board of directors and the knowledge and experience of our parent company, Supernova Capital. Knowledge sharing is a big thing for us. We try to approach everything with humility and seeking to learn from every encounter, every engagement.
You have more titles scheduled for release this year, has COVID-19 impacted these upcoming releases?
Yes, Ostranauts had to be pushed back, but Kosmokrats is still on track. Dev teams in the US have had it tougher than most, I think, given the severe disruption from the epidemic there.
How have you made sure that employees avoid crunch while working remotely from home, where the work/life boundaries are more blurred than ever?
It’s a well-observed question, that. Part of the answer is helping our devs & staff stay on top of their mental health. This week is the Modern Wolf Developer Conference, which we held virtually of course. One of the best-attended talks was a mental health professional we brought in to talk about self-care and self-monitoring and enforcing healthy work practices.
That kind of stuff is as useful for us as it is for our devs: we never want to be paternalistic with advice. We take the same medicine as everyone.
The other partner of the answer is just staying true to who we are. If we threw in the towel on opposing crunch just because we hit a crisis, then that position was never worth a damn.
We are simply institutionally against crunch. That’s because my co-founder Andreas and I have experienced it, and I’ve had mental health struggles of my own, too. We are always on the lookout for signs that our devs need help and we are doing our best to be good partners for them. We haven’t compromised on crunch and I hope we never do.
How have you maintained a focus on the well-being of your staff in the current climate?
I think the first good thing we did, as soon as we realised lockdown was coming, was to give every staff member wide discretion to buy whatever they needed to make their home office setups more comfortable. Employers have an ironclad responsibility to provide a safe, healthy working environment and now that working environment was inside our staff’s homes. So we told them: buy what you need. Proper office chair? Multi-monitor setup? Some quality headphones? The last thing we wanted was our folks hunched over a laptop like Gollum for 6 months.
Just as important as that has been to just be real and open and encourage our staff to be real and open right back. We talk a lot in groups and one-to-one. We’ve been reminding folks to take time off. Many Fridays we knock off the afternoon and play Jackbox games and shoot the breeze. That passive connection you get from being co-located is gone, so we try to actively cultivate that as much as we can without getting into “mandatory fun” territory. I think it’s worked, and you can see the evidence in Necronator: Dead Wrong and the launch campaign for it. We’ve got a great team and they’re doing great work because they’re happy to be here.