Made In Australia: We Talk Windbound With 5 Lives Studios

More and more, Australia is becoming known for its contribution to the indie gaming scene, and deservedly so, with some of the most acclaimed indies in recent years such as Hollow Knight and Untitled Goose Game being made in our home girt by sea.  But what makes Australia’s contribution so impressive is its diversity – hardly ever do we see games of the same ilk released one after another. It means that not only do we have a talented bunch of developers pushing our industry forward, we also have a creative bunch. One game that stands out from almost anything we’ve seen from an Aussie developer in recent years is Windbound, a survival-crafting RPG from Brisbane-based developer 5 Live Studios. From a cursory glance you’d suggest it’s nothing more than another Zelda clone, but while it has taken inspiration from one of Nintendo’s favourite heroes, 5 Lives has used plenty of its own creative juices in the makeup of Windbound’s DNA. I was lucky enough to sit down with Mitchell Clifford, Co-Founder & Lead Animator at 5 Lives Studios, ahead of the game’s launch this month (August 28) to talk about the game’s mechanics, what players can expect and those Zelda comparisons.

WP: Windbound looks great – but for those who aren’t aware, give us the Windbound elevator pitch.

Mitchell Clifford: Windbound blends survival-crafting with narrative and adventure. Trapped on a mysteriously abandoned archipelago and surrounded by a powerful storm, Kara needs to survive alone, sailing from island to island to find her way out of the storm and back to her home.

WP: How long has Windbound been in development for?

MC: After we shipped our studio’s first title Satellite Reign, we spent the next 12 months supporting it and adding new features like co-op, while thinking about new ideas and concepts on the side.  It was late 2016 when we started work on what would become Windbound.

WP: I’m sure you’ve been told this a lot but Windbound gives off serious Breath of the Wild and Wind Waker vibes. Were they a primary source of inspiration? What other games influenced Windbound?

MC: We certainly looked at the Zelda series in general when developing that third-person adventure feel, but with its own unique blend of survival and adventure. Windbound started development before Breath of the Wild was released, and in the early days, boats and sailing weren’t even part of the initial idea.

If there was one key thing which sparked the concept of Windbound, it was during the period we were making the multiplayer update for Satellite Reign where half the studio got addicted to Don’t Starve. We all had a go, but a few of us (myself included) quickly lost interest due to the unguided open-ended nature of the game. It got us thinking about whether there was a way to combine that survival and crafting experience with a narrative thread that pulls the player forward.

WP: How long can players expect the campaign to last?

MC: We developed Windbound with two different modes to choose from, which we call Survivalist and Storyteller. The overall adventure is the same either way, but Survivalist leans more heavily on the rogue-like elements which bring greater risk, while Storyteller mode is more forgiving, and is there for players who prefer to get back up and running more quickly after a mishap. In player testing, the Storyteller mode took players around 20-30 hours to complete the adventure. Survivalist mode, however, brings greater setbacks upon death, so it comes down to how good of a survivor you are!

WP: The survival genre tends to lean towards gameplay and grind over story whereas Windbound has a focus on telling a personal story. How do you integrate narrative into a genre that typically ignores it and what challenges were associated with this process?

MC: That was one of the biggest challenges we faced, and it took a lot of experimentation to find something that worked. Trying to solve this problem was actually what eventually led us down the path to bringing boats and sailing into the mix. One thing that is common in many survival games is that base-building element. People want to be able to invest their resources into something and feel like it was time and effort well spent. However, when you’re trying to encourage players to push forward and follow an adventure, it leaves them in a position where they need to either not invest resources into a base, or continually leave things behind.

This was where we found that spreading the world out over a number of islands helped a lot. Suddenly, you’ve got the opportunity to invest those resources into a base which you can take with you.  Your boat is a vital part of your adventure and progression in Windbound. You’ve got that sweet spot of being able to push on, take all that resource investment with you, and not feel like you need to continually return back to one place in the world. That allowed us to go ahead and move things forward like you traditionally do in an adventure game with a story, and to have a beginning and an end.

WP: When it comes to delivering story elements will there be plenty of cutscenes and set pieces or is it more environmental storytelling?

MC: We use several approaches to develop the story in Windbound, but environmental storytelling is the primary tool. The archipelago is littered with ruins and shrines that give small glimpses into the lives of the people who used to live there. In several locations, short ‘whispers’ of the past inhabitants will be revealed to Kara, some of which are simple snippets of their day-to-day lives, and some which link more directly to the history of the islands.

The ruins will also change as players progress deeper into the world. The events of the past have left their mark on the world, and hint as to what took place.

WP: How many islands make up Forgotten isles?

MC: The world in Windbound is broken up into several chapters. Every chapter sees players in a sectioned-off region of the archipelago, each larger than the last.

In the first chapter, there are around five or six islands to explore (it varies to a degree due to the procedural generation), but by the fifth chapter, the world is several kilometres across, with islands of many shapes and sizes.

Because the world is procedurally generated each time you enter a new chapter (also if you die and have to retry), the number of unique islands is essentially endless. Even in a perfect run from start to finish, you’d still be visiting dozens of different islands.

The Forgotten Isles are full of pretty vistas thanks to a gorgeous art style

WP: How much of the game’s explorable area is procedurally generated and how does that affect things like exploration, puzzles and secrets?

MC: Essentially all of it is procedurally generated. It’s not random though, we do direct what biomes should appear at what stage, how large they should be, and what sorts of geographic features they should have. Even the locations of ruins and shrines are generated every time, so you really need to explore if you want to find things. While you might learn the characteristics of a certain island type, you’ll still need to explore to find what you’re looking for.

WP: The game’s trailers show Kara in a few different outfits, are there gear and levelling systems in Windbound?

MC: Kara starts her journey with essentially nothing but the clothes on her back and her trusty knife. As you gather more resources and build more crafting stations, you’ll be able to create a few new outfits with their own unique stats.

And while Windbound has rogue-like elements, particularly in the Survivalist difficulty, there is still a progression system which is constant. At certain points in the game, some very special shrines are available, which allow Kara to give an offering of mysterious [‘Sea Shards’ found scattered throughout the archipelago. In return, she will receive ‘Blessings’ which grant a variety of special boons to help her on her journey.

WP: Will the game have any accessibility-style options for players who want to experience the story but aren’t good with survival games?

MC: Absolutely. This is what the Storyteller mode is specifically for. While Windbound set out to blend survival and adventure, we knew that there would be people who wanted to experience Windbound without diving head-first into the challenges that come with survival games. Storyteller gives players the same overall experience but lets them get back where they were quicker after a failure. Unlike the Survivalist mode, players will keep all of the items in their inventory if they die, and they will return to the world at the same chapter they were up to.

Compare this to Survivalist mode, where only the limited ‘Held’ item section is retained on death, meaning players will need to prioritise their inventory, and they’ll find themselves back in Chapter 1.

Both modes do share the penalty of needing to rebuild your boat, but Storyteller will definitely feel more suitable for many players. Even I personally play on Storyteller mode.

WP: We’ve seen glimpses of Kara hunting animals and perhaps tussling with a giant sea creature or two, will there be a lot of combat in Windbound?

MC: Windbound definitely features a bit of combat, even if it isn’t the main focus of the game. The archipelago is a dangerous place, and while not everything is out to get Kara, she still needs to be ready to fight or flee. However, Kara needs to eat, and while there are several vegetarian options available on the islands, foraging might not always be the most time-effective approach.

Kara: Warrior Princess

WP: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us and best of luck with the game’s launch.

MC: Thanks for reaching out to learn more about Windbound! We’re keen for people to finally get it in their hands!

Windbound will launch on PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC and Google Stadia on August 28.

Co-Founder & Managing Editor of WellPlayed. Sometimes a musician, lover of bad video games and living proof that Australians drink Foster's. Coach of Supercoach powerhouse the BarnesStreet Bois. Carlton, Burnley FC & SJ Sharks fan Get around him on Twitter @tightinthejorts