Interviewer’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Monster Crown is a dark upcoming monster taming RPG that is set to launch on Steam Early Access on July 31st. In it, you play as a 14-year-old kid who is leaving behind their peaceful farm life and setting out with naught but a monster companion to make their way in the world. As you progress, you will make pacts with more monsters, breed monsters using a complex genetics system, encounter difficult decisions, and just generally try to get by.
I recently had a chance to sit down with lead developer Jason Walsh to discuss the game’s darker story, the pains of getting into game development, the beta testing process, and Pokemon. For those who are unaware, this is actually the second time I’ve spoken with Walsh, having previously taken a brief look at the game in 2017, when it was still called Crowns.
Me: How has the game changed since we last talked, like, three years ago?
Walsh: Man, oh man. Well, it’s been three years. [Our last interview] was like seven months before the Kickstarter.
Well, shortly after that interview, we released a public demo called Crowns Frostbite. That was kind of in preparation for getting used to taking a version of Monster Crown and putting it out there for people to enjoy, so that was sort of like a vertical slice of the later game.
Shortly after that, it got renamed to Monster Crown because, if you googled “Crowns,” you would get the TV show “The Crown.” [laughs] It wasn’t great for the SEO side of things, the searchability. So yeah, I came up with “Monster Crown” because it let me keep that “crown” association. It was a little bit familiar, but it was a bit more descriptive.
Shortly after that, we launched the Kickstarter, which was a longshot. I said “this might not pan out, but I’ll give it my best and just maybe we’ll get that $5000 goal.”
Things just went insane that month. It was very hard to keep on top of. We hit 10 times our goal by the time the campaign closed, so that was crazy.
That was probably the biggest catalyst for changing the game because I guess I didn’t admit it myself, but, for a long time, I never thought of myself as an actual game developer, even like an amateur. I thought I was just some guy that was kinda faking it, making a game. Like kids play house, I was “playing gamedev.”
That I guess added some legitimacy to myself and the project and let me give myself permission to spend like every waking moment outside of work working on it. I was able to actually find some artists to replace some of my work because I’m not a great artist. It was just a huge catalyst to change the game: bring it up in quality, fine tune the features, work with people much better than me for more music, more art. It took it from like a small, hobbyist, experimental game to something I dared to believe could be a real, actual, full indie game that people could maybe get excited about and get dozens and dozens of hours out of.
I suppose the biggest change has been the change in me from the courage that the Kickstarter backers gave me and that was then poured into the project.
I’m looking at it now and you guys raised $45,000. That’s quite a lot.
Yeah, I’m very proud of it and every bit of it has gone into the game itself. It felt like winning $1 million. Not that “oh, I have all this money” because I didn’t take a cent out of it for myself or anything. It all went into the game. But it’s just like one of those things that you dream about, but you don’t ever believe could actually happen. That’s exactly what that felt like. And I know that that doesn’t sound like a lot of money to a lot of people, and, certainly, it wasn’t enough to complete development, but it literally felt as good as winning $1 million. It was like a dream come true.
Was the Kickstarter particularly taxing?
It was obviously very uplifting to have so many people believe in the project and want to contribute financially to it to actually like pre-buy the game basically, but the demands were immense because it was just me administrating the whole Kickstarter: setting things up, setting it live, talking with every backer. Maybe it’s different now, but I wanted to send out an email to every backer with a link to download the demo of the game. You would think that there would be a feature in there for “if someone backs at a certain tier, send them an email with this link” or a standard introductory email, but no. That’s not true. There’s nothing automated in there and you’re not supposed to use people’s emails and send them communication outside of Kickstarter because I guess Kickstarter offers protection and kind of monitors the exchange back and forth with backers and the person running the project.
So I had to send that out to every single person manually. And it was a little over, I think, 2900 people. I had to copy-paste it every time and send it to every backer. I would wake up in the morning and have like 60 people—waiting—and I’d feel horrible because they’ve given the money, but they haven’t gotten the demo yet. So I’d have to load up, copy-paste, send it every time. I nearly wore out the Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V. Then, once you finally got to the end, you’d refresh the page and there’d be another 20.
It was absolutely breakneck. I have a full-time job. There were plenty of times that month that I had to work late. I couldn’t get any time off because they needed me at the day job. It was intense, very intense.
When we actually hit that goal, at the 28-hour mark, to get the $5000 US, my fiancee woke me up and she’s like “Jason, we hit the goal.” The thing that was in my mind wasn’t like I was so happy because I was exhausted and I had slept so little. My thing was just “okay, I’m awake now. I better get to the computer and I better start sending out those messages” because, those backers, they put their faith in us and they deserve the demo.
It was days before it truly hit me that we actually hit the goal. That was insane. I couldn’t stop smiling then, but, yeah, I was just so exhausted that I couldn’t even process it properly.
Why did you decide to go with Early Access?
So, the game has been in development for quite a while. When we hit the Kickstarter, that was in early 2018 and I said, “well, I think the game is like 70% done, so we’ll use these funds to finish up the project and we’ll launch it in February 2019. That should be more than enough time to finish it up.” But I’ve never done a serious game project before. I did one little demo game back in 2012 called “Thing.” Just, like, a tech demo. I really underestimated the amount of work it would take to develop all of these systems and have them working to a polished state.
The game had, I’m going to say, 95% of its content by February 2019, but it was just so buggy. Around September 2018, three or four months after the Kickstarter, I just decided I would throw myself into working constantly on it, every waking minute. That was great, but I kind of had to decide “okay, am I going to polish a system, move on, polish a system, move on, add some content, polish it, move on or am I going to get everything in there, in a get-it-in-as-quick-as-you-can state, and then go back and do a pass to just make sure that everything is bug free?”
At the time, I decided, having no real game development experience, that the most efficient way to do it would be to add all of the content and go back later and polish things up. You know, you work on a little bit as you move through: the story battles, the different flags that get set, the different menus. But then, when it came time to go back and play through, it really was very, very buggy.
In my day job, I’m a software developer and I’m pretty good at the business side of programming. I thought that game development wouldn’t be that different, but it’s actually extremely different. Just the whole philosophy you use, how things are processed by the minute. So there was a learning experience there.
We didn’t want to hold it back from backers any longer, so we had a sort of private beta with our highest-tier backers where they could get hands on and play it. They discovered a lot of bugs we fixed. And, actually, we expanded it to all of our backers and they encountered a lot of bugs that we could fix.
When you make a game, you play it correctly, even when you think you’re playing it wrong. You’re trying to uncover all of the little interchanging systems working together and the bugs and you just still, subconsciously, are doing it how you had in mind when you first designed the system.
So, every step of the way we expanded it to a bigger playerbase, we learned about new bugs, new things to work on. And also, we hear “you know, it’d be really great if I could get access to this information about my monster that I bred a little early so I can see if I made the right choice before I start to raise it” or “hey, this boss battle was really hard, but, it was so hard that, by the time I beat it, everything else after it was a cakewalk.” You start to work on the balancing, work on these features coming together until everyone seems pretty happy with it.
We’ve gotten to the point that most people that play our beta are pretty happy with where it is, so we want to launch it to a bigger audience that can get hands on, give us their feedback, tell us what they think of different features so that we can iterate on that and make sure that things are as polished and fun as they can be when it comes to monster breeding, battling, exploration. There could be a situation that simply demands a new monster. For balancing purposes, we just recently had to add a new Malicious monster to the early game. It can actually change the face of the game quite a bit.
The monster taming genre has such dedicated fans, such knowledgeable fans. I’m pretty sure like 80% of them are programmers, so they’ve got a lot of great ideas about [mic cuts out] feedback. I don’t know what it is about the monster taming genre and programmers, but it’s like there’s just this natural attraction to that, I guess, type of mind that likes programming, likes collecting monsters.
Yes. And min-maxing. That is very true and to offer a challenge for min-maxers that have been playing this genre for 25 years, as well as people that are newcomers, is quite the challenge, I must say.
Since you said that you were new to game development, I’ve noticed that one of the things that a lot of people struggle with is that games are all about feel, whereas software is all about making sure it works properly. Did you find that particularly challenging to adapt to?
Absolutely. If I zero in on a system, I can usually make it feel pretty good, but it’s not until you really play and you play a lot and you have other people play that you truly know how things feel when they come together.
Definitely some adaptation and [there were] a lot of things I learned about how to approach the development and testing, both myself and having other people test the system, that it’s been such a huge learning experience.
What is the craziest bug you came across in testing?
If a monster gets generated with a null value, there are certain controls in place, but there was one update we released that had a change that let these null values kind of pass the test and get generated. So it would generate this monster that’s called “Tardigen.” It’s based on a tardigrade. It’s this man made monster. When you breed with it, it acts sort of like Ditto, where it duplicates the other monster.
If you obtain this monster through some shady means, let’s say, because you can do bad things in Monster Crown, you get a viral version of Tardigen that everything you breed with it becomes another viral Tardigen. It kind of acts like a virus in that regard.
So we released one update and, suddenly, people were out in the wild in a specific area and they would be encountering Tardigen and it would crash their game when they found it. They didn’t know what this creepy, viral version of Tardigen was and it looked kind of off, so it was really surreal to see people run into it. It’s a monster that I don’t expect people to get until very late in the game or the post-game, so it was surreal to see it come out. And, of course, something that’s designed to act a bit like a virus, appearing in a glitched-esque fashion, it was pretty surreal.
I kind of said to myself, “thank god that it came out in a corrupted form and people couldn’t actually get it.” Because, if people could actually get it this early, it could lead to a lot of spoilers and they could do things that they’re not supposed to do yet. It’s the sort of glitch that, if it never happened, it would be great, but, if it happened all the way, it would be worse, so I was kind of glad that it showed this monster, but you couldn’t actually get it or move forward with it.
It was pretty creepy. It felt kind of like the old creepypasta rumors for a few minutes of the Pokemon games and MISSINGNO.
I’m sure it also created a nice bit of lore for beta testers.
I feel like there must be someone out there that did manage to tame it and just didn’t tell me and they’re just holding onto it and, like, one of these days, they’re going to unleash it and it’s just going to wreak all kinds of havoc across as people trade and battle.
Expanding off of that, what’s the craziest monster that you’ve seen somebody put together so far?
The guys on Discord, on our official Discord and the SOEDESCO Discord, they make some killer combinations. We have this thing in the game, where, if you make a crossbreed, it’s a combination of various different monsters and it doesn’t necessarily have a name. You get to name it. You get to decide what moves it has, stats. So people can post the lore of their created monster and, like, give it a name on our Discord. Eventually, they’ll be able to share it out, sort of like a real-life breeder.
Some of the monsters that people are creating, they feel like brand new monsters that are just very interesting. They put so much thought into the lore and they make them very powerful, make them specialized in different battle mechanics, like an Inferno specialist. Inferno is an Unstable move in the game, so they’ll create a monster that’s very fast, but Unstable typing, and they’ll give it a very cool color, and then they’ll write lore and say “well, this hangs out on the coast of the Frost province,” an actual area in the game. So it’s like they’re creating their own OC [original character] that can kind of integrate into the game, as well. People just creating monsters like that, that fascinates me and it was sort of always my dream for people to be able to make these monsters.
Of course, every once in a while, someone comes up with one that, due to a glitch or just a really unforeseen use of a mechanic, they make something terrifyingly strong, like game-breakingly strong. If they write a bit of lore for that, that’s kind of even creepier and leaning into that whole metagame, glitch situation I touched on earlier with Tardigen.
I remember, from the demo that I played when I did the last article, that combat seemed a lot different, particularly the health system. Can you expand on what’s changed since then?
With development of Monster Crown, right since the start, you come across genre staples. “You walk in four directions on a grid-based system” was common in these older Game Boy-style monster taming games. I always liked the one-versus-one setup of the Pokemon-style system, whereas, in some other games, like Siralim, you can have many monsters out on the field at once. I was kind of examining each trope of the genre as I went through and just tried to figure out if it really needed to be the way it was. I kind of had an instinct to do that, but also, I was really inspired by the developers of Breath of the Wild, who talked about doing a similar, back-to-basics questioning the approach as they went through and made Breath of the Wild, a lot of those newer staff.
So one of the things with the health was, you know, you’re going to have a typical HP health bar and we decided “yeah, we do want standard HP that’s depleted, with your numbers going down from attacks,” that sort of thing. At one point, we thought “well, maybe, instead of HP depleting, it’ll build up as a sort of kill bar.” So there was a skull icon, so you would be hit and the HP bar would go the opposite direction, where it would build up to the top and then the monster would die. But we did reverse that later, so, if you played that demo last, you would see the bar going up and monsters getting knocked out, but now you see it deplete. It’s sort of just a little UI change. Effectively, there’s not a lot of difference in how that’s calculated or how it works, but it was just sort of an example of us second-guessing every mechanic as we began to implement it through development.
Is stockpiling still a thing?
Yeah, the stockpiling system got renamed to “Synergy.” So, as you swap monsters, or if you tank a hit using the “Defend” option, you build up these Synergy bars. Originally, there were eight levels of Synergy. Then we reduced it to six. Now, it’s just four levels of Synergy. What it’s meant to describe is, if you were a tamer with these monsters out in the field and you were swapping them in and out of battle, that would require a lot of coordination to communicate with the monsters to do so quickly enough and you’d need this sort of understanding with your team and sort of work in a way that’s very cooperative. That’s visualized in the game as the Synergy system.
So, if you’re very good at orchestrating your monsters during battle, you build up Synergy and that is going to unleash specific effects when you attack. As soon as you attack, your Synergy bar is emptied. If you had it built up one, you’ll get a small buff; two, a bigger buff; three, a bigger buff. But, if you actually reach the fourth level, there’s a system in-game called “Crowned” where your monster glows white and transforms into the genetic version of itself that’s most effective against the foe.
That’s kind of what the Synergy system is about. For very powerful moves in the game, like Vitality, what it does is it reabsorbs some of that Synergy to restore your HP or give you other such effects. It’s a bit like a cooperative chargeup MP sort of hybrid system that can also unlock a transformation if you really master it.
You said that, if you attack, it depletes it, so it’s really a very high risk vs. high reward system because you have to go x amount of turns without attacking.
Yeah, that’s exactly it. It’s kind of unleashed when you do attack, unless you use it for like an MP-style purpose to reabsorb some of it to recover HP, but that’s sort of niche. The basics of how it’s used are, when you build up that Synergy bar and you attack, it’s unleashed through that attack. So you are going turns without making a move, hopefully for the benefit of providing that big boost. Like you said, it is a risk because, if you do get defeated, if your monster gets knocked out, then your energy bar is also depleted. So you have to switch or defend in a way that you know you’re not going to get knocked out. And it does get riskier the higher you build up that level, but the rewards are great and it’s definitely one of the focuses of our balancing, making sure that the reward’s good enough, but not overpowered, for learning to use that Synergy system. But it’s always meant to be something that, if someone really didn’t want to use it, they wouldn’t have to.
On that note, is it going to be something that you can expect NPCs to use?
Yeah, so the NPC AI in the game is actually really good. What I decided to do is I just tried to build as perfect an AI as I could that would know about type advantages, item usage, swapping. It would know about all of that and know exactly what situation to use it in. Instead of having like a dumbed down version of it for different battles, what I would do is set a value for “fuzziness,” when it would make an incorrect decision. Basically, the stronger the NPC and the more important it is to a pivotal story moment, the lower that value would be so it’s always making correct moves, but, tamers that you fight out in the wild, it could be a bit higher.
But what I decided to do is just put it out there in the beta with them always making the correct decisions and I’d see if people found it too challenging and then introduce that fuzziness. So far, we haven’t made use of that fuzziness in the system and all of the NPCs are out there making perfect choices. People seem to like the current difficulty, so the NPCs are very smart. They use Synergy. They use items. They swap to the right type advantage. But it’s something that we’re going to revisit throughout Early Access and just make sure it’s not unfair in certain situations.
So once the more casual users get a hold of it.
Yeah, that’s definitely going to be an aspect to it. We have had a number of users that had no genre experience before with RPGs or monster taming games. Actually, my fiancee has never played a monster taming game before, so she’s been playing through it and it’s been really interesting to see what comes instinctually to her and what is not intuitive.
So yeah, we’ll definitely see where that goes and if we need to weaken the AI a little bit in the early game.
This is a much darker world and you can even see that on the store page. What was the reason that you decided to go with the coming-of-age story trope?
Right from the start, if I was going to make a monster taming game, I had to know what it was all about and there was the cross-breed system, of course, but I also thought about “why would a monster want to join you?” I thought a lot about how Pokemon and other monster taming games did it, where there seems to be this overtone of “monsters are inherently friendly and maybe want to join a tamer.” Like, somewhere in their nature, they want to join a tamer or trainer and, I guess, develop a friendship and become stronger.
But I thought, if you’re in a world that’s filled with lions and bulls, which is what the temperament of a lot of monsters in Monster Crown sort of match, when they first see you in their territory, their first instinct is to be to charge at you to get rid of you or ignore you, hope you just pass through. You cross a lion, it’s probably not going to say “hey, I want to become your friend.” But, at the same time, these monsters do have a higher level of intelligence and they can sort of understand things a little when they’re being communicated to.
So I created the system with the pacts where monsters want to join you, temporarily, to gain strength, level up, so that, when you’re done [with] your quest, they’ve kind of fulfilled their obligation and they return to their environment very powerful. So they will be like the alpha in their territory. It’s sort of like a cost-benefit analysis for the monster.
That kind of set the tone for a harsher world and what very quickly became apparent is sometimes, like some people you meet in real life, people can be opportunists, people can want to take advantage of you, they can want to manipulate you. The world is harsh, so both people and monsters are looking for opportunities to look out for number one. They want to look out for themselves, their family. They might take advantage of someone else. There are criminals in the game that will absolutely try to steal from you if it benefits them in any way.
So it set the tone instantly for this harsher world where you start out on the farm as a kid, loving parents. You’re not the chosen one. That’s something that people struggle with a little bit. They say “well, of course you’re the chosen one.” You’re just a normal farm kid and your parents are just good people that try to raise you correctly and prepare you to go out into the world.
So you’re 14 years old and, you know, in past times in society, at 14-15 years old, people would start to get out, they would maybe choose a career or apprenticeship and they would fend for themselves a little bit more. It’s similar here because civilization is at a little bit less developed of a state than it is in, say, Pokemon.
So you’re this good kid. You have good parents. You’ve had a pretty good childhood. You head out with your monster into the world and you find that not everyone is there to be your friend when it comes to monsters or people. You’re going to have to fend for yourself. You’re going to have to protect yourself a little bit. And, in that sort of world, you, as a player—but also, you, as a person—[have to decide] are you going to try to see the best in people? Are you going to try to develop friendships? That’s what you’re going to kind of decide is the meaning of life. Or are you going to be one of those people that’s opportunistic and takes what you can get?
Monster Crown is going to provide you with the option to make that choice and I think that people are going to be a little bit surprised because, if you pick the good choice, there are still going to be challenges along the way. There are going to be things that maybe make you doubt that choice and how much you’re willing to stick to your guns. If you choose the bad choices, I don’t think it’s my place to morally judge you. If you decide that’s how you have to survive, then you’re not going to have someone in the game come along and tell you you’re a horrible person. Events will unfold because of your actions and we sort of take a moral hands-off approach to that and let people just see where their choices take them.
When I played Pokemon growing up, I wondered what was beyond that fence, what if I did this, what if I used this item on my monster. My imagination kind of wanted to expand that world. So Monster Crown is all about letting you ask those questions and do those experiments and find out what will happen.
The hostile world and the dark characters in it are kind of just a natural aspect that came from imagining a world that, a lot like real life, you get to choose how are you going to walk through life? Are you going to try to do your best or are you going to be a less morally bound sort of person?
And the naive child trope plays into that because it lets you mold the character as they see what’s happening.
Exactly, as does the unspoken protagonist. The character not speaking themselves is conducive to projecting yourself onto that and making choices that you’d make in real life. If you play this game and it’s your instinct to be an opportunistic person, I really hope you do that instead of trying to be the good guy and, likewise, the opposite.
I absolutely need you to somehow work in Telltale-style stats so we can see at the end of the game what everyone did.
Well, it’s really easy to give people the impression, too, that every single choice is going to change the narrative and that’s a promise that’s been made many times and people say “ultimately, the choices don’t make a lot of difference.” But, in Monster Crown, what I decided to do is I focused on a set of specific decisions that are going to change how things turn out. Instead of saying that every little choice matters and you become a good or bad person, there are some big choices and those really do matter.
You said on the store page that you can “make a pivotal decision that will drastically change the ending and post-game.” Is this going to be the kind of thing where certain base monsters are going to be locked behind that decision?
You know, that’s a really good question and it’s something that I’ve thought about a lot. The Pokemon games, you have your Red and Blue. You have your Gold and Silver. You have your Ruby and Sapphire. So you have the different Pokemon available in each one. It would be really cool to have the game kind of have that same effect, but depending on your good and bad choices. After I thought about it a lot, I was kind of really a loner as a kid that wanted to get lost with my monster taming game, get totally engrossed in it, and totally go into that world. I didn’t have a lot of friends to play with. I did have brothers and I did have the occasional friend that had the other games, but I was really sort of a loner and, especially as I became a teenager and started playing more alternative monster taming games, I didn’t always have someone to play with and internet online play wasn’t really that developed then.
I couldn’t help but imagine someone out there that doesn’t want to be social, someone that’s super introverted that wants to play the game and get every monster, and I saw myself in that a bit, so I resisted the temptation and there are no monsters that are going to be off the board if you make a good or bad choice.
On the subject of the newer Pokemon games, what I see online regularly gives the impression that the series is increasingly alienating older fans. Do you feel that that’s creating a market gap for a game like Monster Crown that’s more mature, goes back to basics a little bit, and has a very, very intense breeding system?
It’s a great question and I see a lot of comments on Reddit and YouTube and 4Chan these days that say, you know, “I can see that Pokemon’s controversy has lead to a lot of these developers taking their own shot at the genre.” But these games take a long time to make. I started this back at the very start of 2016, so it’s been in development four years now.
When X and Y came out, the first games on the 3DS, I felt like I did play the hell out of those games, but I did feel like the tone was shifting. When I was a kid and I played Red and Blue, I guess I thought that the world was a bit darker and harsher and more dangerous. Part of that might have been just me projecting a false image onto it because, if you look at a lot of the material around that time, [like], you know, Pikachu on party favors, you couldn’t really argue that that was giving a more mature impression. It was totally just me, I guess, thinking “I’m looking for something more serious and darker, so I’m just going to see it in this game whether it’s there or not.”
But, as Pokemon progressed, it leaned away from that, if anything. So, for me, it was all about a matter of tone. I didn’t think that the games were garbage or anything and I’ll always be a huge Pokemon fan, especially everything that I played growing up, but it just wasn’t part of that darker tone that I guess I was looking for. So that’s what triggered me to kind of take my own stab at the genre. I felt a little bit out of my element playing the modern Pokemon games because they seem like these very happy worlds.
I haven’t gotten back into the Pokemon games because nothing has come out that has made me say “oh, maybe it does have what I’m looking for.” There are some dark Pokedex entries and those are kind of fun to read, but it always seemed to be moving along the same course, which happened to be a little bit adjacent to what I was looking for in a monster taming game.
Maybe there are some other developers out there that are doing this as a response, but I think, if you’re looking at games that are sort of doing this as a response, you’re going to be looking at stuff that’s pretty early in development, stuff that maybe only got started six months ago or so. When you look at games like Monster Crown, TemTem, the newest Siralim games, I think those have been on course for a while.
That being said, it could have increased the market of people that are out there looking for games like this. If people are looking for games like this that take a different tone than Pokemon, I think that they’d really have a lot of fun with Monster Crown, especially if they ever thought they’d like to get a bit more in the breeding system or have it operate like real life, where it does combine monsters.
It’s going to be really interesting to see what happens. Game Freak has doubled down on the wild areas in the latest Pokemon DLC. Most people think, and I do too, that the next games are going to be totally wild area, you know, everywhere outside of town is going to be wild area, which is sort of similar to what Monster Crown offers, as well.
It’s hard to say if it’s going to keep getting further away from what people, at least, in the majority of social media in the West sort of want from Pokemon, but maybe they’ll really nail the next games and kind of be a return to form. It’s really tough to say, but I hope, in the meantime, more monster taming games get a chance to shine because it’s always been my favorite genre and I’d love to see it grow more. I’d like to see more games like Pokemon and like Monster Crown because, even though I love Monster Crown, goddamn, I know what’s going to happen, which is the worst. I’ve made my dream game, but I can’t enjoy it because I know what’s going to happen. It’d be nice to play one that I have no clue.
Monster Crown is set to launch on Steam Early Access on July 31st.