Find a rival, learn to ball, and save a community in Beastieball - PAX West 2023 interview
Updated: Sep 14
The Video Games Are Good team visited the beastiest booth at PAX West 2023 for a chat with Director of Wishes Unlimited Greg Lobanov, who calls Beastieball his "dream project," and Creature Design Lead and Animator Alexis Dean-Jones.
It's no secret that we at VGG truly love the works put out by Wishes Unlimited. Chicory was VGG's inaugural Game of the Year, Wandersong captured our hearts, and we just about lost our minds when Beastieball was first revealed during Day of the Devs.
So having the chance to chat with Wishes Unlimited during our first-ever PAX West as media? A nice full-circle moment.
It wasn't hard to spot Beastieball's booth in PAX West's Arch building, with a prominent volleyball net propped up by their demo stations and cutouts of the game's beasties lurking all around their booth. It was like a beacon of bright colors and good vibes in the chaotic indie corner.
We spent the morning of Day 3 the best way we possibly could: learning about the beasties and about Director Greg Lobanov's focus when developing the game. But before we dive into that, let's highlight what this sports-strategy RPG is all about and what new things they had to show at PAX.
A brief rundown of Beastieball
Developer: Wishes Unlimited
Genre: Narrative sports-strategy creature-collecting RPG
Beastieball is a fascinating experience. It's a strategy RPG wrapped up in a sports shell — specifically, volleyball — with a focus on creature collecting. Think Pokémon meets Into the Breach, but instead of robots fighting aliens, it's cute creatures playing a version of volleyball. Beastieball matches take place on a court with 2x2 grids on either side of the net, with a focus on positioning and leveraging the skills of your beasties in the match.
One of the game's most unique aspects is the camaraderie system between beasties. Your beasties can build relationships the more they play together. They can become rivals, sweethearts, besties, or partners. Each relationship will have a different effect on these duos and their stats in matches and you never know how these relationships will develop.
In Beastieball, you play the sport not just for glory, but to reclaim a beastie habitat. Your character grows up in a beastie-friendly nature preserve, building a connection with beasties beyond their athletic capabilities while slowly developing a passion for the sport. One day, construction workers roll in with the intention of building a Beastieball League project right where this habitat is, disrupting the environment and ultimately harming the beasties in the area.
Working with the beasties, your goal is to build a team, rise through the ranks of the Beastieball League, and eventually use your platform as one of the top teams in the league to put a stop to the project. Every piece of the experience evokes sports anime vibes, from the power of friendship amplifying your team's abilities to playing the sport for something bigger than yourself. It's basically the sports RPG I've been dreaming of — and so far it seems on track to pull off its lofty ambitions.
The big change the team brought to its PAX West demo was an overhaul of their character art. Pictured below are a series of screenshots they shared to showcase the change, a more unified design aesthetic for all of the human characters.
The build at PAX West reflected the overall change in aesthetic, but as we'd already put in our time with the demo at home, our visit to the vibrant and inviting Beastieball booth was primarily focused on learning about what Greg Lobanov called his "dream project."
Crafting camaraderie, intentional creature designs, and competitive systems
An interview with Wishes Unlimited Director Greg Lobanov and Creature Design Lead and Animator Alexis Dean-Jones
VGG: From the start, something that hooked us about Beastieball was the camaraderie mechanic that defines the relationships between the beasties. Can you dive a little deeper into that for us?
Lobanov: It's a huge focus for us. Before we even knew we were going to make a monster-catching game, we were thinking about it as... "I want to make it about building a team, [managing] the different personalities, bringing them together, and trying to figure out how they work together to make the team work the best."
That camaraderie system was one of the biggest things we wanted to do with the game. We wanted to give players little stories where you make a choice to recruit someone. You'll see a guy you think is really cool, and you'll say "oh, I want this on my team" and the game gives back to you by telling you things. "Oh, that guy you recruited? He's got a grumpy personality and he fell in love with this lizard on your team." All those little things... we want them to feel surprising, independent, and like the Beasties are making their own choices.
VGG: Beastieball's art style pulls people in immediately. But it's the approach to the game's "easy to learn, hard to master" systems, and the idea that all Beasties are competitively viable, no matter what, that really intrigued us and gave the game its approachable feeling. How do you manage to keep the systems from getting too complicated while maintaining that competitive edge and intrigue?
Lobanov: That is a very good question. You know, I think it honestly just comes down to interface design. We focus a lot on trying to make sure that people always know what to click on, what they can do, and stuff like that. There have been many cases where we changed the game design fundamentally so that the interface could look or feel better for certain things.
I'm really big into interface design, like UI and menus. I always come back to that for those little moment-to-moment things, because it changes how complex the game can actually be. How many things can you actually do in a turn? All that kind of stuff filters out from that system.
VGG: I've always appreciated how the games your team has made often focus on community. Wandersong is about building a community through music. Chicory is kind of relearning the ways to lean on community again. And now Beastieball is these two communities banding together to protect their home, in a way.
Lobanov: Yeah, in a way!
VGG: Why do you think that theme of community is so prevalent in your work?
Lobanov: I think it's just personally really important to me. I guess that's why it keeps coming up. I never thought about it that way. I wasn't that intentional, but I mean, I cherish that stuff in life. I want to make games that are authentic and important to me, so I guess it comes through that way.
VGG: We’d love to hear more about the real animal inspiration behind the beasties. We’ve seen monster-catching games ebb into some pretty outlandish designs as they go forward, and it's cool to see such beautiful and natural-looking creatures in Beastieball. Can you talk us through those design decisions and how they unfolded?
[At this point, Lobanov tagged in the Creature Design Lead and Animator Alexis Dean-Jones, who had been doodling beasties at the booth throughout our chat.]
Dean-Jones: It took a lot of thought to figure out if we actually wanted to do a creature-collecting game, because it feels like a very oversaturated genre. The only way I wanted to do it was if we could really spend a lot of time on the creature designs and have a really good reason for each of them to exist, like a place for them in the environment. They feel like they should live where they do live.
Most of them are based on a pretty specific animal. Some of them are a combination of animals that felt like they worked well together. And then they have a theme that we felt worked well with the species they were based on.
Lobanov: It was always a careful balancing act of trying to make it feel grounded but then still full of personality.
Dean-Jones: Yeah. I'm trying to think if we could give a case study without spoiling anything. Because a lot of them, a lot of the ones that you see here will become a lot more apparent as they evolve.
[Dean-Jones gestures to the table full of beastie cards that outline the previously revealed creatures and their base stats. Pictured below is one of those cards.]
I think the most straightforward one would be Servace who's a serval. For that one, we had a pretty basic idea. We wanted a beastie who was very good at serving, one who really loved to jump up high and hit things. And servals are known to jump very, very high to hit things out of the air. They'll jump out and hit birds out of flight and things like that.
Lobanov: The artists have a really genuine love for certain animals, and we just try to find ways to teach people or express those ideas using the creature designs.
VGG: I'm fascinated to hear what some of your inspirations for the game were. In the reveal trailer, we immediately acknowledged the lingering shot on the shelf full of Haikyuu manga.
VGG: And, of course, people are going to say Pokémon. But what are some of the other sneaky inspirations that people might not pick up on?
Lobanov: I grew up on RPGs, so Earthbound and Mother 3 are really big ones for me. I think about those a lot when I'm looking at this game and how the storytelling and the RPG mechanics mix together. I'm very inspired by the way those games did that.
There's another lesser-known indie game called Bravery Network. It was also kind of a Pokémon-like, but it was online-only player-versus-player stuff. It was such a well-designed game that we actually took that designer and hired him onto our project.
Games like that and even Slay the Spire or Into the Breach, those recent big-name indie strategy games, did a really good job of taking cool, complex systems and making them really fun and engaging and servicing information to players. I've been really interested in how they do that, because obviously our game has to solve those same problems.
VGG: It's fascinating that within the Wishes Unlimited library of games no two titles are that similar. You're changing up the style of game every time. I'll say that I definitely didn't expect this as the next game, but it was right up my alley. I love a sports RPG. Is it a conscious choice from your team to constantly change things? Or is it just a matter of the team following its passions no matter what form that takes?
Lobanov: We spend years on every project. By the time we're done, we're very ready to move on and to just try a different type of challenge. This game specifically... it has been a dream project of mine for a long, long time. Even before Chicory, I wanted to do this one. But we were taking our time, building our skills, building our teamwork, to make sure that we could do this right.
This has been a very ambitious challenge for us. Even as big as we thought this was going to be, it has been surprising and challenging in ways we did not anticipate. So, I couldn't just do this game [back then]. We had to do a bunch of other stuff first. I just like lots of different things too. I want to learn everything. I'm only living so long, you know?
If you're excited to get your hands on Wishes Unlimited's sports-strategy creature-collecting RPG, you've got a number of ways to support the project. For starters, wishlist Beastieball on Steam! You've heard us talk about it a lot in PAX coverage, but wishlisting means so much more than you might realize and gets more eyes on indies.
After that, stop by beastieballgame.com to find all the places you can keep up with the latest Beastieball news, including their newsletter. Greg is regularly sending out fun development facts, backstory tidbits, and in-development goodies like concept art and more.
Show them some love and don't forget to check out all our other PAX West 2023 coverage!