From Nookazon to Galactic Getaway, Akrew puts players first - PAX West 2023 hands-on/interview
Updated: Sep 13
At PAX West 2023, the Video Games Are Good team went hands-on with the demo for Galactic Getaway and had a fascinating talk with Akrew CEO Daniel Luu, learning about the company's origins and their debut game!
I might be a bit of a broken record, but one of the things I love seeing in the indie space is devs taking matters into their own hands to make their dreams a reality. So many of our favorite games or series get stuck in a cycle of playing things safe, keeping profitability in mind over anything else, and just not trying new things with series gamers desperately wish to see evolve over time.
There are lots of things that go into making those decisions, so it's hard to fully hold studios to task for some of those frustrations... but we as players can always dream for more.
Akrew CEO Daniel Luu was one of those dreamers — someone who saw needs in the frustrations of a fanbase and started to fill the gaps however he could... until his team found themselves making a brand new game that filled dozens of needs all at once.
Akrew: From frustrated fans to online marketplace kings
In 2020, Daniel Luu was just like the rest of us. An Animal Crossing fan who was looking to trade turnips, gather up furniture, and find the perfect set of villagers to invite to his town. Nintendo didn't make it easy to track the things he needed and made it even harder to properly trade with friends, so he went looking elsewhere.
"I actually joined the official Animal Crossing Discord server and saw that people there were hectic," Luu explained. "They were really trying to find items and... I just couldn't find anything there. It was so hard to search.
"So I spent a week building out Nookazon."
Some of you may be familiar. Nookazon is an online marketplace where Animal Crossing fans can list villagers, furniture, clothing, and just about anything not bolted down in the series' latest release, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The website facilitates all incoming offers, allows you to list exactly what you're looking for in return, makes it easy to pick out a specific trading partner, and then you can take to the game to execute the trade. It streamlines a process that is otherwise made impossible by what the game offers itself.
After Luu made the website, it didn't immediately catch fire. It wasn't until he took in some feedback, made a few changes, and posted it on TikTok that things changed.
"We went from having six users to 100,000 within a day," reminisced Luu. "I really had to buckle down, build out the site, and... it's been a really great experience for us. We built a fantastic community around it. And through that, we learned a lot about Animal Crossing's limitations. Not just about trading. But as a game in general."
After Nookazon, Luu and his team built a second website, Traderie, essentially offering the same services as Nookazon but for games other than New Horizons. They found success with both platforms, they took steps into the esports world, and they built out a community of like-minded gamers.
But those nagging issues with Animal Crossing never quite went away and a new idea came about.
"I think New Horizons lacks a lot of the things that I want personally in the game," Luu said. "The multiplayer support. The level of things you can do with friends. The multiplayer experience in general. A lot of people would say New Horizons is lacking [in those ways] even when compared to the older games."
So Luu and his team embarked on a new journey: building Galactic Getaway. A game inspired by the likes of Animal Crossing and Mario Party. A game meant to bring people together in brand-new ways. And ultimately, a game meant to fill a gap left behind by Nintendo.
We had the opportunity to go hands-on with this hybrid life sim party game and came away pretty intrigued by its potential.
Hands-on impressions with Galactic Getaway
Genre: MMO, party game, life sim
Galactic Getaway is ambitious: It's an MMO, it's recreating a few different beloved franchises all at once, and it's Akrew's first game. And yet, after my brief time chatting with Luu and trying out the in-progress build of what is essentially an extremely early beta, the pieces are all there for an intriguing project.
Before we really get into the discussion, for the sake of transparency, we want to be clear about our demo experience. The current build of Galactic Getaway is always online; we were actively playing with all other demo stations at all times, a feature we found super cool! But the network environment was... suboptimal on the PAX West show floor. It was something the team openly acknowledged and was actively trying to optimize throughout the weekend. Our particular demo station was hit hard by it, so our time with the game cut off a little earlier than we would have liked, but even then, we saw a little bit of everything and were still impressed.
The demo opened quickly with fairly familiar character creation before tossing us into a nice guided tutorial led by Galactic Getaway's adorable robot assistant, S.A.M. This Astrobot-like buddy guided us around the resort, the hub planet where players will be able to mingle together and purchase goods from shopkeepers.
S.A.M. taught us how to purchase tools, took us to our home planet where we could be alone, and taught us how to fish and plant crops. Up to this point, the experience was everything you'd expect from an Animal Crossing-like. But it was once the shackles were off that we saw the vision start to come together.
After breaking out of the tutorial, we returned to the resort to see other players running to and fro — something that already felt foreign to the Animal Crossing experience because we didn't have ten notifications popping up to slow us down and to let us know people were coming and going. We were just... there together. It felt simple and familiar. Neither word could be used to describe New Horizon's multiplayer experience.
At that point, I was looking to buy some crop seeds, but had run out of the cash the game gave me to start. And so entered the other half of the Galactic Getaway experience. Minigames. At any point, while you're playing, you can head to the "Arcade" to earn some easy cash. Circling a raised plaza off to the side of the island is a series of arcade cabinets that can trigger one of the game's Mario Party-like minigames. These can be played solo, with friends, or with anyone at the arcade when you kick things off.
Galactic Getaway's minigames start simple, but always find a way to layer on interesting complexity. The first one we got to play tasked us simply with counting the number of people running across a stage. After that first round, we were then asked to count people wearing hats. And then after that, we were asked to identify a very specific hat.
It took that approachable Mario Party-like concept and found a way to keep twisting it in interesting ways. And rather than the all-or-nothing victory conditions of Mario Party, where one person wins and gains all the rewards of the game, Galactic Getaway seems to distribute its currency based on how you did alone.
Our demo ended pretty soon after this, but we saw the loop. We saw the concept. Friends hopping into Discord, decorating their houses, hopping into minigames, and just... hanging out in a world like this. All while pining after some piece of furniture or clothing that you can only win with the help of friends. There's a lot to be worked out between now and launch, and we hope the controller support, which we learned had just been implemented, gets polished ahead of release... but the concepts are sound.
We wanted to learn more about what was behind these concepts, what Akrew's inspirations were, and how they envisioned the future of this experience, so we sat down with Akrew's CEO Daniel Luu during PAX West.
A chat about Club Penguin, expanding the player experience beyond the game, and bringing people together
VGG: Galactic Getaway is described as an MMO. What led you to that route for the game?
Luu: The MMO inspiration came from the fact that, while I'm a big multiplayer gamer, I don't really play single-player games that often. One of the things we do at our company during lunch is actually play games together as a bonding experience. And we could never really find enough games that like 10 or 15 people could play together. And even just games that are, for our generation or younger, like a Club Penguin. Games like Maple Story. Games like that don't really exist anymore within the space.
We wanted to bring that kind of energy and vibe to a modern game.
VGG: So, can we put it on record, Galactic Getaway: The new Club Penguin?
Luu: Hopefully! I don't know if it's that yet, but you know, that's the hope.
One of my favorite studios is Riot. I think they do a really fantastic job of listening to the community and also building content and keeping things up to date. We wanted to bring that [concept] to our own game.
VGG: Many of us have made great memories with Animal Crossing, but there are some limitations, as your reveal trailer pointed out. What kinds of things does Galactic Getaway do that will make even the most hardcore Animal Crossing fans excited?
Luu: I think our game is ambitious for sure, and I think we wanted to provide kind of an inlet for everybody to do what they want to do. So, we really want Galactic Getaway to be easy for people to get into: kids, non-gamers, people who play Animal Crossing, and [everyone in between]. But we also want the ceiling to be really high, where you can get really in-depth with the game.
[One example of that depth is the planned "guild" system. Luu went on to explain how "guilds" would be one of the biggest tools to bring people together in Galactic Getaway.]
Luu: The idea is you get together with your guild, buy a planet for your guild, and then build out a planet with said guild. You'll be able to buy buildings or items that people who are by themselves couldn't get. Eventually — it probably won't be in the first release — the plan is to have things like guild events where you have guild versus guild, player versus player, and things like that on a global scale.
VGG: Can you explain the planet system a little more, from the individual player up to the guild level you talked about just now?
Luu: You start off with your own planet. It's a super small planet where nobody else can have a house. You start decorating your own thing. And then you use that planet to start gaining money: playing minigames, farming, fishing, and selling those items, trading with other players.
Once you build up enough money, you can eventually buy a guild with friends, and once you do that, then you'll get a guild-sized planet where you'll be able to have multiple homes and your own shops, clothing store, hair shop, things like that.
One of the things that we really want to do is to have our quests incorporate multiple players because it's an MMO. You know, we don't want it to end up like a single-player experience where you just happen to see the other players. We really want it to be interacting with a ton of different people.
VGG: I like that structure and the encouragement to team up with others. With the minigames, is that something where you can just join a lobby that's actively playing those at all times? Or how does that work?
Luu: The arcade always has a rotating selection of minigames. Anybody who's kind of standing within the arcade's ring will all get put into any game that someone starts up. Eventually, there might be a ready-up system or something like that. But for now, you'll sit in that circle, you'll be able to get taken off to play whatever game. Groups form and you see people playing with random people.
We did a playtest recently and we really like that cycle and the way it flows.
VGG: Three years from now, what will the Galactic Getaway experience look like with it being an MMO? Is it a living game? Will it expand over time? Will players have reasons to just keep coming back to it?
Luu: Like I said, a big inspiration for us is Riot. We really want to support this game for a lifetime, if that's what players want and if players are excited about it... just keep building on the world. I think three years from now, that looks like constant updates every few months. Alternating between releasing a new minigame, new furniture, new clothing, a whole new area.
We want to support it forever. In my mind, we're setting up for a forever game.
VGG: What can folks expect in terms of cost?
Luu: It's going to be free! And monetization will be cosmetics only. I think that is going to be one of our biggest challenges, balancing that. Animal Crossing players are going to want everything, right? And so [the challenge will be] balancing having great free furniture and clothing with also having fantastic paid-for furniture and clothing.
VGG: With Traderie and Nookazon as your legacy... is Galactic Getaway on there right away from launch?
Daniel Luu: One hundred percent. Obviously we're going to be using our audience to support it, but we're actually working on basically an SDK [software development kit] to integrate Traderie in any game. And so Galactic Getaway will probably be the second game that's integrated directly.
Your inventory will be held in there, you can list items [to Traderie] directly from the game. You can browse the site and trade, and when you trade on the site, it'll actually trade into the game as well.
VGG: That's very cool!
Luu: Yeah! Our mission statement for Akrew is "expanding the player experience beyond the game." That's what we mean, where it's like... even when you're done playing the game, you're not done playing the game. You can go off and trade and do all these sorts of thing with our tools.
VGG: What's the best way people can support Galactic Getaway right now?
Luu: The biggest way you can support the game is to wishlist on Steam. The more wishlists we get, the more momentum we have, the easier it is going to be to get on the front page of Steam and stuff.
Not only that, but it also helps us apply for Switch. Because we have no track record, you know, we're a brand new studio, we're self-publishing, it's not that easy to get that Switch access. We really want to push to get on Switch before we release.
We'll also definitely be doing an early access beta or something like that in December.
And then the real early access will start around March. You can be part of all of that by joining our Discord.
If you're interested in checking out Galactic Getaway before release, join their Discord. If you want to see the game gain more support and make it onto the Nintendo Switch, wishlist it on Steam. And most importantly, let them know what kinds of things you hope to see in this Animal Crossing-meets-Mario Party MMO.