Golf Club: Wasteland creative director Igor Simic: “We create digital content for a generation that will live to witness the end times”

“Golf Club” was once a mobile phone work. Wasteland was launched on PC, PlayStation, Xbox and Switch in September. In this game developed by Demagog Studio and published by Untold Tales, you uncover the mystery of human decline when you play golf on the abandoned earth. We sat down with Igor Simic, the CEO and creative director of Demagog Studios, and discussed the production process of the melancholic masterpiece “Golf Club.” wasteland”.

 

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Oleg Nesterenko, managing editor at GWO: Hey Igor! For starters, could you please tell us about the people behind Golf Club: Wasteland and Demagog Studio?

Demagog Studio was founded by four high school friends. After college, we discussed doing games together as some of the art projects I was making were gaining inroads in the contemporary art and film scene. We made two games as experiments to test some ideas but also see how we work as a team. We say we’re able to work together so eventually, the team asked that we come up with something with the intent of it being a commercial idea from the start, and that’s how Golf Club: Wasteland came about. It was also through art and film work that we met our current art director Stepko and sound director Shane Berry, who then joined the team that made Golf Club: Wasteland come to life.

 

Your games, including the earlier titles like Crisis Expert and Children’s Play, make statements on social and political topics. That also seems to be the case with Golf Club: Wasteland. Is social commentary essential to what you do?

So the first two games were experiments through and through. To test us as a team. To test certain ideas, etc. The goal of the games wasn’t just to send a message but to make and see the reception of something more akin to interactive satire. At Columbia University, I used to be an editorial cartoonist (a very bad one with aspirations of doing New Yorker cartoons). So this was sort of us testing that medium, but now as a game. Golf Club: Wasteland was envisioned from the getgo as a story, a world, and an atmosphere. A kind of mini cinematic experience of a certain standard and quality so that people who bought it felt it was worth paying for. The premise is absurd, the gameplay can at times be simple, but the primary value is hopefully the experience. As a studio, we have this weird little motto that “We create digital content for a generation that will live to witness the end times,” so some form of commentary is likely always going to be in our games. We understand not a lot of studios do this and we understand why. But to us, it’s something worth doing, even if just for ourselves creatively.

The core of the team, as far as I understand, comes from Belgrade. I wonder if coming from Serbia also informs what kind of art you make.

Very likely. But there is never really a moment where we sit down and say “And now what do we add so people can tell this is made by Eastern Europeans?” The stuff just comes about naturally, so perhaps it does influence us, but more in unconscious ways. In the end, we were all born in Yugoslavia, a country that doesn’t exist anymore, which makes us hyper-aware of crises, fragility, the passing of all ideologies, leaders, regimes, fads. Also, our sense of dark humor might very well be Balkan or Eastern European.

Let’s talk about Golf Club: Wasteland. “Human life is wiped out. Earth is now a golf course for the ultra-rich.” Sounds like a killer pitch. I wonder if the idea for the game originated as this basic formula or did you first arrive at a general concept that you then distilled into this oxymoronic one-liner?

The inspiration came from a few places. Around 2017-2018, the sheer volume of news about Trump was at its peak. A questionable businessman obsessed with golf now running the world’s most powerful country. At the same time, we also started seeing a lot more from the likes of Musk and Bezos talking about their privatized space ambitions which was hard not to see as a potential escape route should things on earth go really bad. And on top of that, that famous photo of golfers playing in Oregon while a massive wildfire was raging behind them had recently gone viral, so it was this mash-up of inspirations that just hit me and when I pitched it to the team, they all loved the idea. The idea itself was pitched to the team initially as “Desert Golfing meets Blade Runner” and the short tagline came soon after. The whole team liked it and so we went ahead with it. Something that’s less romantic-sounding but crucial hereto was the scope of the game. At the start of development, the entire team had day jobs so we needed to decide on something that had a strong hook but simple enough gameplay and art that would allow us to work on it in the evening hours, after work. This idea ticked all those boxes.

 

The title debuted on mobile, right? And mobile is this whole other ecosystem dictating very different creative choices compared to PC and consoles. When working on the game, did you have a particular platform in mind as your preferred destination?

Initially, we began with mobile in mind because we had to work economically. The success of Monument Valley was a kind of an example that the Premium business model might still work. Also, we knew we could get some help from local companies that were already big in the mobile space. But the end goal was to focus on the story and world-building and create something that earns the opportunity to then come to PC and console. It was a stepping stone for us and it worked out for sure. When we did the PC and console versions we were able to add extensively to the game in terms of extra content.

My impression of Golf Club: Wasteland is that it’s a little bit like tantric sex. The golf mechanic is only there to keep you anchored in the real gameplay that is experiencing melancholy through music and visuals. In a way, music, stories, and visuals are the game’s real mechanics. Would you agree with that?

Unfortunately, I am no expert on tantric sex I think I envisioned the experience in more wholesome terms — an interactive audiobook. Golfing is a way to move through the ruins of the post-apocalypse while listening to the radio program and also take in the stories you see in the backgrounds. But you are correct in what you are saying. The golf is there as a simple vehicle to make people carry on without making the game a walking simulator.

 

I actually saw some reviews stating that the golf-playing part is the weakest aspect of the game. That it’s only occasionally fun, but at other times repetitive, relying on luck more than skill, with challenges getting increasingly more frustrating. Would you say that the golf-playing mechanic was something that you may be paid the least attention to or felt least certain about?

Yes. As you said yourself, golfing as a mechanic was never the main point of the game so it can seem like the feature is sort of half-baked. I mean we were never going to make a game that was a golf simulator anyway, where you’d need to take into consideration wind speed, what club to use, etc. But this doesn’t mean we just added the mechanic on as an afterthought. We worked on multiple iterations. And to be honest, we tried versions that match what some of those reviews with the game was. We added elements that made your shots more predictable. But those prototypes were extremely boring. Once the player had a 90 to 100 percent guarantee where their ball will land, it literally became a point and click game with you just moving the ball to where you wanted it. So instead, we made it a little more based on luck and experience (an element which I would argue fits actual golf). To compensate for this, we turned down the level of bounce and roll the ball has. The “hitbox” for the flag is also quite generous. We made the hole pars on the more complicated levels quite a lot. And we also add a story mode that wouldn’t penalize you for taking so many shots. It’s by no means a perfect system. We did what we could within our capacity, but it was for sure not something we didn’t look into with as much thought and detail as the other elements of the game.

That said, now that our team has expanded and learned from this release, our future titles will have more fluid gameplay and we’ll focus more on “how will the average player perceive this after X hours.”

Personally, I sometimes found myself struggling between trying to keep up with another piece of narration and figuring out the puzzle that was really getting on my nerves (even in the Story Mode). Do you think a more relaxed casual gameplay might have been more conducive to the emotional experience that your game is? Like its overall chill vibe is conflicting sometimes with the extremely intense challenge of lobbing the ball onto the right platform.

You’re right. There’s a tension there. But again, ultimately, we didn’t want to make it a walking simulator. I think less people would have wanted to experience our story if there wasn’t this weird hook that you’re playing golf amongst all of this mess that humanity has become. I think what we could have done differently is given people more options to circle back to portions of the radio broadcast or to reset their shots quicker. Maybe having the ability to just rewind a mistake or part of the story would remove the frustration of missing it in the first place. Live and learn, I guess

Let’s talk about the parts of the game that everybody agrees totally rocked. What was your thought process behind the aesthetics of the game?

From the start, we were always aware that for this idea to work, the wasteland had to come to life in a way that showed the melancholy of our main character and emptiness of the future world, but leave enough room for visual elements that lightened the mood. We needed the space to be funny and draw out the humorous premise. So it was important that world-building and the visual style walked this line of being light-hearted and bleak at the same time.

We tried to achieve this with a stylized approach, where every environment asset is reduced mainly to its silhouette, and the color palette was kept minimal. This way we could iterate fast on the ideas and stay visually consistent throughout the game development, without fear that we will break the mood no matter what silly idea came up in the process.

 

Other important aspects of the visual style were fog and pink neons scattered across the landscape. The fog helped us achieve the gloominess of the post-apocalyptic landscape. When combined with pink neons, the bluish fog created a weird contrast that was a perfect visual platform for the message we tried to send. Basically, these big, noticeable “We were here” signs remind you, people not too long ago still had a life and place here.

So to try to sum it up in one thought — moody minimalism in the color palette and shapes. Modernist architecture is taken from Central European cityscapes and Yugoslavia as symbols of “progress” lying in ruin, juxtaposed with millennial pink neons that refer to contemporary issues, especially Silicon Valley ideology, but also current social and cultural memes, meaning-laden foreign expressions and neologisms.

The soundscape of the game is a masterpiece in its own right, whether it’s songs on Radio Nostalgia from Mars or the stories told by the former earthlings. How did you design it?

Our Audio Director Shane Berry has actual experience in broadcast radio. He is the voice of the radio DJ you hear throughout the game So very early on, we knew that we have the ability to make the audio a key part of the game’s storytelling and not just as an add-on that plays in the background. The song lyrics were intentionally written to match the game’s feel and story right from the start. Shane and our Creative Director Nikola Stepkovic Stepko worked in tandem with Stepko sending Shane levels as they were still being made so he could get inspired and dial into the feel of the game. The approach to the score was an odd one. Since the show is set around the idea of nostalgia, we wanted the songs to basically have the same value for the people still alive. So we had to put ourselves in the mindset of writing songs you’d hear in the near future, around 2040’s so that they line up with the timeframe that the game occurs in. So we needed to do something based on contemporary music as those years aren’t too far away but still have a feel of “futuristic.”

The idea of stories and callers came soon after because while writing the songs, we saw that putting the full burden in trying to convey this idea of nostalgia on them was forcing us to write stuff that was more story than music. So once we decided to have actual people call in, we dove even deeper because now we had additional points of view/experiences we could weave into the radio show to really make the world feel real and let the music feel like something it was created for the time but not with a sense of overt messaging.

The stories themselves came from all over really. Everyone on the team had ideas that got used. Even some of the actors we worked with mentioned certain things that we loved so we’d use them. Which kind of makes sense because it’s a subject that almost anyone you talk to will have a thought on because it’s a situation that’s staring us all in the face.

It’s also interesting that as a player, you first identify yourself with the golfer, Charlie — especially when he lets out this sigh of exasperation when missing the hole. However, when reading the albino kid’s diary, your perspective is detached from that of the golfer, who remains a mystery for most of the game. I wonder what the thinking was behind this perspective-alternating narrative device?

And there’s a third layer: Charlie’s diary is unlocked through gameplay. The main reason was to set up the world and have that be the main point that drags you in. What is the story of what happened here and to everyone who is now dead and those still alive. By not going too deep and immediate into Charlie and the kid’s stories, we were able to keep the focus on the world and also have interesting reveals for the stories of the two characters without it feeling dragged out. The player didn’t focus too much on them so when those reveals come about, it hits a little harder.

Technically speaking, of all the systems designed for the game, what was the most challenging one to get right and why?

This may surprise you, but from a technical point, Charlie’s jetpack flight was a challenge and recurring headache for us. Even though it’s not something the player controls, getting the pathfinding to be correct each time was a pain. The animations had a lot of work to ensure it didn’t look clunky. Then it was getting the right speed. Too slow and people got annoyed. Too fast and it looked like a cartoon superhero. Where and how Charlie lands next to the ball had to be tweaked time and time again. And of course, making sure every level was tested and had a geometry that supported you landing there and making sure it registered correctly. Hopefully, this answer now explains why we decided not to let the player control this

Could you tell us a little bit about your next project, Highwater? Feels like it’s going to have a similar melancholic/apocalyptic vibe, but with a different mechanic?

There are actually two games in the pipeline. To cover my ass legally, I can’t divulge any information right now though  I will say to readers though — if you find our style, world-building, and stories interesting, please keep following our activity for updates already in 2022. What you saw in Golf Club: Wasteland is something we are exploring even more as both games are happening in the same universe. The game mechanics, however, will be much more elaborate and without a golf club this time.

 

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