Tell us about LetterBound!
LetterBound is a cooperative adventure where you earn points by spelling words together with up to three friends. The game takes players on a journey through a steampunk-inspired world that includes trains, skyscrapers, zeppelins, and hover cars. LetterBound mixes the familiar feel of a classic word-craft board game with the zany fun of couch co-op video games. With three modes there’s something for everyone: a full-length local co-op campaign, a competitive battle mode, and an educational mode to build spelling skills.
As a solo dev, what’s your biggest challenge working on this game?
My own experience tells me that it’s exceedingly rare that a game is built wholly by a single developer. Even when a developer has the cross-disciplinary talent to tackle all of the art and design, as well as write each line of code, additional support may be required in the way of music, visual FX, marketing, and branding. So in this sense, it’s the rare game that is an island game.
While I have designed and coded the entirety of LetterBound thus far, I’ve had the benefit of working with a talented environment artist and an experienced music composer for significant portions of the development process. To reach the quality bar I want for the game, I would have needed to pour countless months and years of my life into each of these disciplines to get the game to where it is today.
Thus, the biggest challenge so far has been knowing what I can reasonably undertake myself and what requires support from outside sources. It can be easy, especially for aspiring beginners, to fall into the mentality that a single person is responsible for every facet of a game’s development. This can cause great frustrations and extend development time far beyond its intended scope. Thus, I think it’s critically important that a developer understand which aspects of the game they can own and how much time will be required to achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves in those areas.
How were you able to find collaborators for LetterBound? How did you know that they would make a good fit?
Most people that have contributed to the game have either worked with me on a prior project or have been recommended by a mutual friend. Charlie Baker and Spencer Kern – the character artist and environment artist – are friends from my Project Spark days. Benjamin Wallace and DiscoCactus were suggested after I showed the initial concept of LetterBound to a friend here in Seattle. Everyone so far has been a great fit and contributed to large portions of the game.
As for finding a good fit, I believe mutual respect for another person is a great foundation for any relationship. The ability to trust another person and their process is a good opportunity to both grow as an individual and strengthen your working relationship with that person. I think it’s important that you give the other person enough space to do their best work but communicate often enough to ensure that you’re on the same page.
The ability for both parties to freely express ideas to one another will also play a role in how the collaboration plays out. If there isn’t enough room for both individuals to share their thoughts and ideas, it may lead to friction in the creative process.
LetterBound has a very charming feel of the 1920s’. What are some of the things that you draw inspiration from? What’s your research process like?
When I initially started college, my focus revolved around the printing and publishing industry. In those years, I spent a lot of time studying book design, typography, art history, and the mechanical processes of how printers worked. Marrying this knowledge with my love of steampunk brought 1920’s printing factories to the top of mind during the initial creative phases. I believed bringing various newsboy-esque characters into a steampunk world would allow me the opportunity to keep the game focused on words while still having the creative freedom to build a fantastic setting filled with playful mechanical elements. While the game has grown out of the newspaper factory setting as an exclusive location, a lot of the world’s details are birthed from that original environment.
As for the research portion, I spend an enormous amount of time on Pinterest creating mood boards that fit the aesthetic of the world. This is a three-tiered approach. First, I look at what sort of objects will fit into the world – printers, pneumatic tubes, old cars, zeppelins, trains, and other various machines. Then, I look at what sort of details/materials I’d like to see in the world – rust, rivets, metals, and steel. Lastly, I spend considerable time studying other stylized low poly games I hope to mimic. I’ve taken inspiration from Overcooked, Luigi’s Mansion, and newer Mario games to determine the visual bar for how LetterBound should look and feel.
After all this, I go through the process again as needed, to iterate on what is and isn’t working in the game. That iteration process has been super important, as the style has continued to improve and evolve over the course of development.
How does the pandemic affect your progress and workflow? Has a certain thing become easier or more challenging?
Numerous events throughout 2020 have impacted the overall development of Letterbound. Shortly after the pandemic started, I took a month to host a fundraiser with a series of online events to raise money for food banks. The George Floyd protests alongside the events that took place in Seattle this summer also diminished the amount of time that I was able to dedicate to the project. The lead up to the election also took considerable time away from development as well. I think the biggest challenge thus far is finding ongoing consistency and routine throughout the year. There is always a cost of putting a project down for a month or two and then coming back to ramp up development again.
Another, almost equally challenging issue, was finding play-testers during the pandemic. Without online multiplayer, it’s been especially hard to get 4 people in the same room at the same time for testing purposes. In this case, I’ve had to make the best decisions possible after testing with only 2 to 3 people at a time.
Lastly, this is the first year that LetterBound appeared in multiple festivals, and it was difficult not to be face to face with people trying the game for the first time. It’s always such a joy to meet people in person at these events, and it was challenging to miss out on that opportunity as the game debuted for the first time this summer. I hope that next year, there will be more opportunities to meet members of the LetterBound community in person!
When can we expect the full release of LetterBound?
The full release of LetterBound will be available in the middle of 2021!