Songbringer is one designer’s procedurally generated ode to classic RPGs

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Songbringer is an action role-playing game that’s hoping to clear the name of procedural generation. Nathanael Weiss, who developed the game under his studio name Wizard Fu, teamed up with publisher Double Eleven, and it’s available now for PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.

Weiss thinks that procedural generation has gotten a bad rap when, alongside more bespoke elements, it can help create a world that’s fully realized and not just random. He created Songbringer to evoke the same feel as classics like The Legend of Zelda and Secret of Mana, games that he says feel like “everything is just in the right place.”

“At this point I’m almost trying to downplay the procedural aspect and just let people experience that as they play it,” said Weiss in a phone call with GamesBeat. “If anything, I’m hyping the bespokeness of the world, and the hand-crafted design of it all, and downplaying the procedural aspects, just so people don’t come into it with any expectations about it being a procedural game.”

Songbringer starts with the hero, Roq, crashing on an alien planet. Alongside Jib, his robotic sidekick, Roq must find a way to get back in touch with his titular spaceship. It’s got a retro pixel art aesthetic and a tongue-in-cheek mashup of sci-fi and fantasy. You’re armed with a nano sword and a drone that’s shaped like a top hat. Your health is indicated by three hearts and referred to as courage, and to heal, you can drink spirits (aka liquid courage).

Though the map is procedurally generated, the world has rules in place to maintain order. For instance, the first dungeon is always a certain distance from the starting point. Weiss says that he spent hours playtesting it to adjust the feel of it.

“I’ve been surprised like crazy,” said Weiss, of playtesting the game. “I’m like, whoa, I don’t know how the algorithm did that, but this room is really interesting. I don’t know how it turned out like this, how the secrets turned out this way. It’s been really exciting.”

Weiss planted many secret items, Easter eggs, and passageways in Songbringer, which he says he’s excited for players to discover. To strike a balance between keeping them hidden yet discoverable, he tries to use familiar signals. For instance, anyone who’s played a Legend of Zelda game knows that a crack in the wall means that you need to use a bomb.

“There are bushes you can burn, bombs you can use to open up other secrets, walls you can walk through, walls you can bomb through, secret paths in the sky you can walk on,” said Weiss. “There are all these little kinds of things, but they’re things you’ll be familiar with if you’ve played a Zelda game.”

Songbringer has been a three-year journey for Weiss, whose path to game development has taken many detours. He made a few small games in high school and later on worked at Trilobyte (The 7th Guest, The 11th Hour) for two years. Then he took a break from games altogether.

“But 2003 onward, I completely quit making games and completely quit making software in general. I even lived on a boat,” said Weiss. “It was a crazy time in my life. I learned to make music. But it all paid off. Now I can make music and make art and program. It’s a long way to get to this point, but it’s been very rewarding.”

Weiss successfully crowdfunded Songbringer on Kickstarter and has put in a lot of hours into building up a community. He shared GIFs on Twitter and livestreamed the entire development process in over 600 videos, which is now archived on his YouTube channel. He does it all himself: coding, art, music, and so on. Because of that, burnout is a real threat.

About a month before launch, Weiss said that he felt burned out from troubleshooting and addressing technical bugs.

“I love the creative aspect of making games, where you can do new things and make experiments and add new creations and stuff like that,” said Weiss. “It was a good time. I took some time off, played a few games, I relaxed, and that really helped me get past the acute burnout phase.”

On a daily basis, Weiss says that meditation helps him enormously. He does yoga every morning and meditates every night, which refreshes him and keeps him from burning out even though he says that he’s almost constantly in crunch mode. Meditation is a big part of Songbringer as well. Roq is, in part, a kind of personal self-reflection and based on Weiss’s own experiences.

“I love to see my friends. I love to party with them,” said Weiss. “But throughout his journey, the hero learns that meditation can be like that party, in a sense, that meditation helps him feel high, you know what I mean? It’s a simple thing, but meditation does that. That’s kind of the character’s personal growth story, and it’s my story too.”

The PC Gaming channel is presented by Intel®‘s Game Dev program.

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