Renee Gittins on Potions: A Curious Tale

Renee Gittins on Potions: A Curious Tale


We talked to Renee Gittins about Potions: A Curious Tale.

It’s not often an upcoming title from a new developer catches my eye, but that’s exactly what happened when I saw Potions: A Curious Tale by Stumbling Cat. An adventure-crafting game currently on Kickstarter, Potions focuses on a young witch who can create a variety of potions in order to interact with a world that draws heavily from fairy tales and folklore. I spoke with studio head Renee Gittins about developing Potions, creating a Kickstarter and the challenges of creating her first game.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How would you describe Potions: A Curious Tale?

Potions: A Curious Tale is an adventure crafting game where combat is not always the answer. It incorporates fairy tales and folklore from around the world, from Sun Wukong from Journey to the West, to Baba Yaga from Slavic legend. It follows a young witch named Luna, who’s recently discovered her ability to brew magical potions. She can use these potions as spells to solve puzzles, battle monsters and overcome obstacles on her quest to become a potions master. But combat isn't always the answer, and sometimes you have to find alternative solutions, whether it is using the environment, or other monsters, or even tricking creatures and scaring them into helping you.

Where did the original idea for it come about?

So it actually kind came about of out of frustration. I was playing a game called Pixel Dungeon, which is a roguelike dungeon crawler. You can level up in the game, and you crawl down through procedurally generated floors, and about every fifth floor or so there’s a boss. Now, in order to move, you sort of consume food. And you have to find food as you’re crawling through the dungeon. If you run out of food you starve. So you have to be careful with how you’re walking. However, on an average run, simply going from the first floor to the fifth floor doesn’t give you enough experience to level up to the point where you can kill the boss monster. So you find yourself running around, waiting for additional monsters to spawn. Which I was extremely frustrated with.

And I was like “Well, you know, I want to be like this cool roguelike person running through these dungeons and running away from monsters when I can, and killing them when it’s beneficial.” And I decided I’d make a game like that. Make a game where you didn’t have to fight everything. Where you’re not rewarded for killing every fluffy bunny you see. So many games will give you a copper for killing a squirrel. And it might be really inconsequential. Like, a copper doesn’t help you much but you still get this minor benefit for killing something and going out of your way, and I find that to be tiring? Especially as someone who likes to be a completionist.

I also drew a lot of inspiration from the game Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale. The original Legend of Zelda and similar games gave me more insight into what I wanted the boss fights to be, and actually most of the creature encounters to be like. I wanted it to involve dodging, strategic fighting, weak points and things like that.

Now when you say there are other ways to interact with creatures outside of combat, can you give some examples?

You can trick creatures. You can get them to attack each other. You can sort of charm creatures in a way. Or you can scare them.

My favourite example is this creature that we have called the gobbler. And the gobbler is a giant wild turkey that looks terrifying. And the first time you run into him, if you’re playing through the demo, he’s actually the first non-aggressive creature you run into. And he looks terrifying. But if you do attack him, he will completely kick your butt. He’ll knock you across the screen, he’ll take a third of your life in one hit. He’s actually the hardest-hitting creature that you initially run into. Then he’ll go back to being passive.

But you’re given a hint in the game that “though the turkey may have wings, it is scared of flying things”. And so there’s a little riddle for you to figure out, like “okay, well what’s flying?” And Luna actually has a broom that she can pull out to sprint with and to fly over chasms and stuff. And if you mount up on the broom and chase the turkey around, it’s terrified of you and it runs away from you flapping around wildly, dropping feathers. And these feathers are actually core in making health potions. That’s the only way to get the feathers too. If you do manage to kill the turkey, it doesn’t drop anything.

Are there different interactions for most or all of the creatures in the game?

Well, some of them are just straight-up aggressive creatures. But whether or not it’s beneficial to kill them is questionable. One of my other favourite monsters is called the Mushdoom. There are a lot of mushrooms in the game. They’re really helpful for base level potions, but after a certain point you’re like “okay, I don’t care about mushrooms anymore.”

Mushdooms, however, look exactly like mushrooms before they’ve been harvested. Except if you walk up to them, they pop out of the ground and look kind of like headcrabs from Half Life. They chase after you, they’re really annoying, they’re pretty easy to kill, but since every single potion that you use is one that you’ve had to have crafted, it’s not always beneficial to kill them. It’s better to like, mount up on your broom and try to dodge them and run away.

Now, going back to the setting for the game, it’s fairy tale inspired.

Right. Fairy tales and folklore. So we’ve actually been talking with people from around the world and doing research into folklore from around the world to integrate those stories. So for example, Journey to the West is a very commonly referenced story from the East. So in China and Japan it’s extremely popular, and there’s a lot of pop culture around it. In fact it was a major influence for Dragon Ball Z. And so you find, you’ll run into characters from Journey to the West within Potions: A Curious Tale. I guess it’s kind of a fairy tale but it’s not what most people would consider to traditionally be a fairy tale.

How did you go about choosing which tales to put into your game? Did you come up with a list of all the ones that you thought of, or could possibly include? Or did you ask around to get ideas?

Well, both. So we actually haven’t decided on all of them yet. Some of the tiers of our Kickstarter campaign allow people to choose the fairy tales and folklore that they want in the game. We hope to work with the community to find even more of them as well.

But mostly we try to do research and then to ask people as well about things from their culture that would fit. Jake Neal, our environment artist, came up with this concept of this red glowing, sinister-looking fruit. And we decided we’d use it in the base of fire potions. But we didn’t have a good story for what it would be. So I asked around, and then one of my friends who’s half Dutch and half Egyptian told me that there is a thing in Islamic legend called the Zaqqum tree. And it’s in hell and sinners sit around it. They get so hungry that they have to eat. The Zaqqum tree has these fruits, and when these people eat the fruits, it tastes like ash in their mouth and then it burns their stomachs from the inside out. I was like “Oh, that’s really interesting! So we’ll just have a Zaqqum fruit!” And it has this huge backstory to it, and it’s just a single item in the game. I think it has a flavour text of “the food of sinners”. We’re working to include as many Easter eggs and cultural inclusions like that as we can.

When did development on Potions begin?

Potions development began in September of 2014.

Since this is your first fully developed game, for Stumbling Cat, were there any surprises or challenges that you encountered while developing it?

Oh, certainly. Since this was the first major project that I was leading myself, I actually didn’t know whether or not I could do it. The first six months of development were just me. I was the only person on the team, I hadn’t built up a team yet, and I was basically doing a proof of concept. And I was prototyping the game out and seeing if I had the ability to do all the programming behind it to see if the game was actually fun and if I could just do it on my own. It was my first time working full time on my own project. I know previously I’d done projects kind of moonlighting in the past.

There were struggles and rough times, but I ended up pulling through, and making a prototype that I was really enthralled with and proud of. In February of 2015 I decided to start building up my team around me to help really polish the game and to provide support. So that’s when I started employing artists and audio engineers, and some writers to help me with the writing as well.

Knowing what you know now, would you do anything differently when you started development of the game?

Knowing what I knew, what I know now, I think the only thing that would change is… I would have less doubt. The hardest thing about making your own game is having struggles with self-doubt. And knowing that I’ve gotten this far a year and a half ago would have made me much more confident initially. Certainly, I had low points. You know, wondering if I was doing the right thing, if I had the ability to get the game created that I was aiming for. Now that I know that’s the case.

The Kickstarter launched on April 8. How long did it take to prepare the Kickstarter?

I am someone who is...probably a little overenthusiastic about pre-planning. So when I decided that Kickstarter might be something that we’d pursue, I actually started doing initial research in March of last year. I certainly wasn’t working on it full-time or anything like that, but I started reading documentation in my spare time, reading other people’s post-mortems, and keeping an eye on all of that information. I also started doing reach-outs to various companies to figure out the pricing for rewards, and figuring out what successful campaigns had done as well.

The past month or so has pretty much been all Kickstarter, just getting the page ready, making sure that all our videos are all polished up, doing some recording and obviously press interaction. But yeah, it’s really hard to say! Because I started preparing for it, like, thirteen months ago. And I think that that’s a really good approach because it allowed me to fully understand what Kickstarter meant, and to get a lot of advice from people that I knew in the industry before launching my own.

And what does Kickstarter mean to you?

So I think Kickstarter is really about community engagement? While we’ve had other funding options, I thought that Kickstarter was going to be the best route forward. Because we are looking at having the game itself be so inclusive, with its stories and its cultural aspects I really wanted to build that community. That invested community around the game itself.

Diversity seems to be an important part to the development of Potions. How do you incorporate diversity into the game?

I think that, at least in regards to gender diversity, having a team that’s composed of both men and women is really helpful. In regards to other kinds of diversity... you know, obviously not all games can do this, but we set up the core town as a trading town. So it’s pretty easy to give excuse for any type of character to be there because it’s a trading hub. So people from all over our imaginary world are going to be there. And that’s been really helpful. We’ve done a lot of research into incorporating different designs and architecture and things like that. Unfortunately we don’t have a ton of that concept art to show yet. But it’s something that we’ve been doing lots of - studying and sharing these resources. Like I said, talking with other people and showing them the game, and showing them the characters and talking to them about those things has really helped remind me of diversity.

How did you deal with moments of self-doubt?

Sometimes crying (laughs). But mostly some video games, a few funny shows and then a lot of support from my friends. I’ve actually been fairly active in the game development community for the past three years. And the friends that I have made within it have been ridiculously helpful and supportive of me the entire time. Even when I wasn’t developing my game, they’re always there to give me advice and to give me a hug and that’s great to have that kind of community. And I’m really blessed to be here in Seattle, because Seattle has such a large game development community, both indie and triple-A. And just being here has been really helpful.

Now, as the head of the studio and with everything that you’ve mentioned, how busy are you exactly? Do you ever have a moment of rest?

Certainly with the Kickstarter, no. I’m probably working eighty hours a week. I have planned rests sometimes. For the most part I keep fairly busy, but I also know that personally I do burn out if I’m not careful. So I’ve found things that help with that. Last year I had a wonderful garden, and just making sure I took a break in the middle of my day and spending some time gardening was a really good recovery for me. For the most part I try to do a solid eight or ten hours, five days a week. But when I’m in crunch periods like the Kickstarter and such, I tend to be seven days a week, ten to twelve hours a day. Or more! (laughs) Unfortunately.

What sorts of games do you play?

I play about everything you can think of. I grew up on first person shooters, but I find myself charmed by almost everything. Right now, I’m still raiding in World of Warcraft with my guild — that’s one of my few breaks I take during the week. I’ve been playing the Overwatch beta, which is really fun. Recettear is one of my favourite games, so I will occasionally boot that back up and play it. I haven’t had a ton of time to play a lot of games.

But I’m actually really into virtual reality. Out in my living room, I have a vive set up, I have an Oculus Rift setup, so I’ve been playing Audioshield, which is basically Audiosurf but you’re punching music out of the air. Someone calls it the VR Rock Band, but I don’t know if Rock Band is appropriate for that. I enjoy Tilt Brush, just because it’s nice to be creative. I had some friends over, one of them is an artist, and she drew a magical 3D unicorn in Tilt Brush that was gorgeous - it was really cool to watch that. And then I play a lot of my friends’ games. With having such a large community, we give each other feedback, so we’re all constantly interacting with each other’s games.