How 'Rick and Morty' Co-Creator Aims to Make Gaming "Funny and Absurd"
In June 2016, Justin Roiland, co-creator of the immensely popular animated comedy Rick and Morty, headed to the E3 convention in Los Angeles in the hopes of making his ambition to launch a video game publishing company a reality.
In a small room, away from the chaos of the show floor, he met Tanya Watson, a game producer who had just recently left Epic Games after 10 years at the company.
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"It was kind of random," Watson tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I'm good friends with Cliff Bleszinski and I was hanging out with him at E3 talking to people about what the next thing that I wanted to do was. I met with [UTA's head of video games] Ophir Lupu and he was like, 'Oh, are you looking for something? I've got a client looking for someone just like you. Have you ever heard of Justin Roiland?'"
"Tanya was very much on the same page and she brought a lot of expertise and experience in the actual process of making games," Roiland says."I had met with a few producers before that and I didn't have that same instant sort of connection and similar ideology."
Things heated up quickly, as Watson says Roiland called her the very next day to get the ball rolling. "We talked for, like, four hours about what kind of studio he wanted to create and all the crazy ideas that he had," she says. "I was in from that point forward."
"It was total serendipity," says Lupu, who arranged the meeting. "They had a very aligned vision of what the studio could be."
By August, Roiland and Watson had launched Squanch Games, an independent game studio now gearing up to launch its third (and biggest) title on May 31 with Trover Saves the Universe. Utilizing Watson's contacts in the industry, the duo built a small team of gaming veterans.
"I worked with Tanya at Epic Games on the Gears of War trilogy, Unreal Tournament and we were part of the original team that built up Fortnite," says Mikey Spano, art director at Squanch. When he heard that Watson was working with Roiland, he reached out to join the team.
"What inspired me right away was that Justin just loved games," says Erich Meyr, lead designer at Squanch. "He’s really invested in what the game is, not just the story and the humor."
The humor, however, is a large part of both Trover's and Squanch Games' overall goals. "It's very clear for us: if people don't laugh when we intend for them to laugh, then we know that something isn't working," Watson says.
"I think, for me, it would be a lot harder to make some serious, gritty game than it would be to just make something really funny and absurd and maybe a little nihilistic and dark. That's sort of my comfort zone and I don't think there is enough of that in games," Roiland adds.
Roiland has proven that his style of relaxed, conversational dialog and fourth wall-breaking narrative storytelling has a large audience already on the television side. Rick and Morty has set ratings records for Adult Swim, becoming the biggest hit in the network's history. That success, coupled with Watson's experience producing major games in the past, made Trover an attractive prospect to Sony, who handled the majority of production costs for the title.
"I think the fact that we're working together definitely makes those conversations a lot easier," Watson says. "I've scoped and budgeted games many times, so everything in the business case is credible and then Justin's creative vision behind it just makes it a no-brainer."
Like its previous two releases (2016's Accounting and last year's Dr. Splorchy Presents: Space Heroes), Squanch originally developed Trover as a VR game, but as the development process continued, the team realized it felt just as good to play it "on the sticks" — that is, without a headset (the game can still be played in VR, as well).
"There was a point when we were testing the game and there was a conversation we had, like, you know it really wouldn't be much more work to get it as a regular console game," Watson says. "It's just really fun and it would be a shame if people who don't have VR equipment wouldn't be able to play it."
"I think we both realized all we really needed to do is figure out a slight remap on the buttons, tweak the field of view, a couple little odds and ends. But ultimately, we weren't that far from having a fully playable game, in the traditional sense," Roiland says.
Making the game playable outside of VR — which is still a rather niche audience when compared to more traditional console or PC gaming — also greatly expands Trover's potential user base. "We know this is a really unique and different game and to get that out into a bunch more people's consoles or PCs to experience, it was a no-brainer," Roiland says.
Part of what makes the game so unique is its improvisational approach to dialog and narrative. "There's countless stuff in the game that was completely improvised and just not scripted and loose," Roiland says.
“We started doing improv a little bit and found it so rewarding and funny that we decided to go through the whole game with that philosophy," Meyr says.
Roiland, who voices the majority of characters in the game, was constantly recording lines for the game, sometimes in his own home. The result is a game with an enormous amount of dialog, stretching the amount of content in Trover from seven or eight hours to over 20.
“For the animation side, it absolutely made a lot of work, but we tried to be smart about the process," Meyr says. "We knew we were going to get a lot more dialog than we expected, so we had to be ready for it."
"Everyone on the team is a huge fan of Rick and Morty and they get Justin's vision," Watson says. "That's a big part of it because you know when he sits down and gives them direction there's a lot less of that translation that has to take place."
The team is confident that Trover Saves the Universe, Squanch's biggest release in its short three-year history, will succeed, but isn't exactly resting on its laurels now that the finish line is in sight.
"I think one of our challenges as a studio is that there's too many good ideas," Watson says. "The challenge is really focusing them and saying which one we should do."
"We've got some pretty good stuff brewing," Roiland adds.
Trover Saves the Universe launches on the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR on May 31, and will be available for PC on June 4.
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