Gamedev Interview: White Star Studio
Good morning all! The sun is shining brightly outside, and my morning coffee helps get my battery going. I have a new interview today with new development team White Star Studio. Their title Thriving City: Song recently came out – a chill city builder with lovely visuals. I’ve been enjoying Thriving City a lot recently, and it will be featured in a future episode of my Indie Corner series.
In the meantime, I hope you all enjoy the interview. Thriving City: Song is available on Steam, and you can pick it up here:
Let’s start off with an introduction! Please tell me who you are, and what do you do?
I’m Wu Zhihao, or ‘Reinhardt’. I’m male, 33, and I’ve spent around 7 years in the gaming industry having worked at 3 companies of varying size. These days I’m developing indie games full-time together with three friends.
What game/studio are you currently involved with? And what position?
Currently, I’m at White Star Studio. We’re focusing on sim and city-management games, and as of today our team’s poured about two years or so into the development of Thriving City: Song. It’s a game in which you plan out your city and carefully manage your resources, immersing yourself in the stories and history as you strategize to ensure your city thrives. It’s already in Early Access, available on Steam.
What advice would you give those who wish to enter the industry?
I’d advise young graduates somewhat lacking in self-confidence to join an established, experienced indie game team (or a commercial gaming studio) and improve their general understanding of game development. That’ll also serve to iron out any misconceptions you might have before entering the industry, too. If you’re confident in your own capabilities already, I reckon you should sink your time and effort into completing a few works with a mature tea: there are always nuggets of wisdom to be gleaned from those we work alongside. Working with such a team can really broaden your perspective, and your horizons.
Essentially, I’d just advise anyone looking to enter the industry to comprehend first that it’s a labor of love, one filled with both highs and lows. If you’re going to stay afloat in the industry, you’ll need to really set your mind to it. If you’re capable and gifted with talented friends willing to join your venture, I’d say: what are you waiting for? Jump right into planning it all out, and get the ball rolling. Trial and error costs time, more than anything else, so don’t waste any. A final point I’d say is this: no matter who you are, or what you do in the industry, always consider yourself a gamer first and foremost.
If you still have time to play video games, what are some of your favorite ones to play?
I’d say anyone with a love for gaming would carve out some time in their busy schedule for the greats: Elden Ring, Hades, Civilization VI, God of War, Revelations: Persona, Dragon Quest, and so on. Me personally, I’ve achieved financial independence and I’m spoilt for choice which means I love to play a whole range of titles. As opposed to my childhood when I was stuck with what I had. That said, I’d still be able to name my favorite if asked—Blade & Sword. An older game, but one that remains an era-defining work even today.
How did you get into your chosen field in the industry?
My childhood passion for gaming led me to the industry. Ever since I stepped into wider society and had the freedom of choice, I’d held the same single desire: to make games. Several of those first months put me under serious pressure though, with few teams wanting to take on a rookie like myself. It was at an IRL event that I met the planning supervisor of the first company I’d join. We got on well, chatted a lot, and I ended up working alongside them.
What is the hardest part of your job?
I’ve always found it challenging to come up with ideas that I can get off the ground: even if I have one, I’ve still got to convince its worth to everyone else on the team. You’ve got to translate this weird but wonderful idea that’s floating around your head, which is often just as big a challenge as thinking it up in the first place!
What lessons have you learned during your time in the industry?
- It’s important for indie game teams to find a reliable publishing partner.
- Don’t build games alone. It’s vital you share your milestones and results with your friends, as their ideas and feedback are of extreme importance.
- Are you making Dark Souls? No? Then don’t fall for the whole ‘Players don’t need their hands held; they can get along fine without clear instruction!’ stuff.
What are your future project(s)?
We’d like to first polish and perfect Thriving City into a complete, official version. We’re not certain on what projects we’ll turn to after that, but they’ll likely also be sim management games, built on the experience we gained with Thriving City.
If you couldn’t be a game developer, what ideal job would you like to do?
I’d like to be a painter, or maybe a musician. Who knows? Maybe I’ll spend my time putting in those 10,000 hours once my game developing days are over.
What were your greatest challenges during the development of Thriving City: Song?
The greatest challenge presented itself after the first and second rounds of testing. We realized our game’s overall design needed adjusting, that it should focus more on playability as opposed to just being an accurate historical recreation. Before the first tests, we’d only laid down the basic frameworks and there wasn’t a whole lot in the way of playability: you could only get a feel for the basic city management features. Testers felt it was just a Chinese-themed city sim, albeit one that without any major problems, just room for improvement. We applied loads of the ideas and designs we’d had following the first test feedback, using them in the second round.
We kept to essentially the same philosophy, to err on the side of realism, but that still left us with some issues. The second test showed many players wanted to experience a city sim with more playable content, something they prioritized over a historically-accurate sim. Following some internal discussions, we concluded that our designs did need adjusting.
As after all, playability does take priority when you’re making a game! It was essential we provided a fun experience. The art style and the players drawn in by our initial tests both leaned towards a game that should be less ‘hardcore’—it needed to be an engaging, exciting Chinese-style game. We altered a whole load of previous designs, and added in some player interests such as Chinese elements, recruitment of workers, prayers to deities and ancestors, and a range of other cultural elements. On top of that, we completely overhauled the game resources and time systems, and trimmed our overly-length campaign into a segmented storyline instead.
What are your plans for Thriving City: Song during 2023 and beyond?
Our first priority is getting the current version fully stable. Then, we’ll polish up the remaining Song dynasty storylines, while also implementing other gameplay content that’s yet to appear in-game (such as that requested by Early Access players).
What games were your greatest inspirations in designing Thriving City: Song?
Frostpunk and Kingdoms and Castles.
What is your ideal video game if money and time was no object?
Bloodborne 2! Haha, just kidding. I guess my ideal game would be one that reworks several of the top games we have out now, across different genres, the ultimate top-tier game—I’ll leave its development to the top-tier studios. I’d be happy to just sit back and play it! If money was no object then I’d like to really express myself with a few small-scale yet unique games. The kind that would leave players with a lasting impression, that’d be the goal.
More about You
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Read manga, go sightseeing, have a chat, and spend time with my kids.
Coffee or Tea? Or (exult deep breath) what other drink do you prefer, if you like neither?
Coffee. Although, I’m far too lazy to brew my own, so perhaps soda instead.
You can travel to anywhere in the universe. Where would you go, and why?
I’ve always wanted to see whether Northern Europe really is as beautiful as those pictures you can find online in China.
Pick any three fiction characters. These are now your roadtrip crew. Where do you go and what do you do?
Doraemon, Saber, and C.C. We’d take to the seas, and I’d rule the waves as the Pirate King, maybe?
Finally, what superpower would you most like?
Teleportation. It’d cut down on my travel time.