Ori and the Will of the Wisps interview: making a masterpiece

A few times when speaking to Thomas Mahler, CEO of Moon Studios, he drops in the word ‘masterpiece’. He’s chatting about the team’s upcoming Ori and the Will of the Wisps, the gorgeous Metroidvania sequel to 2015’s superb Ori and the Blind Forest; his personal motivations, those of the team, and why – after a decade in existence – the studio will have put out just two games when Will of the Wisps launches later this year.

Saying you want something you’ve made, before it has even been finished, to be a masterpiece would feel arrogant – maybe just a bit presumptuous, or pretentious, maybe – in other circumstances. Here? It fits. It just fits.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps might turn out to be a missed opportunity. Something might go wrong. It might just not be that great – might, might, might.

But it probably won’t be: the pedigree is there from the first game, and the fact Microsoft, publishing partners with the team (though not outright owners – Moon retains its independence), has offered a hands-off, take-your-time approach to the development process… well, it’s all making the right kind of noises.

Will this sequel be a masterpiece? We won’t know that until it’s out. But Mahler saying he and the team, distributed around the world as it is, are aiming for it to be one – in this case, it doesn’t make us baulk.

As you might have guessed, we had a bit of a chin-wag with Mahler about Will of the Wisps: the influences, his hopes and aspirations, that ‘masterpiece’ chat, and why the game will be the Super Mario Bros. 3 to the original’s Super Mario Bros.

How has the mood at Moon changed since your first game?
We are a completely different studio now – when we started on Blind Forest, we were about 20 people. We shipped in 2015 and, since then, we’ve become a studio of 70 people, and we have multiple projects in development.

So it’s very much a different studio. Part of what we did over the past few years was just scaling the studio, building the studio to a place where we could work with that many people – still in a distributed fashion.

The idea for the studio is still the same; that we try to get this elite talent together, and people who are super-passionate about making these games and want to push and really make a dent in this industry and make masterpieces. But it’s a much more mature operation now.

How much did these changes feed into the core design of the sequel?
When we started Will of the Wisps, the idea was this: we knew we had something good with Ori and the Blind Forest, we were very happy with the platforming controls and so on, and Blind Forest was very much about being a platformer.

When we started that project, I was frustrated with the fact that if you played your typical Metroidvanias, they usually don’t have very complex or even good platforming controls – they’re usually just very basic.

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How most of us feel on encountering a regular house spider, we’re sure.

If you look at something like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, even Hollow Knight, things like that, it’s very basic; the platforming itself isn’t on the same level you’d see in something like a 2D Mario game. So, for Blind Forest, that was our challenge – we wanted to be up there with Nintendo when it came to the level design and the platforming controls.

For Will of the Wisps it was different – we saw we had a lot of good stuff, but what was very clear to me is that we didn’t want to make a cash-in sequel… we didn’t want to make a boring sequel – we’re not that kind of studio.

We’ve always been looking for partners who allow us to do this, and Microsoft has been excellent with that – [they’ve] really understood our mission to be the kind of studio that Blizzard used to be in the late 1990s and early 2000s, where you know these are a bunch of crazy people who just polish the hell out of their games and try to make masterpieces. Whenever they ship something, it’s going to be exciting.

I’ve been making comparisons to Super Mario Bros. 3 – if you look at those games, the first Super Mario Bros. was a very basic platformer. It was good, it revolutionised how a platformer worked, with scrolling and really nicely designed levels and so on – then they had the challenge of what to do with Super Mario Bros. 3.

They added all these other elements that really benefited the game – now you had the overworld map, a little bit of non-linearity, you had the suits, you could fly, there were so many elements added that just made the whole experience deeper and more satisfying. You could play the game again and maybe not use the Tanooki suit, and experience the game in a different way.

It was a natural evolution, by adding more stuff and more elements… and that’s what we did with Will of the Wisps.

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It’s gorgeous, enchanting, and likely to be the sort of thing that has you in fits of tears by the end of it. Huzzah!

How do you design good platforming ‘feel’?
Constant iteration. Every level of Ori is designed so that every jump feels really good… For the controls, though, it is constant iteration. On Blind Forest, we spent over a year and a half just honing the controls, making sure that it felt really good for every jump, every ability, that everything you could do felt really good.

For Will of the Wisps, we pushed it even further – we looked at the tightness, the thresholds and everything, and just tried to make it even tighter… It’s just designers sitting down with programmers and trying that jump a hundred times, changing values by 0.02 percent – it’s crazy, but a lot of times we get to the point where it’s like, ‘OK, that actually feels good’.

There’s a certain art to it, there are certain values where the human brain is just, ‘Yes, this feels right’. The only way you get there is by trying and failing, trying another value, failing, trying again, until you have it all working together.

Are there any fundamental aspects that have changed?
It’s still a Metroidvania, but it’s more open. I would say Blind Forest was a lot more linear; with Will of the Wisps, it really opens up at some point, and you can do what you want. I think that’ll be really interesting to see how people play the game, what they tackle first, or if they get lost in exploration.

But the core itself – it’s a platformer, it’s about tight level design – there’s a lot of precision platforming in there, that we still have. It’s just intermingled a lot more with all the new aspects.

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Things pick up precisely from where the first game ended; egg contents and all.

What changes from a tools and pipeline perspective have you made? How does working on a sequel change things?
The thing with these projects is that by the end of production, the tools are really refined; it gets a lot easier to design levels and put pieces in and so on.

But generally speaking, we wanted to take it to the next level – we didn’t want anyone to feel like it was just a straight-up sequel; I wanted people to feel like this could be Ori 3, and we’d skipped over the second game, because it’s such an extensive new thing.

Engine-wise, we’re working really closely with Unity on the core side because there’s a lot of optimisations we have to put into the engine, to make the game look like that and feel like that and still maintain a super-stable performance where it runs at 60 frames per second on consoles, and at 120 or 240 hertz on PC.

Our tools and the engine has changed so much that we started calling it the Moon-ity engine – most of the things we do in Unity is actually our own stuff now. It’s just constant iteration on those tools and trying to perfect the workflow for everyone. We have a lot of social tools in our pipeline, because we work in a distributed fashion – with 70 or 80 people it’s always a challenge.

Two games in ten years – what are your thoughts on this boutique approach?
We like it. I’m super-appreciative of Microsoft that they’ve allowed us to work in this way – they didn’t just ask for a sequel in a year, they’ve never been like that. We approached them and pitched a sequel, but the last thing we wanted to do was a quick sequel.

We wanted it to be substantial. I think it’s similar to Playdead – I think they’ve existed longer than us and they’ve made Limbo and Inside, that’s it. I like that approach, because we always try to create masterpieces. Games where we’re like, ‘If that ships, that will make a dent’; [a game] people would really connect with, and a project we’d done everything we could have to make it something masterful.

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Combat has been a big focus for the team at Moon Studios, with responsiveness and satisfaction key.

Would you say the original Ori is a masterpiece?
It was our first effort – we’re proud of what we did, for sure. It was so hard to build the studio, to work remotely with those 20 people, and have these huge ambitions, then ship it. Just going from being a cinematic artist who did prototypes on the side, to pitching that, to getting picked up by Microsoft – there’s a lot of stuff that if you asked gamers, they would never know.

A lot of what it takes to actually build a studio – to build a company. We were very proud of Blind Forest and what was shipped there… it’s a hard question. To me, I’m proud of what we shipped. It’s a good game. It’s a very good game. Obviously, there are things I felt could have been better, otherwise, I wouldn’t have done a sequel.

How can you maintain a level of emotional impact and involvement for a sequel?
We have the story about this orphan, basically, who lost his mother and then went through all this stuff, [and] had this experience. Then for Will of the Wisps, it was more about siblings this time around, and how that affects your life; so, taking the human aspect of someone’s life, Ori is very much an allegory.

We tell these fantastical stories with forest spirits and weird creatures and so on, but really, in the end, it’s all about the human aspect. The reason why people connected to those characters we had in Blind Forest is simply because, well, when Ori’s mother dies, immediately what you have in your head is if you went through that experience, if you lost someone that you love, that’s what pops into your head.

For Will of the Wisps, we did a similar thing – it’s not just about following the story up, it’s about asking what the human core is here: how can we tell a story and connect it again and really make ourselves vulnerable again, and tell a story where people can really connect the dots with their own lives.

If you can make those connections, and really connect to someone on that level, then I think something magical happens. I’m pretty sure by the end, when people finish Will of the Wisps – well, I already know, and it sounds like a bit of a loaded thing to say, but I already know – the ending will hit them really hard.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps will launch 11 March on Xbox One and PC

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