Recently I found myself having to build a modern four drawer dresser from Target. It turns out, when you move, you need places to put all the clothes you bring with you. However, it made me wish that I had an IKEA nearby. Thankfully, I found an oppertunity to pretend I had one in the game Assembly Required, by MUTT Studios. This goofy managment/tower defense hybrid caught my eye, and I wanted to learn more about it. Thankfully MUTT Studios' design director, Walter Woods, was more than happy to tell me about the game.
TechRaptor: Hello Walter!
Walter Woods: Hey.
TechRaptor: MUTT Studios. How did it get started?
Walter: I was an architect. I was trained as an architect, I worked as an architect in Boston, and I ended up meeting... sometimes you meet somebody who's way too smart to allow to do things without you benefiting from them. So I ended up meeting my original partner Russ, who's a software engineer. He works on Wall Street in New York for a Hedge Fund. So we met up there, I was an architect at the time but I was transitioning out of the industry because of recession and a few other things, and was learning how to program and how to design for games. So at the time I was interested in environment design, but I ended up getting interested in game design as a whole.
So we started a company and worked on a few small projects, and then we ended up doing VR projects for a while. We were doing boutique VR experiences for companies back in like 2014, 2015. So we were working on trade show projects back when VR was just picking up and becoming a thing that was very new to see at trade shows. We did that stuff. I would basically design it, Russ and I would collaborate on making it happen, and we did those for a while. We did some art installations in New York. So we were just developing software on a very small basis for a while there. Then we decided to do a game.
TechRaptor: So what kind of VR projects did you work on?
Walter: A lot of them were just companies going to a trade show and they wanted a VR experience to explain their wares, they wanted to be kind of cool and interactive. Stuff like that for different companies. A lot of them I can't say the name of the company because of non-disclosures, but we worked for this company in New York, Bravo, and we basically would help support their clients as contractors for a while. It was essentially fun for us to get experience and to fund production of future games.
We also did some mixed VR/AR projects or installations, like a holiday party center piece for a big holiday party for network execs. So we did, you know, some pretty in-depth room mapping and crazy things were we build some sets for people to interact with in VR. At the time it was pretty new implantation in VR in 2015. That was kind of what we were doing, just getting experience developing software that way.
TechRaptor: You guys put out your first game, which is Assembly Required. Could you really quickly, just for those who don't know about it or want to know more, could you really quickly just give me the elevator pitch on Assembly Required?
Walter: Yeah, so basically its a game where you create a furniture maze. You're the manager of a furniture store and it's essentially like an IKEA joke, you know? Where you go into an IKEA it's the worst, most insane thing ever, and you're just totally confused by all the paths. You build a furniture maze and then we kind of created this mix between a tower defense game and a tycoon game. So you're managing your store, plus you're building this maze and constantly dealing with all the crazy challenges that come from the customers that come to the store.
TechRaptor: How did the original idea for this come about?
Walter: I was a college student who constantly relied on IKEA for my furniture. [Laughter.] You know, I just had to experience this-- you know I've heard people talk about that kind of ridiculous thing before, and for me I have a love/hate relationship with IKEA, especially as an architect. I need some level of, you know, nice design in my life, but I didn't have any money. So I just... IKEA was the place to go. Of course, it comes with its own set of challenges, and it's very crazy, but I still love IKEA and I still go, it's just... we thought it'd be a fun idea for a game.
TechRaptor: Every time you go IKEA do you get the meatballs?
Walter: Always. Every time. They're so delicious!
Walter: And the whole thing is-- you can actually buy a bag of meatballs there too. I've never done it, because I want the meatballs to stay at IKEA.
TechRaptor: I feel like that's the only way to get the full experience.
Walter: You can only get them when you go. It's not cool to take them home. It wouldn't feel right.
TechRaptor: It wouldn't be a full experience.
Walter: No, it wouldn't.
TechRaptor: Out of curiosity, just how long did you guys spend studying an IKEA for this game?
Walter: I feel like my entire young adulthood I was studying an IKEA. I've gone to IKEA several times since we've began the game. I wish I could have written some stuff off as tax write-offs. I don't think it quite counts. But yeah, we've... it's actually interesting. I first learned about the design of IKEA in architecture school, it's a case study that we look at when we're looking at design and architecture as a way to control people's circulation through buildings, and we look at how IKEA approaches this and, you know, they're considered an extreme approach. Considered a little bit more of a controlling approach, where as, you know, some architects may not agree with that approach, but it works well for retail.
TechRaptor: Now the game just came out in December, I believe. Correct?
TechRaptor: How does it feel now that it's finally done, it's out there?
Walter: It feels great, but there's kind of that always... I mean, we're still supporting the game so it's never really quite done for us. Because we care about it being the best it can be for people, we even released an update the day after Christmas, after it came out. We've been working hard to make sure the community still has it, knows that we have it in mind. It feels good for it to be out, and it was also a lot of work also to make sure to release game that wasn't just an alpha, you know? Because everyone seems to be doing that now a days, to release games that are not done, they're nowhere near done.
TechRaptor: So you guys decided on this tower defense management style game. How did you start going about designing all that?
Walter: Well it was kind of a process. It was definitely a reflexive process because, originally, with the game, we knew that we wanted a maze, and we kind of had to lean on the conventions of the tower defense genre so that we could make the right decisions, so that it would be recognizable to people. So, of course, the base concept is "people try to get to the end." The initial trick in Assembly Required is to figure out how that made sense with the idea of a store. So really it's that people are trying to escape. The second they get in they're trying to escape your store.
That, you know, drove us forward. We knew that we wanted some kind of strong humor elements. So really our two kind of pillars for the game, in terms of design, we were wanted it to be deceptively complex. Like it looked like it was simple, then when you actually played it you realized there was a lot more to it than you thought.
The second thing we wanted was that we'd never leave a joke on the table. If there was room for a joke, we made a joke every time. Even if it was a stupid joke, we made a joke. There was never a spot where we didn't try to make a joke about IKEA or in general just the sadistic way you treat your customers. There's always a way to make a joke. So those were our two things that we've actually been pleased with the feedback, that everybody seems to notice that those two things we were pushing for.
TechRaptor: Besides IKEA, what other furniture related places did you look into to help with the inspiration for the game?
Walter: Let's see... it's more... I think it wasn't as much specifically furniture related places, I think that it was more about talking to people who had worked in retail stores. In fact, people who worked in retail stores tend to not enjoy our game, it just brings back too many horrible memories. So we found that, you know, that was the source of inspiration for us, people who worked in retail and all the problems they deal with with customers and the kind of constant issues there, was a big source for us.
TechRaptor: As someone who has worked retail, at Target, I just want to say I greatly appreciate your game.
Walter: There's a lot in there that I think people who worked retail, it's a nod to them.
TechRaptor: But I do want to say, it does also bring back all the worst memories.
Walter: Yeah, yeah. [Laughter.]
TechRaptor: So you guys went about designing this goofy maze-building tower defense retail management sim. What ended up not making it into the game? Is there anything you ended up having to cut?
Walter: Uhm... originally on there was some notions about potentially different goals that the customers might make where they'd change their path through the maze. Like, by their own free will. We just found it wasn't clear in gameplay, and the AI, to create for that, and it didn't really broadcast to the player. We thought it'd be a lot more hectic if the customers could try to turn around and run out or, you know, go on their own little tangent and stuff. But we really realized that sticking to that one reality, that they're all going to try to move forward, we still have a lot a variety because your displays can be destroyed, and then they travel different paths.
These are things we don't normally see in tower defense games. So we think we innovated on the genre, but because we were trying to innovate early on there were a few innovations that were a step to far that we were trying to do that we pulled back on so it'd be more understandable. That's been a big struggle in our processes, just to make sure that we don't innovate so far that it's unrecognizable from the kind of game that it generally is drawing from.
TechRaptor: Have you considered trying to go back and figure out a way to get them to work?
Walter: No, I think that it's clear and better now. I don't regret not getting that in. I think that its better they have one goal, and really it's as you're trying to stop them is when all the chaos happens. It's better they not have a mind of their own, exactly. They're all one track mind right now.
TechRaptor: So you guys released this game in December. What's next? I know you mentioned before you're still updating Assembly Required. Are you going to add DLC? Or are you guys going to start a new project?
Walter: We do have some ideas for some cool DLC. We have some very extreme meatball related content coming everyone's way, potentially.
TechRaptor: Uh oh.
Walter: We had some ideas about that. We also looked at improving a few aspects of the replayability of the game. Its generally not decided yet, but through making the boss decisions more meaningful, things like that. I think that there's been some discussion about improvements we want to have. So yeah, we're still working on the game, still clunking away at it.
TechRaptor: You guys have any, besides the DLC, do you guys have any other game ideas in the pipelines?
Walter: Oh yeah, we got lots of ideas. But, you know, these are... we got to sit down as a studio and figure out which one makes sense for us. We haven't quite nailed down one. Everybodys got their favorites. We've got a lot of ideas for the next one, but we'll see.
TechRaptor: Fair enough. Also, since you're working on Assembly Required still, are there any plans to bring it to the PlayStation, Xbox, or Nintendo Switch?
Walter: No, not right now, because the controls are very... I think there's a lot of clicking, you know? Not sure how well it'd work on those platforms, and it would really have to depend on sales as well. Maybe we'd consider it if it took off pretty well. But we'll see about that. The kind of feeling about it is that I don't know how well it'd work on consoles personally. A lot of people wish it was on mobile, because they see it and they think it should be a mobile game. But, I don't think we can do that either. I think we're limited to PC. I don't know if that was the right thing to say, but we kind of are. We may do Mac, that was something that was possible. Or Linux.
TechRaptor: Since you mentioned people see it and think it should be on mobile, what went into the art style of the game? Did you go out of your way to make it look like an IKEA?
Walter: Yeah, we went out of our way to make it simplified and a lot of white space and sort of pops of color and line work, like IKEA. Originally the game was potentially going to be a 2D game where people looked a lot more like IKEA drawings. That was a thought about it, where either 2D or a 3D game with a very particular shader that would have made it look that way. But we found that we had a lot more flexibility and that we could do a ton more with a 3D game, so we stuck with-- we went with 3D, but for a while we were prototyping ideas of it looking literally like the IKEA instruction manual only. We ended up taking that aesthetic and putting it into our menus, but using a little more 3D to give the game a more rounded out feel.
TechRaptor: Do you guys have plans to put it on the Epic Game Store, or do you think you'll just keep it on Steam?
Walter: We want to expand to different places. I think that's something that's interesting to us. Epic seems to be a little... I'm not sure, we haven't tried yet with them, but they're being selective about what they're putting on the store. But we do have plans to move to a few other platforms in pretty short order. What we're doing is we're just waiting until we have all the patches out that we want to make the game really exactly what we want, and then, you know, updates will be a little less common after that. Once we've got one or more updates we're going to start moving to other stores.
TechRaptor: Do you guys have any feelings on working with Valve, or think it'll be different working with Epic?
Walter: These things are pretty automated, I don't really know. We don't have really have to deal with them and they don't deal with us very much. It's just, we go through their process. I don't think we really have a preference. Of course, I'd like to give less money to people who are selling my game. I think everybody would agree with that, right?
TechRaptor: Now since you guys worked on VR and AR stuff, have you considered a VR version of the game?
Walter: We thought about that, that is a possibility. We'd have to see what makes sense. The UI probably wouldn't be awesome in VR, so we'd have to figure it out. Maybe if we put them on detachable planes that you can access at any time. It's definitely a possibility, depending on if people really want to be that close to the chaos.
TechRaptor: Maybe stick with the IKEA theme and make it a furniture building simulator?
Walter: There is a game like that, actually. While we were doing our market research there was one other IKEA game and it's when you build furniture.
TechRaptor: I just went through building a dresser, so I'm not sure why I'd want to do that in VR, but...
Walter: I don't know why people would want to do that. There's a lot of games like that in VR now.
TechRaptor: Now when it came to designing the... basically the traps, I guess, you could say, the displays. What went into that?
Walter: So our thought behind the traps was... we kind of imagined all of customers as masochists. So it's almost like you go to an IKEA you're going there to suffer, you know you're going to suffer, and the joke is the most suffering we can give you is going to convince you to buy it. So, you know, all the traps are not really... a lot of them don't totally make sense why you would buy a piece of furniture after this happened to you, but our joke was, you know, you love it. You love the suffering. That's why you come here anyway. So that's why all the displays seem like they're torturous, but they still spend their money.
TechRaptor: That's true, but also not just from graphical/artistic angle, but how do you decide, like... "I need this trap to do X because otherwise Y happens"?
Walter: In terms of, like, the ideas for the traps were like, the pitching system, was built around the biggest innovation we have, maybe the same size innovation as the adaptable paths they have, but the biggest innovation is that, during the day in a tower defense game, rarely do you have much to do except maybe a couple of abilities you can roll out. This game, you have to do this pitching all day long where you're assigning your employees and waiting for people to come around.
So that was what the original imputes was, give them something more active to do during the day and this would help push the feeling of an extremely hectic work day. Instead of just waiting and hoping you made the right decisions, you could actually save your day by microskill, you know? So that's why we did the pitching system, but in terms of what we did for the jokes, that was all really on Clayton, our creative director. He was the one who just animated all our displays and made ridiculous jokes out of all of them. There's 48 of them so it took him quite a long time.
TechRaptor: Did he make terrible puns all over the game?
Walter: A lot of the puns are mine, I have to admit.
TechRaptor: Oh no.
Walter: But yeah, I mean, especially on the IKEA theme and all that weird stuff, yeah, just me and him kind of riffing.
TechRaptor: Now at any point in the development, were you guys contacted by IKEA?
Walter: We wish we had, that would have been good PR.
TechRaptor: It would have been.
Walter: I still hope they send us something, then we can be the little giant studio that was trying to defend against big bad IKEA, that'd be nice.
TechRaptor: Maybe they'll let you guys use real IKEA products?
Walter: Yeah, maybe they'll get wind of it. I thought about going to the IKEA near me, in Jacksonville, and handing out copies of the game, seeing if we could rile them up.
TechRaptor: I don't think it works if you say it out loud.
Walter: [Laughter.] No, it doesn't.
TechRaptor: Do you have any final statements for anyone reading this?
Walter: We're really proud of the game we made, we're proud of the way we made it. We tried to do this in a pro-consumer way, and I think we succeeded. We tried to make a game that was fun, it runs well, it's complete, and, you know, it's well loved. We put a lot of effort into this game and we wanted to make sure people can see that, and so far people are seeing that, so we're really pleased with it. We hope more people will buy it and check it out.
TechRaptor: Alright, well, Walter thanks for taking the time to talk with me. It's really interesting, and I hope your meatball-related update adventure goes well.
Walter: Yeah, me too.
We'd like to once again thank Walter for taking the time to talk with us.