Dragons are amazing. A lot of creatures in fantasy and science fiction are incredible. Put them in a game and I often want to play as them, or interact with them, or just watch them and take numerous screenshots. It’s a shame that games often make you destroy them in the end.
That won’t be the case with Beasts of Maravilla Island.
“The biggest main inspiration for this game came from how I was very disappointed in how few games allow for meaningful and nonviolent interactions with magical creatures. Because I love games that have awesome dragons or beautiful griffins or any sort of fantastical beast, but most of the time, all that you can do is kill them,” said Michelle Olson, Beasts of Maravilla Island’s creative director. “And that breaks my heart. So I really wanted to create something that would allow for you to not only appreciate their beauty and get to admire them in their natural habitat in a peaceful way, but also allowed the player to have opportunities to engage with them and interact with them in ways that were non-damaging, but still compelling.”
In the game, Olson said that players will be able to “sneak, solve puzzles, and explore the magical jungles of Maravilla Island in order to discover extraordinary creatures, learn their behaviors, and most importantly, photograph their majesty.”
Admiring Crystalline Bugs
Olson’s project was one of many exhibited online at the USC Games Expo, an annual event that showcases the work of game design students from the University of Southern California. Like many other events affected by COVID-19, the expo went fully virtual.
Singer-songwriter mxmtoon played Beasts of Maravilla Island live on the USC Games Expo website, and was impressed by the creativity behind the creatures. Imaginative animals like mango birds, rainbow-crested quetzal monkeys, and gem insects were featured during the livestream.
“There’s a little grasshopper with an opal for a thorax, and I love that one so much,” Olson commented with a delighted laugh while speaking on Zoom. She admits it’s like a play on jewel beetles in real life.
“And that was one of the earliest feature concepts that we had, and it really ignited this fire of like, ‘Oh my gosh this is what this game can be, like we can have cool gem bugs,’” Olson said.
She credited one of the game’s art directors, Hang Luo, with creating those original concepts.
Studying with a Paleontologist
Developing Beasts of Maravilla Island has been a hugely collaborative effort, with a team of over 25 members. Olson shares that she, lead designer Eva Wierzbicki, and the art team also worked with Dr. Michael Habib, a paleontologist with the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.
“But he also has an incredible background in ornithology and other animal biology sciences,” Olson said. “So he was mentoring us and letting us study specimens within the Natural History Museum, not only to get a better understanding of anatomical structures, so we can make things like our flying monkey anatomically feasible, but also providing us some really interesting information about behavioral traits of animals.”
This research led to several things in Beasts of Maravilla Island, such as in-game journal prompts for photographing different animal behaviors like gliding and singing.
“So that partnership [with Dr. Habib], paired with our own individual research of specific species of animals, was a huge inspiration to us—like for example, the tail twining [or entwining] behavior that was seen on our monkey creatures, was inspired by the real-life behavior of monkeys called Titi monkeys, where they like to twine their tails together...there can be whole families of monkeys that like to tie their tails together, and we thought that was a really wonderful and kind of inherently magical thing found in nature," Olson said. "And so that’s where a lot of— all of our creatures’ behaviors and designs came from, all of them are [based] in some form or another in a real animal’s behavior.”
Finding Inspiration in Photos of Wild Pokémon and Hyrule
When I first read about Beasts of Maravilla Island and its focus on photographing fantastical critters in the wild, fuzzy memories of a certain Nintendo spin-off came to mind.
“We also—no surprise—took a lot of inspiration from Pokémon Snap,” Olson said. “We kind of challenged ourselves to think, ‘what if we did Pokémon Snap,’ but allowed for you to engage with the creatures beyond the confines of your rails, and being able to engage with them in ways just beyond throwing food at them, like being able to play with them or sing with them, and communicate with them.”
In fact, while watching mxmtoon play the game during the expo livestream, I began to think less of Pokémon Snap and more of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I grew to enjoy just taking pictures of animals and even plants to fill in the Hyrule Compendium, and could’ve actually played a game that was just about that. Now Beasts of Maravilla Island started looking like it could be that game, especially when I saw the game’s main character, Marina Montez, climb a plant to reach some arboreal creatures.
“Yup, the old, old one-line pitch was like, ‘What if Hyrule Compendium was the whole game?’” Olson shared, confirming that the 2017 Zelda hit was another inspiration for her team’s game. “‘Cause that’s really...I love that feature in Breath of the Wild so much, and I was like, ‘Why don’t we just juice the heck out of it and make that the emphasis?’”
Abzû was another game that greatly influenced Beasts of Maravilla Island. “That one’s a very exploratory and beautiful and peaceful game that features really interesting animal interactions,” Olson said.
From Solo Dev to Recruiting a Team
When she was a junior at USC, Olson started Beasts of Maravilla Island as a solo developer last spring semester. “But this had been a game idea that was bopping around in my brain for a couple years,” she said.
Olson hadn’t felt ready to tackle the project until she spent that semester taking a class on game directing and learning about Nintendo Switch development. After that, she pitched the idea for Beasts of Maravilla Island to the Advanced Games Program at USC.
The pitch was accepted, and her project was greenlit last May. Olson recruited her team for yearlong development, gathering members from not only the USC community, but also from ArtCenter College of Design and Cal State Fullerton. The team made good progress, reaching milestones in development.
Recreating an Academic Lab
When COVID-19 happened and shut down much of the world, Olson and her team had to adjust to working remotely.
“We did have to be kind of flexible and creative with how we wanted to simulate the lab environment that we had created at school in an online space, because something that was really important to my team and the way that we worked was we met two days a week on Thursdays and Sundays, and we all hung out in the same room,” Olson explained. “And that really helped make sure that problems were solved fast, that we felt a sense of community and accountability with one another. So this switch to online was like, ‘Oh my goodness, how are we going to— how are we going to replicate that [while] being completely remote?’”
A Discord server and its multiple meeting rooms (or channels) proved to be a decent analogue for that system.
“I would not be where I am without the help of my incredible team,” Olsen said. “So I just want all of them to be celebrated and appreciated, because I may be the director, but they’re the ones that really, really brought this thing off the ground.”
Pick Up a Camera this Summer
The PC demo that mxmtoon played on Twitch featured the jungle, but Olsen said there will be two other areas on Maravilla Island to explore. According to her, the demo also teases her favorite creature in the game at the very end. She promised there will be more of him later.
Players can check out the demo for Beasts of Maravilla Island on itch.io now. They can also look forward to the full game launching on Nintendo Switch this summer. Olsen adds that she and her team hope to have it available on Steam at around the same time.
“The biggest dream right now is just to make sure that launch goes smoothly and that we can get our game into the hands of as many players as possible.”
Are you interested in Beasts of Maravilla Island? Do you want to destroy less creatures and just hang out with them in games? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.