Monster Lab
Monster Lab was published for DS, Wii and PS2 in 2008.
Published by: Eidos
Developed by:
Backbone Vancouver
Format: DVD / Cartridge (1024mbit)
Dev Team: 40-50
Dev Time: 2+ years
Monster Lab was a collection / RPG game for the Wii and DS, developed mainly through 2007-2008. The goal of the game was to assemble monsters (of various configuration), bring them to life, and use them to fight battles in order to proceed through the story.

As you might imagine, Pokémon was a large influence, although many other people and games put their stamp on the final product. I can’t figure out the roots of the project exactly except to say that Trent Ward (at that point our Design Director) was its champion through conception.

Development

Monster Lab was a large production, consuming almost the entire studio to complete. At one point there were probably more than 10 designers on the project (and quite a few more programmers and artists.)  At first, it was quite exciting; the studio was blazing a new trail with a new IP, a fresh platform (the Wii), a strong publisher to pay the bills (Eidos) and a corporate shoulder to lean on (Foundation 9).

My contribution for most of the project was to lead design on the mini-games: 10+ “games within the game” on both platforms that would be played repeatedly to earn items which could later be transmuted into monster parts. To make it even harder, we needed to share assets (design, code, art) wherever possible to offer the same experience on three very different platforms without blowing the budget. Consider the following:

  1. The Wii was a new platform when we began. Performance had its ups and downs, but finding out what worked and what didn’t with the Wii Remote was a constant struggle. Many mini-games were cancelled or rewritten multiple times as a result of the inconsistent output. (This was years prior to the introduction of the Wii MotionPlus.) One of our mini-games (digging) used to have an actual hammering gesture, but we found it so unreliable that we ended up settling for a shaking action instead.
  2. The Wii and DS couldn’t be more different in terms of their input method (stylus versus remote.) Many mini-games that were meant to mirror each other ended up being canned in favor of simpler, platform specific variants.
  3. Managing multiple games means managing multiple “mini-teams” of artists, programmers and designers to guide each along the right path…while also handling a share of that load myself. We were effectively building two games simultaneously using one budget and timeframe.

Aftermath

Monster Lab wasn’t an easy project to finish. There was a lot of staff turnover (many helped found United Front Games), a lot of game changes, three wildly different platforms (the PS2 version being added very, very late into production), and just a lot of the struggle that comes from essentially building two different games at once. (Four, if you count the multiplayer modes we had to add on both platforms.) But we made it to the finish line.

The company was effectively gone by the time the game shipped, and while it certainly didn’t score at the 80+ Metacritic we originally were shooting for, the game was warmly received among the Wii faithful and was nominated for an award despite coming out to almost no fanfare.