Monster Lab (box art)Platform: Wii / DS / PlayStation 2
Published by: Eidos
Developed by: Backbone Vancouver
Format: DVD / Cartridge (1024mbit)

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; my largest to date. 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 trail on their own IP with a firm publisher backing Eidos) and a corporate shoulder to lean on (Foundation 9).

My contribution for most of the project was to work 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. If that sounds simple to you, well, you’d be wrong, for a variety of reasons:

  1. Monster Lab (screenshot)

    Welding using the Wii Remote. (click)

    The Wii was a new platform when we began. 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.

  2. The Wii and the 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. (I think we ended up shipping with half of the amount of mini-games we originally planned for.)
  3. Managing multiple games means managing multiple “mini-teams” of artists, programmers, and designers to guide each along the right path (and also work doing the same thing yourself simultaneously.)
Monster Lab (screenshot)

Assembling a monster.

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, a third platform (PS2) added late in development, 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. Five, if you want to count the quick-and-dirty PS2 port.)

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

 

Monster Lab (screenshot)

Fighting another Monster.

Working with the Wii Remote
Like I said, working with the Wii Remote was difficult. The problem wasn’t so much detecting a specific movement, but detecting it consistently.  The two most reliable actions on the hardware are (a) pointing and (b) shaking – detecting movement in a specific direction without the pointer is a much harder task. One of our mini-games (digging) used to use an actual hammering gesture, but we found it to be so unreliable that I believe we gave it shaking input characteristics instead. I’m told MotionPlus helps resolve much of this problem but this project was before its time.

Rating and Rewards

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