Microsoft’s next exclusive, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, launches on March 11 for Xbox and PC, and through Xbox Game Pass. A sequel to the well-regarded 2015 original from Moon Studios, the sequel moves beyond the forests of Nibel and into a new domain, with puzzles to solve and abilities to use.
Like the original, Will of the Wisps is developed by Moon Studios, a team of independent developers around the world who work together as part of a unique decentralized studio structure.
In the lead-up to Will of the Wisps’ release next month, GameSpot caught up with executive producer Daniel Smith and composer Gareth Coker to learn more about the ambitious project. In the interview, the developers speak about the unique development structure, where the story idea for the sequel came from, what makes the music so compelling, and lots more.
Smith also speaks about what the power of the Xbox One X allows Ori and the Will Wisps to achieve technically and creatively, while he also discusses the impact of Xbox Game Pass on the title.
“I think Game Pass is a great vehicle to get what we’ve created into more gamers’ hands and, ultimately, I think it’s really healthy for the Ori IP, it’s really healthy for Moon, it’s really healthy for Xbox, for more people to play Ori,” he said.
You can read the full interview below below. And for more on Will of the Wisps, check out GameSpot’s recent preview that explains how the sequel attaches you to its world in a way the original didn’t.
One of the more unique parts of the first Ori was how it was developed through a decentralized studio structure with remote workers all over the world. Has this changed at all for Will of the Wisps, and how has advances in technology impacted your work?
Gareth Coker: I think one of the biggest benefits of a decentralised studio structure is that someone is working on the game at any time. If someone’s in Australia working, someone in America is probably not likely to be working on the game. Which is great because when I wake up, I wake up to a bunch of updates. It’s really cool for anyone working on the game, no matter where they are on the globe. It can be very, very motivating to wake up and see a cool update that’s been added to the game.
When you don’t have a centralised studio, you need people who are self-motivated and when content is coming in like that, that adds to the self-motivation. Obviously, there are challenges with it being globally distributed; organising meetings is quite difficult because someone is going to have to get up early at some point. But, that’s a relatively small challenge to overcome.
I think one of the biggest things is that the team is bigger from the first game to the second. On the first game, at its peak, the team was about 20, and now we’re up to about 80. I have to be honest – I wasn’t sure if the organisation would hold up, but it actually has, and I think it’s because of everything that we learnt on the first game about making a title with no central office location. One of the pros is that you can work on the game when you want, and that can mean like sudden bursts of really hard work when you’re feeling really inspired.
But if you need to take a day off, you can, and I think people working on a team, especially on a title like this, which is so visually interesting and has so many different things going for it, it can be very inspiring to work on a title like that on a day to day basis.
Daniel Smith: But I’d say another huge benefit is that, after the critical success of the Ori in the Blind Forest, Moon Studios did receive a lot of attention, and as a result a lot of talented people wanted to work on the sequel. Rather than have people uproot themselves and relocate, it’s like, “No, you can stay where you are, you can stay where you’re close to your families, and you can work out of your own home, and work in your pyjamas.”
Story-wise, did you have the spark of this idea from the time you finished Blind Forest or did that come later? And without giving away specifics, what is the story in Will of the Wisps and what are the themes that you’re touching on with the sequel?
Daniel Smith: Well, the first thing is that we wanted to just offer players more; I think a lot of people beat Blind Forest in somewhat in around eight hours, and the general sentiment was, “Oh my gosh, I loved the game. I wish it were longer,” you know, “please make more Ori.” So, that’s the very first thing we looked at, “How do we make the game bigger?” and that’s not just in terms of scale, it’s in terms of scope. So, I think we’ve taken a lot of inspiration from games we loved in our generation as kids, and even now, and we’ve added quite a bit of depth into Ori. So, that is one of the biggest things that we were looking at.
The other thing is to have story continuity; so, at the end of Blind Forest, here you have the Spirit Tree that gets healed by replacing Sein back up into this tree, and that heart of the Spirit Tree Sein was, actually, a part of Ori’s combat mechanic. Well, the issue there is that we don’t really want to start a sequel out with, “Hey, we ripped Sein back out of the tree and now you’ve got Sein again.”
So, we had somewhat of a continuity issue, and I think the desire to go bigger in Ori helped the problem. So, we considered, “Well, what if Ori had Spirit weapons and combat was more melee-based and there were projectiles and Ori had to aim at times?” I think a lot of the new elements of the direction of where we wanted to go, the combat actually helped the storyline, itself, evolve.
Ori And The Will Of The Wisps – Gameplay Trailer | TGA 2019
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What are some of the unique story-telling challenges when you’re making a platformer as opposed to a more narrative-focused type of game?
Daniel Smith: I think the big challenge there is how do we make a Metroidvania title that is emotional enough to make people really feel something. A Metroidvania game that strongly resonates down to people’s core, makes them identify with characters and, potentially, people they know in their lives, or even themselves. That’s a serious challenge.
Another challenge of ours was “How can we pick up the story where Blind Forest left off while also making the game feel very fresh to newcomers?” We don’t want people to feel like they’ve missed something, or, “Oh shoot, I can’t play this, I need to go back and play Blind Forest.”
The music that Gareth Coker created for the original Ori was incredible. It had a nice spread of different themes and tones with varied instrumentation and styles. Now that the story is moving to a whole new world outside of Nibel, what kind of music can fans expect and what are the tones you’re going for in this new setting?
Gareth Coker: The first soundtrack was unique, and I think it was important to carry that over into the second game. In the first game every environment, and we’ve got a lot more of them in this game, has a unique kind of sonic signature, or instrument palette, and that should be highly recognisable. I want players when they hear a track on the soundtrack to be “Yes, that’s the track from that environment I just played,” and I need it to be instantly recognisable.
Because we’ve got multiple new characters in this new game, that gives me an opportunity to write more themes. The first game, you’re playing as Ori for the whole game but after the prologue you’re not in contact with the peripheral characters, either. There’s less of a chance to use themes as the first game is very dependent on Ori’s theme.
Whereas this game, you spend quite a lot of time with the sub-characters, so there’s more melodies to work with. What that means is when I really need to use Ori’s theme – I call it the Golden Bullet, because Ori’s theme, especially for anyone who has played the first game, will be incredibly powerful, especially if it’s not overused. I only use it when I believe that it truly matters. That was something that me and the design team came to agreement about early on, we were like, “Let’s avoid using Ori’s main theme, only using it when it truly will have maximum impact.”
“Especially with a game like Ori, which is set in a forest, there’s so much opportunity to use instruments made of wood.” — Gareth Coker
In terms of instruments, I’ll use woodwind as an example. Most people think of woodwind as the traditional wind instruments in an orchestra – flute, oboe, clarinet – but in reality there is literally hundreds of instruments from all around the world which all have a similar woodwind-esque quality, but sound unique.
I have a friend who is an instrumentalist on a soundtrack; she has about 300 to 350 different instruments, and I would give her some of the music and I’m like, “Can you play this melody on a bunch of instruments and I’ll decide which one is best?”. She ended up playing 21 different instruments on the soundtrack and it’s a nice weapon to have in the arsenal for making things sound unique because it’s like, “What wind instrument do you want to use?”.
Especially with a game like Ori, which is set in a forest, there’s so much opportunity to use instruments made of wood. I think players playing the game and listening to the soundtrack, this time around, will feel a greater variety, not just in the instrumentation palette, but also in an expanded use of the new themes and combining that with the original theme from the first game.
The art of Ori is also immediately striking–it’s so unique and eye-catching. How are you going about capturing that magic twice and giving people new ways to be blown away from a visual perspective?
Daniel Smith: We’ve really grown the pool of talented artists at Moon and that’s important because the size of the game is large, and we need to have enough artists to cover all of the art throughout the world of Ori. At the same time, Moon’s hiring process is particular–they’re looking for the best in the industry and I feel like we’ve got that.
Also, now that the game is utilising a full 3D pipeline, there’s 3D artists on the team, and they’ve really done a wonderful job, bringing not only the environments to life, but these large bosses, and I can’t say enough about that. In terms of tech, and art tech, I think people will notice right away the difference in the environments themselves, they just live and breathe so much more. Everything’s very physical, everything is very reactive to Ori’s movements – all of the set dressing is alive.
There is a new combat system and new moves for Ori–what’s new this time around and why did you decide to make these changes?
Daniel Smith: When we were going through concept phases and dreaming big and wondering what we could do to improve on Ori, in every aspect, combat was one of them. We really listened to our community very deeply and one of the lines of commentary we say from Blind Forest is that people felt like the combat was relatively basic. We wanted to really bring combat to the forefront and we started to explore ways we could do that and landed on a melee, a combat system with projectiles that uses precision instead of just mashing the X button.
The other reason we chose to shift the combat is the overall continuity of the storyline. At the end of Blind Forest you put Sein up in the tree and it heals the Spirit Tree – we didn’t want to start the sequel with Ori ripping Sein back out of the tree. Developing Ori further and expanding on ways we could improve it, in the combat system, actually helped the storyline itself.
With Will of the Wisps, you’re supporting new hardware with the Xbox One X. What does this improved horsepower allow you to achieve that you might not have been able to before in terms of gameplay, art, and more?
Daniel Smith: Some of the enhancements for Xbox One X is that has both 4K and HDR, we’re really taking proper advantage of that hardware and are excited about how the game is playing on it. Another thing that people really loved about Blind Forest are those cinematic moments. In fact, halfway through Blind Forest we realised how incredibly impactful those cinematics would be, so we expanded the budget a bit to make more of them. We’re very happy to see that in Will of the Wisps – there’s absolutely way, way, way more cinematic moments throughout the game. There aren’t just cinematic moments that take you out of gameplay and then show you something really special, but also just hundreds of vignettes.
2020 is also the year of the Xbox Series X. Do you plan to support Will of the Wisps with an update that takes advantage of that increased speed and power?
Daniel Smith: I’d love to answer that question but at this time we can’t.
Another change for this sequel is that you will launch into the Xbox Game Pass program. This presumably opens the game up to a much broader audience. What kind of impact do you think this will have on your game and what are your thoughts on the streaming model in general?
Daniel Smith: The footprint of Game Pass is a huge advantage to Ori because so much work went into making the first game and to making Will of the Wisps. Before Game Pass, we wanted even more people to play Blind Forest and it’s not because we wanted to make more money, we wanted more people to experience what we created as an art form. I think Game Pass is a great vehicle to get what we’ve created into more gamers’ hands and, ultimately, I think it’s really healthy for the Ori IP, it’s really healthy for Moon, it’s really healthy for Xbox, for more people to play Ori.