‘Rick and Morty’ Co-Creator Justin Roiland on Splitting Development Time Between Video Games, TV

For the foreseeable future “Rick and Morty” co-creator Justin Roiland plans to devote his time to the creation of video games at his studio Squanch Games.

But also, he plans to devote his time to the creation of new episodes of “Rick and Morty” under the recently inked, massive 70-episode renewal order from Adult Swim.

So, both. He plans to do both.

“I’m figuring out a way,” Roiland told Variety in an interview last week in the midst of E3. “We had a big meeting just discussing the balance. ‘Rick and Morty’ is incredibly important, but I can do both.”

Roiland sits on the floor sort of in front of me, legs crossed, absentmindedly playing with the small Rubik’s cube resting in one hand and then the other. He rotates the sides occasionally, rolls the shrunk-down version of the cube around in his hand and then rotates another vertical. I can’t tell if he’s working to solve it, or scramble it up as we talk.

This is my second visit to Squanch Games’ little slice of E3, a tiny square of space filled with a love seat, a television, a PS4, a PlayStation VR and a copy of the studio’s upcoming game: “Trover Saves the Universe.”

My first visit to the Squanch square, tucked into the press-only “PlayStation arcade” in the back of an E3 hall, was for a chance to play a vertical slice, a polished chunk of a game often created specifically for demo purposes. I waited my turn as another member of the press guffawed their way through the game. The developers hung around chatting about the game’s creation and strapping people into the experience.

“Trover Saves the Universe” is a sort amalgam of first-person, third-person action game. In it, you play not as Trover, but rather embody a nameless — I believe — faceless avatar of sorts. Your character is in a teleporting, rotating chair. The character is a Chairorpion from Chairopia and while the citizens of that world can walk, they dont. It would be “unchair like,” Roiland later explains to me.

The official explanation of the game’s plot, as seen on the official site for “Trover”, is a bit less straightforward: “Your dogs have been dognapped by a beaked lunatic who stuffed them into his eye holes and is using their life essence to destroy the universe. Does that make any sense? You following me on this? Well, either way…only you and Trover can track this son of a b**** down, so you can get your dogs back, save the universe, and then beat your little ringle shnluders off together…IF you know what I mean. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: (to be clear, not talking about masturbation here.)

“Beating off your ringle shnluders isn’t gonna be easy, but that’s not really important to this game-overview write-up. Really just taking up unnecessary space, so let’s move on to discussing your partner Trover, a little purple eye-hole monster. Collect power babies and plug them into his little eye holes, IF you know what I mean. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: (Not sexual. The power babies give him upgraded abilities, you pervert.)”

In the game, I can look around, I can rotate my chair and I can, once Trovor finds one, teleport to special spots in the game which behave like a sort of checkpoint.

While I direct Trovor where to go, he doesn’t always like what he’s being told to do and he’s definitely his own, multi-eyed thing. Much of the dialog comes from his running commentary on what he’s doing, what you’re doing and his interactions.

And he’s very much aware of you and your direction. At one point, when the game opened up on a sort of explainy bit of the game, I started sort of ignoring Trover’s explanations and Trover immediately stopped his running dialog to note that I was just going ahead and doing it.

The awareness of the game, both of your actions and the tropes of video games, is a big part of its humor. Directing Trover, you explore, you fight, you interact and sometimes you solve puzzles. Also, though, you might find yourself solving puzzles as the citizen of chairtopia. It’s a fun game to play, a light platformer, action game with tight controls, vibrant graphics and amazing writing. 

As my short demo wraps up, it becomes very clear that this was an experience created specifically for press as Trover starts to note how the game should be awarded Game of the Show. I can’t help but notice, after removing the VR headset, that Trover has convinced at least a few publications of its worth. I spot three awards tacked to the wall behind the seat.

This is Squanch Games third title after “Accounting” and the-still-in-development Google Daydream title “Dr. Splorchy Presents: Space Heroes.”

While “Trover” was unveiled as a PlayStation VR game, it will also be playable on a PlayStation 4 without the need for VR. Roiland said the team was surprised how good the game ended up being even outside of VR.

“When we booted up a very rough prototype of the non-VR version, we thought, ‘This is fucking cool,” he said. “We were blown away. It really works well. It’s intuitive.”

The concept is a first-person, third-person game in which you play cooperative with yourself, Roiland explained. “But your partner has a mind of his own. He’s going to do what he wants.”

It’s obvious from your first look at the game, that Roiland had a hand in creating it. That becomes more obvious when characters start talking, a lot of them sound like Roiland voiced them. He said that wasn’t originally going to be the case, but it sort of ended up that way. Early in the game’s creation, when they were just blocking out the action of the title, Roiland voiced every character in the game, just to save time, as a sort of placeholder.

“I was thinking, ‘Cast this person as this character, and this certain character as this person,’ but everyone on the team was like, ‘You’re really good,” he said.

But the biggest motivation to keep much, though not all, of that original voice work was that getting new people in to record new lines would take a lot of time, he said. There are plenty of other folks in the game, he added. “Tons of amazing people are coming in to do voices for the game. Great, awesome people, you would know.”

A big part of “Trover” reaches into an area very rarely successfully explored by video games: comedy.

“What we are trying to do, and I think we’ve achieved in some sections, is that feel of the characters being very much aware of what you’re doing and the choices you’re making,” Roiland said. “If you do this over that, if you do this and that, if you don’t do any of those things, it changes the comedy and jokes you hear.”

When Roiland talks about the game he doesn’t mention key action scenes or new game mechanics, instead he tends to discuss the game’s major comedic moments.

“It’s still very much gamey and fun,” he said. “But those decisions have a big impact on what kind of jokes you’re going to hear.”

A lot of of that interactive comedy comes from contextual conversations, things that drive the computer-controlled characters to notice what you’re doing and saying and then react to it. That was already very apparent in the demo, but Roiland said the team is still stuffing more humor into the game.

“As we continue to get into a beta we’re going to continue to add as much stuff as possible,” he said. “We’re going to add voices and new lines of dialog.”

Making Funny
“It’s so different, so different,” Roiland said when asked about the difference between making games and making TV. “

“TV is easier in that it’s, sit in that edit bay get every joke timing exactly as you want, tell the joke exactly as you want. It’s a locked document. But what make that hard is that it has to be good, it has to be really good. The competition is incredible. There is so much competition out there.

“With video games imagine it’s not locked, it’s a TV show people can reach in and do this and do that and you need to have dialog for all of that stuff.”

On top of that, Roiland notes, they’re not just writing a story but also trying to be clever with the game design itself.

“You’re thinking twice as hard when it comes to that stuff,” he said. “And for Gameplay, if it is fun, is way more important than anything else. You can have an absolute laugh-out-loud-till-you’re-crying game, but if it’s not fun to play, if the mechanics aren’t there, it doesn’t matter.It has a completely different challenges.

“With TV, you don’t have to worry about that. We’re just telling a story, twists, turns, are we ahead of the audience? That’s a big thing with ‘Rick and Morty.’”

Rick and Morty

So why get into game development and how did it happen?

Roiland said he’s always loved games and wanted to make them, so he went into United Talent Agency, which represents him, and met with Ophir Lupu,  UTA’s head of games.

“Within twenty minutes he’s like, ‘You know your shit. I’m going to help you out,” he said.

The issue was, he said, that so many talented people in Hollywood say they want to get into the video game business, but don’t really have any clear concept of what that entails. That wasn’t the case with Roiland. “He saw I was there and meant business,” he said.

Lupu put him in touch with Tanya Watson, former executive producer at Epic Games, and the two launched Squanchtendo in 2016. The name was later changed to Squanch Games after some friendly advice from a lawyer. (The developers confirmed they never considered changing it to Squanchbox or SquanchStation.)

The first game was more experiential and a bit less like a game, but Roiland said this game will be a “significant in length experience.”

The game is “pretty darn far along,” he said, adding that currently they have two pretty sizable, massive levels that need a full narrative polish.

Squanch Games is currently developing two games with hopes of doing more. The studio plans to do several game jams and is also playing around with a few “secret prototypes,” Roiland said.

He tends to play with these experiments, thinking about how he can drop in characters, dialog and jokes.

“That’s sort of one of the magical things about the studio: It’s my strengths and that stuff combined with talent on the game side, and us working together combining those strengths.

It sets the tone for our studio. Eventually the brand will be know for irreverence, comedic in tone, weird little experiences or big experiences.”

Comedy will always be the core of those experiences because Roiland said it’s easier for him to create. “I would probably struggle a bit more with a really dramatic serious-intent story. You have to really bring it. My brain is so comically-wired though.”

Besides, he said, there are already so many Naughty Dogs out there — studios that create games like the dramatic “The Last of Us.”  Then something seemed to occur to Roiland.

“Maybe one of these days if we do well and have a good revenue stream, it would be fun to do a super serious dramatic game that starts out that way,” he said. “We could create a new studio — so no one knows it’s a Squanch Game — and then do shit that’s not appropriate for the tone, like a pie in the face.”

Squanch and Rick and Morty
“The real key is delegating,” Roiland said. “And having really incredible people around you. There is no other way to do it.”

The “it” he’s talking about is powering the creation of both new “Rick and Morty” episodes, a lot of episodes, while still working on games with Squanch Games.

“On ‘Rick and Morty,’ that used to mean being in that edit bay for every edit with (co-creator Dan) Harmon and being in the writing room for story,” he said. “That’s always been my responsibility amongst many other things. Moving into this new future, we have a writer who has been on from the beginning who we are giving a lot of those responsibilities to. I use to bridge production with the writing. That’s not me anymore. I’m focused on 100 percent creative and what i do best and most fun for me to do on the show.

“Really for me, it’s going to be about balancing when I’m needed on game side and when I’m needed on ‘Rick and Morty.’ It’s going to be crazy, but it’s doable.”

It helps, he said, that Squanch Games and the production of “Rick and Morty” are in the same building. “I’m not having to get in a car and drive, hopping from one thing to the other, it’s instantaneous,” he said, adding. “For the foreseeable future I’m going to be split.”

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