Host, Xbox's Major Nelson
High On Life
[AUDIO LOGO] HOST: High On Life is now available on Xbox Series X and S Windows PC. It's also part of Game Pass. Joining me today, the incredible Justin Roiland, who is the creative mind behind this, and frankly, many other things. Justin, good to see you.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Good to see you. How are you?
HOST: I am great. First of all, I have to congratulate you. Because shipping a game is no small feat. And as I'm sure you've known, you've shipped some in the past. But on your latest endeavor, High On Life, congratulations, man. Congratulations.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Thank you. Yeah, no. It's insane. It's a lot of work. Takes a lot of amazing talented people to do.
HOST: Tell me a little bit about the journey here. I mean, you're such a-- I mean, I hate to say this, because I don't want to sound like I'm sucking up. But you're such a driving force in Hollywood. Seems like I was looking at all the projects you've been involved with. And when do you sleep?
JUSTIN ROILAND: I don't know. I get I get away with some free time and some sleep. I think the key is just partnering with amazing people. I mean, I've said that before. And having folks that believe in the vision and get-- are as excited as you are about it. That takes a little bit of the-- some of the weight off of your shoulders, and trusting those folks. But yeah.
HOST: As CEO of Squanch Games, you've shipped some other games in the past, Trover Saves the Universe, people are familiar with that one and so forth. But what keeps bringing you back to video games? I mean, you've got successful television projects that are always happening and so forth. But tell me a little bit about video games. Is that just-- that's just in your psyche?
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah. I mean, I'm a lifelong gamer. Spent a lot of time reading, staying up on gaming news. But I think it initially started with the VR and my obsession with VR. And then halfway through Trover, I kind of realized, holy [BLEEP] I have a game-- oh, holy heck. Sorry. Is that?
I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry.
HOST: That's fine.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Oh no. Oh boy. Already, right out of the gate. Anyway, I was just like, wow, I have a game studio. Let's-- and then I started thinking traditional games and what hasn't been done.
JUSTIN ROILAND: And what would I want to play? And that's the guiding force behind the studio is, what isn't out there that I, or the directors, or that we would really, really want to play and we would really want to exist?
And then, for me, I'll poke around. I'll ask is there a game like this? Do you know of any? If there are, let me know. I'll make my list. I'll go play them. And if it's not what I have in my head that's the dream version of it that I really just want to play, then it's, yeah, then we move. Then we move. Then we start moving in and figuring it out.
HOST: You and I chatted when we were at PAX Prime up here in Seattle back in early September. And you showed me a build of the game. And we had a great chat. And I don't want to give out names.
So I remember this conversation very distinctly because you and I bonded over this. You play, you said a moment ago, you play a lot of games. And there was a particular game that you and I both played. And I'm not going to-- but there was some DLC for that game. And you remember talking about frustrating the movement in that game? Do you remember that?
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yes.
HOST: And it was interesting, because I felt that frustration, you felt that frustration. So you've gone through and played a lot of games where you're like, oh, this mechanic isn't fun or it doesn't work. Tell us about translating those experiences that you've had into making things that do work and that are fun, like in High On Life.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah. Well, I mean, a lot of that is subjective. But I think I'll play a lot of games if they're close to what we're working on. And I just make a ton of notes. And I might have positive things to say about certain elements of a particular mechanic. And then I might have alongside the positive, things I don't like that I would want to change--
JUSTIN ROILAND: --and get really specific about what those are and how I would love to try changing them. And it's a really good-- when you're in the early days, prototyping and just blue sky, feel all that kind of stuff. It's really good. It's a good launching-off place.
JUSTIN ROILAND: And a lot of design work on paper. But Yeah. I mean, I did that a lot with Trover. I did it with High On Life, where it was like, there's a mechanic we have in game, or many mechanics we have in game. And in some cases, they've been done. And it's like, OK, this is an example of the best of this mechanic if it has been done.
JUSTIN ROILAND: But can we tweak it just a little bit this way or that way? And let's see. And then it's a little bit of trial and error. Or hey, here's a mechanic that's so cool. But they didn't nail it in a way that was satisfying for me. Or here's what I would want to do to really land that plane and make it--
HOST: Fun. [LAUGHS]
JUSTIN ROILAND: --perfect for me. But or fun, yeah. Or I mean, and yeah, yeah, yeah. Fun and just-- or fun for me. Where I'm like, this is something that I would really enjoy versus it's, yeah, it's-- and not to sit here and sound like we're-- I mean, we're a pretty humble team.
And we definitely-- we're building on the shoulders of giants. And it's like, there's so much that has been done really well in the games industry.
Part of the reason why I built the studio on the back of VR was because it was the Wild West, and there was so much that hadn't been done and that needed to be figured out that it was just an exciting concept to be a part of that. And so many game ideas still that I have that have not been done by anybody that I would love if just-- it's either we're going to make them, maybe.
JUSTIN ROILAND: I don't know if I can convince the team to go back to VR, but-- or someone else will. And if they do, I'll be the first one playing them, I just-- but yeah.
HOST: In your latest game, High On Life, Earth's been invaded by a cartel known as the G3. You go through there and you have to basically save humanity using these various weapons.
Tell us what it is like coming up with a storyline which is non-linear. And when I say non-linear, for those folks that don't understand that, it's your normal television and movies are it's 22 minutes, or two hours. And you as the writer or the director are controlling the narrative.
Whereas in gaming, the gamer really is at the center and controls when and where and the pacing and so forth. How does that impact how you write, and how you create the game, and how you look at it versus the medium that you've had another success in, which is the more linear medium?
JUSTIN ROILAND: Oh, man. Yeah. I mean, it starts out similarly, where you're figuring out the high level of the narrative assuming your game has one. There's a lot that don't. And they don't need them. They don't all-- there's so many games I love that don't necessarily have that.
But so it starts out high level. What's the story? What's the arc? What's the-- if you have character emotional arcs or any of that stuff. What are all of those things?
And then, once you have that, then it's like how do you break it up and how do you tell that story in a way that the player is allowed to discover and learn? And what's on the golden path or the main A-path of the game that the players really need to know versus what's stuff that you can tuck away? And maybe if a bunch of players don't ever discover it, it's not gonna-- it's just more awesome stuff to figure out and learn.
JUSTIN ROILAND: So I mean, I've said a few times that having the almost-- being able to lean on really good gameplay takes some of the pressure off of the writing in a weird way. But not in that-- not in a, oh, we can be lazy with it, but in more of a psychological freeing feeling. Where it's like, oh, yeah. Wait, what were you going to say?
HOST: Just the narrative is part of the puzzle. And the mechanics and the gameplay is the other part of the puzzle. And they need to work together like a team. Because there's things that the narrative can do that the mechanic can't do and vise versa.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yes.
HOST: So you have to have them be a yin and a yang in some regards.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah. And there's stuff, like with our game where depending on choices players make, for example, depending on what bounty you choose as your first G3 cartel bounty to go after.
And we did it in a megaman sort of way, where it's like, I'm going to choose my bounty and then that's going to load my level. And then, also, it's going to determine what Gatlian or what the next gun I'm going to rescue is.
JUSTIN ROILAND: And you can do those in either order. And depending on which order you do them in has a huge impact on the second bounty, because that's going to determine what gun do I have with me?
JUSTIN ROILAND: It's really, it's a lot of extra writing in an effort to push high player story.
JUSTIN ROILAND: So letting the players experience things differently based off of choices that they've made. And we tried to cram a lot, a lot of that into this game from bigger things the order of guns that you get to-- and some of the larger story elements down to little tiny fun comedic things like the guys at the slums.
If anyone's gotten that far, there's these guys that they're the gatekeepers to the slums. And they ask you which one's hotter. And it's just a stupid dumb little thing. But it the entire rest of the game they remember what choice you made.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah. And they've got a bunch of different unique dialogue based off of that. And so, and that's all just fun stuff that I love in games. And so, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, there's big stuff, small stuff.
But it's so much more-- with a linear show it's got to be tight. The pacing has got to be good. The story you're telling needs to really be well thought-out. Because it's very passive. The person is sitting and watching. And you really need to bring it with that story.
Whereas with a game, it's like, you want to bring it, but it's a different way of-- you want to have the good solid story characters and all kinds of fun choices that make an impact in what happens later or callbacks. But you-- but yeah. It's like someone's reaching into the TV show and messing around. And you have to-- or you want to have reactions to all of those things that they're messing around with.
HOST: And let them have fun. With High On Life, I mean, it's been out. It's now available on Xbox, as we said, Windows Xbox One Series X and S, of course on Game Pass. We're going to talk about Game Pass in a minute. But it's out now. So I don't want to give too many spoilers.
But there's-- I mean, there's a lot-- I've been having people text me about how they're just enjoying-- they're really just enjoying. Because it's just-- it's fun. It's different. It's fun. It's fun and different. Yet it feels familiar.
To your point, there's a lot of elements from successful games. And of course, we all remember, we all know what the different quests are, the double jump, and things like that, which is a very funny joke.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Oh, and the--
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
HOST: But there's a lot of these elements in there-- and that's what people are really gravitating towards-- is that you have created this world and this framework for us to just go in and have fun with and enjoy the characters and the creativity of you and your team.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah. And I can't emphasize enough how incredible the Squanch team is and how much of them is in this game.
JUSTIN ROILAND: But yes, and also it was sort of like thinking about some-- I'm really starved for just a solid single-player action adventure game with lock and key Metroidvania kind of--
JUSTIN ROILAND: --mechanics, upgrades, traversal mechanic upgrades, weapon upgrades, just and a fun story. And obviously, we wanted to make something that was funny, or at least to us, funny. Obviously, that's subjective.
And we knew this was going to be a polarizing game. We've known for a long time, we're like, there's going to be people that absolutely love this thing. And then there's going to be people that just hate it for the same reasons the people that love it love it.
JUSTIN ROILAND: So but yeah. I mean, it was really just about, OK, what games do we love, and then what do I really wish existed right now as a gamer, not to say that they don't, because they do. Like the new God of War is a great single player action adventure third person.
JUSTIN ROILAND: They're out there. But we had all these interesting ideas. And we-- we were looking at things like the original Bioshock and some of the Metroid Prime series. And then, what's our version of that?
And then different really fun game mechanics that you don't necessarily see a ton in other games. But and then, also, ours is very arcadey. It's a very arcadey-- it's not an RPG, although there are some--
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah. It's kind of a-- I don't know. It's an interesting mixture of all kinds of different stuff. And the dream was that it's highly accessible and just fun. Just the bottom line is that people can pick it up and have a good time. And if we make people laugh here and there, even if not everyone--
HOST: Then you did a job well-done. [LAUGHS]
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah. I mean, even if-- we were like, look, not every joke is going to land with everybody. But if we can get people to laugh more often than not, then that's incredible. Yeah.
HOST: Now that you've developed a few-- you've got a few games under your belt. And you said, you grew up as a gamer. What's it like being now having one foot on the other side in the development of this and being-- understanding when you look back on, oh, now I understand why that game is like it is, or when, you know?
JUSTIN ROILAND: Oh, God.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah. I mean, it's crazy. Because-- and I don't know how in the weeds I want to get with this, but--
JUSTIN ROILAND: --as somebody who spent a lot of time on a lot of gaming blogs reading a lot of gaming news and still to this day I do. I get a lot of-- I'm getting my news in different ways. But it's interesting. Because it's like, oh, yeah. I understand why this game shipped before it was ready to ship. There's just a lot going on that we just don't know behind the scenes.
JUSTIN ROILAND: And I'm sure every story or every game has got a different story. And I mean, we were up against the gun ourselves. We wanted to push the game.
JUSTIN ROILAND: But we just-- we couldn't do it. We had to really just hunker down and-- and it was so funny. I mean, we didn't know. We were like, OK, how polished are we going to be able to get before, the day zero patch?
HOST: You have to ship it.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah. We have to ship. Yeah, we have-- yeah. And I mean, not to say that there aren't still things that we want to fix. Luckily, a lot of them-- a lot of the things we want to fix are things people won't even notice, thank God.
JUSTIN ROILAND: There's the occasional that's like, OK, anyone's going to notice. Anyone is going to see this as a bug. This is a weird thing. But most of them are things that most-- that unless you knew it was there, you're not going to know that you're missing it.
HOST: You're missing it.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah. But it's still a thing that we want to continue supporting and pushing patches to get all that stuff buttoned up. But boy, oh boy.
HOST: You did the hardest part, Justin.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah.
HOST: And that is, you and your team-- and I have an old-- one of my old managers used to tell me this, and who worked in games, is the most important feature of a game is shipping. And you did it.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
HOST: That is the single most important feature of a game.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. As long as you can do it in a way that isn't-- yeah, that's playable. Right?
HOST: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
JUSTIN ROILAND: That isn't distracting for whatever--
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah. And we did. And it's a huge testament to the team. And again, I mean, our team is very-- they are bought into this IP and what we're doing as a studio. And that's a big reason why we got a lot of the fun, crazy, stuff.
JUSTIN ROILAND: I already blew it earlier, but--
--that we did in the game is because the team is really excited and believes in what we're making. And it's crazy what a difference that can make. Yeah.
HOST: I want to talk, as a creator, I know you and I talked about this when you were up here in Seattle in the fall. What does Game Pass mean for you as a creator and being involved in the Game Pass program?
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah. I did a lot of research with Game Pass before we--
HOST: Tell me about it.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Well, before we decided to pull the trigger on it, I spoke with a handful of other studio folks who did Game Pass. And I ultimately came to the conclusion based off of what I had heard that it is-- it's a value-add. Because essentially, there's a lot of people that would otherwise not have picked up the game and played it.
And those people, if you believe in what you've made, and you really you feel confident that you've made something special, or different-- and we do with our game-- those folks can become evangelists in a way for the title. It's almost-- I mean, it's in a way it's like really good marketing. [LAUGHS] You know what I mean?
It's like really good-- I mean, not to sound too-- but I mean, it's true. It's like, it's sitting there. It's the reach that Game Pass has, the subscriber numbers you guys have. It's a powerful tool to get a lot of reach. If you really do believe you made something worthwhile, it's a pretty powerful tool.
And that's what I gathered in doing my due diligence on it on my own. A lot of folks told me that non-Game Pass games, that they ship versus Game Pass games, 7x sales.
JUSTIN ROILAND: I mean, not to get in the weeds of that kind of stuff.
JUSTIN ROILAND: But I mean, that was a consideration. Because it's like, we are an indie studio. We're small. And we do want a war chest to make a bunch more fun crazy games.
And that was a thing that was of consideration for us. It's like, OK, we really want this game to get out there. We want it to do. We want sales to do well. And I think that, yeah, I mean, from what I gathered in my little poking around and asking different folks, Game Pass was a huge value-add in that respect.
HOST: Yeah. It's funny. Because people think about it, and they're like, well, Game Pass, they're like, well, what's the gotcha, right? [LAUGHS] What's the--
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah.
HOST: And it turns out, at the end of the day, it's just a-- to your point, is what you said, it's a great way for you to get broad, broad exposure and coverage for your title and get people talking about it very quickly at that matter.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah. Yeah, and continued conversation. And I think, again, just more people-- like if someone's on the fence or raising an eyebrow, what is this thing?
JUSTIN ROILAND: And if they're a Game Pass subscriber, well, they can just download it and dive in. And I really do feel that--
HOST: Yeah, no. Go ahead.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Oh, yeah. No. Oh, no, I was going to say, I do feel that we'll win them over. I feel like we really took a lot of thought and time into the pacing of the game. And also just, there's some games that I adore where I could not tell you what the story is or what my characters--
JUSTIN ROILAND: --what is the-- yeah, yeah, yeah. But I adore the game. And I'm not going to say there's one that's at the tip of my tongue.
JUSTIN ROILAND: But there's a lot of those. And ours is not that. Ours is very clear. And from the macro down to the micro, you know exactly what you're doing. And I don't know. There's something really, really, really incredible about that from a foundational standpoint to being able to build a lot of cool fun stuff on top of narratively and interactive.
And there's so many-- oh my God, there's so many off the golden path things in this game that people are going to continue to be discovering for months, which is not the norm. Usually it's like, OK, we've got to really focus on the primary golden path. And we have so much stuff that's like we could have cut a lot of it.
JUSTIN ROILAND: But and again, the reason that that all made it in is just the passion of the team. And truly I think-- yeah.
HOST: Well, I think they've done such a great job. And I just want to point out-- and I know I need to let you go in just a moment. But I've been playing the game a few hours in.
And your game, much like you probably have done, and I, and people listening and watching the show, when you're in an open world and you're going along, you kind of want to go down that alleyway to see what the designers put in there. The question always is, does the toilet flush. Things like those questions.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Oh sure, yeah.
Yeah. And I mean, listen, I always want more. I'm like, can we get more in? I wish-- but we did a lot. We did a lot.
JUSTIN ROILAND: But yeah. I'm the kind of player that when I'm bought into a game right away, and I'm like, OK, I'm really-- a good example would be like Fallout 3.
JUSTIN ROILAND: There's others. There's plenty.
JUSTIN ROILAND: But that's just as an example. I am taking my time. I'm poking around.
HOST: Oh, yeah.
JUSTIN ROILAND: I'm kind of going around the edges of the map. I want to see everything. And so, and then, yeah, and see what did they think players might do and what kind of response did they build in? [SNEEZES]
HOST: Oh, bless you.
JUSTIN ROILAND: I think I'm allergic to something in here. Sorry. No, it's OK.
HOST: Well, no, and again, I know I need to let you go. But you bring that up about Fallout, and games like yours, and games with these very rich environments. What I love is when you find those moments and you sit there. And sometimes you put the controller down and watch the silly dialogue or what have you.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Oh sure, yeah.
HOST: But you can feel the passion. We've all played those games that have that soul that comes through in the dialogue, and the environment, and the experience. And wait a minute, did that just happen? And you start laughing. And I love those. And that's what your game feels like. That's what High On Life feels like. You can feel the passion of your team-- you and your team, and frankly, everybody.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Thank you. Yeah.
HOST: So I want to thank you.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Thank you. Yeah. That's a really high compliment. And I know the team is going to love hearing that.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Because yeah, they are very passionate. And I'm just super grateful. It's mind-blowing, I got to be honest. Because yeah, like you said, lifelong gamer, and here I am with the studio of amazing talented people.
And it's just like, they believe in my vision and believe in my crazy ideas that are able to-- yeah. They just get really passionate about them. And yeah, it's-- and then just plus them.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Just add so much amazing stuff. So yeah, it's surreal. And we're just really proud of it. Yeah.
HOST: Well, I want you to know, I've still got-- you gave me one of your cards when we were in Seattle.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
HOST: I still have one of each.
JUSTIN ROILAND: I'm still curious. So those are-- we gave those out in packs at the limited run booth.
JUSTIN ROILAND: And then, there was another-- I can't remember. There was another spot where they were given out. And so, we shuffled in a bunch of signature cards and art cards.
HOST: Yeah. They're beautiful.
JUSTIN ROILAND: And it's interesting. I'm curious if those are going to ever end up on eBay or what the story is going to happen there.
HOST: I'll tell you mine is. But I want to thank you for that. But I also want to thank you, and again, your team at Squanch Games for High On Life, available now on Windows, Xbox, it's available on Game Pass. You guys, congratulations on shipping the game. Congratulations on its success.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Thank you.
HOST: We're looking forward. I know you just shipped a game. And I will not be that person who says, so what's next? When can we expect-- because I know you're just exhaling.
JUSTIN ROILAND: [LAUGHS]
HOST: So I don't want to do that to you.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah. I mean, listen. There's stuff. But we can't talk about it yet. But--
HOST: But we'll have you back on to talk about it. Would you come back on?
JUSTIN ROILAND: OK. Yeah. Of course, happily.
HOST: Oh, that's such a--
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah. Big fan. I remember E3 has always been-- I mean, it's sad that it's scattered now. But that was my Christmas and summer. I would take the week off for E3 and just like watch it in my pajamas.
JUSTIN ROILAND: And I remember you on E3. It's just crazy. But anyway, yeah.
HOST: Thank you. Well, whenever we do in the next E3, whatever we do, I want to make sure you come by and join us in person. You can wear your pajamas, but feel free to join us in person.
JUSTIN ROILAND: OK, I will. I'll wear my pajamas.
I'll be all comfy.
HOST: Yeah. Just sitting up there anyway.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Yeah.
HOST: All right, Justin Roiland, the head, the CEO of Squanch Games and everything else that we love. High On Life available now. Congratulations to you and the team. And we'll catch up with you later, Justin. Thank you, my friend.
JUSTIN ROILAND: Thank you.