The indie game scene is such an exciting and dynamic area, so whenever I get a chance to chat to a developer I always feel very excited to hear about their experiences. Today, TwoHappyCats had the opportunity to interview Bob Conway (bobcgames), developer of the stand out hit Yearning: A Gay Story, also known as YAGS. YAGS is a coming-out focused visual novel where you play as a young gay man and help him navigate his first year of college life. Bob has also worked on a number of stand-alone games for Game Jams as well as other games featuring characters from YAGS, such as the upcoming Zen: A Gay Sequel (ZAGS). Let’s jump into the interview with Bob where he talks about his games and experiences as a game developer!
It’s been a one and a half years since YAGS was first released, and before that the development of the game took roughly two years. How much has the indie game scene changed since you first started YAGS?
It’s hard to tell how much has actually changed versus how much of the differences I perceive are due to how much more integrated I am into (parts of) the community, now. When I started YAGS over three years ago, I had never made a game before, and didn’t really know anyone who did. I pretty much taught myself renpy, got connected to artists and musicians through people I knew in real life, and more or less had no idea what was happening in the indie scene. I didn’t have a Twitter, or use Discord, or have a Lemmasoft account.
Since then, I’ve met a ton of amazing indie developers and found a “regular” community that came out of Barajam 2018, which I also only originally found through meeting other developers through the Lemmasoft forums, Twitter, and other game jams like Yaoijam and Nanoreno. It’s a lot easier to continue working on games when you have a group to discuss development with, and where everyone cheers each other on. It also means you have a bit more confidence that your final game will actually have *some* impact, because at least your fellow game developers will check it out and potentially help share it.
So given all of that, and especially given some recent bundles where itch has gotten a bit more mainstream attention (especially the huge racial justice bundle), I think indie games are going a bit more mainstream, or at least consumers are somewhat more aware they exist? Certainly it feels like a lot more people are creating them, these days.
But again, all of that could be just my personal experiences and community coloring my perceptions.
What was the inspiration behind YAGS and throughout the development process did much of the initial idea or concept change?
I talk about this a bit in the behind-the-scenes book. YAGS was inspired a lot by Coming Out on Top, but (initially) based on a dream. As much as I loved CooT (and where its tone and writing were both amazing and absolutely appropriate for the kind of game it was trying to be), there were a lot of things in the game I wished I could change, chief among those the player character’s struggles with his sexuality (which was primarily played off as a joke in the game; again, reasonably so for its tone), and Brad’s route, who was originally billed as a religious jock struggling with his sexuality (which, to be honest, didn’t come across in the route at all).
Given those things, I’d had some thoughts in my head for a while about potential stories, although I was in no way considering developing a game at the time. But then I had a dream that basically consisted of my “straight” roommate developing a crush on me, and then us dating. It really stuck with me, and made me start writing down some snippets of scenes. This flowed surprisingly naturally into a format with choices, which then I decided to try turning into a game once I had written enough down. (That original dream turned pretty directly into YAGS’ secret ending scene.)
But a lot of things were abandoned throughout development, either because they would have involved too much effort or really just wouldn’t have mattered. For example, I considered (briefly) making the gender of the love interests selectable (so the player could be gay or straight?), but as the game became much more about coming out than the romantic relationships, that clearly wouldn’t have made sense. I wanted to make your class schedule customizable, but classes ended up having no significant impact in the game. I also had plans for gameplay to stretch into a second semester, and maybe even another year (where you’d move in with your boyfriend), but by the time I had wired everything together and gotten to December, I felt like I’d said everything I needed to say.
So I guess it changed pretty drastically as I continued development and really got an idea of what I wanted the game to be. Its origins as somewhat of a dating sim turned into what I think is a lot more impactful as a journey of coming out and self-discovery.
As I was playing the game I noticed that even the most innocuous choice could make a big difference in the game, especially on some of the harder routes like James or the secret route. How challenging was it to keep track of all these choice branches and put them into the game?
My day job is software engineering, and strangely, one of my favorite parts of work (and coding) is keeping track of a bunch of variables and program states at any given time in my head. The branching in YAGS (and particularly how certain decisions would affect things later on) was actually my favorite part of writing the game, and I actually found it fairly natural to do.
Of course, I cheated a little, and a lot of choices and exact values I threw in early on in development were tweaked once the game really began to take shape. But one of my goals with YAGS was always to build a single, coherent universe of characters and plot, rather than what I think of as “standard” in visual novels, where different routes often take drastically different directions. so it was important to me that the player had a lot of freedom within that single, broader story.
When you were creating the love interests for Chris/ MC, were there any that you thought would be fan favourites? Or any characters you’re surprised at player’s reactions to?
It’s no surprise that Adam and James are generally the most popular characters, though.
Speaking of characters, perhaps one of my favourite aspects of the game was how realistic and dynamic the characters were. I could imagine sitting down playing games with Jake, Nikhil and Hannah or spending a fun night out with the two Liz’s. What’s your secret to creating such memorable characters?
YAGS, in many ways, is a stylized version of my life and coming out experience. That made a lot of it easier.
Perhaps a rather left field question, but it’s something I’ve been curious about. I noticed that while Janet is a very major character in YAGS, players never get a chance to see her character sprite. Would you be willing to share what you’ve always imagined Janet to look like?
That said, as YAGS became more of a serious game and I started sharing it around, I also became more aware of the cast’s lack of diversity. (Nikhil was originally Nick, a generic cis white male CS major.) As I started filling out the character profiles for the cast, I needed a last name for Janet, and therefore some semblance of a background. So she became Native American (which makes some sense given she and Chris are from Arizona), which I think means I envision her with long, dark hair and a bit of a tanned complexion. But it’s definitely not as strong, or canon, a vision as the other characters.
Outside of the YAGS series, you’ve worked a few projects for various game jams, all of which are very different to one another. Is there a genre or story you haven’t done yet, that you’re just waiting for the right time to do?
The first is a gay-sex-themed RPG titled PEEN, where the combat and levelling mechanics literally involve having sex. The concept was originally a bit of a reaction to a comment on one of my games: “Given that I am not a homosexual, this sex scene actively detracted from my enjoyment of the visual novel.” Because I am a bitter, spiteful individual, the appropriate reaction was obviously to make a game with nothing *but* gay sex. It was originally supposed to be my Barajam 2019 project, but the artist ended up not having time for the project (and I ended up doing YAGS Booty Call by myself instead). This may make a reappearance in 2020 or 2021, depending on her availability.
The second is probably best summarized as “ZAGS Teaches Typing“. It may end up being my Barajam 2020 project if PEEN (and my artist friend’s availability) don’t work out. Otherwise it’ll probably be a small thing after ZAGS is done. I fully expect it to be terrible at *actually* teaching typing.
It’s worth noting that At First Sight, my Nanoreno 2020 game, was one of these incomplete projects for a while. I had been wanting to use it as an attempt to draw art (sprites and backgrounds) for a final game, as well as learn a non-renpy visual novel engine. Of course, neither of these things happened, and I instead (rather last minute) joined up with an artist friend to just finish it. Maybe in the far future I’ll try out art again, but RPG Maker (for PEEN) is scratching my non-renpy engine itch, for now.
Everything else, including all of my other complete games, have been very spur-of-the-moment and done with little to no prior planning.
In ZAGS, you play as Carlos (who was my favourite in YAGS!) – what can we expect to be in store for Carlos in this new game?
Carlos is, in a lot of ways, the most interesting character to write, because I feel like he’s torn between competing options in a lot of aspects of his life. He wants to “fit in” at the frat house, but his original reasons for joining are less relevant now. He wants a real, meaningful relationship, but he’s scared of accepting that part of himself and giving up the comfortable “straight” facade. He has this unrequited crush on his best friend and wants more, but has accepted that nothing can happen there. He’s very sexual, and has had a lot of sex, but not necessarily the kind fhat he really wants, and he’s afraid to give in to that.
I want the player to make these decisions for him, and see the outcomes, and how they shape his life and future. (We’ll see how much I succeed at that!)
An extra interesting part of ZAGS is the new gameplay features, could you talk a bit about how the planner, stat system and mini games will influence playthroughs?
Of course, I can never make things simple for myself, so the ZAGS planner is a lot more complicated than some other games’ planners. New activities are regularly unlocked for it, creating interesting (and competing) decisions. Certain planner activities then, in turn, lead to scenes that advance different aspects of the plot in the “main” game. Managing decisions on the weekends with your actions in the planner are important to make progress down certain storylines and routes. Unlocking certain activities is crucial for certain paths.
The stat system is actually fairly similar to what already existed in YAGS, except it’s now directly visible to players. I’ve made some attempt at standardizing points (so all of the stats are out of 100), but we’ll see if that falls apart by the time I finish writing the game. The biggest change is how it interacts with the planner, and forces certain actions if you’ve been ignoring, say, his Fitness stat, so there’s a bit more of an active management aspect to them than before.
The minigames themselves have no bearing on gameplay. They’re just there so I can take a break from writing into programming and still feel like I’m making game progress, as well as to let me explore newer aspects of renpy that may not fit in normally to the game.
With Chris and YAGS, Carlos and ZAGS and Dan and YAGS: Booty Call – are there any other characters you’re hoping to explore more in separate games? (I’m secretly hoping for a Jake focused game!)
I think ZAGS is as far as I want to go in terms of actual story-based games (and maybe even 100,000+ word games in general, YAGS universe or not), but it could always be fun to do another collection of minigames in the universe. We’ll see!
How can fans support you and your games?
Of course, for those who can afford it, monetary support is always welcome. All of it always goes directly to my artists for more art (I literally transfer the money from itch directly to my artists’ accounts), and I’ve tried to make donations rewarding to players with physical goods like stickers and signed prints, as well.
Thank you so much Bob for taking the time to answer my questions and share your experiences! To play Yearning: A Gay Story for yourself, or any of Bob’s games make sure to visit his Itch.io page. You can also find Bob on Twitter and his website, which includes some devlogs. If you’ve played YAGS or any of Bob’s games, let us know what your favourite parts of them were in the comments.
Update 26/8: Updated a Twitter link (previously linked to wrong company’s bundle) and fixed typo.