Packing up your bags and travelling across oceans to a new town, to embark on a new adventure with friends old and new; it’s sorely tempting to draw parallels between the story of solo developer Robert Tatnell and the game series his project most frequently draws comparisons to. Listening to the Stockholm-based British designer tell his tale, it’s almost as if he’s elected to live a real-life Animal Crossing these past few years.
“Around 12 years ago I worked at Lionhead in Guildford. Around that time, there was almost like a mini Swedish invasion. Then they all found the other Swedes who were living in Guilford, it was summertime and everyone’s partying. I made some of the best friends that I have in my life.
“The projects that we were on got finished up, and over time everyone moved back to Stockholm. I came and visited pretty much any chance that I had. And then over time, I realised that I’d actually much rather be here – that sounds harsh, and I have some very, very happy memories from Guildford! I went not exactly for love but for friendship – which I guess is a form of love.”
Stockholm’s not short of video game companies itself – think of it as Guildford but better dressed – so Tatnell was able to pick up jobs here and there, all while he embarked on his own passion project.
“I’ve worked at a bunch of studios and on a bunch of different games, and pretty much all of them involved killing things. Over time I realised I don’t necessarily want to be working on games where you kill things. My play style – if that’s the right term – changed over that time as well. It sort of went from really enjoying those kinds of games to moving onto more relaxing stuff. I want things a bit more cosy, that don’t stress me as much.”
Which is how Hokko Life, which has just launched into early access, first came to be. You may know it as ‘basically Animal Crossing for PC’, a moniker that’s understandably been thrown its way since it first broke cover last year, but its origins are surprising.
“Hokko Life started off as something completely different,” says Tatnell. “Some of the people that have been around the Discord community since the beginning will remember the time when it was more like Transport Tycoon. You were more like this God character looking down, and you placed down train tracks and connected towns, ferrying people backwards and forwards.
“It was never like I’m going to take this inspiration and recreate it. It came about by just sitting there and being like, what do I enjoy? What do I like playing? I realised over time that I had all these little villagers that lived in these towns, anq I realised over time, I was actually a lot more interested in those little villages and the towns and the connection that you get to a town as you’re building it.
“When everything was a bit more spread out you lost that, so in realising that the camera got closer and closer and closer and I added a player character and then added more dialogue and things like that, and it morphed into what it is now.”
What it is right now is a light, scrappy little thing with a whole lot of heart. I’ve only spent a couple of hours toing and froing in town, performing chores for villagers and slowly exploring the crafting and customization options that help set Hokko Life apart, and while it’s at times obvious this is the work of a solo developer – Tatnell’s worked mostly on his own through Hokko Life’s development, occasionally drafting in friends and with the help of the resources of publisher Team 17 – it also slowly evolves into a distinct take on a familiar formula.
It is, in its own way, an even gentler thing than Animal Crossing – there’s no real-time clock, a feature that’s key to the evolving world of Nintendo’s series yet one which introduces a tyranny of its own. “I really do enjoy the real time nature of things like Animal Crossing,” says Tatnell. “That feeling of progression, the feeling of the world that exists when you’re not playing, is really powerful. The problem I find is if I’m working during the day, I get home, if I’m going to sit and play the game, then it’s the evening or night time. So the variety of things I can and can’t do gets significantly limited.”
Hokko Life’s key differentiating point is its suite of editing tools that go far beyond what we’ve seen in the likes of New Horizon – there’s a granularity to it all that promises some incredible things once it’s in the hands of the community. “Something I repeatedly say to myself, when I hit times of trouble, I’m like, why did I build such a complex game? The design tool is one of those areas where it’s almost built like a 3D editor into a game, which is a little bit crazy. But it also comes from my background in the crossover between art and tech within games. It’s definitely been tricky, but the payoff has been wonderful.”
It’s very early days for Hokko Life at the moment, and that much you can tell when poking around the early access build – it’s like moving in while the decorators are still doing their thing, though there’s plenty more to come with a big farming update planned for July. “That’s the benefit with early access – you’ve actually got people playing a game and some things that perhaps you as a developer feel are super important and are really, really interesting may be not that important to players,” says Tatnell. “But something that you think that was an insignificant thing that you added actually turns out to be the most important thing that’s in there. It needs to be a flexible process as well.
“It’s crazy to see what people have done with it, and it’s going to be amazing to see where they take it when they have all the design tools unlocked, and all of the world unlocked. When I started working in games you get to the gold master, then everything is sent off to where it gets pressed onto disks and boxed up. There was this big disconnect between what you were working on, how it got to release and how it was received.”
“Now, you release something and it’s immediately there, and people can immediately play it, and give you feedback and stream it and talk about it. You get all these opinions and get to see in real time people experiencing the game for the first time – it’s both very strange, I think, but it is wonderful. I’m very happy that we’re now in a position where we don’t have that kind of disconnect anymore.”