Guildlings didn't start life as a mobile twist on modern role-playing games. In its earliest prototypes in 2015, Guildlings more closely resembled a management game. It was essentially a satellite view of a map, managing what the characters of your guild did.
Smash-cut to four years later, and Guildlings, now available on Apple Arcade, is a role-playing game about the relationships between the guild members, rather than the system they live in. It took four years and a long process of ups and downs to get Guildlings to where it is today.
"Man, if we knew how Guildlings was supposed to look at the end, we would've saved a lot of time," jokes Asher Vollmer, one of the developers of Guildlings who's made several mobile games in the past, including the smash hit Threes.
Vollmer and Sirvo's creative director Jamie Antonisse met through collaborative projects. Their first was 2010's silent movie-era platformer The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, when Vollmer was still in high school. As the two worked together on projects over the years, discussions between them gradually evolved into what would become Guildlings.
Years later, in 2015, Antonisse was working at Disney and had been spitballing ideas with Vollmer, who had just launched Threes. By 2016, Antonisse founded Sirvo Studios to start development on Guildlings. There soon came a realization, through paper prototypes and early experiments, that it would require a larger team to make Guildlings happen.
"It became very clear that this is a game that requires art and more writing, and just more of everything," Vollmer says. "It was just a much bigger game than I ever made before."
The two recruited a number of artists and developers to bolster their ranks, and soon, that team became a crucial part of the creative process. Some, like artist Ellen Alsop, Vollmer found via Tumblr. They all ended up playing a major role in defining what Guildlings would become. "It's really hard to imagine Guildlings without them," Antonisse says of the Sirvo Studios team.
But as development continued, it became clear that the goals were shifting. He says the world Sirvo was creating and the prototype, the blueprint, for Guildlings just didn't mesh. It was misaligned for the growing vision of what the team wanted to do, an experience that was both exciting and frightening.
Antonisse tells me that as time went on, through the artwork and design of these characters, the team kept wanting to zoom the camera in more on their management sim. It started what Vollmer describes as a feedback loop. The more thought and care that went into these characters and the stories they had, the closer they wanted to get to the action.
"We just kept having to bring the camera closer and closer and closer," Vollmer says. "We're like, 'Oh, this satellite view doesn't make sense anymore, let's just rip it out.' Without the satellite view, then the management sim doesn't make any sense. 'Okay, so it's not a management game anymore.'"
Sirvo Studios essentially reverse-engineered an RPG. By establishing the systems in relative isolation, it gave Guildlings a sense of world and place. The closer it got, the more the team found what it actually wanted to create.
"We had no idea that we were making a twist on a JRPG until we were almost at full JRPG," Antonisse says. "And once we realized that's what this game needed to be, it unlocked so much for us. It helped us figure out the way we were able to get rid of all that extra stuff that wasn't working. It gave us an in that let us better understand the combat. All of those pieces really locked into place at that point."
Even with a goal in mind, the hard part was making it all happen. Guildlings started development in 2015 and hit Apple Arcade in 2019. From how Antonisse describes it, its late launch is due to how much the genre switch shook up production. New animations had to be considered, new assets created.
Luckily, the concept has remained evergreen throughout that process. Vollmer recalls Antonisse pitching Guildlings as a modern-day fantasy that blends the magical and real together into one story. He drew comparisons to The Wizard of Oz, which tackled a similar discussion at the turn of the 20th century. Now, for the 21st century, it's Guildlings' turn.
"The Wizard of Oz was a huge inspiration," Antonisse says. "Looking at the way that it deals with the things that were really important at the time, [like] industrialization. It does a good job of dealing with those things, but making those concepts playful, magical and really fun to explore."
Their own Oz is available now, in two chapters, on Apple Arcade. The team is waiting to see reception of Guildlings' first two chapters before making a decision on where to go next. There are even more places to explore, for instance-Antonisse developed a massive world map, which you glimpse a total of two times playing through what's available now. The map teases many areas where they could go, like a fantastical version of New York, or even its own rendition of a Mad Max-style wasteland.
It depends on how well the game is received. While Guildlings is only available on Apple Arcade as of this writing, Antonisse and Vollmer seem bullish on the idea of subscription mobile games. It's "healing a wound," as Vollmer says, because it provides a platform for games to expand over time without monetization worries. The divide between free-to-play and discrete, one-time-cost experiences dissipates in a subscription-based service.
"The mobile game space has been in a strange place for the past few years, because free-to-play games have sort of been turning off this core audience that would be more interested in traditional games," Vollmer says. "And so it ended up in this feedback loop where developers would not create premium mobile games because the audience had left, and then if anyone showed up there, there would be no games for them."
On Arcade and mobile, Sirvo Studios has the advantage of being able to build up on a platform without worrying about whether that should change the price tag. As it is now, Guildlings is a charming, fun romp through a fantasy land of wizards and Wi-Fi that went through a complete reimagining to get there.
Now the studio gets to sit back and observe as players finally tear into what was once just a paper prototype between friends. Thanks to years of hard work, soul-searching, and reimagined worlds, the developers only have one question left to answer: "What's next?"