"I've worked at a bunch of different places over the last 15 years, and pretty much every single game I worked on was about killing things," Robert Tatnell tells me. He's the sole developer behind Hokko Life, the cosy Animal Crossing-eque life sim that launched in early access today. Tatnell has worked on games including Killzone 2, Heavenly Sword and Fable 3. But four years ago, he left those big games behind, "with the goal to make something friendly, cosy, and with a creative side in there as well."
Developed by Tatnell's one-man studio Wonderscope and published by Team 17, Hokko Life delivers you to the charming town of Hokko, after your character falls asleep on a train. Rather than trying a find a way out of the town, you stay, and help the anthropomorphic animal villagers with errands in their picturesque home. It really is pretty too, I can think of worse places to be stranded.
When I first played it, I spent a good amount of time just wandering around Hokko. It's all very colourful and cute, with lush tress and a delightful beach - plus it has the sort of peaceful ambient music I could happily listen to for hours on end. Tatnell tells me that, while the game isn't inspired by any location in particular, the picturesque town and cosy vibes are somewhat influenced by places he's lived.
"I grew up on the south coast of England. The coastline there is extremely beautiful, with all these old little thatched cottages," he says. "I didn't go in necessarily thinking, 'Oh, I'm going to make it like this'. But that sort of cosiness sits within me, and I've used that a bit when making the game."
At first glance, it's hard not to immediately compare the game to Nintendo's popular life sim Animal Crossing. You live amongst all these kind animals, crafting, fishing, bug catching, and generally helping improve the little countryside town. Hokko has a few differences, of course. For one, the shopkeeper is a pleasant giraffe, rather than a capitalist racoon. But mostly it's nice to have a game on PC that's so similar to Animal Crossing. Interestingly, when Tatnell first started making Hokko Life, it was actually going to be similar to Transport Tycoon.
"Right at the beginning, you were placing down train tracks, connecting towns, ferrying goods and people around, stuff like that. I realised over time I was more interested in these little villagers I had walking around and talking to one another, and you could talk to them and they'd have things they wanted you to do," he tells me.
"Slowly the game gravitated towards that: the camera got closer and closer, then I added a playable character - because you didn't have one of those at the start, it was more like a god character placing stuff down."
Tatnell adds that Hokko Life is a project that's very much come from what he enjoys playing now. Over time he's moved away from more aggressive games, and gravitated towards more relaxing, creative experiences.
"As someone who plays those types of games, there are certain pet peeves and things that stick out, or things you want to streamline," he says.
And you can tell from playing exactly what those sorts of things are. The big one for me is the crafting system. When you make items in Hokko Life, you're able to edit individual parts of say, a piece of furniture, to make it your own. Then, when it comes to finding a home for it, you can place it almost anywhere you want, and facing any angle. It doesn't force you to make items face up, down, left or right on some sort of grid, like a lot of other sims. It's a small change, but one I really valued because it removes that little annoyance.
The crafting is something Tatnell is looking forward to seeing more players mess around with too. The game doesn't have multiplayer, but it does let players share their designs with each other. He tells me that during the game's closed beta, he was stunned by what players had managed to make in such a short span of time.
"In a weird way it's surprising, even though I've built the game to allow that. But just seeing people do these sorts of things is amazing," he says. "That's an area I'm hoping to build out over time as well, to make design sharing a little more integral to the game, and flesh it out to allow even more freedom."
Tatnell has released the game in early access to experiment with various ideas he has for the game, and see how players get on. There's no set end date just yet either: Hokko Life will see a full release when he's happy it's a "complete and solid experience".
Hokko Life is available right now in early access on Steam, priced at £16/€20/$20.