To some, Celso Riva might just have the perfect life. When the 38-year-old owner and lead creative force of the indie game developer Winter Wolves wakes up in the morning, he is his own boss. He can get straight to work on his most recent video game project, but sometimes the Italian native chooses to go for a hike in the mountains by his home in a small town outside of Tuscany. While Riva is living the dream of a full-time indie developer, there have been times when his picturesque world of gaming and Italian countryside almost came tumbling down around him.
Flash back to almost three years ago, and Rivawas in serious trouble. Winter Wolves hadstrayed from its standard Manga style, story adventure games and released Vera Blanc, a mystery visual novel meets detective comic book game. To minimize the delay between installments, Riva went to work on the sequel the day Vera Blanc was released. Unfortunately, the original was a flop, and the sequel was Winter Wolves’ second-worst selling game since the company’s debut in 2004.
After the Vera Blanc debacle, Riva was barely able to survive. Indie game developers don’t typically sit on huge piles of cash, and if his next game hadn’t done well, Celso Riva might be back in a cubicle for an Italian IT firm right now. With his back against the wall, Riva put aside the life/romance simulator games Winter Wolves had been successfully doing and tried something he had always wanted to make: a sci-fi RPG. The gamble paid off for both Riva and gamers, as 2011 saw the release of Planet Stronghold.
The success of Planet Stronghold not only kept the studio going, it also gave Riva the confidence to attempt and even grander project, Loren: The Amazon Princess. This epic fantasy RPG, released in 2012, was by far the most ambitious project ever attempted by Winter Wolves. The game is filled with the Manga style art that Winter Wolves has since returned to, but it is also a fully fleshed-out RPG. The game is long, and with multiple plot branches and relationships that affect the outcome of the story, the game offers a re-playability value that rivals many AAA RPGs.
With the success of Loren, Planet Stronghold, and other recent releases, Winter Wolves is in a secure position once more. However, Celso Riva is not one to get complacent, nor will he ever forget where he came from. “I don’t want to give people false illusions: being indie, especially in the first YEARS… is really tough,” Riva said. He emphasizes years of struggling for several months at a time, recalling the days when he learned that game development was as much about marketing and management as it was about coding a game.
Winter Wolves released its first game, Universal Boxing Manager, in 2004, and has continued to produce games on a regular basis ever since. While Riva has done a few simulation games and several romantic themed titles, he makes sure never to do the same game twice. His initial releases that year, in addition to the boxing manager simulator, included a space battles game, a goalkeeper game, and Magic Stones, a hybrid card/RPG game. Adventure games and dating simulators followed, with titles such as Summer Session and Bionic Heart.
Riva has always wanted to keep pushing himself towards something better. Not content to just release another game or sequel, he makes sure each game brings something new and exciting to the Winter Wolves collection. More importantly, Riva listens to his customers and tries to incorporate what his players like into his newer game. One of the most impressive features of every Winter Wolves release is the high replay value. Every game is ultimately about the story, and Winter Wolves ensures players will want to play each game several times to see the multiple ways each story will play out and end.
A few years ago Winter Wolves released Heileen, a visual novel. When Riva went back to do the sequel, he added an interesting feature he calls the Virtue/Sin system. Decisions made by the player affect the score one of the seven deadly sins for Heileen. Each sin has an opposing virtue, and the player’s choices affect where Heileen scores on each Virtue/Sin scale. This system, along with other story branch decisions made by the player, determines the course of the story.
One of the key features of almost all Winter Wolves games is the relationship system. As the player progresses through any of the games, the main character will inevitably interact with other characters. Choices made will affect the relationships with these other characters, for better or for worse. While the games generally can be played through without paying too much attention to the relationships, Winter Wolves provides many hours of rich gameplay by allowing players to explore these relationships. Enemies are made, friendships are formed, and, in some cases, characters end up in bed together. While some of the games have a few scenes and situations that can get a little hot and steamy, Riva is quick to point out that his games are not porn games. Winter Wolves strives to provide games that have depth and great stories, and most of Winter Wolves’ customers seem to appreciate the added layer of gaming this relationship system provides.
Currently, Riva spends a lot more time in front of the computer than on the Tuscan mountainside. Winter Wolves is busy trying to finish up the beta release for Heileen 3, which it hopes to have out next week. Riva has again raised the bar, and Heileen 3 moves beyond Heileen 2 in terms of sophistication. This third release in the franchise is a combination visual novel, RPG, and life sim. Riva has revealed that the game will keep the Virtue/Sin system, but will also add a leveling system similar to Spirited Hearts. The relationships will allow for multiple romance paths, and there will also be at least 14 different profession endings that players can unlock. The game promises to be deep, and players are excited to see what new innovations Winter Wolves has come up with in Heileen 3.
Winter Wolves offers two wonderful benefits that its customers greatly enjoy. The first is that all of the Winter Wolves games are made available on PC, Mac, and Linux, ensuring that anyone can enjoy these indie games. In the coming years, Riva plans to expand onto the mobile platform as well. The second, and more important, is that every single Winter Wolves game has a free demo that can be downloaded at WinterWolves.com. Riva is looking to make games that players enjoy. He isn’t looking to make a quick buck off of someone unsuspected, and he realizes that his various games appeal to different demographics. While purchasing indie games can sometimes be a gamble, Winter Wolves has removed all risk from the equation. Anyone can try a game and decide if it is for them, and with a wide array of genres and styles, there just might be a Winter Wolves game for everyone.
Riva has stated that after the release of Heileen 3, he will be finishing the sequel to Planet Stronghold, to be released in 2013. Fans of Loren: Amazon Princess will unfortunately have to wait until 2014 for their desired sequel, though a small expansion to the first might appear in the coming year. It is an exciting time for Riva and Winter Wolves, and there is plenty for this loyal base of players that love a good story to look forward to.
Winter Wolves has published some high quality indie games over the last year, and they continue to push themselves to reach a new height with every release. Talking to Celso Riva about indie game development is such a pleasure because he is so passionate about what he does. When asked why he chooses to be a game developer, he simply responds that he loves his job. This love shows in every game Riva makes, and to quote a line from Loren: Amazon Princess, “Love is what makes heroes of us all.”