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Merchants of Rosewall aims to revitalize more than fantasy life-sims

“Make pies, not war”

The video games industry is broken. Companies demand their employees return to offices in expensive cities, then lay them off. Games sell like mad, and studios close. Embracer ruins everything it touches. So when a new studio comes along in the middle of all this and says it wants to do things right and make its first game one that values the people who created it as much as the people who play it, I’m a little skeptical.

It’s the kind of “right thing at the right time” pitch you learn how to make in PR school, and it’s how Big Blue Sky studio lead Kevin Hovdestad – narrative designer and former communications consultant – opened a press briefing GLHF attended for the company’s first game, Merchants of Rosewall.

Hovdestad had the numbers to back up the ideals. When Big Blue Sky opened its figurative doors in 2022, he says women and femme-presenting people comprised nearly 50 percent of the studio’s leadership, including engineering and design teams. Big Blue Sky welcomes LGBTQ+ employees, creates safe spaces, and encourages them to tell their stories through their work. Employees with medical considerations or who act as caregivers for family members can stay in their homes, instead of upending lives and moving across the country.

A statue of two birds sitting in a pond with a waterfall behind it

Nature and your place in it play important roles in Rosewall.

“We’ve all seen [game development] done wrong,” Hovdestad says. “We know what it’s like to work at places with unrealistic expectations of people working long hours out of the goodness of their hearts, of people being forced to relocate to expensive cities with no accommodations. We’re on a mission to prove that it doesn’t have to be that way. We want to show that fully remote game development isn’t just possible, but healthy, and we’ve seen how healthy this has been for ourselves and want to champion it for everyone else.”

Merchants of Rosewall is Hovdestad’s and Big Blue Sky’s vehicle for making these changes, the online fantasy life-sim-slash-business management game that is the studio’s debut project. You play as a merchant in the eponymous city who starts their business life specializing in cooking, woodwork, or other crafty areas, but Rosewall is about people as much as it is the products they make.

The city is your typical fantasy setting on the surface. Elves and dwarves walk the streets, and there’s literally magic in the air. That’s where the similarities between Rosewall and traditional fantasy end, though. Hovdestad says the Rosewall motto is “make pies, not war,” which is a twee little catchphrase, but also indicative of Big Blue Sky’s approach to creating their world.

For starters, the team focused on challenging fantasy stereotypes and hamfisted handling of racial biology. Rosewall’s orcs are intelligent and handy on a ship, for example, while its elves are far less ethereal. All the people you encounter are defined by their own choices and personalities – not some notion that all dwarves and elves look, think, and behave in the same way.

There’s also no fighting in Merchants of Rosewall, or not the violent kind, anyway. Hovdestad says they wanted to show how people relate to each other, not how they attack one other. The team used culture, cuisine, fashion, and all the other facets of daily living to tell Rosewall’s story and breathe life into its citizens, and it sounds like there’s a lot of life – and interpersonal drama – in Rosewall. Hovdestad says the amount of lore, worldbuilding, character writing, and narrative plotting is enough to fill the pages of a meaty novel.

All of Rosewall’s characters are based on Big Blue Sky workers or their families, which Hovdestad says helps ensure representation feels authentic and not just perfunctory. You’ll interact with people in 2D visual novel-style sequences, and your relationships with them determine how your story unfolds. Hovdestad didn’t say much about what happens in that story, though he did say the team wanted to examine real-world problems, including social inequality and the danger unchecked capitalism poses for individuals and communities.

An orc in Merchants of Rosewall, weaving fishing nets on a pier

Fantasy characters as individuals and not racial stereotypes? What a concept!

Merchants of Rosewall is still very much about making and selling things, though. You’ll source materials from different regions around the world, expand your craft, and hire new artisans to help make your workshop the best in the city. Hovdestad says the team wanted a fresh spin on management sims, so you won’t just pick a vendor and buy what you need without thinking. You’ll need to consider where your resources come from and what effect harvesting them in bulk will have on the environment.

A message of environmental consciousness sits at Rosewall’s heart, but there’s a practical side to thinking about the world you live in as well. Ruining the ecosystem means prices go up, your profits go down, and the ripples affect other players and the wider system of supply and demand.

Even if you treat nature well and plan carefully, Rosewall still has an element of surprise to keep you on your toes. One of those is the weather. Hovdestad says one of Big Blue Sky’s team members used to be a career meteorologist and created complex weather mechanics that give each region unique climates and occurrences depending on the time of year. An abundance of rain in summer might lead to poor crops in the autumn, for example, and then there are El Nino and La Nina patterns to deal with, the threat of disasters – it’s a lot.

A Merchants of Rosewall character speaking to the player about nature cycles

Don't expect platitudes and easy answers on Rosewall's big problems

Rosewall’s economy is complex, and Hovdestad didn’t have time to get into some of the finer details, he did touch on some of the safeguards in place to keep a handful of people from ruining everyone’s fun. Some of Big Blue Sky’s developers have a background in economics and statistics, and Hovdestad says they ran dozens of tests in a bid to break Rosewall’s economy. Nothing worked. Even if Rosewall’s players manage to bamboozle the in-game economy, though, Hovdestad assures me that the game has enough checks in place to keep lettuce monopolies, price gouging in the lumber yards, and other undesirable situations from developing.

We didn’t actually get to see these systems in action, though. Hovdestad says that he and his team are still working on polishing Rosewall’s physics, so, for example, your oven won’t stick to your ceiling when you start work for the day – an occurrence he says happens more often than the team would like. Big Blue Sky is entering the final stretch of production, though. Unless something unforeseen happens, you can expect Merchants of Rosewall to launch on PC via Steam later in 2024.