Exclusive Interview: Tom Astle Talks Animal Inspector

Animal Inspector 2

Few games have been as emotionally taxing as 2013’s Papers, Please. Lucas Pope’s PC title was a fascinating look into the stress of working as an immigration officer and was one of the most memorable games to come out in the past decade. So, what happens when you take the same basic setup, but replace immigrants with adorable animals?

That’s the idea behind Tom Astle’s Animal Inspector, a free PC game that has players deciding if animals live or die. We Got This Covered recently talked to the former The Sims 4 gameplay programmer about why he recently left the publishing giant that is Electronic Arts, using animals to draw out emotion, and much much more.

Check it out below, and enjoy!

We Got This Covered: Before going independent, you worked on The Sims 4 for three years. What led to you wanting to go from working on one of the biggest series around to creating your own games?

Tom Astle: Working on a big budget AAA game was an awesome experience and I’m really glad I got to do it, but going independent and working on my own stuff was something I’d been thinking about constantly since college. My three years at EA went by super fast and at some point I just kinda realized how easy it’d be to spend the next 10 working on the exact same types of games, daydreaming about making my own stuff.

WGTC: Did you enjoy your time working under the EA umbrella? Do you feel like you can apply the lessons you learned there to your independent work?

TA: It was good and bad, but that’s any company. Most of my complaints boil down to the fact that EA is large and publicly traded; stuff like their strict and immovable non-compete policy meaning video game side projects are pretty much completely banned. Ultimately, I got to work with a team of incredibly smart and talented people on a game with a hugely passionate fanbase. I played The Sims games as a kid. It’s crazy to me that I got to work with a bunch of the people responsible for them.

As far as lessons go? Not everything translates to smaller projects, but a lot does. Probably the biggest thing for me is that I feel way more confident than before. I can probably make a game!

WGTC: How did you come up with the idea of Animal Inspector?

TA: I had the idea of looking at arbitrary pictures of animals and assigning them star ratings. I just thought it was really funny to have to make a value judgement on an animal based off of literally no criteria. It’s goofy and makes no sense. The game just kind of evolved from there as I started implementing things.

WGTC: Animal Inspector was launched under a ‘Pay What You Want’ model. Have you found that to be successful? Certainly you get a lot more people playing your games, but have they been paying for it afterwards? Would you try that model again?

TA: I didn’t make Animal Inspector with the intention of making any money. It was a warm-up project to get me used to using Unity and working on smaller projects again. The game took me 2.5 months to finish, and it definitely hasn’t paid for its development costs (living expenses + commissioned music/sfx). That being said, I’m still really happy with the model. It’s made me a little chunk of cash which it wouldn’t have if I’d just released it as a completely free download like I’d originally been thinking, and a lot of people got to check it out who wouldn’t have if there was a monetary barrier.

I’d 100% use the model again for small projects, but I don’t think I’d use it for a game that I was relying on to support me financially. I’m sure it’s possible for PWYW to be successful on a larger-scale project, but I don’t have that data and if I spend a year or two making something I don’t think I’d take that gamble.

WGTC: As an animal lover, I found it very difficult to send adorable animals off to die. Strangely, it might’ve been more nerve-wracking than Papers, Please. Have you heard this sentiment often, and do you feel like it’s easier to manipulate a player’s emotions by using something as universally beloved as animals?

TA: Yeah! I’ve heard this a lot actually. It honestly surprised me when I first started seeing people mentioning how bad the game made them feel. There’s some darker stuff in there, but there’s this thick layer of goofiness on top of it all. I had originally planned the game to be WAY darker than it is, and I lightened it up a ton so it’s been interesting to see that some people are still hit so hard by it.

Papers, Please is objectively a way darker game than Animal Inspector, I don’t think that’s really up for debate. That being said, empathizing with people takes more effort, right? You look at a dopey dog and you just see this happy fuzzy lump that loves life. It’s cute and you can project whatever you want onto that dog because there’s nothing there. It’s hard to rationalize killing it because what could it have possibly done to deserve that? It’s a dog, it can’t really do anything wrong. You know that any situation a dog is in or anything bad a dog does is the direct result of its owners. On the other hand, it’s way easy to rationalize blaming a person for the situation they’re in or the things they’ve done. People are complex and empathizing means you have to understand that complexity on some level. A dog is simple and you don’t have to think about it.

I’ve seen this sort of thing a lot actually. Like there’s this whole series of pictures I saw years back where a dude photoshopped My Little Pony [characters] into famous images of The Holocaust and other stuff of that nature. I have no idea what the artist’s intent was, so I won’t comment on that, but the comments sections were filled with people saying they had never been able to relate emotionally to those events before seeing their favorite My Little Pony right there in the thick of things. It’s wild.

Anyways, it’s all super interesting to me and I totally wish I’d been more conscious of this all while developing the game. There’s a lot of interesting places I could’ve gone that I didn’t and it was a huge missed opportunity, I think.