Moonbreaker Is A Brandon Sanderson Video Game Universe Designed To Last
To describe Brandon Sanderson as prolific would be an understatement. In addition to being the author of the acclaimed Mistborn and Stormlight Archive series’, as well as finishing Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, he teaches, tours, and makes YouTube videos. And, somehow, in between all that he works with video games properties, most notably the Infinity Blade franchise with Epic and Chair.
More recently however, Sanderson has teamed up with Unknown Worlds, the studio behind the Natural Selection series and Subnautica. Their game, Moonbreaker, brings miniature painting to the digital world and allows players to embark on an adventure where their creations battle in strategic combat.
For Moonbreaker, Sanderson served as–in his own words–“the designer of the world, the plotter of the outlines, the creator of the characters,” which all served as fertile ground for director Charlie Cleveland and the Unknown Worlds team to craft a memorable narrative around miniatures. Their goal is to create an experience that has long-term interest that players will return to constantly. The pie in the sky dream is to have the same kind of staying power as something like Pokemon or Magic The Gathering, and a collaboration between a game development team that constantly takes risks. An author that creates acclaimed stories certainly helps make that dream seem a little more attainable.
We spoke to Sanderson and Cleveland about the collaboration, the goals for the game, and how they hope to evolve Moonbreaker. On top of that, we also discussed Sanderson’s own love of games–which runs deep–and how that influenced his work on the project.
GamesSpot: Moonbreaker is a bit of a departure for the team. Where did the idea come from? Is it in any way an evolution of something that you learned while working on Subnautica or was it just a chance to do something new?
Charlie Cleveland: We just wanted to do something new. I mean, as a studio, I feel like we always are trying to do something pretty different. This will be the third time we changed genres. So yeah, I think if we’re going to work on a game for a few years, we want to work on something new and exciting, and we don’t want to just keep doing the same stuff over and over.
Brandon Sanderson: Happens to me too, right? Like, once I get done with a book, people ask me how I maintain my productivity. I always want something different from what I’ve been writing. If I have to go into the sequel to a series, a book I’ve just written, it’s going to go much slower than if I can write something in between that is just very different.
Cleveland: That makes sense. You actually see that with Blizzard too. I remember, at least old Blizzard, would like alternate IPs. They made Starcraft, they made something else, but they came back to Starcraft later. So it’s kind of like the teams need that recharge, and so yeah, I guess that’s why.
Brandon, how did you get involved with the project? I know you’ve obviously done work in games before with Infinity Blade, but what was the pathway for you to this game?
Sanderson: I am an avid gamer. I am, as I often say, the first generation of novelists that grew up playing video games. I had an actual Atari. I played on Commodores before that. I had each system and a gaming computer alongside it as they came out. And so gaming is just a part of my DNA and my agent, who’s a generation older than me, knows this–doesn’t quite get it, but knows it.
He knows I’ve said before I would like to do more in video games. I don’t have a lot of time, so we have to pick the right project. I can’t work on even two video games at once–I can only work on one. And so we waited for years; [and] people come to us periodically. I’ll get three or four serious requests a year from companies and then a dozen from startups and things wanting me to work on a video game with them.
I’ve had offers from most of the AAA studios and things like that. It’s something that I’ve just wanted to do and I’ve known I’ve wanted to do. We were waiting for the right thing. [And] it was because of a couple of key things. Number one: I was introduced to Charlie by our mutual friends at Bad Robot, who I’ve done some things with in the past, and I really liked them and so it wasn’t a cold introduction.
A lot of the other introductions are like, “Hey, we love your books, but you know, here we are.” Here it was someone that I already knew. Number two: The studio had made a game I’d recently played and loved in Subnautica. I had bounced off a few of the survival games out there, Subnautica just grabbed me and held on to me and it’s the only one to this day that I finished. I’ve never even actually killed [Minecraft’s] Ender Dragon. But I finished Subnautica and it was something about the world-building being so evocative, the visuals being so interesting, the clever use of story through Subnautica, and the right period of my life where I was like, “I have an extra day a week right now that I want to dedicate to something, a new project.”
It was just all of these things that came together. And I just liked the team. I liked the pitch. I think we worked well together. I actually gave the other teams pitches that were not the same ones for yours–it was targeted to their games.
Cleveland: You had other secret pitches? Wow, Brandon’s full of secrets. That’s not surprising.
Sanderson: They each came to me and said, “This is the type of game we’re making.” You got two pitches. They each only got one. But it was a setting that they could use. And just the jive of chatting with you guys and about what you wanted to do and how it worked and things like that. It all aligned and it was the one I wanted to try. I mean, I will be honest in saying the fact that you were an indie studio that made something so incredible on your own is part of [why] I feel like I could get to know you guys. I felt like I’d be able to work with you guys.
I felt like [it] wouldn’t be corporate and people wouldn’t be changing every five minutes that I’d have a new director. I felt there was a better chance that we’d all want to make something and release it. I have had friends who’ve done all this work and then some suit’s like, you know, it doesn’t quite match our demographics anymore and then they just don’t release the game. All these things came together and I just had a good vibe.
Charlie, from your side of things, where was the project when Brandon came on board? Brandon, how much had you seen of it or even heard about it before you started pitching your own story and ideas for it?
Cleveland: I mean, I think we had like a really crappy prototype, which was really ugly, but it was the game. I mean, if I showed it to you right now, you would probably recognize that it’s a turn-based miniatures game with painting.
Sanderson: But all your assets were from your other games.
Cleveland: [laughter] Yeah, they were all downloaded [from the] Unity asset store from Subnautica and rando Marines from Natural Selection 2, our other games. The game to me, I thought the game was really fun even then. I think it was a hard sell for a lot of people because it was so ugly.
Sanderson: Yeah, you said that. But I got it at the moment you said to me because Charlie said it’s kind of a squad-based miniatures game but it’s better than minis. Yeah, it’s like doing that on the computer with all the things we can do with digital painting and all this stuff. It clicked for me instantly what the game was and I envisioned it in my head. And then I played your prototype and I’m like, “This is exactly what I envisioned.” Ugly, but it’s exactly what it was [envisioning]–a really easy pitch for me.
Cleveland: The team had more difficulty, I have to say. The Subnautica team in particular were like, “Why are you doing this? What is this?”
Sanderson: I love how we have hit this world where tabletop and digital are blending. I’m a big Magic the Gathering fan, and I’ve loved watching the evolution of a collectible card game into something like Hearthstone and then even Magic Arena and then all these different places turning into roguelites with things like Slay the Spire.
I’ve loved watching that and feeling like how you get on the ground where like, “Hey, someone’s going to do this with Miniature games”. It’s been going this [way] with card games for a while. Miniature games scream for this because–I enjoy them–there’s so many fiddly little things to keep track of. And even like measuring, like if you play one without hexes you’ve got to have tape measures and you’ve got to figure all this stuff [out].
Cleveland: And you need a giant table and you need friends who are around for like six hours on a Saturday. You have to read the giant tomes.
Sanderson: Yeah. And being able to simplify a lot of that, not the gameplay, but all the stuff you have to do to enjoy the game, was really exciting to me. So right from the get go I was on board with this concept. It was unique and original and the other two pitches I’ve got were just like more games that people have played before.
Cleveland: Yeah, there’s a game like this, but we’ve got this one extra thing.
Sanderson: Yeah, and this one, I’m like, “I’ve never seen this before.” And I love that. That just grabbed me.
Cleveland: And that’s what motivates us too, of course.
So Brandon, how does your style of writing and the kind of stories that you come up with fit into that? The trailer says “a universe created by Brandon Sanderson.” In an age of Elden Ring with George R.R. Martin, where it’s unclear what George did on the project for a lot of people, can you explain your involvement in the project?
Sanderson: I can, absolutely. Because one of the things is I love George. He is a fantastic human being. He’s been very kind to me. If we weren’t on a time crunch here, I would tell you all sorts of fun stories about George. But I’m a gamer. George is not. I love video games and from the get-go, I wanted to be deeply involved.
I didn’t want to write something and send it off into the ether, so we started up a weekly phone call and I dedicated one day a week to writing. And so what we do is we do our phone call and then that day, after the phone call, I would write on this and then send the new material for the team to read over the week.
And then the next week we would get feedback on it and I’d work on the next thing. I love world-building. In fact, one of the exciting parts about this is I generally can world-build and then I often spend 18 months working on a book or a year, sometimes it’s six months, whatever. But you know, a lot of my job is the prose and the revision and all of this stuff, which I’m glad to do, it’s my job, but revision is really hard and prose is really hard, right? World-building works a different part of my brain. I don’t want to say it’s really easy, but it’s a different part of my brain and being able to once a week leave the other stuff I was doing and just use that part of my brain that just builds interesting places to have adventures was really exciting to me.
It was actually really refreshing to work on this every week. And so what I did is I started with the document and I said, “Here’s our worldbuilding guide, here’s our physical setting, here’s our cultural setting, and I’m going to split our cultural setting into all these different cultures. And here’s our economy and here’s our tech level, and here’s our mythology.”
Cleveland: What animals look like, how gravity works, how weather works…
Sanderson: I did all of that and I would have a heading for each of those. And over the two and a half years I built this giant document. Meanwhile, I was working on a plot guide which is 10 characters, and their relationships. So basically it’s like there’s these big things connecting them all together. I wrote out all of those and then I wrote outlines for 10 characters just for their journeys across a longform. Like if you were writing a series about this character, here’s who they’re becoming, and here’s important moments in their life.
How did the lore and the story evolve as more gameplay mechanics and, in particular, more things on the game design side came to life. And was there anything that you had to write in Brandon because it wouldn’t fit otherwise?
And as a follow-on to add on to that, Brandon, you’ve said in the past that your favorite kinds of games are where the story is in lockstep and kind of enhances the gameplay, like Halo 2. How does that work here?
Cleveland: So I guess for me, you know, as like the game designer on this game, designing all the units and the captain’s abilities and like how Cinder works, the resource economy and all this stuff, probably the biggest thing was looking at the world or the character guide and trying to come up with abilities that fit the characters, especially the captains, because they’re the most important character-wise–trying to come up with abilities that would fit who they are.
Sanderson: Yeah, and this was a back and forth because you would do that and you come to me and say, “I have this really cool power, [but] it’s not fitting with this character.” And I’d be like, “Oh, this other character that I was thinking about, let’s riff on this person and build them out to have this power.” And then that influences how I designed that character and even their culture.
Cleveland: I would say, “Well, this captain’s set up abilities work really well, but it doesn’t fit this character. What do we do?” And Brandon would be like, “We can just make that character the brother instead and just change it.” [We’d] basically just change the character guide and suddenly it works.
Sanderson: We set aside one of the captains we were planning because we had such a good design for a different captain. I’m like, “No, no, that fits this other character, I was thinking about right there. We’re just going to make them one of the 10, and this other one will be one for later on that we’ll come up with.”
Cleveland: There’s a lot of back and forth.
Sanderson: You know, you mentioned my philosophy as a gamer. I have played a lot of games and I’ve come to a truism: “A story can make a game so much better, but story should serve gameplay, not the other way around.”
I’m sure someone out there can make a game that’s the other way, but the games I’ve played that have tried to have the gameplay serve story usually don’t work very well. And you know, my favorite games often have really great lore, but I mean my favorite game of all time is Civilization, where you make your own story or you use real world inspirations as you play along.
And so I feel that my job, and I told this to Charlie all along, is that I need to enhance what you’re doing, not the other way around. I am in the second; I’m in the copilot seat, I am not in the pilot’s seat. You tell me what you need and I will build it to make your game better.
I think a lot of the things we arrived at were where we were just shooting ideas back and forth and then we’d go away for a week and we come back and be like, “Hey, I iterated on this,” and you’re like, “I iterated on this” and, “Oh, those look together like this.” Yeah, I think the biggest thing was probably like the delivery mechanisms of the story.
Cleveland: Yeah, because we can find common ground and find opportunistic characters and abilities that work together both for story and gameplay. But the actual mechanisms of story delivery and the amount of story in the game, I think that’s where this game is going to stand out.
Sanderson: Yeah. I was always pushing for these audio dramas. I felt that it was a really nice match to a game where you’d be painting, that you could listen to this audio drama to really get a character. And then, you know, one other thing Charlie was always pushing on that is really smart is that, in gameplay, you take the captain that you bond with and then you go on an adventure with them. You’re not going to play the audio drama. You’re going to listen to the audio drama. Pick your captain and then go on an adventure.
What is the hope for the miniature painting mechanic beyond just the satisfaction of being able to paint and customize your figures? I saw the codename was Project Bob Ross, does that speak to your intent to get people to watch virtual paintings?
Cleveland: I mean, what’s really crazy [that that is] already happened because we had the two playtest weekends on Steam and people on Twitch were only painting–maybe even a little more than half [of everyone]. Like it was really like a big draw for people. It’s really relaxing. It’s enjoyable to watch somebody else paint.
I’m really excited for it. I think it’s one of the things that drew me to the game. To answer your question fully, yeah, there is no other purpose besides joy and relaxation. Your unit is an important expressive act for the game, but the whole design of the painting interface was about giving you all the power you need to make your unit look the way you want it to.
It’s really much more about the intrinsic joy of painting. So–and I can talk a little more about that, but like–I think I learned how to paint and draw over [the pandemic]. It was like a really stressful time. And I was painting like every day for a couple of hours and I just wanted to learn and I just fell and found myself being swept away–going to bliss mode. Some kind of bliss, even though my painting wasn’t that great. But we really wanted to capture that again. And it’s almost like a second, just like a meditative state that you enter when you paint. This feels like analog painting, but with undo and like a couple little accelerators.
Charlie, do you intend on keeping Brandon focused on this new universe that you’ve now created? And Brandon, is there intention or desire to explore way more beyond?
Sanderson: I would want to do a dozen games in this universe if Charlie’s on board for it. So, I mean, I don’t know if we’d want to make another game. We absolutely could. But this game has been so much work already.
How do you see Moonbreaker evolving over time? These days, putting a gameout and then just letting it live as is seems like a thing of the past.
Cleveland: When we set out to make this game, one of our goals with it was to make a game that would last a very, very long time. Because even though Subnautica did super well, it’s a boxed kind of experience. It just has a shelf life. The sales go up and then at some point they just turn around and they start dropping. They just keep dropping.
So as a studio, we need more. We need money to keep coming in. You’re always jumping from hit to hit. If you’re lucky, it’s a hit. If you miss, that might be your last game for the studio or you might have one [where] if you’re lucky, you’ve saved up enough that you can make one more game.
But if you’re like us, you want to make pretty risky games. That’s a really scary prospect to be constantly searching for your next paycheck, doesn’t matter how much. Subnautica sold eight million copies and it’s still something we want. It’s in the back of your mind, like, “Make sure you have enough money, make sure you know it’s not going to run out.”
So we said, “Okay, we want a game that’s going to last forever and we want to make an impact like Magic or Pokemon or one of these big games. We want to have a game that’s going to last decades. We want it to grow.” So what you’re seeing with early access is the first version, it’s the worst version, it’s the beginning of the storyline. And we’re hoping that we’re just going to keep developing it for an extremely long time and it’s changing and evolving.
Do you hope physical models start happening?
Cleveland: Everyone is excited about them. But personally, I’m not a fan of making a lot of plastic for oceans. We gave a lot of money to Oceans.org and other charities for Subnautica. I don’t really want to make a lot of plastic. If someone can find a biodegradable way of producing miniatures, I’d be very excited because our fans already have been asking for minis. So if anyone out there knows how to make biodegradable minis, physical minis, I’m in.
Brandon, you’ve talked in the past about always having an idea for Mistborn as a video game, but you had a very specific idea. You wanted it in a very specific way.
Potential to partner with a studio like Unknown Worlds?
Sanderson: Oh, I do think that there’s absolutely potential. It’s a no brainer. That could write itself, you know.
Cleveland: Maybe the next project then.
Sanderson: I mean, and it sounds like a lot of work, but I would love to do it. Believe me. And I actually have lots of ideas for Charlie.
Cleveland: Every time I chat to him he’s like, “Hey, Charlie, what about this?” I’m in.
I have an idea for you, Brandon.
Have you ever heard of The Legacy of Kain?
I have. I’ve played Legacy of Kain.
How would you feel about potentially trying to do a new one of those if they approached you? Embracer Group recently got the rights. A lot of people have always wanted Amy Hennig to return to that franchise, but as someone who knows [creating] fantasy universes as well as you, would you ever consider it if they approached you?
Sanderson: I mean, I would consider it, but I would almost assuredly say no, because I can do one video game project at a time and I’m still dedicated to Moonbreaker. And so I don’t imagine that I’m going to be able to say yes to any video games, with the little asterix [that] if Miyazaki came to me and said, “Hey, do you want to make a new game?” I might have to say yes to FromSoft. But I don’t know I’d say yes to anything else.
You said you had an entire pitch ready for From Software, didn’t you?
Sanderson: I have a pitch, but I’m good at pitches. I have dozens of ideas I’m waiting to do things with. And so most of them I’ll never be able to do things with, but if they came to me, I would have a pitch ready. Yeah.
You are the busiest person. Any productivity tips you could give? How do you split your time?
Sanderson: Make sure you’re taking time to enjoy yourself also or you will burn out. I schedule. I’m good at keeping a schedule, but in that schedule is two hours a day of just goofing off. Whatever it is I feel like doing. Sometimes I feel like writing something extra. And that’s where these secret projects came from. Sometimes I feel like playing Elden Ring.
Sometimes I feel like reading Andy Weir’s new book. Whatever it is, I schedule it in and keep in mind, having no commute is a really big advantage. Lots of people are discovering this now that you can magic an hour or two hours to your day if you’re not commuting and things like that. And that’s the life I’ve been living for years and those two hours become hang out and play a video game.
Cleveland: So do you schedule video game times too?
Sanderson: I get two hours a day to just do whatever I want and that could be a video game. Elden Ring two hours a day. It took me seven days to beat Melania. 14 hours, but I finally did.
Cleveland. That’s impressive. So you’re probably very focused even in your gameplay. You have two hours.
Sanderson: Yep. I’ve got to be done and then I’ve got to go to bed. Otherwise I’ll. Yeah.
Cleveland: So I will say, whenever Brandon told us we’d have our weekly meetings, he’d be like, “I’m going to have this many words done by this time,” which would be like the next day. It was always like that. Occasionally it would be a little lower, occasionally it would be a lot higher. But it was like a robot.
Sanderson: You got your thing that night.
Cleveland: It’s amazing to watch.
Sanderson: Good scheduling. I am an artist who was raised by an accountant. My mom’s an accountant and she taught me to schedule my time. And, you know, I have that artistic temperament. I want to go dancing through the flowers and imagine daydreaming. But with this kind of superpower, I can structure it a little bit.
Cleveland: Yeah. There’s a book by Twyla Tharp that talks a little bit about scheduling things, just FYI.
I had to beat Elden ring in four or so days for review. And it was… yeah, it was rough.
Sanderson: I mean, it took me like four months. Granted, I’m playing 2 hours a day and not every day, but yeah. I did finally beat it. I finally beat it with 10 million runes because I limited my level so I didn’t know over level.
So two quick questions before we head off. Have you played the new Monkey Island game? I know you’re a big fan of the originals.
Sanderson: I am a big fan. It is just out. I have not played it. I actually watched like the first 10 minutes in a let’s play just to see, and I have been watching reviews on YouTube–spoiler-free reviews. I absolutely love that. And the fact that we have the original creator back, but also he’s not kicking out the stuff from my favorite one, which is the third one–though it’s a blending of some of that, but seems to maybe be ignoring some of the later stuff that I didn’t like as much. It seems like it’s a perfectly made game for me.
In the past, you’ve mentioned that you don’t like depressing and dark fantasy worlds a lot of the time, especially in video games.
Sanderson: I do [like them], but I don’t like writing them. So here’s the thing. I am glad the world exists and [there are] lots of variety of narrative styles. I don’t see that as my job, but I mean Dark Souls is pretty dark and it’s nihilistic to the extreme. And that’s one of my favorite game stories ever. So I wouldn’t say I don’t like dark, just that I’m glad that there’s space for lots of types of games.
I was going to ask if you’ve played much of the Dragon Quest franchise.
Sanderson: I have played. In fact, my first role playing game, like many people, was Dragon Quest 1, named Dragon Warrior on the Nintendo way back when. And the number of times that I played through that game is embarrassing.
Well, kind of swinging back around to tie it all up. Can we expect Moonbreaker’s world to be a little more joyous? A little more upbeat?
Sanderson: Yes. Once again, every story needs its moments of darkness. It has moments of light, but our guide for this, I really wanted something that felt a little more Guardians of the Galaxy and a little less in the grim, dark future and “there is only war.”
Cleveland: More optimistic. We do cover a lot of emotional ground. So, you know, there’s love, there’s life, there’s death…there’s lots of stuff happening. All sorts of themes. We’re kind of channeling the whole adventure. It’s an adventure. So you kind of want the whole gamut.