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Answering the Call: A talk with the minds behind Call of the Wild: The Angler

Answering the Call: A talk with the minds behind Call of the Wild: The Angler

Written by Eric Hauter on 1/16/2023 for PC  
More On: Call of the Wild: The Angler

Believe it or not, we gamers can be a handful. We know what we like, and we know what we do not like, and we are considerably less than shy about sharing our opinions.

In the pre-internet days, developers and publishers would drop a final version of a video game on a CD and push it out into stores. People that purchased the game either liked the game or they did not. The world continued to spin. But these days, when a game appears on Steam, it is subject to instantaneous feedback from the people that purchase it. Whether they want to or not, developers are tossed into a communication loop with direct consumers that can feel at turns helpful and constructive or destructive and abusive.

A lot of how this communication is perceived depends on the attitude of the recipient. In the case of Call of the Wild: The Angler, released back in August 2022, one of the primary recipients was Game Director Paul “Rushy” Rustchynsky. A veteran of such respected racing franchises as Project Cars, Driveclub, and MotorStorm, Rustchynsky had recently shifted gears from a career in racing games to head up Call of the Wild: The Angler. And when the mixed user reviews started rolling in, Rustchynsky and his team accepted the hits with good grace and a positive attitude, and buckled down to work on converting The Angler into the game players felt it should be.

Over the last five months, Call of the Wild: The Angler – a beautiful open world fishing game, and a sequel of sorts to the enormously popular sleeper hit theHunter: Call of the Wild – has received a steady flow of updates and free content drops, culminating in the release of the massive Norway Reserve expansion, which was initially released to players for free for a limited time. Since The Angler's release, player perception of the game has begun shifting in a positive direction, though Rustchynsky acknowledges that there is still a lot of work to be done, with many more improvements and content drops to come.

For the below conversation, Rustchynsky is joined by Samuel Peterson (another industry veteran and current Managing Director of Expansive Worlds) to talk about the development of Call of the Wild: The Angler, the process of moving the game forward after a rocky launch, and the difference between racing game fans and fishing game fans (spoiler: it’s real world experience).

Game Director Paul "Rushy" Rustchynsky (left) and Expansive Worlds Managing Director Samuel Peterson (right)

Both of you come from varied backgrounds in the gaming industry. In both cases, working on an open world fishing game could be considered a bit of a departure from your previous work. What drew you to Expansive Worlds and The Angler?

Samuel Peterson: Expansive Worlds are on a clear journey to provide compelling outdoors content to a fantastic community of outdoors enthusiasts and gamers, and with the proven track record behind theHunter games, I’m thrilled to be on that journey with such a great team. Avalanche Studios Group is also very well positioned to be the kind of publisher that can cater to ever-broadening communities of players who enjoy the deep connections with each other through the games they love – the rapid consolidation we’ve seen in the industry over the past 5-10 years has certainly left some great communities under-loved, and we want to fill that need. Inspiring the world to experience the joy of nature through video games, and being able to do so in close collaboration with our players, is something I’m incredibly passionate about.

Paul Rustchynsky: It was a large departure for myself, having previously worked on racing games such as Driveclub and Project Cars 3, but it was intentional as I was in need of a fresh challenge. The opportunity to set up a new location for Avalanche Studios Group in Liverpool, build a talented new team for Expansive Worlds, and create an all-new IP with The Angler in the Call of the Wild franchise was something I couldn’t say no to. I’m really pleased that I did too; we’ve got a great team and we’ve built some strong foundations. I’m excited for the future.

This game firmly establishes Call of the Wild as a franchise. What elements of the previous game did you feel were necessary to keep in Call of the Wild: The Angler to keep the experience/franchise cohesive?

Paul Rustchynsky: It had to be open world, and it needed to capture the essence of what makes the real world activity engaging – whilst also being as accessible as possible to a broad audience. Authenticity was incredibly important to us too, yet never forgetting that we also needed to make it a fun game to play.

Samuel Peterson: When you’re spending time in a Call of the Wild game, we want there to be a real feeling of connection to the beautiful natural world. During the pandemic, we heard so much gratitude from our community, new and old, about how theHunter: Call of the Wild provided an alternative way to spend time in the great outdoors, and to connect with friends and family near and far in that virtual world. That’s something we’re really pleased about.

Paul Rustchynsky: Additionally, we saw how theHunter’s team engaged with their community and how they grew over the years, and we wanted to replicate that by forming a close relationship with the players. To remain reactive and responsive, collaborating with the audience to make the game that they want to come back to and play every day.

This question might sound obtuse, but Paul worked on games where the teams had to very specifically model real-world cars and have them function and behave as they would in the real world. What (if any) lessons from these experiences did you apply to Call of the Wild: The Angler? Did some of that modeling experience carry over to the fish and their behaviors? The vehicles in the game?

Paul Rustchynsky: It was less about the modelling experience and overlapping skills from past projects, and more about understanding the importance of authenticity and knowing what types of details matter. When you’re building a game for a super engaged and knowledgeable audience, you can’t use smoke and mirrors. You have to meet their expectations in the areas that matter or they’ll come away disappointed.

Since the launch of The Angler, we’ve learned a lot about what angling gamers want – as no two audiences are alike – and we’re keen to build upon those learnings now and keep improving the experience.

Are either of you fishermen in real life? What kinds of experts did you bring in to ensure both the fish and the fishing experiences were both accurate and fun?

Paul Rustchynsky: Before joining the project, I had limited experience as a kid fishing down by local canal with friends, and in my adult life I’ve never had the time to take it up seriously. Since joining the project, I’ve been able to go fishing numerous times and have taken my son fishing too, who’s now very interested in angling.

During development, we worked with expert consultants and have sent our entire team out fishing to get more hands-on experience. We also work internally with our ‘Carp Council’ of avid anglers, and in 2023 we’re planning to bring in more experts to help us deliver on some of the more technical aspects.

The fun thing about working with a range of people from different fishing backgrounds is that you get a broad range of opinions, as fishing is less of a science and more of an art. There are a surprisingly large number of ways to approach things.

Samuel Peterson: I’m not an active fisherman, but am certainly a lapsed angler in real life. I’ve only been fishing once in the last year as we’ve been a bit busy here at Expansive Worlds, but I grew up hunting and fishing, and fishing is the sport that stuck with me into adulthood for sure. The Angler certainly captures many of the things I most enjoyed about fishing, but as Rushy says, no two anglers are alike, and we constantly strive to adapt to the needs of our communities.

Both Call of the Wild games have very loose structures, which allow the player to either follow along a set path of gamified experiences, or go stomping off into the woods to do whatever they want. How difficult is it to balance a game so that it appeals to both types of players?

Paul Rustchynsky: This is an extremely challenging area to balance, as ultimately every player is unique and they often want something different. We have to try and hold the players hand enough to ensure they are taught the basics without being patronizing, but also giving them the freedom they need to approach things in their own way. This requires a lot of iteration and balancing, often going through multiple rounds of testing with various groups of players to see whether we’ve struck the right balance.

It’s impossible to please everyone all of the time, but we think we’ve struck a good balance between traditional tutorials and missions, and the freedom that an open world brings.

How long was The Angler in development before it launched? What changes did it see as you iterated upon it?

Paul Rustchynsky: From inception to launch, it was just over two years. Game development is a very fluid process, and there are often many changes as things get prototyped and assessed. You can design and plan all you like, but until you get it into your hands in-engine and start to iterate the feel, you never truly know how things will turn out. 

The most obvious change was our approach to fish spawning. Originally, this was going to be a design driven approach where we’d use the editor to hand place the different species in each reserve. We pivoted to a procedural system that would use environmental factors such as water depth, temperature, and turbidity to decide where to spawn fish. This not only resulted in a much more accurate simulation of the fish species, but actually made populating each reserve much easier too.

Leading up to release, what were your favorite features in The Angler: Call of the Wild? How did you feel about the game’s reception upon launch? Were you expecting it?

Paul Rustchynsky: I’m personally really pleased with how the seamless multiplayer has brought people together to fish in a shared space. I've seen so many stories of how new connections have been made and the fishing expeditions they have been on. Recently, it’s been great to see the community collaborate in multiplayer to find the new Legendary fish in Golden Ridge Reserve.

It was obviously disappointing at launch to see the mixed reception to the game, but we understand that we missed the target when it came to player expectations. However, I’m really proud of how our team has worked closely with the community to deliver the game that players want.

I’m relatively new to outdoor sporting games. What are some similarities and differences between the player community of The Angler and other player communities you have worked with? Are they more precise in their expectations?

Paul Rustchynsky: There’s a huge amount of overlap between the different audiences. First off, they’re all extremely passionate and are very knowledgeable on the games’ subject matter – so you can’t pull the wool over anyone's eyes.

The main difference I’ve seen with past (racing) audiences and our angling audience is how much real-world experience most have, often having spent thousands of hours with rod in hand, but most won’t have put in many laps on a real racetrack in a competitive environment.

That level of hands-on experience means our audience is intimately familiar with fishing, which makes the challenge of replicating how it feels in real life to game that much harder, as any small mistake will be spotted.

What impact does a rocky launch like you experienced with The Angler have on the team working on the game?

Paul Rustchynsky: Most of the core leadership at Avalanche Studios Group and Expansive Worlds have been through many game launches, and we’d consider ourselves fairly hardened game developers who can take the rough with the smooth. However, we also have graduates, juniors and those who have never launched a game before on the team, so it was a learning experience for many.

At the end of the day, we are all human and we certainly all felt impacted by the launch. I’m really proud of how the team reacted to the circumstances, taking constructive criticism on the chin and showing real desire to improve the game for our players – something we’re committed to continuing doing.

Gamers can be harsh critics, but they also love a good comeback. Were you using a specific strategy to help stabilize the game in the public’s eye? Did you look to other well-known games that had rocky launches for a template on how to handle the recovery process (Fallout 76, No Man’s Sky, Cyberpunk 2077)?

Paul Rustchynsky: I was there with Driveclub back in 2016 when that had a rough launch, and that went on to have over 15 million players after some great support and community engagement. It’s now a fondly remembered title of yesteryear, and shows how things can be turned around. Whenever I think of the journey we’re on with The Angler right now, I think back to that and how things turned out in the end. It gives me great confidence for the future of The Angler, as we’re committed to making it the best fishing game on the market.

Most of the user feedback doesn’t seem like it was bug-related. Rather, there were a lot of requests for changes in functionality. What process did you use to triage player feedback?

Paul Rustchynsky: We were really pleased with the stability and bug count of the game at launch. The build was solid and that meant we could really focus on the meaningful feedback immediately. Triaging the feedback was tough initially as it was coming from everywhere, but we grabbed every piece of constructive feedback we could and assessed for viability and impact, and then prioritised a list for each of our teams (code, art, etc).

Since launch, we’ve improved the process dramatically and now also have a dedicated Discord channel that allows players to upvote suggestions, giving us a much better picture of what players really want.

What are some examples of the most critical issues you wanted to address in patches in response to player feedback? Were these things you anticipated?

Paul Rustchynsky: At launch, there were a number of key areas that we wanted to address based upon the feedback we received. Some were expected, some were not. We knew, for example, that we’d need to balance the fish spawn rates (species and ranks), as we’d didn’t truly know if we had hit the sweet spot for players, and we were waiting on feedback to get a better understanding of player satisfaction.

However, it was a surprise to us that so many players were dissatisfied with the water rendering quality at launch, so we had to quickly scramble and re-prioritise our render team to focus entirely on this. We're happy with where it’s at now, but given the importance that players have put on this, we’ve decided to continue to invest more in this area.

The new DLC (which is gorgeous, btw) just about doubles the size of the game. How long has the new Reserve been in development?

Paul Rustchynsky: We started thinking about the Norway Reserve well before launch, as a huge amount of planning, concepting, and prototyping is required to put yourselves in a position to start to actually make it. The full production, where we moved most of the team onto it, was just before the game’s launch.

So, whilst it was in gestation for the best part of a year, the bulk of actual development was over three months. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but it equates to hundreds of months when you add up all the time spent on it across the team.

You have maintained a very positive tone as you’ve worked on The Angler post-release and offered a number of free content drops to the community, with the Trollsporet Nature Reserve DLC being the biggest and most dramatic example. After January 5, this expansion becomes paid DLC; it is free for a limited time. What was the discussion like to make it free? Was it a difficult decision to offer something this substantial for free?

Paul Rustchynsky: For me, as a gamer at heart and The Angler’s Game Director, it was the obvious choice and the right thing to do for our players. I’m glad that we were able to do it, as the community really deserved it. Their feedback has been invaluable and without them, the game wouldn’t have come as far as it has.

Recent Steam reviews seem to be much more positive. What impact does that have on team morale?

Paul Rustchynsky: It does impact the team, as it’s something we keep a close eye on and track the trends very closely. And when we’re positive or above on Steam, it feels great to know we’re doing the right thing.

The reviews are a great tool to help us understand how the community feels about the game, with players being able to let us know directly what they like and dislike about the game. Yes, it’s frustrating when we read negative reviews, but when constructively written they can be great motivations to continue improving the game. Nothing feels better than when we ‘flip’ a previously negative score to a positive due to our updates.

Can you share any future plans for Call of the Wild: The Angler? Can we expect a console release sometime soon?

Paul Rustchynsky: We’ve got an entire year's worth of updates lined up, with new features and new content. The console release is coming soon too. However, we’re keen to remain reactive to feedback and those plans will change based upon the community's needs.

Obviously, you can expect more fish species, more locations to fish and tonnes of quality-of-life updates. Some of the most highly requested features will be added and we want to do a number of major revisions to some existing features as well, but I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises just yet.  

Gaming Nexus would like to sincerely thank Paul Ruschynsky and Samuel Peterson for their participation in this interview. Call of the Wild: The Angler is now available on Steam. You can find my original review of the game here

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories.  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 to my headset collection.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on Xbox Series X, PS5, PS4, PSVR, Quest 2, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, (RIP Stadia) and a super sweet gaming PC built by John Yan.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect. I also co-host Spielberg Chronologically, where we review every Spielberg film in order, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts.

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