What do “Toy Story,” “The Lord of the Rings” and wrestling have in common?
That’s how James Deighan describes his new roleplaying video game “WrestleQuest,” which launched worldwide on Aug. 22 and comes from Bloomfield-based Mega Cat Studios, one of the few video game studios based in Pittsburgh. The game launched two weeks after its original planned launch due to a technical issue.
“People are shocked that we’re in Pittsburgh,” he says.
But Mega Cat’s founder sees Pittsburgh as the perfect fit for what he calls a blue-collar studio in an industry that is saturated on the West Coast.
Old-school RPG meets wrestling
The Mega Cat team always wanted to create a turn-based role-playing game (RPG), the likes of which they grew up playing, and they found a shared foundation between RPGs and pro wrestling.
“Both have this extreme emphasis on larger-than-life characters and narrative-driven content,” Deighan adds. “So much of wrestling is not just about people throwing each other around in the ring. It’s about the conflict that leads to that, the ultimate betrayal, things like that.”
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Mega Cat describes the game as “a classic RPG combat meets wrestling moves, match styles and gimmicks galore” or, as the team calls it, “wrestlfy.”
Play as rookie wrestler Randy “Muchacho Man” Santos on his way to become a world champion. Muchacho Man must defeat standing champions in the local wrestling scene before he can advance to more difficult opponents.
What makes “WrestleQuest” unique is the gameplay itself. Mega Cat’s Head of Studio Zack Manko says in some games like “Super Mario RPG,” the player can repeatedly press the attack button.
“Battles become autopilot at that point,” he says. “We really wanted to avoid that with the combat system. A big focus was making it feel exciting. By making every battle a live wrestling match in front of an audience, it adds to this whole new dynamic. If you keep doing the same move over and over again, the audience gets bored.”
When this happens, the “hype meter” drains and strengthens the opponents.
“But if you approach it like a wrestling match and put on a good show, you can build that meter up,” Manko adds. “When that happens, you get different bonuses, better attacks and unique loot. There are a dozen systems to make it so you can’t sit back and hit the same button over and over again. It makes it snappier, and more fun. It’s like a WWE game, but an RPG.”
Unlike old-school RPGs, everything is animated, Manko adds. From moonsaults to piledrivers to powerbombs, each move is created with hand-drawn pictures.
Manko says that when they were conceptualizing the game, they reminisced more about action figures than wrestling itself. The game characters are designed to look like action figures.
“Maybe you have a macho man and a G.I. Joe,” he says. “Well, you just match them together and make them fight. It’s about capturing that idea of being a kid and having unbridled creativity with your toy box.”
“WrestleQuest” features 30 licensed legends, including “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Jake “the Snake” Roberts and Jeff Jarrett.
“We have a lot of cool stuff to share,” Deighan says. “If you love games and want to support a local Pittsburgh-based company, there’s a whole lot more coming after ‘WrestleQuest.’ Also, do you like cats? We have a lot of cats.”
“WrestleQuest” is available now on most major gaming platforms, including Steam, PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, Xbox and Netflix.
Punching above their weight
For a studio that Deighan says has never made a popular game before, Mega Cat Studios has won 20 different Best in Show and Best in Gameplay awards from Gameacon, Indie Prize USA, MAGFest, and others in its seven-year history.
“We were just fighting an uphill battle because none of us came from the games industry,” he says. “We had to learn in the trenches. We’d make a game, bring it to the trade show, go back home and say, ‘Well, we have changes to make.’”
And game design takes a team. Deighan says more than 30 people worked on “WrestleQuest,” including freelance artists and voice actors. The game took four years to create more than 50 hours of story content.
“There are so many layers to every little piece,” he says. “It’s the pacing, camera behavior, cinematic, sound effects, the personality of the voice actor, the lighting. It’s like building a house.”
Deighan and Manko say that when they were kids they would dream about video game design as a career. But what was once not considered a viable career option is now becoming more practical.
“We get a lot of proud parents that send us clips of their 10-year-olds making bouncing ball (animations) in school,” Deighan says. “It’s now part of the curriculum because the games industry is major. They can make games a career.”
Through game jams, online tutorials and other educational content — and software like Unity — Deighan says anyone can make a game.
“The only thing that’s stopping you is yourself,” he says.