[Editor’s Note – if you want to understand a little more about The Old City, we put together a brief introduction to the game for you. You can read that here.]
Almost three years ago, John and I were sitting around talking about religion. As an atheist and a theist, we’d discussed the topic countless times over the years. The conversations usually got a bit heated, but that was before we really knew each other. I remember one particular conversation because it was the first time we really agreed to disagree.
What had started as arguments had turned into discussions. We studied the topics in a bit more depth and learned to address the issues without aggression or dismissiveness. We aren’t especially smart people by any means, and we would never claim to have some special knowledge or insight that the world absolutely needs to hear; but we did learn to get along, and that’s valuable.
Then we had an idea. We wondered if it was possible to transfer this experience into games. John is a talented general artist, and I can handle technical art as well as level design, so we decided to try for ourselves. We decided to make The Old City: a narrative-driven, first-person exploration game.
It was nuts, really. Then again, it didn’t really seem so at the time. We thought we were just going to make something pretty cool in our spare time. We’d get home from work and play around with interesting art styles or different ways of telling stories. We never really thought it would be something that other people would want to play, let alone a commercial product.
After settling on an art style and a story, we completed a prototype of the first level and tested it a bit. We suddenly realized that we had something on our hands that was more than a little project to entertain us in our off-hours, we realized that we could make something big out of this.
There’s a weird moment when transitioning from “hobbyist” to “indie dev.” It’s the moment where you feel like you need to get serious. This, I believe, is the most important moment for any independent developer. When you have the almost surreal realization that you’re making something that people might want to buy, you’re instantly tempted to put on the business cap.
This was a huge problem, even if I didn’t immediately realize it. We were very tempted to put elements into the game that would make it appealing to more people. We thought about making it a horror game, a puzzle game, and even a game with minor combat elements. The justification was that we were no longer making a game just for us, but rather a game for consumers.
It sounds harmless until you start to think about your original goals. The entire project started with us wanting to speak to philosophical differences in the form of an exploration game. Why sacrifice that?
The solution is to stop caring, right? Well, no. That’s actually just as bad, it turns out. We quickly ran into several other problems.
Firstly, we realized that creating a substantial amount of content takes a lot of hard work. And when you’ve scaled up production to account for all that additional interest, you can’t pretend that money isn’t a factor.
Secondly, we needed help. To compliment the intense atmosphere, the game is very heavy on voice acting, audio design, and music, and the professionals we needed weren’t going to take us seriously unless we took ourselves seriously. If we had continued to “go with the flow,” we would never have gotten any of the absolutely amazing talent that jumped on board later in development.
The biggest problem though, was morale. Creating a game for you and you alone while planning to release it to the public can be depressing stuff. It’s almost like a form of forced narcissism. There were times when we’d sit around questioning the effort we were putting into this.
After all, if we’re the only players that matter, why create anything this large? Was the stress of the process really worth the experience of the final game? In fact, we began to question whether or not we’d enjoy it at all. How could we be expected to enjoy a game that took us almost three years to complete? What was the point?
After swinging between these two extremes like a manic pendulum for months, we began to rethink our development philosophy. “Getting serious” to the point of disregarding our own artistic vision was a soul-sucking experience that went against everything we initially set out to do. However, the opposite experience was paralyzing in its selfishness. So the question lingered; how do we fix this?
I think we initially approached it from the wrong perspective. That is to say, the problem isn’t in being too serious. Rather, I think the problem is that we didn’t trust our own taste. There is a way to hunker down and work on a project while keeping your artistic integrity intact. All you have to do is trust that your taste is shared by other people.
At first, it can seem like a somewhat arrogant position, as if we were asserting that we have objectively good taste. But, I think it’s actually a fairly humble statement. In saying that your taste is shared by other people, you’re essentially saying that you aren’t anything special. And being an independent developer in light of stale triple-A titles and bland shooters, that can be really hard to do.
Once we had that down, everything began to change. All of a sudden, we had a new-found confidence that made the experience a lot more enjoyable. We became efficient. We knew what we wanted to make and we trusted that there were other people out there who wanted to play it.
Other artists jumped on board as we actively started looking for help. Atrium Carceri, easily one of the best ambient music artists out there, agreed to create our entire soundtrack. Ryan Cooper, a wonderful voice actor, agreed to be our main character and all sorts of other artists began to help us create something amazing.
It’s honestly astonishing to me how quickly that change was. But, hey, it makes sense. As people often say, making a game for everyone is the best way to make a game for no one. The best way to make a game is to make a game for yourself, and trust that, in doing so, you’re also creating a game for a lot of interested people out there.
So far, I think that sentiment has worked marvelously. We’re now done with The Old City: Leviathan, the first part of a larger series of games, and when we tried to Kickstart the project about half a year ago, unfortunately failing, this mindset of trusting that there are people out there like us was extremely helpful in keeping us afloat. We continued to work, we decided to self-fund, and we’re now ready to release on 1st December.
I think it’ll be interesting, and I’m proud that we managed to complete a commercial product with our artistic integrity entirely intact. We created a game that speaks to an issue that is important to us, and we didn’t have to shoehorn in a bunch of unrelated elements to make it work. I guess we’ll see if there are other people out there like us!