With the immense success of titles such as The Walking Dead and Life Is Strange, many have argued that the graphic adventure genre is having a resurgence in popularity. And even though Telltale Games and Dontnod are to be commended for their efforts, it’s worth noting that their games have largely focused on narrative and choice driven actions, as opposed to emphasising traditional point and click conventions (like puzzles) that companies such as Lucasarts and Sierra were known for. But whilst Telltale and Dontnot are known for having fairly sizable budgets (as well as housing large teams), there are plenty of other developers who have also contributed towards the genre’s resurgence – even if they lack sizeable resources in comparison.
One such example of a developer that’s chosen to enter the graphical adventure space is little known Clifftop Games, an indie studio that’s comprised of just one individual – Joel Staaf Hästö. And with Kathy Rain being his first professionally published product, it’s nice to know that Joel’s ambitions aren’t to emulate Telltale’s or Dontnod’s modernised efforts, but to instead rekindle the graphic adventure games of yore, with their emphasis on puzzles and low-res art style aesthetics.
Released in May 2016, Kathy Rain quickly made a name for itself, with Adventure Gamers and Destructoid both scoring the game 9 out of 10. Indeed, Honest Gamers (in their review) stated that “if the aim was to recreate the looks of yesteryear Lucasarts, then it’s largely succeeded. The surprise here is that a first-time developer has also managed to kick out a game that matches the quality of its inspiration on every other level, as well“.
However, and despite the level of critical appraisal that the game’s received, the market’s reception towards Kathy Rain has been somewhat muted, with the title only selling around 2000 units to date. Still, with the game’s publisher – Raw Fury – standing by the game in an effort to redefine the meaning of “success” (as part of a hit driven industry), it’s encouraging to know that some companies do exist, that aren’t solely motivated by profit potential, as they’d rather make money from a title’s long-tail.
As part of this publishing narrative, and in order to find out more about how Kathy Rain was created, I interviewed Joel Staaf Hästö and go to ask him as to what struggles he’s faced as a lone one-man developer. Enjoy!
What is your background in professional games development, and why did you decide to become a solo indie developer, with Kathy Rain being your first game? How did you prepare yourself for this transition, and what advice would you give to those who are also thinking of making the leap into becoming an indie?
I began my career in the game industry as a gameplay programmer at Starbreeze Studios in Uppsala, Sweden back in 2009. I worked on the Syndicate FPS reboot and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. After that, I moved here to Stockholm and worked on Magicka: Wizard Wars and later Magicka 2 at Paradox North. Lastly, I spent a brief reunion with the Brothers team’s new studio at Hazelight before moving on to do my own thing.
I didn’t really make a decision one day to become a solo indie developer, but rather I got the opportunity of a lifetime dropped in my lap, when Raw Fury games showed an interest in what was my small hobby game at the time. Raw Fury were just starting out and were looking for a new project, and by pure luck they learned about Kathy Rain. They gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I had to jump on it without a second thought. I had to learn as I went 🙂
Concerning advice for those who think about doing their own indie game: Prepare to struggle, to doubt, and to face the hurdles largely alone. Make sure you take the leap for the right reasons, your passion for games. Don’t see it as a job, or as a business, but rather look as those aspects as a necessary evil. Something that I personally sometimes lose track of is that games are made by people. Avoid getting stuck in your own little indie bubble, don’t be afraid to reach out, ask for help and connect. The indie scene is incredibly supportive and welcoming.
One of the primary philosophies espoused by Swedish culture is the idea of “Jantelagen” – that it’s inappropriate to achieve individual success, and that it’s much better to work as part of a team. Given that your home-city – Stockholm (Sweden) – is renowned for major AAA releases (such as Mirrors Edge, Battlefield, Just Cause 3) as well as indie releases (such as Minecraft, Hotline Miami, Year Walk), what’s the development scene like there, and how supportive has this scene been in aiding you in your development of Kathy Rain – especially when you describe Clifftop Games as being comprised of just yourself as the sole indie developer, yet are “painfully mediocre” in art and music? Also, did the Swedish games community assist in helping you form a team, or did you have to look further afield for development assistance?
Strangely enough, the Swedish gamedev scene, apart from Raw Fury’s involvement hasn’t been connected to this project much at all. I’d say the Adventure Game Studio community had a much more pivotal role. My team members are from all around the world, and most of them were found on the AGS forums. The portrait artist, Tove Bergqvist, is based in Stockholm, and went to the same gamedev school as me, but other than that there’s no major connection to the Swedish dev scene.
Kathy Rain was first publicly announced in July 2012, but didn’t come out until April 2016. Why do you think the game took so long to develop?
It takes time to complete a hobby project aside from a full time job, which was the case until the final year of development. Also remember that I’ve been solely responsible for writing, design, coding and project management, not to mention a lot of PR tasks in this last year. Multitasking leads to constant context switching, which decreases productivity. I also had periods of inactivity over the years, especially during crunch periods at my full time job, leaving me too drained to work on Kathy Rain.
What hurdles did you face along the way, and how did you overcome them?
The biggest hurdle was a lack of planning or direction from the start. I had no clear idea of where I wanted to take Kathy Rain back in 2011, I did it for fun and never expected it to go to where it is today. I’m not sure I overcame that hurdle, the game is flawed in many ways due to not thinking things through from the beginning. For instance, something like the 4:3 aspect ratio sounded cool on paper, but was a horrible idea from a technical standpoint. There are also problems with the plot that the game has been justifiably criticized for, that could have been minimized or avoided with proper planning from day one.
Another hurdle was when conflicting freelancer schedules prevented us from getting new art assets at a late point in the production, forcing us to work with what we already had, impacting the ending of the game. That could’ve been avoided with proper planning too.
Why did you decide to use Adventure Game Studio for Kathy Rain, and in what way do you think the engine has aided development of the project? Given your skills, why not opt for something more powerful – like Unity with its own Adventure Creator plug-in?
I don’t think Unity is more powerful than AGS for old school 2D point and click adventure games. It’s certainly better in terms of portability, and performance is likely better if going high res. There’s also a few AGS quirks that it would be nice to avoid, such as the clunky save system.
But other than that, AGS is tailored for the exact thing I wanted to do: A story driven, lowres, 2D adventure game. The tools are adapted for that, and it’s real easy and quick to get a game up and running in AGS, especially for a coder like me, since the scripting language is very similar to c++. The engine is open source too, and ported to the relevant platforms. Among those platforms aren’t modern consoles, but I don’t consider those to be a good option for a game like Kathy Rain anyway.
If I would do a story driven game in 3D or with enough differences from the point and click formula I would likely go for UE4, since I have some prior experience with it and it’s largely a matter of personal preference compared to Unity these days.
What was the inspiration for Kathy Rain – including the decision for basing the game in the 90’s, as well as focusing on the character driven story that involves the main protagonist having to explore hugely personal issues that are often highly sensitive in nature?
The protagonist Kathy Rain is mostly inspired by other strong female protagonists in fiction, such as Veronica Mars, Ellen Ripley and Lisbeth Salander. The choice of a 90’s setting was due to a number of reasons. First off, because the adventure game genre was born in that era, and because the time period is nostalgic for me personally. Secondly, I enjoy low-tech detective work much more than the present day short-cuts of smartphones and Google.
As for a character driven plot: I wanted to touch the players with Kathy’s personal journey in an emotionally charged, uncensored story. I don’t think any form of art should shy away from sensitive issues. The Silent Hill games (particularly the second instalment), while quite different from Kathy Rain in many ways, have been inspirational in that regard.
What is it about the point and click adventure game genre that made you decide to create Kathy Rain as a homage to old school Sierra and Lucasarts titles – to the point where the game includes 320×240 pixel sprite based graphics as well as a midi-inspired soundtrack? What spurred this decision and was it intentional?
I simply love the genre, playing an interactive story where you really get to know the character you’re playing as and get to see the world through their eyes. The decision was very much intentional, as a nod to the classics. An undeniable perk is also that lowres art is quick and cheap to produce, especially when concerning animation.
Why did you opt to work with Raw Fury as the publisher, as opposed to going it alone and self-publishing Kathy Rain?
Doing it alone as an unknown developer amidst the vast competition from other indies in this day and age would’ve likely resulted in an utter failure. I needed financial support and a marketing plan, and Raw Fury provided that. With that being said, I needed a partner who really believed in the game and Raw Fury certainly fit the bill. They are doing things quite differently from your typical publisher, as their blog post clearly shows.
Despite the huge amount of critical acclaim which the game has received, Kathy Rain has failed to live up to commercial expectations. What do you think the reasons are for the title’s under-performance, and going forward, what steps will you be taking so as to ensure that Kathy Rain goes on to become a sleeper hit?
I think the game has performed okay for what it is, an old school point and click adventure with a small niche audience. The problem was that we overestimated this audience from the get go, and we assumed the game would be more widely appealing than it is, expecting to hook more players who weren’t that much into point and click adventures. We invested too much money into efforts which may work for your average game, but not so much for a niche game of this type. We likely shouldn’t have attended three expensive major gaming conventions for instance, or purchased expensive professional game translations and voice overs etc.
I don’t believe a given strategy to ensure a sleeper hit exists, but what I try to do now is remain active on social media and interact with the fans as much as possible. Given enough time, hopefully the fanbase grows organically up to a point where Kathy Rain recoups the investment and Clifftop Games becomes sustainable long term. The game has already gotten some high end press attention and has objectively had the best possible circumstances to succeed, so for the most part, I think it’s out of my hands now.
This might be an unfair question, but given that the game has sold around 2000 units on Steam, and given the financial resources required for porting duties, what are the chances of Kathy Rain appearing on consoles?
I’d say slim to none. Even if it was technically feasible, I don’t think consoles are a good fit for these kind of games.
Raw Fury recently announced that you’re working on God’s Algorithm: An Adventure Set In A Nordic Future, for which the description of the game is: “A few generations from now, the world has regressed to a pre-industrialisation state. At one point between now and then, mankind opted to discontinue all use of advanced robotics and artificially intelligent computers. The reason was a growing, global concern about the potentially catastrophic emergence of a self-aware, super intelligent AI-entity; the singularity. This caused a worldwide technological collapse”. Where did the idea for such an interesting idea come from, and what is the scale of your involvement?
At the time of writing, we have actually changed the name of the game to Whispers Of A Machine. I think the original idea started with a blog post about AI research and the potential danger of an AI singularity. It’s a fascinating subject, and me and Petter Ljungqvist (the other half of the team), wanted to extrapolate from that in our own nordic post apocalyptic setting. Petter does the art, I do the code, and the writing and design is a joint effort.
Given that Raw Fury have publicly stated that they are funding you for another year, does that mean that Whispers Of A Machine will be coming out in 2017? If not, when is Whispers Of A Machine due out, and where does this leave you with Raw Fury?
For the record, Raw Fury has not committed to publishing WOAM, their funding is independent of that title. They made the one year commitment without any prior knowledge of the game. I’d be thrilled to have them on board, but we need to have something playable to show them before they can properly evaluate the game. 2017 is possible, but it’s much too early for these kind of evaluations. WOAM is still in a concept stage, as I’ll be busy with the mobile ports of KR for some time still.
What were the biggest lessons that you learnt from Kathy Rain, and how will WOAM benefit from your increased wisdom?
The importance of proper planning, early feedback, unified, streamlined UI for multiple platforms, and better translation support. WOAM will benefit from my knowledge by being a properly planned, tighter, better written and more cohesive game with a shorter dev cycle. WOAM will likely also be available for many more languages, albeit with slightly lower quality on average, due to likely relying on fans to help us out rather than professionals.
What was the reason for increasing the resolution of Whispers Of A Machine‘s hand-painted 640×400 graphics as opposed to sticking with Kathy Rain‘s 320×240 pixel-art sprites?
The upped resolution, together with a streamlined UI, is an attempt to create a more modern game and reach a wider audience. Back in 2011, when I started work on KR, pixel art hadn’t quite yet seen the indie resurgence it has today. It’s everywhere now, and we think the game will stand out more artistically by being 2D in a higher resolution. Going widescreen rather than 4:3 is also a no-brainer when not trying to deliberately create a retro look.
In Kathy Rain: A Detective Is Born, you played a role of detective in the form of Kathy Rain. In Whispers Of A Machine, you also play the role of detective in the form of Vera – a homicide detective who is seeking to investigate a string of murders. Why is the theme of playing a detective prevalent in both games, and why didn’t you decide to use the same protagonist in both games where you play the role of Kathy Rain in WOAM? In other words, why not make WOAM a sequel to Kathy Rain – by using the idea of time-travel (like 90’s movie Terminator 2) – and at the same time, how different is Vera from Kathy? In short, why should audiences care for Vera when some of them have already built up a relationship with Kathy?
I think this genre fits very well for detective games due to the gameplay where exploration, dialogue and puzzle solving are major components. Me and Petter Ljungqvist have been discussing a collaboration concerning WOAM since 2014, so there’s no connection to Kathy Rain. The idea of using a time machine plot device to shoehorn Kathy into another setting sounds very forced to me.
As to how Vera is different from Kathy – I’d say that the biggest difference is that the player will be able to shape Vera more to their liking. Vera can definitely be similar to Kathy, but only if the decisions made by the player pulls her in that direction. With that being said, WOAM will be less of a personal journey and more focused on the world and a greater, overarching plot.
I don’t see why the players can’t have a relationship with both Vera and Kathy, one does not have to exclude the other 🙂
You’re working with Petter Ljungqvist (The Samaritan Paradox) on WOAM, but will any of your former collaborators from Kathy Rain be joining you on your new project – including Wadjet Eye’s Dave Gilbert who assisted in voice work direction for Kathy Rain?
No one but myself is confirmed from the KR team at this point. Whether or not more of them will join will largely depend on Raw Fury’s potential involvement. Without their support, funding the same freelance collaborators from Kathy Rain is likely not within the constraints of the budget. But if any of the team members on the KR team joins the new game, it will likely be within the audio or VO areas, since art and code is already covered by me and Petter.
What are your future ambitions as an indie developer? Will you continue down the road of making point and click adventures, or will you explore other genres in future?
I’ll focus on story driven titles for the time being to see how that fares, but I would definitely like to experiment with more innovative gameplay driven games in the future!
Finally, given that Kathy Rain‘s tag-line is “A Detective Is Born”, will you ever do a sequel to the 90’s motorcycle detective as one of your future projects?
The original plan was to make a series of games with Kathy right off the bat, thus the tagline and unresolved questions at the end. However, the lukewarm reception of the first game in terms of sales has forced us to think more carefully about that notion. For now, the plan is to do the mobile versions of KR, do WOAM after that and then re-evaluate KR when we have more long term data. That being said, no one would be happier than me to make a sequel if enough players want to see more of Kathy!