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When We Made… Cultist Simulator

One fantastic thing about Weather Factory, on top of being the developer of one of the most fascinating narrative-driven games of these past few years, is how founding duo Lottie Bevan and Alexis Kennedy are not afraid to share every detail of their journey, opening an invaluable dialogue with not only their community but also fellow game devs. There’s the fortnightly blog updates, the clearly detailed roadmaps, the tweets that turn into real video games (That Library Game, we’re all waiting for you!), the retrospectives, and, back in February, a long blog post looking back at the entire first year of the studio, including budget sheets, sales figures and 5,064 words of precious insight into the life of an indie studio working on its debut title – the BAFTA-nominated Cultist Simulator.

Weather Factory’s director Lottie Bevan

“We really value transparency. It’s really odd that there isn’t much transparency in this industry, particularly in the indie space,” director Lottie Bevan notes when we ask about their reasons for wanting to share everything. “I know that we’re all competing in one way but we can also help each other out and I think it’s a win when other people share data because it’s a bit of insight into this fast moving and mental industry.

“It also makes us accountable and it teaches us to own up to mistakes and to learn from them,” she adds. “Now that we’re scaling up – we’re going to be six people by the end of this year – we’re also committing to internal transparency. Everyone’s going to know everyone’s salaries for instance and I hope more people will do that in the future.”

The abundance of details is an absolute blessing for game developers looking into launching their own studio and debut game. From a journalist’s point of view, it also makes for an interesting challenge – how do you come up with questions for a post-mortem interview when literally every aspect of the game has been discussed at length already?

Well, you start by clouding the issue to gain some time and ask about what led to the game.

“It started in an odd piecemeal way,” Bevan explains. “So Alexis Kennedy, who was the founder of Failbetter at the time, is the designer and writer of Cultist Simulator. And he had been thinking about a particularly experimental narrative game for a while. He set up Failbetter Games to do one thing particularly well which is the kind of text-based RPG of Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies. And that was a great thing but he had an itch – a creative itch to go and do something more stupid and insane and risky. But he didn’t want to risk the jobs of everyone he worked with at Failbetter.”

At the time, that represented 16 people – including Bevan, who was producer.

“So rather than tethering the studio to do something that it wasn’t set up to do properly he decided to leave and go to do a ronin year of freelance all the while percolating this idea of cults… Our work at Failbetter has always been labelled Lovecraftian and Alexis has always recoiled from that. I think it was kind of a bad summary and it implied a bunch of things that weren’t there. But with Cultist he was like: ‘You know what? I’m going to lean in into the Lovecraftian label, I’m going to really think about the experience of being a cult leader’.”

Depicting the realities of what’s going on in your life if you were a European 1920s cult leader is what Kennedy and Bevan set up to do with Cultist Simulator.

“We really wanted to play with two particular ideas, one of which was the mundane versus the magical. So in Cultist Simulator you have to balance these things very carefully. On the one hand you have to engage in the real world, you have to make sure you have a job that pays enough money so you can buy the books you need to discover the lore that will get you in the magic house. But on the other hand obviously the cult is this aspirational, mysterious thing and that’s really where the excitement in the game resides.”

This mundane versus magical aspect is also a comment on what it’s like to be an indie dev, Bevan explains: “We all do something that we really love and game dev is this wonderful, magical, incredible creative experience but it’s also kind of a nightmare! It’s very easy to fail, money is always very tight and you always have things pulling in your time. It’s constantly this balance between being creative and the modern day demands of life.”

The second key aspect for the duo was to present the narrative in an innovative way – Kennedy left Failbetter to do something different after all, to experiment.

“What we found with other narrative games, including our own, is you will find yourself as a player doing things and then that will stop and the narrative will happen – that might be a cut scene or a dialogue exchange,” Bevan says. “But the effects are actually quite stop-start between the mechanics of the game and the story itself. So with Cultist what we wanted to do was work out a mechanic which would unite both of those together in one fell swoop. So what you end up with is this very simple card interface and the only real mechanic is combining these cards to create a new resource. But that also furthers the narrative because every time you create new resources you get a snippet of text, you get avenues opening up and your story itself advances.”

FOLLOWING THE BREADCRUMBS

Cultist Simulator is all about providing subtle guidance without taking the player by the hand and telling them everything they have to do. In his breakdown, Alexis Kennedy said Weather Factory “wanted to make a game where understanding the game was itself the game.”

As a result, the team famously decided to have no tutorial – “unfamously” Bevan corrects me immediately in a laugh when I mention it. When you start the game, you’re on your own, trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do with the cards in front of you.

That’s absolutely part of the charm of the game though and some cards do have brief explanations on how they function. So when nothing is clearly explained in a traditional, tutorial manner, how did the team decide when and how to include those explanations?

“So we had this kind of… Not argument, but certainly a difference of opinion about a month before we launched,” Bevan smiles. “We were on a very tight schedule because this was developed in around 11 months. About a month from launch we got some feedback from our publisher, Humble Bundle, that they were particularly worried about not having a tutorial. Feedback told us that some people found the opening of the game very confusing and were not enjoying it and I was worried that, at launch, we were going to see a lot of people saying: ‘I wish I could get into it but I don’t know what I’m meant to do’.

“Working out what the game is, is basically the game. And I love that, even though it’s meta and bizarre.”

 

“Alexis felt very strongly that we shouldn’t have a tutorial because it goes against the whole design idea that you’re peeling back these layers of meaning and doing a lot of the work of the game yourself in your head, which should be a very rewarding game loop if it works properly. But we did realise that there was some middle ground between these two things. We didn’t want to have people actually not enjoying the game because it was confusing. So basically the two weeks of work that we were going to spend on UI/UX polish before launch, we spent instead on going through the text and putting in these little narrative breadcrumbs because Alexis felt that that would give people some mechanical direction without making them feel that the game was going to lead them by the hand – which obviously it won’t.

“The snippets of texts, these breadcrumbs, make you really read the text very carefully and that encourages players to continue to read the text really carefully. And that’s basically the best way you can work out what’s going on in Cultist and what you need to do next because there are all these hints, everywhere. There are hints within the narrative text itself as well, within the actual worldbuilding which tells you what to do next.”

Bevan adds that players usually “end up learning the language of the game,” whether that’s figuring out the meaning of its colour scheme or deciphering the narrative’s breadcrumbs.

Having to work on guiding the player in a subtle way instead of polishing UI/UX means these are areas where Cultist fell down, at launch at least, Bevan says.

“Because it was such a short development cycle and because Alexis is essentially a designer and writer and I’m essentially a producer pretending to be an artist, we don’t actually have a wealth UI/UX skills,” she laughs. “We hired a bunch of very good freelancers to fix that. In a game where we ask the player to connect the dots themselves, the moment that there is anything broken in the UI, that immediately breaks the fun. So if people didn’t understand the Aspects [the icons depicting the cards’ properties] for example, that was a problem. Fortunately the Aspects were fine.”

It feels like Weather Factory did succeed in making “a game where understanding the game [is] itself the game” then.

“I think we did,” Bevan says with a smile. “I think where people get cross is when we haven’t made that clear enough before they start playing the game. If you go into Cultist thinking either it’s a card game or thinking it’s like another game you have played and you find that it isn’t, that is very frustrating. I think a lot of the user reviews that we’ve seen, working out what the game is, is basically the game. And I love that, even though it’s meta and bizarre. I think where we could improve is signposting it left, right and center so that nobody buys the game thinking that it’s going to be this easy ride.”

“It’s not like the money is raining down because premium mobile doesn’t have that big a slice of the pie, but it does mean that we are able to plan for future projects. For indies, having a variety of revenue streams is how we survive.”

 

That has certainly become even more important with the iOS and Android versions which launched last month, with mobile publisher Playdigious taking the reins on the port. Luckily, feedback since the mobile launch has been “really good,” Bevan continues.

“We found out that it’s very successful in China, which is bizarre and great because we never localised a game before so it’s quite experimental for us to see where our potential markets might be. Everyone tells you you’re stupid to do premium indie mobile because obviously if you’re making mobile games the money is in free-to-play. But we had a great launch.

“It’s not like the money is raining down because premium doesn’t have that big a slice of the pie, but it does mean that we are able to plan for future projects. For indies, having a variety of revenue streams is how we survive. It’s very important that we broaden our reach as much as possible.”

THE HARDEST LESSON

Cultist Simulator’s initial funding came from a successful Kickstarter campaign, which could have encouraged Weather Factory to self-publish. But in its Year One breakdown, the team noted that the Humble Bundle deal was worth it if they sold less than 17,000 units. Any more than that and it was better for them to go it alone.

Despite estimating their Year One sales to about 20,000 units, the team still decided to go with the peace of mind that a publisher provides. Cultist Simulator had passed the 100,000 units landmark as of February 2019. So we naturally ask Bevan if they ever regretted not self publishing.

“Yes, of course, because every time you give up 30 per cent to a publisher it’s like: ‘God damnit, did they deserve that?!’,” she laughs, before immediately adding that going with Humble Bundle was definitely the right call. “When we started Weather Factory, Alexis was a name because he made Sunless Sea and Fallen London so it brought a certain amount of cachet but fundamentally we were a small unknown narrative studio. So we needed all the help we could get in terms of broadening our communications and audience and getting people to know that we weren’t just another bunch of random indies who are bit amateurish.

“It’s easy in hindsight to look back and say: ‘Oh that worked out really well, I wish we hadn’t given [any money to a publisher]’. But it could have been very difficult and I can’t regret the decisions that we made which led us to being in such a good position.”

“Every time you give up 30 per cent to a publisher it’s like: ‘God damnit, did they deserve that?!’ But I can’t regret the decisions which led us to being in such a good position.”

 

Bevan does have one regret though: not broadening the team sooner, which would have avoided a bit of crunch at the end of the development cycle.

“We never missed one deadline and that was great. But there was a hell lot of pressure particularly on Alexis in the last month. But now that we’ve grown the team, now that we have a little bit of distribution of responsibilities so it’s not all on Alexis’ or my shoulders, I hope that our next game will be better at that.”

JUMPING SHIP

The duo’s departure from an established studio to launch their own venture, and create a commercially and critically acclaimed experimental game, is quite some achievement. Being successful was far from a given. Yet in the balance sheet for 2018 that Kennedy shared, he mentions that, after just one year, Weather Factory is “where Failbetter was in its fifth year of operation.”

There’s no secret recipe to get there, it’s a lot of hard work above everything else, but Bevan certainly has a piece of advice to conclude our chat.

“I think the hardest lesson that we have learnt is the moment you’re in charge of a studio, you have a lot of things on your plate. I’m a producer so it’s about making sure I have a complete list of everything that needs to be done and making sure they get finished off. And when you are a founder of a studio every day there are hundreds of things that you could be spending your time on that could be beneficial.

“But you need to get really good at finding the really key things that you need to focus on, and then making your peace with leaving 98 other things on the floor. And certainly for me I find that very difficult because that’s just not just how I work as the person and initially I felt that I was failing the company. But really you’re not. So I’d say be prepared to not be in control of everything and get really good at prioritisation.”

When We Made takes a look behind the scenes of games development every month. You can read all previous entries here.

About Marie Dealessandri

Marie Dealessandri is MCV’s senior staff writer, having joined the publication during its days as a weekly magazine. After testing the waters of the film industry in France and being a radio host and reporter in Canada, she settled for the games industry in London in 2015. She can be found (very) occasionally tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate, Hollow Knight and the Dead Cells soundtrack.

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