After nine years in development, D-Pad’s 2D pixel art platformer Owlboy finally released in November. Alex Calvin catches up with programmer Jo-Remi Madsen to find out about this adventure nearly a decade in the making
2016 saw many long-in-development projects hitting shelves. By the time you read this both The Last Guardian and Final Fantasy XV – games that were announced seven and ten years ago respectively – will be on shelves.
Then there’s Owlboy, a 2D pixel art platformer title developed by D-Pad Studios, which was in the works for nine – yes, nine – years. The game was originally set for release in 2011. The company even said as much in a trailer released that year but, in fact, the title wouldn't be released for another five years. So what took so long?
“Oh, we made so many mistakes,” programmer Jo-Remi Madsen says.
“We released a demo together with that trailer and in the first couple of days a million people had downloaded the game. They started giving us feedback on it. We decided to rework almost the entire gamebased on their feedback. Even though the game was slated for that very same year, we ended up with five years of improvements and rewrote the story.
A lot of the reason why it was delayed so long was because a lot of things changed in our lives in particular. Therefore, things changed in the game too.
“There’s huge danger in changing things inside a game. if you write a novel and change a character’s name or give them a different trait, you need to rewrite the entire book to accommodate those changes. That’s essentially what we had do. Every time we made a little change it could affect the entire game and we made hundreds if not thousands of little changes. That’s why we sat with it for so long.
“We also weren’t really happy with the result. Despite us not being writers at the time we had decided to give the game a huge story element. That was something we learnt while we were working on it. Across almost ten years, we have learnt how to write a story. It was only in the last two years that we actually started focusing on the narrative. Now, most of the people that play Owlboy actually enjoy the story so much that it’s weird to me that all the elements finally fit together so well – the graphics, the music and now also the story. It was surprising to me because i’ve always made silly small action games with no story at all.”
Projects like The Last Guardian and Final Fantasy XV were backed by massive corporations with deep pockets, so you can understand how these titles continued to get support. But for a small indie studio, surviving a bruising nine-year development cycle is much more of a strain.
“The major part of our support came from my parents. They had an apartment next to their house,” Madsen explains. “Their intention was to rent it out to people, but then I met Simon [Stafsnes Andersen, art director] and asked them if he could live there while we working on the game. He didn’t have assets at that point, so my mum said we could live there for free. I don’t think at that point they realised that he was going to live there for five years. But they never seemed to stop wanting to support us. It just continued like that for a good long while. Even though we couldn’t pay our rent, we continued showing them whenever Owlboy had been getting some media attention and stuff to show them that the project was still being talked about.
This year, some of the greatest titles are indie titles.
“I guess I was pretty nervous that people would think that the game had no potential. That’s the biggest relief, because the game is being talked about a lot. We did so well both on Steam and other platforms. My mum and dad have been very impressed.
“The Government of Norway actually has a game development fund, which we applied for a couple of
times. After a while, since we promised the game would be coming out in 2011, I got really bad stage fright every time we’d come up there and pitch the game because they would support us I felt kind of bad that we hadn’t finished the game yet.
“At the first round we got the equivalent of £10,000 for development. That helped out a lot, even though it wasn’t enough to finish the game because it was five years before we released anything. It was enough that we could live rent-free at my mum’s place and still be able to afford food.”
Had Owlboy made its original 2011 release date, it probably would have been viewed as a pioneering release. A modern platformer using exquisite pixel art would have been a headline grabber back then, but in 2016, we’ve already seen that selling point in the likes of Fez and Shovel Knight. Was it scary to see that market – and all that competition – emerging in the indie sector?
“To us, it was kind of frightening,” Madsen admits. “But at the same time, we were happy that people had started to embrace both indie games and pixel art. This year, some of the greatest titles are indie titles. We’re kind of happy that even though a lot of people are under the impression that indie games are unprofessionally made and smaller projects with no ambition, normally it’s the other way around. Undertale was a game that proved that point. They tried to do something that came as a huge surprise to everyone. Hyper Light Drifter is another huge title. It had been nominated for at least two Game Of The Year awards. So I’m just really happy that people have changed their view on indie games. But it also means we are in for a bit of competition.
“But that’s never really been a huge concern of ours because we’re not a big company and our competition doesn’t necessarily draw any attention away from us. Rather, it probably gives us more attention. It’s not been a huge concern really. Some of those games proved that you can make break-out
hits even while using pixel art. Simon’s goal with Owlboy was to prove that pixel art still belonged in this era even though a lot of people seem to think that it’s a medium that can’t be pushed anymore and that we should leave it to the ‘80s or ‘90s. Simon’s goal was to prove that pixel art can be used to make amazing looking games still. Then you have titles like Shovel Knight – everyone who plays it says looks great. Even though it’s got that crappy 8-bit look, they made it so streamlined that everyone just goes ‘yeah, it looks pretty good’.”
But now that Owlboy is out, the team is feeling a variety of emotions. “[We’re feeling] fright and relief,”
Madsen laughs. “Even though Owlboy is out now, it feels like we are maintaining it still. I guess the games industry changed at some point – even though you release a game you aren’t done with it.”
That feeling may also be down to the fact that there are still more platforms for the game to release on.
“If we launched on console and PC simultaneously, it would put a lot of pressure on the team and I think it wouldn’t have been received quite as well because it would have had a lot of issues in it that we couldn’t have fixed in time,” Madesen explains.
“That’s why I’m super happy with the way we did things. Next year, we’ll of course try and get the game out for consoles because there are so many people asking for it. It would be stupid for us not to pursue.”