These are the words that end the opening screen of Evangeline, my company's second shipped title.
In 2016, I lost my grandfather. At age 22, I felt that I had only just reached the age where I could truly and maturely respect my loved ones -- only, it was too late. I only had one grandparent still living.
In my grieving, I decided to create Evangeline as an experience to connect people with their loved ones, while they still could.
Today, I'm going to talk about making this game, the emotional roller coaster along the way (including going viral), and how we made a game that wasn't just a game, but something far more important.
It's a journey of life, love and loss, and I hope to help you think of game design entirely differently by the end.
In the beginning
I won't act like I'm gifted with some sort of magical lens through which I see the world. In fact, you could even argue I'm not qualified to make games!
I have a business degree (and am finishing my MBA), come from a business and production background, and cannot write a single line of code -- nor can I make any art assets.
In my heart, I feel that this is my greatest strength. Not only do I have to have even greater trust in the people who work with me to bring our games to life, but I tend to look at games far differently than developers with more traditional backgrounds and mindsets.
This is why Evangeline was able to come to life as it did.
As mentioned above, it was inspired by a loss in my life. Because of the relative lateness in life of my parents and grandparents when they had their respective children, my youngest grandparent (in relation to me) was 70 years older than I was.
Add that to being the youngest of all of the grandchildren, and I was in an unfortunate position of losing loved ones a little earlier in life than most people typically did.
This third time, though, hit me like a train. It truly registered that I would never be able to talk to that loved one again, and that there was still so much wisdom that I feel I could have gotten from him -- but now, I couldn't.
When I received the news of my grandfather's passing, I was playing Tearaway Unfolded on PS4, one of my favorite games of all time. If you haven't jumped into Media Molecule's lovely papercraft world, it's a very heartfelt journey of being the "messenger" and undertaking a perilous journey to deliver a message.
Near the end of the game, you're in this environment where things are literally falling apart, fading in and out of existence.
As you enter this world, one of the main characters gives you a breath of reassurance:
This is your story! You are the message, iota!
Don't end up unread - who will you inspire then?
Understandably, I completely broke down upon reading this.
I had to make sure my story wasn't unread.
I had to help other people appreciate their loved ones while they still could.
I had to make Evangeline.
Within a few weeks of my grandfather's passing, I had created the design document for Evangeline. It was a rough, early vision for what I thought would be a powerful game, even though I didn't quite know what it would become.
All I knew was that Evangeline would not be a game; Evangeline would be a tool, used to encourage players to connect with their loved ones.
I've always been fascinated with the idea of games being greater than just games, and as far as I know there aren't any games that have a real-world action required as part of completing the game (Pokemon Go notwithstanding).
My initial elevator pitch was as follows:
Spiderlily is a project with a simple goal: being grateful for your loved ones. The ultimate idea behind the project is to find out something very emotional, the meaning behind something that was initially seen as mundane, as tribute to our loved ones (in particular, it was created as a result of the loss of Nick’s grandfather). If we succeed, players will connect with the person that matters most to them and tell them how much they mean to their life. It is told through a series of stylized “routine” scenes that eventually culminate with the player entering an environment that is visually striking, clearly different, and contains an emotional reveal.
At Raconteur Games, we code name our projects internally after flowers. Evangeline was "Spiderlily" named after the strange plant we have here in Louisiana.
If you aren't familiar with spider lilies, they're this strange and lovely little plant that grows in the summer after heavy rains. Spider lilies are native to China and Nepal, and migrated to Japan through trade.
Legend has it that after Japan opened trading with America in the mid-1800s, an American merchant was so taken with these flowers that he purchased three bulbs from the seller for his daughter.
He took those bulbs back home to the other side of the world, and if we follow the legend, all spider lilies in the United States can be traced back to those three red bulbs.
They came from another part of the world, could only grow in certain soil, in specific conditions, and after heavy rain.
But just looking at this plant, you would never be able to glean its journey and story.
That's the metaphor for Evangeline -- a seemingly minor detail has a much bigger story than you could ever imagine.
And thus, we embarked upon our grand journey of inviting players to look at a vase of flowers!
Bringing the world to life
From May through August, we built the foundation of the game's core mechanic: color, which guides the player through the world.
At first, I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted Evangeline to be. We had a nice fancy metaphor, a general story idea, and an end-goal for the player -- it was just the "everything in-between" that we had to work out.
The only definitive design decision we had was that it would be minimal, with no direct hints or instructions (apart from names at the beginning of levels).
This led to the invention of a system that the project's lead programmer Matt dubbed as "the Omnicient Narrator" -- based on original graduate research he conducted, he discovered that the key indicator for attracting player attention is movement.
Based on what you're doing in Evangeline, a flock of pigeons will fly in the direction that you need to go. It may not seem like much, but this is our hint system, and it works!
As for the color mechanic, I was heavily inspired by the girl in the red coat in Schindler's List as a storytelling device, as well as games that have experimented with color (The Saboteur, Splinter Cell: Conviction).
I felt that given the emotional nature of the story, we could use color to both tell and reinforce our story, so we spent a LOT of time ironing out this feature. Matt worked very, very passionately on this game, and the color mechanic is entirely his baby!
Of course, we also needed art, which led us to hiring Jess Gloder, the fantastic 3D artist who built every single asset you see in Evangeline from scratch (minus the skyboxes, which we bought off of the Unity Asset Store).
With Matt and Jess helping build the nitty-gritty of the game, myself in a production and design role, and our CTO Sander Moolin giving extra programming support, Evangeline came together.
When it comes to music, we have a mildly terrifying, deadline-straddling process. We wait until the last month or two of development when the game is nearly done and everything visually is there, such that it can be played through at a near-final state.
Then, we send it off to our composer Ari Fisher, an award-winning musician. At this point, Ari disappears to, in his own words, "grab a bottle of Jack [Daniels] and sit at the piano."
As the team bug hunts and polishes the game, Ari brings the world to life as both his and the team's final touch.
While the music was developed at the very end of the process, Ari and I talked thorughout development about our goals regarding the game's atmosphere and musical direction.
Evangeline is set in the 1980s, and we wanted a distinctly 80s atmosphere -- but the catch was that it had to be minimal and ambient, which are two words you never hear associated with 80s music!
What ended up being our soundtrack is what I can confidently say about the rest of the game as a whole -- it is one of the most genuinely unique and heartfelt experiences I have ever witnessed.
Throughout all of this, we were pouring our hearts and souls into the game, keeping mum on the details.
Viral, but not sick
In the first week of December, I was having a very stressful finals week in my MBA program.
I decided, on a whim, that I should post a small snippet of a gif to reddit showcasing our color mechanic as a way to distract me from the world.
That whimsical move resulted in 1.6 million views and nearly one thousand comments!
All of a sudden, there were thousands of people genuinely interested in our game. "It" happened!
We rode an adrenaline high for the next few weeks, firmly believing in our vision. Thanks to this publicity, it also gave us the added benefit of prioritizing color blind accessibility options.
We wrapped up the vast majority of development on January 15th, and did a sort of early launch/testing period on our own website beginning on January 19th.
In this period, we offered the game for free and did a pay-what-you-want model -- in reverse. Since Evangeline is only about a twenty minute experience, and price is a point of contention in "walking simulator" games, we saw price as the biggest factor.
So, we cut it out entirely.
Instead, we let players set the price based on what they felt that experience was worth.
We didn't become millionaires overnight, but we did get a fantastic amount of user feedback on the game as well as price point.
This helped us refine the game and arrive at our final version and price point, which launched on Steam on February 10th, 2017, featuring VR support, developer commentary, and Mac and Linux versions.
We did it!
Evangeline was a massive game design experiment.
I'm sure images of Peter Molyneux and snake oil appear in your mind as I return to my statement that our game is not a game, but a tool with a purpose: to help players connect with loved ones.
I firmly believe that games can be more than just games, and that they can have a real-world impact. I honestly did not know if people would take us up on our game's call to action at the end inviting them to connect with loved ones.
I was happily proven wrong!
Story upon story was sent our way of people reaching out to loved ones, of happy tears, of memories they will never forget (calling a mother at work to say 'I love you' and all parties crying; a streamer leaving their chair on chat to go tell their roommate that they cared about them; and more!).
This is only the beginning of what I hope to accomplish at Raconteur Games, and I hope that you pick up Evangeline on Steam and experience the outcome of our journey for yourself!
Now that you've heard the story behind Evangeline, let's wrap things up by talking about the most important things we've learned along the way.
- Game design principles exist for a reason. Sometimes, there will be good enough reason to break those principles.
- Player feedback is the most important thing for your project, from pre-production to beta testing. Getting in front of people in-person was one of the most beneficial experience in our entire development process!
- Validate assumptions and put hypotheses to the test. Games are art, but you can scientifically prove your points before devoting time and resources to them (such as our belief that people would not pay for a twenty minute game).
- There is room in the market for all kinds of experiences. Your players are out there -- you just have to find them.
- Never turn down outside input into your game. Our reddit gif going viral gave us access to a huge wealth of players that let us know color blind accessibility was a huge feature!
- Also, accessibility makes your game better for everyone. Check out sites like Game Accessibility Guidelines for best practices!
- If you hire people who believe what you believe, they will pour their hearts, minds, and souls into their work. Make sure team members are both a skillset and culture fit for your team and situation.
This has been the most important year of my life, and admittedly, it's very sad to be done with this game.
But we did it.
We made a sappy game about love that broke all the rules.
Now, we're on to our next adventure, and if we're lucky, it'll be something even more ambitious than Evangeline.
I define success without monetary input. That exact definition is as follows:
Success is making something that I enjoyed creating, with people who enjoyed creating it together, and putting it out into the world.
By that definition, Evangeline has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.
It's surreal to think we've given players memories that could last a lifetime, but I think that that's our responsibility as game designers -- to impact our players for the better.
If you have any questions, I can be reached on Twitter or via email at nick-at-raconteurgames-dot-com!