Keeping the spirit of Lionhead alive in the gorgeous 2D world of Kynseed

PixelCount Studios' Matt Allen explains the trials, tribulations, and lessons from developing Kynseed, an Early Access game that is packed with charm, even in its unfinished state.

Look at any screenshot, and the life-simulation inspirations for Pixelcount Studio’s Kynseed become readily apparent: Stardew Valley, Harvest Moon, et. al. While this Early Access title created by ex-Lionhead Studios developers still has a long time to official release, it’s already racked up more than 200 positive reviews on Steam, thanks to its unique “time actually matters” pitch and its gorgeous pixel art.

Gamasutra sat down with Matt Allen, the production manager for PixelCount, to examine what makes this game tick. Here's Allen in his own words.

Out of the wreckage of Lionhead

Like many developers, we were always prone to daydreaming about one day starting our own studio and being masters of our own ship. Though at the time, most of our team were still happily at Lionhead, playing table tennis and having too many takeaways. Yet over the years, going it alone was still an idea our thoughts would occasionally return to, like having a song stuck in your head.

The news that Lionhead was closing its doors hit us hard, but it also forced us to think about the future. Amid the heartbreak of the closure, we realized we had an opportunity to pursue that daydream of ours and perhaps even keep some of the Lionhead spirit alive.

During the month of consultation, a UK legal requirement, we sat in the unused meeting rooms to brainstorm and plan. After some time, we decided to go with the idea of ‘fantasy life meets Fable’ and spent longer deciding on the bloody name than the features list.

We eventually put a rough prototype up on Kickstarter, not entirely sure how it’d be received, but in a matter of days we began to accrue a ragtag group of supporters, which has since grown to a little over 10,000 backers! It’s all been equal parts exciting and humbling.

PixelCount itself is a small but plucky team with over three decade's worth of experience creating titles at Lionhead. There's Charlie [Edwards], who started as a tester on Black & White and later went on to build the Albion of both Fable 2 and Fable 3. There's Neal [Whitehead], who was a scripter and coder and has worked on nearly every Fable game (and even Black & White 2). We were also fortunate enough to get early concepts drawn by Fable’s incredible artist, Mike McCarthy. To top it off, we lucked out by having our title music made by legendary Fable composer Russell Shaw.

Open world, in 2D

We want Kynseed to bring open world sandbox scope to a 2D RPG and to refresh some of the stale old ideas of the genre: NPCs standing in one spot repeating themselves, constant grinding to level up, finding countless treasure chests everywhere, all while something tries to take over the world.

We want to create a more ‘living’ world where the NPC’s have as much a place as you do and where the entire world is lovingly detailed and believable. (As believable as a post-apocalyptic pagan society surrounded by real faery tales can be.)

There’s also a unique and potent combination of influences which help make up the soul of Kynseed. One of the most significant is that we’re trying to capture the spirit of the UK games industry during the days of the C64 and the Spectrum, when there was an emphasis on natural player discovery.

As for game influences, one we think on often is Ultima 7 and its uncannily-detailed and simulated world. A few other points of inspiration are Fantasy Life and Recettear. The amazing 1973 movie The Wicker Man is the largest inspiration of all, along with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, as well as British books of folklore and customs, and oddly even Watership Down.

The common thread in all these influences is our desire to create a game that lets players explore an atmospheric world which has an undeniably British charm to it.

Stardew dreams

It's certainly a flattering comparison. Stardew Valley is a classic game and Eric [Barone] has done an incredible job of it all. One thing I came to love about Stardew over the 125+ hours I sunk into it was how relaxing it is to play. It’s the kind of chord we’re wanting Kynseed to strike as well.

Overall, Kynseed and Stardew are unique but complementary experiences. Though if I were to use another game to describe Kynseed, perhaps the most tempting would be to call it a '2D Fable.' Fable was such a big part of our lives and its fingerprints can be found all over Kynseed.

Speaking personally, whenever I really like a game, I love to see new interpretations of it get made. In the same way that music inspires more music, so it is with games inspiring more games. Table Tennis led to Pong, Kill Switch led to Gears of War, Infiniminer led to Minecraft, Harvest Moon led to Stardew Valley, and so on. It's in that tradition that we're hoping to honor our Fable heritage while also charting our own path.

I have a habit of waxing poetic about this sorta stuff, but I often think of games a bit like a family tree in that they're all related to each other and there's all these terribly interesting branches in the lineages of game history. It's sort of magical, really. In the end, our aim is for Kynseed's branch to hold its own with whatever uniquely whimsical amalgamation of influences it is.

Difficulties to overcome in Early Access

Letting people watch and play the game over the entire course of its development, starting as early as the rough prototype stage, is a constant challenge of setting the right expectations. When it comes to Early Access in particular, there are many players (myself included at times) who’ve ended up feeling a bit burned and jaded by it all. It becomes hard not to raise an eyebrow when a company with an ambitious Early Access game boasts about being 'community driven.'

As players ourselves, one thing we always found frustrating was when companies would be secretive and toss folks some company line. Or worse, silently disappear into the depths of Early Access development, months at a time. It's the sort of thing we have pretty strong feelings about, so we've always been dead set on being open and accessible to players from the very start.

For example, our team spends each workday in our Discord server where players can approach us directly with thoughts, feedback, or even just general questions about making games. Want to ask our composer what software he uses? You can ask him directly. Have an idea about a feature? Chat us up about it any time. Curious how a specific part of our game engine works? We’ll take a few screenshots and show you.

We frequent our forums just as much and also stream on Twitch now and again. Our community even hosts weekly Discord voice chats and we pop in for them almost every week. Many times we’re not even talking specifically about the game but rather just talking about how life is going or about the little challenges or successes we’ve been experiencing lately.

We do these things not only because we think they’re critical to a healthy game community, but also because we just genuinely enjoy it. We view the community as an extension of our team and we’ve had the pleasure of becoming good friends with many of them over the course of this project. Fostering a personal bond with our community has enriched not just the game but also the journey of making it.

An early ticket to the ride

As a ragtag group of bright-eyed indies, we’ve always wanted to get away from the traditional company/player relationship -- particularly in regard to not being secretive or ‘over-marketey’ about development. Since the Kickstarter prototype, we wanted to let players join us for every stage of Kynseed’s development - even stages that most players never get to see. For the sweeping majority of a game’s development, things are gelatinous and organic. To us, that’s a magical and exciting part of making a game and we wanted to have our community at our side for every bit of it.

In the same way that our game has been inspired by other games, so has our Early Access been inspired by other’s Early Access. Games like Factorio and Prison Architect, whose Early Access status has become an inseparable part of their identities. Prison Architect especially is one that I find myself looking to for inspiration often. It had humble beginnings, a passionate and active team, frequent updates, and a sharp sense of humor. The developers never shied away from being brutally honest about the game's state, even to the point of being humorously self-deprecating. Yet that was a big part of its charm, seeing all those rough parts slowly taking shape over the years.

It's in that spirit that we're focusing on the long game, where momentum is gained at a gradual pace over a longer period of development. All the while we’ll keep our eyes set on the goals most important to us: to be incredibly upfront about the state of the game, to be unorthodoxly accessible developers, to make a game we're proud of, and to have the presence of mind each day to have fun and enjoy this adventure that we're lucky enough to find ourselves on.

Market woes

It's all relative. In the distant past, especially before digital distribution, making games independently was difficult for a vast myriad of reasons. These days it's still difficult, but for a whole slew of new (and old) reasons.

I do know that making games is more accessible by more people than it’s ever been before. Ultimately, I see that as a good thing for the art form. Even 'independent' as a classification has come to cover such an incredibly broad spectrum. Lucas Pope and Double Fine are both classified as independent, yet the challenges posed to each are fundamentally different (though I'm sure there's overlap as well).

Realistically, I don't know that there's ever a 'good' time to try to make an indie game. For reasons we all already know, and for reasons we can't possibly predict, making indie games will probably continue to be a high-risk endeavor. So if someone’s waiting for the marketplace to spontaneously stabilize, it probably never will. In that regard, I can only speak for ourselves and what made sense for our specific situation. When Lionhead closed its doors on that fateful day, we knew it was the right time for us.

Success is relative

Success for Kynseed would be to have made a game that we and our community are proud of, to attain enough stability for our team to pursue future ideas, and ultimately for our players to feel that their faith in us and our Early Access were well-placed.

Through it all, we want to help demystify the game creation process by being an unusually open and accessible team of creators. We believe that players are interested in people, not companies.

A world where time matters

Early in the game, the mysterious Mr/ Fairweather will give you a mystical acorn. Once planted, it grows into a family tree that will morph to reflect your family and status.

Every person you meet, and even their pets and animals, will age and die. Over the course of the game you'll come to forge strong connections with these communities, see them grow old and pass, and watch as their children take their place. The importance of nurturing your family is that you pass on your legacy to them: items, traits, and skills are all gained as you take over your next of kin’s life.

One of the theme’s we want to get across is that of work/life balance. Do you spend your life pursuing business and wealth, or dedicate time to family and friends? Beyond that, there’s also your family legacy. Will you be the renowned family baker respected throughout the land, creating legendary pies? Or will people remember you as a prankster, or as a nobody, or for your soggy pastries?

The fickle calendar

Game development is strewn with the corpses of missed deadlines, so in general we try to avoid estimating dates beyond our immediate view of things. Though I imagine we can say with confidence that we're looking at minimum of a year in Early Access. We're a small team with big ideas...and big ideas take time.

We also have enough experience to know that not all ideas work in the end. Some features may adapt to fit, be lost completely, or be added to for the greater good. “The greater good!” Everyone on our small team has a very strong sense of vision for the game and we’ll be trying to stay as true to that as we can, but if we need to change a few things we will (or just use in-game lore to cover our arses).

So look forward to our battle royale monkey racing detective adventure game sometime in 2023.

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