Thierry Boulanger has wanted to make a 16-bit RPG since he was a kid playing Chrono Trigger on the Super Nintendo.
His ambition never changed, even as he worked for several mid-sized game studios in Quebec developing licensed games like Bionicle: Mask of Creation.
"The concept started in elementary school, along with The Messenger," he said in a recent conversation with Gamasutra. "Both games are in the same universe."
He started Sabotage Studio in 2016 with cofounder Martin Brouard, an idea he had been developing as long as he wanted to make games.
The Messenger, a 2D side-scrolling action platformer where you play as a ninja, was an easier project to tackle first; Boulanger wanted to release that game in order to build Sabotage Studio's reputation.
The Messenger as stepping stone
"RPGs are a bigger sell," said Boulanger from Quebec City, where his team is working remotely due to the COVID-19 outbreak. "I wanted to develop The Messenger with a smaller team and then propose something larger. I brought on everyone by telling them I'd want to make an RPG eventually."
That RPG would eventually become Sea of Stars. A pixel art adventure where players take control of one of two characters, one with moon magic and the other with sun magic, Sea of Stars takes place thousands of years before the events of The Messenger.
Sabotage Studio announced the game and an accompanying Kickstarter on March 19th. In less than a month, it's already raised twice the amount of funds requested.
"We're reinvesting everything we made from The Messenger into this," said Boulanger, who's hoping to drum up additional funding and interest in Sea of Stars from Kickstarter. "We want to validate that."
Originally the trailer and the Kickstarter campaign details were all lined up for announcement the week leading up to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Press interviews were also scheduled, to help raise awareness about the game and its crowdfunding campaign.
The Sea of Stars team had the embargo set for March 19th, the spring equinox, which resonates with the game's themes of day and night. Then GDC was postponed due to increasing worry over COVID-19, effectively canceling all of the meetings Sabotage had set up for the week in mid-March.
"We were very much counting on GDC for the press," Boulanger said. "Plus, how often will the stars align for a day that fits the theme of your game?"
The announcement would have gone off without a hitch if not for the huge impact the COVID-19 outbreak has had on the game industry, his team included. After planning the announcement of Sea of Stars for months, GDC's postponement threw Boulanger's plans into a whirlwind.
"We decided to push through"
The team at Sabotage conferred and considered canceling the reveal, pushing it back so they could have more time to polish, set up press interviews, and hopefully get coverage when the news cycle wasn't dominated by the outbreak. "This has been the plan forever," Boulanger. "We thought about delaying it, but we had worked up to this moment for months, so we decided to push through."
Sabotage worked with a PR agency to turn whatever in-person meetings they could into voice calls. Scrambled to put together materials to send to the press before they met. Boulanger shot a 20-minute demo presentation where he stood in front of the camera and played the game in one take the Thursday before their first meeting on Monday, March 16th; playing the game remotely wasn't an option and they didn't have a working demo to send out.
Boulanger said he'd been thinking about this concept for the majority of his career and working on the concept for years, so he knew he could convey the feeling and tone of the game through a video presentation. His team wanted the press to get their hands on the game to feel how it played and see how they were trying to address old design problems associated with classic RPGs, but that didn't work out. Boulanger said he wouldn't have been as confident if his heart wasn't tied to this idea.
That confidence, he said, stems from building his studio with Sea of Stars in mind. Over the course of two years, Boulanger grew his team slowly up to 16 full-time staff. A blend of success from contract projects and The Messenger, which was released across multiple platforms with deals with Xbox Live Game Pass and a free weekend on the Epic Game Store, meant Boulanger's plan to make his RPG was coming together.
Two of Sabotage's programmers were put on the project in 2018 to flesh out specific day-and-night gameplay features where the player could change the time of day in order to use shadows to solve puzzles, among other features. Boulanger wanted to make sure they could design what he envisioned when he was a kid, including emulating features from games like Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG.
"Chrono Trigger is great because there wasn't a transition when you got into combat, you just started fighting," he said after showcasing two smooth combat scenarios with no transitions. "In Super Mario RPG, you need to press the attack button and not just watch an animation when you attack. We wanted to have active input. When I was a kid playing any turn-based RPG I would always press the attack button hoping it would do something. I wanted our game to have that too."
The Sabotage team knew the audience they built from The Messenger wouldn't all be eager to see them switch to developing an RPG. The studio hoped that fans of games like Chrono Trigger would see the connection Sea of Stars has to old 16-bit RPGs.
"It's ok for everyone to not like the idea," Boulanger said. "But you need everyone to be clear on what it is."
Sabotage knows that their situation is privileged, many other studios have faced difficulties in light of GDC's cancellation and the greater impact of the outbreak.
"If the financials of the company hinged on Kickstarter, we may have had more second thoughts moving forward with the plan," Boulanger said. Without the success of The Messenger, Sea of Stars wouldn't be possible yet. Using this game as a stepping stone was always part of the plan, but the success sped those plans up despite the outbreak.
There are several things Boulanger wished he could have done better for the reveal, but he believes it's key to keep moving. For a situation like this, "knowing when something is good enough," is important.
The one regret that he and executive producer Philip Barclay shared was that they wouldn't be able to celebrate with their team.
"The saddest thing is that we were pretty hyped. We've been working on this for years," he said. "Now everyone is working remotely. We won't get to celebrate."