Developer Q&A: The blessing and the curse of early buzz for Rime

"People compared it to Wind Waker and ICO. This is a small indie title made by 18 people. When you're compared to blockbuster masterpieces, you consider what you did wrong in terms of expectations."

In 2013, Rime captivated Gamescom attendees with its debut trailer. An atmospheric, understated adventure game by indie studio Tequila Softworks, Rime garnered comparisons to masterworks by Eiji Aonuma and Fumito Ueda.

While those are flattering comparisons, they put enormous pressure on Rime’s developers, especially when people’s expectations were so distant from what Rime actually aspired to be. 

It was this pressure that would eventually cause Tequila Softworks to sink into a period of silence starting in 2014. They soldiered on with Rime's development, weathering bad buzz and grumbling that only increased when they switched publishers in 2016. The game debuted last month on Xbox One, PS4, and Windows, garnering solid reviews.

Gamasutra sat down with Raúl Rubio, CEO and Creative Director at Tequila Softworks, to talk about Rime’s development cycle, the uncertainty that can plague developers in the early stages of a game’s life, and the lessons the team learned in handling the pressure that comes with developing games in this age of transparency.

Can you tell me about the initial vision you had for Rime

There are many moments in Rime that are based on real memories from childhood. It was basically us sitting in a circle and sharing those stories. Like, every summer, for example, I went to southern Spain and there was this beach and there were fish on the shore, and we took a boat out onto the water and there was a cave and the cave was filled with water and we always swam there. It was always so cheerful and charming and devoid of dangers, and then when I grew up, I discovered that many people died there from drowning. So those kinds of memories, distinctly. 

"The vision was making you see the world through the eyes of a kid."

The vision was making you see the world through the eyes of a kid. We realized when we started the play tests that many gamers -- they couldn't fix on the happy childhood curiosity part, because they were struggling with surviving on the island.

So we started removing things. And again, these days many people in the industry talk about design by destruction. In our case it was more like, "how can we make this experience as pure to the vision as possible?" And that involved removing the combat. 

When we started letting people get lost in the island, without all of these elements that weren't essential to the experience, they were playing like kids again, and they were trying to climb walls and they were chasing the pigs and, well, they were not worried about quests or what the goals were. That's when we started to be bold enough to start removing more things that were adding nothing to the story. It was a great decision. At the time, I can tell you that we were scared as hell. 

I'm still feeling the vertigo, because even though we released the game, believe it or not, every morning I wake up and I think that we are finishing Rime. But I will let it go. 

Very early on, you released footage of the game and that put a lot of pressure on you, because people had certain expectations for the game. 

Now I can tell you that it was an easy decision, but at the time, when we announced Rime, we were basically six months into development. That was at GamesCom 2013. We showed what we had and everything was playable and everything was real-time, but in terms of expectations, the trailer was maybe too successful in the sense that people thought that that was the final game, and we were basically one year away from release. That was the first part of it. 

"People would compare it to Wind Waker and ICO. This is a small indie title made by 18 people. When you're compared to blockbuster masterpieces, you consider what you did wrong in terms of expectations."

The second part was that people would compare the title to Wind Waker and Shadow of the Colossus, and ICO, so, well, excuse my French, but we shit our pants. This is a very small indie title made by 18 people. So when you're compared to multi-million, blockbuster masterpieces, you start to reconsider what you did wrong in terms of expectations, right?

So we kept working and we said, "Okay, don't worry. Next year, in 2014, people will see the game. People will play the game, and they will understand that this is not Wind Waker. It's something different. It's just Rime." 

The next year, the demo was behind closed doors. Only EDGE Magazine played the game as far as I know. So when people saw the trailer, and again they said, "Okay, it's beautiful but where is the gameplay?" And that trailer was gameplay, so we knew that we had to say “screw it”.

So what we did, again, is [the production team] and Jose Herráez, the PR lead, said, "Look, they need to play it again. The only way people can understand the game is by playing Rime." So we accepted that the next time people would see the game would be when the game was playable [in a demo].

 We were very naive because we thought that would be 2015. As you know, that [turned out to be] January 2017. So we were a little bit late, and again, now I can tell you that that silence on the radio may have hurt fans, but it was what needed to be done to finish the game -- lowering expectations, and being super honest with people. When we released [the Rime demo] this year, it was like, "Look. The game is going to be released in May. It's playable this month. And yes, we're alive. This game has not been cancelled." 

We never said the game was going to be cancelled, but again, there's this rule in the industry that when you show something at E3 or Gamescom, it's maybe one or two years away from release. It's something that you expect as a player. So, the only thing I can say is offering our apologies to our fans because they were very patient. They waited for us. 

For other indie titles out there, in order to match expectations, in order to not get crazy and collapse under all of those love/hate feelings that you are going to find on the internet, don't try to hide behind trailers. People need to play the game. It's that simple.

Could you tell me more about your move from a first party publisher to Greybox?

We bought back the indie rights for Rime and the explanation is very simple. With Sony, we were first party, a PlayStation exclusive. But as we grew up as an indie developer, we realized that we wanted Rime to reach as many players as possible. That meant going multi-platform. I was not surprised because with Deadlight we did the same. It was an Xbox exclusive, but then Xbox allowed us to release it on Steam and PC. So we wanted something similar. But that was not possible inside the framework of Sony. I mean, that's how it works. 

"For other indie titles out there, in order to match expectations, don't try to hide behind trailers. People need to play the game. It's that simple."

So we decided to go third party. When we bought back the indie rights, we were surprised by the mixed reaction. We thought that it was good news, but some people, again -- now we can see it. But remember, at the time we were in a cave. So some people saw it as a sign that we got dumped, or maybe the game wasn't very good, or there was no game. 

But regarding Greybox, that means that this new publisher, they saw an opportunity and we arranged a meeting together. The meeting was pretty fast. Three minutes into the meeting, the boss of Greybox said, "Look. Let me play the game." And we let him play the game, it was on PlayStation 4. He played for 30 minutes or so and he said, "Okay, yeah. Cool. We'll sign." It was that simple. 

In the process, every publisher is different. In terms of freedom, for example, I can tell  you that Greybox didn't get involved in any creative decision with Rime. For example, the narrative for Rime is very deep. There are many layers. They were super supportive. In general, they have been supporting us in everything and, again, I think that Greybox helped us get back our confidence.

"When you are starting in games and you feel insecure, the biggest, most powerful partner is not really the solution. As an indie developer, you should try to find the right match for you. "

After three years, working alone with no contact with the media, with all those comments that the game didn't succeed and that it was a mess or whatever, and we had to bite our tongues. We couldn't say anything. We had this promise, and remember that we're in Spain, so we gave what we needed to meet that promise. It's Inigo Montoya, basically.  [everyone laughs]

So we were working and at the same time they were managing the expectations of the community, so for example, like, "Okay, yeah. We are Greybox. We are the publisher. We're helping these guys to finish the game, so don't worry. It's gonna happen."

As an indie developer you should try to find your right match [in a publisher]. So again, when you are starting in games and you feel insecure, the biggest, most powerful partner is not really the solution. You need to find the right match for you. Maybe you expect the biggest publisher in the world is going to be your better half, but maybe your game is not the kind of title that is going to be very mainstream. For Rime, we were happy to find that Greybox was the right partner. And we expect that they will be the right partner in the future. 

Are there things you do as a team or individually that you do to stay positive during all of those years of development? 

"As long as we try to find the beautiful within the crazy, everything is fine."

That's something that's never publicly discussed when you're talking about production and game development. We are a team, and we need to act as a team. That means there are good days, and there are bad days. Being able to support people, or having shared duties, protecting people from the comments on the forums, or just knowing each other a little bit better. We organize road trips so we can all be together, or having some drinks on Fridays, or before the day starts, meeting and having breakfast together and sharing how our day is going to be. 

It's so important, because this is not an assembly line. This is not just a workplace from 9 to 5 where you're basically just sitting in front of a computer and you do your share, and that's all for you. We all support the same vision. The way it works is we allow people to put their own ideas on the table and they can all contribute. That is essential for us. As long as we try to find the beautiful within the crazy, everything is fine. 

For how to manage years of isolation, it's simple. For us, it was never an isolated situation in the sense that inside the studio we share all the information with everybody. Once a week, at the end of every sprint, we gather everybody for a "beer-o'clock" on Friday evenings, and basically we share everything that we have been doing, but not only in terms of development.

We share how the company was going as a business, how the communication outside was going, and what people were expecting from us.This is super important, because when you decide to close the doors and shut up for two years, people need to understand why you are going to do it. People need to understand that you want people to play the game, and not create more expectations. 

Even in the bad days, once we reached 2015, basically the content for the game was completed. Once we reached that moment, we knew we were going to make it. Once you know that there's light at the end of the tunnel, it's more manageable.

What lessons have you learned in developing Rime

In terms of creating a title and advice for game creators, people are going to laugh at you. It doesn't matter if people say you are like Journey, or Wind Waker, or ICO. If you really believe in your vision, follow it through to the end. 

"Not pleasing everybody is part of the nature of this world. You can accept it and stay true to your vision."

I think one of the worst things you can do is say, "Yeah, maybe they are right. Maybe I should try to please them." You can't please everybody. It's okay.

Not pleasing everybody is part of the nature of this world. You can accept it and stay true to your vision. I'm not going to say that everything will be okay in the end, but at least you will feel good about yourself.

Every time people compare us with other titles, we see that as a compliment. Being compared with such titles is great and amazing.

No matter what your true references and inspirations were, it's okay. It's something that in today's world where everyone has so many eyes and a voice, and you are exposed to so much attention thanks to social media and everything, it requires a lot of strength to accept yourself. So, accept yourself. 

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