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Solve the riddle of Oxogo and you could win $5,000

A virtual treasure hunt, hidden within an indie game, is setting players on a wild goose chase for a grand cash prize.

Holly Green, Community Editorial Coordinator

July 12, 2022

7 Min Read
Key art from Oxogo.

In the past several months, as the games industry has debated the role of NFTs and cryptocurrency, there’s been a lot of talk about playing games to earn money. But on Itch.io, a new RPG is promising not money for earning in-game assets but a grand cash prize for whoever unlocks its secrets. And the developers say the pool will only grow as more people play.

At a glance, with its funky old-school sprite art and retro design conventions, Oxogo (pronounced roughly /o/-sho-go) is familiar indie game territory. In the game, the player explores a dungeon and solves puzzles, trying to find their kidnapped dog.

The twist, however, is in the treasure hunt—an old-fashioned “armchair treasure hunt”, the kind that crosses the line from the medium of fantasy into real life. Once the realm of scavenger party games and later crossing into literature, these hunts are intoxicating in their mystery. Some early examples, like the book Masquerade, are fascinating studies of pre-Internet sleuthing and crowdsourcing.

Oxogo's developers, two amateurs from Galicia, Spain, are intentionally anonymous—preferring to stick with the pseudonyms "G" and "D" to “avoid pressure to reveal the game’s secrets,” G explains. For G and D, treasure hunts aren’t just a cherished childhood memory but also a source of inspiration. The goal was to pay homage to the tradition by creating a version for video games.

In the late 90s, there was a book called The Merlin Mystery, an enigmatic collection of arcane drawings and prose whose illustrations, once deciphered, would award the winning reader with a prize of $30,000. Those within the treasure hunt community across the Internet remember it well—especially G, who received the book as a gift from his father as a child. G and D would grow to love the magic and mystery behind treasure hunting so much so that they wanted to recreate the experience themselves.

Oxogo means "the game" in Galician

Despite its appearance, the game is an ambitious project; neither is a designer by trade, and the two have no previous programming or development experience. G did, however, have a deep familiarity with the Linux community, which would lead him to the tools that would streamline the process. “I followed YouTubers who were video game developers and saw that they embarked on personal projects that lasted for years and often never got finished,” says G.

“So it was clear to me that this had to be something with a clearly defined beginning and end. Therefore, I tried to size it as best as possible in all tasks (including development, graphics, and sound) and to focus on the design of the treasure hunt. A game with simple mechanics, pixel art, and a limited color palette seemed the most manageable.”

“With this philosophy, I embarked on the search for an easy-to-use engine that I could start working with as soon as possible. I have been working with Linux for years and it was clear to me that I wanted it to be open-source. That narrowed down the options by ruling out many of the more popular engines.”

G would first experiment using GBStudio, a piece of visual programming software designed to make Game Boy-compatible games (remnants of which you can see in Oxogo’s visual style). But later, he settled in on the GDevelop app, which offered the approachability he required. “What made me choose GDevelop and its visual programming system (based on conditions and effects) is that the learning curve was virtually non-existent and that allowed me to go straight to the action and learn as I went along."

“In addition, it made it very easy to export versions for different platforms and incorporate ads, which also made it possible to release the free version for Android, which at first I had not valued and which is now the most downloaded.”

There’s no treasure hunt without a little treasure. To get the cash pool started, G and D couldn’t use money from the sales of the game. After all, the game had yet to make any sales. They also needed a good amount to offer from the beginning, “in case only one person downloads the game and solves the mystery,” G said with a laugh. So they used their own savings for the grand prize, setting the initial amount at 5,000 Euros, with sales from Oxogo increasing that prize pool at regular intervals.

“The amount chosen was the highest we felt we could risk for the worst-case scenario,” says G. “That is, that only one person would download it for free and solve it. We consider the quest to be of sufficient difficulty that it won't be solved by the first person who comes along. But when something is on the Internet and collective intelligence comes into play, things change. But if that moment comes,” he adds, “it will be because then we have a sufficient player base.”

Despite the cash reward, the game does not require a purchase to participate; G tells me that the treasure hunting component was out of their organic shared interest in treasure hunts rather than trying to boost sales. “What we would most like for the game is for people to actively participate in the treasure hunt and eventually solve it.” To that end, they use Itch.io’s pay-what-you-want model to encourage players to download Oxogo even if they don’t want to buy it. 

Players also don’t necessarily need to play the game to participate, as the developers say that people will still be able to enjoy and experience Oxogo’s secrets through livestreams or watching their friends play. Ultimately, the money they don’t make on this game reflects their personal values. Free tools, after all, are what made Oxogo. So too would they like the experience to be rewarding whether or not the player contributes to or even pursues the cash prize.

At one point in our discussion, I asked about data mining. I’ve seen firsthand how avid fans can be when plundering a game for its secrets—dissecting game code, for example, is fairly typical behavior even for games that don’t promise a cash prize.

To that, G and D laughed nervously, saying that, as amateurs, they can’t guarantee they’ve closed every design loophole. But they also say they’ve designed for the game’s hints and secrets to be found organically by experiencing the narrative first-hand (as you would with a book) and that it’s unlikely that players will find the answers through backdoor methods. “We tried to make sure that no information about the mystery falls back on the way the game is made and that you can't get anything more out of it than what you see playing the game. 

The clues have to be put together in an "analogical" way, that is, interpreting them in context and using the brain.” G also says they’ll require a bit of documentation with the player who ultimately locks all of the game’s secrets to ensure they were obtained honestly.

He adds, “The level design was also a complex issue and one with which I am not completely satisfied. I had to combine the treasure hunt with the creation of more or less interesting levels that took advantage of the mechanics. I think the learning in this aspect is noticeable as the game progresses and is something I would definitely improve.

“Regarding the mystery, the main challenge was to make something difficult enough but with a resolution that wasn't disappointing. We know that there are a lot smarter and more knowledgeable people out there than we are, so maybe what seems complex to us is obvious to them. However, whether it is resolved or unresolved, the explanation has to look sufficiently logical and realistic.”

Whether the puzzle is too obtuse to decipher—or too easy not to—is yet to be seen. Like the book that inspired Oxogo, there’s also a deadline. If the prize is unclaimed by December 2025, G and D will donate the pool to an organization supporting open-source software. For them, it’s a win either way—either a lucky player will be rewarded for their hard work, or a cause they hold dear will get a hefty donation.

As promised, they’ve also recently updated the cash prize amount, which now stands at 5101.63 Euro following the past few months of sales.

Says G, “Oxogo is an example of how nowadays simple and freely available tools make it easier for people to realize their ideas and turn them into real products with very few resources and investment. In that sense, that is part of the freedom we understand when we talk about free software.”

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About the Author(s)

Holly Green

Community Editorial Coordinator, GameDeveloper.com

Holly Green has been in games media for fifteen years, having previously worked as a reporter and critic at a variety of outlets. As community editorial coordinator, she handles written materials submitted by our audience of game developers and is responsible for overseeing the growth of iconic columns and features that have been educating industry professionals under the Game Developer brand for decades. When she isn't playing about or writing video games, she can be found cooking, gardening and brewing beer with her husband in Seattle, WA.

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