After 7 Years in Development Hell, No Fairytale Ending for 'Ray's the Dead'

Unexpected indie success stories grab people's attention, but more often than not, games are released without anyone noticing.

Nov 23 2020, 3:51pmSnap

On June 13, 2013 design director Chris Cobb published a piece on Sony's PlayStation Blog called "Ray's the Dead is Brought to Life on PS4." Seven years later, Cobb returned to that blog to publish a follow-up piece: "Ray's the Dead comes to life today on PS4." The Pikmin-inspired project was imagined as an early indie stand out for the new PlayStation 4. It would then spend years in development hell, arriving a few weeks before the PlayStation 5.

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"There isn't anyone one thing that I can point at for why it took so long," said Cobb in a recent interview with VICE Games. "The real answer is there are a lot of individual things that contributed to dragging our development out much further than we ever imagined."

It was a game that always felt, as Cobb put it, "within 9-12 months of being done," a feeling that held true, for better and worse, from 2013 until 2020. That mentality, even if it felt like a lie, is part of what kept the game from falling apart. The end of the road was close. Maybe.

A lot happens in seven years. Children were born, and parents passed away. Money got tight, and people were forced to move and find unique ways to make ends meet—like two families suddenly living in a house together. Again, a lot happens in seven years, and a lot happened to the trio of people who spent nearly a decade trying to develop Ray's the Dead.

Ray's the Dead originally caught people's eye after raising a humble $51,773 on Kickstarter to fund development. At the time, the developers figured it would take about two years to finish—pretty standard for a game of this scope, even if it was likely to be delayed a little bit. This was back in 2013, after Double Fine and Wasteland 2 helped put Kickstarter on the map as a legitimate way to help fund ideas having trouble getting money from publishers.

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It was no surprise, then, that Sony was interested in having Ray's the Dead be part of its lineup of indie games, a time when a lot of high-profile indie developers had jumped ship from Xbox to PlayStation. Sony was not, however, funding Ray's the Dead development.

The idea was to only accept funding without strings attached. This is why Cobb's team turned to a place like Kickstarter, where you have to deliver the product, not repay a loan. 

"We thought we could develop the game quickly, do all of the work ourselves, live off of our savings (and the generous financial support of our working wives) and keep a much greater percentage of the profits in the end," said Cobb. "In hindsight this was a huge mistake. Not only were we not able to hire the help we needed, but we weren't able to pay ourselves once development got long in the tooth."

The developers were not shying away from the Pikmin comparisons, it was part of the pitch. In Ray's the Dead, you recruited zombies with different abilities to follow you around and perform different actions. Like Pikmin, it would be a game combining combat and puzzles. One reason people are always clamoring for Nintendo to make a new Pikmin game is because Nintendo rarely makes a new Pikmin game—and nobody else seems to, either.

"It became clear why there are not many games with this Pikmin-like mechanic," said Cobb.  "I can't tell you how many times I thought to myself  'ahhh, now I see why Nintendo decided to go that route with Pikmin controls.' I felt like we were spending a lot of time learning lessons they had learned long ago."

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The biggest problem involved figuring out what to do with the zombie minions you were controlling. What should they do when done with a task? What if you send them to an area but don't explicitly give them a task? If you, for example, ask them to attack an enemy—are you tasking them with fighting until one or the other is dead, or only hitting them once?

One question invited another, and it quickly became a deep rabbithole. These are not amateur developers, either, naive people who stumbled into making a too-ambitious game because they weren't cleareyed about what it's like to make one. Cobb was an artist on games like Thief: Deadly Shadows and Deus Ex: Invisible War, technical director Shawn Halwes a programmer on Halo Wars, art director Matt Carter a modeler on a number of games.

And yet.

"The scope of the game, relative to the size of our team, was a problem," said Cobb. "Believe it or not we went into this very conscious of making choices that would be reasonable and achievable. I think we did a poor job of understanding how complex certain things were to properly develop."

The $51,773 the team had raised on Kickstarter in 2013 was essentially nothing. Crowd funded video games are infamous at making not very much money seem like a lot of money. The $3.3 million that Double Fine collected for what eventually became Broken Age was not, in reality, a ton of money, either. So it was no surprise, two years into development on Ray's the Dead, that the team was faced with some difficult challenges to try and save costs.

“I can't tell you how many times I thought to myself  'ahhh, now I see why Nintendo decided to go that route with Pikmin.’”

Throughout development, the team took on contracts to make ends meet. Sometimes those contracts took up a lot of their time, sometimes it didn't. But it wasn't enough. One messy solution: uh, move in together? Carter and Cobb both lived in Chicago at the start of development, and Halwes lived in Dallas. Carter and Cobb pitched their wives on renting a house in Dallas, living in the same space and being closer to Halwes. It was a much more complex question for Carter because, at the time, they had a one-year-old daughter. 

"We thought the cheaper cost of living and the close proximity to [Halwes] would expedite development," said Cobb. "It did help, and there were no major issues with two couples approaching their 40's living together, but after 18 months of that I think we were about done."

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The crowded house experiment was over, and people found their own places to live.

A big reason the team had sought Kickstarter for development funds was to avoid working with a publisher, but over time, it became clear being a cool-looking indie game was not enough to get noticed, and there was worry Ray's the Dead would get overlooked.

They'd taken a meeting with the video game division of Adult Swim in 2013 when Ray's the Dead was first announced, but didn't move forward with a deal. That changed two years later, but the studio stuck to its guns and only partnered with Adult Swim for marketing. Like so many supposed hard-and-fast rules, however, things changed, and in 2016, Adult Swim came knocking and outright asked if the team would like some additional funding.

"They saw how slowly we were making progress and wanted to help us along, which was very cool of them," said Cobb. "We did agree to take some money to pay for contractors."

Adult Swim ended up kicking in about $150,000. Again, making any video game is expensive and even $150,000 isn't exactly swimming in riches. But it certainly helped.

The Adult Swim money came without any real catches—they didn't have to pay the money back, even when Adult Swim got out of game development and dropped Ray's the Dead in the middle of 2019. But the team did feel an obligation to the $50,000 collected from those Kickstarter backers in 2013, who were always waiting for updates on the game's status. 

"Kickstarter updates were a constant challenge," said Cobb. "99.5% of our backers are great, and have been remarkably supportive and patient throughout this entire process. Honestly, they made it easier to get through this development because it's important to feel like someone out there is excited about what you are doing. But then, there is that .05%…"

There became a catch 22 with the updates, too. Any update, however substantial, guaranteed a certain number of people were going to not just be mad but really mad the game hadn't been finished yet. Updating the game's backers meant subjecting the studio to those people, and so Kickstarter no longer became a place to connect with the fans that had helped make Ray's the Dead come to life in the first place, it was suddenly a place of stress.

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"It's a shame how social media and other forms of remote conversation have made it so easy for us to be so rude to each other," said Cobb. "So each time a message popped up in my inbox from a Kickstarter backer, my heart would jump into my throat. It kept me up at night. I wish I was thicker skinned against this kind of thing, but I'm just not."

One way the team avoided burnout and frustration was allowing life to go on. Sure, one constant was that Ray's the Dead was still in development, but it didn't mean the lives of everyone involved were stuck at the same status quo. 

Carter's family, which included a young daughter, fulfilled a dream of turning an RV into a home. This was planned for after Ray's the Dead was done, but they decided to stop waiting. Cobb had ambitions of opening a retail board game store—again, after Ray's the Dead was done—and gave into pressure from his colleagues to open it anyway. The store opened in November 2018, a little under two years before they released Ray's the Dead.  

"If we had just hunkered down, put everything on hold and devoted our full time effort to finishing the game," said Cobb, "it may have been completed sooner, or it may never have been completed at all."

The game was, however, eventually finished. Ray's the Dead was released on October 22 for both PlayStation 4 and PC. (A once-planned portable Vita version has been swapped for a Switch version that will be released sometime next year.) 

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The feel good conclusion to a story like this would be Ray's the Dead coming out after seven years and becoming a big hit. But as of today, Ray's the Dead has only 18 reviews on Steam, suggesting very few have played it. Critical reviews have been lukewarm, at best.

"The launch has been really rough," said Cobb.

The team anticipated mixed reviews, but it didn't expect people to run into so many bugs, for players to be so frustrated with the gameplay, and the press to basically ignore the game. 

"We paid money we don't have for a small QA team, and fixed EVERY bug they reported, but obviously a ton was missed," said Cobb. "And we didn't have the resources to do extensive playtesting, so it turns out what's easy for the three of us that have been playing the game for 7 years isn't so easy for those that are new to the game. Who knew?”

This is the reality for most video games, though. We focus on the wild successes because it's aspirational, without realizing most video games are released without much fanfare. The team is focused on updating, fixing, and tweaking Ray's the Dead on PC and PS4 in the weeks ahead, before spending the holidays getting the Switch version ready for 2021. The hope is that, at the very least, the game sells enough to pay off their debt. Time will tell.

"Even the bad reviews expressed an appreciation for what we were attempting to do," said Cobb, "even if they weren't happy with the end result."

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

Tagged:

PlayStation 4, Playstation 5, Ray's the Dead

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