The Exhausting Ten-Year Journey to Release 'Owlboy'
No one at D-Pad expected to spend the better part of a decade on a single game, but life, death, and delays got in the way.
Images courtesy of D-Pad
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When Owlboy is released on November 1, it will have been nearly ten years after development began on the gorgeous looking, Metroid-inspired action game. It wasn't supposed to take this long, of course. No one involved in making Owlboy expected to spend the better part of a decade on a single game, and when the clock strikes midnight on Halloween, it will mark the end of an unexpectedly long journey.
"I've always imagined it would be emotional," said art director Simon Anderson, who's been with Owlboy since day one. "A lot of people suggest it'll feel like a relief."
That relief is, if everything goes according to plan, close at hand.
The game's developer, D-Pad, is made up of just five people: an art director, two programmers, a designer, and a composer. Like most small teams, though, people wear many hats and are responsible for many other jobs—public relations, QA testing, etc.
The original idea for Owlboy came about when Andersen was closely watching rumors about Nintendo's upcoming "Revolution" console, which would later be called the Wii. As other developers were mulling new directions for how to play video games, Andersen saw an opening for a callback to the pixel-driven action games he (and others) had grown up on.
This was long before the concept of retro-style games went through the full trend cycle: once a novel idea, , then a popular style, and ultimately, a repetitive cliche. (Owlboy comes, somewhat ironically, at the tail end of that rotation.)
While playing Super Mario Bros. 3, Andersen was struck by the game's Tanooki suit, which lets Mario float down after a jump by tapping a button. Andersen's idea was the opposite: let the player fly up. Simultaneously, leaked details on a prototype for a new Kid Icarus, worked on by Rogue Squadron developer Factor 5, had Andersen mulling how to represent flying in 3D. It seemed overly difficult, leading Andersen to double down on 2D for his game. The final puzzle piece was a suggestion from Andersen's girlfriend: the main character should be an owl.
"With that," said Andersen, "everything fell into place and pretty much all the major characters were sketched that same night."
At that point, Andersen figured Owlboy would ship in 2011. He was, uh, pretty far off.
One of the game's early victories was a nomination in the 2010 Independent Games Festival for visual excellence. Though Owlboy didn't win, the recognition was important. Soon after, the team was invited to attend the Norwegian Game Awards, a competition for students. Owlboy won the top prize, which came with something better than recognition: a $10,000 cheque.
"It really did feel like we were on our way to something amazing," said Andersen. "Like we had made the right choice to go all in for our dreams."
"We literally thought, "Hey guys we're finishing this thing with this! 2010 is the year of the owl!'" said programmer Jo-Remi Madsen. "We're in 2016. It's still not year of the owl."
Though $10,000 feels like a big number, it's nothing if you want to build a modern game. Continuing to work on Owlboy has been possible because the developers have benefited from the generosity of friends and family, whether it comes to financial stability or having a cheap place to stay. They've also received a relatively meagre amount of grant money—less than $80,000—from the Norwegian government. By being thrifty, that money "saved their asses" a few times.
So, what took so long? The game didn't come into focus until the team produced a demo in 2011. And while Owlboy's basic premise hasn't changed, the game has been through several full-on reboots, often because as development dragged on, players were demanding games of increasingly higher quality. It didn't help that Metroid-style games became increasingly en vogue, forcing Owlboy to adjust.
"We literally thought, 'Hey guys we're finishing this thing with this! 2010 is the year of the owl!' We're in 2016. It's still not year of the owl." —Jo-Remi Madsen
"The long development ended up becoming its own burden," said Andersen. "Considering how I had originally pitched this project and involved all these people to help me create it, I felt very, very responsible whenever there was another delay, someone was unhappy or stressed."
Life (and death) happened over the course of that ten years, too. When I talked with the team about their experiences, a melancholy tone hovered over the conversation. Overworked, exhausted, and hoping the finish line really was in sight, D-Pad sounded utterly spent.
For example, Andersen had promised his girlfriend a proposal—and a wedding—after the game shipped. Every time he delayed Owlboy, he was delaying this next chapter in his life.
"Having to constantly tell her it was going to be another year was getting to me badly," he said.
He eventually gave up, and the two got married last year.
Andersen's struggled with depression, too—a problem for him since he was young. For him, depression is "always an underlying factor" and an unfortunate constant. "My art and our work [were] the positives in my life," he said, "so I always had that to push me through."
The simple march of time has proven brutal, too.
"When we started out working on Owlboy, all my grandparents were still alive—cheering me on year after year," said Madsen. "Not once have I been told to stop, or 'go find a proper job, one that pays.' My family isn't like that. Now, as Owlboy is about to launch, I've lost all my grandparents, but their support stuck with me."
Halfway through development, Madsen was on his way to meet up with one of his best friends for dinner when he received a call telling him that the man had died of catastrophic heart failure.
"From that moment on," he said. "I've been painfully aware of how fragile life can be."
Relationships haven't been easy for Madsen, either.
"During this project," he said, "I've had several girlfriends somehow willing to be part of the madness—and just like the rest—they've been massively supportive. But even with massive support, with time, I've started feeling bad about my constant empty promises. 'The game is coming out this year.' 'Just a couple of months now.' 'Soon, soon.' In the end, I've had to let them go, because I've always been aware that my living situation isn't exactly ideal."
That living situation changed over the years. Andersen was working out of his parents' home, but during development, his parents not only got divorced but the house burned down. Fortunately, Madsen was able to move into his parents' house, allowing Andersen to hunker down in the apartment Madsen had been living in. That apartment became a pseudo-office. The rest of the team is scattered around various parts of Norway, the US, and Canada.
After working on the same game for so long, the team worried it wasn't capable of even shipping a game. To prove themselves wrong, instead of taking a vacation, they spent the summer of 2013 working on Savant - Ascent, a quick 'n' dirty pixel shooter that, thankfully, was well-received. It also proved to Owlboy fans that, yes, that game might actually get finished. It's gone on to sell more than 500,000 copies, keeping the team afloat financially.
"It was refreshing and reminded us just what we can do as a team," said Andersen. "It's easy to forget when you have to put that talent to work over such a long time."
The low-lows have been, especially in the final stretch, accompanied by high-highs. The developers pitched a panel for this year's PAX Prime in Seattle, a chance to take a short break from the grind, show the game to people who might buy it later in the year, and pass on some lessons from their years working on Owlboy. While it sounded good on paper, the team worried that nine years meant everyone had forgotten about Owlboy and moved on.
What if no one showed up to the panel? What if people didn't like the game? Had the scheduling gods, who slotted their panel at the end of the event's last day, screwed them?
"If you'll join us," Andersen said at the panel, before revealing the game's release date, "it's time for the scariest thing we've ever done."
It didn't matter. More than 400 people showed up to their panel, and the response to a trailer announcing the game's release date, the one they're sticking to, was a standing ovation.
"The applause was spectacular," said Andersen.
You can watch the moment he's talking about here:
"If we never showed our games off, never got praised, and never saw how people light up when they play our games," said Madsen, "I just wouldn't make games at all."
In less than a week, Owlboy launches on Steam. There's no guarantee it will be a success, no way to know if the team will manage to stay together for another game. But for the people who've been here for the past nine years, getting a chance to say goodbye might be enough.