Owlboy Devs on Hitting 100,000 Sales, Exploring New Genres, and Why Pixel Art Will Never Die
Looking back on an ambitious project that took longer than expected, it’s easy to get wrapped up in cliché, waffling on about everything that’s been and gone since development began. But when that work includes three Witchers, every Assassin’s Creed and more than a dozen Call of Duty games, it’s hard to resist the temptation. D-Pad Studio’s Owlboy was conceived before the indie landscape had been shaped by critical darlings like Limbo, Braid, Fez, and Super Meat Boy, in a world where the XBLA was only just bringing indie games back into the mainstream. The team’s well-documented personal problems — living with depression, bereavement, and divorce — may have contributed to Owlboy’s protracted development, but never broke their determination.
“When I saw Owlboy for the first time, I was instantly in love with it,” says Jo-Remi Madsen, D-Pad Studio’s gameplay programmer.
“I was actually going to Britain at the time, applying for a job at Lionhead Studios. I was a huge fan of Fable, so I really wanted to work in Guildford — and I actually lived there for half a year.
“But before that, I met Simon [Stafnes Andersen, D-Pad game director and original Owlboy creator], and convinced myself that if I didn’t work on Owlboy, I’d be miserable for the rest of my life. So, instead of applying at Lionhead, I worked on Owlboy.”
Madsen got into gaming from an early age after playing Super Mario Bros. 3 at a friend’s house in his native Norway, deciding there and then that he wanted to make games of his own. He started drawing levels on paper before discovering Paint on his first computer and trying to recreate the Mario style. Then, around when he got involved with Owlboy and was thinking of moving to work at Lionhead, Madsen switched disciplines to become a programmer.
“I was really bad at programming at that point,” he explains. “I wouldn’t have passed [Lionhead’s] tests at all.
“I usually made stuff in Gamemaker, where you can’t make huge production games unless you’re really adamant about it. Which is why I don’t think anyone would hire me. Even though I had a Bachelor’s in programming, I couldn’t really program for shit.
“When I started on Owlboy, I essentially just started learning programming again from scratch.”
“Since I’m a gameplay programmer,” he goes on to say, “I got results pretty quickly. So, I just continued working on it. Since Owlboy was inspired by all the Nintendo classics like Super Mario Bros. 3 and Kid Icarus, I felt like I could add a little bit more of myself and my background into it. I became a SEGA kid at some point and played the Sonic games and stuff, so I was always all about the action part of platforming.”
From those early days, the D-Pad team knew that they had something special. The problem was how to not only convince the wider gaming public of that fact, but also keep Owlboy from slipping into obscurity as development stretched on.
“I was in love with the project, so I knew it was going to take off,” laughs Madsen. “We always discussed how we could get people to talk about the game before we released it. When we announced it back in 2008, people saw it and were like, ‘OMG, wow’, But we kind of lost that interest over the years, so we were trying to find ways to re-spark that interest.
“Luckily, we’ve always been pretty good at showing up for conferences — especially in America — traveling, and showing the game off. We’ve been slowly building towards it. When we finally had a date in September , we went to PAX and told people, ‘surprise, surprise, there’s something on the horizon’, and people talked. We were selected for something called PAX Rising, and then we had a panel at PAX that really helped with announcing the game.
But, despite the set-backs, D-Pad were determined to see right by Owlboy, and deliver on the game they knew they could make.
“No. Never.” Madsen grins when I ask him if he even considered walking away from the project. “I could’ve personally worked on it for two or three more years.
“Simon had been working on it for three years before I joined, so we desperately needed to get the game out. Everyone we talked to — publishers, developers — when we told them that we were planning to release in November, they said, ‘that’s suicide’. It kind of was, but we didn’t have much of a choice if we were going to keep our sanity, which is more important, I feel, than huge success. There’re all these stories about successful things that end up ruining people’s lives. I really didn’t want that, because one of our goals is to keep making games as long as we can breathe. It’s more important to me to stay in the game than have one huge thing then retire.
“That’s a no-go,” he says resolutely, “Not with our ambitions.”
But Owlboy was successful. Even though it landed right-smack in the middle of juggernaut releases like Final Fantasy XV, The Last Guardian, Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, D-Pad comfortably made enough to fund their next game.
“We’re closing in on 100,000 sales now,” explains Madsen, “Which if you compare it to AAA, they’d have to close down immediately, but we’re like five people sitting in a tiny room. For us, we have enough to complete at least our next two or three projects with what we’ve already made.
“It’s been quite insane, but I kind of expected it too. Before Owlboy, we released another game, Savant: Ascent, which was us convincing people that we can actually launch games. It’s a game we spent five weeks on initially, making it, then publishing it ourselves and saying, ‘hey, see what we did now? Owlboy’s coming y’all!’”
Savant: Ascent is a defiant response to the idea that 2D and pixel art is too time consuming and expensive. A cheap and cheerful indie shooter built over one summer, Savant not only helped keep D-Pad funded, but exemplified their commitment to building games in their own retro-inspired style.
“Capcom and these guys fear using pixel art,” Madsen says. “They view it as, ‘how could you possibly improve pixel art’?
“They used to be the best. The amount of times Simon has brought up all of these insane artists who, if they’d stayed on the pixel art path, there’d be some incredible titles, even rivaling the best looking ones. I think — thanks to Simon’s art — that Owlboy can be considered one of the best looking pixel art games.
“They keep coming too. Indies know how to prioritize the medium at this point. There are some that don’t push the limits all that much, but some just look brilliant, like Iconoclasts from Konjak and Heart Forth, Alicia. These are artists who really know how to push pixel art as a medium, not just use it as a gimmick.
“AAA especially fear that if they use pixel art, people will look at it and say, ‘why isn’t this on the Super Nintendo?’ We’ve had that comment so much through the years that we’ve started ignoring it.”
Across Owlboy’s development, Madsen’s learned what comments to ignore and what to act on. D-Pad Studio sought out kind words to keep them going, and treated fans to a steady stream of fun artwork via social media, so when the time came, they were happy to return the favor.
“To people that are struggling with development, especially on their own title, I think I’ll just advise them to show the game around and get people’s opinion on it,” says Madsen. “Don’t listen all that much to people who tell you, ‘oh, that’s not interesting’. One of the things that gave us a morale boost every time was going places, showing it around at conferences. We often applied for competitions and talks just so we could get some feedback.
“Simon’s always been really good at maintaining [a fanbase]. At some point he started a Twitter account, and he was really skeptical at first, until he started posting his art and the amount of recognition and comments blasted through the roof. It’s such a good use of his skills, and people notice stuff like that.”
He laughs: “With Owlboy we haven’t spent a single dollar on marketing. We’ve been talking to a lot of publishers, but we did all of that ourselves. At some point, we started asking fans for help. I think on launch day Simon tweeted, ‘Please! Help us market this game, we have no idea how!’ So many people picked up on that. People were making Owlboy pancakes for breakfast. Arby’s made an Owlboy cut-out which looked fricking amazing and came out of nowhere.
“That day we realized how much our fans meant to us, and — I think — how much Owlboy means to our fans. There’s so much fan art every day and stories of people who actually shed a couple of tears playing our game.”
Madsen was a SEGA kid, and grew up with a slew of shooty-bang-bang action games for which story — if it wasn’t a just bare-faced rip-off of Escape from New York or Terminator 2 — was an afterthought. Not that it meant much to him anyway; Madsen didn’t learn English until later in life, and games are rarely localized for Scandinavia, let alone Norway. So when Owlboy’s narrative resonated with fans, it came as something of a surprise.
“Writing a story wasn’t a concern of mine until about half-way into Owlboy,” Madsen chuckles.
“We were all involved in the story, so when people sit down and say that they had such an emotional experience playing our game, that’s when we say, ‘wow’, that’s the only thing we even wanted.
“We were totally unprepared for writing the story, but somehow we managed to put a lot of ourselves into the characters. Especially for me, the game changed. For a couple of years of working on the game, I actually had no clue what it was about. I was all about making the game playable and getting in the gameplay and puzzle elements. I didn’t pay attention to the story at all. But then Simon started to explain to me what Owlboy was all about, what was happening in the background and the story of the Owls.
“But all that backstory paled in comparison to what the story actually told,” he continues. “I can almost compare it to Final Fantasy XV. What’s upfront is a road trip with extremely attractive boys. I think that’s what Owlboy became, too — a road trip with pirates and a stick-bug in a spider costume. But you suddenly have these characters that mean more than the actual story does. That was really great. I never anticipated Owlboy’s story to be the main selling-point, apart from the graphics.”
Rather than be exhausted by their toils developing Owlboy and heading their separate ways, D-Pad Studio want to build on the team dynamic they’ve created, as well as further including the fans they’ve accrued along the way.
“We’ve got so many projects,” says Madsen. “When so many years have passed you end up talking so much about what you want to do, and I think I’ve got three full notebooks of ideas that we could start on immediately. If we weren’t taking this little breather of ours, I’d be tempted to start right now. There’s going to be an announcement soon of what we’re doing next.
“We’re going to keep people updated that’s for sure. We’ve been in the dark for a long time while we were working on Owlboy to avoid spoilers. But I really hope we can open up our next project and be more open about what we’re doing — not create a huge game, but something more fun that won’t eat away at our lives.
“I think that our main goal is to make games in a lot of different genres,” he explains. “I want to master all of them. We’ve made a twitch-shooter, Savant: Ascent. We made Owlboy, which is a platformer. Next, I want to make all the different genres that I can’t spoil too much, so I’ll keep quiet.”
And as for whether they’ll stick with 2D pixel art, Madsen is diplomatic.
“It’ll never die,” he replies. “Even pixel art, you can’t push it to its limits, I don’t think it has one.
“We can only get better at stuff like this. But I think Simon’s main goal is to push himself as an artist, and if he says that we’re doing 3D, then we do 3D. If he says he wants to improve his skills in pixel art, or even hand-painting, then that’s what we’ll do. I can always work with what he gives me. He’s the best artist I know — what he decides he wants to experiment with, that’s our next path.”
One thing’s for certain: in the ten years since the idea for Owlboy first took flight, Madsen and the rest of the D-Pad team have learned a few harsh lessons about game development. And as they move forward with their new ambitions, it’s clear that not an hour was wasted.
“Everything. All of it,” laughs Madsen when I ask him which of their experiences with Owlboy will feed into their next game. “Now we know how to work and communicate as a team – we don’t know perfectly, but we’ve improved quite a lot. Working on the game, we were really bad at planning. I don’t think even half of it was planned, it just happened somehow. And Simon’s art is improving every day, so we’re going to try and find a project that he’s happy with and explores his art-style. We’re also going to try and find a project that the rest of the team can feel like it’s our project now. Since Simon started out Owlboy, it’s kind of felt like his project, which was fine for me. I fell in love with Owlboy the first time I saw it. But now we’re a bigger team. I think it’s important we include everyone in the design process.
“So our next project will probably be a fusion of everything the entire team’s learned,” he says finally. “And I hope everyone will be happy with that.”