It's been five years since Massimo Guarini launched Ovosonico. In that time, the Italian indie studio has produced two games, the 2014 Sony-published Vita title Murasaki Baby and Last Day of June, which debuted on PS4 and PC last week, and Guarini has learned at least one key takeaway from the experience.
"The biggest lesson is that execution is sometimes much more important than the idea itself," Guarini told GamesIndustry.biz in the days leading up to Last Day of June's launch. "It's really easy in a startup to lose sight of your ultimate goals and to lose focus. And when you lose focus, you can jeopardize an entire project."
Guarini hones in on the importance of discipline, delivering games on time and on budget regardless of the quality of the idea, and structuring the business to facilitate that.
"You can be creative, but you need to be disciplined as well to make sure you deliver your stuff and call an end to production, because 'Better shipped than perfect' at a certain point," Guarini said. "It's extremely important, because that's what causes a studio to collapse, more often than not. Financially speaking, it's important you are extremely aware of your resources, of your deadline and the time at your disposal, and that you call it a wrap whenever you feel it's enough for you, because otherwise you could go on polishing and iterating forever. I've seen this happen at many studios and many independent developers as well, titles that take six or seven years to be completed and it makes no financial sense at all unless you've sold millions before, but that's not the norm."
It's an interestingly practical takeaway for a developer who often speaks about the power of games as a medium and his own ambition to create emotionally moving experiences, but it's not exactly out of character for Guarini, either. He's been balancing Ovosonico's business needs with its creative aspirations almost since the studio was first established.
"We started as a sort of first-party/second-party developer for Sony, and that's quite good as a starting point, but in the long term, it's important for the studio to be able to create value," Guarini said. "And you can create value in the long term only by owning the IPs."
"A game needs to be standing out not for how it does things, but for what it says"
Murasaki Baby launched in September of 2014, months after Sony clearly signaled its retreat from the handheld market. Sony had wanted to move the game to the PS4, but Ovosonico had designed it around the Vita's hardware functionality, and Guarini said it would have required a massive overhaul to bring it to the more vibrant platform. Instead, the studio opted to pursue its longer term goal and sold a minority stake in the company to 505 Games parent company Digital Bros, bringing in €1.44 million and retaining its independence in the process.
"Ovosonico as a studio is completely free to make first-party/second-party deals with platform holders," Guarini said. "But at the same time, you've got this consolidation that allows you to make plans on a longer time scale, and that's particularly important because with some of the IPs, you might want to sell them to strike a deal. Some other IPs are going to be like co-productions, and that's the case with Last Day of June, for example. So that was particularly interesting for us to retain part of the IP as a longer term strategy. For the rest, nothing has really changed because operation wise, we're still independent. The partnership is a silent one, so there's no real shareholder meetings or anything like that. Even with financing, things are completely managed internally."
That freedom has produced Last Day of June, an adventure game that follows a number of characters through the events of a tragic day, giving the protagonist some time travel abilities to use in the hopes of creating a happier ending. It's exactly the sort of emotional game Ovosonico was founded to create, described by one reviewer as "beautiful, melancholic," and "incredibly powerful." Another critic said it made him cry, adding the game "will leave you feeling like you belong to something bigger than yourself."
Guarini the creator might be happy with reviews like that, but Guarini the studio head needs the game to sell, as well. Five years ago, the game's stylized aesthetic, focus on an emotionally driven narrative, and those write-ups would have been more than enough to make the game stand out in the marketplace. Today, perhaps not as much.
"We're not surprising people by saying, 'Hey we made an artsy game.' That's not the point," Guarini said. "The point is, we really feel the need to send out a message using video games as a communication tool. They can be a powerful communication tool without sacrificing gameplay or mechanics. A game needs to be standing out not for how it does things, but for what it says.
"It's something that should be able to speak for itself. The overall experience the player has playing the game is hopefully something that stays with you for a long time. That was the goal, sending out a message and making sure the player feels something in the same way you come out of the theater after a movie and something stays with you. That's probably going to be the most important part."
Ultimately, Guarini sees diversity of content driving the diversity of the audience. For instance, Last Day of June was inspired by a song from prog rock musician Steven Wilson, who also provided the game's soundtrack. He knows a portion of Wilson's fan base have no interest in games, but will want to check out Last Day of June based on the artist's connection to it. The problem is that even though the technological barriers for creating games have come tumbling down in recent years, Guarini says the barriers for people to actually get introduced to games have been going up.
"My mother will never be able to buy, plug in and set up a PS4 or whatever to play a video game," Guarini said. "So the day the technology bar is lower will be a great day for the industry because it will mean we can reach out to a more diverse, horizontal audience. And we will be able to experiment even more with less financial risks because you're not just targeting the vertical core of gamers that as we all know might not be interested in radical changes or new things that differ form the traditional aspect of things.
"I think the gaming industry needs that, and I think eventually we'll get there."