"When we first set out, it was going to be a six-month project."
That's Cleaversoft founder Rich Siegel talking to GamesIndustry.biz at E3 about EarthNight, the studio's debut game. Set for release this fall, EarthNight has been in the works for more than seven years. As one would expect given that protracted development, the game will be launching into a very different market than the one in which it was conceived.
For one thing, EarthNight was originally going to be riding a seemingly rising wave of runner games. Siegel says that around the time of EarthNight's conception in 2012, runner games like Canabalt and Jetpack Joyride had been popular, and the idea was to make a more "epic" interpretation of the formula. ("Epic" is a word Siegel returns to repeatedly through the conversation when describing the game.)
"This was our first video game, so we wanted to start simple," he explains. "We thought we were all serious fans of classic platformers, so let's do a runner. Most runners are procedural, but it's very basic. There's not a lot of design. There are not a lot of mechanics. They're made to kill you pretty quickly, and maybe you spin a slot [machine] or whatever."
When we ask why the runner genre fell out of favor, Siegel doesn't mince words.
"People got bored because it's boring," he says.
"I felt this immense pressure to make something I personally would put in this category of epic indie games"
He notes that there have been successful runners in the meantime like Alto's Odyssey and the Bit.Trip Runner series of games, but there's a certain disdain for the genre that can be seen even on EarthNight's website, which proclaims, "We intend to change the way you think about runner games."
When we ask how people think about runners, Siegel says, "They think about them as mobile, basic, money grabbing experiences. There's certainly not an epic quality to them..."
Cleaversoft has certainly taken the time to make EarthNight epic. The first conversations Siegel had around EarthNight development took place in early 2012. The next year Cleaversoft began showing the game in public, and in 2014, it signed a deal with Sony to put EarthNight on PlayStation platforms.
"That changed it from us working on this in obscurity," Siegel says. "They took us to multiple E3s, PlayStation Expos, and gave us a lot of support... At the time we were trying to make an epic mobile game, but now we're trying to make a full-on console game with a whole new level of control. I felt this immense pressure to make something I personally would put in this category of epic indie games."
As for how Cleaversoft supported a seven-year dev cycle, Siegel says it was a part-time project for most of that stretch, one he could pursue thanks to the success of a restaurant delivery business he had co-founded, Main Line Delivery. After that business was acquired by point-of-sale transaction firm Square in late 2016, Cleaversoft and EarthNight became full-time concerns.
Even with the game getting his undivided attention, Siegel says there was increasing pressure from the indie game scene, where creators constantly seemed to be raising the bar of quality needed to stand out from the crowd.
"When I started this, Celeste didn't exist," Siegel says. "Hollow Knight didn't exist. And I think it's a testament to Paul Davey's art style that we, even all these years later, have something I think looks truly unique. If you look at even a single screenshot, you wouldn't think of anything else."
Siegel acknowledges those games put additional pressure on him, but at the same time he believes they ultimately help other indie developers.
"We all feel like every time somebody has a big hit, it makes the pie larger for everybody," Siegel says. "I don't think there are many gamers out there who are like, 'I'm only going to buy one indie game ever.' If you play an indie game and the quality level is that high, you're going to think, 'Are there other indie games out there with quality that high?' I hope I'm now coming into a market where more players are out there looking for epic indie games."
While the market has clearly changed over EarthNight's seven-year development cycle, so too has the game itself. Siegel points to a decision about a year ago to alter his original vision of the game as a hard-as-nails challenge for skilled players.
"As the end of the game got cooler and cooler and cooler, my desire for people to actually see it grew"
"I personally love very challenging games," he explains. "Spelunky's one of my favorite. I love From Software, Sekiro, Dark Souls. So I was always making a very challenging game, and I was comfortable with the fact that most people would never see the ending. In Spelunky, less than 50% of people who bought that game made it out of the first world, and even less make it out of the second world."
However, that sensibility changed as Cleaversoft built out the game's later worlds and added more post-game challenges to pursue.
"As the end of the game got cooler and cooler and cooler, my desire for people to actually see it grew," Siegel says, adding, "I had always been designing for me, making a game I wanted to play, with this hope that I'm not alone and other people would like it and enjoy it. Then I realized there are all these other people out there who might be interested in playing EarthNight because of the art style or the music, but wouldn't necessarily be interested in playing Dark Souls. And I wanted them to enjoy it, too. So all of a sudden I stopped designing it for me and started designing it for the people who'd be playing it. It was a pretty serious head shift."
As a result, the team added an assist mode that can be turned on any time to double the player's health, and the game was adjusted to make basic completion easier and more fair. Best of all, Siegel says the increased accessibility hasn't hurt the experience for people like himself, because expert players will naturally be playing levels at higher altitudes where the challenges are harder, while novices will be plugging away closer to ground-level areas that advanced players will almost never see.
"I don't think we've taken anything away. I think we've just added and made the experience accessible to a whole new category of gamers."
EarthNight is set for release this fall on PC, Mac, and PlayStation 4. Siegel is hoping to bring it to more consoles after that.