It's hard to differentiate a high fantasy adventure with so many contenders on the market, but Pendula Swing has a few distinct selling points.
For one thing, its setting and premise step away from the usual Tolkien-esque hijinks of the genre, instead telling the story of a retired hero who has already saved the world. The game is set in a universe where typical fantasy races all live together in a civilisation modelled on 1920s America.
Perhaps more notably, the game was released episodically over the course of 18 months -- a distribution method rarely used outside narrative adventures.
Pendula Swing is the debut release for Swedish indie Valiant Game Studio, and co-founder and CEO Laura Bularca tells GamesIndustry.biz the model was not just a preference -- it was crucial to her team's future.
"We knew it was unrealistic for us to think we could make a premium game for a year and half and not build a community or try to build our brand in the meantime," she says. "We wouldn't have survived financially."
Bularca and her co-founder Anna Jenelius discussed open development processes at the beginning of the project, but at the time Early Access was "wasn't popular and a little controversial" in some corners. The duo needed a way to validate their ideas as they developed as quickly as possible, and also enable players to give them money if they chose to do so.
"We came up with the episodic model because we really wanted to have a free part of the game to give away," Bularca explains. "And it was easier for us to develop the game modularly.
"We thought this model would be pretty good for us because first and foremost, it holds us accountable -- we had to release an episode periodically. It also allowed us to build trust, which was an interesting journey from the beginning until we launched the last episode. And it allowed us to see how people react. In retrospect, it was very good for us."
"We showed to investors and people interested in us that we can build something, we can keep our word and release episodes every three months"
Bularca also believes releasing episodically was far less risky than launching a full game into an already crowded marketplace. It not only generated demand, but proved it ahead of the complete release.
The free first episode racked up 15,000 downloads on Steam, with another 2,500 sales of the paid episodes. While the latter has not been enough to make the studio self-sufficient, it has appeased its investors, who were interested in Valiant's decision to adopt the episodic model.
"We've proved that this is not an idea everyone would ignore," says Bularca. "We showed to our investors and people who are interested in our company that we can build something, we can keep our word and release episodes every three months, and that we do have a community who is interested and stays with us."
This past weekend, on International Women's Day, Valiant released Pendula Swing: The Complete Journey, compiling all seven episodes into a single release. Some members of the studio's community have openly said they were waiting for the full product -- "On Netflix, people binge watch and in games, they binge play" -- but this hesitation has not damaged the company as some might think.
"When we did launch the final episode and towards [Complete Journey's] release, it felt like people gained trust in us," Bularca says.
"We have had some reviews that were originally negative because when we launched we did have quite a lot of bugs, but we have been consistent in fixing them, launching patches, launching episodes consistently, so we had players who would change their review to positive or very positive. Some of them became very important members of the community, came onto our Discord, helped us test new launches. It was extremely useful."
She acknowledges that there have been some diminishing returns -- of all the people that bought episode two, fewer bought episode three and so on -- but she and her co-founder are happy with the sales they did achieve. Bularca also notes that the launch of each episode also saw a slight uptick in sales for the previous ones.
New releases also granted a new opportunity to gain press coverage and better visibility for the game -- another reason Valiant chose its episodic model. Had the duo waited for the full release, there would have been a brief surge before Pendula Swing was drowned out by the next big thing. Instead, some sites reviewed each episode upon release, resulting in consistent coverage for 18 months.
That's not to say releasing episodically has been easy, of course, with Bularca noting that there was a lot of pressure in the beginning. She and Jenelius are the only full-time members of Valiant, with a freelance artist joining them in the office during development.
"Launching every three months helped us refine our processes and get a lot smarter about how we built levels and how we tweaked them"
"The team was just us, three ladies," Bularca says. "In the beginning, we didn't think we could do so much content, that it was impossible to launch every three months without compromising on quality. It was difficult, and we worked very hard, especially for the first three episodes.
"We constantly thought about ways to optimise our work. Launching every three months helped us refine our processes and get a lot smarter about how we built levels and how we tweaked them. We came up with a process that worked very well for us up until the end, it drastically reduced crunch, stress and everything."
For each new episode, the trio would split tasks, assets and more into three categories: reusables, must haves, and nice to haves. They would play through the build weekly, prioritising the additions they wanted to make. But development wasn't the only source of stress on the project.
"The launch of every episode is a full launch, no question about it," says Bularca. "Nothing gets easier -- quite the contrary, it gets harder.
"When we started to launch every three months, we were doing a lot of press and marketing assets. Every launch needs storefront assets -- cover images, header images, stuff like that -- and it's so time consuming to do that. You have to do that for everything because you're talking on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, you name it. It's so time consuming, but I managed to cut down my workload by making an asset size list and templates in Illustrator for generating these assets super fast."
The episodic model is nothing new, of course, but interest among developers seems to be dwindling. Only two prominent studios come to mind when thinking of successful examples of episodic series: Telltale Games and Hitman creator IO Interactive. Yet, the former failed to sustain itself, and the latter shifted back to the traditional full release model for the sequel.
Bularca is reluctant to speculate as to why larger companies have shied away from episodic releases or failed to make them work, but does say Valiant's decision was "actually motivated by the fact that we're so small."
"We thought this would be a good idea to test so that we can build a community, and we could put ourselves into a position where we had to be visible every three months," she says. "I guess if we were a bigger company, the idea of how we would survive while we finish our title wouldn't be so pressing."
She does agree that the model may be best suited to particular genres. Telltale specialised in narrative adventures, and Hitman is perhaps the only example of a successful action-based episodic series. For all its fantasy trappings, Pendula Swing is also a point-and-click rather than a full-blown RPG as the studio remained conscious of the limited scope each episode could have.
"It was quite difficult to finish an episode with huge cliffhangers because our world is an open world and we don't control the players to get them to go through the story we want to tell," she says. "Rather, we have a very tiny main story you have to go through but the flavour, value and passion that went into Pendula Swing lies in the side quests."
Nonetheless, she remains open to adopting the episodic model again for future releases, drawing on lessons learned from this initial series.
"I still like the idea of episodic games, especially if you can come up with a design that allows the player to be curious and hyped about the next episode," she says. "That's very hard."
She concludes: "It depends on the game, and we would approach the episodic model in a wiser manner. We would want to release episodes much faster, so we would schedule the development in such a way that we would have more episodes ready at release date, that we can schedule to launch regularly and fast.
"We would tweak and improve our reusables, high priority, and nice-to-have production model so we are smarter in the way we use our content. We would also treat each episode much more like a full release and prioritise marketing materials for each episode, as well as designing better cliffhangers and offering more reasons for players to anticipate the next episodes."