Releasing a sequel to a critically acclaimed game can be tough. It has to be bigger and better than the game that spurred it and offer a new experience, while staying true to a particular vision or audience.
One studio on its journey to find that balance is Slime Rancher developer Monomi Park, having just released Slime Rancher 2, the follow up to the 2016 hit. So far, the reception is largely positive – the early access title has sold over 400,000 copies in its debut week at the end of September, and is already lining up nominations for awards, just like its predecessor.
For Monomi Park founder and CEO Nick Popovich, making a follow up to a successful indie a dicey business.
"I had anxiety right up until we released it, because the indie sequel is a very risky proposition," Popovich tells GamesIndustry.biz. "We've had great fortune that we broke through, so there was an audience there to receive it. When you're at AAA, that's what you're aiming for, you're cranking out sequels because you have courted a large audience, who knows annually or every two years what they're getting, and they're gonna be ready for that."
Popovich thinks that there's a double standard when it comes to how people evaluate AAA sequels next to indie ones, and says players can be a little more critical of the latter.
"Our burden within the industry is we're always innovating, we're going to take [development] very seriously and we're going to push it, and polish it, and it's going to be fun," he says. "So when you're doing an indie sequel, there's already a raised eyebrow to it."
Making games has been a lifelong goal for Popovich, and starting and maintaining an independent studio was a big part of that goal. He spent almost a decade at Three Rings Design, a former Sega studio, where he led development on MMO Spiral Knights. In 2014, when the time came to start afresh on a new game, Popovich felt as though it was time for him to chase the dream himself, and left the studio to iron out the idea of Slime Rancher.
"I took two weeks off, and then I sat down and Googled how to use Unity," Popovich says. "I didn't take many vacations or anything and we had some savings that I could use while I figured it out. Then I created a prototype for Slime Rancher as best I could because I don't code, so it was just throwing scripts together."
Popovich then pitched the idea to Mike Thomas, a friend and former Three Rings co-worker, who would become the other co-founder of Monomi Park. The pair spent a couple of weekends working together to see if it was a good fit, because despite spending time at the same studio, they'd not properly collaborated as a team.
"[Thomas] joined shortly thereafter and we worked a nine to five to make this game over the course of about a year and a half, so it was very regular work hours and it was a really fun time," he adds. "As much as it started with me sitting down and Googling how to use Unity, it really was not that chaotic. I was like, 'I'm determined to do this. And when I'm determined to do something, I will see it through.'"
The pair went through a number of ideas, and Popovich recalls trying to identify the studio's capabilities, the type of game it had the resources to create, and the risks that came with each idea.
"The reason that Slime Rancher stuck out was because it was a 3D first person game with cute characters," he tells us. "I already loved a lot of the ingredients that were in it, and it felt like something that we could do but that would also look bigger than the studio size reflected.
"For Monomi Park, be it then or now, I want our studio to be punching up in its weight class. I want us to be doing stuff that people look at and are kind of amazed at how many people worked on it, or it ends up being competitive with much bigger games or bigger ideas. I love that; it's a huge rush to be able to do that."
Slime Rancher 2 looks and feels like an extension of the first game. This isn't unusual – Popovich explains that it was born out of an expansion for Slime Rancher. It wasn't an expansion for very long though, and the team decided quite early on that it couldn't add much more to Slime Rancher without radically altering the structure of the game. The team also took the new console generation into consideration, and how it wanted to bring a new game to more platforms.
"For a game that is over six years old, every month on every major platform, there's over a million hours of play time on Slime Rancher"
"Some of the learnings that we've had over the years indicate that people want something that is closer to that original experience," Popovich says. "For a game that is over six years old, every month on every major platform, there's over a million hours of play time on Slime Rancher. It's ended up being a very evergreen game in a way.
"With Slime Rancher 2, it made for a really easy introductory experience to say it's obviously a lot prettier, and a lot bigger, but it offers comfort in that similarity. It's going to start going in a little bit of a different direction, but it's still very much going to be Slime Rancher."
There's also something else to consider. An acclaimed game, be it indie or otherwise, can spur copycats from parties looking to cash in on that success. We've seen this trend with multiple games, most recently with games such as Wordle and Unpacking. In the eight years since Slime Rancher entered early access, it hasn't seen a notable copycat, despite its six million copies sold and multiple award nominations.
"If you are a breakout indie, by the time you come around to a sequel, you've got a bunch of other games that have managed to also be successful by doing very similar things to what you do," Popovich says.
"We had the great fortune of not experiencing that, so when it came to releasing the sequel, I was like, 'there's going to be more Slime Rancher in the world, and we're responsible for it.' We don't have this anxiety around someone else coming out with it or going in a different direction with it. We're not thinking 'there seems to be an audience for that, so is that what our audience wants now?' We were talking directly to our audience this entire time, and they were waiting for our next thing.
"We've benefited tremendously from the fact that no one's copied us. If someone's going to make another Slime Rancher game, it might as well be us."
Monomi Park has found a comfortable audience for its sequel, which the studio self-published, just like it did the original Slime Rancher. Popovich says the company has always been at ease with independent publishing and never felt the need to look for an external label, thanks to lessons learned during his time at Three Rings working on MMOs.
"Launch is a big deal for us, but the real hurdle is you run this game for years," he says. "You court the audience and you keep the tail up and you do content updates. That was the right mindset for the games-as-a-service trend that boomed right around the time that Slime Rancher began development, so it was very natural for us. Launch is certainly a moment, but for us, the next however many years is the important thing."
Slime Rancher 2 is self-published, but Monomi Park teamed up with Microsoft to have the early access title on Game Pass on day one. The deal helped the team "eliminate some risk," but the thing Popovich highlights is the unique exposure it afforded the game at launch.
"Launch is certainly a moment, but for us, the next however many years is the important thing"
Popovich explains that the studio doesn't really promote its games with ad buys or similar, and says that Slime Ranchers growth has been largely organic. Slime Rancher 2's presence on Game Pass means players are inadvertently recommending the game to others, including friends, just by playing it and having it show up that they're doing so.
"The greatest endorsement you're going to get is, your friend is playing, for example, Destiny 2, and you see they're playing it a lot, they're doing raids a lot, and you start to wonder if raiding in Destiny is fun," he explains. "It's that rich presence, where a platform will tell you that someone is playing a game, and this is what they're doing in the game right now. That's huge."
Even though the first Slime Rancher relied heavily on word of mouth, the studio presented every update as a fully packaged piece of new content, so existing players could understand what they're coming back to. He says that once players see their friends returning to the game after a period of time away, that likely prompted more players to also see what's new in the game.
"And like a billboard on the highway, I just have to assume it works, because clearly folks are finding out about it, he adds. "And water coolers aren't a thing anymore, so it's got to be that, right?"
New content will be added to Slime Rancher 2, packaged neatly to mobilise players as Popovich described doing with Slime Rancher, but Popovich says that the early access element of the sequel does give developers an opportunity to have two launches.
"You do get to launch into a state where people are probably more forgiving of the condition of the game," he explains. "That said, this isn't our first rodeo with it, and the condition that Slime Rancher launched in is pretty polished.
"Early access is still selling a product. We would never dream of releasing something in that we know is unstable, or that people are going to have a confusing experience with"
"Early access is releasing your game, you're still selling a product. We would never dream of releasing something in early access that we know is unstable, or that people are going to have a confusing experience with. You will hit a part of it where you'll know there's content beyond a wall, but the game isn't saying 'welcome to the content wall, please come back later,' we just try and make it feel like it's a little garden that you get to continue to spend time in, and later when content is added, it will feel very natural."
He adds that if an indie is able to play by these elevated rules of early access, developers should be mindful of making it easy for players by not deleting progress if more content is added, and "not treating people like QA testers."
"Another really great thing about early access is you can come out quietly, and someone might notice your game," he adds. "But then when it comes out officially, they might look at it again. Whereas when you launch, if you fail to reach that zeitgeist, then maybe you're the dead game, and people won't revisit it later, because they remember when the game came out and that no one played it."
Slime Rancher will be Monomi Park's sole focus for the foreseeable future, Popovich says, as it has been since the studio's inception. He adds that despite plans for future content, the game should offer a "complete experience" as early as its 1.0 release.
"Our metric for 1.0 is if someone pulled it off the shelf in a store, and played it offline, do they have that experience for the price tag? That's how we would gauge whether or not it's complete and out of early access," he explains.
"We'll have other things. But I think we're definitely a studio that will be known for Slime Rancher for a while, and what we decide to do with these other things, and how big they are compared to Slime Rancher remains to be seen."