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PlateUp's solo dev shares recipe for success

As the roguelike cooking game passes 1.5 million sales and heads to consoles, creator Alastair Janse van Rensburg tells the story behind his debut game

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A week before the release of his first game, Alastair Janse van Rensburg went on an annual holiday with his family, nervous about the launch and still fixing a last few things. A year before, he had quit a £30,000 per annum job in Oxford as a cybersecurity researcher to concentrate on games development, and his family assured him that, so long as PlateUp made £30,000 in a decent amount of time, the risk had been worth it.

Just over one month later, van Rensburg's first royalty payment was issued. It was for more than £1 million.

PlateUp has since sold more than 1.5 million copies since its release in August 2022, and to say the game's success came as a surprise to van Rensburg is an understatement. He had been told that wishlists on Steam were a good gauge of how many copies you might sell in the first month or so; PlateUp had secured 25,000 wishlists, but sold approximately 35,000 in the first week and didn't slow down.

Alastair Janse van Rensburg

"The numbers just kept going up and we were [experiencing] this very fortunate scenario," van Rensburg tells GamesIndustry.biz. "Our top sales day by revenue was like a month after launch. So we had this period for a month where it was very surreal because every day I would just sit there and refresh the numbers and they would just be higher than they were yesterday. Our peak concurrent users were always in the US, but we were asleep."

PlateUp was so successful, in fact, that it broke the payment system of publisher Yogscast Games. Van Rensburg opted for bank transfer rather than cheque when it came to his first royalty payment, but the royalties he was owed exceeded the limit of Yogscast's bank. The publisher instead paid him in installments, as much as it could each day, but the game was generating more than they could transfer. Eventually, Yogscast had to send someone into the bank specially to arrange one payment.

Naturally, being published by Yogscast, the game benefitted from "massive support from steamers." Van Rensburg recalls being in the pub with some of the publishing team shortly after launch and them commenting how even big name streamers Imane 'Pokimane' Anys were dedicating time to PlateUp.

"PlateUp's roguelike structure mean when you start a new game from day one, everyone's on the same page"

"I had no idea about streaming and who streamers were," Van Rensburg confesses. "People would be like 'oh, Pokimane is playing it' and I'm like, who is that?"

People would ask Van Rensburg if he built the game specifically to be streamable, to which he says the answer is "kind of no." Instead, it was designed first and foremost as a co-op game that anyone could jump into at any point, regardless of how much other players had been playing. Sessions are short, and there isn't a long and linear story, nor is there a predefined set of progressively difficult levels as you would find in, say, Overcooked.

He points to Valheim as an example; if your friends have been playing for three months and you join in, there's a lot of catching up to do.

"Whereas with a game like PlateUp, the roguelike nature of it means you can just jump in," van Rensburg explains. "I think that works really well for individual players, but an unexpected benefit that it had was that for streamers, it means that they can be really flexible with how they play with each other and how they view and experience the content. Because if you're a viewer and you just hop in and watch.

"If [a streamer] were two months into your Baldur's Gate playthrough and a new viewer joins, they're like 'Who's that guy? Who's this character?'. Yeah, it's an amazing game, but it's really hard for viewers to keep up with what's going on if they haven't been there from the start. Whereas in PlateUp, because of the roguelike structure, when you start a new game from day one, everyone's on the same page."

Players choose how the game's challenge evolves, meaning they only have themselves to blame when they fail

It's worth at this point diving into how PlateUp plays; while the screenshots instantly bring to mind Overcooked and other co-operative 'cook as fast as you can' games, van Rensburg's title shakes things up with its roguelike structure.

You start with a basic restaurant from scratch every time you play. There are no pre-designed levels or menus; instead, players define how the restaurant and kitchen expand by how they spend their money and the layout is entirely down to them. You choose the dish you will specialise in, a couple of starting perks, and off you go. Every three in-game days, you're presented with new challenges to choose from – do you want more customers, for example, or to add another dish to your menu? – and the goal is to reach day 15 without going bust.

"No matter what your skill level is, you should never feel like you're under pressure and that it's your fault because you didn't cook the chicken fast enough"

"If you lose a game in PlateUp, it's your fault – you designed your own level wrong," van Rensburg says. "It gets rid of the blame game because it's a collaborative experience making this restaurant. So if something goes wrong [in other games], it's usually because the person who was responsible for making the chicken wasn't fast enough or there wasn't enough chicken. [In PlateUp] you do it again, but this time do it faster or move the chicken someplace together so you can cook faster. Because you're tailoring the entire thing to the players and what you're doing, it means you have control over the challenges you're facing. The idea is that it's a much less frustrating experience because if something goes wrong, next time you'll fix that."

He continues: "PlateUp is deliberately set up to avoid these situations where one player has too much pressure. There's no classes – if one player is labelled as the chef, suddenly the chef is the one who should be doing the cooking and no one will help them with that, which becomes a conflict. No matter what your skill level is, you should never feel like you're under pressure and that it's your fault because you didn't cook the chicken fast enough. Everyone can always come and help you, and if you're struggling it's maybe because you need to rearrange or buy more appliances to help you or rearrange the appliances to make it easier."

As with any roguelike, the PlateUp community have been finding ways to optimise their runs, whether it's placing customers' tables directly next to the serving hatch or avoiding potato salad ("a famously impossible dish" among his players, according to van Rensburg).

The community has also sung van Rensburg's praises for regularly updating and expanding the game. The first update was released in October, just two months after launch, and a new content update or big seasonal event has been added on an almost monthly basis since then. Each update also boosts sales.

Initially, van Rensburg was a solo developer. Since launch, he hired another person to help him continue development. Even so, such a regular cadence of updates for such a small team increases the risk of burnout.

"It is definitely an issue," van Rensburg admits. "There's an endless number of people with suggestions. I think one of the benefits that's made that easier is that when I designed PlateUp, because I was a sole developer I didn't have a lot of art skill – programming is the skill I've got – it meant that I designed a lot of the game so the pipelines for everything are really straightforward.

"There's no textures in the game for instance, which means if I make a new model, it takes five minutes in Blender and I can make something that looks like the other models in the game. It doesn't quite have a sense of style as other games might do if I was an amazing artist or had hired an artist, but what it does mean is making new content is really quick."

"Get the core mechanic into the game as quickly as possible and that lets the player really experience the design of the game. The rest will broadly fall into place"

During the development of the game, van Rensburg supported himself via part-time work, tutoring, and shorter academia projects that drew on the skills from his previous career, as well as dipping into savings. To other aspiring developers seeking to take the plunge, or simply trying to find their first hit, he offers the following advice: jank it or lose it.

"There's a talk that gets posted a lot called 'Juice it or Lose It', and the idea basically is they start with a game of Pong, which is very simple, and build it up – new effects, new visuals, juicier buttons. By the end, you have this crazy game.

"But you want to basically do the exact opposite of that in all your development systems. Jank it or lose it."

He acknowledges that PlateUp, even today, can still be "a little bit janky"; there's no textures, as he mentioned, and some models clip each other. On something like Call of Duty, he says, this would need to be fixed but that adds overhead, whereas van Rensburg prefers to "minimise the amount of friction that comes between your design of your game and the players experiencing it."

"[This] is especially important for small dev teams – take the fun mechanic and then get it in the hands of the players as quickly as possible. Don't waste time adding the juice to this, don't make this look slick and cool or whatever. Just get the core mechanic into the game as quickly as possible and that lets the player really experience the design of the game. The key thing is to make the core mechanic of the game enjoyable and the rest of it will broadly fall into place."

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