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Summerfall Studios on life after Stray Gods

We talk to the three co-founders about not wanting to be "the studio that does musicals" and how to cultivate a caring studio culture

Image credit: Part of the Summerfall team at the 2023 AGDAs

Cult of the Lamb, Unpacking, Heavenly Bodies, The Artful Escape, Moving Out, Untitled Goose Game, Hollow Knight. Standout indie games made in Australia have been abundant in the past few years. And Stray Gods is very much following in these footsteps this year.

The role-playing musical made in Melbourne won Game of the Year at this year's Australian Game Developer Awards, in addition to Excellence in Accessibility and Excellence in Music, and has been a critical success since its release in August.

Stray Gods is the creation of Summerfall Studios, a developer co-created by managing director Liam Esler, creative director David Gaider, and executive producer Elie Young. We talked to the team when the studio came out of stealth in 2019 and, at the time, "differerientation" was the key word used by Esler to describe the character-driven project the studio wanted to make (known back then as Chorus: An Adventure Musical).

With its cast of VO superstars and a unique blend of genres, it's fair to say that Stray Gods has fulfilled its brief.

"One of the comments we had was how true Stray Gods is to the very original vision that we had for it, even very early on," Esler tells us when we meet during Melbourne International Games Week. "Not story-wise, but the vision for it. So that's weird and nice."

Gaider agrees that, while the implementation changed a lot, the initial vision for what the team "wanted to evoke, the feel of it, how it would function in its essence" is very faithful to what they wanted to make. This contributed to making the AGDA wins all the more meaningful.

"I think winning even just one award was special enough, let alone three… [But] the coveted Game of the Year? That was really special," Young says.

For Esler, the feeling was a particularly odd and cherished one; a veteran of the Australian games industry, which he's been a core part of since 2011, he used to run GCAP and the AGDAs.

"It was a weird full circle moment and sort of, you know, the Melbourne and Australian games community really helped [buzz] Summerfall in many ways and we've taken so many pieces of knowledge and advice from everyone here," he says.

"And it's a bit cliche but there's something about being acknowledged by peers that you respect. It was really special, just the sheer amount of people who have come up to us to congratulate us and say, like, 'I remember when you were first pitching.' It was a real reminder of like, yes, Summerfall did this thing, but Summerfall is a product of the environment that created it. And that's cool."

For Gaider, best known for being a Beamdog and BioWare veteran, and lead writer behind beloved characters in the Dragon Age IP, this crowned a particularly difficult few years to get there.

The Canadian dev was about to move to Melbourne in 2020 to be with the rest of the Summerfall team when that year unfolded in the unexpected and challenging way that we know, and he was stuck in Canada in an empty house until 2022. (Melbourne is the city that spent the most cumulative days in lockdown worldwide, with 262 cumulative days throughout the pandemic, and 112 days in 2020 alone)

"Everyone kept asking me [during the ADGAs], 'How do you feel, how do you feel?', and it's been such a constant stream of stuff since right before release, after release, very late nights doing VO for another project, and I just feel kind of numb and tired, I don't know what to feel... And then when we won, I think Game of the Year is when I feel like the dam broke. And I just had so many feelings, I got very teary, it's been such a long, long road for us to get here, there's been so many hurdles to jump.

"We're so lucky we found people who really believed in us, liking our project. There were also a lot of people who weren't that convinced, and that makes it very easy for you to start to wonder yourself, 'Is this game as good as I think it is, as cool as I think it is?' So it was a lot of validation and that felt really good. I've come to the [Australian] community late, and I really love it a lot, and that's one of the reasons I wanted to move to Melbourne."

Liam Esler (photo credit: Eugene Hyland)

One thing that's immediately obvious when meeting Summerfall is its unique culture. The entire team presented several talks at GCAP throughout the week, including an emotional closing keynote delivered by four team members on various topics, most of them revolving around the studio's caring culture.

"Company culture is so complicated," Esler says. "There are so many things that goes into it and a lot of them are things that people don't think about. You have to think from the position of the applicant that you want. And that's down to, what does this founding team look like? What does the leadership of this studio look like? What are the values of the studio?"

Gaider pitches in, saying that much like a game being diverse shouldn't be on the list of features to achieve, a similar attitude should apply to hiring a team.

"You should be able to look at it and see it, 'Well, it's a diverse game.' You don't need to crow about it, just like we don't want to crow about the fact that we prioritise hiring diverse people. Liam puts it best actually: we look at culture add, not culture fit. Culture fit is what a lot of people use as their hiring motto, but it's also how you end up with a group of people working at a studio who are all pretty much the same…"

"And look like us," Esler interrupts with a laugh.

Gaider agrees and continues: "We have been very aware of that, that we're two white dudes, and if we're not actively careful, we will end up hiring a whole bunch of people who are just like us under the guise of, well, 'this person felt good, I felt like I could bond with them.' Sometimes it's a better party to be like, 'This person actually challenged me, they asked questions that made me a little uncomfortable perhaps,' and looking for people who are going to add their experiences into the studio.

"I write a lot of different types of characters. A lot of times there are things that are outside of my experience, I want to be able to turn to other people in the studio and say, 'hey, I'm thinking of doing this, can you give me some advice or your thoughts about this?'"

Summerfall currently employs just shy of 20 staff and has a four-day work week. But Gaider emphasises that they don't want to come across as saying they're perfect either.

"I think that studios that sort of talk big about how great they do it, they are the ones that then you hear about in these sort of whisper campaigns about how terrible they were. Or, one of the worst things, 'We're family in this studio!' We've told everybody numerous times: we are not family.

"The best you can do is to create an environment where even your most junior member feels comfortable enough to speak up and point [things] out. That doesn't mean they automatically get their way or that we're not going to have a discussion about it, but at least they feel comfortable enough to speak up, they know there's no repercussions. And I feel better, because most of the time when there's something that's pointed out, it's the kind of thing that would totally go over my head."

David Gaider

Esler adds: "We remind people pretty regularly: we all get along, but this is a corporate construct, and we are in a capitalist society and we sit within these constraints and we do our best within these constraints."

When we meet, the entire studio is around, getting ready for a party celebrating Stray Gods' launch, a couple of days after the AGDA wins. It feels appropriate then to ask the co-founders about the launch and whether they're happy about it all went down.

"It's hard because all you can think after you finished a game is the 'should have, would have, could haves', the things we could have done better – it's so anti-climatic," Gaider says, with Esler adding that launch is actually his "least favourite part of making a game" and isn't this big moment of release or relief that people imagine.

"I always find it awful," Esler continues. "Even if it goes incredibly well, it's emotionally very difficult for me. But the response from players has been absolutely phenomenal."

Young explains that some players have put hundreds of hours into Stray Gods – a six to eight-hour game.

Gaider adds: "It's the kind of project that not everyone's going to get. But for those people who get it, they loved it. I spent my career writing both characters and relationships and each time, I'm trying to think: how can I do this better? And the theory I put forward when I brought up the whole musical idea to Liam in the first place was that if you have a 100-hour game, you're gonna have a lot of talking. And dialogue can get you a long way towards getting [you] to feel for character, but music let's you access the player's soul so much more quickly than hours of dialogue. I was like, 'I think I can get somebody to fall in love with somebody within the duration of one song.' That's my theory."

Young explains that, on the flip side, music is a very subjective art, so there was no pleasing everyone with Stray Gods.

Elie Young

"When some people don't like this one song... It could be Radiohead's greatest hits and they would be like 'this is crap.' And you could tell them, 'but this is Radiohead!' but they just won't like it. So it's the same with the music for our game.

"So some people were like 'this is boring' and I'm like, 'you have no taste but you're valid,'" they laugh. "So that's actually very interesting and that's why Stray Gods is so different from other video games."

Esler points out that while there are much smaller examples of branching songs, games with musical numbers, or games that have music that changes depending on the environment, nothing has been done before on the same scale as Stray Gods.

"And when you're doing something for the first time, it's hard," he says. "Players sometimes think that they are more critical than the developers. The reality is we look at our own work and all we see is the mistakes and the problems. I wrote several of the songs in the game, [like] 'It's Time', which is a very emotional moment and I've always felt like I had underwritten that. We were on a really tight timeline, I wasn't able to give it the time that I had hoped for. But then a lot of people are like, 'Oh, it's one of my favourite songs of the game.' It is strange.

"But I remind myself that we didn't have a lot to look up to, any of us. Even the songwriting process was so complicated because it was a constant conflict between all of these different things, we were trying to achieve all these different goals."

Gaider highlights that as soon as you introduce branching and player agency, things evolve and change, and everything becomes so much more complicated to make.

"The kind of pacing that definitely works in a story doesn't work in a game because the players' motivations are hidden from the storyteller," he explains. "We naively thought that somehow that wouldn't be the case for a musical, but it is. The nature of the musical has to change. So, there were a bunch of people – reviewers actually – who approached it and said, 'Well, this didn't work very well from the [point of view] of a musical.' And I can't blame them. Because, even if they were aware that the narrative needs to change, we had no previous examples for how to judge a branching interactive musical, so that made sense to me when we got some comments like that."

"For me, characters are always gonna be the cipher through which a player understands the world. If the world's in danger, who cares unless there are characters in it that I love and want to save?"David Gaider

The three co-founders are hopeful that this has sparked ideas elsewhere though, making them the potential trailblazers of a new genre of games.

"I like that idea, of some other developer saying, '[Summerfall] did this thing, but I hate this and I hate what they did here, so we're gonna do this version of it that's so much better'. And I'm like, 'Yeah, I want to play it'!"

Looking ahead, Summerfall is "starting to muck around with new ideas," Esler says, after a much-needed rest following Stray Gods' launch. But the team agrees that it's unlikely it'll be another musical.

"Everyone keeps asking, are you going to do another musical? And I'm like, you can't ask me that right now cause right now, I never want to see another musical ever again," Gaider laughs. "Maybe ask me again in a year or two. [But] it's not what we want Summerfall to be, 'the studio that does musicals'. What we want to be is a studio that is always going to try to push the envelope in whatever kind of game that we're making."

Esler adds: "And that game will always have characters, and be characters-centric. And it doesn't matter what genre it is, or where it is."

And Gaider concludes: "I'm always going to be the guy that wants some romance. For me, characters are always gonna be the cipher through which a player understands the world, and the way that you have stakes in that world. It's like, if the world's in danger, who cares unless there are characters in it that I love and want to save?"

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Marie Dealessandri avatar
Marie Dealessandri: Marie joined in 2019 to head its Academy section. A journalist since 2012, she started in games in 2016. She can be found (rarely) tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate and the Dead Cells soundtrack. GI resident Moomins expert.
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