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Risk, Reward, Failure, Success: The Bumpy Development of Superbrothers EP: Sword & Sworcery

Capybara Games co-founder and president Nathan Vella discusses the moment when his game wasn't a game, but they pushed on.

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Capybara Games co-founder and president Nathan Vella thought Superbrothers EP: Sword & Sworcery would take about $110,000 to make over 10 months. In reality, the game took more than 18 months and more than $200,000.

Vella discussed the risks Capybara Games took while developing Sword & Sworcery during the first morning at the Game Developers Conference today. He wasn't involved in the day-to-day design of the game, but he was the one responsible for making it came out on time and on budget.

In that sense, he failed, but in retrospect, Vella argued it was absolutely the right decision.

"You should know a risky project is risky and make the definite decision to leverage that risk to your benefit," he said.

Perhaps most surprising is that 90% of Sword & Sworcery's profits came from full-price sales.
Perhaps most surprising is that 90% of Sword & Sworcery's profits came from full-price sales.

The concept of risk is relative, said Vella.

Is it riskier to create something crazy, experimental and targeted at a niche audience that will end up totally loving it, or crazier to create something imitative and safe that could be lost in a sea of other games trying to ride the exact same wave? See: Angry Birds.

The goal of Sword & Sworcery EP was to create an experience for players who Capybara Games considered a "cultured" audience and were deeply interested in art and music as part of game design.

"Making games that stand out is surprisingly important for the business of game development, especially for an independent game developer," he said. "Making a game is just as much about making a game that you care about than it is about making a game that you care enough to stand out."

Designer and artist Craig Adams of Superbrothers and musician Jim Guthrie (who also composed the music for Indie Game: The Movie) complicated the development because both were new to various aspects of game development. In Adams' case, he hadn't worked on anything released for iOS. With Guthrie, it was making games period.

About seven months in, the team took a sobering look at the project, and realized there was no game. There was a vision, a feeling, and the team had won an IGF art award because of that vision. But there wasn't a game.

"So we had about 2-3 months from the original schedule to finish something that we kind of didn't even know what it was," he said. "We were just trying to find the project, trying to figure it out. Then, a harsh reality set in. This project is going to go really, really long and really over budget."

There was a moment where Vella's business brain kicked in, and he devised a plan to "slash and burn" the design and ship the game in a few months. He eventually stepped back from that, figuring there was more reward in giving the game the time it needed, even if it meant asking everyone involved to enter a period of self-imposed stress.

"This risk required way more trust from everyone around," he said.

This trust meant knowing the team members would always push on, even in their "darkest moments."

This paid off. Sword & Sworcery has told 350,000 copies to date, and while that's nothing compared to a game like Angry Birds, it's worked out very well for Capybara Games and Superbrothers. Sure, there were moments when it looked like it wouldn't work out, but Vella wouldn't have it any other way.

"Keep calm in the face of insurmountable odds," he said.

During the Q&A someone asked Vella about a PC version. His response?

"No comment."

Excellent.

Patrick Klepek on Google+