The Game Bakers are in love with food. Go to their website and the first thing you are presented with is a minigame where you mix ingredients to learn about game design. It's here that you will learn that Puzzle Bobble is the Feta of videogames, and that Punch Out is…vegetable tempura?
We had the opportunity recently to talk with Emeric Thoa, co-founder (with Audrey Leprince) of The Game Bakers, about their upcoming game and GWB Game Awards entrant, Haven.
The Game Bakers were formed in 2010 and have, to date, released 5 games across mobile platforms, PC and consoles. For many people, however, their most recognizable title would be the 2016 game Furi. A fast-paced boss rush action game, Furi was praised for its combat, story, visuals and soundtrack, quickly becoming an indie cult classic. We wanted to know a little more about The Game Bakers and this legacy.
GWB: Just about any article about Haven will mention Furi. How do you feel about the legacy of that game? Do you think it's a positive or negative thing when trying to promote and develop Haven?
Emeric Thoa: I really like it when journalists say that Haven is made by "the developers from Furi", because the games are so different in their gameplay and emotions that it shows that we are committed to surprise, we are not bound to any genre, and that we are ready to take risks. Also, I think the two games do share a lot. It's just a little bit hidden under the surface.
GWB: For those who may not be so familiar with The Game Bakers, can you tell us a little about the studio? What is the work ethic and philosophy of the studio?
ET: The Game Bakers is an indie studio of 15 to 20 people, most of them working remotely from all over the world. We love to make colorful games, set in cyber fantasy settings and with deep themes (like freedom) at their core. We love the japanese philosophy of game design, we love intuitive and simple controls, we love approaching stories from the characters standpoint. And we love food, and we think game design is very similar to cooking!
Haven is, in many ways, a huge departure from Furi. We wanted to know some basics about the game and the concepts behind it.
GWB: What's your pitch for the game? As in, how do you describe it to people who have no idea what it is?
ET: In Haven you share the journey of two lovers escaped to a lost planet in a desperate attempt to stay together. You play as Yu and Kay, gliding over the grasslands of a shattered planet, unravelling its mysteries looking for a way to settle down. Haven is an RPG you can play solo or with someone in local coop. Coming to PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4 and Xbox One in 2020.
GWB: The game can be played solo or in multiplayer. Narrative driven multiplayer games are a rarity… perhaps for obvious reasons. The closest I can think of would be something like Journey, but the relationships in that game were non-verbal and far more fleeting. What problems have you encountered trying to make a game like Haven work as a game that can be played solo and with another person?
ET: Story-driven co-op games are very rare indeed. The biggest challenge we had to face was the navigation: how to make the gliding controls good while playing solo or co-op. We realized it was not possible to have a symmetrical design for this, so instead we have one character leading the way and one following, like one driver and one passenger in a car. But the follower can help by collecting stuff around while the leader chooses where to go. The combat system was designed from the beginning to be fun solo or in co-op, so that was easy. But one of the co-op interactions that works best is the dialog choices. Both players have to agree on one choice to continue, and that creates some interesting discussions between players, on the couch!
GWB: One of my favourite games is Shadow of the Colossus which, in many ways, did away with a lot of established design conventions - no standard enemies, for example, which is something Furi did as well. For Haven, it seems as if you've forgone the "chance meeting" event that many games with NPC-partners have. There's no relationship building - they already know each other, they are already in love. What led you to do it this way?
ET: Well, exactly because it has been done many times already, we didn't want to tell again the story of a "boy meets girl". We wanted to tell the story of an established couple. Something you never see in video games, and very rarely in movies as well. It was the opportunity for us to show something rare: what's love when people know each other really well, the "everyday love". And also what it means to fight for it. We always try to find a new angle in our games.
Development and lessons learnt
The Haven that the public can see today is very different from the one that existed in the beginning. Game development is a long, creative and iterative process, and we wanted to discover more about the development cycle for the game, the challenges the team faced, and the lessons they could take away from this experience. Sometimes the problems that teams face are to do with the development of the game itself, while other times it can be to with a wider issue, such as the difficulty of demoing story-driven games.
GWB: How did you first start working on the game? What was your original concept?
ET: We started working on Haven after Furi. The fundamentals of talking about the beauty of a lasting relationship and of making a feel good game were established very early. But initially the game mechanics were very different, and they changed a lot during its first year of development. At one point it even was a 2D point and click!
GWB: What is the development process like?
ET: Without going too far into details, we find an exciting pitch, we define the characters, and we match that with a playful control scheme. We work on prototypes to find a gameplay loop that's satisfying to do multiple times, either because it's deep and you progress (like in Furi), or because it's satisfying in a chill way (like gliding and cleaning the rust in Haven). Then we go deeper in the story, and make a "vertical slice". Then we enter the production phase: creating all the content for the game. It's pretty classic overall, but the devil is in the details.
GWB: Can you describe a problem you have encountered during development?
ET: Well we are currently unable to record the last part of the voice over for the game because the actors are in lock down because of the pandemic… that's one problem I have in mind right now.
GWB: Did you receive help from others? Was there anyone who gave you advice on development or helped you overcome a problem?
ET: We received a lot of help from developer friends. For instance, we asked some very talented people from Alkemi (Drifting Lands) to help us make the lighting in the Nest (Yu & Kay's home) look good.
GWB: Did your previous development experience help at all with the development of Haven?
ET: Our past experience is always helpful of course. But Haven was also new territory for everyone in the team, that was a real challenge. A 3D RPG that's a bit like Journey meets Persona, after having done Furi and Combo Crew, that was new for the team.
GWB: What, if anything, have you learnt from developing Haven?
ET: We have learnt not to rush things. That first year of dev when the game was a point and click, we made many mistakes because we wanted to go too fast. We should have taken more time to think it through, to prototype, to find the right persons for the initial vision. It worked out well eventually, but we learnt that often, taking more time to think things through will save time and effort in the end.
GWB: Is it difficult to demo and promote a game like this?
ET: It's very difficult because everything is so tied to the story that you can either spoil it, or not say enough to make it interesting. Story driven games are very, very hard to promote. They need more time to get into, and who has more than a minute to give these days?
GWB: If there is anything you would like to add, please feel free to do so.
ET: One thing we are very proud of with Haven is that it's a game that can be enjoyed by a very large audience. As long as you like fun and moving characters, satisfying exploration and combat, and cool electro music, you can enjoy Haven!
We want to thank Emeric and The Game Bakers for taking the time to talk to us. If you want to know more about the team and Haven (and why wouldn't you?!) then perhaps check out their website, Twitter, Facebook or even go wishlist Haven on their Steam Page.
You can also check out a sizzle reel of 20 GWB Awards entrants that we recently put out, which includes Haven:
Want to take part and give your indie game the chance to receive international support, hardware and more from Tencent GWB, Tencent Cloud and Intel GameDev Boost? Submissions are still open for teams that sign up.