How we survived pivoting away from a game we loved.
We’ve all been there, as game creators. A dream, a wish, a glorious vision arises out of the ether and implants itself firmly in our brains, so powerful and insistent that it’s impossible to ignore.
We give up our free time, our social lives, and sometimes even our livelihoods in a crazy attempt to chase down this dream. We take unimaginable risks, and no matter what happens, we know that we will never be the same.
And sometimes, we stumble.
One chilly day in November 2014, Justin Sanders realized he was ready to leave Insomniac Games and make his mark with his own game studio - a dream he’d had since childhood. He snatched Kevin Porras, who he’d spent many long hours toiling away on games with at the NYU Game Center, away from Scholastic. He also brought in Neil Sveri, who’d co-founded Studio Mercato, and Nick Gomes, formerly of Large Animal Games.
Their goal was ambitious. They envisioned a world in which players raced against one another across a boundless sky, laughing off the real-world burden of gravity. A multiplayer universe in which players would learn about themselves through their interactions with others, free from the constraints of reality. Players would build their air skiffs, compete, upgrade, and interact. It would be massive. It would be free to play. It would be a Really Big Deal.
Kevin, Justin, Neil, and Nick formed a company, DreamSail Games, to bring this vision to life. They came up with the perfect name for the game: Wind Rush. And they were off to the races.
Work progressed on the game with a quickening pace as more members joined the team. We built impressive aircraft to soar about unencumbered, each belonging to one of several ‘corporations’ that influenced its speed, defense, attack, and maneuverability. We imagined different playstyles that would arise organically to not only beat your opponents, but navigate through the boosts and hazards unique to each level. We were passionate. We were excited. Nothing could possibly go wrong…
The first time the fear of failure hit us, it wasn’t so bad. Some form of “this game is way too big - we’ll never pull this off” is to be expected. Most developers experience moments of existential terror at some point, after all.
It got worse. We looked at the teams making the kind of games we wanted to make, and they were much, much bigger. And more experienced. We’d have to massively ramp up our DreamSail to get the game to where we needed it to be. We were staring down the barrel of a development cycle that now looked like it would stretch on for years. We felt small, and afraid.
Every time we hit our lowest point, something good would happen to keep us going. We’d have a successful demo, or make a design breakthrough, and our confidence would renew. We knew we were the right team, and the time was right. But we really needed a sign to tell us that we were making the right game.
We attended PAX Prime in August 2015, met with some interesting people, played a bunch of games, and tried to forget that our future as a game studio was hanging in the balance. We noticed a common bug in some of the twin-stick shooters we played - characters would spin wildly out of control if a particular button was held down for long enough. As developers often do, Nick and Neil stayed up late after hours and put together a quick prototype based on the bug, enjoying the hilarity that ensued when their animated, sword-wielding cubes spun into one another, wreaking havoc as they went.
That happens all the time, right? A few fun hours, a quick laugh, and then back to business.
Back at the office after PAX, we played the demo the devs had hacked together, and it was fun. Really fun. And unique - unlike anything we’d played before. It perfectly captured that multiplayer vibe we were going for. And it certainly wouldn’t take years to make - we figured we could have it launched within a matter of months.
We were facing a dilemma. Would we hold onto the original, dramatic vision that had brought our company to life? Or would we pivot, giving up on our dream in the process and admitting that we’d made a mistake, radically overscoping what was possible for our small team?
We decided to hedge our bets, continuing development on Wind Rush, our baby, while slowly easing some of the artists and developers over to the Blade Ballet team.
We grew more and more excited about Blade Ballet. The cubes turned into one adorable robot character, then another, then a whole roster of bots. What would happen if we gave the bots unique abilities? The first one - bomb-throwing Trigger - was a huge hit, so we did another. One deadly arena turned into two, then five, then more. We dipped our toe into networked multiplayer, knowing that accessibility would make or break our game, then dove in headfirst.
Looking back on it now, it was laughable to think we could make this new game in addition to the one where we’d bitten off way more than we could chew. But strong dreams die hard. We needed to get proof, over and over again, that Blade Ballet was really what the world needed before we could finally let go of Wind Rush and send it out into the proverbial ocean on an elaborately carved wooden boat set alight with digital fire.
Ok, so we didn’t exactly end up burning Wind Rush to the ground, but we did table development for the foreseeable future. It was the hardest and most painful decision we’ve yet had to make. We knew as soon as we’d made it, though, that it was the right one.
So, how do you as a game designer know when to hold onto your passion, and when to take a chance on something new? Game design is a gnarly, winding, fraught, rewarding, and difficult process. You can’t just give up every time the road gets rocky, or you’ll never get anywhere. You also can’t be so stubborn that you destroy yourself and your team by fighting for something that just isn’t going to work.
For us, what worked was taking an honest look at the industry, our games, our team, and ourselves. Continually experimenting, continually proving to ourselves with feedback and evidence that we were making good choices, and trusting and improving our process. For you, fellow game designer, it might be different. Just know that if you have to make a hard choice, like us, you’re not alone.
Want to learn more about Blade Ballet? Visit our Made With Unity page.
Interested in tracking our progress? Check out our devlog!
Also, we made a funny video for our PAX East announcement. Check it out here!