Julien Moya, Art Director and Game Designer at Rundisc, told us about the story and development of Chants of Sennaar, explained why the game's reception surprised the team, and spoke about the perceived overabundance of video games.
Currently, Rundisc consists of Thomas Panuel, Developer, and myself, Art Director. Depending on the project, we surround ourselves with a handful of freelance creatives (composer, sound designer, illustrator, etc.). We don't come from a video game background. We've both worked in other industries for about twenty years and started making games when we met in 2015, just for fun. We made our first game together, Varion, in our spare time with the help of Roman Cabezos, a Sound Designer. After self-publishing Varion on PC and Switch, in 2019, we started developing Chants of Sennaar, which is, therefore, Rundisc's second game.
The Story of Chants of Sennaar
While Varion was primarily a project dedicated to having fun and learning how to make a game, Chants of Sennaar is much more like the games we love. We're big fans of narrative puzzle games, and with the skills and confidence we gained from making Varion, we decided to go for something more ambitious.
Initially, Chants of Sennaar was primarily an adventure game with a small puzzle dimension, rather like Inside, for example. It was only after several months of pre-production, when the art direction was already well advanced, that we came up with the idea of integrating the linguistic dimension and eventually making the whole game revolve around translating unknown languages. From then on, deduction games like Return of the Obra Dinn and Outer Wilds were our main inspiration.
Art Direction & Inspiration
Since Rundisc is a very small team, we knew from the beginning that we'd never be able to compete with most other games in terms of graphical virtuosity: hyper-detailed characters, ultra-realistic lighting, and gorgeous textures were out of our reach. So we decided to go in a very radical artistic direction, one that would avoid comparisons to other games as much as possible and attract the attention of players.
We quickly came up with the idea of taking inspiration from the incredible colors of Philippe Druillet, one of the masters of European comics from the 70s and 80s. After some initial tests, we were convinced that a "wireframe" rendering with exposed edges was a good way to highlight very simple models and compensate for the lack of textures. We then realized the visual kinship with the world of comics and decided to play with this initially unintentional connection. We turned to other artists of the same period for inspiration: Moebius, of course, for his incredible graphic style, but also François Schuiten, whose "Obscure Cities" and their Cyclopean architecture were a major influence on the environments of Chants of Sennaar. Many other influences were incorporated into the visual development of the game. Architecture, in the broadest sense of the word, played a major role. Many of the game's buildings and locations are inspired by existing or previously existing structures.
We developed the game on Unity, and since Thomas is used to working in a very clean and optimized way from the beginning, porting to the different platforms went off without a hitch.
Collecting Feedback & Promoting the Game
With Chants of Sennaar, we focused on making the game and left most of the communication and marketing to our partner and co-producer, Focus Entertainment. We've kept control of the Rundisc Twitter account and the game's Steam forum, but that's about it. Since the game has been playtested regularly during development, we've received relatively little feedback from players that we weren't already expecting. So far, we've only released one patch since the game's release to incorporate a handful of feedback and fixes, and that's it for now.
As mentioned above, the promotion of the game was left to Focus Entertainment, who also co-produced the game and helped us throughout its development. Working with a publisher with the resources to properly promote Chants of Sennaar was a goal we set early on, as we didn't have the time, skills, or resources to do it ourselves. And we know from experience that releasing a video game today without marketing support or a press relations network is pointless.
The Game's Reception
When we released the game, like any other developer, we were hoping for good feedback from the press and gamers. But to be honest, we were surprised by the almost unanimously positive response. It's not that we didn't think we'd made a good game, it's just that we thought Chants of Sennaar would be more divisive.
It's quite a peculiar game, with rather original gameplay, designed to appeal to puzzle game fans first and foremost. In short, a niche game. We thought that many more gamers or journalists would say, "It's nice, but it's not my kind of game". But the game seems to have appealed to a much wider audience than we expected. It's obviously a very pleasant surprise for us, and we're trying to analyze the events to understand how this could have happened and to learn the best possible lessons from it.
Until the game's release, our goal was more or less to try to achieve relative critical success and at least profitability, just enough to be able to continue developing games. The critical success was immediate, with very good reviews and articles in the press, which, as I said, was a very pleasant first surprise. But then the sales started to take off, with increases month after month.
Focus and us had long understood that if Chants of Sennaar was to have any chance of commercial success, it would have to be mainly organic, by word of mouth, over the long term, and that's exactly what happened. Today, sales have far exceeded all our projections and continue to grow at a very good pace. So this game has fulfilled all our hopes and more. Today, it allows us to approach the future of Rundisc with a certain serenity and, in any case, with many more possibilities than we could have imagined even 6 months ago. So it's a success in all respects.
Are There Too Many Games?
This issue is both serious and complex, and there's no denying that this feeling of overproduction describes a very tangible reality. Nevertheless, I don't share the apocalyptic vision some people have of it. I recently came across this article by Chris Zukowski, who analyzes this phenomenon with a little more distance and rationality, and I share many of his conclusions.
To cut a long story short, the "15,000 games a year" figure isn't relevant in itself because it covers products that are far too different from one another to be considered as a whole, and if we analyze the details, we realize that the number of "professional" games, i.e. those developed and marketed with sufficient means and ambition to hope for commercial success, isn't increasing all that much. Of course, we're still in an extremely competitive market, but the conclusion I draw from this is simply that today, making a "good" game isn't enough because it's become too easy, and too many people can make a "good" game. You need something more. This could be a highly original proposal, for example, or, on the other hand, the exploitation of a classic game genre but produced with unprecedented quality and care. There are a lot of possibilities, but I personally still believe that if a game is REALLY good and takes the right steps to get the word out (and I'm not necessarily talking about mountains of money), then, barring an accident, it will find its audience. I obviously don't pretend to know every game that's come out in the last few years, but I'd be just as incapable of giving you an example of a game where I thought, "Wow, this is really an incredible game, I don't understand why it hasn't sold at all".
On the other hand, I think a lot of game projects developed by independent studios are doomed from the start because this crucial dimension, known as positioning, has not been taken into account. I see "good" games coming out, but with nothing to distinguish them from the rest, nothing to make them stand out from the crowd. It can't work under these conditions. I've been a freelance designer for over 20 years, mostly in the communications field. During all those years when I had to seek out and find new gigs every week, I have always tried to answer the question, "What will make clients choose to work with ME over one of the 10,000 others out there?". We asked ourselves this central question of positioning from the very beginning of our work on Chants of Sennaar. I think too many studios overlook it. So if I had to give one piece of advice, it would be: don't spend 3 or 4 years on a project without having a clear answer to this question.
We can learn a lot from our failures (and we've had them: Varion, for example, sold very poorly, and we know why), but we can also learn from our successes. We're continuing to analyze the reasons for Chants of Sennaar's commercial success to see what we did well and what we could have done better. Certain game design decisions, for example, we won't make the same way again. Going forward, our philosophy is to capitalize on what we think we've done well and build on that hopefully solid foundation to develop more ambitious projects.
Advice For Aspiring Devs
- Think of positioning from the start.
- Build a project based on your team's strengths and weaknesses, rather than starting with a "dream project" and telling yourself you'll figure out how to achieve it later.
- Secure all aspects of production as early as possible: starting development is all well and good, but you need to know how you're going to finish it, and under what conditions.
- Look beyond video games for inspiration.