Many video games with famously protracted development times have one thing in common: they turned out to be huge disappointments.
Spore was Will Wright’s attempt to simulate the evolution of a life form from the microbiological stage to space-age civilisation. It took eight years to build and never quite lived up to the epic premise. The much anticipated Too Human was juggled for nine years from the original PlayStation to a Nintendo GameCube exclusive, finally surfacing as a mediocre Xbox 360 title. Then there’s the notorious Duke Nukem Forever with its lawsuits and financial troubles, taking 15 years from first public announcement to final release – and it was awful.
Announced back in 2007, Owlboy flirts with those titles in terms of development longevity – released this month, the 2D platformer only narrowly avoided a decade from conception to release. It was also hotly anticipated. In 2010, it was named Game of the Year at the Norwegian Game Awards, and a year later its first public demo was widely praised. More recently, it was named “Best in Play” at the 2015 Game developer Conference, and was selected to be showcased at PAX West this past September.
But this is where the comparison with those other much hyped titles ends. Because Owlboy turned out to be magnificent, garnering hugely positive reviews. The question is: how did D-Pad Studios, a five-person team based in Norway, buck the trend from bloat to broke?
One factor is that Owlboy found itself in development suspension for very different reasons than those bigger titles. Sure, there was some drama, with the game’s original programmer leaving the project back in 2009, but this is not a story about huge budgets and legal papers. Instead, Owlboy’s level designer Adrian Bauer explains that the studio wasn’t officially formed until 2010 and that the custom XNA engine the team uses wasn’t particularly stable or optimised until around 2012. Unexpected family deaths and burnout have also caused small delays over the years as well. And then there was a side project, working with Norwegian musician Savant to create a game in his name, Savant – Ascent, released in 2013.
None of these things are the main reason for Owlboy’s extended prelude, though. That is something more simple and admirable. “We aimed high and ambitious and decided no shortcuts and cut corners,” said Bauer.
When D-Pad co-founder and art director Simon Andersen came up with the concept for Owlboy 10 years ago, he wanted to prove a point: the advantages of 2D art over 3D art. “The Wii was promising it would change how games were played back when the project started, and pixel art was still very much seen as outdated, rather than an art medium,” Andersen said. “So before the whole 2D resurgence took place, I wanted a title that could showcase the medium’s strengths.”
Andersen looked to the Kid Icarus series at the time as talk of a 3D version was rumoured. Considering such a game, Andersen couldn’t see how any of the concepts of indoor flight in the series would translate well to 3D. His thoughts were that the 2D art allowed for much easier navigation – it would only be complicated by the extra dimension.
These thoughts congealed with an idea that Andersen had while he was replaying Super Mario Bros 3: “The raccoon suit you got allowed you to press a button to descend slowly after a jump, but what if you could just press it to continuously fly instead?” Andersen imagined that such a mechanic would let you fly really high, perhaps up to floating islands so removed from society that you might not be able to understand their language. It was here in this celestial realm that the foundations of Owlboy manifested. The rest of it came when Andersen considered how the character would be able to fly.
“A lot of options were considered. Jetpacks. The character being an insect. I considered a girl that spun her pigtails to propeller around,” Andersen said. “Then, my girlfriend suggested an owl and everything sort of fell into place right there. Owls would have their own cloaks that act as wings. Owls are also generally symbols of knowledge.”
A couple years after this was locked down, more and more independent developers started to pick up pixel art again. But it was often being used as a way to create art for a game as quickly and simply as possible, or to reference retro titles, rather than to push the potential of the artistic technique. “Having taught myself a very specific field, it started to dawn on me that artists that respected the medium were getting increasingly rare for a number of reasons,” Andersen said. “I decided I was going to use Owlboy as a way to showcase pixel art done properly, using as few ‘cheats’ as possible.”
It’s this dedication that, more than anything else, added years to the production of Owlboy. “The entire game is made pixel by pixel. No gradient or blur effects, no tracing or 3D captures. Not with millions upon millions of colours, but as limited of a palette as I could allow,” Andersen said. “The only thing that we’ve had to do is allow rotations, but I’m just going to have to accept that.”