Have you ever been so bored, your life dominated by so much meaninglessness, that you do something crazy?
I have, and that was the day I started working on Sojourner, a retro RPG that would eventually get published on Steam, and my first commercial piece of art ever. I was between jobs, had several months of free time, and was losing my mind.
For the previous 10 years of my life, I had dabbled in game design many times, releasing some free games that ranged from mediocre (Legion Tactics, Final Fantasy Worlds) to atrocious (which I won’t even name or link to) throughout my teen and young adult years. It wasn’t actually too surprising that with all this free time I had, I would start making a game.
What is surprising is what that project turned into. At first, I gave myself the challenge of creating a full RPG in a single day. I had some art assets I had made for a previous retro project that I never completed, and decided to reuse them for this “single day” effort.
The concept for the game was just going to be a clone of the very first Dragon Quest, in which you explore the world until you find and defeat the evil person trying to rule the world, and also rescue the princess. The game I set out to make in a single day was just going to be that simple.
However, I knew right away that you should rescue a prince instead of a princess. Too often women are damsels in distress, and sometimes men need to be rescued too. The social justice aspect, the idea of inverting typical tropes and norms of our culture, that was in the game from the very beginning and was a driving force for the game’s theme and feel.
At the end of the day, I completely failed my challenge. I had amazingly created all the maps in the game, but hadn’t populated the world with NPCs or treasure, or created enemies, or done much else than develop the concept and draw up the locations of the world. But I was actually really excited with how it was turning out, and when I woke up the next day I immediately picked it back up and kept working on it.
It didn’t take long for me to finish the original vision of the game. It was an extremely simple concept, after all. And for whatever reason– maybe my experience, maybe my age– but I was putting in a level of effort far beyond any other project I had worked on. The game was actually turning out really fun. When I completed my original vision I thought, Maybe I should try to publish this someday.
But the game as it was then was stupidly simple. It was fun and well-made, yes, but very short and didn’t offer anything new to the world. So at that point, I decided to do the following things and was very intentional about each of them:
- Add a ton of content
- Add a ton of features
- Add a ton of emotion and heart into the dialog
Content was the most important part. If people were ever going to pay money for this product, then they should definitely be given as lengthy of an experience as this game was able to provide. Instead of ending the game with the battle against Zed, as originally planned, I created AN ENTIRE NEW WORLD with 2 new towns and 5 new dungeons. When I tested and played through that, it didn’t feel quite like the “entire new world” that I had hoped it would– it felt more like one very large, very elaborate final dungeon. Also, at the conclusion of that section, the game could be completed in 10-12 hours, which was still too brief in my opinion.
I couldn’t think of how to expand the storyline any more than I already had, so I essentially created DLC for the game, before it was even released, something like an expansion pack. So after you encounter Elvis in the Second World, I created basically a brand new game, in the form of yet another ENTIRE NEW WORLD. But this time, the new world actually felt like one, thanks to it having a new story and more secrets and a few unique features.
Because the game was retro and jokey already, I decided to make this final world the
silliest and most referential yet. Everything was a reference to some great NES game. It was also nice that I could make this part of the game hard— I’m a big fan of games that anyone can pick up and play easily, so I avoid creating complicated systems or difficult gameplay. But I knew that if a player actually got this far into the game, it meant they wanted more, so I took the kid gloves off as far as the difficulty was concerned. To be honest, though, the game still was probably not as hard as any of the RPGs on the NES that Sojourner was based on. Those games were so unbalanced and difficult that they were a nightmare to play. Sorry, Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy and Earthbound Beginnings: your NES iterations are nearly unplayable.
The point is– I couldn’t stop myself from adding more content and stories into the game, until it got so full that there just wasn’t room for any more.
The original game was really barebones. Yes, you could walk around with your assembled party of adventurers and fight monsters and explore the world, but… that was it. What was there to even see in the world?
I started adding every great RPG feature I could think of: hidden areas on random tiles of the
overworld, the secret town of cat paintings, multiple ending scenes based on your interactions with other characters in the world, the ability to disable random encounters, the ability to teleport, class (and sex) changing, recruiting monsters to your team, enhancing the combat system and adding lots of flavor text, and everything else you see that made it into the game.
I didn’t want the game to feel like a mishmash of random things, so the core gameplay remained the same. I just wanted that core gameplay to be complemented by as many worthy features as possible.
In the original Dragon Quest, there are dozens of characters in each town. They are all clones of each other, have no name, and have no personality. When you “talk” to them, it’s not really a conversation, but merely a fact about the game world or some tip about how to play the game effectively.
Just before beginning work on Sojourner, I had finished my first playthrough of the incredible Game Boy Advance RPG, Mother 3. In that game, nearly every character had a name and a unique appearance and a lot of personality. Every single line of dialog mattered and contributed to the game’s artistic message, and it was often funny and heartwarming.
In Sojourner, I started out using very little dialog at all, and it was minimal and without personality. Characters gave you tips about the game and told you where to go. But when I was thinking about the quality of the game, and what kind of games I’d like see more of in the world, such as Mother 3, I knew my own game needed heaps of emotion and heart and humor. Otherwise, it would still just be a dumb game that only diehard retro RPG fans would enjoy. But when you start drawing from the imagination and fun of Mother 3, you can create a really memorable experience for someone. I also took inspiration from an extremely obscure Game Boy RPG called Magi-Nation, which, like Mother 3, had a ton of humor, charm, and whimsy, and is also one of my favorite games of all time.
I rewrote the game’s entire script (not that there was much of one), and I tried to inject either humor or love into every line of dialog. I wanted the player to get warm fuzzy feelings, and chuckle every so often, as they went on this adventure.
I didn’t succeed to the level of success of Mother 3 or Magi-Nation. Something that really hindered me was an adherence to the Dragon Quest style. As was the case in Dragon Quest, characters were all still clones of each other and didn’t have names, for example. In addition, Mother 3 and Magi-Nation have exemplary visual styles, with really striking character designs, and the designs of the characters in Sojourner were inspired by the generic “common person” prevalent in many NES RPGs. To top it off, I’m also just not that good of a writer. The charm and humor wasn’t part of Sojourner‘s original vision, and if those qualities had been intended from the beginning, I likely would have designed the game very differently.
When motivation disappears…
From the day I began working on Sojourner, I was spending about 12 hours a day working on it, every day, including weekends. And I did that for about 2 months. It really messed up my sleep schedule. When I finished the second world, but before I had bug-tested and balanced the game, or made the entire third chapter of the game, I reached out to some artists and composers and was ready to dump a couple thousand dollars into getting this game looking and sounding as original and professional as possible. I really believed in the quality of what I was making.
I assembled a team that I was very happy with, but shortly after that point, my motivation vanished. Burnout is a real thing, you guys. The excitement that I felt on the day I began working on Sojourner, well it carried me for several weeks, but after a while making the game just started to feel more frustrating than fun. Game design is a really, really difficult and tedious process. I’m surprised I even lasted as long as I did, on that schedule. But I was really passionate.
These were the thoughts that overwhelmed me the most:
- Wanting to create a THIRD world in the game. Also, just the fact that I kept adding stuff– when would I ever be satiated? Would I ever stop adding to this game?! It’s so much work, and I keep giving myself more!
- What if, even with an artist and composer, this doesn’t get published? I don’t want to invest my personal savings and have it go to waste!
- What if, now that I have a team, I don’t ever finish!? I’ve never actually completed a such a huge project before. I don’t want myself or the team to be disappointed if this goes nowhere, and our efforts go to waste in an unfinished, unreleased game.
I felt incredibly sad and overwhelmed, even though I was so dang close to completion, and I was just so exhausted and sad that I had to disband the team and completely give up on the project before things got any more out of hand. I had been developing the game nonstop, 12 hours a day, with no breaks at all, for about two months straight.
When motivation returns…
Fast-forward 18 months to when I hadn’t worked on, or even thought much about, Sojourner. I was just finishing up my job at University of Pittsburgh, getting ready to move to California for whatever would come next in my life.
This time, instead of months on end waiting for my next gig to start, I had 10 days of free time before the move. Also, I unexpectedly didn’t have anywhere to stay for those 10 days, so I was living out of my car, which I later wrote about on my personal blog. So for 10 days in Pittsburgh, a year and a half after I stopped working on and stopped thinking about the project, I went into Starbucks early each morning, claimed a seat and sat there all day long, eventually finishing the project. There was one day when a faculty member who taught game design came in and coincidentally sat down right next to me– I overheard part of his conversation and showed off my game to him.
Not only did I finish that final, reference-filled chapter of the game’s storyline, I added even more features (equipment and items that permanently change your characters’ abilities) and even more story elements (the character Barton, who is central to the plot, didn’t even exist until this development period). For whatever reason, I was back to developing the game in full force. I was again spending 12 hours a day, each day, making this game, and I am ashamed to say that I don’t think I even purchased a single item from that Starbucks.
10 days more was all I needed. I had only done about 60 days of work prior to that, and apparently I only needed 70 days total to make the full game (of course, I was working far more than full-time hours).
However, I did need that break. I needed to return to reality and a normal sleep schedule. I needed to do other things with my life. When I had pushed Sojourner to the side because I was overwhelmed and never thought I would finish, I not only quit working on Sojourner, but I stopped playing video games altogether at that time. And I didn’t really start playing video games again until the Nintendo Switch came out. Anyway– I couldn’t have finished Sojourner without that much-needed break for my mental health.
When I got around to completing the game over those 10 days at a Starbucks, I had a lot less money in the bank and couldn’t afford to hire anyone to help with the graphics and music. I did the best I could on my own, and used what freeware assets I could find online. It hurt the game overall– I didn’t have the artistic talent to create those assets myself, and I didn’t have the budget to hire people who did have the talent. The game ended up looking even more generic than intended, and it was already modeled after the most generic RPG that’s ever been made. Oh well. I did the best I could.
I submitted the game to Steam Greenlight right away. It got about 25% of viewers to click “yes,” indicating they would buy it. It generated a pretty small amount of traffic. I didn’t hear anything back for a long time, and expected that the game hadn’t gotten enough attention or enough “yes” votes. It made me think I should have, you know, marketed it. Gotten the word out, somehow. But that was the way things were.
The moment of truth
Fast-forward nearly a year. I got a random, unexpected email from Valve telling me Sojourner was going to be greenlit and inviting me to become a Steam Partner. I immediately started freaking out and frothing at the mouth. I had occasionally thought of publishing the game myself, even for free, but never went through with it. And my patience paid off. Thanks, Valve!
It’s been 4 months since the game’s launch, and my life hasn’t really changed. Very few people have played it. It’s gotten zero professional reviews (and yet, I gave out so many download keys to legitimate-enough-seeming websites that reached out to me). I have barely earned any money from the game.
I consider “Michael Squirrel Games” my business, but it’s not really that.
Not yet. Not with just one game under my belt.
As soon as I got that first email from Valve, it made me want to make another game.
And… I am.