Small Spanish studio Tequila Works has opened up about the turbulent development of emotive exploration game Rime. It was a game announced with a bang as a PlayStation 4 exclusive in 2013, but it dropped exclusivity - dropped off the radar - and didn't materialise until May this year.
"Every project is problematic but you're right," Tequila Works co-founder Raul Rubio told me at Gamelab 2017, responding to my remark that development appeared turbulent.
"Originally we wanted to create something very small ... a very small indie title. We never expected to be compared to [The Legend of Zelda] Wind Waker, for example, or Ico. We were scared as hell. You are comparing titles with millions in budget to a very tiny game made by 18 people in Spain. It was like, 'Well we are screwed because we are not going to achieve any of those expectations - there's no way!'
"That was in 2013," he said, "and we knew we had to deliver or we were f****d, basically, but how we dealt with that was problematic."
Tequila Works thought that if people were comparing Rime to Zelda, maybe it should make the game more Zelda-like, so "we had all these complex puzzles and inventory and you had to manage resources", Rubio said.
"But we always wanted to make you feel like a kid," he added, "and being a child means you are not worrying about food or shelter, you are relaxed and not aware of the dangers of the world, so we had to get back to and stay true to the original decision."
Reverting to the original vision took time, though, and the design team wasn't thrilled. "Imagine in an indie dev studio someone telling a designer that the story is more important than the gameplay mechanics..." Rubio said. "They didn't take it very kindly."
The decision to drop Rime's PS4 exclusivity was apparently "very simple".
"When we saw the potential of Rime, we knew we had to be multiplatform," he said, "because we are a very small indie studio so reaching as many players as possible was the best for us - and of course you cannot do that if you are in the first-party model. It was very simple: we wanted to be on Xbox and PC - we didn't know about Nintendo Switch back then but we are going to be on Nintendo Switch this summer - and basically we bought back the IP rights.
"At the time we were isolated from the world," he went on. "We were so scared of what people were saying about the game and the comparisons that we decided to just isolate ourselves and finish the damn game. At the time we thought it was very good news for everyone - but the reaction was not very good.
"Now I understand, but remember we were isolated. People were saying, 'Oh that means the game is cancelled, it was all smoke and mirrors, and maybe it's because Sony didn't like the game and they dropped it.' That was tough."
Tequila Works wanted to prove people wrong but had to wait - wait until there was a playable build, and wait until publisher Grey Box was ready. "Marketing were like, 'No no no you cannot say anything - the announcement is in January!'
"But but..." he protested. "You just had to bite your fingers until there's only pulp and blood.
"It was so liberating back in January when we said, 'Look, we are alive! You can play this and we will release in May. How is that?' And even then people said it's fake!"
Rime turned out wonderfully - Rubio appeared still giddy from meeting Ico creator Fumito Ueda the night before, who turned out to be a Rime fan - but it isn't a development experience Tequila Works is keen to repeat. Five years without a game is a potentially perilous situation for any independent developer.
"I really hope that we release something that doesn't take another four years to make," Rubio said. "Let's put it this way: we spent four years to release one game and this year we have released so far two titles - The Sexy Brutale and Rime - and we are releasing Invisible Hours later this year and probably we are going to release another unannounced title this year. So it's four titles in one year."
The unannounced game Rubio wouldn't budge on. "It's not announced yet but you will see!" he said. "It's a very original take and it's also a co-production with a team in Guildford. You will see. It's pretty cool."
Tequila Works worked with Guildford-based developer Cavalier Game Studios on The Sexy Brutale (Recommended in our review), producing the art for the game. Could Cavalier be the same Guildford studio working on the unannounced game?
The Invisible Hours, meanwhile, is "the world's first immersive theatre experience in virtual reality". A murder mystery.
Immersive theatre is a production you, as an audience, are part of and can move around in. Your experience is not directed, so what you and another audience member take away from it depends on where you are and what you see - and productions can fill entire buildings. So it is in The Invisible Hours.
"We have several storylines happening in real-time around you and it's up to the player to explore and discover, and your perception defines your truth up to the point that the genre of the story can change, because for you it's a love story but for me it's a thriller, because I'm not aware of what's happening behind, say, that door," Rubio said.
The experience - not technically a game - lasts one hour, and apparently demoed successfully at the swanky Cannes Film Festival this year. "If you are a fan of Agatha Christie and you really think you're smarter than the detective of the story then it's your kind of experience," he said.
The Invisible Hours is coming to Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR.