"A lot of people in my industry say 'there's no such thing as a one-man team, a person can't make a game on their own,'" Ooblets creator Rebecca Cordingley told me over Skype last week. She had been working at a studio called Schell Games for four years and initially agreed with her peers, but then a little farming game called Stardew Valley sold nearly and changed her mind. Eric Barone's solo success with Stardew Valley inspired Cordingley to take a leap, and a month later she quit her steady game dev job. Three months after that, she started working on the concept for Ooblets.
Ooblets is a mash-up of Stardew Valley, Pokemon, Animal Crossing, and Factorio, with the 'adorable' knob cranked all the way up to 11. A messy idea on paper, but all you have to do is above of the game's goofy creatures wobbling around its brightly colored world and it just sort of clicks.
The instant appeal of Ooblets is no accident. Cordingley told me they focused on making a concept that looked good before building the game underneath it all—an unconventional approach for indie devs, but one Rebecca's partner Ben Wasser says has paid off immensely.
"One thing we did different than I think a lot of indie developers is that we had this 'marketing first' approach," Wasser said. "We were like, early on, if it's not something we can show off, it wasn't something we would start on. So as soon as the game started we weren't focusing on playtesting, we weren't focused on white boxing, we were just making stuff we could show off." In roughly eight months of development, Ooblets has already grown a surprisingly large following of fans, driven mostly by that marketing first approach and how charming the game already looks. Cordingley has even be able to start a , currently at just over $700 a month.
More than just "Stardew Valley but with Pokemon"
But what is the game behind all those silly gifs actually going to be like? While Wasser admits the core idea was to "take something like Stardew Valley and throw Pokemon in it," Ooblets has evolved well past just that hybrid. You start with a farm in a town, growing both produce and the tiny creatures that inhabit the world of Oob, Ooblets. As you explore out from the town, you'll encounter new types of biomes, use your Ooblets to battle other Ooblet trainers, and gather seeds for new Ooblets that you can bring back to your farm and plant to grow your own.
Produce can be used to make money and level-up your Ooblets, growing them in both strength and size. While it all sounds relatively similar to Pokemon, Wasser described the battles as being closer to more traditional RPGs. "You're gonna have specific Ooblets that are more like healer types or more like tank types," he told me, "so there's going to be all these team dynamics for how they interact." He also said Ooblets isn't nearly as story-driven as games like Pokemon or Stardew Valley.
The farming will also have more of a focus on automation, which is where the Factorio comparison comes in. "As the game expands and your farm expands, you're going to be going much further and further away from your farm," Cordingley explained. "It just seems natural that you would level-up the farm itself in terms of its ability to self-sustain." You'll get the expected sprinklers, but also auto-planters and pickers, and ways to put different elements into production queues to be refined or combined into new things.
The specifics of all those systems are still being designed. Part of the risk associated with developing for marketing before design is that the concept you sell could turn out to not work. I don't think there's even the slightest amount of ill intent here, but the strategy of getting people excited about an idea before it's fully formed is still worrisome. It brings back bad memories of all the beautiful E3 trailers we've seen for big name games that turned out to be less than thrilling, only on a much more intimate scale.
But Cordingley and Wasser are very confident that they can make the game people are excited for, and said that being transparent and bringing fans into the design process early to hear what they want is crucial to that—the idea of growing your Ooblets from seeds came from the community, for example. In Cordingley's eyes, the riskier option was to spend years making a game in isolation that nobody ends up caring about. "We have to constantly test the waters to see if people are interested," she said, which is also part of why she's already twice a week.
Stardewing it right
Stardew Valley and the incredible success of Barone continue to impact Ooblets as well. "We've been following what [Barone] is doing," Wasser said, "and not necessarily trying to emulate his game, but trying to emulate how he's approached this whole thing of just releasing all at once as this very polished thing. We've looked to him as a huge inspiration in general." I reached out to Barone, who Cordingley says she's spoken to on multiple occasions, to see how he felt about being the impetus for someone to quit their job but didn't hear back.
[Update: Barone just got back to me, saying it feels great to hear he's inspiring others to make games. "It's really amazing to think that Stardew Valley is this catalyst for new things that might not exist otherwise. It makes me really happy." I also asked if he'd encourage other developers to try and take the risk of developing a game on there own, and he had this to say: "Hope is what keeps us going in life... it's a precious thing and should be nurtured. If you have a dream... a hope... and you feel strongly about it... and you're honest with yourself, about your skills and your drive... you should do it. You should follow your heart."]
With a community growing, the job of playtesting and actually making Ooblets fun is now well underway, with Cordingley tentatively eyeing a release in the first half of 2018. The Stardew influence is felt in their release plans as well, as Wasser said they aren't likely to release Ooblets until it's finished. "We don't really want to do an early access in any sort of way, we'd like to follow in Stardew Valley's footsteps of releasing a nice, polished, finished game." Though he also said it's not entirely out of the question if the development time starts stretching beyond their means.
Cordingley's parting piece of advice was for others who might be looking to take the indie leap. "If any other indie developers were thinking of trying to make their first game from completely outside the industry, I would definitely recommend sharing as much as possible with as many people as you possibly can, because there doesn't seem to be any downside to it that we've seen." The downside, in my eyes, is the risk that what's shown off early doesn't end up representing expectations of the final result. But Cordingley and Wasser aren't hiding their design process behind closed doors, so we'll see it change and develop as they work, and I'm excited to play Ooblets whenever they think it's ready.
You can find updates on Ooblets, along with more silly gifs, on the game's official Twitter account.