Tales From the Devs - Calligram Studio

Calligram Studio #1 | It all started with a Kickstarter

Welcome to Tales From The Devs, an exclusive new format that takes you behind the scenes of video game creation. After presenting the genesis of The Pixel Hunt, new project, we’re back today to discuss the second studio we’ll be following: Calligram Studio.

After more than 7 years in development, Phoenix Springs is due for release this year. We wanted to follow this mysterious point’n click game with its sumptuous art direction. In this first article, you’ll discover the origins of the game, its influences and what it’s like to bring such a game to life at a festival. We’ll be talking to Jigmé Özer, the studio’s creator.

Phoenix Springs

Can you tell us about the creation of Calligram Studio and what led you to work together on Phoenix Springs over the past seven years?

The story of Calligram Studio and our collaboration on Phoenix Springs over the past seven years goes back to the genesis of a film script. At the time, I was concentrating on screenwriting, aspiring to break into the field. I wrote a 90-minute screenplay, a noir tale mixed with crime and science fiction. However, during my meetings with producers, I realized that the film world often required more than a single project. Discussions quickly turned to other possible works, which led me to think about other ways of turning my ideas into reality. 

With two young children and a desire to stay away from the hustle and bustle of London, I was looking for a more concrete way to see my stories come to life. Then, inspired by the detective elements of my script, I considered a transition to the world of video games. The idea was to transform investigations and mysteries into interactive puzzles, inspired by my memories of the point-and-click games that marked my childhood. So, the project was born out of this transition, with the initially naive idea that creating a game would be simpler. However, seven years later, we’re still in development.

What was the inspiration behind the Phoenix Springs concept, and how has the project evolved since its launch on Kickstarter?

The inspiration behind the Phoenix Springs concept goes back to the idea of creating a captivating atmosphere, a kind of intriguing setting tinged with dark undertones. The main objective was to make this atmosphere unique, this place beautiful but enigmatic, to attract players to explore this universe. 

The Kickstarter launch was an attempt to validate this vision, a proof of concept to show that there was real interest in this type of project. Although the Kickstarter went well and attracted the support of many enthusiasts, it also created additional pressure to deliver the game according to a strict schedule. This pressure, which I sometimes jokingly refer to as “shareholders”, means having to regularly update backers on the game’s progress, which can sometimes be difficult when development is taking longer than expected. Despite this, backer support has been invaluable and encouraging, showing that there is a real interest in the project.

Phoenix Springs

Since its launch on Kickstarter, the project has evolved considerably. The atmosphere, mood and tone have remained central elements, but each day brings its own changes, whether in the story, the puzzles, the characters or even the cinematics. The final game will be very different from what it was six years ago, as it continues to evolve in response to new ideas.

Kickstarter: a communication and financing tool 

The independent video game industry is a dynamic space brimming with talented, creative minds. These passionate developers put their heart and soul into creating unique and engaging experiences. However, the road to realizing their visions can be fraught with financial pitfalls. Traditional publishers and investors can be reluctant to embrace innovative ideas, which means that many incredible games never see the light of day. That’s where crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter come in. By harnessing the power of communities, Kickstarter enables independent developers to raise funds directly from gamers who believe in their projects. This democratizes the funding process, giving a voice to new ideas and fostering a direct link between creators and their audience. With Kickstarter, budding developers are no longer dependent on the whims of executives. Instead, they have the opportunity to turn their dreams into reality, thanks to the passion and support of the gaming community. This platform offers several advantages:

  • Participatory funding: Kickstarter enables studios to raise funds from a wide audience, without relying on traditional publishers. Unlike traditional publishing models, where studios cede part of their intellectual property and creative rights, Kickstarter gives them the freedom to develop their artistic vision without compromise. This freedom is essential for studios wishing to offer unique and daring games that don’t necessarily meet the expectations of traditional publishers.
  • Proof of concept: The success of a Kickstarter campaign demonstrates public interest in the game, and can reassure potential investors. By meeting or exceeding their funding target, studios demonstrate the viability of their project, and attract the attention of potential investors who can help finance the game’s production and distribution. This validation is particularly important for start-up studios with no track record.
  • Marketing and communication: The platform offers high visibility for independent games and helps build a community around the project. Kickstarter is a powerful media platform that enables studios to present their game to a large audience of passionate gamers. By creating a Kickstarter page, you can share information about the game, images and videos, and chat directly with backers.
Undertale, l'un des premiers succès en jeu indépendant sur Kickstarter
Undertale, one of the first independent game success stories on Kickstarter

Countless cult games have passed through Kickstarter since the early 2010s: Undertale in 2013 (for a total of $51,124), Hyper Light Drifter in 2013 (for a total of $645,158), Outer Wilds in 2016 (for a total of $126,480) and Blasphemous in 2017 (for a total of $333,246). 

And at the time of the Kickstarter, were you working alone on the game? Or are you already working with your team of three? 

At the time of the Kickstarter, I was already working as a team with my wife, who handles art and illustration, and a sound designer friend. But the Kickstarter project allowed us to test our ideas and gather feedback, which was a valuable validation of our vision. It was a defining moment for us, because it showed us that our concept was promising and interesting for gamers. From the outset, we were a team of three, but then we hired a dubbing actress, which brought us up to four.We think of ourselves more as an art collective than a studio, because every new sound, or dialogue line, or animation can influence the others’ creative process. But it is true that the artwork, graphic choices, and color influences are what players mention the most when talking about the game.

Why did you choose to create a modern point-and-click adventure game with a mind-map inventory mechanism?

The decision was born out of careful consideration of how puzzles and narrative could be integrated in a more organic way. As a fan of point-and-click games, I had a good understanding of how the genre worked, and felt comfortable with the idea of inventory-based problem-solving. However, as I worked on the game, I realized that object-based puzzles sometimes felt contrived and disconnected from the main story. There was an imbalance between narrative exploration and solving object-based puzzles.

Phoenix Springs

This led me to rethink how the puzzles could be integrated more coherently into the story, and to find a more immersive solution. Thus was born the idea of substituting data for objects in a mind map. Using this concept, puzzles became more focused on thinking and less on simply combining objects. Instead of walking around with a multitude of objects in their inventory, players have to think about solutions in a more abstract way, using the data available in their “mental inventory”. This reflects more closely the way problems are often solved in real life, where reflection and communication are essential.

The use of the mind map as an inventory mechanism offers players a more immersive and thoughtful gaming experience. It also opens the door to a greater variety of puzzles and solutions, encouraging experimentation and creative freedom. In some ways, it’s closer to the spirit of games such as Return of the Obra Dinn and Chants of Sennaar, which explored similar mechanisms.

Knowledge-Vania: the thinking genre

Knowledge-Vania is a recent neologism for a fast-growing video game genre. Inspired by classic Metroidvania, it is distinguished by its focus on the accumulation and use of knowledge as a central element of progression. The genre has its roots in two well-established genres:

  • Metroidvania: exploration and adventure games where the player progresses by unlocking new abilities and discovering new areas.
  • Investigation games: games in which the player must solve enigmas and gather clues to progress through the story.

Knowledge-Vania combines the key elements of both genres to create a unique experience. We often find ourselves in non-linear explorations where the player is free to explore the world at his or her own pace and discover the secrets hidden in the various environments. But above all, we’re on a knowledge-based progression system, where the player must carefully observe his environment, analyze documents and clues, and formulate hypotheses to unlock new areas and abilities. Interpretation of what you encounter thus plays a central role. The information uncovered is not always self-explanatory. The player must use logic, deduction and imagination to piece together the puzzle and understand the secrets of the world around them.

Chants of Sennaar
Return of the Obra Dinn

Two games perfectly illustrate the characteristics of Knowledge-Vania:

  • Return of the Obra Dinn: historical investigation game in which the player must reconstruct the tragic events that befell a ship by analyzing visual clues and audio testimonies. (We wrote a The Art Of the game).
  • Chants of Sennaar: an archaeological exploration game in which players decipher different languages to progress and solve puzzles (we were lucky enough to interview Julien Moya and Thomas Brunet, the game’s creative director and composer).

Knowledge-Vania is a promising genre that offers a unique and stimulating gaming experience. By relying on knowledge and interpretation, it encourages players to think actively and become fully involved in the game world. This new genre is at a crossroads, borrowing from Metroidvania its structure of exploration and from investigative games their thirst for discovery and puzzle-solving. Knowledge-Vania has the potential to become a major force in the video game industry, offering players a unique and rewarding experience.

How would you describe the story and universe of Phoenix Springs, and what are the main themes explored in the game?

Describing the story and universe of Phoenix Springs is a challenge in itself, as the very essence of the game is based on an enchanting and mysterious location. This place is both beautiful and dark, where outward beauty hides murky secrets beneath its surface. The neo-noir aesthetic translates into landscapes that are both captivating and unsettling, where contrasts between good and evil, light and dark, are omnipresent. In this duality lies the very essence of noir, where the lure of the unknown blends with an oppressive atmosphere of danger and mystery. The idea of Phoenix Springs lies in this latent sense of unease, in the feeling that something sinister is brewing beneath the seemingly tranquil surface of this idyllic place.

What artistic and stylistic influences have shaped Phoenix Springs‘ unique visual aesthetic?

Phoenix Springs‘ distinctive visual aesthetic was influenced by a variety of artistic and stylistic sources, with one main objective in mind: not to look like a conventional video game. The development team sought to create an aesthetic that would capture players’ imagination and transport them to an evocative world. This required a lengthy and experimental development process, characterized by trial and error, as well as a bold exploration of different artistic techniques.

Phoenix Springs

One of the main influences in the creation of Phoenix Springs‘ unique visual aesthetic was the desire to merge 2D and 3D elements in a harmonious way. Sets, characters and objects were designed to combine hand-drawn elements with 3D models, creating a hybrid aesthetic that gives the game a distinctive feel. In addition, the team was challenged to design scenes that would work equally well by day or night, in a variety of environments such as cities and natural landscapes, requiring a great deal of time and effort to achieve a coherent visual balance.

Rather than focusing solely on the singularity of the aesthetic, the main objective was to find an art style that worked organically across all aspects of the game. The team sought to create art that they liked and that worked well in all situations of the game, rather than trying to stand out at all costs.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in developing Phoenix Springs, and how did you overcome them?

The development of Phoenix Springs was marked by several significant challenges, one of the most important of which was finding the right art style. This process took several years and was particularly difficult, as the game was restarted from scratch several times to adapt to evolutions in artistic style. This constant iteration led to frequent rewrites of the story, prolonging the development process.

The main challenge lay in the impact the art style had on all aspects of the game, including the storyline and level development. Each time the art style was modified, it influenced the narrative direction and forced the team to review and adjust their vision of the game. This approach was inefficient and prolonged the development process unnecessarily.

Phoenix Springs

However, despite these challenges, the team persevered and eventually found the right art style that worked for the game. Now that this stage is complete, the team can focus on finalizing the game without the constant interruptions and revisions that characterized the early phases of development.

Did you try to send the game to a lot of festivals? Was this something you wanted to do in the first place? Or is it something that’s necessary to get your game known and marketed? 

Participating in festivals was something we discovered along the way when developing the game. We were guided by advice from the online community and in particular from a website called How to Market your Game, where we found invaluable resources for marketing our game. This online community has been a source of inspiration and support for us as independent developers.

Initially, we didn’t realize the importance of festivals for the promotion and visibility of our game, but we soon realized their value. Festivals allowed us to meet gamers, developers and other members of the gaming industry, while providing an opportunity to introduce Phoenix Springs to a wider audience. Our game’s unique artistic style attracted attention and helped us stand out from the other titles on show.

Taking part in these events also gave us the opportunity to gather direct feedback from players and gauge people’s reaction to the game. This helped us refine the gameplay and understand what worked and what didn’t.

Video game festivals: a major asset for independent studios

To stand out in this competitive landscape, it’s essential for independent studios to find ways of raising their profile and visibility. Participating in video game festivals is an excellent strategy for achieving this goal. These attract thousands of gamers, journalists and industry professionals every year. It’s the ideal opportunity for independent studios to present their games to a wide audience and receive valuable feedback.

Organizing demo booths: an immersive experience for gamers

The beating heart of a video game festival lies in the demo booths. This is where independent studios have the opportunity to present their games live to an enthusiastic audience. This allows gamers to try out their game in real-life conditions, which is essential for generating interest and enthusiasm. First impressions are often the right ones. Offering a captivating gaming experience helps generate a positive buzz around the game and sets it apart from the competition. It also allows the studio to gather valuable feedback. Players’ comments are an invaluable source of information for developers. They help to identify the game’s strengths and weaknesses, and make crucial improvements to fine-tune it before release.

Participating in conferences and workshops: an enriching sharing of knowledge

Video game festivals are not limited to game demonstrations. They also offer a rich program of conferences and workshops led by industry professionals. This is an opportunity for independent studios to share their knowledge and expertise. By taking part in conferences, developers can assert their expertise and gain credibility within the community. It’s a chance to learn from the best. Festivals attract internationally renowned speakers, giving participants the opportunity to acquire new skills and discover the latest trends in video games. And finally, it’s a great way to develop a professional network. Meeting other developers, publishers, distributors and investors is crucial to forging lasting bonds and fruitful collaborations.

Meeting distributors and publishers: paving the way to success

The success of a video game depends largely on its distribution and publication. Video game festivals offer independent studios the opportunity to meet influential distributors and publishers. Establishing potential partnerships is thus essential in the life of a game. Finding a reliable partner is crucial to distributing the game on the most popular platforms and reaching a wide audience.

Distributors and publishers have an international network and in-depth knowledge of different markets, enabling studios to extend their reach and maximize their chances of success. It also helps them secure financing for their projects. Developing a video game can be expensive. Festivals enable studios to meet potential investors and raise funds to bring their project to fruition.

And finally, it allows studios to benefit from the expertise and support of experienced professionals. Distributors and publishers can provide studios with invaluable support in terms of marketing, communications and business development.

Winning prizes and awards: a rewarding accolade

Video game festivals reward the most remarkable and innovative games. Winning a prize or an award is a real consecration for an independent studio. It raises the profile of the studio and the game, and recognition by a jury of experts attracts the attention of the media and gamers, generating a positive buzz around the game.

But it also builds credibility and confidence. Recognition by industry professionals strengthens the studio’s confidence in its game, giving it the motivation to continue developing, and can open the door to new collaborations, new funding and new distribution opportunities.

A Maze Berlin 2024

The A Maze festival, held in Berlin, is one of the most important events for independent video games in Europe. The festival stands out for its unique and daring program, featuring experimental and innovative games. A Maze is the ideal opportunity for independent studios to get noticed by a discerning public and discover the latest trends in video games. In 2023, the A Maze festival welcomed over 10,000 attendees and enabled more than 200 independent studios to showcase their games. The A Maze festival also offers a program of conferences and workshops led by industry professionals. It’s an opportunity for independent studios to learn from their peers and develop their skills.

Participating in video game festivals is an essential strategy for independent studios wishing to gain exposure and visibility.

Can you tell us about the game’s demos and prototype phases?

At conferences and festivals, we presented demos of Phoenix Springs, and I adopted a hands-off approach. Players were able to discover the game on their own, without any instructions from me, which allowed me to observe how they interacted with the game and how they solved the puzzles.

Observing players’ reactions was an incredible experience, as it allowed me to see how people thought and to gather direct feedback on the gameplay. Sometimes players asked questions about the controls or wondered how to do certain actions, which helped me to identify areas for improvement or clarification in the game. Taking part in these events has enabled us to meet other developers, present our game to a wider audience and gather valuable feedback. What’s more, it has helped create a community around Phoenix Springs and given it visibility.

Phoenix Springs

As far as publishers are concerned, we’ve had a few discussions, but we’ve decided to retain total control of our game and its IP. For the time being, we prefer to remain an independent studio and see how our game is received by the public before considering other options. However, we recognize the importance of marketing and public relations in getting the word out about our game, and we’re actively working on this.

The crucial importance of prototyping in game development

Prototyping is an often overlooked but crucial stage in game development. Although it may seem tempting to plunge headlong into the creation of a complete game, taking the time to produce a prototype can prove to be a highly profitable investment. In fact, prototyping allows you to turn abstract ideas into a concrete, playable experience. It’s an opportunity to test the feasibility of the concept, evaluate its potential and confront it with the reality of available technologies and resources.

The prototype acts as a veritable laboratory for experimentation. It allows us to fine-tune gameplay and design by identifying strengths and weaknesses, gathering valuable feedback from players and testers, and exploring different options before committing to a definitive direction. Far from being a mere waste of time, prototyping considerably reduces risk and optimizes game development. By detecting and correcting problems upstream, it avoids costly mistakes that need to be rectified later. What’s more, it provides a better estimate of the time and resources needed to finalize the project, enabling better budget and schedule management.

The prototype is also an essential communication tool. It enables us to present a concrete project to investors, publishers and potential partners, and convince them of the game’s potential. A solid prototype can also attract experienced talent and developers to join the project.

Finally, can you give us an overview of the next stages in the development of Phoenix Springs and what players can expect from this intriguing adventure?

Right now, I’m having a meeting with a few PR firms. Then we have the London Games Festival and A MAZE Berlin coming up. I’m in the process of finalizing an update to the demo we’ll be releasing on Steam to coincide with the festival. We’re also planning to publish a release trailer, in which we’ll finally announce an official release date for the game. Once this date is set, we can focus on the final development tasks to ensure that everything is ready for launch. We still have a lot of work to do, but I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, which is encouraging.

See you soon for a second article with Calligram Studio to discuss prototypes, demos and the search for a publisher.

Share your thoughts