Thomas Mahler is CEO and Game Director at Moon Studios.
“It’s supposed to be hard.”
We started Moon Studios in 2010. Back then, we knew little about the journey we were to embark on. We started this venture because we felt that we had something to say and we had a need to get that out of our system. We knew we couldn’t create the projects we wanted to work on as employees of other companies, so we were left with no choice but to create our own studio and start working towards our goal.
A couple of times in your life, if you’re lucky, you get to work on something that matters. Something that you do not just do to make a living, but to really change perceptions. Whenever passion and talent is driven by that goal, something truly special happens.
We chose the name ‘Moon Studios’ to always remind us of our roots. We knew we wanted to create a studio that sets out to make games that people will truly care about, that - we hoped - might just help to change the industry in its entirety. We had some experience in making games already and we knew that it’d be extremely difficult from a development and from a business perspective to fulfill that goal. Then we remembered the famous Kennedy speech:
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."
Little did we know... Now that we look back at Ori and the Blind Forest [trailer], we are proud of what we accomplished. We created the game we wanted to make, we worked together with our publisher, Microsoft, faced all the challenges and eventually succeeded.
Ori and the Blind Forest went on to become a critical darling that rated very highly, was featured at all the important press-events like E3, Gamescom, PAX, etc. and now has a big following of fans already clamoring for a sequel!
One of our proudest moments: After showcasing Ori and the Blind Forest’s trailer at E3, the gaming press reacted extremely positively with countless ‘Best of Show’ awards.
Talent Acquisition / Working Environment: This has to be the most important aspect of any studio when talking about ‘what went right’ if one is talking about the development of a successful game. We were very lucky to quickly entice people with our story and acquire the talent that makes up Moon Studios.
Moon Studios started as a rag-tag group of people who came from various places. Literally from various places, since we quickly decided that for Moon Studios to have a chance in today’s market, we needed to play a different game than all the other studios are playing. We decided that we would not rent an office somewhere and only look at the local talent.
Instead, we learned from our experiences in other game studios and came to the conclusion that we should form a ‘virtual studio’, so we could acquire talent from all across the world and have everyone working together over the internet.
Due to our distributed nature as a ‘virtual studio’, many Moon Studios employees met each other for the first time in person at E3 2014.
We quickly made some great hires. We started very, very small and only worked on prototypes. One of the prototypes that eventually showed the most amount of potential was a project named ‘Sein’. It was pitched as a mix between a ‘Metroidvania’ and a platformer where the player plays a forest spirit and we decided that we wouldn’t innovate for innovation's sake, but we wanted to create a love-letter to the 2d games we grew up with. We wanted to look at games like Super Metroid, Symphony of the Night, Super Meat Boy and see how we could take these influences and improve upon them in meaningful ways.
That vision set the stage and within weeks, we had a platformer demo ready that we used to acquire more people. Eventually, we pitched the project to Microsoft and negotiated a publishing and development deal with them.
In the end, Moon Studios became the studio we wanted to create: The talent at Moon Studios is made up of passionate individuals that carry a lot of responsibility and always have a say in everything we do: Another lesson we learned from our experience at other game development houses. We expect every person in the studio to have a voice: If you don’t like something we’re doing, speak up and you will be heard. Every person we hire at Moon Studios has to have that mindset and has to have the passion, the drive and the talent to create something truly special with us: We want to make games together that none of us could create on their own.
This is as good a place as any to say a heartfelt ‘Thank you’ to everyone who poured their hearts and souls into making Ori and the Blind Forest. We hope that we created something that people can be proud of, that they’ll want to look back on every now and then and that they will maybe even tell their grandchildren about.
Working with Microsoft: For any small startup, creating a first party exclusive under a huge umbrella such as Microsoft is scary. So we asked ourselves all the scary questions:
Will Microsoft allow us to make the game that WE want to make?
Will Microsoft now have a say in our creative vision / Will they understand OUR creative vision?
Will Microsoft force us to make decisions we don’t want to make?
Will they give us the time to really make a good game?
Will they market our game properly or will we be treated as a small, insignificant title in midst of all of their big AAA IPs?
Fortunately, we quickly found out that Microsoft understood what we wanted to make and allowed us the freedom of creation: The freedom to explore, the freedom to fail and the freedom to learn and improve. Once a week, we sat down with our producer, Torin Rettig, to chat about what happened this past week. We showed Microsoft all the materials we created, told them about what our current issues were and what we’re trying to accomplish within the upcoming weeks, explained to them what we were struggling with and what we wanted Ori and the Blind Forest to become. It was a surprisingly straight-forward working relationship and Microsoft ultimately never forced us to do something we didn’t think was right for the project.
Two years into production, Torin was moved off the project to now dedicate all of his time to Killer Instinct. Again, we were scared that - maybe now - Microsoft would start forcing us to make moves we didn’t want to make.
Daniel Smith became our new producer. He quickly told us about his love for games like Ori. We came out of this introduction with the feeling that Dan ‘got it’ and he also made us understand that Microsoft is still fully behind our vision. Little had changed: Microsoft still very much supported our vision. Microsoft gave us resources when we needed them, but never gave us anything but suggestions and personal feedback when it came to the game’s design.
Even with the management change, we were still fully in charge of development. We were living and breathing Ori 24/7 - We felt that there was no way Microsoft or any other ‘outside’ party would be able to understand as well as we did what we wanted to create - And we felt that Microsoft understood that and we hugely appreciated their trust. For them, investing into our small indie studio with people scattered all across the globe and at the same time completely trusting us to create something special was probably a big leap of faith and fortunately, it worked out for both parties.
Shortly after the management change, the noises around a new Microsoft Platform became louder and louder. Now we were worried that we were locked into our contract and that we would have to ship Ori and the Blind Forest on Xbox 360 after the new platform would be on the market. We thought Ori and the Blind Forest would be a great title for the new Microsoft Platform: 2D platformers made a big comeback in recent years and we would possibly be the first 2d Platformer on Microsoft’s new machine. We also thought that we could probably do a few things on the new hardware that we weren’t able to do on the Xbox 360… So we quickly voiced these concerns at one of our producer meetings.
That’s when we were introduced to Mark Coates: Mark sat down with us and presented an Xbox One pitch to us before anyone in the press knew any concrete details about Microsoft's new machine. We were pleasantly surprised that Microsoft would share information like that with an up-and-coming independent game developer and that they ultimately allowed us to change our contract. Ori was re-targeted to launch on Xbox One and PC simultaneously, a first for Microsoft. On top of that, Mark became an important partner - and a friend - who always had sound advice and from that point on, both Dan and Mark were available for us.
Daniel Smith and Mark Coates from Microsoft gave feedback and advice and quickly became an integral part of the team. Here shown at the Launch Event held for us at Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles.
And then a few things happened that proved the working relationship with Microsoft really paid off for us in ways we could have only dreamed of when we started development: E3 2014 was discussed and the opportunity was brought up to finally show off Ori and the Blind Forest ON STAGE at Microsoft's big press conference.
For years, whenever I went to the movies with friends or my brothers, I always dreamed of maybe one day seeing one of our own creations up there on the big screen… I daydreamed what that must feel like and how I’d look through the audience to judge people’s reactions. So when we heard that we might get the chance to reveal Ori and the Blind Forest for the first time at an event like E3, on that huge screen in that massive hall with all these people, we couldn’t believe our luck!
We decided to cut together a trailer based on the materials we already created and Microsoft was so impressed by it that they actually discussed to maybe even start the E3 press conference with OUR trailer! Ultimately, Microsoft decided to feature the next iteration of Call of Duty instead, but we still got a great spot towards the middle of the conference. A little later we found out that Microsoft would even create bracelets for every person in the audience: When our trailer came up and all the lights from the Spirit Tree started to light up, so did all the bracelets and the entire room was suddenly brightly lit while people started cheering and applauding. As I looked through the audience, trying to judge their reactions, I couldn’t help but tear up. For the first time in 3+ years, it felt like the hard work had finally paid off. I was relieved. It felt like what we were working on was suddenly ‘real’.
E3 2014: When the Spirit Tree scene was shown, the room darkened and a flood of orange lights from the bracelets Microsoft made filled the room!
Our showing at E3 was a huge success, people finally knew what we were working on, we got an amazing amount of awards during E3 and the Ori E3 trailer that we poured our hearts and souls into was widely regarded by many press outlets as the best trailer of the whole conference. Ori immediately found its fans and we were incredibly pleased to see that - still on the very same day - people already created some amazing fanart for Ori!
I think it’s safe to say that we wouldn’t have had these opportunities if we wouldn’t have signed the game with a big publisher such as Microsoft.
Again, at this point we would like to reach out and thank everyone at Microsoft who supported our vision and helped us making a game that we hope everyone at Microsoft can be proud of!
Prototyping / Early Implementation: At Moon Studios, we are big believers in Rapid Prototyping and Early Integration: Whenever we have an idea for a game, we immediately get going on it without having to first write tools and set up the tech to start working.
Similar to how an animation studio first storyboards their films and only goes into production once the animatics actually work and ‘feel’ right, we take a similar approach to development. We start with a very, very basic demo and put everything we have into making sure that this base version already ‘feels’ completely right. This means that we try to tackle the controls and the interaction with the world and only when that already feels fun (even if you’re playing a gray box in a gray world), we actually start producing real assets.
In a lot of ways, introducing graphics, story, etc. is all just ‘plussing’ the core of the work, which should always be first and foremost based around one thing and one thing only: Interactivity.
On Ori, we already were pretty convinced very early on that we’d have a success on our hands, simply because a few weeks into production, we already had a platformer demo that - we thought - felt better than even Super Meat Boy, which we held in high regard. We adored Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros 3. and we very much liked what Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes were doing with Super Meat Boy - but naturally, we wanted to take everything a step further.
Also worth mentioning was that we initially did a lot of ‘Animation Design’, which basically just meant that we had our animator, James Benson, create little videos of how Ori could interact with the world, the enemies, we had him animate ideas for abilities we wanted Ori to acquire over the course of the game. Since these were videos and we didn’t have to commit to a full set of in-game animations yet, we were able to have the entire team at Moon look at these videos and decide on which moves and abilities had the most potential. This could probably be compared to ‘storyboarding gameplay’ - Instead of having to create animations for tests that we’d then probably throw away in favor of things that worked better, we simply created throw-away videos that helped us figure out how Ori should be able to traverse through the world and interact with his environment.
Creating an early prototype that was focused to show the entire team AND our publisher that we’ve got a really hot iron in the fire proved extremely useful. After we had something insanely fun to play, we had this intrinsic feeling that we could definitely pull it off and Microsoft was able to just sit down and play what we had created and understand that we weren’t just daydreaming.