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At DICE 2018 in Las Vegas today, Maja Moldenhauer, executive producer at Cuphead developer StudioMDHR, gave a high-level talk about making a run-and-gun shooter with no experience, barely any budget, and a whole lot of effort.
In the end, the takeaway was to work hard, maintain and stay focused on a strong vision, and make your money stretch as far as possible.
“We had very little money,” she said. StudioMDHR didn’t have a physical workspace and all worked remotely across different time zones, which was one way to save money. “Our team is most creative working at different times of the day,” Moldenhauer said.
The team used free and cheap tools such as Basecamp, Trello, Skype, email, and Slack. One of the more extravagant purchases was a $300 scanner from Best Buy, which was needed for faster scanning of Cuphead’s hand-drawn art and animation.
“My point here is that we tried to save money anywhere we could,” Moldenhauer said.
Moldenhauer explained how co-founders Chad and Jared Moldenhauer didn’t have any professional experience making games when Cuphead development started, or formal training—they were all self-taught. Maja Moldenhauer already had a college education and was working a well-paid job in finance, but she wasn’t passionate about it.
She said that while this was the decision they wanted to make, work-life balance suffered. “We literally slept, ate, and breathed Cuphead,” said Moldenhauer. From the time development began in earnest on Cuphead until release, Moldenhauer had two children, trying to balance family life with work-from-home life.
She said a turning point was the partnership with Microsoft’s [email protected], which helped push the game through to launch. “We remortgaged our homes at this point,” she said, highlighting just how “all-in” the team was on one single game.
Moldenhauer said the game kept on getting pushed back, year after year, but only because the team didn’t want to cut corners on any aspect of the game. “We never took any shortcuts in the interest of time,” she said. “We spent a lot of time on art for art’s sake.”
It was a Herculean effort in which intense focus over the course of several years finally paid off. The game has gone double-platinum since launching last year. “There is no elevator to success, much less in this industry,” she said.