On the bigger stage of the game, it can pay off to be small.
No one can reasonably say that E3 2021 lacked spectacle. After a year off due to the covid-19 pandemic, some publishers have turned to the fences, showing off upcoming tentpole games and offering initial disclosures for games like Starfield and Ancient ring. If you’re even a casual observer of this business, you know that major publishers tend to grow their showcase lists by highlighting indie games. And this year, few stood out among the crowd more than Replaced, the first game from Belarus Sad cat studios.
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Replaced, a 2.5D platformer that exudes neon and 80s-inspired cyberpunk vibes, appeared halfway through Microsoft and Bethesda’s common E3 presser until near instantaneous ohs and uhs. Amid the praise, some pointed to similarities between Replaced and The last night, an indie platformer mired in controversy. But Replaced seems a little more likely to complete development right now.
It’s not just the striking art or the crispy look John wick-ish combat or the absurdly convincing premise, in which the player is presented as an artificial intelligence program trapped inside a human body. Replaced caught my eye by grabbing my ear, mostly the result of extremely compelling background music – a dark, moody synth-pop track that sounds like an earworm you can’t enough identify but definitely need to add to your Spotify library, stat.
This solid first demonstration heralded an unprecedented level of attention for Sad Cat. Igor Gritsay, one of the studio’s co-founders, told me on a Zoom call that during the first 72 hours after Replacedfor her stage debut, “basically the world almost stopped”. His phone rang. Notifications for comments and new subscribers arrived within seconds. “It was good, but at the same time you also want to sleep. “
Like any game, Replaced, which has been in development for about three years, has undergone significant changes. At one point, even its main appeal – the 2.5D perspective, amplified by this delicious pixel art – was not yet established. Once upon a time, Replaced was “closer to 3D, like 2.75D,” Gritsay said. This idea lasted barely six months.
In this previous version, version 2.75D, Replaced involved complex camera rotations. You could turn around the corner of a building, and the camera would follow you, kind of like Fez, the indie puzzle game of 2012. This has proven to be a Herculean lift, especially for a team that started out with just three people.
For example, when you rotate the camera around a building, an environment sprite pops out abnormally, creating a scrappy look. What may seem like a small technical enigma then raised a whole series of existential questions about the fundamental principles of the project. “Do we make it a fully 3D object?” So what is the point of pixel art in this game? Said Gritsay. Adds Yura Zhdanovich, one of Sad Cat’s co-founders: “It was very disorienting.”
That’s not all. The incorporation of 3D elements created a feeling of confusion, in which it was too easy to get lost while exploring. It meant designing a map system, says Gritsay, which introduced a whole new set of problems. When talking about a storytelling-focused side-scrolling game, such navigation features are nice, but not exactly necessary.
So it was settled. 2.5D. A little more manageable that way.
“The 2.5 D is very vague in its definition because there are a lot of games that [say they’re] 2.5D, ”Zhdanovich said. “From our perspective, 2.5D is, especially in our case, a game that has depth in the environment but has a mostly linear side-scrolling type of gameplay. “
When Replaced will be released next year, it will do so day and date as part of the Xbox Game Pass library. It’s a distribution model that drastically changes the way independent developers present their games to gamers and, for some, gives them access to audiences beyond what they could achieve with a traditional marketing campaign.
Game Pass, for those who don’t know, is Microsoft’s on-demand games service, essentially a sort of “Netflix for video games” deal. First launched in 2017, a monthly subscription gives you access to a few hundred games, as well as any title published by Microsoft. You can then play these games indefinitely, as long as they stay at the library. Over the past few years, the service has exploded in popularity, claiming around 23 million members. For an independent studio releasing their very first game, that represents a lot of potential players.
“Within the scene, the major problem here is just [to] stand out, because there is a lot of competition between indie games. And there’s also this huge market for triple A games that always gets all the attention, ”said Gritsay. “The main motivation here is just to bring the game to more people… For us, it’s a unique opportunity. We must seize all the possibilities and all the chances that we have. “
The flip side here is that the Game Pass appearance could arguably reduce potential total sales. Think about it: if a movie is on Hulu or HBO Max or any other streaming service, why would you pay to rent it through traditional means? You can already watch it “for free”. The same principle applies to games on an on-demand game library.
But Gritsay says the studio always derives something valuable from the experience, and Game Pass “helps. [boost sales] one way or another. ”Gritsay acknowledged that no open data exists for this sort of thing. (Microsoft does not publicly share the financial details surrounding the deals with the developers. Last year, in talking to The edge, Xbox boss Phil Spencer described such offers as “everywhere. “)
Yes, the project has clearly gained momentum in recent months, and it has undoubtedly received a boost by showing up at such a high-profile event. But it’s still a long way to go, one that conspicuously ends during a wide and undefined “2022” window, which could always change in the blink of an eye. And at the moment, Sad Cat isn’t ready to share the game any further beyond this initial preview.
“We are moving step by step,” Zhdanovich said.