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Agony and Ecstasy: Madmind Studio Discusses the Failure of Agony and the Quest for Redemption

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Agony, according the critical consensus, was agonising—a dreary jaunt through hell that even its fever dreams of disgust and deprivation were unable to elevate. The game was mauled for its perceived misogyny, archaic design, and subpar execution.

Such a disastrous reception to a debut game could easily kill a studio, or at least result in a rebranding, but Madmind Studio took a different, more courageous route. In the months following the initial release, the team dedicated itself to taking control of the tailspin narrative around the game, improving the project significantly, and finally delivering on fan expectations with Agony Unrated.

Since then, Madmind seems to be putting the past in the rearview mirror, actively working on two new games: the more realistic horror experience Paranoid and the Agony spin-off Succubus.

In light of these bold moves, OnlySP took the opportunity to speak to Madmind CEO Tomasz Dutkiewicz to learn more about why the studio is taking this unexpected route.

Madmind Studio Succubus

Key art for Succubus

Before getting into the future, though, the past shows that the team was familiar with hardship.

“The very first project that we all have worked on was Hellion: Mystery of the Inquisition,” explained Dutkiewicz. “For many of us, it was their first adventure with gamedev. Unfortunately, the company announced bankruptcy before the game was finished, and team members took up work in other companies.”

Nonetheless, Dutkiewicz had a vision, and, alone at the end of 2015, backed by the promise of assistance from former colleagues, he took that vision to Kickstarter as Sacred Agony. With an eye-watering funding goal of EUR€544,000, that initial attempt fell far short. However, people were interested.

“Encouraged by the positive reception of prototype films from Agony (which at that time appeared under the name ‘Sacred Agony’), we have decided to bring the old team back and start our own company.”

That was in the second half of 2015. Madmind was officially formed early the following year, though several months would pass before Agony would again step into the limelight as a crowdfunding darling.

This second time around, Agony was successful, but that success was tempered.

“You could say that [the] Kickstarter campaign was a success,” said Dutkiewicz, “but few people know, however, that the entire amount of money obtained during that campaign covered only part of the Agony production costs. [… The] Kickstarter campaign for Agony, even though it collected three times more than the assumed goal, raised just over EUR€120,000—the production costs along with marketing was six times that much by the time the game was released.

“In the end we had to use the help of an investor who helped us finance the game. Otherwise, Agony would never have been released.”

Even so, as the planned release date of March 30, 2018 neared, the game was delayed, reportedly for last minute polishing. What followed was a confused story of legal woes and contractual obligations that left fans wondering about the status of the game.

Now, more than a year later, Dutkiewicz opened up about what happened.

Agony‘s Kickstarter campaign aimed to release the game on consoles too. To do this, we had to establish cooperation with the console publisher. At that time, we were not sure what to expect from this contract, but with time it turned out that all versions of the game, regardless of the platform, must be identical. This was, of course, our oversight and error, for which we later paid dearly.”

That parity clause was problematic due to the graphic content that the team had incorporated into the game, which would likely have resulted in an Adults Only rating, and “this would most likely result in the break of the contract with the publisher and financial penalties, which we could not afford at the time.”

The consequence: censorship. Backers of the project responded negatively to the news, demanding some way of playing Agony as it was originally intended.

Dutkiewicz was prosaic about the furore. “The players who supported us on Kickstarter had justified claims […] But you must remember that the game we were advertising on the Kickstarter, regardless of whether they were screenshots or trailers or gameplay, looked the same when it comes to censorship. Each version of the game was the same.

“We have never showed anything in the advertising that was later censored. Everything we have shown was in the censored version of the game that was released. Lighting and some special effects have changed in a few places, but this had nothing to do with censorship.”

Indeed, even in its censored version, Agony is one of the grimmest, most graphic horror games on the market, justifying Dutkiewicz’s statement that Madmind “cannot agree with what some people said: that we advertised a different game than the one for which the Kickstarter backers paid.”

Nonetheless, the story of censorship does not end with what was available in the release version. As word spread of cut content, the team announced a PC-version patch to restore the game, but even that was never to be.

“Despite all the effort and negotiations lasting months we also were not able to issue a patch removing the censorship from the PC version of the game. We were bound by the law and so we had to wait for our contracts to expire. […] We will never repeat this mistake again and if we decide to use an additional publisher one day, the agreement between us will have to be signed on the terms that our team will fully accept.”

As should be evident by now, Madmind learned many lessons during Agony’s development—about crowdfunding, communication, contracts, and more—but perhaps the hardest lessons were yet to come. The game finally launched on May 29, 2018 and was excoriated by the media. So poorly was the title received that it has the dubious honour of being one of the 10 worst games of 2018 according to Metacritic.

Perhaps most shocking of all was Dutkiewicz’s admission that “We were worried about the reception.” He did not provide further details about those concerns, but said instead that they were offset by pre-release impressions garnered from the demo and feedback at conventions.

“The premiere of the day was a wakeup call for us.”

“The reviewers and players voiced many of the game’s imperfections and it was impossible not to agree. Agony turned out to be a different game than the players envisioned, and the number of issues players have encountered when the game released turned out to be huge.”

He implied that a part of the reason for the mismatched expectations was that the game transformed during development. The original vision was a five-hour adventure with “more dynamic gameplay” while the final result lasted twelve hours that were dominated by exploration through poorly lit locales.

“It quickly dawned on us that the original vision […] should not have been changed during the development.”

Morale in the studio, understandably, was low.

“After the release of Agony, many people suggested that we should act similarly to many other companies in this situation—to close the studio and open a new one, with a ‘clean account’.”

However, rather than admitting defeat, the team looked forward: “It was hard. It was no laughing matter. But we have decided to try as hard as we could to give ourselves a second chance.”

“We owed it to ourselves and especially the fans.”

That would-be phoenix was Agony Unrated, a standalone game that was made free to existing owners of Agony. This version brought with it a swathe of improvements to lighting, textures, character models, quality-of-life elements, and, of course, the implementation of even more gruesome content.

This re-release was entirely self-funded and self-published, and the response seemingly made the effort worthwhile: “The reception of Agony Unrated was warm and enthusiastic. People were satisfied with what they’ve got. And we were satisfied too.”

Even so, the Madmind brand is sullied, and Dutkiewicz knows it.

“It is true that we have many faithful and great fans, but both players and the press have a negative opinion about us. The weak premiere of Agony and the whole fuss about the censorship strongly affected the company’s image, and Agony Unrated is only the first step to rebuild it.”

The team is using the struggles it has already faced as motivation to be better next time. That desire comes not only from inside the team, but outside as well, with Madmind determined to correct the wrongs and prove to its fans that their faith is not misplaced.

“Many fans have supported us from the beginning and believed in us. We wanted to thank them by showing that we can be better […] Our upcoming productions will prove to players that we are able to make good games with a nice and satisfying gameplay and that’s what we’re focusing on right now.”

Those games are Succubus (some preliminary details of which are available here) and Paranoid, which moves away from the hellscapes to an apartment in the 1980s.

Madmind has managed to bring these two projects to life from the cusp of closure thanks to the decision to release both the censored and Unrated versions of Agony, each of which helped to assure the financial future of the studio. Neither Succubus nor Paranoid has a release date as yet, but perhaps that is simply because the studio is determined to do things right this time.

“Many fans have supported us from the beginning and believed in us,” said Dutkiewicz. “We wanted to thank them by showing that we can be better.”


For all the latest from the world of single-player gaming, be sure to bookmark OnlySP and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

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E3 2019

How Final Fantasy XV’s Lead Game Designer is Making a Rhythm Game — An Interview With No Straight Roads Developer Metronomik

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No Straight Roads game art 5

Wan Hazmer’s journey is an interesting one. Having worked at Square Enix on games such as Final Fantasy Type-0 and Final Fantasy XV, Hazmer left the studio in 2017 to start his own development studio, Metronomik. The studio’s first game, No Straight Roads, is a music-based action-adventure game where players must fight the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) empire as an independent rock band.

OnlySP had the opportunity to speak with Hazmer about the game’s inspiration, gameplay, and art design.

OnlySP: What inspired you to make No Straight Roads?

Hazmer: I am a big rhythm gamer. I used to be really good since Beatmania 1 so that’s more than 15 years of experience playing rhythm games. I used to go to the arcades every week and spend like $50 just to play music games. (Laughs) Whenever I invited my friends to play rhythm games with me, they always said “I’ll just watch you play.” It baffles me because everyone loves music; I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love music. I think the problem is the way [music] participates in gameplay. Music is only used in two ways in games: soundtrack or rhythm games. I think everyone has rhythm sense. If I were to give you a guitar, and you didn’t know how to play the guitar, of course you’d admit you’d have no rhythm sense.

I feel like, when you listen to a song maybe five times, then you’ll know when the chorus is supposed to come even before it comes. I want everyone to use that musical instinct to play the game and that’s why we have the enemies follow the music. The input, the participation that you have in the game isn’t a pure action game. Other inspirations also include other rhythm games. Rhythm games’ stories are something I like as well, like Space Channel 5, Guitaroo Man and even games that put a lot of emphasis on music. I think you noticed that the outer stars remind me of Jet Set Radio. The word ‘radio’ is in Jet Set Radio despite it not being a rhythm game. [Jet Set Radio] was such an influence and I still have the soundtrack.

No Straight Roads game art 2

OnlySP: How would you say your experience on other games contributed to No Straight Roads?

Hazmer: Back when I was working on Final Fantasy XV, one of the biggest things about the game was that we had to make sure that Final Fantasy becomes relevant again. [Part of that] falls into how you travel in the world so we thought “What is one of the most current way of travelling romantically?” and we thought “road trip” and it’s the core experience in Final Fantasy XV. We spent a lot of cost and effort into making sure that that core UX does its job. We had to photograph an AI, Prompto, and that was actually very difficult to pull off. Can you imagine an AI taking a photograph of you? He’s a very bad photographer at first, but he gets better and better. The user experience is an emotional connection to the game.

I also wanted to make sure that [No Straight Roads] has a UX that everyone can adhere to and that’s something that is very relevant. With relevance, we talk about rock vs EDM. It’s a classic tale of “my taste is better than yours.” And another is “your music can change the world” is our big core UX. We have the transformation of the props into weapons. We also have three channels of music: backing, melody, and rhythm. We multiply that by that by three genres of music rock, EDM, and a boss specific genre [for the demo, it was disco]. Depending on the situation, depending on the story, depending on how you perform, we actually switch one of the channels to EDM, one channel to bass, and one channel to rock. There’s a lot of music going on in the game and we only do it if we know that it is going to sell something for the UX. That’s something I got from my Final Fantasy XV experience.

OnlySP: How was it like creating the music and implementing it in the game?

Hazmer: I am very lucky to have four composers who are very talented. One of them is Falk [Au Yeong]; he’s the music director. He actually used to work with me on Final Fantasy XV where he was a mixing engineer for the music. When you travel to Hammerhead, for example, a gas station in Final Fantasy XV, when you enter a diner the music starts changing a bit. We were discussing dynamic music for a long time. We also have James Landino who is working on the EDM tracks—he [worked on] Cytus [2], Kingdom Hearts, and Final Fantasy as well. We have Pejman [Roozbeh] who is more of a funk/disco kind of guy, and Andy [Tunstall] who worked on rock.

What I love about working with these four composers is that they know the technicalities involved with implementing music in games. What we do is we come up with the concept for the boss first. We have a DJ who thinks he’s the center of the universe and he’s going to spin some planets. After that, we pass it to the musicians. They compose really great music and they pass it back to us and they understand that there are three channels and the programming involved. There are a lot of times when you make a video game, you outsource the music in the last minute. I really wanted the musicians to be involved from very early on so they are actually involved in the game design process as well.

OnlySP: In the demo, I noticed I got to play as two characters. Are there only going to be those two characters?

Hazmer: Yes. The concept seems like there could fit another person here. (Laughs) You can only control two characters, but there’ll be a bunch of bosses. You can actually play couch co-op as well, so one person can be Mayday and the other Zuke.

OnlySP: About how long would you say the game would be?

Hazmer: 10–15 hours. When you defeat a boss, although there are some RPG elements in it (like giving buffs to your weapons), but I don’t want to go with the New Game Plus route, so I’m [following] more of a Sonic or racing game [style] where once you complete a particular level, you can actually challenge the level again in a different difficulty. So there will be difficulties where you’ll have to parry almost everything in order to survive. For example, when you’re playing the game you only hear rock when you’re almost defeating a boss, you can play an entire boss fight in rock.

No Straight Roads gameplay screenshot 1

OnlySP: How did you go about selecting the genres of music for No Straight Roads?

Hazmer: First of all, we came up with interesting bosses in the game. My co-founder, Daim [Dziauddin], he’s really big into storytelling and he always wonders why people play music. We didn’t want this game to be a game about a bunch of bosses, who are awesome and big and that’s about it. Every single one of these artists has a reason to play music. From there, we see what kind of genre fits them very well. For example, we came up with a DJ who is egocentric and he thinks that he’s the center of the universe and, bam, the sub theme is space. From there, we figured we can do some disco and some Flash Gordon kind of things, and that’s how the genres came about.

OnlySP: Are there any plans to add in some post launch content?

Hazmer: Definitely. This is still all in talks, so it is not confirmed at all. I would love to collaborate with other games or different artists so that we can get their branding into the game [such as a being a boss in the game]. That’s one of the dreams for this game. Once we finish the game, I really want to collaborate, organically, with many different musicians.

OnlySP: Of the genres of music that are not in the game, what would you say would be the first one you’d want to put in post launch?

Hazmer: Oh wow. That’s quite difficult. I kind of like jazz in a way so jazz would be nice. Jazz and EDM would be really cool. (Laughs) I really like jazz, so I think a jazz boss would be really cool.

No Straight Roads game art 3

OnlySP: What influenced the art style for No Straight Roads?

Hazmer: I made a lot of realistic games and wanted to run away from realism. We thought that the characters in the game [don’t] have to be a human skin color. So we were looking at a lot of American cartoons like Steven Universe. The other thing is the funky art style of games that don’t take themselves too seriously like Tim Schafer games like Psychonauts. Sometimes ugliness is beautiful and beauty is ugly. In terms of the poses for the characters, we love ourselves some Jojo. (Laughs) Poses for us are very very important.


For all the latest from No Straight Roads and more from the world of single-player gaming, be sure to bookmark OnlySP and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

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