The fairy tale of Cuphead and its developer Studio MDHR continued this week as the debut game from a debut studio won three major awards at the prestigious DICE Awards in Las Vegas. Maja Moldenhauer humbly said on stage during a talk that she didn’t know what she could teach veteran game developers, except to offer a fresh perspective on making games.
It’s a wonder that the run-and-gun action platformer game — which has a deceptively whimsical 1930s cartoon art style and yet is deliberately very hard to play — sold 2 million copies (as of December 1) and became one of the most talked about games of 2017. It has three hours of jazz ensemble music and 60,000 frames of hand-drawn images for its fiendishly difficult boss battles.
“What could an indie developer from Canada possibly talk about that might captivate an audience with the most colorful resumes in the industry,” she said. “Then I thought, maybe it’s just that. As such, I’m not standing here as an industry leader with a wealth of experience. But more as a fresh set of eyes to help remind you of what it was like to operate with a limited resources from time, staff, definitely budget — but we never let those stand in our way.”
Moldenhauer said in an interview at the DICE Summit gaming event that the success has given the team — staffed by former web page designers, construction workers, and financial analysts — the financial stability to continue making games for the long term. I couldn’t finish the game, but it has a rabid base of fans who appreciate its difficulty, which was born from the desire of Studio MDHR cofounders Chad and Jared Moldenhauer to make a game that reminded them of the platform games they grew up with.
The game’s difficulty meant that a lot of players couldn’t finish it, but that helped create an aura of attention around Cuphead, and skillful players appreciated how it took precise control of the analog controller sticks to master the moment-to-moment, variable gameplay. Cuphead’s designers had a vision that they never compromised, even though the company was always low on both money and experience, Moldenhauer said.
They had a relentless focus on making a difficult game that required skill to beat, and it turned out this idea resonated with all of the fans who long for retro games, admire the skill of speed runners and elite players, and appreciate old-style games where gameplay was king. A lot of people made fun of how I was terrible at the game, and Moldenhauer and I talked about that — and the problem of cyberbullying — as well.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Was there a main message or a theme you wanted to get across in your talk?
Maja Moldenhauer: The theme of DICE this year is “Made Better.” You’ll probably hear this repeated in my talk. When I got the call to be a keynote here, I was a bit confused. What am I going to teach these people? I’m a student here still. The way we looked at it — from a fresh lens, from a fresh perspective, not having made 20 games before, how did we pull this off? Where did we invest in making sure the game was up to par in terms of where we saw quality and how we got there? I’m going to be taking a view from the trenches, giving some color to that.
GamesBeat: I remember your talk in Montreal, where you said it wasn’t a fairy tale. Is it important to get that across to people, that it’s not an automatic success?
Moldenhauer: I’ll be touching on that, yeah. It’s been so romanticized in the media. It’s not wrong. We did re-mortgage our homes and quit our jobs. But it was never as if we woke up one morning and it happened. There were baby steps. There were pulse checks. We weighed risk and reward. We knew what we were doing as we went along. There were checkpoints we had to hit before we ever made the next step.
GamesBeat: It seemed like, at some point in the process, you started organizing things. I don’t know if you’d describe it as taking control of the process, but you didn’t start that way, right? You graduated into this role.
Moldenhauer: Exactly. Initially, I just started on the art side. Then every time we missed a target date or a timeline and we realized how horrible Chad is at projecting timelines, I said, “No, I have to take the reins here.” That’s how my role evolved, from the art side to a lot of the production side.
GamesBeat: Was that any tougher because it was a family thing?
Moldenhauer: Um, yeah?
GamesBeat: “Chad, you’re fired.” [laughs]
Moldenhauer: And then when it came to art, he’d be like, “No, you’re fired!” [laughs] I think we were balanced evenly. Chad is like a sponge. He takes a lot. He’s a really good guy. There were days where I would be a little bit more stressed than he was, while he’s so even-keeled. It’s a good balance.
GamesBeat: Keeping everyone on time that you developed a skill for, then?
Moldenhauer: I tried. I don’t know if I got there. From an education perspective, for Chad — he would never pay attention to timelines. We would project, “Okay, this boss is going to take four weeks. A week to concept, a couple of weeks to animate, a week to color and ink.” If, in that first week, we didn’t get the concept of what that boss was going to look like down pat, he didn’t just pick the best one. It would be another take, another take, another take. If that turned into three weeks, it took three weeks. We never compromised or settled. That’s where the bulk of our delays were rooted.
In hindsight, it was the right decision, rather than settling. It was unfortunate for the people who were disappointed in the delays, the vagueness and the black of hole that was Cuphead for a couple of years. But hopefully it was worth it.
GamesBeat: What are some of the other hindsights you have?
Moldenhauer: When we were in the thick of it, it never felt like — in hindsight I look back and think, “How did we pull that off?” I look at the bank boxes of paper all around our basement and I wonder if I’d have been as eager about doing it if you told me I would have to ink 60,000 frames of animation. I don’t know. Maybe I would always be thinking, “I only got 100 done today, 60,000 to go.” But in the thick of it you’re just focusing on that 100. You don’t know how many more there are to come. That’s a big one.
GamesBeat: All hand-drawn?
Moldenhauer: I know! On paper. It’s crazy. Probably a horrible idea. [laughs]
GamesBeat: I saw that you had some reinforcements come in for the last couple of months?
Moldenhauer: There’s a company based out of Montreal called Illogika. They were life-savers in terms of — they did a lot of support for us. As you’re going through the final stages of testing and things like that, the last three-four-five months, and realizing precision wasn’t here, or something wasn’t programmed perfectly there — being able to pull in that team to help us with development, testing, support….
GamesBeat: Did you find them, or did Microsoft find them?
Moldenhauer: We found them, I think just through a Google search? We found almost everyone that way. A lot of our animators said, “How did you find me?” Because we hand-picked our people. But usually we just googled it.