Can a team of 28 people and a few cats create a game that will compete for the title of "Best Game of the Year" and, more importantly, win the hearts of millions of people? This is exactly what happened with the indie game "Stray". The uniqueness lies in the fact that this project is one of the best to get acquainted with, so if you have not played indie games before, but want to get acquainted with this industry, it will be a great option. Stray is, without exaggeration, a phenomenal game. Why? The game from an unknown team created a real sensation in the industry. They managed to do this through many years of development and the desire to create a cool game. That's why Stray deserves to be played by everyone. After all, such games are created by single developers or a small team without huge financial support. It is also worth remembering that some developers begin to engage in "independent games" after working for many years in large companies and due to fatigue, exhaustion and other factors begin to do what they like and where they will not control their every step. The first two developers, who started creating Stray, are so tired of it all that now they avoid their real names everywhere and use pseudonyms.
But returning to the adventure game about a red cat, in 2022 it became a real discovery for gamers. After all, last year, no matter how difficult and crucial it was for us, we found the strength and opportunity to play games. And for me personally, in between air raids and monitoring the situation at the front, Stray gave me the opportunity to distract myself for a few hours and plunge into the neon world filled with robots, but this is not the only thing that connects me with Stray.
Stray quietly competed with the biggest hits of the last year. For example, at The Game Awards in the category "Game of the Year" among AAA games such as Elden Ring, God of War Ragnarok, Horizon: Forbidden West and A Plague Tale: Requiem in one row was Stray. In general, if we analyze the last years of The Game Awards, then in 2017 there were no representatives of "independent games" among the nominees for the "game of the year". But in 2018, the situation began to change gradually, although 2020 can be considered a turning point, when The Last of Us: Part II, Ghost of Tsushima and others, people actively discussed the indie game Hades. In 2021, It Takes Two, developed by Hazelight Studios, which employs about 70 people, was recognized as the game of the year. So with such trends, in a year or two, indies will increasingly break through to the top of the video game industry. With this text we start a series of articles about developers and studios that create games. And considering that my first big text on gg was an analysis of indie games, I would like to start with Stray.
To begin with, what is Stray?
Stray is a third-person adventure game where you, playing as a cat, find yourself in a mysterious cyber city inhabited only by robots and ugly creatures called Zurks, who seek to destroy all living and non-living things. Wandering in this dirty, creepy and lost city, you will have to figure out why robots live instead of people, and how to escape from this terrible, though sometimes quite fabulous and mysterious place. A friendly drone B12 will help you with this. It can translate the language of robots, help fight the crowd of Zurks, solve puzzles and help the cat find its way home. Although you will have to interact not only with B12. On your four-legged way will meet a lot of interesting characters. Basically, it will be a variety of robots that also want to leave the closed city, and each of them will do everything possible to help the cat and B12 to realize the dream of the whole group. Here, together with the scientist, you will have to use various devices, listen to the musician's songs and even bring to life a robot truck with a hangover.
Why the name of the game is Stray?
The very concept of "stray cat" means a street (homeless) cat. This is a cat that lived at home and was socialized, but at some point in its life was abandoned or lost its home. The cat in the game is even described as "lost, lonely and separated from his family". Indeed, at the beginning of the game, the ginger is separated from his feline family and finds himself in a cyber city. His goal is to escape from all this and get home.
The two developers, together with their two cats Murtaugh and Riggs, under the pseudonyms Koola and Viv, who try to avoid their real names, left Ubisoft Montpellier after several years of working as artists to create independent games. Their dream was to find an original idea to develop a cool game. The first mention of their debut project was published on the developers' website on October 7, 2015, where you can see a cat in a shabby alley with red lighting. The photo was also accompanied by a message stating that the team was working on a feline adventure video game powered by Unreal Engine 4.
What is interesting - the code name of the game was not Stray, but HK_Project. And the first year of development took place in a rented apartment, which was rented by Koola and Viv. By the way, they rented an apartment in Montpellier, France. That is where the office of their former studio Ubisoft Montpellier is located. Over time, they will open their BlueTwelve studio in the same city.
In January 2016, the team began to talk more about the creation of the game. At the beginning of development, the hardest part was working on the animation and behavior of the cat during the gameplay. The difficulty was that the movements in Unreal 4 are more adapted to bipedal characters, and the developers have never been engaged in programming the gameplay. Therefore, it took some time to ensure that the cat model did not go beyond the textures, and being on various small surfaces, the four-legged friend did not fall from them.
At the same time, the project has its own Twitter account, where the developers showed short videos with what they have already managed to reproduce. In the future, it is the Twitter account that will radically change the fate of the game, but more on that later.
Already in the bank HK_Project began to be actively interested in gamers and developers got their fan base. Instead of white polygons, fans finally began to show parts of the gameplay, where they could see robots, part of the cyber city with its branded neon signs and the main character of the game. But at the same time in the spring of 2016 HK_Project and their authors are waiting for the moment that will divide the history of development into "before" and "after".
Founding BlueTwelve Studio and deal with Annapurna Interactive
It's worth going back a bit here. In 2011, Megan Ellison started Annapurna Pictures, a film financing and production company. The company is best known for helping to create such films as "Her" with Joaquin Phoenix, "American Hustle" with Christian Bale, "Terminator: Genisys" (Terminator Genisys) and others.
And in 2016 the company decided to expand and opened a game publishing house Annapurna Interactive in California. In the spring of 2016, they found HK_Project's Twitter account and offered to take the developers under their wing. After that, Koola and Viv founded BlueTwelve studio, and the team expanded to 5 people. At the same time, it was decided to open their office in the same city where the authors of Stray started their journey - Montpellier.
It is worth noting that Annapurna did not put any pressure on the developers, leaving them complete freedom and space. The publisher only provided the team with funding and helped the creators of the game to solve various issues.
At the same time, there were less and less publications on Twitter and on the website. In 2017, the developers showed only a few short videos from the game. But at the end of the same year, they confirmed that they received funding and the team of two friends grew into the BlueTwelve studio with 5 people (and still 2 cats).
In 2018, BlueTwelve did not publish anything, but in 2019 they reminded about themselves again and showed a new community manager - the sphinx Oscar, who wrote: "Mrrrooowwww....Meow!". In fact, Oscar meant that the team is super focused on the game and thanks everyone for their support.
After that, the developers showed one art and one video with the works, and then the fun begins.
If in 2016 Annapurna Interactive published 0 games, in 2022, at the time of Stray's release, the publisher has already released more than 20. The vast majority of them are indie. And while BlueTwelve was developing its first game, Annapurna had already managed to gain a foothold in the market as one of the best indie game publishers. And the release of Stray only consolidated this status.
On June 11, 2020, at the presentation of PS5 - THE FUTURE OF GAMING SHOW, a 2-minute trailer of Stray was presented for the first time. In it, you could see Walled City 99 with various robots, locations and the cat's interaction with this mysterious cyber city. Then it also became known that the game will be released on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 and PC, and the release was planned for 2021. However, the game had to be postponed for a year and Stray was released on July 19, 2022.
On June 11, a short interview with BlueTweleve co-founder Viv appeared on the PlayStation Blog. He said that the team's goal is to create a unique experience of playing as a cat. Every day, the developers were inspired by Murtaugh and Riggs, the cats of the studio founders, and other four-legged animals that settled in the office. Although 80% of the team are cat owners, so the studio understood the behavior of furry animals perfectly. But before learning more about the development of the project, it is important to understand how Sony contributed to this whole story.
How PlayStation influenced the success of Stray
BlueTwelve was lucky not only with the publisher. Stray was closely followed by Sony and they liked the project. That is why Stray was shown at the PS5 presentation. At the same time, the game was included in thePlayStation Indiescatalog. It was created in 2020 to draw the attention of gamers to independent projects. It is worth noting that Sony has no influence on the development of games that are included in the catalog (and there are more than 20 of them), but only promotes indies. And if it may seem that there is practically no benefit for the company, it is not so. For example, Stray, as well as some other games from the catalog, never appeared on XBOX consoles.
However, Sony realized that the attention to Stray was too frantic and decided to experiment. In the summer of 2022, the PlayStation Plus Extra subscription, which was supposed to become a competitor to Xbox Game Pass, was just starting to gain momentum. And on June 2, BlueTwelve producer Swann Martin-Raget announced that Stray will appear in the Extra catalog on release day, July 19. What effect did it have? Stray became the most popular PS Plus game in 2022 and this is at a time when hits such as: God of War, Ghost of Tsuhsima, Marvel's Spider-Man and others. And as calculated by gamerant, 4,471,831 people have played Stray on PlayStation, making it one of the most popular indie games in general. Add to that 2.5 million people who bought Stray on Steam. And we have the result of more than 7 million gamers who got acquainted with the game.
However, after such a success, Sony still does not plan to actively add its games to the subscription at release. In September 2022 at the GI Live: London, PlayStation Indies director Shuhei Yoshida said that the company wants to use the service as an opportunity to give projects a second wind.
But back to BlueTwelve Studio. For the founders of the studio, cats were not the primary source of inspiration. As artists, they have long been interested in one city, which became the prototype of Walled City 99 in the game.
The fortress city of Kowloon
Until 1994 in Hong Kong there was a fortress city Kowloon, once one of the most densely populated areas of the world, or the kingdom of anarchy. The uniqueness of Kowloon was that the houses were so densely built next to each other that they seemed to form one continuous roof. The city grew vertically, not horizontally and the planes that flew over the fortress and almost touched the roof were not something unusual for the inhabitants. As for the density of population, the area of the fortress was 2.6 hectares, and in 1987 it was inhabited by 33 thousand people. There was not even a classic concept of a street, and these houses were united by hundreds of intricate corridors, in which it was easy to get lost. And in addition, this unique city was controlled by the mafia, which opened brothels, underground clubs and casinos in the corners where you could buy drugs.
Therefore, Kowloon became the city that impressed Koola' and Viv the most. They were constantly discussing it. The developers believed that the concept of this city would become the basis for their new universe. While creating the first locations, the artists realized that the idea of a vertical city would be best suited for a cat. This is how a clear plan of the then HK_Project was formed: the events of the game will take place in the Walled City 99, and the protagonist of the game will be a red cat.
The city in Stray
However, the events of the game take place in the style of cyberpunk, and Kowloon can hardly be called such. But in fact, the desire to make the events of the game in a cyber city is very easy to explain.
Why are there robots in the game, not people?
At the very beginning, the developers wanted to add people to the game, but everything rested on production limitations. During the first tests with human NPCs, it became clear that it would be extremely time-consuming to achieve a high level of visual quality. Hiring more people was also not an option, because from the very beginning Koola and Viv wanted to create a small team.
Over time, the developers began to do some experiments with robots and it solved all the problems. After all, robots are easier to model and place. It also turned out that the idea with robots expands the story of Stray. After all, it is necessary to explain "Who are these robots? Where are the people? What is this place?". The developers recall: "What was originally a production limitation ended up becoming a full-fledged part of the story."
And the ideas of how to fit robots into the world of the game became more and more. BlueTwelve wanted to create a contrast between a small, lively and cute cat and machines that have a more cold and clumsy look. This inspired the developers to create more and more situations and different types of interaction between the cat and robots.
The final stage of this idea was to create a separate language for robots. Martin-Rage explains this idea by the fact that the studio wanted to give the players the feeling that they were in a place alien to them, which they do not understand. And they decided to do it in a language that no one will know. Except for the B12 drone, which will translate the mysterious alphabet into English.
Together, this all turned the city and its inhabitants into a full-fledged part of this story, and they will make up a puzzle that players will collect during the passage.
B12 was added to the game not only to translate the robots' language. The developers wanted to create a companion that would organically complement the main character. The choice with the drone is explained by the fact that cats do not interact well with technology. This allowed to make the game much more interesting situations. At the same time, players have to learn about the mysterious past of B12. And his relationship with the cat is a key element of this adventure. It is they who add more drama to this story. But this little helper has another story.
About the developers' love for references
The developers left some interesting hidden details in Stray that we would like to tell you about. First of all, the name B12 for the assistant was chosen for a reason. It is a reference to the BlueTwelve studio.
In one of the rooms you can find a poster with HK_Project. This art was first shown by the developers back in 2015.
Sometimes you can find TVs in the game. If you turn them on, you can find various QR codes, scanning which you can see something interesting. One takes you to the official website of the game. Another one contains the cipher 0 and 1, deciphering which you can get the text: "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog". This is an English pangram. It contains all the letters of the alphabet. The phrase is usually used for testing typewriters and computer keyboards or displaying examples of fonts where it is desirable to use all letters of the alphabet.
Usually in games, when there are various pipes or air conditioners on the location, they serve as a decorative item. But in Stray, it all affects the gameplay. Martin-Rage recalls that they had to conduct a lot of play tests to make levels that every player can navigate. The developers actively listened to the testers who pointed out where it would be better to put a pipe or other object that the cat could climb on. Thanks to the feedback from the players, the developers managed to create levels that you can immediately navigate. Sometimes we had to sacrifice variability, but in this way there are practically no places in the game where you run and can't find your way around. As for the other elements on the levels, the designers created signs, graffiti, books, carpets, vending machines and other decorative elements that indicate that the city lives here, and not serves as a decoration.
Examples of different elements in the game (Source: 80.lv)
This all creates a variety of locations that force the player to explore everything around (we are still playing for the cat). After all, for 6 hours of passing the red cat from B12 will visit infected areas, prison, sewers, neon areas, subways, warehouses, picturesque settlements and more. Below you can see some art from BlueTwelve designers and understand how carefully Walled City 99 was created.
It is also worth noting the game's musical accompaniment, which greatly enhances the atmosphere of the game. Yann Van Der Cruyssen was responsible for the soundtrack. Before that, he created a composition for the game Dôkutsu Monogatari and the movieThe Cosmonaut. The Stray soundtrack is so popular with players that the audio compilations on YouTube collect hundreds of thousands of views. And iam8bit even launched a pre-order vinyl record with tracks from the game for $42.
How cats became the main element of the game development
I mentioned above that in addition to Koola and Viv, BlueTwelve Studio was also founded by two cats. However, in the end credits you can find more than 20 names of different cats and even 4 dogs (it's hard to imagine how they influenced the game development). Still, 5 cats are the key in this story, and each of them is worth telling separately.
One day near Montpellier, under the car, the developers found a homeless, red cat, which they decided to name Murtaugh. But in the office he is called "Boss". And although the cat in Stray is not a direct copy of Murtaugh, it was inspired by him when creating the game model and the concept of a stray cat.
Unfortunately, Riggs is hardly mentioned anywhere, but he was also at the origins of BlueTwelve Studio. When he and Murtaugh were first revealed on Twitter, the developers wrote that Riggs likes to sleep at work and do nothing. The second time Riggs' name can be seen during the final credits of Stray, but opposite it is written that the cat died. However, when it happened and under what circumstances is unknown. Along with Riggs, two other BlueTwelve cats - Ivy and Oliver - were not in the Stray release.
Oscar is a sphinx who was in the office almost every day. He was the one BlueTwelve animator and programmer Miko and Remi watched the most. They needed videos of the cat jumping and running to create the cat in the game. And given that Oscar has no fur, he was the best candidate for the tests, because you can see in detail how each of his muscles moves.
In general, there are companies that create mocap cats. This is a technology when a cat or a person wears a special suit to capture every movement and transfer it all to the game. By the way, this is what they do with actors in most modern AAA games. But the developers decided to abandon this. Martin-Rage recalls in an interview that it was very funny for the developers to see videos with poor cats dressed in mocap costumes. Therefore, it was decided to create animation on their own.
Although the team was quite happy with the freedom that the creation of their own animation gave them. In addition, there are some situations in the game that would be very difficult and dangerous to reproduce with a real cat.
If Oscar gave the movements, Murtaugh - the appearance, then who is responsible for the voice? The voice of the red cat was given by the gray cat Lala. For some reason, she is never even mentioned in the developers' diary. Her name can be found only in the credits, and Lala's photo is published only in the Twitter account of JANKENPOPP. But thanks to Lala, we hear the main character in the game so often.
Martin-Rage recalls that at one point all the four-legged employees in the office started reacting to the cat in the game. The cats would raise their heads when the meow was heard, they would approach, trying to interact. So Lala coped perfectly with such a responsible role.
Another cat mentioned by the developers is the black-haired June. And he has an extremely important position in BlueTwelve. June works as the executive director of the studio, he is responsible for the daily monitoring of the team's work and makes sure that everyone fulfills their tasks. It's a challenging job, but looking at the success of Stray, Jun has succeeded.
From the very beginning, the developers did not consider combat mechanics involving the cat. The bottom line is that the main idea of Stray is a journey. Getting to know the place and revealing its history and inhabitants became a priority.
However, so that the player does not feel helpless during tense situations, B12 comes to the rescue, which has abilities that allow him to counterattack enemies.
In an interview with screenrant, Martin-Rage noted that BlueTwelve never set out to make a 100% cat simulator. Various non-standard situations and drive in the story are made to make the adventure interesting.
Pressure on developers
The greatest difficulty the game's authors faced during development was the great hype. After announcing the game in the summer of 2020, BlueTwelve did not expect such attention. The developers were excited to see how people, especially cat owners, reacted to the game and were interested in what they were doing. Martin-Rage recalls that on the one hand this is what they were aiming for, but on the other hand they had to make the game as polished as it could be.
This all led to the fact that Stray had to be postponed, because the release was originally planned for the fall of 2021. In their tweet, the developers wrote that they did not want to compromise either on quality or on the team's working hours. At the same time, BlueTwelve was aiming to release the game in early 2022. However, the game's release was delayed again, but Annapurna Interactive assured fans on February 9 that the adventure about the cat is still worth waiting for in 2022. And at the end of April, Sony published a commercial, thanks to which it became known that Stray will be released in the summer. The exact release date became known only on June 2. Then Martin-Rage said on the PlayStation blog that the game will be released on July 19 on PC and PlayStation 4/5 and will be immediately included in the PS Plus Extra catalog. In an interview for inverse, Martin-Rage mentioned that BlueTwelve wanted to reveal the release date when the game was very close to being ready, and it was a useful decision that allowed the developers to focus on creating Stray.
On June 3, Annapurna Interactive released another Stray trailer, and at this point, the public's excitement reached a peak. Dozens of art, videos and tweets from fans made it clear that gamers were looking forward to the game, and on July 19, everyone was able to download the game.
Before the release of Stray, the game publisher launched several charity events with animal shelters. For example, for a donation of $5 to the Nebraska Humane Society, which has shelters for cats and dogs, you could win a copy of the game. Therefore, the hype around the game was invested in a good cause.
At NHS we see thousands of stray cats every year... but we've never met one like this. ???? ????
On July 19, Stray was released and success awaited the project on the first day. On PC, the game became the largest launch for Annapurna Interactive. According to Benji-Sales, Stray confidently broke Annapurna's record for the number of simultaneous players on Steam - 50,000 people. Before that, the record belonged to Twelve Minutes - 8 021 players. And at the end of the year, Stray took 2nd place on Steam according to the rating from gamers. On Steam250, the game received a score of 8.66 based on 100,000 reviews. And the percentage of positive reviews is 97. This is the same as God of War. But the first place in 2022 was taken by Vampire Survivors. It has 99% positive reviews and a score of 8.80.
As for the release on PlayStation, the situation is not worse there. In July, the game became the most downloaded game for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 in North America, the second most downloaded for PlayStation 5 and the third for PlayStation 4 in Europe. Stray was in the list of the most downloaded games all summer long. And as mentioned above - more than 4 000 000 people played Stray on PlayStation.
In September, the game reminded about itself again. Two physical versions of Stray for PlayStation from iam8bit went on sale. The first one included a disc with the game and 6 artworks. And the second had posters, a patch and a tablet. But now only the standard physical edition is officially available for purchase. The exclusive version is already sold out.
A Twitter account @CatsWatchStray was even created, where photos and videos of cats (sometimes even dogs) watching their owners go through Stray are published. The account has 35 thousand users, and posts appear even in 2023.
On November 22, the game received its first award. At the Golden Joystick Awards ceremony, Stray won the Best PlayStation Game nomination. Gran Turismo 7, Horizon Forbidden West, Elden Ring, The Last Of Us Part I and Sifu also competed for this award. However, the red cat has overtaken absolutely everyone.
Next came one of the most prestigious ceremonies in the video game industry - The Game Awards. There, the game was immediately nominated in 6 categories - "Best Game of the Year", "Best Indie Game", "Best Adventure", "Best Art Design", "Best Debut Game" and "Best Game Director's Work".
They failed to win the nomination "Game of the Year", because the majority of votes were cast for Elden Ring. But BlueTwelve did not leave TGA empty-handed. Stray took 1st place in the nominations "Best Indie Game" and "Best Debut Game".
The last place where Stray participated was The Steam Awards 2022. And on January 3, it became known that the players in the nomination "Most Innovative Game Developer" gave first place to the debut game of BlueTwelve Studio.
After the release of Stray, the developers did not make any statements about the future. They gave all interviews before the release of the game, so the further fate of the studio can only be predicted. And for this we need to look at similar success stories of other indie studios. But before that, it should be said that the authors obviously will not stop at one game. Earlier this year, Stray tweeted that the team is looking for a HR manager in Montpellier. So the developers are obviously preparing for something.
Even before the release of the game, the developers clearly determined that the best solution would be to look at what is happening and how players will perceive Stray, and then react to it. Everyone already knows about the success of Stray, so it's worth analyzing the most likely scenario.
Due to the pressure from fans after the Stray show, BlueTwelve will not rush to announce the game, because the excitement for such a project will be, if not more, then on the same level as Stray. And remembering what consequences it led to - no one will talk about it before time.
So what was the fate of the studios whose indie hits also immediately shot out? Two studios immediately come to mind: Playdead and Campo Santo. Let's take Playdead. In 2006 the studio was founded, and in 2010 the world saw the black and white platformer Limbo. It immediately became successful, but the next game from the developers was released in 2016 and it was Inside. It was head and shoulders above Limbo in all aspects, but how many years we had to wait. Now the studio is developing the third game, but even the approximate release date is unknown. Why such long pauses between releases? The fact is that not many people work in each indie studio. In 2021, it became known that Playdead has 50 employees. For comparison, the AAA studio Naughty Dog employs 500 people and they do not release games every year.
As for Campo Santo, after the release of their debut project Firewatch in 2016, everyone was talking about the game. In 2018, they were acquired by Valve, but during this time Campo Santo only helped in the development of Half-Life:Alyx. And their next game In the Valley of Gods is suspended in production indefinitely. But while Playdead has expanded over the years, Campo employs only 13 people. No matter what publisher you are acquired by, this number of people is obviously not enough to create games quickly.
Screenshot of the suspended In the Valley of Gods (Source: pcgamer)
And what is the situation with BlueTwelve now? During the peak of production, the studio employed 28 people, now - 18. Which is also not very much. And from the very beginning, the founders of the studio knew that they wanted to remain a small team, so we should not expect any global expansion.
From all this we can draw only one conclusion - the next game will have to wait a long time. It is impossible to create a high-quality, polished project in two years with so many people. Stray took 7 years to make. And if you have to wait the same amount of time, it's great if the project is successful. The main thing is not to turn out like Campo Santo, when they, after a huge success, got stuck and still can't move.
In the dry residue
Whatever the way forward for BlueTwelve, with Stray they proved that a small studio can create a game that will be remembered alongside such industry giants as God of War Ragnarok or Elden Ring. Stray was a revelation in every aspect: an exciting new indie project, a new universe and a new gaming experience. A small studio of 28 people showed the whole world that it is quite possible to make a game that will win prestigious awards and, more importantly, win the hearts of gamers. This is why we love games. For such stories that we want to remember over time. After all, in 2022, in addition to Stray, we also saw the success of indie hits Vampire Survivors and Cult of the Lamb. So now we have only one question - will we see even more indie hits this year that can turn the industry upside down?
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