In 2016, The forgotten city was a major story-driven addition to a popular RPG and the first mod to win a national screenwriting award. You discover a mysterious underground city in ruins, travel into the past and meet its inhabitants. Then one learns of a terrible curse: If one sins here, everyone dies. So try to find out who is responsible for the sin that is destroying the city and prevent it – all while you are in one Groundhog Day-Style time warp.
The mod was downloaded over 3,000,000 times and IGN called it “just amazing,” but as popular as it was, I had made it in my spare time on a $ 0 budget and knew I could do it way, much could do better. So in 2017 I decided to make it a standalone game that was bigger and better in every way.
I only had 3 small problems:
1) I didn’t have time
2) I didn’t have a budget
3) I had absolutely no idea how to make an entire game
Even so, it’s now available for Xbox Series X | S and Xbox One, and this is a story about how it all came together. So let’s go back in time, yeah?
I solved my first problem – no time – by quitting my job. It was of course insanely risky, especially since I worked in the legal profession, where you usually don’t get back in after a few years. It felt like jumping out of an airplane and my plan was to learn to fly until I hit the ground.
I solved my second problem – no budget – by diving into my savings and applying for funding. After creating a rough prototype, I managed to get grants from a benevolent arts sponsor (Film Victoria) as well as an Unreal Dev Grant from Epic. The mod and its receptionist really opened a lot of doors.
I solved my third problem – no experience – by hiring Alex, a programmer who had just created a VR spacewalk sim in collaboration with NASA – a one-man army that has been doing the Work done by a whole team of programming took years. We met by chance at a party. Do you remember parties? Right place, right time.
The highlight of 2018 was the presentation of the game on the stage of the PC gaming show at E3. After watching E3 for a lifetime it was overwhelming to see my little game up there. We even managed to win an Unreal E3 Award: “Unreal Underdog”, because we were brave (read: crazy) enough to compete with the big dogs of the E3.
It felt like a win back then, but we later realized that we had made the mistake of announcing the game much earlier than planned because we kept finding ways to do better and ended up postponing it a couple of times had to.
The highlight of 2019 was the exhibition of the game at GDC and PAX East. We were running out of funding when I met a publisher named Dear Villagers, who gave us the support we needed to make the game we’ve always wanted to make.
They later told me that one of the most important criteria their scout used in deciding who to publish was “Do I want to have a beer with this person?” So never underestimate the importance of relationships. I couldn’t visit them in France because of the pandemic, so I still sent them a nice case of beer with a “thank you”.
2020 was blurry, but two things stand out:
First, we had to work with some exceptional historical advisors to ensure that our game world – an ancient Roman city – features historically authentic art, architecture, costumes and customs. One, Dr. Philip Matyszak has a PhD from Oxford, teaches at Cambridge and has written 17 books. The other, Dr. Sophie Hay, has spent the last 20 years excavating the ruins of Pompeii. They are both really smart, lovable and down to earth and have helped us a lot.
Second, thanks to a call with Shon Stewart, the lead animator at one of my favorite developers, Obsidian, we finally figured out how to make good dialog animation. No, our animations are not triple-a-motion captures, but considering that we are a core team of 3 developers, I am super happy with the result.
That brings us to 2021. The game is out later this month.
The last 4.5 years have been terrifying, exciting, creatively satisfying and all consuming. They were super productive too: we rewrote the script (it’s now twice as long) and added new characters, quests, twists, endings, game mechanics, plus professional voice acting and new orchestral music.
Whatever happens next, I’m really proud of how The forgotten city turned out and I’m really glad I took the plunge!
Thank you for reading!