Five years ago, during Microsoft’s E3 press conference, Sword & Sworcery developer Capy Games teased its next project. The trailer was less than a minute long, but it was full of promise, showcasing a gorgeous, moody adventure called Below where a tiny figure braved a dark cavern and the dangers within. The short glimpse was enough to create a groundswell of excitement. Over the years, though, that excitement fluctuated. Below was delayed several times, and two years ago the studio decided to stop talking about it until the game was closer to launch. The goal was to both preserve Below’s mystery and avoid making unfulfilled promises about when it would actually come out.
Last Friday, more than five years after Below was first announced and six years after development began, the game finally debuted on Xbox One and PC. For Capy, it wasn’t quite the celebratory moment you might expect. There was no confetti or bottles of champagne. “Really what happens with any game launch these days, especially from a smaller studio, is the game launches and you’re still working on the game,” says Capy president Nathan Vella. “It’s really anti-climactic.”
As the name implies, Below is a game about exploring the depths that lie beneath a dark, remote island. You play as a small figure delving deeper and deeper into the world, uncovering secrets and new items, all while trying to stay alive. Below utilizes elements of roguelikes and procedural generation; when you die in the game, you have to start over from the beginning, and each time the island is slightly different. It’s a challenging, complex game, and it’s also the biggest thing the studio has ever made, which is partly why it took so long.
Protracted development isn’t something that’s entirely new for Capy. Sword & Sworcery was delayed so much that it eventually launched on the iPad before the iPhone, even though Apple’s tablet didn’t even exist when the game was first announced. And the time-travelling action game Super Time Force had its own particular, paradox-fueled design challenges. But with its focus on procedural generation and interlocking systems like crafting and survival, Below was significantly more complex.
“It’s impossible to compare,” Vella says when asked how Below stacks up to previous Capy games. “It was much bigger, much more challenging — challenging technically, challenging artistically, challenging design-wise, challenging production-wise. Every piece of it was drastically harder than anything we’ve done. It was a game that fought against us in a lot of different ways and required a lot more determination to finish it than any other game has.”
For instance, midway through development, Below shifted from 2D visuals — something Capy is particularly well known for — to 3D graphics, which were better suited for the game and its large focus on light and shadows. “We had amazing artists who were essentially learning how to do 3D art while doing 3D art for the game,” Vella explains. The whole studio was learning things as it went, which made predicting just how long it would take to complete Below an impossible task.
Then, in 2016, the studio delayed the game indefinitely after missing its planned summer release window. “We will be going dark while we take the time that we need to complete Below without compromise,” Capy explained in a short blog post. “The next time you see a major Below update, that means our game has a firm release date, which we’ll share.” This quiet period allowed the studio to focus on making the game without interruptions like making trailers or demos. It also helped preserve some of Below’s mystery: after so many years, it was getting hard to talk about the game without spoiling its surprises. “Going dark allowed us to keep some stuff secret,” says Vella.
During that period he says that Capy still received a lot of support from fans who couldn’t wait to play Below, and that partner Microsoft never pushed the studio to release a rushed version that the developers weren’t happy with. “They could’ve given up on us numerous times,” Vella explains. “They probably should have, but they chose not to. Every time I talked to them they said, ‘Yep, we get it, take your time.’”
Now that the game is out, the reception has been more positive than Vella expected, but Below definitely isn’t a game for everyone. With its challenging nature and lack of instructions, the developers anticipated a polarizing reaction. “We knew some people weren’t going to like it — that was kind of the point in the first place,” says Vella. “We knew that some people were going to bounce off of it, but we also knew that it would really resonate with some people. Predominantly, people have been really digging it.”
Capy has already released a few patches for the game, and the plan is to release a small update over the holidays while everyone on the team gets some much needed time off until next year. Vella says the team has a “desire” to keep supporting the game if the fan interest is there, but when it comes to Capy’s next big project, that’s almost as mysterious as Below itself. The early part of 2019 will be spent playing around with ideas and building prototypes to figure out what comes next. And after such a long time spent on one game, it’s something the team is looking forward to.
“We haven’t been in this position in years,” says Vella. “We’ve always known what our next release is going to be.”