“Before playing the game you will need to read a 30-page digital manual. Playing the game without it can be challenging” says Neugarten, clearly proud of this design decision. And even though it has already cost him a lot in terms of both money and his private life, he’s set on making Sand is the Soul just the game he wants it to be.
Learning by mistakes
Before Michał started working on his solo project, he had completed and released two games with the other two co-founders of MGP Studios – Grzegorz Jurczuk and Paweł Nożykowski (the G and P to his M). Michał met them relatively late in his career, years after being burnt by a potential partner. That partner was the programmer with whom he was supposed to break into the gaming industry around 7 years ago.
“What can I say, you learn by your mistakes. I started working on my first game, Sinless, with a programmer recommended to me by a mutual friend. Friendship is one thing. When it came to real work, with actual responsibilities, it turned out he wasn’t the proper person for the task,” Michał says.
That first attempt took up over a year of hard work, which eventually led him to realize that he was the only one actually getting anything done. With tons of music and design ideas, with assets finished and ready to be put into the game, the other half of the team wasn’t even able to reach the early alpha stage.
So their paths had to split.
It would be another few years before Michał meets two programmers with no previous involvement in the video game industry, Paweł and Grzegorz. Only then was he finally allowed to complete his first game. Sinless, a 2D point and click visual novel with demanding gameplay and no hand-holding was to be a love letter to the games Michał grew up with. Dynimix’s Rise of the Dragon was his chief inspiration.
“What I really liked about those games was their immense attention to detail combined with a complete trust in the player. So, for example, if at the start of the game you picked up your clothes but forgot to put them on in your inventory, you’d get arrested for indecent exposure as soon as you walked out the door,” explains Michał, adding that a very similar easter egg exists in Sinless.
Michał and the rest of the team were really happy with their work on Sinless when the game was released on Steam in the end of 2015. At least as much as they could be – you never stop thinking you could have done more. When the game didn’t achieve commercial success, something needed to change. The team had to eat.
Their second project, Roll’d, called for a very different approach. They had decided to make a casual arcade game with mass appeal. It was designed to be a simple timekiller in the popular endless runner genre. But even with this one they wouldn’t settle for the path of least resistance.
“Maybe I set my ambitions a bit too high with that one. Now, I believe someone who plays that kind of game doesn’t really care about the graphics or variety in the levels, but I wanted each of them to have a distinct visual style,” Michał says.
Either way, Roll’d was released on Steam in April, 2016, and it was much more profitable than Sinless. They finally felt their work made sense – not only as a hobby, but as a means of making money. Paradoxically, it only confirmed for Michał that he didn’t simply want to make money. He wants to make creations that he’s proud of.
Getting back to roots
“The basic idea for Sand is the Soul is now almost twenty years old. I did the first sketches and design ideas back when I was in college,” says Michał about his current solo project. This is the game he always wanted to make, but he didn’t want to cause problems for his partners.
“I knew they had their close ones to support and they couldn’t afford to spend the next few years making a game that might be another gamble. I, on the other hand, was already deeply involved in working on Sand is the Soul and I didn’t want to stop. So we’ve decided to part ways for a bit,” Michał explains the current state of his studio.
And boy, isn’t it an unique one! Sand is the Soul is a hardcore action RPG with a complex combat system. It requires the player to read a sizable manual before they even start playing! Michał is certain that there’s a method to this madness.
“By combining all the elements of a demanding action game with a cerebral adventure game, I hope to attract those people for whom the most important thing in gaming is the sense of discovery and wonder that we felt so often back in the day,” he says. Judging by the success of similarly attentive and well-designed games in recent years, he just may be on to something.
Written by Dominik Gąska for Fat Dog Games