Fixing Godhood

Something wasn’t quite right with Godhood. As less-than-favourable reviews appeared on Steam and sales failed to take off, it gradually dawned on Utrecht-based developer Abbey Games that its god sim had fallen short of expectations. It was, according to designer and studio co-founder Adriaan Jansen, a situation that sprang from a well-intentioned attempt to cram too many ideas into the game. “It was a slow realisation that we were fighting ourselves and the game by projecting too many personal ambitions into it,” Jansen tells us. “More and more things just weren’t shaping up as we thought they would be.”

It’s common for developers to talk openly about a game that’s sold thousands of copies and garnered positive reviews. It’s comparatively rare for a studio to talk candidly about a game that has struggled to find its footing – or, in Abbey Games’ case, forced its founders to make the painful decision to cut its team of a dozen or so developers down to just three. “For some of us it was devastating,” Jansen says of that dark period in 2019 when three quarters of his team were made redundant. “We’d not only built up a game company, but also a tight group of friends. To give you an idea, I had to fire the person who is now my fiancé, and another who is going to be my best man. Also, a lot of talent was lost to us.”

Godhood’s story began in January 2019, when Abbey Games took to Kickstarter to raise funds for its Populous-inspired sim. The studio had already built a reputation for making well-received titles in a similar vein with Reus (also a god game) and Renowned Explorers (a strategy-adventure); Godhood would continue in a similar yet far more ambitious vein, with an intricate build-your-own-religion system and tribes of rival acolytes to fight. The project may have been niche, but it soon passed its €50,000 target.

As development progressed on Godhood, however, it became clear that Abbey Games’ ambition – and the creative environment at the studio – were beginning to work against it. It was an environment that Jansen now calls “toxic friendliness” among the team members: “We were on such equal terms and had such aversion to things that looked authoritarian that we ended up spending a lot of time on making compromises,” he says, “many of which were too ambitious.”

The Abbey Games team, pictured at the launch of Godhood’s Kickstarter campaign.

Playing god

When Godhood’s July 2019 Early Access appearance was met with disappointment (“promises the world, but delivers much less”, was Polygon’s downbeat verdict), its creators had to think carefully about what to do next. “We never talked about giving up,” Jansen says, “but it was more a matter of principle than business at that point. Initially, we were going to finish Godhood with just three of the founders out of pure pride; we couldn’t leave Godhood in that unfinished state. It both forced and helped us to be decisive, and bring it to a much better and unique place right now. Business-wise, it also turned out to be a good decision to chase higher quality.”

By December, the studio had pared its ranks down to Jansen and programmers Maarten Wiedenhof and Manuel Kerssemakers. Together, the trio applied a similar winnowing process to Godhood itself: they stripped back unnecessary elements and focused on making its god-game core more fun to interact with. “The plan was simple: focus on the aspect that was the most fun, and sink all other ambitions until further notice,” Jansen explains. “It was mostly internal, but some fans helped out a ton. This allowed us to focus on making the game playable, and if there would be thematic or technical ideas, they would only come to be if the foundation below it was strong. Better to make something for someone, then everything for no one. Before, it was easy to come up with a new, bigger ambition to fit everyone’s view of the game. Even if that ambition was too big. This sounds obvious, but the simplest things are the hardest.”

By focusing on the core elements of its god game, Abbey was able to rework Godhood in less than a year.

This uncompromising approach soon paid dividends: when the finished Godhood launched in August 2020, the consensus on Steam had risen to ‘very positive’ – an impressive turnaround, given Abbey managed to rework the game in less than one year. Says Jansen: “When we returned to a smaller crew, I finally felt we could make quick decisions again with clear responsibilities and an adequate amount of discussions. It was also a ‘never again’ moment for me, which gave me a lot of resolve. If you prioritise being nice above (making a good game), you’ll end up in a painful situation like this.”

Life after Abbey

Breaking up a close-knit studio may have been difficult, but it wasn’t all bad news for the team members let go in the wake of Godhood’s Early Access launch. “First, we honoured the contracts which had a termination period of two to four months,” Jansen says. “Second, most got compensation equal to one or two months’ salary depending on the time they worked with us. A few chose to trade in a part of that compensation for a share in the revenue of Godhood. That turned out to be a good deal for them, so we’re happy to give them a bit extra. Last but not least, we tried to help them get a new place, or help their new business. A few got some paid assignments through us. Like Marlies Barends, who became a freelance artist for board and digital games. And three other employees started their own project with Cat Cafe Manager, under their new studio, Roost Games.”

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