Developing Old Man’s Journey: Key Takeaways

Indie Developer "Broken Rules"

In February 2018 I interviewed Felix Bohatsch and Clemens Scott, the masterminds behind the surprise hit "Old Man's Journey". They are two of the five founders of Broken Rules, an indie developer with several released games. Because of lacking success, the studio ultimately had to decide to either close down, or change the company structure.

They kept their name, but organized themselves as a hub - with each of their owners pursuing their own projects, while maintaining the studio brand and identity. While in pre-hub times Broken Rules developed only original IPs (And Yet It Moves, Chasing Aurora, Secrets of Raetikon), they now mostly did contract work (here's the full list of collaborations - wow). Old Man's Journey was the first original IP that they developed since establishing the hub.

We recorded hours of footage. I decided to edit one video about the development of Old Man's Journey, and plan to release another video about the unlikely story of Broken Rules - this will take some time though =)

Key Takeaways

  • Clichés help making semantics really obvious - while resulting in subtleties to get lost. Balance this according to your resources - in OMJ, the general game length and chapter structure required the team to use clichés heavily.

  • Time investment can be a barrier to let people experience your work - while longer content (games, books, films etc) tends to imply getting a better offer (getting more bang for the buck), it will also always keep some people from enjoying the work. OMJ is a ninety-minute experience, in a world where games sometimes take 40-60 hours until completion.
    More and more people see the potential of shorter gaming experiences, for an audience of people without endless amounts of time.

  • Understand your personal metrics of success, to know what to do when successful - in capitalist systems, most economics courses will advice for market expansion and deep financial (re-)investments. Broken Rules didn't go this way after their success with Old Man's Journey - they rode the wave out, ported the game to more platforms, and picked up awards internationally. They downscaled the team, because they wanted to spend quality time with their family.
    This is a topic that comes up so frequently in these interviews: people don't pursue their passion to get rich, but to get by. To these people, "doing the thing" is what makes them happy - money is a side issue. Once they have enough, why be greedy and want more?
    This is a personal decision of course - which is the point here: analyse your personal needs, analyse what makes you happy. Follow that route.

  • Don't be afraid of failing - this is another topic that is mentioned frequently in these interviews: once you were successful with something, you have to choose: follow that path again (that's how mainstream Hollywood works), or do you want to keep pushing creatively? 
    By doing the latter, you're taking a risk - which might get smaller the more experienced you get. But ultimately, the Beginner's Mind of not-being-afraid-to-fail is essential to being creative. 
    (here's Cara Ellison's interview discussing the same issue)

  • It's possible to plan for commercial success. This is such a tiny statement, but it feels extremely powerful to a beginner - who often wonders whether that could actually be true. It's like the Holy Grail of Creativity =)
    But apparently, certain creatives take the time and thing about their product from a customer's point of view, think about what they can offer best, and then actually manage to become successful.
    Art and commercial success always form a fragile balance - but they might not have to. Know that you can plan for commercial success.

Personal Connections..

I was a game programmer for Rockstar Vienna, from 2000-2006. Broken Rules, the company that now developed Old Man's Journey, started to emerge in the same city - as students first, in 2007. While I was working on AAA titles for Rockstar, they were one of the first indie developers, before that word was known.

Once I studied fine arts, I no longer cared too much about indie gaming, or game development, or games at all anymore - I was happy having left the industry, with a new path and horizon in front of me. One of the professors at the art university was an abstract painter called Erwin Bohatsch - a calm, mellow, supportive person that I liked from afar. It took me years to see that one of the five founders of Broken Rules, Felix Bohatsch, was closely related to the abstract painter: they were father and son.

I first got in touch with him in around 2013/2014, when I was exhibiting video game art in the fine arts context. I'd already finished my studies and was writing my PhD thesis. I exhibited them a few times. In the first meeting we had, Felix told me about their financial struggles, which might result in them closing down their studio. Ultimately, that's not what happened: they released Old Man's Journey in 2017, to amazing financial and critical success. 

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