One of the games which stood out this year at Gamescom, if only for the fact that it commanded a massive presence at the show – the sort of presence that’s normally reserved for major AAA publishers like Ubisoft, and major AAA titles like Call Of Duty – was a Souls-like game by the name of Enotria: The Last Song. And whilst there was no doubt in my mind that whoever was developing the game had taken the unprecedented step of putting across an incredibly bold face, what surprised me even more however was the fact that Enotria is actually the product of a relatively small indie game studio in Milan (Italy) that harbors very big dreams of wanting to operate on the international stage.
I spoke to Edoardo Basile (Project Manager) about the struggles which his company, Jyamma Games, has experienced in bringing Enotria to the market, and how the studio has fared in a socio-political environment that continuously perceives gaming as being an irreverent pastime. As part of this, and during our conversation, Edoardo Basile was able to impart his studio’s vision of wanting to put Italy on the map, and how, despite having no real support, Jyamma Games wanted to show the world that “underdogs matter”. Enjoy!
Prior to Gamescom this year, I’d never heard of Enotria before. From my perspective, the game literally came out of nowhere. You obviously did a lot to promote it, to the extent that you made it seem like a AAA production, and where the game got the sort of attention that’s normally reserved for AAA heavyweights like Call Of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Halo… But the level of effort you went to in order to promote your game at Gamescom this year was pretty impressive. With that said however, how come nobody’s heard about Enotria before? And regarding Jyamma Games… How come I’d never heard of your company before. What’s your story?
Actually, it’s probably because the company itself is just 4 years old. The first year, we were just 9 people, and the company developed mobile games. And 3 years ago, we suddenly decided to go bananas and do a console game. And we basically moved from 9 people to 50 people in a matter of 6 to 12 months, something like that. But for sure, we’re not a AAA production, and we’re still a indie company. And it makes sense that people don’t know that much about us. But actually our… let’s just say, “public story”, started at Tokyo game Show 2022. We released the first trailer there, and we had a small booth in the Indie Arena. It was our first public event. We basically focused our first year on engaging with the press. We did a lot of work in Italy, and then we decided that it was time to go bigger, and to go to an international stage. And we actually received a lot of love from Asia and we got good recognition. But in the Western market, we didn’t feel as if we’d done enough. People didn’t really know enough about us, even if the product is very good, because our budget is limited. We don’t have the budget of FromSoftware or companies like that. So at one point, we decided that we were now confident in our product, and it’s very playable now. It has an acceptable level of polish that we can show to the public. And we said, “okay, let’s go big in Gamescom and TGS”. So this is why you’ve probably never heard about us. We are underdogs. And people are usually surprised, because underdogs are a surprise. We are a studio of 50 people. We are very proud to have something this unique and special, and this is something that is a very huge achievement for us.
So given the fact that you were originally 9 people when you were doing mobile games… Most companies, they don’t dramatically grow to the extent that you have. There’s always some factor, like funding issues, which prevents them from doing this. How have you been able to fund the development of this game, where you’ve increased the studio count from 9 people to 50 people? How have you been able to increase the studio count nearly six-fold and still been able to maintain complete creative control? What sort of pressure has that put upon you from a monetary perspective? But also, how have you been able to increase the headcount without necessarily diluting the culture, and even the quality of the culture, as well as the workmanship?
Actually, if we were able to escalate the headcount that quickly, it’s because of private investors. Basically, they are the same guys that invested in the company from the beginning. Once we presented this new project to them, they basically decided to help us build everything. And they said, “okay, if we want to do this, we do this big, we do this the right way”. Because whilst it is about investing a certain amount of money, it’s not whether you invest less or more. It’s the return of investment that matters most, right?
And obviously the recent success of Elden Ring helped your chances of getting investment, because Elden Ring is one of the bigger games out there…
Absolutely… Elden Ring really helped us because it broadened the target audience. Right before Elden Ring, I felt as if Soul-likes were still a niche genre, like a million people niche, but still a bit niche. But Elden Ring really helped people accept the genre more and make it much more approachable. And this really helped us because people then started getting more interested in the genre, because it’s not just a matter of, “oh, it’s a difficult game”. It can be much more if you’re able to give the right tools to users to approach the game. So yeah, they were basically just private investors mainly. And then we had other partners. But the idea, and the fact that we were able to find very high profile developers from around the world, and gather all of them together to create a very good team, a very talented team with a lot of experience…
Do they have experience in Soulsborne games?
Not in Soulsborne especially. But the directorial team for instance, for the most part, comes from Cyberpunk 2077, The Witcher, and CD Projekt Red. Others come from Ubisoft. And all the other seniors have something like 15-20+ years of AAA experience. Yeah, I think we have the connections. We have people wanting to work with us on this project, and the project itself convinced the investor board to help us.
Even though Enotria seems like a sure-fire bet from a financial stakes perspective, because you were able to use Elden Ring as an excellent case study when pitching your business proposal so as to get the necessary funding… Why did you focus on a Soulsborne game however as a means to go big? Why not go for something like a first person shooter?
Well, when we first started developing Enotria, Elden Ring wasn’t even announced, so we didn’t know…
How long has Enotria been in development for?
It has been something like 3.5 years in development. So we didn’t know. But at the same time, and I feel as if this is the secret of the product and its goodness, is the fact that all of the people in the development team love Souls-like games. And most of them are Italian, and so they are passionate about this product because it speaks about their culture, and they are represented by their favorite genre, which means that ultimately it’s a really safe choice for us.
In the first instance, we did speak about doing an action RPG, like The Witcher for instance, because The Witcher promotes Polish culture. So we thought, “okay, we can do something like that. We can do an action RPG that talks about our culture, but with Souls-like pillars”. Because Souls-likes are quite severe and have strict rules. They basically chain you to a certain direction, especially in terms of gameplay. And this was a safe bet, because although the development team does have experience, it doesn’t have experience in the genre. The development team is very newborn. They’ve never really worked together before, except for a few people. So we decided, “okay, let’s just try to work in a genre that can keep us focused, where we have rules to follow, and where we don’t change ideas and direction constantly”. Because action RPGs can take several directions, whether they be The Witcher, Zelda, or something else. A Souls-like is a Souls-like. You have to follow certain rules, and this really helped us keep focused on the direction, and have a coherent product at the end that is very important to us.
What are your top 3 Souls-like games?
My top 3 will probably be Sekiro, Elden Ring, and Dark Souls 3.
We’re coming up to a time in the games industry, and maybe it’s because of the success of games like Elden Ring, Bloodborne, and the Dark Souls series… I mean, we’ve also had games like Lords Of The Fallen come out, and then there’s your game that’s waiting in the wings… But with all these Souls-likes that are coming out, do you think that maybe the genre is getting a tad congested? Or do you think that there’s still an opportunity out there for software companies to go and grab themselves a veritable foothold within the market and embed themselves within the public consciousness? Or do you think that we’re now getting to a point where there’s going to be massive casualties, like there are already massive casualties occurring in the games industry as a whole?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I feel like the games industry in general is in an unhealthy spot right now. Of course, there will be a lot of Souls-like games that will never be as strong as what FromSoftware’s games are capable of, because there are a lot of factors to consider… For example, we don’t have their engine. And we don’t have their people working on our title, and that’s fine…
To be fair, and from what I understand, a lot of FromSoftware’s employees happen to be “worked to death”, if that makes sense. Like, they get worked really hard, and they don’t get paid a lot…
Yeah, I just mean commercially… FromSoftware sell a lot of games that people love to play right now. Covid certainly helped a lot in this regard. Game development as a job is another thing, and it has its own unique issues which everyone knows about. But yeah, I don’t feel as if the market is as congested as people think. As soon as you’re able to find your niche or uniqueness, it’s not really that important as to what genre you’re trying to be part of. And of course, just this year for the Souls-like genre, we’ve seen Lords Of The Fallen, Lies Of P, and had an announcement for Elden Ring DLC. Right now, it feels congested because there are a lot of people that want to follow the hype-wave of this genre. But in the end, I feel as if people are smart enough to understand as to who is able to do a very good product and who isn’t. So there is congestion, in the sense that there are a lot of people who are trying to make it, but there are very few people that will be able to do it properly. So as soon as you are one of those people, for sure you will have a chance. And being one of those people doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have a AAA production. It could be an indie game company, or it could even be a solo developer. If you’re a good developer, then you’re a good developer, and you’re going to make a good game. So I don’t feel that it is congested. I feel as if a lot of people try to do something, but they don’t always do it the right way. So for sure, there is hope. It’s not all about FromSoftware, and people are willing to play other games, because the demand is super high, and that makes a lot of sense to me.
Jyamma Games are based in Italy… From my understanding, the Italian games industry isn’t as well established as other regions, like the UK and USA for example. So from that perspective, it’s harder to get respect as a game developer, or even as a game studio. Within this context therefore, I can understand it if you’re an indie game developer who is part of a small 9 person team. You’re not “big” as such, and are very much operating within an industry that everyone perceives as being a cottage industry, if that makes sense. Nobody really takes the game developer or the studio they’re part of too seriously as there’s no real money involved, and everyone has this blasé attitude where you’re just doing your own little thing. But the minute you start becoming AAA, the minute you start ramping up production from 9 people to say, 50 people… How do you feel as an Italian studio, where you work in Italy, and work in an environment that consists of Italian studios that mostly harbor an indie mentality and workforce… Because I’m looking at it from the perspective of culture, and also from the perspective of a potential culture clash… Because you’re working in an environment where even your own government views you as being part of a cottage industry, even though you’re basically trying to say that you’re bigger and better, and therefore deserve to be taken more seriously, and want to be recognized as being a AAA studio… And one way to obviously be taken seriously is to have big money, and to have big investments. So I just want to ask, how does Jyamma Games manage to operate in an environment where you’re able to get massive investments from your funders, who still think of videogames as being a niche industry, and who still perceive Jyamma in the context of game development studios that number around 10-20 people? And then you’ve got the government as well, who probably aren’t prepared to give grants or subsidies, and who aren’t interested in promoting or enhancing the growth of gaming companies such as yourselves?
To be fair, it was pretty tough. This is the reason why we were successful in building our team… Because most of the people that came to us, who said that they wanted to work with us on this project, were Italian developers. They’re super talented developers… Even though they could have gone abroad, because there’s no real work in this industry in Italy, and because the Italian games industry is not on the radar. And as you’ve said, our government is not supporting our industry in any meaningful way. They’re actually trying to sabotage it. They say videogames are evil, and stuff like that. Our main idea was that we wanted to do something that will allow us to put Italy on the radar again, or for the first time at least. I mean, we do have a few companies, even if they’re not Italian companies. We’ve got Ubisoft Milan with Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, and they did a very good job. But again, it’s Ubisoft, right?
I think most people think of Ubisoft as being a French company. They don’t think of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle as being a Ubisoft Milan production, or even an Italian production. They just think of it as being another Ubisoft production…
Exactly. And they’re experienced Italian developers who are super talented, and we know them very well. But the fact is, and it’s true… They don’t really recognize you. Even publishers, from the smallest to the biggest… They don’t recognize that we’re Italian, that we’re a new team, that we’re a AA production after three years with no title released. They don’t take us seriously and with professionalism.
We were lucky, honestly. We have investors who are supporting us. But most of the other indie companies, they aren’t so lucky. And this is why they are prevented from making games and being able to contribute to our industry in general. But again, this is our final mission. The vision of the company is to actually make sure that Italy matters in this industry. This is why Jyamma was born in the first place, and this is why we’ve assembled this team. We are doing this project because it has to speak of Italy and its problem. It has to speak from an Italian point of view. And hopefully, fingers crossed, we are doing our best. We are giving our 150%. We are hoping that we can show the entire world that even underdogs matter. Where even if you’re discredited, because you come from a region that’s not famous for major releases, we’re hoping to prove that we can do it too. Also, and with publishers and the press and generally a lot of people, not just with us, but even with Italian people, they say: “It’s a waste of time. You’re not going to go anywhere. You’re not going to be successful. And we don’t want to cover you”. So yeah, it’s definitely been a mixture of things, and it’s been tough.
And with the second question… I guess it’s more related to the studio culture, the working environment. That was tough too, because not only did we have to organize and move on with the production, but we also had to increase the number of people within the company and get them working together. Of course, we’ve had our lows, but we’ve also had our highs. And we always try to keep the “fun” in making our games, because this is what’s ultimately missing from the industry right now. Making videogames is not fun, and this is a paradox. One does a job like this because they’re passionate. Like, all my friends say, “wow, you make videogames. That must be the most fun thing ever”. And I’m like, “guys, it’s so stressful. You have no idea”. So we are trying to keep the fun of a 9 person studio, instead of a 50 person studio. And we’ll see if we can commit to this. But this is ultimately the key to having a healthy studio, and a healthy product at the end.
Last question, and we’ll talk about this in the context of the Roman Empire… So I know that Enotria is a Milan product, and not a Rome product, so in this context, let’s go with the idea of the “Italian Empire”. And just like in the Italian Empire, there were a lot of innovations and improvements that were introduced. I mean, you introduced the paved roads, the sewage systems, the Hadrian Wall… So using this same example, and how the Roman Empire was responsible for a lot of innovations and quality of life improvements… And this is a bit of an unfair question, but you’ll understand what I’m trying to get at in a moment… For people that are accustomed to their Bloodborne, their Sekiro, their “whatever” game…. Because nobody wants to be a copycat…
What improvements are you hoping to bring? And in what way do you think that Enotria is different from what’s already out there? What are you doing to innovate the genre?
Oh, absolutely… The first thing that is the most noticeable, for instance, when you think about Souls-like games, is that you think about dark, and how all the titles are a copycat of that. Because all the titles are dark. Italy is not dark. Italy is colorful. It has a bright palette. It has sun. It has the sea. It has art, culture… It has wonderful environments. This is Italy. This is not Dark Souls, for instance. Right? When you play Dark Souls, you feel as if you’re in a wasteland most of the time. And most of the other games try to emulate this, because it gives them that epic feeling and stuff like that. But it’s obvious that people are going to compare you to those titles because you are not that different from them. And so this is the obvious one… We formulated the word “Summer-Souls” because, as you can see, the environment is amazing. We are “dark” in the themes of our game, because there is a lot of killing of course. The genre is there, but Italy is also so misrepresented abroad. We are not Super Mario. We are not pizza, mafia, mandolino, okay? We have some very fresh problems that, for instance, my generation is suffering from. Like stagnation, cultural stagnation, as you said before. The Romans were innovators. We had the Renaissance, the Luminism. We had this magnificent era within Europe, mostly coming from the Italian and Greek region. But nowadays, we are at the back of everybody, Germany, England, everybody. And this is shameful for us, because we feel culture. We live with art, culture, knowledge, and everything. But we cannot give value back, right? And this is the very first theme that we have in mind for our game. And it gets very, very dark. But again, the main storyline of our game is very dark. There aren’t any gritty environments per se, but the wasted beauty is yet another very important theme for us. You have a lot of art everywhere in our culture, but there are people who, when they see an amazing temple, decide to use it as a toilet, because it has no meaning for them. I’m so used to this, and it doesn’t make sense for me to give value to them, but this is something that we all suffer from daily. Of course we have the mafia, and of course we have corruption. You will also see corruption in our game. But I think, with our game’s environments and storytelling, we’ll be much more unique, because you cannot find those things in another culture. That’s our point. We have so much culture, tradition, and folklore, that we have an unlimited amount of content.
Any last words?
Wishlist the game, support us, and let’s see if underdogs matter…
Thank you so much.