As a 2D Metroidvania with a heavy emphasis on exploration, Animal Well reminds me of a much more simpler era with its 8-bit style pixel art graphics. At the same time, the game also evokes a time when games didn’t rely on patches or DLC, and had to be shipped in a much more complete form. And this is exactly what Billy Basso is trying to achieve with his first feature game – so that it’s free of bugs and is also feature complete.
As a lone one-man developer who is single-handedly responsible for the game, Billy Basso has spent five years in making Animal Well. And with his passion project taking up his weekday nights and weekends, Billy Basso has also taken the time to develop the game from scratch – including creating his own custom engine. I spoke to Billy Basso about this, and also got to ask him as to how he was able to stay motivated during the game’s five year development period. Enjoy!
For those people who have never heard of Animal Well, and if you were to pitch them the fruits of your labour in an elevator pitch, how would you go about describing the game?
I would say that Animal Well is a 2D pixel art game that’s kind of a mash-up of a lot of different genres. There’s a lot of Metroidvania stuff, some puzzle platforming adventure, old adventure game elements… It takes inspiration from older flip screen Commodore 64 style games. There’s some survival horror stuff in there. But the the main through line is that the game has lots of secrets, and there’s lots of hidden passages to uncover. And it’s sort of a game that doesn’t hold your hand, and you just kind of play it at your own pace and explore.
One of the things that really attracted me about the game was it’s incredibly simplistic color palette. Was that a stylistic choice? What was your reasoning for having the almost monochrome 8 bit look, where the game doesn’t have a lot of colours?
As far as pixel art goes, I’ve always found that some of the strongest art really tries to limit its colour palette and make the best use of the few colours that it does have. So that was definitely kind of a strategy early on, when I was just drawing sprites, and for the game overall. I use a lot of purples, greens, and blues. and I tend to stick within that palette. And then there’s a lot of lighting effects that layer on top of the base art and change the colours as a result. So that tends to kind of tie everything together more as well. So the foreground will be tinted in a certain colour, and the background will have its own colour. And that sort of changes throughout the game. But then there’s a lot of things on top of it. There are fluid simulations, and more dynamic lighting effects that will change the overall look of the game as well. But yeah, it’s been a very iterative process over the years. Just creating new parts to the engine, adding new effects and layers, and also trying to just keep everything constrained and looking cohesive. Because it’s very easy to just add new tech or new effects, where they kind of look like they’ve been slapped on top, and it doesn’t look coherent. Every time I create a new lighting effect, I try to figure out how it will incorporate it with the existing limited colour palette, and lighting is also usually thresholded. There usually aren’t any smooth gradients, and I’ll also use dithering to ensure that I only use a few colors, so that it looks like there’s more detail. More textures also help with the atmosphere and makes it look like the air in the game is kind of denser, and things are also more twinkly and reflective.
You said the word “years”… How many years has the game been in development for?
So it’s been a part-time project for most of the time, but at this point, about five years. And it started out as a hobby project, back in 2017, and it was something that I would just work on for fun after work. And I had a full time job that whole time.
Was that in the game development industry?
It was, yeah. And then it wasn’t until the start of this year where I had enough saved up, and where I felt comfortable working on it full time. And just making that final push to make a finished product and release it.
You started working on this game in 2017. But you already had a job within the games industry. As a programmer, I assume?
What stopped you from going to your parent company at the time and saying, “hey… look, I would like to be able to work on this on a part time basis”. I mean, I assume you worked on this out of your own pocket? Could you not maybe have gotten some funding, like maybe as a side project, or as an overtime project from your parent company? Could you not have taken that route instead?
I don’t think that it would have been appropriate. I’ve worked at studios in the past where I’ve had to sign non-compete agreements. So technically, I wasn’t allowed to work on anything that was even considered a video game.
So you were pretty “hush hush” for the first three to four years?
Yeah, it wasn’t at that company specifically. But then the other one I was at, during the majority of development, was making more games adjacent stuff. It was more serious games. So it wouldn’t really have made been the appropriate thing. And I think it just seemed like the safest thing to do, or the easiest thing to do was to just quit and work on on my own.
What factors do you think have contributed to you spending five years on the game’s development?
So the way I went about development is… I took a very purist approach. I developed all of the tech from the ground up, in addition to designing the game as well.
Do you think that was a good thing?
I think in the long-term it is, because in order to maintain the motivation and finish a long-form project like this, you need to enjoy it. And I do enjoy building systems. I enjoy building my own tools, and using what I make. So if it takes a little longer, but I have fun doing it, I think that’s a much more sustainable way to work. Versus if I used another game engine and ran into bugs, where I didn’t have access to the source code that I could fix, I can imagine just getting frustrated after a while, burnt out, and maybe just abandoning it or moving on to something else or getting distracted. So it’s been like a labour of love, and I think that’s been the most important thing. And then there are actual real benefits. I’ve built a game engine, and now that I have this tech that I’ve invested in, it will make my future projects go much faster. And I can leverage that. So it was a big upfront investment, but I’m happy that I did it.
Do you think you’d ever consider making your engine open source, or maybe even putting it on the open market as a commercial product?
I’ve thought about it. Right now, it’s not a focus. I think I definitely want to release a game or two with it in order to prove it out, and really take it through its paces. It’s a possibility. There would need to be a lot of work in documenting it, cleaning it up, before it can be understood by people other than me. But yeah, if it makes sense, then I’ll consider it in the future. I’m not against it. It’s just that it would be a lot of work that would take away from me using it myself.
What was the inspiration for Animal Well? Why did the game come out the way it did? I mean, I know that it’s like a Metroidvania with horror elements and a few other things, but what made you sit down and go, “I want to make this game the way it is right now”. I know that you’ve mentioned that you’ve iterated throughout the game’s creation process, but at the same time, where you are now… is that pretty much what you wanted when you were originally starting out?
It’s similar and different. I started out wanting to make a game that really captured this feeling of exploring a forgotten or unfamiliar space. One example is when I was a kid growing up in my parents house, and when you’re in this small familiar space, you learn every little detail about it. Like, you learn what’s in every closet, you know of all the drawers in the kitchen. I remember finding a kitchen drawer after many years of living there, and not knowing that it was there. It was kind of tucked away under the counter. And just discovering it was kind of exciting. Like, the fact that I thought I understood this place, but there’s still a little secret to it. And I always thought of movies and stuff, where a house would have a hidden room or something – like a trap door. And I wanted to create a game about gaining a very intimate familiarity with the space, and then figuring out that there was something hidden under your nose the whole time. And you go back, and there could be things that looked like innocuous background decorations, but then later on, you learn that they are actually a part of a puzzle and were there the whole time. And really, the thing that changed was your understanding of the space. So I think that was the the main design goal of the game, and it was there from pretty much early on. And then it’s always been a matter of trying to figure out what the game looks like. I always knew that it was going to a flip screen, 2D pixel art game. That was a scope limitation, so that I could finish the game in general. At first, I thought it would take something like six months. I just wanted to make a fun Pico 8 style adventure game. But since then, the scope has crept up quite a bit as I’ve developed the new tech that I’ve wanted to use. And then there’s also this factor where the longer I work on a game, the higher the stakes become. I want it to be worth my time, so I want it to be the best game that it can be. I’ve set limits on how big the map in the game is. So once that’s filled out, I’m going to pack as much things in it as I can. And then that will just be the world, and I want it to be completely self contained when I release it. I don’t want to have to rely on post-launch updates or DLC. In contrast to a lot of the service style games, I want it to feel like a complete package, or more like this artefact that you’ve obtained that has all this history and has secrets to it that you might not find. But they’re there, whether you’re aware of them or not.
You mentioned that you’ve enjoyed the process of building the systems and the game itself. But it’s been five years. Whilst it’s nice to enjoy what you do, over the years, there must have been a few stumbling blocks that might have resulted in demotivating you – where you felt inclined to not finish the project. What has kept you going throughout all of these five years, and what have you done to ensure that you’ve stayed motivated throughout the game’s development? At the same time, knowing that you’re so close to the finish line, and knowing that so many people don’t actually want to cross that finish line, as they like that state of being and also being in momentum, where they ask, “well, what else am I going to do after this?” So they just carry on and never finish. So with that said, what have you done to stay motivated, but what are you also doing to stay motivated, knowing that you’re so close to the finish line?
Yeah, so as I was saying before, I’ve just been developing it in a way that I enjoy. But I think more importantly, even when I was working on it part-time, I had to really make a daily habit of working on it. And I was pretty much able to get in the habit of waking up a few hours before work and just work on it. One to two hours every morning, no matter what. I would make my coffee and then just sit down..
Was this five days a week, or was it seven days a week?
It was five… that was during the workday. And then I would do the weekend as well, and I would probably work much longer on the weekends. So it probably ended up being 20 hours a week or something. And so I was able to just make it be a habit. And I never really had like high expectations of what I would get done in a day. But every day I would maybe add a new feature, or design a new screen, or fix a few bugs, and that would be it. And if I did that in a day, I would be happy. But I was able to maintain that pace for years, and then after a while, I started noticing that I had a pretty big game on my hand. And I think I had high ambitions from the beginning. I’ve always wanted to understand the game development process from start to finish and not feel like I was relying on anyone else. So that’s always been the goal, and it’s almost bigger than the project, and I’m doing it through this. But I’ve also worked on a lot of games before that felt compromised in a lot of ways – like aggressive schedules, not big budgets, or they were mobile games with microtransactions. Or they just weren’t something that I was interested in. So this has been the side project where I get to do exactly what I want. And I get to make exactly the kind of game that I would want to play, without any shortcuts or compromises.
Are you still working on the game, because I think you said that you basically work on the game full time. Is that correct?
Yeah, so I have a pretty set schedule where I work on it six days a week, and I just get up every morning and do it. And at this point, there’s lots of different things that need to be done. Sometimes it’s applying and filling out forms for Gamescom…
Being at Gamescom…
Yes, being a Gamescom… Composing music, or just doing level design, or talking to people in our Discord channel. The variety of work has increased… And now there’s marketing. But all of it is contributing towards the final game, even if I’m drawing key art. That’s part of the whole game experience, even the marketing material… Where a player’s whole experience about the game is seeing it, hearing about it, reading about it, and then eventually downloading and playing it, and then talking with other people about it. And that’s all bigger than the game itself, but I also think that it’s central to the experience. So, yeah… Did that answer your question? I feel as if I kind of got off track.
No, that’s alright. I need to ask… You work six days a week on this, and I think that’s commendable in itself, but do you work in isolation – like at home, or do you work in a cafe? What’s your work environment like, and how do you ensure that… What I’m essentially trying to ask is, how do you maintain healthy relationships with people, when your work essentially dictates that you don’t spend a lot of time with people, because you work solo? I know that you’ve mentioned Discord channels, but that’s still internet based, and the lack of physical contact would still have a major impact on your mental health…
Yeah, so it’s something that I do have to deliberately schedule time for. Because if I was left to my own devices, I may just continue working and stay absorbed, and then fall out of touch with people. And to be honest, it is a little bit of a struggle, but almost every week or two, I’ll schedule dinner or meet up with a friend. I’m lucky enough to have a very supportive partner who I spend a lot of time with, and my family is close, and I get to see them. So I do manage to have some social life. But yeah, I work from home, and it is a little isolating, but I manage to get out. And I like my office. I’ve made it and filled it with lots of things that I enjoy looking at. And my neighbourhood is nice to walk around….
Where do you live?
I live in Chicago, in Ukrainian Village… There’s lots of trees in the neighbourhood…
In the US?
It’s in Illinois.
Okay, so the US… When you said Ukraine, I was like, “What?”
Oh, I’m sorry. Ukrainian Village, yeah… It’s a neighbourhood in Chicago. But yeah, I try to stay reasonably healthy, because I feel like that’s another issue. If I find myself not eating right, or not exercising, then I start feeling depressed or distracted. So it’s about trying to manage my mental faculties indirectly, that’s something I kind of plan around.
Billy, thank you so much. Do you have any last words?
It’s been a pleasure. Thanks. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about it. Animal Well will launch on Steam and PS5 next year so I’m hoping people interested in the game will join our Discord community, follow us on Twitter, and add Animal Well to their wishlist!
Thank you so much.