With upcoming work on two major titles finally almost ready to begin, Alexis Kennedy only had a matter of months to bring Cultist Simulator to fruition. He also quickly discovered that as he worked to bring the game to life, his own life was well on its way to imitating art. Kennedy was building a game in which players need to earn Funds cards, which you earn by completing Work, as your supply of Reason and Health cards are dwindled by Time. Almost everyone who plays the game quickly runs out of Health cards on their first attempt to play the game, which reinforces the importance of Work in this loop. This was not unlike what happens in Sunless Sea, a previous game he had worked on, in which players travel across an ocean in a fragile ship, struggling to make sense of uncharted terrain with an extremely limited amount of resources.
Though he personally had more stability than he did when he was first getting started as an unknown independent game developer, Kennedy still found himself struggling to find time to make Cultist Simulator and have it ready to be delivered by his original self-imposed deadline despite his excitement. To speed up the production and address some of his biggest weaknesses as a creator, he partnered with artist Catherine Unger to give the game a defined, strong visual identity, and with Martin Nerurkar, a UX designer who was also building an indie game using cards, giving him space to simply write the game’s script and write code. He felt much like the titular cultist within his own game, needing to complete work in order to survive, rather than tackling the bigger goals within the game (or, in this case, tackling the goal of making the game itself).
Eventually, this also revealed a flaw in Cultist Simulator’s mechanics; many players eventually discover that if they work long enough, they can amass enough money to pursue their big picture goals, rather than struggle in survival mode for the entirety of a playthrough.
But before a wide launch of the game ultimately made this error apparent, Kennedy dug deep within and greatly enjoyed the thrill of creating his own mythology. Unconsciously influenced by Rats and Gargoyles, a book by Mary Gentle that he had read over 20 years prior to his work on the game, he created Hours – secret gods to write the game’s stories around. He also returned to some of the images and iconography that had inspired his past games, including a thirst for the unknown, candles, and a general sense of darkness.
Eventually, he brought in Maribeth Solomon to score the game. He sent her placeholder recordings of early 20th century modernist composers, like Szymanowski, which he thought would help provide some inspiration, but this didn’t prove to be a hugely useful form of direction. After this, he sent her written descriptions of each Hour, and she was able to turn those into powerful themes for each one. With these, along with a main theme he described as “serenely menacing,” it suddenly felt as if the game had far more gravity – and was less of a hobby and more of a true undertaking – than ever before.
Next, he had to figure out the tricky question of publishing. Kennedy didn’t see himself as anywhere near as effective as a marketer or promoter as he was a writer, especially now that he no longer had a team of marketers to help promote his work. He knew that self-publishing was an option, but also a major financial risk, and not one he felt comfortable taking on such a strange and experimental game. Most publishers he reached out to were unresponsive. Four publishers replied with outright refusals, two initially displayed interest before becoming very uninterested, and two others offered a revenue share-based deal, but with no advance, which prompted him to turn them down.
All of that said, Kennedy took the pitching process very differently than most aspiring developers starting from zero. He sent what he describes as “very candid emails,” did away with the traditional pitch deck, had no concept art, and pitched Cultist Simulator at a very early stage, making clear how experimental and unconventional the game was. In doing this, he aimed to work with someone who wanted to go in on a potentially risky project together based on his reputation – and almost achieved this on his own on several different occasions, speaking to a number of different companies and finally finding that none were the right fit or a financially prudent way forward. Ultimately, after a few more conversations, he decided that seeking out funding for Cultist Simulator wasn’t the best use of his time and moved forward with other aspects of production.
By October – the beginning of Kennedy’s first contract with a major studio, writing The Horizon Signal expansion pack for Stellaris – he had an alpha ready, but he wasn’t feeling ready to share it with the world. His game mechanics worked, but the software itself was buggy, needed more visual polish, and was significant revision away from making a splash in the wider world. Fortunately, his deadline was self-imposed – not set by a publisher or a business partner – and this gave him the freedom to not actually have to share his alpha with anyone quite yet.
While writing his expansion pack for Stellaris, however, he did receive an inquiry from Humble Bundle. Kennedy shared his alpha with their team, who found the game difficult to follow, and was asked to deliver a video walkthrough for the Humble team to make sense of. Kennedy then procrastinated because of what he now calls stage fright, as he didn’t care for the sound of his voice and didn’t love how the interface looked. Many re-recordings and revisions later, Kennedy delivered his video walkthrough six minutes before his deadline.
Instead of receiving any feedback, Humble simply asked questions, and ultimately this led to an approval and contracts. Kennedy remains grateful to the Humble team for helping Cultist Simulator ultimately find its publisher, and knows it achieved considerably more success because it had one.