Tomas Sala, BAFTA-winning solo developer behind The Falconeer, won the Indie CommUnity Choice Award during gamescom 2023. Ahead of the game’s upcoming multiplatform release on March 26, we interviewed him to learn more about why he’s revisiting the world of The Falconeer with his upcoming multiplatform game, Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles.
Continue reading for insights on how Bulwark plays with genre, the reason Tomas designs for gamepad before keyboard and mouse, and why he thinks indies should consider going all-in on IP.
Thanks for jumping on a call with us, Tomas, and congratulations on your Indie CommUnity Choice Award win! To start things off, can you give the community some background on your upcoming game, Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles, and how it fits into The Falconeer’s wider universe?
Bulwark is set in the same world, and it's a continuation of the same story, following the events of the big war in The Falconeer. Players are dealing with the aftermath: Everything’s decimated, all the gold and treasure has been taken, and many people have left. In this post-war scenario, everybody's just trying to get along and not default to old factional conflicts. So that’s the backdrop for this game – refugees trying to build a new settlement and make a better world for themselves. As you build out your settlement, you'll meet other people and sometimes get pulled back in old patterns, get into fights, things like that.
Why did you choose to set Bulwark in the same universe?
There are definitely practical considerations. I've deeply invested in building out my own toolset over the past decade – there's the matter of reusing what you have. This approach is opposite of the game-jam mentality, where you reinvent the wheel and make something new to see if it sticks. You instead have to work with what you’ve got.
I had a look at The Falconeer and said to myself, "Well, what're the best and worst things about this game?" The worst thing was its niche, ‘90s throwback genre, which, gameplay-wise, wasn't for everybody. The best things were the worldbuilding, visual aesthetic, emotional layering, and personal narrative surrounding the gameplay. Those things were super strong and carried the game, so I wanted to keep them. I decided to let go of the genre (which I personally enjoyed) and go in a different direction to see if it would resonate more with players.
For me, it's about all that. Doing an analysis of what you've done, seeing what's worth continuing, and expanding on that and making it better. I’d already spent seven years or so investing in The Falconeer’s world. There are definitely rough edges and things that need to be improved, but if I just dropped it completely, all that effort is gone. That's what I don't understand business-wise in what we've been telling indies. “Make small, cool games.” No. Make a world, and tell a story that gets players invested in the IP.
Going back to what you were saying about genre… From Black Salt Games’ DREDGE to Cosmo D’s Betrayal at Club Low, more devs are combining genres for new gameplay experiences. You call Bulwark a “chill grand strategy” game – why did you decide to mix two genres, especially ones that seem so oppositional?
I want to see new things every day in what I do. Replicating somebody else's game is boring – I wouldn't be able to do that. Within the “chill” genre, there’s something that I really like and got inspired by. It’s the opposite of the “hardcore efficiency mindset” where you want to beat the game, you want to win, you want to be the fastest, the best, the most efficient… That’s our mechanical brain talking. But there’s also the dreamy side of our brains that’s more focused on enjoying the fantasy of a game. It's not concerned about winning.
Creativity is what I'm interested in for Bulwark. Giving people that sense of enjoying building their own base. That's the whole essence of the “chill” genre – being in the fantasy and creating. And then what I add is the history, the events of The Falconeer. Even though that part’s not super chill in Bulwark, it makes the world feel alive.
How are you balancing creativity and conflict in the gameplay to keep players engaged?
It's definitely a balancing act. Even though I enjoy looking at my own buildings for hours, I realize that for some people, it's more interesting if something gets blown up after a while.
Looking back at The Falconeer, it was a very artistic, personal game. It’s in the genre I liked when I was young. It's about fraughtness and burnout and depression, and it’s heavy. Because I worked on the game alone, it didn't get a lot of testing. For Bulwark, I wanted to approach things differently. I decided to do an evolving early access demo to get players’ opinions, see where I was losing them, and figure out how to keep them on board. I'm still doing that, even though I'm back to closed development for now.
But that was one of the reasons – if you try to “find the fun” in a void, you're going to get into trouble. In this game I’ve tried not to make things required. There's no progression path where you need to be violent. You can just chill and build. But if you go out into the world, these things unfold. They're not there to challenge you or to frustrate you. They're just there to bring the world to life.
Why did you choose to launch a demo versus Early Access on Steam?
I wanted user validation and user feedback. Early in my career, I did a lot of modding on Steam, back when it was mostly open development projects. You'd release something and people would request stuff or complain, and you'd implement their feedback and they'd be happy. It was super fun – a bit hardcore, but if you're into that kind of stuff, it's an interesting kind of punishment.
If you go into Early Access and you're by yourself, people sometimes forget that you’re a solo dev. I make very polished stuff, but at the end of the day, it is just me. If I had my publisher respond to everybody, the community wouldn't like that – they want to speak to the developer, not a spokesperson. Early Access would create a lot of additional work for me. The program has gone from being about evolving the game to providing players with fully polished, fully playable content to enjoy. Early Access players are not beta testers. Nowadays, you need staff to run a proper Early Access. You need a roadmap, you need milestones, and when you hit those milestones, you need to let the community know. On top of that, you’re asking for money, so players have an opinion and they’re also your customer. And the customer is always right.
That's why I made an evolving demo. It was available for eight months, non-stop, free-to-play. Players responded well, and I’m listening to their feedback. Running a demo can be kind of a brutal way to validate, but I don't think it’s possible to do this and not walk away with a substantially better game.
You’re adding controller support. Has that been difficult for a grand strategy game? People typically go with mouse and keyboard for this genre.
Here’s an interesting tidbit: When I make games, I always start with gamepad controls and work in reverse. When you pick up a controller to play Bulwark, it immediately feels very intuitive.
From a game design perspective, I like to start with gamepad controls because I feel like it lets you focus on how you are controlling the world rather than “controlling the controlling.”
Interesting! What’s your preferred control method?
Gamepad. What I love about controllers on a philosophical level is – and this goes back to the dreamy side of our brains – I don't need to look at the controller to play. I'm actually looking at the screen. Whenever I'm playing a game with mouse and keyboard, I'm looking at the cursor. I'm not looking into the world – I’m just controlling the world from a separate layer above it. Playing with a controller, I like that I don't need to do that.
I won a Steam Deck from the CommUnity Choice Award, and I've been using it every day [since]. I found out that if you use a Steam Deck and you upload a new build to your development branch on Steam, it's on Steam Deck in seconds. On PC you have to restart your Steam for it to detect that an update has been made. So my Steam Deck is now the easiest development kit on Earth. I just press upload and I can play it, and I'm not messing up my computer that's set up to debug.
How are you generating the environments for players to build on?
There's actually no map generation in Bulwark. It's the same world as The Falconeer, so it's a 10x10 km open world. I threw a bunch of stuff in there and Unity can handle it. There is literally no streaming code, although I did use a lot of instancing – that’s the rocks and the ocean itself.
At the moment I’m streaming in faction settlements – groups for players to fight against if they want to – and those are streamed in quite simply, not as a JSON files, but as a long string which the engine parses. There aren’t that many objects, so I can get away with it.
I also don’t use any Prefabs. It gets too messy in my head. Instead there’s just a pooling of objects in the scene that I copy to build the walls and so on. Those build up the dynamic settlements, which get dispatched when you move away from them.
What technical achievement – even if it’s a small one – are you most proud of?
I made an interesting resource system for the game – well, it’s more of a logistics system. To build, you don’t need gold, you just need to connect one building to another. For example, you might have a windmill that supplies +4 wood, which means you can keep building wood up to four nodes of your tower network. Building houses and industry around your windmill improves the output of the windmill, because you need people to do the work, right? It’s an actual economy that iterates throughout your settlement. It’s also quite a pretty complicated bit of code. As someone who considers himself an artist, I’m like, “Ah, I made a nice recursive economy system.” I don’t know if that’s the right term, but I’m pretty proud of it!
You did a case study with us not too long ago on using the Asset Store to make The Falconeer. Have you picked up any new assets for Bulwark?
I picked up a nice new ambient occlusion package. I’m using Unity 2022 LTS, but I’m still using the built-in render pipeline, because I’ve spent a long time building out my own workflow and am used to my own tools. Because Unity’s post-processing is more supported for URP and HRDP, I needed an ambient occlusion solution to do some modern tricks. I ended up buying FSR 2 – Upscaling for Unity from Alterego Games – another Dutch developer – which works for both URP and built-in. It’s been amazing. It really excites me seeing Asset Store developers take this new stuff and make it accessible to developers like me.
That’s great. Taking the time to add visual polish can really make the difference when getting your game noticed. What advice do you have for developers looking to find more players for their game?
A lot of it's just luck. Making 20 small games might teach you the basics, but today’s market isn’t about small games anymore. Look at the Indie Arena Booth this year – they’re all highly ambitious, highly polished, beautiful, original games, all of which would have been considered “AAA” just a few years ago. And there are so many of them.
Statistically, the most important thing you can do to get your game noticed is to hang in there. If you stop making games, you're never going to get noticed. It's a waiting game. Whoever has the most perseverance wins eventually. At some point you'll know more people. You'll get even better. You'll find out new tricks. You'll meet more journalists. The longer you stay in the game or in the work, the better you're going to get at it. So hang in there and don't give a damn. Just do it. Just hold on. It's a ride.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles launches March 26, 2024 on PlayStation®5, PlayStation®4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and digital storefronts. Wishlist the game and follow @falconeerdev for updates, and be sure to check out the game demo on January 30. Visit our Made With Unity hub for more stories spotlighting innovators in game development.