Cosmo Gatto, the Vancouver-based indie studio behind upcoming, open-world farming game, Aka, won the Indie CommUnity Choice Award at this year’s gamescom. We interviewed Namra, the studio’s lead developer, to learn more about the inspiration for Aka and how it grabbed the attention of the gaming community.
Thanks so much for joining us today, and congratulations on winning the CommUnity Choice Award at gamescom! What did you do when you found out you won this year’s award?
I was super happy! It’s funny, my publishers at Neowiz wrote me a message saying they had news for me. I didn’t know if it was good news or bad news, but then they told me it’s a really good thing. So I was excited, but at the same time, I felt bad that I couldn’t be at gamescom to receive the award myself. As developers, we always wonder if our game will interest anybody, so it was cool to see that Aka won.
Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself and Cosmo Gatto? How did Aka come about?
I started the game as a solo developer a couple of years ago. Before, I was in the animation industry for over a decade, working in Montreal in the Nordelec building, and I saw the Unity logo. In my head I was like, “Oh, I think I know this!” I decided to download Unity and give it a try – and I loved it.
At the time I was working hard on a movie, and then when COVID happened, a lot of things were changing in my life. I was suddenly single and stuck in my house, so I decided to dive into game development. I did a few game jams and began to feel more confident, so I started working on Aka.
I shared a few posts on Twitter and Neowiz contacted me. When I felt Aka could become a little bit bigger, I decided to work with Mad Mimic, so now I’m not alone anymore. Felipe Carmona, Evandro Bustamante, and Marc-Antoine Desbiens are helping me on the project.
Aka draws on a host of different inspirations. It’s a cute game on the surface, but it has this melancholy undercurrent – the main character is a former soldier trying to rebuild a ruined world. You’ve got ghosts, dragons, capybaras, permaculture… How did all of this come together, and how did the concept evolve over time?
As I mentioned, I was doing game jams. I really love building stuff here and there, and at some point I was thinking it would be cool to have a game that’s a collection of mini games. That’s how I would say it all started; the idea of having a small, open world where you could do a lot of different things.
And then about the melancholy stuff – it’s true. My main inspiration is the Studio Ghibli movie Pom Poko. Like a lot of Ghibli movies, it looks cute on the surface, but there is a message. It’s sad, the theme is really heavy, but I think Aka can also be seen as a metaphor. There was a war, and now you’re trying to build something new – a better life.
As for permaculture… There are a lot of farming games, and I think they’re great, but I wanted to integrate some new ideas into the genre. In Aka, instead of trying to expand your territory and have the biggest farm possible, I thought it would be interesting to make a game where you just take care of your own small portion. There’s a mechanic where planting different things together can have beneficial effects. For example, plants can get blackflies in the game, but there are other plants that can repel blackflies, so you probably want to plant those two together. It’s based on this idea.
In other farming games, like Stardew Valley or Harvest Moon, you have to deal with money – there’s a capitalistic aspect to it. With Aka, I wanted to say, what if there’s no money? You’re not encouraged to change the world in this way. You can’t cut the trees down completely, for instance. The point is to accept the environment you’re in by bringing the flora and fauna back.
From Stardew Valley to Dinkum, farming sims and chill “slice of life” games are really having a renaissance. What do you think is driving their popularity? Why did you choose this genre?
Right now, there’s a lot of talk about wholesome games. I really love this moment that we’re living. For many years, video games were associated with fighting and adventure. Currently, I think wholesome games are becoming popular because people are realizing, “Oh, I can play video games and do something else besides fighting monsters or other people.”
Stardew Valley was so popular, I think it’s almost a no-brainer that many games have integrated farming systems. That said, I don’t think players are too attached to a specific type of farming system. I’m hoping we’ll see more takes on it in the future.
What inspired Aka’s visual style?
As I mentioned, my main influence is Studio Ghibli. At first I was thinking it would be cool to have a game that looks like an animated movie – that’s why I didn’t choose pixel art. At the very beginning, I was leaning toward a low-poly style, but finally decided to shift direction because it’s more unusual to have a hand-painted style.
From a technical point of view, there’s software I really like called Rebelle. It allows you to replicate and emulate a watercolor and “old painting” look.
What advice do you have for developers just starting out, looking to get their game noticed or find the right audience?
When I started, I read some articles about how to gain traction on Twitter. I think players and other devs like to see animated GIFs or videos that really represent your game. It’s better to post a little bit less, maybe once a week, but posting something that’s really good, rather than posting a lot. On Twitter especially, posts can get exponential reach really quickly. Even one video can make a difference if it’s shared enough.
The main reason I recommend Twitter is because you can connect with other people from the profession – other game developers or maybe even publishers. I’m not entirely sure if it’s the best way to connect with players, at least for me. It also depends on the hashtags you use. With hashtags like #gamedev and #indiegames, obviously I was more inclined to meet other developers.
I would also say, try to be honest with your work. I think it shows when people are trying to do something popular. With indie games, there are so many niches that if you really dig into what you like, other people will probably like it too.
To highlight the extent to which Twitter has played a role in Aka’s evolution, Namra shares a few of his most popular tweets alongside some behind-the-scenes context:
“This is one of my first big tweets. I think it was successful because of the character design and graphics.”
“You can nap on the capybara. Some players were saying this should be the main feature!”
“A silly post that became popular anyway.”
You’re publishing with Neowiz, who’s also publishing Lies of P, a substantially different game from Aka. How did you end up working with them?
I knew about Neowiz because I’d played Skul: The Hero Slayer. When I went on their Steam page, I saw mostly fast-paced action games like SANABI. During my first interview with them, I mentioned that I thought it was funny they were interested in my game, but they told me they’d published other wholesome games like Cat and Soup before. So they had a bigger range than I thought.
You’d be surprised by publishers. I’ve been approached by publishers who release super violent games about war and stuff. It’s funny because I’d always heard the opposite – if you pitch your game to a publisher, you have to make sure it fits with their editorial line, right? I think publishers are aware that wholesome games are getting more popular, and they’re starting to shift.
What Unity tools or features have you found most helpful during the gamedev process?
Cinemachine for sure, I use it a lot – I don’t even know how you can do without it! I use the Universal Render Pipeline (URP) because I knew I wanted to release Aka on the Nintendo Switch™ and thought this would be the easiest way to go.
When I do the level design for an island, I do everything with ProBuilder, and I keep it in the game for the colliders. Then I export it to Blender and do some more refined modeling before importing the final assets. I also use ProGrids for the grid-based farming system.
Do you have any productivity tips you can share with our readers?
I struggled a lot with this: When you start alone, I think a common mistake is to think that everything is in your head, and you’re going to do tasks one after the other, and everything is going to work.
I found using an asset manager like Asana or Trello helpful, because even if you’re alone, you can keep track of what you need to do next. Now that I’m working with other developers, we’re using spreadsheets to keep tabs on what’s left to get done.
Also, start with a solid development design document with everything you need to do – literally everything. Yes, it’s time-consuming, but I think, in the long run, it’s really useful. Every couple of weeks I take a look at this document and update it. For instance, maybe there are features that are no longer necessary. So yeah, having an asset manager tracking your schedule.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered while making Aka? Any amusing bug stories or outtakes?
I think the biggest challenge was jumping from a game jam mentality to a full game mentality. When you’re making a small game, everything is in the same scene, the scripts are all over the place… But then when you have to build something that works and doesn’t crash every five minutes, it’s a whole different thing.
The second biggest challenge was optimizing the game. Abstract ideas like ScriptableObjects took me a while to understand. Thankfully, I’m working with other developers now. Without their help, I’m not sure where Aka would be today!
The silliest bug that became a feature involves the player’s dog. When I first put the dog in the game, it was supposed to follow you, but for some reason, sometimes it decided not to. I put it on Twitter saying, “Dog doesn’t want to take the stairs” or whatever, and then I had the thought that maybe the dog could have its own free will and not follow the player everywhere.
“A bug that became a feature.”
You just opened up Aka for public playtesting. How’s that going so far?
It’s going well. Funny, speaking of bugs, I made a beginner’s mistake when I decided on a last-minute change right before the beta, even though the game was working well. I thought it would make it work even better, but instead it created a critical bug where the dialogue was looping. The very first hours were pretty stressful.
The beta has been really useful though. Aka’s community has been super involved – there are about 1,000 players testing it. We have a Discord forum where they can post bugs, and I’ve been making fixes every day. The game is so much more stable and robust than it was even a week ago.
What are you most looking forward to people experiencing through Aka?
Oh, there are so many things. The main goal – and maybe it’s going to sound somewhat pretentious – is to make the players’ lives at least a little bit better. Maybe you had a stressful day, and you play Aka for a couple of hours, and you just have a nice time. I think that’s really the main goal.
One mistake I made early in development was to include a happiness bar on the UI. Players ended up being really focused on the bar and optimizing their gameplay for maximum happiness. I made the bar hidden because I want players to just enjoy Aka without thinking about numbers.
I’m really excited to see people take their time and truly appreciate what is in the game – random stuff like going to the hot springs, having fun planting crops… or even napping on a capybara.
Aka launches later this year on PC and Nintendo Switch. Wishlist the game on Steam and follow @BarthelemeyNamra on Twitter for updates. Visit our Indie Innovation hub for more stories featuring Unity creators making waves in the games industry.
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