Sycoforge is a Zurich-based indie game studio founded by Michela Rimensberger (CEO) and Ismael Wittwer (CTO) in 2017. Since 2009, they’ve been developing “the Arafinn experience,” a transmedia fantasy world spanning books, games, and much more – complete with four unique languages, distinct cultures, and even its own system of measurement.
Visit Steam to download Return to Nangrim’s playable teaser, and read on for our full interview with Michela Rimensberger.
Can you start by sharing a bit about Sycoforge’s origins and progression as a studio?
Michela Rimensberger: We started out while studying IT Engineering at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences. In the evenings, we sat together playing games like Anno 2070 and Battle for Middle-earth, fantasizing about what our game would look like. We soon realized that our ideas reached far beyond a single game, and we started defining our universe instead.
From that point on, we did less gaming and much more “definition work.” From maps to races, clans, and families, everything had to be connected and self-contained – that was our top goal. And so, the Arafinn Universe was born. Ismael and I used this idea for our bachelor thesis: We developed an engine based on Unity that provides an easy way to develop mixed reality fantasy games. And then – finally – in 2017, we founded Sycoforge together.
The first playable demo of Return to Nangrim debuted at Gamescom this year, and is now available on Steam. How does it feel to have your game out there in the wild and playable for the first time? How have players responded?
First, I’d like to say that we refer to the released version as a “playable teaser” as not all the features [have been] implemented yet (i.e., combat). That being said, it was tough. We all went through a rollercoaster of emotions before, during, and after Gamescom.
Everyone at Sycoforge worked really hard to deliver the experience we had in mind for our players, so the stakes were super high and honestly... when thinking about releasing something so publicly – as you nicely said, “out in the wild'' – I almost fainted!
It’s so difficult to estimate whether the players are going to like what you [created]. Will they like the gameplay? Does the experience tell the story you want to tell? What bugs will occur? Especially as an indie, you’re wearing so many hats that you’re afraid on many different fronts. But luckily, the playable teaser was very well received.
Our Discord member count alone multiplied by five. We’re a big grown Arafinn family now. Seeing streamers play and like our game was amazing – [both] rewarding and a case study for improvement. But also, a bit frightening, because the expectations are really high now.
Return to Nangrim is just one part of what you’re calling “the Arafinn experience.” Can you tell our readers more about that?
We've been working on the Arafinn Universe for over a decade now. We started with a game idea, but it has grown so much bigger. For example, we have four languages that can actually be spoken, as two linguists defined all the grammar and rules.
With so many stories, we realized that one game can’t tell them all, and we can’t deliver games so fast that we tell all the stories on our stack (especially since our stack is constantly growing). So, we thought about how we could tell them through other media like comics, interactive narrated storybooks, a satellite world map [that] players can explore, a book that’s currently in the making, and so on.
This also means integrating our fan base into the development process. We chose a development approach that we call the “Players Guild,” where a select group of players tests new features at an early stage and provides feedback that influences further development.
As a company, we don’t see ourselves as just game developers – Sycoforge follows a transmedia strategy. (If Netflix is reading this: We’ve got the perfect transmedia fantasy series for you!)
How many people are working on Return to Nangrim?
We work together with lots of part-time code-ninjas, freelancers, and others who share our vision. At our core, we’re just three and a half, as not all of our members work full time. Besides that, we’re working with around 10 people here in Switzerland and more than 21 freelancers on and off around the world.
The Players Guild and the rest of our Discord are also super helpful. They’re always reporting bugs, making suggestions, generating their own content – some of them even manage the public bug board.
What does collaboration look like at Sycoforge?
We collaborate in many different ways. Onsite, we’re all working together in a shared office space to encourage ideation and creativity. Oftentimes, when defining a feature or something similar, it’s easy to get stuck [on] your own opinion; you might totally forget that there [are] different approaches that might work better or that could be combined with other ideas. I believe that different opinions in a fruitful discussion provide the most value, as [they] allow for real teamwork. I like to think of this as a machine with all cogs and mechanics running smoothly.
Working from a distance can be trickier though. What helped here the most were clearly defined guidelines – an artstyle bible, a design document, a vision summary. This way, we could all be on the same page. When you’re working remotely, it just takes more time to get there. Communication through email, Slack, or even Zoom can be ambiguous and lead to lots of misunderstandings, but it’s definitely worth the work. After four years of development now, Sycoforge feels like a big family spread across the world.
From a technical perspective, Plastic SCM has been a lifesaver for collaboration. We tried out many different versioning tools and quickly realized that none of them really suited the needs of a gamedev company. While some were usable for programmers, artists had sweat outbreaks using them. With Plastic, we found a real game changer. It’s easy to use for both non-programmers and programmers.
What version control system (VCS) did you use before switching to Plastic SCM? Why did you decide to make the switch?
At first we used Bitbucket, but then switched to Unity Teams because it was closer to Unity. As our team and project grew, we switched to Plastic, as it was the most performant solution.
What was implementing this version control system like?
Git was kind of wonky – we found it wasn’t suitable for game development, and Git LFS created further problems. With Plastic, we have a lean solution for large files. And the integration was really smooth. We were quite surprised it was that easy, especially [because] we were integrating in the middle of our project.
The Players Guild is such a unique approach to refining your game. Why did you decide to democratize the development process?
Our game is heavily story-driven, which makes it very difficult to have a demo or early access. However, feedback from the player base is vital, so we tried to find a way to get the feedback we need, without spoiling the story. Different opinions in the right soil produce the most beautiful flowers – we wanted to get as much valuable feedback as possible, and by valuable, I mean every kind of feedback.
The first time we got Players Guild feedback on our very first feature (you can imagine how nervous we were reading it) was really devastating. We had forgotten to disable one of our testing switches [for] enabling our protagonist to jump as high as a skyscraper. This broke immersion for that member – he asked if this game was going to be a “Dwarven Flight Simulator.” Taking feedback like this seriously and actually getting in touch with the people behind [it] fostered a sense of unity (pun intended). This person is now one of the most active members on our Discord, and has taken on the responsibility of introducing newcomers and even managing our public bug board!
That’s what I love the most about our unique approach. We’re building an Arafinn Universe – we're not just “having” a community but we “are” the community.
What’s been the most surprising thing about working with the Players Guild?
To me, the fact that people have actually started to speak and greet each other in Hìlduir – our dwarven language – and that they’re always working to decipher new words, searching for clues and hidden Easter eggs… It feels really amazing to have strangers around the world gathering together in our Discord ‘tavern,’ sharing digital Bordjal (dwarven beer), and having a good time. We’ve only had minor issues with trolls – the vast majority of our community is kind, helpful, and actually willing to gift us (sometimes a lot of) their time to help improve our game.
How do you utilize this feedback for an iterative development process? What tools do you use to help facilitate that?
We have different tools we work with when it comes to feedback. First, we have a survey linked to each component test, where we ask the players for feedback and give them Aruin (our Discord currency) in exchange.
There's also a lot going on in our Discord: Many questions, suggestions, pieces of feedback, bug reports, and so on are submitted each day. To filter these, we have Luca – our “Bugslayer” who collects all the information and summarizes it on our public Trello (which is linked to our internal Jira). From that point on, the actual work starts:
This is where Plastic SCM comes in.
As our team is spread all over the world, Plastic helps us work together, even if most of us are working remotely. We have a standardized workflow, where the first thing in the morning is either checking emails or if there’s a commit on Plastic.
If there’s a problem with a version, Plastic makes it really easy to reproduce earlier steps. It also boosts iteration and collaboration, something that’s crucial when trying to provide agile, fast updates.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during Return to Nangrim’s development?
How fast the tech stack developed during production. This is always difficult to tackle as a smaller team, but thankfully Unity did that job for us. We were able to neatly update from Unity’s 2017 version to Unity 2021 without issue.
Something that’s also difficult to manage on a daily basis is the growing scope of the project. On the technical side, this is where Plastic SCM jumps in. To us, Unity and Plastic SCM are the perfect match.
Why did you choose Unity to develop this game? How has your collaboration been?
Unity offers a variety of tools that make a game dev’s life easier. To name a few: [It provides] an accessible Editor and – here comes the IT engineer inside me speaking – native C# support. Having a solid next-gen programming language at hand is really powerful.
Thanks to tools like Timeline, our VFX artists had an easy time developing high-quality cinematics – previously, they’d have used another application like After Effects. The High Definition Render Pipeline (HDRP) coupled with Shader Graph makes developing high-fidelity shaders smooth, easy, and maintainable across Unity updates.
During the development of Return to Nangrim, several assets emerged that we’ve released on the Asset Store (i.e., Easy Decal, Easy Combine...) Being able to extend the engine according to our needs, or being able to prototype quickly thanks to the variety of assets [on] the Asset Store, is a real plus.
Are there any specific learnings from development you’d like to share with our community?
Do fast prototyping (check out Unity’s Asset Store). Don’t try to develop everything yourself from scratch when you’re a small team – there are thousands of users in the community who encounter the same problems and share solutions in the forums or on the Asset Store. In short, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Use the power of the community.
What are you most excited for players to experience in the final version of your game – and within the Arafinn experience as a whole?
I think the answer to that will differ depending on who you’re asking at Sycoforge. Our 3D artists would say the detail they’ve put into their assets. Programmers might be excited to share how smooth the game runs on a 1080. But as you’re asking me, and one of my [roles] is writing the story, that’s something I’ve been looking forward to sharing. Return to Nangrim’s story is like a secret I’ve eagerly waited to tell for years. It’s been growing bigger and bigger – I feel like I’m going to explode!
I’m also excited about how everything ties together. Nothing in the Arafinn Universe exists in a vacuum. As I said, we wanted to develop a self-contained universe where information that’s valid at point A remains true at point B. This is something I’ve tried to reflect in the overall story of the game – for example, by having little cross-references for those who have read the books, and so on.
In consequence, the characters from Return to Nangrim have real lives that extend beyond the game’s borders. To me, characters and stories that feel alive are the most rewarding thing when playing. I really hope the players experience the same with Return to Nangrim.
Answers attributed to Michela Rimensberger