I chatted with the creator of the new hit game Forager on what it was like developing such project with what often felt like the odds stacked against him.
On the 16th of April, I received a review copy of the game Forager. Up until this point, I’d never heard of the project, but after some light Googling I determined that it looked pretty cool. I can’t say I was frothing at the mouth to try it out, but I was intrigued by this spunky survival/exploration game.
What I completely didn’t expect was just how much I fell in love with Forager, forcing myself to stop playing after spending well over 5 hours straight just to make supper for that evening. Forager is an addictive, smartly designed gem of a game that sparkles with the love only a passionate creator can give their art. Yet what struck me most about the game was the inclusion of a little slideshow in the Extras menu detailing how Mariano “_HopFrog” Cavallero struggled to get his game out there all by himself.
My appreciation for Forager tripled after reading the story of the underdog game designer, fighting against a larger industry just to follow his dreams while making a living for himself; I was captivated by his story. So much so that I decided to reach out to Mariano and talk about his successes.
After talking to Mariano, it seems almost inevitable that he would go on to create such a successful title. “When I was a kid I would destroy my toys to make new toys and games with them. We couldn’t afford game consoles so I made paper and cardboard versions of them. In college, I would skip classes to stay home to either code or design new game ideas”, says Mariano.
It was this passion for creating and building video games that drove Mariano into the industry, pushing him to eventually drop out of university and pursue his developmental ideas fulltime. Yet despite his passion for his work, things weren’t exactly easy right off the bat.
At the start of its life, Forager looked to be a dire state with Mariano struggling to make ends meet while working on the game. “I decided to tackle this project almost 3 years ago, and at the time I had little money left. My mom came to the rescue by inviting me to move back in with her and basically putting her life savings into my business”. Through this time, Mariano continued to work on Forager, but felt like he was spinning his wheels; no one was taking him up on his ideas with the constant rejection starting to its toll. “After another couple of years, pressure and anxiety started to pile on me. I started to feel like a failure. Could I even do this? Had I made the wrong choice?”.
With bankruptcy constantly on his mind the future of his company uncertain, Mariano decided to makes one last attempt and after designing and building the first version of Forager for a game jam, managed to win a trip to the USA to showcase his creation. It was here that he was introduced to an employee of Humble Bundle. After a friend pitched the game for him, Mariano’s social anxiety and inexperience with English proving challenging at this point, Humble Bundle offered to publish Forager.
“It was unbelievable. Mostly because of how exactly the entire situation came to be. They had the exact offer I needed and I had the exact game they wanted. And I met with John (the publishing lead) from Humble almost completely by random. To this day I am still amazed how quickly that deal got signed and how fast and efficient Humble Bundle was. I met John during a conference in Seattle and a month later we had a contract signed. It was perfect!”.
From there, Forager has grown monumentally. From the funding provided by Humble Bundle and donations through Forager’s Patreon page, Mariano was able to focus on his passion project and expand on his original build of the game. After releasing the game on Steam, even he was surprised at how well it performed, despite have relatively detailed projections already in place. “I knew Forager was going to be big because it just kept growing and growing during the beta period. I am very analytical and business-minded, so I had very high expectations for Forager’s release based on the data I had gathered at the time. But the reception was so much more overwhelming that I could have hoped for! I thought my small indie project would do well enough to pay for itself and also fund the next project, but it ended up outselling amazing high-production value games such as Mortal Kombat 11 and Imperator: Rome during the first 2 weeks!”. Forager has been so successful that he’s even offered to make his mother back three times her original investment, despite her constantly declining the money.
I also wanted to know a little more about the design of Forager, a game that clearly draws elements from similar titles but reworks them in such a way that everything feels fresh, combining different genres of games into one that offered players something unique.
Mariano cites Stardew Valley and Terraria as such examples that influenced his thinking. “Both Stardew and Terraria had very compelling gameplay loops. I love the process of working hard to gather resources, so I can upgrade my tools with those resources which in turn let me gather more resources faster…I wanted to see what it would feel like to have a crafting game like that paired with the exploration and discovery of the Legend of Zelda series”.
Beyond the influences of other games, Mariano intentionally designed the game as a response to the anxiety he was feeling at the time, setting out to create an experience that would allow players a real sense of escapism, a way to lose themselves in a world and relax. Despite how frantic the game can become in later stages, it’s never meant to feel stressful. “…the game feels relaxing and peaceful, and I believe this is due to the game slowly introducing new things as to not overwhelm you”. Mariano suffers from severe social anxiety, something that proved difficult in the process of pitching Forager to publishers. “Game development is interesting because it tends to draw the introvert type a lot. “Nerds in a basement making magical things” type of scenario. The paradox is that the most popular indie games usually have prominent developers or development cycles. The market now requires developers to be social on Discord and other communities, to do interviews with the press, to be always available for gamers answering questions and discussing suggestions”.
Learning to balance his mental and emotional needs with the excessive amounts of meetings and extroversion necessary to complete the project turned out to be difficult, yet became progressively easier as Forager grew larger and larger.
I think I was so drawn to Mariano’s story because it’s something nearly everyone can appreciate. It’s Rocky, The Karate Kid or Million Dollar Baby, except the fighting, is replaced with hours of coding and hard work. Even with the odds stacked against him and the omnipresent fear of failure looming over his head, Mariano was able to constantly look at what could be rather than what currently was, and I think that’s valuable. In an industry where we’re constantly being bombarded with news stories of layoffs and tyrannical development cycles, I think it’s important to remember why people love video games so much.
Despite everything wrong with the industry, it’s still so new. There’re creators that are excited and passionate, willing to put themselves on the line to be successful. It’s so common for humanity to always focus on the failures, but I think what we need right now, more than anything, is to celebrate someone who did it. “The constant support from my wife kept the ball rolling for months, it’s MUCH easier to work all day on your passion project when you have an angel taking care of you!”
Mariano and I parted on a wise and ever poignant piece of advice. “I always encourage people to follow their dreams, but to do so in a smart and analytical way. Young people wanting to get into the videogame industry should define exactly what role they want to be filling, what exactly they wish to do, and then figure out the details: how to do it, when and where. And what do they even need to be able to do it? One of the most common mistakes I see in newcomers is assuming that developing games independently doesn’t require any business or marketing knowledge. These areas should not be taken for granted if you intend to pay the bills with whatever you make!”.
Forager is currently available on Steam and you can follow Mariano on Twitter here.
Last Updated: May 2, 2019