It’s strange to think that an office as small as this houses the developers behind two of my favorite games ever made.
Despite holding the same group of people who made Celeste and Towerfall, the sparse walls and humble layout of EXOK Games’ two-room studio could fool anyone into thinking they’re just starting out. And even though working here is business-as-usual in some ways for a team that’s been making smash hits together for nearly decade, in many others they are just getting started.
When I went to visit the newly formed Extremely OK Games (EXOK for short) in Vancouver, Canada late last year, it felt like the plastic had only just been peeled off the screens. But the developers’ recent move into this space (half of them from nearly 7,000 miles away) didn’t mean they weren’t already busy. At the time, Towerfall had just launched on Switch, Celeste’s free Chapter 9 DLC had recently come out, and designer Matt Thorson told me Celeste itself finally passed a whopping one million copies sold – not to mention they were already hard at work on their next game.
A Look Inside the Office of Extremely OK Games
EXOK is technically a new studio, but as I sat on a beanbag chair in that modest office, speaking to its team of five while they gathered their desk chairs in a semicircle around me, it became clear that founding an actual company together was almost a formality rather than some huge, life-changing decision.
Sever the Skyline
“Forming EXOK was basically just what we had to do to get everyone here,” Thorson tells me, explaining that the most crucial but complex part of this process was uniting their team. The core members of EXOK have been working together for a long time, but roughly half of them were previously doing so from Brazil, while Thorson and fellow designer Noel Berry worked out of Canada. (People like composer Lena Raine, the sound specialists at Power-Up Audio, and more also worked remotely with them on past projects, and continue to do so as contractors.)
One the members of EXOK working from Brazil was artist Amora B.: “We just wanted to be together,” she explained, telling me the team already knew they loved working in the same room with each other after coming up for a few months during both the creation of Towerfall and Celeste. “We’d always talk about having the company together, but it was very hard actually thinking about leaving Brazil.”
For Amora, fellow artist Pedro Medeiros, and Operations Manager Heidy Motta, working in a Vancouver office would mean leaving family, moving three cats, and taking on a lot of financial risk if things went poorly. It was only thanks to the success of Celeste – as well as Amora explaining that “things in Brazil became very dangerous all of a sudden” – that they were finally able to commit to the move and take that leap.
While EXOK was formally announced in September 2019, it had officially been a company since March, and the team had been working on spinning it up for at least six months before that. “Immigration took forever,” Thorson says, even explaining that the creation of Celeste’s free Chapter 9 DLC was basically just a way to fill the time during that transition.
Despite being the same team, its previous banner of developer/publisher Matt Makes Games had clearly grown misleadingly narrow. Berry says the only reason it was used for Celeste at all was because of its established status with platforms like PSN, which made it “the easiest, most direct path for us to publish a game.” The name Extremely OK Games was inspired by a funny tweet Motta saw wishing people an “extremely OK afternoon,” though the equally modest Not Bad Games was apparently an option at one point as well.
With the name picked and immigration finally sorted, the process of actually making games has been moving much faster with everyone under one roof. “If Pedro needs to tell us something about the art he’s working on,” Berry explains, “or Amora is describing a character, or me and Matt implemented something and we need art for it, it’s so much faster in-person to explain the process.” He says the ability to communicate and iterate quickly is invaluable, especially without the five-hour time difference between western Canada and eastern Brazil that the team used to work around.
Berry describes collaborating over the internet merely as “functional,” though it clearly resulted in some more-than extremely OK games. But Medeiros says they were just getting tired of it. Even more than that, Thorson tells me being in the same room now lets everyone get more involved the whole way through development. “For Celeste, Noel and I lived together,” Thorson says, explaining that there were “so many little decisions” that the others just weren’t part of as a result. Now, it’s just a matter of spinning around a chair or turning a monitor to see a quick sketch or explain a new idea.
“The iteration time is faster,” Medeiros says, “so this means we can iterate more, which means we can probably have a better quality game.” I ask if that means EXOK’s future games might arrive quicker than previous ones, but Berry is thinking bolder, rather than faster: “That space is going to be filled up with more ambition.”
Everyone on the team agrees that they like to push themselves outside of their comfort zone, trying new things and getting more ambitious creatively, if not necessarily in sheer scope. Amora even jokes that, if they were just making another pixel art platformer, they may have a complete game by now – but instead of playing it safe, EXOK’s current project came out of Thorson’s experiments with making their own physics engine.
Berry says this new game is “not like anything that we’ve ever done at all, in any capacity.” The team had previously been working on another project that just didn’t come together, but are optimistic this one will – though it’s important to point out that Thorson off-handedly estimates it will probably take anywhere between two and four years to complete, so don’t hold your breath trying to wait for it.
Thorson echoed Berry as well, saying this game “is not turning out like Celeste at all right now” – a point that is, by their own admission, making them a bit nervous. But the whole team seems to think it’s probably for the best: “I’m very proud of what we achieved with Celeste and I’m very happy that people like it,” Medeiros says, “and I don’t think we’re trying to do ‘that again but better.’ We’re just doing another game.”
The spectre of Celeste’s success is tangible as I speak with the team, but not in a way that makes it feel like some burden they carry. Celeste was extremely successful, selling more than a million copies and being nominated for countless Game of the Year Awards alongside giants like God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 – but even more so, it’s a game that touched people on an emotional level that lingers to this day through fan art, heartfelt messages to the developers, and even tattoos (some of which people have flown to Amora herself to get done). That sort of attention inevitably builds up expectation, and EXOK’s strategy for avoiding disappointment is to sidestep the conversation entirely.
Here is a screenshot of EXOK3!
Hope Twitter compression doesn’t ruin it… pic.twitter.com/3kIoLN8gHZ
— Extremely OK Games (@exok_games) February 25, 2020
“I don’t think our next game is like our ‘follow-up’ to Celeste,” Thorson agrees, “it’s just our next game.” Berry says there would certainly be a lot of “scary pressure” if they were actually making a sequel or successor (something Thorson previously told me they aren’t planning), so that’s just not what they are doing.
In fact, the first game they tried as EXOK sort of began with the opposite process of Celeste. Where Celeste started life as a gameplay idea (not actually meant to be more than its initial Pico-8 incarnation), and found its emotional core naturally as it was being developed, EXOK’s first prototype instead started with a story idea and worked the opposite direction. They experimented and played around with the concept, but eventually got stuck and the prototype was abandoned.
“For every game that I’ve ever worked on that’s got finished, I’ve worked on probably six that have been thrown out,” Thorson explained. But they also make it clear that those ideas are never wasted. While EXOK’s current project began with a focus on physics, the team tells me it has evolved to incorporate and use much of the story that was made for that first concept after all.
“We’re not starting off like ‘we’re gonna make a game about specifically ‘this’,” Berry says when I ask about the message and meaning behind Celeste, “but as the game grows by itself, we want to push ourselves to make games that are interesting and have interesting things to say.” Amora also points out that, before they find those themes, they make sure to follow “whatever feels fun.”
No matter how well-loved Celeste was, 2020 is still a wild time to be releasing games. There is an immense amount of competition, even for celebrated indie developers. “We get the sense that people will show up for our next game,” Thorson says, “but who knows.” Berry agrees that the prospect of recreating success is certainly a gamble, but that EXOK is “just gonna try to make something really good.”
There’s also the imposing threat of next-gen consoles looming later this year, but Thorson and Berry say that doesn’t affect their plans in the slightest. “I feel like, no matter what, we’re going to design this game to run on a Switch, so we don’t really care,” Thorson explains, saying Switch was by far Celeste’s most successful platform. “It’s not gonna look that much better on a PS5 than it is on the Switch,” they point out, so there probably won’t be a rush to rethink plans nine months from now.
Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo still affect them, of course, but not in a way that Thorson thinks they have much control over. “Whoever needs indies the most is most aggressively trying to help us, right?” It’s easy to see how the indie baton has shifted from the Xbox 360’s XBLA to the PlayStation 4 and the Vita, and now to the Nintendo Switch. “As an indie,” Thorson continues, “it feels like we’re kind of surrounded by these giants stomping around, and we’re just trying to find the path to our audience through all these giants.”
Thankfully for EXOK, the success of Celeste has provided the team with the breathing room needed to make what they want, at the pace they want. “We don’t really have financial pressure right now,” Thorson says, which gives EXOK the luxury to pursue the ideas and paths that feel right. Obviously making a game that sells another million copies would be great, but Thorson says “it’s most important that the people who like it really like it. […] We just really value having an audience that wants to engage with our work.”
Eye of the Storm
Another pressure Celeste’s success allows EXOK to avoid is that of a publisher, investors, and the pervasive industry curse of arbitrary development milestones to hit. I ask specifically about what it’s like building a new studio at a time when discussions of crunch culture and unhealthy hours in game development are more prevalent than ever – something Berry says the studio thinks about a lot.
“I think we all agree that we don’t want to crunch and we don’t want to overwork,” Medeiros adds. “That’s something that we talked about when we founded this.” But while they do think about it, the team says crunch is thankfully something they don’t have much reason to actually do since EXOK is such a small, intimate studio. “It’s different in an environment where everyone owns some part of [it],” Thorson says, while Berry describes EXOK as feeling like “a company of friends.”
And even beyond that, at this point everyone on the team has the experience to know crunch is not only pointless, but actively counter-productive. Amora recalls having to sleep on office chairs during her time working in animation, while Berry and Thorson admit they “messed up” while planning Celeste’s initial release by not giving themselves enough time, for reasons that feel arbitrary in retrospect, resulting in crunch they now consider entirely avoidable.
“Even when you’re excited about work,” Berry explained, “if you’ve been working for eight hours already it’s still not gonna be as good as if you actually take a break properly and then come back the next day.” Amora agrees, adding that it’s easier to make sure you take those breaks when you’re just a half-dozen people in a single room, allowing everyone to check each other and encourage rest – even if someone is trying to stay late simply because they are excited by an idea.
Everyone at EXOK says the natural work-life separation having a proper office provides has been healthier as well – something a few of them were initially nervous about after working from home for so long. “It’s a different mindset, because now I wake up and I know I have a place to be in to work,” Amora says, with Medeiros agreeing that, for previous games, projects were constantly on his mind when ‘office’ and ‘house’ were the same thing.
I joke EXOK won’t have to worry about things like crunch until it’s expanded and gone public in 10 years, and Thorson laughingly makes sure I know that’s something the team isn’t even remotely considering. There’s no Silicon Valley-style exit strategy here, these developers just want to make games with their friends, as they always have. Thorson says they’ve discussed the idea of maybe expanding enough to make two games at once somewhere down the line, but that’s certainly not the goal.
The feel of a smaller team fits with what the members of EXOK want too, with none of them considering using the success of Towerfall or Celeste as a springboard to join a larger studio in the way some other indie developers have. “Working at a big company can be good depending on the person you are,” Berry explains, “but I think, for all of us at least, we’re making indie games because we’re trying to avoid doing that.“
Medeiros does point out that goals can, of course, change, but right now they’re just focused on seeing where this current game takes them, while making sure they have the security to keep this new-old studio going. These are the same people behind Celeste and Towerfall, yes, but founding a company and bringing that team under a single roof has empowered them to be even more ambitious with their ideas.
“EXOK wouldn’t even exist if we didn’t have to immigrate,” Thorson says, explaining how they couldn’t even rent an office without having a formal company to do so. “It’s all just us trying to reconcile what we want to do with how the world expects people to do things.” In other words, it’s pretty much just paperwork to a group of friends who love working together, no matter what their logo looks like.
“You know in The Sims when you don’t do anything to your Sims, you leave them alone, they’ll do something by default?” Medeiros jokes. “We just make games by default.”
Tom Marks is IGN’s Deputy Reviews Editor and resident pie maker. You can follow him on Twitter.
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