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How the painful process of cutting ideas almost sank Sea of Solitude

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Game development is a fine balancing act. Throughout production, teams will need to decide what features to throw their weight behind, and which ones to cut loose.

It’s a process that has likely left many developers wishing hindsight was a real-life tonic. Chopping the wrong feature might leave you staring at a creative brick wall, but overambition could be just as damaging, stretching teams to breaking point as they tie themselves in knots trying to cobble together features with launch day looming.

It’s an issue that Cornelia Geppert, CEO and creative director of Sea of Solitude creator Jo-Mei Games, is all too familiar with. Taking to the stage at GDC 2021 to outline her approach to emotion-driven game design, Geppert recalled how an inability to kill her own darlings almost derailed the project. 

Sea of Solitude was a deeply personal project for Geppert, who started work on the title after leaving an abusive relationship. Because it was based on her own experiences, Geppert found it tough to scale down the script or eliminate features that, she felt, were crucial to sparking empathy between players and Sea of Solitude’s protagonist, Kay. 

Geppert explains she “had so much to say,” and despite acknowledging that only a finite amount of those experiences and concepts could be realized in-game, understanding what to keep and what to axe was an “extreme” learning experience. 

“We had multiple outcomes in our first iteration of the script. Multiple outcomes at the end of each level.You could fail to turn your family members back into humans, and they could drown in their own ocean of tears,” Geppert says, highlighting an early idea that was eventually scrapped.  

“It still pains me that we needed to cut this, but we barely managed to finalize the game in its boiled down form, so sacrifices had to be made a lot during production.”

Geppert claims that coming to terms with the necessary pain of cutting ideas was the biggest challenge the Jo-Mei Games team faced during development, and was a process that at times left the ambitious project in dire straits.

“The learning curve for us had been extreme. Even near to halfway through production we were cutting parts of the game — like big chunks — because for the first time we saw how much work it takes to bring even one mechanic to a level of quality that doesn’t break player immersion,” Geppert continues. 

“Calculating the timeframe and the scope for development so poorly is what nearly caused the whole production to fail. Spending too much time trying to bring too many ideas to life, and then realizing too late that it takes so much more work to polish these ideas. You can still see it in the game, now that it’s released, like several mechanics are not polish enough and feel a bit clumsy.”

Want more game dev lessons from GDC 2021? Click here to catch up on even more tips, pointers, and tidbits from this year’s conference.

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