Image courtesy of BlueTwelve Studio/Annapurna Interactive

28 people and two cats: Inside the making of Stray

Brian Crecente
BlueTwelve Studio is a small team working in the south of France in the sunny city of Montpellier. Founded by Koola and Viv in 2016, the team has now progressed to a solid 20 talented people and two full time cats overviewing the activities.
Stray is a third-person cat adventure game set in a dystopic robot town inspired by Kowloon Walled City.

It’s the sort of elevator pitch guaranteed to pique just about anyone’s interest, but it was actually a single piece of static art, and a GIF of a cat wandering the neon-lit, rain-soaked streets of a long-lost city that first grabbed the internet’s attention.

HK_Project hit just about everyone’s radar in 2015. It was the work of two former Ubisoft artists, who go by the names of Koola and Viv. The two wrote on their blog at the time that the art was the by-product of their mutual decision to “work on stuff we’ve never done before.”

That glimpse of a little black cat making his first digital steps lit up the internet.

Soon, more GIFs began to hit and the cat’s exploration of the colorful city was punctuated by mostly nonplussed, seemingly sentient robots. Just six months later, publisher Annapurna Interactive reached out to sign the team and its game, much to the delight of the growing fanbase.

We chatted with studio creative and design director Viv and Stray producer Swann Martin-Raget about those early days, the power of the GIF, and how Unreal Engine helped the small studio realize its dream and give life to Stray’s feline protagonist.

How did the founders meet and where did they work before coming together to create Stray?

Viv, studio co-founder, creative and design director:
The first time I met (studio co-founder) Koola was at Ubisoft Montpellier in 2007. He was already passionate about rendering and I was a generalist 3D artist (creating characters, backgrounds, items, textures, etc.). After five years working there, I wanted to have new adventures so I joined a new team that was starting at Wild Sheep Studio. I had worked there for three years before starting to think about founding my own game studio.

Where did the studio’s name, BlueTwelve, come from?

Koola any inputs? *laughs* Well “Blue” is like the seven last digits of Pi and “Twelve” is like the twelve fingers of one hand of course!

Stray started life as HK_Project and as a very well received GIF. Can you walk us through how those concepts came about and how they helped give life to the game?

At the very start, our objective was to try to nail down an artistic direction that was pleasing for both of us, to see if we could manage to mix our two visions and to be happy with it. So, initially, we gave ourselves one month to make a picture that was representative of the project we had in mind, the very first image. When that was done, we posted it on Twitter and we received tons of very encouraging messages from all around the world! That really gave us a lot of motivation and we started right away to make prototypes. Koola was working on the programming side of things in Blueprint while I was making some animations, sounds… We were really outside of our comfort zone. Soon we made animated GIFs that showcased the potential of the universe and the project, some people even thought that the game was nearly finished at that point. *laughs*
Image courtesy of BlueTwelve Studio/Annapurna Interactive
I read that Annapurna Interactive actually discovered HK_Project from one of those early GIFs. What was your reaction when they reached out to you about funding the game? Were you surprised you found a publisher through such a grassroots approach?

We were really happy to see that the world we were shaping was triggering the interest of so many people at the time. We were definitely happily surprised and very excited that Nathan Gary from Annapurna was interested too!

The setting for Stray is loosely based on Kowloon Walled City, which itself has a fascinating history. How did the walled city influence the game’s design, look, and mechanics?

Viv: The walled city of Kowloon was an initial inspiration of the project. It was while trying to make environments of that type that we realized a cat would be the perfect main character. We really wanted to make the players feel like they are lost, just like we felt lost looking at those references. This unique moment when you look around you and you tell yourself “I really have no idea where I am.”

To explore this idea even further, I created an alphabet used by the inhabitants of the city. And as the cat was discovering this world as well as we were, we had the idea of B-12, this small flying drone that can translate this universe for the players to understand. Once we had that lead, a lot of game mechanics were inspired by this small character.

Kowloon Walled City has long fascinated people, going back to its formation in the 900s. Did you look at other works of fiction and nonfiction surrounding the city while developing your game? Were there any in particular that influenced your development?

I think the movie Blade Runner is a very strong inspiration for us that really shows in our art, but the movie Blood Sport with Jean-Claude Van Damme that was shot inside Kowloon was also a helpful reference for us. We also spend a lot of time trying to find as many videos and pictures of the place as we could but they are quite rare actually.

What other works influenced the  creation?

I think that indirectly all the games that impressed me over the years have been influencing myself unconsciously. So games like Arc the Lad 2, Parasite Eve, and Metal Gear Solid.
Image courtesy of BlueTwelve Studio/Annapurna Interactive
How has the game changed over the course of development and compared to what it first looked like when you introduced the world to HK_Project?

I think the main thing that was toned down a bit as we got more precise with the production constraints is that the game was supposed to be more open initially in a Metroid-vania kind of style. But wanting to remain a small team, we decided to make the progression a bit more linear to be consistent with our production efforts.

Swann Martin-Raget, producer: I think the initial vision of making an action-adventure game with a cat in a cyber city and a big emphasis on pacing and environmental storytelling remained very clear and strong during the whole development. We definitely had to choose our battles and the scope became more precise as we discovered our strengths and weaknesses as a team but it was nice to work within a stable frame like this.
Image courtesy of BlueTwelve Studio/Annapurna Interactive
There’s a lot of appeal about the game’s look, but I think one of the most interesting elements of Stray is that players control a cat. What drove the decision to make the game be about a cat’s journey to reunite with its family?

We were looking for a very simple and believable objective. Overall, the destination is not that important, the game is really all about the journey that the cat will have to go through.

The look and movements of the cat are amazing. How did you go about capturing the essence of a cat in your design?

We moved away from a classic platforming challenge like Mario very early in the project. Missing jumps and having constant close calls was not attractive to us. We wanted to be super efficient with the cat’s movements, being able to reach the top of a building in just 20 seconds without the need to think about it too much. Miko, the cat animator, and Rémi, the cat programmer, have been making iterations for years on just the basic movements of the cat. It really was a huge amount of work!

What made you decide to use Unreal Engine for your game?

There are two main points that were very interesting in our situation. The quick and easy prototyping that Blueprints allow was very helpful for a team of initially just two artists, and obviously the quality of the rendering that you can get with Unreal is something that was so important for us.

The setting for the game is packed with detailed environments, a wide variety of lighting, and a lot going on in every scene. How did Unreal Engine help you create that look and experience?

The possibility of pre-baking the complex lighting was absolutely fundamental for us given the super high amount of details that we like to add in our scenes and still keep good performances on consoles.
Image courtesy of BlueTwelve Studio/Annapurna Interactive
Were there any specific challenges that Unreal Engine helped you overcome during the development process? If so, can you walk us through one of them?

Unreal makes it very transparent and easy to work on different platforms at the same time, and for a small team with limited programming resources, this was incredibly valuable for us from the very start.

I loved watching some of the early gameplay concepts you posted as works in progress back in 2016. Do you feel like you maintained that approach for level design and animation as you progressed on the game’s development?

We clearly had to adapt a lot in terms of level design to find a good compromise between what we wanted to do and what was actually possible. It’s part of the risk of trying to create something new. We found a lot of specific problems that have never been solved before in other games and we couldn’t take any references as other cat games simply didn’t exist at the time.

What can you tell us about the robots that inhabit this world? Is this a city of robots, or is it a world of robots? Will you be sharing more about the game’s fiction, or is that meant to be discovered as people play the game?

It is definitely part of the experience of Stray to discover and understand this world and the stories behind it, so we don’t want to reveal anything yet!
Image courtesy of BlueTwelve Studio/Annapurna Interactive
As you’ve been creating this first game, you’ve also been building out a studio during COVID. What has that been like, and what is the current status and size of your studio?

Having remote-only discussions and working isolated because of COVID-19 was really hard, whether it is for simple communication but also to try to maintain a good team spirit. It was a true great feeling to be able to get back to our studio and work directly with people again. It’s true that remote work can have its advantages when you are trying to be fully focused on a specific task, but it was essential for us to come back to real world working relationships as soon as possible.

Martin-Raget: The current team size is 18 people and 2 cats, but during the peak of production we were about 27 to 28 people working on the game. It really was a strong intention to remain a small human-sized team and work within these constraints as we really appreciate the emulation.

Stray, which is available now, is BlueTwelve’s first game. How defining do you think the title will be to the studio? What is it you hope the studio becomes known for over time?

We really hope that players will find playing Stray exciting. We are a small team but we are super proud of our first game and we put all our hearts in making it. 

Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. Where can people find out more about Stray and BlueTwelve?

Viv: You can find us on Twitter and our website.

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