Much of the video game industry in 2021 is dominated by massive AAA budgets and iterative releases. Activision’s Call of Duty series is often seen as a poster child for this, with multiple development studios leading to yearly entries like Call of Duty: Vanguard soon after Black Ops Cold War and Modern Warfare (2019). While developers undoubtedly pour their passions into these games, this rarely shines through like with indies such as Kraken Academy: A casual adventure game available today on PC.
Kraken Academy is the product of Berlin-based studio Happy Broccoli Games, which is comprised of just three full-time employees: Founder, artist, and writer Annika Maar, programmer Joni Levinkind, and marketing manager Irene Preuss. Freelancers Svyatoslav Petrov and Damion Sheppard helped with music composition and sound design, respectively, but it all stems from a prototype Maar created over two years by herself that set the project’s direction. Game Rant spoke with Maar and Preuss about how they were able to focus the design and marketing of Kraken Academy in ways that excited them.
Kraken Academy’s Art Direction
Maar had to teach herself how to code when creating that initial prototype, using GameMaker to develop a 10-minute proof-of-concept. The desire to create a video game using the recycled idea for an unbegun comic book came suddenly one night, and was a somewhat radical shift for Maar — an illustrator by trade known for detailed fantasy works. One of the larger hurdles was coming up with the game’s art style, and she ultimately settled with pixel art despite not having done it before.
“When I started out with the game I was trying to figure out how I, a single person, could make sure I get it done with the art style I can do the quickest. Obviously I can’t do my fully rendered art because that takes 40 hours to do – absolutely impossible.”
She describes the game’s pixel art as “very minimalistic,” without much in terms of bells and whistles like shaders. Its rectangular shapes and character designs were inspired by Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter, which showed her that pixel art people didn’t have to be short and stubby; too “cute” to match Kraken Academy‘s dark humor. She said it has also been compared to Digital Sun’s Moonlighter, though Maar only played the game after Happy Broccoli’s Reddit community recommended it. “It’s super pretty, but it wasn’t necessarily an inspiration.”
Maar is happy with the design of Kraken Academy‘s pixelated world, particularly its colors and shapes. Going from detailed fantasy renders at-home in tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons to minimalist pixel art was easier than expected because she was able to apply “art fundamentals” like color theory. However, it does have some drawbacks, namely difficulty showing emotions for both dramatic and comedic scenes. “I think that’s why there’s so much fire in the game,” Maar said. “That’s something big I can show. I love explosions, it has to be super over-the-top.”
Nailing the Voice Acting
Some of the emotional slack is picked up by fully rendered character portraits, but even then Maar lamented only being able to use a set amount that express happiness, sadness, surprise, or anger. Thus, it became important that “the vision I had in my head carried over with the voice actors.” As a burgeoning voice actor herself, with experience in a VR game called Unnatural Freaks and two credits in Kraken Academy, Maar said it was crucial to get as much life into the dialogue as possible with limited resources. She said when 80 percent of the game is reading it helps to hear the perfect voice playing in one’s head.
Kraken Academy isn’t fully voice acted. There are 34 named characters played by around 25 actors – including Brian David Gilbert, former Polygon video producer perhaps best known for the web series Unraveled. After he quit Polygon in 2020 and expressed an interest in voice acting on Twitter, Maar said Happy Broccoli offered him the role of Kraken Academy‘s main character Paul, as “it was a good fit.”
Most every other voiced character in the game had over 100 audiences, according to Maar, but there were cases when only one of them perfectly fit her vision. Characters have a few fully voiced lines and only make sounds other times, a result of budget constraints, but even then it was often difficult to manage.
“I think for future projects we’re going to go with fewer voice actors and then more people will do multiple characters. It’s a lot of work to message everyone separately.”
The Importance of Clever Marketing
One big area in which Kraken Academy was able to be more creative was in its marketing. Preuss said the team has taken advantage of “standard” practices; going to events when applicable, releasing a demo on Steam, amassing a community on Discord, running an animated trailer at the Guerrilla Collective’s E3 2021 showcase, and more. However, Maar said they wanted to break away from “boring things” like talking to press (this interview was notably initiated by Game Rant) by adapting a strategy that took advantage of what would get them personally excited about an upcoming game.
For example, Happy Broccoli commissioned a friend to make an alternate reality game (ARG) that would draw people in through bespoke websites and puzzles. Some of these branches can still be found online, such as a mocked-up 2003 blog by Kraken Academy character Kostadin Kazanov called “Kostadin’s Truth” that digs into conspiracy theories about the game’s “evil, capitalist” soda company Mepsi Corp. Though the ARG was intended to include live components that were shelved due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it can still lead people to the game, and more importantly offer them extra lore. Preuss said, “It was super fun to watch streamers play the game for the first time, and then find the ARG and go down the rabbit hole.”
Streamers have been another key part of Kraken Academy‘s marketing. Happy Broccoli set up a campaign around E3 2021 for streamers to play the game, and another is happening amid its official launch. There is also going to be a fan art contest, and Preuss said they have produced merchandise – including stickers, pins, and a plushie based on mascot character Broccoli Girl – that are sent out as “a thank you gift” to some players and collaborators.
“The merch stuff is a lot of work, we have to pack it up with our hands every single time, even if that’s time we could be spending on the game. But it’s a lot of fun, we enjoy it and it’s more personal.”
Adding those kind of fun, personal touches has driven the game as much as its growing community. Maar said, “It’s not very tangible how much return we would get on merch or the ARG, and someone more traditional might throw it all into Facebook ads.” But that’s what they would gravitate toward in other games, and it seems to have worked for Kraken Academy. In fact, now that the game has released, Maar said there’s already a prototype developed for a new game set in the same universe – one that might not necessarily be a sequel. “If it was just us three making a game, it would be so much more boring,” Preuss said. “Having this community is amazing.”
Kraken Academy is available now on PC
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