Dan Beckerton, developer of Spirittea, is the kind of person to make you ashamed with how much you’ve achieved in life. He’s the developer of beautiful nurturing sim Spirittea, creating something to rival Stardew Valley, but he’s also managed to do it all on his lonesome. That’s better than a few GCSEs on your CV.
We jumped at the opportunity to interview him, not just because of this achievement, but because early trailers of Spirittea make it look like a thoroughly intriguing little game, meshing the imagination of Spirited Away, with the laid-back, ‘play a few minutes every day’ feelings of an Animal Crossing.
Hi, could you please introduce yourself. What is your role at Cheesemaster Games and on Spirittea?
Hi. I’m Dan Beckerton, the founder and lone developer at Cheesemaster Games. I take care of all of the development of Spirittea aside from some help with the music (done by David Linares) and QA testing help (from my publisher No More Robots).
Could you give us a quick rundown of Spirittea?
Spirittea is a game that takes place in a small countryside town. You play as a writer who has moved to the town to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, in hopes that the quietude will help clear your writer’s block. After drinking from an ancient teapot in your temporary home, you discover that the town is haunted by all sorts of trouble-making spirits. With the help of a cat spirit named Wonyan, you reopen the bathhouse on the mountain where the spirits can go to relax, rather than cause mischief for the townsfolk, all the while working away on your book.
How have you managed to pull Spirittea together on your own? Have you had help from anyone else?
Time mostly, haha. Spirittea is my second game project. I released my first game, Fables of Talumos, in September 2019. It was created in the same game engine (Game Maker Studio 2) and was also pixel art. I learned a lot from making Fables, so there wasn’t nearly as much to learn when it came to creating Spirittea. As for help, I’ve hired a contractor named David Linares to help with the game’s music, and of course my publisher has helped a tonne with things like bug testing and planning out realistic milestones.
Games like Stardew Valley, Animal Crossing and Cozy Grove feel like they’ve been grown in similar fields to Spirittea, but they all dominate our time. How can we possibly make room for a bit of Spirittea?
One of the most important aspects of Spirittea is player freedom. Despite all of the different things you can get involved with in the game, the end goal is simply to finish writing your book. As a developer and a gamer, I really care about moment-to-moment gameplay a title is providing me with. I tried my best to make simply playing the game a fun experience, rather than a list of tasks to check off. It is my hope that this focus, along with a unique-feeling setting, will encourage players to explore the game to its fullest and experience all that I’ve packed into it.
We noticed the day/night cycle. Is Spirittea playing out in real time, like an Animal Crossing, or is it a cycle that you’re in control of?
The day/night cycle in Spirittea is one that you’re in control of, not real time. There is no set sleep time in Spirittea. Instead, you can be active for up to 22 hours from the moment you wake up. After 22 hours, you’ll become exhausted and fall asleep. I wanted players to be able to experience all hours of the day if they so chose. And of course, there are some interesting events and activities occurring during the night, so it’s worth planning your day to include some of those late-night hours.
We get some Earthbound and Studio Ghibli vibes from the art style. What was your inspiration with the look of Spirittea?
I love pixel art games, especially ones from the SNES era. I’m afraid my own pixel art skills aren’t at the level of some of those SNES classics, but I did look to Earthbound and Harvest Moon for inspiration when it came to Spirittea’s look. When I was still trying to figure out how large to make the character sprites, I watched a YouTube video from a creator named MortMort. I really liked the look of one of the characters in a tutorial of his, which helped me figure out the scale of the game. Lastly, I tried to use more realistic and natural-looking colours when creating the town and mountain area. This was to try to add to the authenticity of the place and make it more believable.
The focus on an old bath house is an interesting one. What made you choose to put that at the centre of the player’s world?
I think that many of the players reading this would immediately think of Spirited Away… And they’d be right, haha. Spirited Away is one of my favourite movies, and certainly helped form the backbone of the idea for Spirittea, however there were other artistic works that influenced the game greatly. There’s an anime called “Barakamon” in which a calligraphy artist moves to this small countryside town due to professional complications. His adapting to the countryside lifestyle was very inspiring to me and made me want to share that sort of experience with others. Another anime which inspired Spirittea is called “Natsume’s Book of Friends”. In it, a young boy living in a small town discovers a book belonging to his deceased grandmother, containing the names of all sorts of yokai (Japanese spirits). He encounters these spirits occasionally and, usually after some conflict, returns their names that his grandmother had taken from them. Having seen these sorts of shows, as well as Spirited Away, it was kind of baffling to me that there hadn’t been many games using a huge bathhouse for spirits as a premise.
There are some strong Eastern influences here. What inspired that?
Prior to starting work on Spirittea I spent four years living in South Korea. I was over there teaching English, but traveled to other countries whenever I could. I visited Japan twice, Vietnam and Taiwan while overseas. It’s very difficult to express the feeling of moving to such a different country from your own. Especially your experiences in your first year while there. There are so many “first times”. First time perusing a convenient store, packed with all sorts of illegible writing and exaggerated pictures. All of the random embarrassing encounters with curious locals (you get really good at charades living overseas). Just… endless things I could talk about. Essentially, I wanted to create a game that hopefully imparted a little bit of what I felt while living overseas. One of the small apartment buildings in the in-game town has a unit that is essentially identical to the one I lived in in my first year in Korea. At one point I was going to have the townsfolk speak a language the player would have to slowly learn, however I never followed through with that idea… maybe in a future game!
For whatever reason, we always end up spending our time fishing in farming and RPGs more than anything else. Will it be the same here?
I don’t think so. Actually, at this time there isn’t any farming to speak of. I see players spending about 50% of their time managing the bathhouse (to earn money) and 50% of their time mingling with the townsfolk and exploring the area. There’s a system in Spirittea where you can hang out with NPCs if they have “free time”. There are 24 human NPCs in the game, each with their own daily routines and selection of two of seven possible hobby activities. When you chat with an NPC during their free time, you can choose to do one of their hobbies together, such as singing, eating BBQ, digging for treasure, bug catching, drinking, relaxing in the hot springs, and yes… fishing, haha.
What makes a good ‘nurturing sim’ like Spirittea?
I think people play ‘nurturing sims’ like Spirittea, Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley for a few reasons. Some people might not have a lot of time to game in a given day, but want to play something, and these sorts of pick up and play games are great. There’s no strict time commitment to a given play session, and you’re always making progress in one way or another. There’s not really a strong ‘fail state’ I suppose. The low stakes, combined with chill music and a cozy atmosphere really sells the promise of a nice relaxing time.
How much of our lives is going to be lost to Spirittea?
That’s a tricky question to answer, as it’s entirely dependent on the player. If I assume a player is interested in seeing the spirit quests quite often, and I assume they spend roughly 20 minutes of real-world playtime in any given in-game day, then I can estimate that it’ll take roughly 20-30 hours to encounter all of the spirits in the game. However, personally, I expect it will probably be closer to double that for your typical player.
The arcade cabinet grabbed our attention. Is this your chance to showcase some older games you made?
Ah yes, the cabinet. I had big plans for that thing. Originally it was going to be a very simplistic looking medieval thief simulator. Then the plan became to make a sort of tower defense game. Right now, however, it’s not functional, haha. I think including all of the other minigames in Spirittea really ate up the time I would’ve spent on another minigame for the cabinet. I expect we’ll probably see it get repaired at some point in the future though.
What was the experience of Kickstarting Spirittea like? How do you feel it’s benefited the game?
The Spirittea Kickstarter was arguably one of the most uncertain times in my life. In March of 2019 my wife and I moved back to Canada from Korea. We stayed with my folks for half of a year and then moved to a small apartment in Vancouver, planning on living off of our savings while we got settled. I launched my first game immediately after moving to Vancouver and instead of marketing it, I started on Spirittea right away. I put all of my faith into Spirittea, as I had the basics for developing a game down, and thought the idea was a real winner.
Development started in September 2019 and in January 2020 I launched a Kickstarter. Four months doesn’t seem like a lot of time to make enough of a game to show properly in a Kickstarter… because it most certainly isn’t, haha. I knew I was rushing things but the state of our savings meant we only had a few months worth of rent left. I launched the Kickstarter hoping that it would sail past the $18 000 CAD goal, however… it was off to a slow start. I knew that you’re meant to make at least 33% of your goal in the first 48 hours of a Kickstarter, 33% in the last 48 hours, and 33% throughout the rest of the campaign. I don’t think we even hit 33% until maybe halfway through. Things were looking pretty bleak and I was, well, extremely sad. I was hoping that I could make game development my career, as I’d discovered a huge passion for it. However, all signs were indicating it just wouldn’t work out.
Around the halfway mark of the campaign, I started revising my old resume, something I hadn’t looked at since before going to Korea 4 years prior. I started applying to jobs in the Vancouver area when I had a thought: “maybe people weren’t supporting the Kickstarter because it looked like it was doomed to fail”? So, I asked my family members if they could try donating more, to make it seem like the campaign was indeed possible, and that it wasn’t pointless to back. Somehow, it seemed like their boost to the campaign renewed its (ahem) spirit, and I started getting a trickling of new backers in. The campaign was nearing its end and we weren’t too far from the goal. Then one morning, with a few days to spare, I woke up and saw that we’d passed it somehow. It didn’t make any sense, because we were still a few thousand short the night before. It turns out, two of the backers selected the highest tier, where you get to create your own NPC. I reached out to both of them and confirmed if they were alright spending that much on a Kickstarter. They were both incredibly kind. One of them said it was a birthday present to themself, and the other said that they just wanted to make sure the campaign succeeded. I was so touched, and still am to this day. It makes me happy to think that you can find them in the game, and I even went the extra mile and gave each of them a quest involving a spirit. I owe so much to my family too, of course. Especially my brother, who pledged an enormous amount.
The Kickstarter was the snowball that continues to roll to this day. I was able to find a publisher thanks to one of my Kickstarter backers drawing my attention to a tweet on Twitter. I was then able to get funding, and continue to develop the game full time, which has always been my goal. The Kickstarter benefitted the game by leading to the series of events that allowed me to put my all into the game, without worrying about becoming homeless, haha.
What’s your favourite spirit in the game?
Hmm. If we’re not counting Wonyan, the player’s companion spirit, then out of the regular spirits it’d have to be a spirit that’s a stack of three frogs, named Heck, Geckit, and Froke. They’re just hilarious-looking, and I like how the frogs split up and swim around when you have resting in a bath.
And finally, do you believe in ghosts?
Not entirely, but of all of the supernatural things society has come up with, I consider ghosts to be the most plausible in real life. They definitely creep me out, haha.
While Spirittea may only just be coming onto your radar, it’s actually not that long before you get to play it with your own geen fingers and thumbs. It’s out on PC and consoles later this year, and you can be sure that we will be giving it a thorough assessment.
Many thanks to Dan Beckerton and Cheesemaster Games for the opportunity to sit for an interview. We’re looking forward to launch.