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Postmortem: Goodbye Volcano High's Development & Launch

Goodbye Volcano High's Co-Director and Lead Designer Kyle McKernan offered an insider's look at the game's development pipeline, discussed its launch, and explained how the team worked with the community.

One of 2023's most unusual games was, without a doubt, KO_OP's rhythm game/visual novel Goodbye Volcano High, featuring a captivating coming-of-age story and a distinctive visual style that continues to spark debate across the internet.

To learn more about the title and the production process behind it, we recently spoke to an experienced developer and Goodbye Volcano High's Co-Director and Lead Designer Kyle McKernan, who offered an insider's look at the game's development pipeline, discussed its launch, and explained how the team worked with the community.

According to Kyle, for whom Goodbye Volcano High was the first experience directing a video game, the title began as a half-serious idea of a "dinosaur dating sim", which eventually evolved into a fully-fledged project.

"Sam (Designer), Saleem (Co-Director), and I were chatting and tossed around the idea of making a dating sim, and the idea of making the characters dinosaurs occurred to us as a bit of a joke, but then the hook of "and the meteor is coming" struck us as genuinely interesting.

I think our sense that that might be a premise people would be intrigued by is what propelled us to pitch the game to the wider team at KO_OP. Everybody was pretty much immediately on board with it and – given some trepidation as we'd never made something like this before – we started concepting pretty quickly. It sort of took off internally from there."

One of the game's most memorable aspects is its unique art style. Speaking about the inspiration behind it, Kyle revealed that the team has a lot of fans of anime and various animated shows/movies, so it was a natural progression for them to adapt the styles they were interested in for the game.

"We knew pretty quickly that we didn't want the dinosaurs to feel like a "dating realistic dinos" joke, so making our own cohesive aesthetic that didn’t look like actual T-rexes and raptors or something was important for us.

We didn't reference any particular piece of animation as the inspiration for our style but did have an amalgam of stuff in mind just by nature of liking a wide array. Fortunately for us, Lucie (the art director on the first leg of the project) was really stellar at designing characters whose personalities and vibes were immediately clear. Once we saw the first iterations of the characters, we knew we were onto something. They felt iconic and sort of cosplayable, which was a pillar for us. Once we knew what we were going for we started developing this idea that the game could feel more like a cartoon and less static than what we'd seen in the genre."

When asked about optimizing the game to run smoothly on different platforms, the developer explained why the process is usually difficult for indie studios and spoke about one of the team's main porting challenges:

"It's always, always difficult – especially with a small team – to account for all aspects of getting the game over the finish line, and a lot of that is made up of different requirements for different platforms. Each platform has limitations and advantages, and prioritizing what to go for so you're not infinitely in the weeds is a big challenge.

Ideally, you make something that can work across everything, and I'm pretty happy with where we ended up – I don't think the game suffers on either platform. One of the challenges from a design perspective was to make sure everything worked across the mouse and keyboard vs. the controller. While you kind of want to just be like, "Hey, just play it with a controller" on PC, the reality is that a lot of people will want to just stick to a mouse and keyboard (I do too!). So making sure that everything felt good and that the rhythm portions and minigames actually worked with that control method was something that took a lot of consideration. Luckily, this was something we expected and planned for from the very start. Porting to other platforms after the fact can be a whole other beast."

Speaking about the promotion of GVH and engaging with the community, Kyle noted that a lot of their efforts to communicate had to be curtailed as some of the more problematic elements of the internet came out:

"We were able to protect our burgeoning community through moderation but protecting our colleagues' mental health was a challenge when they were interfacing with the community or seeing vitriol daily. That said, we tried to remain pretty open to questions and thoughts from folks acting in good faith, and having those positive interactions was a real balm for us. We received feedback during development about characters and queer identity and we took that really seriously. The decision always came down to us in the end, but it was useful to see that and get a sense of our audience. We did a lot of work on Twitter and TikTok to reach our audiences. It's always extremely important to get the word out and our community specialists, Marcela, Ramona, and Simone did a stellar job.

We were fortunate to have Sony as a partner for the game, as their platform made getting the game into the brains of players from the start that much easier. The more general promotion throughout development was really a mix of trailers, newsletters, and posts about the game and our studio. We found folks who had built up some anticipation for the game really enjoyed getting behind-the-scenes content and our discord was really useful to reach them. Oftentimes, members of our team, especially our community team, would interact directly with the players, and while our community isn’t huge, it did go a long way to making it feel good, positive, and – most importantly – safe."

Reflecting on the post-launch period, when the game was released and reviews began pouring in, Kyle had this to say:

"In all honesty, it's a very weird feeling to sit and watch what happens. You spend years with this thing, and so much of yourself gets infused into it just by the nature of the work. We put a lot of our personal feelings and identity into the game, and it's hard not to feel like the judgment of the game is a judgment of you in the end. The anxiety of that is kind of palpable.

I think dealing with heavy subjects like mortality and the end of the world made that more stark because it necessitated us giving the story the emotional attention we felt it deserved. Once the reviews started coming in, I was astonished by the positive reception. There was so much anxiety with the release, and the project had gone through so much that my expectations were nowhere near what actually happened.

To get 8s and 9s from outlets – especially ones I really respect – was mind-blowing to me. There was a real relief in that, but also a sense of loss in a way. It was no longer just ours; it was out in the world, and this chapter was coming to a sort of close. It's a surreal experience, and it's unlike anything else I've felt."

When asked to define success and describe the final result, Kyle told us that for the team, success was less about numbers and more about reaching players emotionally.

"We often joked around the studio that we wanted to make people cry at the end of our game. And while that seems kind of flippant, it really was part of the core of what we were making. But it is a bit reductive: We didn't want to just make people sad. We wanted the game to be affirming and for players to take a positive, hopeful message away from it.

Even with all the ways the game morphed and changed, I think that stuck throughout and I think we achieved it when we launched. It really makes me happy to see how people have been encouraged by our game to change things or to chase what they really care about in their limited time here. Given that, I am very happy with how the game has sold and the more general critical reception to it. It's been beyond what I could've imagined and I'm really proud of that."

Furthermore, we asked Kyle about how small developers can stand out among the thousands of titles released each year. In response, he remarked that it's difficult to determine specific requirements for any given team over another.

"I often go searching specifically for the small, weird games that aren't getting the attention they deserve and they're so inspiring to me. I would say the best attitude to have is one without a lot of expectation but with a lot of hope. I've been in situations where nothing I wanted to chase was going anywhere and without hope to keep going I don’t think this game would’ve happened the same way, if at all.

On a more practical angle, I would say to always seek to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you or have knowledge and skills you don't and be willing to take a crack at anything and learn new skills.

Open your mind to new ideas and collaborations, and your excitement can be infectious to the people you want to fund your work or to play your game. And that can help you keep going. It's tough out there, and I don't blame anybody for struggling with it. I hope we as an industry find more ways to get unique and strange art known by wider audiences."

Finally, the developer spoke about the lessons he learned from Goodbye Volcano High and shared some advice on launching a game studio:

"I honestly can’t count the amount of lessons I learned from making this game. Making something like this over a period of years is really transformative in your relationship to your work. For one, I learned the internet is a far weirder – and often hostile – place than I really expected. I learned to moderate my identity's intertwining with the work. I learned that managing the scope of your game and having a good plan from that can change everything when problems come up.

Looking back on things, there's a lot I would do differently but the main one is that – I'd try to outline the scope more thoroughly and define more clearly our limitations and what we really wanted from the game and for our audience.

I've never personally launched a studio, but I have seen firsthand what makes KO_OP great. The biggest one for me is to really think about what it means to have a group of people working together and what your priorities are.

For us, we try to make sure our decisions are guided by not just what makes a good game, but what helps the people of the studio work on them comfortably. Another thing is that making sure you're getting yourself out there to talk to a lot of different people is so important. I know this is a tough one based on circumstances, but just catching up with people and making yourself known can make all the difference when you need support for your projects.

Be collaborative – as a cooperative, we try to make sure everyone on the team has a say. There's a lot of cross-pollination of disciplines and nobody is really siloed. I find not being precious with your work is huge and generally makes everyone happier. Feedback is everything. Last thing: Stay true to what you want to make and what you need to make. All games have compromises but your art is human in all its messy glory."

Kyle McKernan, Co-Director and Lead Designer of Goodbye Volcano High

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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