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Sunday, April 21, 2024

How Bear and Breakfast Opened for Business Despite Multiple Challenges

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The many independent developers I’ve spoken to over the years have described a wide array of diverse and unusual paths that brought them into game development in the first place. But Bear and Breakfast creator Rareș Cinteză is the first developer I’ve spoken to who not only didn’t imagine he’d ever be a game developer, but actively didn’t think he could be for the longest time.

“It felt like one of those ‘that’s for other people’ kind of things,” he tells me shortly ahead of Bear and Breakfast’s recent PC launch.

While Cinteză didn’t think he was cut out for the job, he still loved the idea of making games. So he started volunteering at conferences like GDC, doing graphic design for things like posters, and talking to developers. Eventually, this brought him to developer and publisher Those Awesome Guys, who brought him on board to do some marketing…which gradually turned into game development. Cinteză had made it.

Once he had his feet wet in development, though, Cinteză wanted to take it a step further and make his own game, and thus Bear and Breakfast was born. It’s Cinteză’s first “real game dev project” from start to finish, as well as the first major project for most of the other team members at Gummy Cat studio. Cinteză says he learned Unity while working on B&B.

Bear and Breakfast originated with the pun in the name, and the overall concept was born from Cinteză’s love of management sims like Theme Hospital. The initial plan, Cinteză says, was to have the bear eat the guests – making them the “breakfast” of Bear and Breakfast. But funny as this was, when it didn’t complement the management playstyle, they opted to make something a bit more cozy.

Thus the Bear and Breakfast I’ve been playing for the last week is a far gentler thing. It follows a bear named Hank and his fellow forest creature friends – all of whom have the vibe and maturity levels of a bunch of goofy college students home on summer break – who are conned by a megacorporation into running effective AirBnBs in the middle of their forest home for humans who want to escape into nature. It starts with Hank fixing up a wooden shack with a rickety old bed and some cheap decor (bought in exchange for literal garbage from an entrepreneurial raccoon aptly named “Took”), but escalates as he acquires more properties, fixes up other dilapidated human structures in the woods, and attracts more and more people to the area.

As far as the pivot to cozy goes, Cinteză and team have nailed the vibe. Protagonist Hank looks like he stepped right out of We Bare Bears (and in fact Cinteză has a Grizz plush behind him when we chat), and he and his friends’ smooth, cute animations look more like a comforting weekend cartoon special than a game. Though the initial set-up is a touch overwhelming when it comes to tutorial windows, after about 30 minutes I’m bedecking a rehabilitated shack with ramshackle furniture and painted portraits of, obviously, bears, in an effort to attract customers.

Fairly early on, Bear and Breakfast opens up, allowing those who want to soothingly cycle through guests and build up their properties focus on that, while those who are curious about the greater mysteries surrounding the forest and a past disaster that drove away many of its inhabitants can chase the larger narrative. I’m hard-pressed to say which bit I like more, especially given Bear and Breakfast’s excellent, hilarious writing across both animal dialogue and item descriptions.

Bearing the Workload

Bear and Breakfast is quite the triumph for a debut game, especially given that its development wasn’t quite as cozy as the ultimate result. Gummy Cat is a five-person team (plus a handful of international contractors) largely based in Romania, where the indie game development scene is fairly small. Given the team’s relative greenness, Cinteză says it was difficult initially to find publishing and monetary support – though his previous connections via Those Awesome Guys helped.

Once the team got the funding they needed, though, multiple disasters struck.

First, the group needed to find a programmer. They wanted someone local to Romania, and eventually found someone they wanted to work with. Over a space of two weeks, they met in person, signed contracts, set up email accounts, made plans and discussed the game with this figure, and did everything necessary to set up a new person as an employee of a studio. Everything seemed great. But then, out of nowhere, their new programmer completely ghosted the rest of the team – they didn’t reply to messages or respond to any attempt to reach them.

After a week, Gummy Cat discovered through their company G Suite that their new programmer had used the servers they had put together through Google for work on the game to set up a crypto mining rig – costing them hundreds of dollars in service fees. Gummy Cat was fortunately able to get the fees waived by explaining the fraud to Google, and they did find a new programmer who wasn’t a scam artist, but it was a rocky start.

Then, there was the far more obvious and global problem: the COVID-19 pandemic. Gummy Cat started work on Bear and Breakfast from a brand new studio in February of 2020. Just as they had gotten settled in the space and were enjoying working with one another in person, they had to switch to remote work – which Cinteză says heavily impacted the first six to eight months of production.

And, he adds, even without a global pandemic, Bear and Breakfast was an extremely tricky thing to create, especially for a brand new studio like Gummy Cat:

“It was a dumb idea to make a deep, systematic management game as our first game,” he says. “A very systems-heavy game [that was] pretty good-looking, but hard-to-pull-off, I'd say. That has a bigger effect on performance than you think, because pixel art can be really beautiful, but it can also usually be less taxing on a system. If you want to have crisp-looking cartoonish art with frame by frame animations like we do, on a systematic level where you have to have a big level full of 50 guests at a time walking around and doing stuff…that ramps up quickly. So we definitely made a lot of mistakes.

We need to be able to disconnect and see where we're at as people at the end of all of this.

“And that led to, I'm sure it's a normal pitfall of indie studios these days, but the only way we could make up for it was crunch. And a lot of that, I feel, is on my shoulders. Because we all made mistakes, but knowing those mistakes and how to treat them, and how to move on from them is something that I personally feel like I could have done a much better job with if I had the experience, but I didn't. So we didn't, and that ended up in the usual work very hard and hope for the best approach, which isn't great. Especially if we want to build something for the future. Make our debut game, put it out there, and hopefully keep making games afterwards.”

Cinteză is candid about their struggles with crunch. Though he never intended for it to happen to him and his team, the reality of trying to make such a complex project meant that at some point, something had to give. There was a limit to how long the money could sustain them, he says, and various funding sources were less likely to take risks on such a new team, so if they didn’t get Bear and Breakfast done in a set amount of time, the money would simply run out and they’d be done.

That crunch, combined with the weight of working during a pandemic, took a toll on Gummy Cat as people, Cinteză says. Which is in part why Gummy Cat delayed its Nintendo Switch version recently.

“It's been almost three years of a really, really long slog,” he says. “And three years isn't that much compared to other indie developers. I've heard a lot more, but it still feels like we need to finish the game and we need to push it out, because we're reaching the limit of our mental capacity. And we need to be able to disconnect and see where we're at as people at the end of all of this, after this game is done.”

Bear and Breakfast Release Screenshots

Now, at the end of all their struggles and with Bear and Breakfast out on PC via Steam, Cinteză is proud of the work he and Gummy Cat have done on Bear and Breakfast. And he tells me he’s especially proud that they’re able to represent Romania with that work.

“I'm pretty sure we're the first indie developer from Romania to be featured in a Nintendo Indie World,” he says. “I think it was like eight or nine months after we started working on it, it was the first point of feeling like, ‘Okay, we're actually going somewhere. We're actually doing something.’ And it was very, very validating. It filled us up with immense joy. Like maybe the first happy points since the pandemic started.”

Cinteză says Gummy Cat wants to keep making games as a team after Bear and Breakfast is finished, with the new experience and clarity that publishing a first game has given them. But as with many indie projects, that’s entirely dependent on whether Bear and Breakfast is successful enough. If it doesn’t earn them the resources to start a new project, the team will likely split up and join other projects separately.

Still, Cinteză hopes it won’t come to that, and even if it does, he intends to keep making games – it’s part of who he is now. Even though after four years working at Those Awesome Guys, three on Bear and Breakfast, a shipped game, and multiple game development war stories, Cinteză laughingly tells me, “I still don’t feel like a real game developer.”

Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.

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