What happens if you take a classic Run and Gun game and merge it with the design of American 1930s cartoons?
It is the same question that the Canadian brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer asked themselves. The answer was Cuphead, the brilliant video game released in 2017 that sold over one million copies worldwide in the first two weeks.
In an era where the main trends are realistic 3D, VR and AR, the Moldenhauer brothers dared to stand on the opposite spectrum.
Because it’s about courage.
You need the courage to pursue your vision. No matter how many nay-sayers tried to dissuade you that a 2D game will never succeed in today’s market.
You need the courage to not pay too much attention to what did sell or didn’t sell in the past. They had a very clear vision and they were not distracted by people saying: “2D animation is dead, platformers are shit, nobody likes the boss rush, the game is too hard, make it easier to reach more people.
You need the courage to differentiate and keep your focus.
A new Category: 1930s cartoons games
In Cuphead, players take control of the titular character or his friend Mugman while travelling the game’s world. After Cuphead loses a bet to the devil, he must find a way to repay his debts. During an interview with Joystiq, co-creator Chad Moldenhauer said StudioMDHR wanted to avoid the “classic save the world/princess” theme. They wanted to differentiate from the usual stereotype.
The game was inspired by the rubber hose style of animation used in American cartoons of the 1930s, such as the work of Fleischer Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios, and seeks to emulate their subversive and surrealist qualities.
Cuphead goes through grotesque scenarios, monsters at times disturbing and a nostalgic atmosphere capable of catapulting the player into a black and white cartoon of almost a century ago.
To take their focus to the extreme, they decided to make the game just as if they were producing it at that time.
Everything in the game is done classically, for the most part. Everything is hand-drawn on paper, it’s hand-inked on paper. All the backgrounds are watercolour paintings. In some places, there are actual physical models.
The gameplay runs at a framerate of 60, while the animation runs at 24, which is a film standard.
They draw each frame and they scanned it to the computer. The only cheat they used, was colour them digitally, but just because they did a test hand-painting the colour and they couldn’t tell the difference between digital colouring and the hand-painted. Therefore they decided to shave off five years of development time.
Creating a completely hand-drawn game is no easy task for a major studio, let alone two brothers who have never made one before.
But all perfectly consistent with the focus chosen by the Moldenhauer brothers.
Each element of Cuphead was conceived, designed and created to be perceived as completely different from any game seen up to that moment. The art style is uber unique by modern-day standards.
Even the music is inspired by the soundtracks of the most famous cartoons of the time and vinyl records listened by Americans in that decade. Therefore, focused entirely on jazz, a musical genre that projects the player into the grey New York of 1930s. Nearly 3 hours of custom composed jazz and ragtime music using nearly 40 pieces ensemble.
When the first trailer was presented at Microsoft’s E3 2014 press conference, Ben Kuchera of Polygon wrote that Cuphead was one of the five most interesting games. Even though he knew little about the game other than its aesthetic. He said it “stood out immediately” and that everyone in the website’s press room reacted well to the trailer.
Cuphead has been a smashing success since its release, even garnering an animated Netflix show starring Cuphead and his brother Mugman.
How was this success possible?
If you follow this blog, you already know the answer. Moldenhauer brothers positioned Cuphead in the player’s mind as the first game of a new category, 1930s cartoons games.
I know what you are thinking now.
“Wait a moment, Federico. That’s true, but I don’t think differentiation and positioning are the main reason for their success. They have a big publisher behind their back, Microsoft. They got a lot of money.”
Well, that’s not true. I mean…it’s true that Microsoft backed their project.
But they didn’t pitch their idea to Microsoft. They didn’t spend precious time and money to participate in some crazy Indie Pitch Festival. They didn’t sell out their dreams to Publishers.
Firstly, they started operating with limited resources, from time to staff, definitely budget. They had no funding, so they spent every weekend, day and night designing the game.
Secondly, Microsoft called them. They just posted a video on the message board NeoGAF. Alexis Garavaryan [Senior Manager of Worldwide Business Development] at Microsoft found the message and contacted them.
It’s not luck. Maybe it’s luck for someone that doesn’t understand the power of positioning. Not to me.
They stressed so much their differentiation that the game has inspired people from around the world to share their love for the characters and old cartoons themselves.
And when your differentiation is so strong that you create a new category and you get first in the player’s mind, then any other game that comes later becomes automatically a rip-off. Even if it wasn’t intentional.
I’m talking about Enchanted Portals, a game which gameplay bears a striking resemblance to Cuphead’s signature animation. Some players have posted on Twitter side-by-side comparisons of Cuphead and Enchanted Portals in order to demonstrate the similarities.
Moldenhauer brothers have also been smart to not fall in the line-extension trap. As they said in an interview:
“I know the appropriate thing that a company does is working on a second game before you’re done launching. But we were 100% focused.”
They never embarked to create an empire, they wanted to make a game and they kept their focus on it.
And above all, they worked their butts off. You must have faith in yourself in the process. You must have clear objectives, you must work hard. In the end, what you put in, is what you put out. There is no elevator to success, especially in the video game industry.
Observe what everyone else is doing and do the opposite
In summary, they took the highway in the wrong direction…to find that at the end of the crazy race there was a pot full of gold. Like in the Ready Player One movie.
The story of Cuphead confirms that no form of entrepreneurial success prescinds from your ability to differentiate yourself, to distinguish yourself and to make you prefer clearly from a very specific target of players.
Positioning is the key to reach this result.
It will help you figure out if what you are doing will really work or not. It will decide whether you will continue to waste money or if that money will multiply in your bank account almost like magic.
Now, you can try to differentiate alone – taking responsibility and with the risk that something goes wrong in the process – or you can subscribe to this blog and learn the system that I use personally when I have to create a positioning strategy for my clients.
To the success of your game.