Today, December 10th, marks the four year anniversary of Coming Out On Top's release. To celebrate we've caught up with Obscura, creator of Coot and the person behind Obscurasoft to look back on the game's evolution.
1) First off let’s start with your alias, why Obscura? And Obscurasoft?
Obscura was what popped into my head when I was first getting started and signed onto a game developer forum. I got used to the name, so it stuck.
2) When did you have the idea to create the game and what motivated you? Did you have any background in game development before making Coming Out On Top?
Though I’ve been an avid gamer all my life, I was actually a wannabe screenwriter prior to entering the world of visual novels. I had worked on some scripts (none of which have gone anywhere and are currently collecting dust as they await another draft).
In any event, after catching the flu one weekend, and hoping to find something very easy and low intensity to play, I stumbled across a Japanese dating sim. Even though I wasn’t into any of the love interests (I wasn’t a part of the game’s teen demographic) it was still plenty engaging and I thought it looked simple enough to program.
It made me think about creating a dating sim of my own. I had always loved the character interactions in games like Dragon Age or Planescape Torment, and wanted to make something that would make me feel the same way about the characters. Something set in the modern world though, a lighthearted romantic comedy.
This idea of a guy named Mark and his two goofball roommates took hold of my brain, and didn’t let go. Their characters and personalities and stories were formed from the start.
As it happens, this amazing guy Tom Rothamel had created an gaming engine called Renpy that allowed non-programmers to make visual novels and dating sims. So that’s where it all began.
3) While creating Coming Out On Top you had development blogs (Obscura's Developer Diary and Obscura Makes A Game) where you would post about the game’s progress. Why was documenting the process of creating the game important to you?
At the beginning I kept a blog just to track the novelty aspect of the game development. It was something I’d never done before and the whole process was exciting and new. Later, it seemed like a good way for any interested parties to see how the project was coming along.
“My game is tentatively called "Coming Out on Top". It's a dating sim(?) where you play the intrepid main character, 22 year old Mark. The game begins when you come out as gay to your best friends, Mia and Cody, and follows your adventures as you date a variety of different guys. ” – Obscura in 2012 describing the initial plans for the game.
4) Looking at early concept art and description of the game, one can see that from the start there was already a clear vision of what the game was going to be and recognize many elements that end up almost unchanged on the finished game. e.g., Mark was always supposed to have two roommates and he always supposed to have multiple love interests. Besides the obvious, like the inclusion of more characters, what would you say were some of the biggest changes the project went trough since its inception?
Well, obviously the art had to be entirely revamped! (It hurts me physically to look at the older version now, lol.) The original art was all I could manage at the time while I was still learning to draw on my computer, and my goal was just to get a working prototype as soon as possible. But the biggest change was that it became an erotic project shortly after I made the first version (which was rated PG). There were many, MANY requests for adult content. But I decided to keep it as family-friendly and chaste as possible. Actually, wait, no, I decided to make it a complete raunch-fest.
5) Bouncing off of that last question. What were some ideas that you had during development that didn’t make the cut?
Geez, I could hand you a trunk-full of notebooks filled with ideas that didn’t make it. For me, writing is basically an exercise in thinking of many ideas as possible and whittling them away until left with whatever I hope will work. A lot of things that got cut out were things not central to the Mark’s relationship with the guy in question. Like in one version of Brad’s storyline, Mark and Brad’s brother end up developing a buddy buddy relationship. It wasn’t sexual and it didn’t fit the game as a whole so that got nixed. There were also a number of scenes involving Phil on base but those were ultimately irrelevant as well.
6) Japanese dating sims and visual novels who feature a romanceable cast often have a main love interest who is a just a little more canon than the others. Since Alex was the only romanceable guy in the earlier versions of the game, do you consider him Mark’s official love interest?
Initially, I thought it was Ian because of their history together. But after releasing all the entire game along with the dates, it could be just about anybody. I tried to make everyone attractive and flawed in some way, from the main love interests down to the dates. I went into the mindset anybody could be right for Mark, depending on the player’s preferences.
7) Can the twins in Penny’s ending in the old version of Coming Out On Top be considered early versions of Jesse and Hugh?
Oh god. Honestly I totally forgot about that old drawing. Jesse and Hugh came about because the Kickstarter backers wanted a date with twins, and also wanted a date involving medical professionals. So while that’s a great find, that’s actually another set of twins. Perhaps they’ll all meet one day and have falafels.
8) In the beginning Coming Out On Top was a completely one-person project. At which point during development did you decide to have collaborators (Doubleleaf, Badriel, Saguaro) join the project and why?
I had a lot of technical desires which in retrospect seem simple, but at the time were over my head, e.g., the speech bubble, their outfits, their expressions, etc. And though I was painstakingly trying to revamp the art myself, I knew there was no way I was going to be able to do the backgrounds or the sex scenes.
Saguaro ended up handling the more complex programming bits, Badriel did the backgrounds, and Doubleleaf did the sex scenes. I felt immensely privileged to be working with Doubleleaf, since I had seen her work before and it had blown me away. All three of them are absolutely talented and lovely people. In fact, the saddest thing about finishing the game was the fact I couldn’t work with them anymore.
9) When did you decide to launch a Kickstarter campaign for the game and why?
In addition to paying the fabulous people above, I was hoping I could also take some time off my day job and work on the actual game. I started asking people who had played the demo if they’d consider backing a game like this. Their yes meant the world to me. I still remember launching the campaign at 2 in the morning (rookie mistake!) and the first backer making a pledge. Anybody who has run a Kickstarter knows how insane the whole process is. Constant adrenaline rush combined with this immense sense of responsibility to give your backers a product with everything you’ve got.
Looking back though, I’m not sure if I’d run a crowdfunding campaign again, unless I got some help running one. They are immensely time consuming. The BEST part of it is meeting and talking to your backers, while getting their thoughts and input. The worst is that it will at least double the amount of work you need to do.
10) Gay adult games are already a niche within a niche and they were even more uncommon in 2013 than they are today. When you started your Kickstater campaign what did you do to ensure the game would reach its audience?
Even before the campaign began, I spoke with HUNDREDS of people online through email and on forums. I’d ask if CooT looked interesting to them and whether they’d want to play it. A lot of gay guys I spoke to were very excited about it, because 1) at the time you could probably count the number of Western gay male games on one hand 2) there seemed to be a lack of erotic games that were on the lighthearted, comedic side.
11) After Coming Out On Top’s Kickstarter success several gay visual novels of varying levels of quality and “adultness” launched campaigns on the website including *takes a deep breath* : Requiescence, A Hand In The Darkness, Seiyuu Danshi, Sentimental Trickster, Chess of Blades, Legend of Rune, Sakura Tempest, Full Service, 1st Degree, To Trust an Incubus and Chasing the Stars. Do you feel like you’ve started a trend?
I think CooT did well enough on Kickstarter to inspire quite a few erotic game developers—gay and straight. I still remember people from mainstream gaming forums discussing CooT, scratching their heads and puzzled any erotic game was on Kickstarter, much less a gay one. When it comes down to it, these individual backers are the ones who’ve made this wave of games and subsequent expansion of this niche possible.
12) Four years later, how do you view Coming Out On Top’s place on the canon of gay games?
I don’t think that’s for me to say. As a creator, I’m just happy if the player enjoys the stories, the characters, and has a good laugh. I’m very grateful CooT got the audience it did.
13) Just a few months ago Steam has reversed its stance on sexually explicit games and they no longer require censoring to be accepted by the platform. Do you think that’s a sign that the industry is changing its attitude towards adult games?
I think what happened is that Steam looked at the prospect of having to play over a hundred thousand games and decide what fell into their guidelines of what was ok and what wasn’t. And they decided “aaaaah, fuck it.”
As an adult content maker, I’m certainly happy they’ve taken the pragmatic approach. The adult content issue has been a grey, nebulous area and continues to be.
In terms of the larger culture though, I don’t know. Tumblr shut down all of their adult content recently. Epic and Discord are running their own stores, and I’m curious to see what path they’ll take. The future of adult gaming content remains to be seen.
14) How do you feel about the visual novel scene now versus when you started developing COOT in 2012? Do you think it has changed much, if at all?
Well, I released the game right when indie games were starting to explode. It’s only gotten bigger and brighter since then. Right now I think there are about a quajillion games and visual novels on Steam. That’s a conservative estimate.
I love that there are niches within niches, and that if something you like doesn’t exist, you can go make it yourself. It’s a great time to be a creator, especially if you’ve got a niche product. I think that’s far more vibrant environment for creativity.
15) Has fan reaction to a character or a storyline ever surprised you? Was there ever a character you though would be very popular but didn’t do so well or the opposite?
Sure, I can give Phil as an example. I had wrongly assumed people would understand this thing that happens when some Marines graduate boot camp and for a few weeks become SUPER INTENSE about being a Marine. I guess it’s sort of an inside joke in military culture, and I thought it would be entertaining to portray him as one of these highly motivated graduates. Instead some players thought Phil was just WAY too abrasive. So I definitely miscalculated there!
16) Do you have a favorite character or storyline?
Despite my missteps above, Phil. I somewhat sadistically enjoy the fact Mark is bumbling through at least half of Phil’s storyline, and that Phil is actually a real sweetie.
17) What aspect of the game are you most proud of?
If any of the game’s jokes made someone laugh. Comedy is brutally difficult to write, at least for me. But it’s the genre I love most.
18) What can you reveal about the next project that you mentioned on Twitter this January?
I can’t say much about it, because I’m not even sure if it will work as a game. I do believe nothing like it exists. The whole thing might be a huge flop. If I don’t get a viable prototype I’ll most likely work on a sci fi visual novel I outlined a few months ago.
19) Coming Out On Top was very well received and expectations for your next game are high. Do you feel pressure at all to deliver again with your second game?
Yes. There’s pressure no matter what. The main challenge, always, for me, is trying to keep the player playing as long as possible. I don’t see myself competing with my last project, or other devs. I’m competing with all the distractions of the modern day era. Youtube, social media, instagram. Basically our incredibly short attention spans. That’s the eternal challenge. None of it means anything if you can’t hold the player’s attention for five minutes, much less an entire game.
20) Will this next project have a scene replay function: Yes or Definitely?
Oooh, I don’t even know yet. This next project isn’t really suited for that, but I can’t tell you for sure until it’s done.
21) And for our last question: What is one question you wish you had been asked on this interview? And what’s the answer to that question?
You’ve already asked some great ones that required me to think a bit, so obviously I’m going to give myself a ridiculously easy one.
Q: What’s an indie game I’ve enjoyed recently?
A: A strategy/simulation game called Prison Architect. I predicted it was going to be one-note novelty game, but I was completely wrong. It’s suprisingly in-depth. It feels like the devs really did their research and put a ton of thought into it. I found it fascinating to play and addictive as hell.