Horror, Suicide, and Game Development
This interview has been edited and condensed.
I interviewed Luca Dalcò from the small Italian indie studio LKA located in the picturesque landscape of Chianti, Italy. Luca Dalcò recently released The Town of Light (ToL). Particular about this title is its treatment of the subject of mental health. While it is an important issue here as well as across the big pond, it is a topic that, if it doesn’t receive a sexy packaging like the Joker in the Batman franchise, seldom is subject matter for video games, because of the stigma and taboo it still carries.
Luca took the initiative to combat this stigma and raise awareness since it is an issue dear to his heart. His studio released ToL for PC, and just this past June it came out for console. The reception by the gamers was, for Luca, unexpectedly welcoming. The game stands out with a masterly crafted atmosphere of subtle horror which Luca wrought.
Luca joins The Overpowered Noobs to discuss the journey from a one-man studio to a finished game on console, what hurdles the team had to overcome, and what kind of support a small studio in Europe can find in realizing their dreams.
Hi, Luca, how is it going?.
Hi, OPN, these days were full of news. That’s why I was moving around alot and a little hard to track down.
Don’t worry. We understand. What kind of news? News about the game?
About the new project which is still top secret, but not for long. There are good news.
If you could introduce yourself: who are you, what do you do, and especially: for what does LKA stand?
I am Luca Dalcò. I am the founder of LKA and lead developer of the team, which came together officially a little less than a year ago. The story behind LKA has to do with video games because it was the acronym I used on video arcade machines of the 80s. When you put in your player name, you only had three spaces available. Because there were many LUC, I used LKA, and it stuck.
We are a small team of developers. ToL is our first title — the first for each member of the group [EN: Wow!]. It’s a title with which we cut our teeth, with which we made mistakes, through which we learned, and it was also a great adventure for us because we realized that it was a shared dream to realize a video game. It was also great that we were able to gain exposure — much more than we had expected. We started very humble and didn’t take us seriously (in a positive sense). It’s not like we stormed ahead with a lance and said, “let’s conquer the world!” We embarked very calmly, trying [hard], and the point we have reached today still feels somewhat strange and impossible.
Your game is ToL. How did you conceive of it and if you can summarize, how was the process from the idea to the final product?
The idea was mine. I was always very interested in the history of mental illness. By chance, I learned of the mental institution where we located the game. It’s relatively close to our office, about an hour by car.
I began with making visualization experiments in Unity because I liked reproducing the surroundings and the impressions of this location [...] to the point where we decided to make a game. I had already done a lot of work, and we decided to come up with a story that would be very believable. [...] The idea was always to tell the story of these mental institutions in Italy, which is similar all over the world — to tell how, a few decades ago, conditions existed which today seem impossible because culturally they're far away from us, but historically they're pretty close.
How long have you been working on this project?
I had the idea for ToL in 2012. At that time I was alone. I shared office space with one person, but LKA didn't exist. I began to experiment, to do some tests in Unity. At that time I was teaching in university and showed my progress. I talked to the students. They liked the idea, and from there, slowly, the project grew bigger. Let's say, in 2014, the real development of the game began. It required a good two years. Then, after the release for PC, which was in February 2016, we dove into the porting onto console. The console version came out on June 6. It took a long time because, clearly, due to our lack of experience, we had developed for PC without thinking ahead. The porting has been a long process. We launched on PC completely independently. For console, however, the help of a publisher, of Wired Productions was essential because it was getting a little too much for us; especially, communication and marketing. For this project that is a very, very delicate aspect.
When did you found the studio? Was it complicated? What were your first steps? How did you know how to do it?
Frankly, here in Italy, we're all terrified by bureaucracy. However, my experience was a positive one. Certainly, there isn't the speed and ease which you can find in England, but something has been done. Founding a company has been relatively easy, especially with the support of an accountant. We already had a location. So, that hadn't been a problem. [...] I believe that in Italy, as well, small steps have been made [to support startups] which begin to show results. For the record, I'm not a youngster anymore. [...] I have some experience I made in other contexts regarding legal and financial questions. Maybe that helped its move along more quickly.
There was an initiative by the government to support video games?
Yes, correct. Nowadays, video games are considered audiovisual works and thus categorized with movies. It has access to the same incentives because it is a product of cultural relevance and receives direct financial support and tax credits which you know are like oxygen to game development. I think that could really stimulate investment because it encourages foreign investors.
I don’t know if you saw, today the results of this yearly European grant which co-finances productions came in and three Italian studios received financing. For the first time, we are one of them. This was very gratifying along with all the news these days. Many signs indicate that Italy as a European country can grow its video game industry. There is not a huge amount of help, but what is there is important, especially for indie studios.
LKA had a campaign on Indiegogo. What was your experience and in general, how did you finance this project?
The Indiegogo campaign has obviously been a mistake for various reasons. One of them was that we launched the campaign without tending to it, without creating a network that would have brought people onto Indiegogo. The result was rather poor. At that point, Indiegogo was absolutely not like Kickstarter. It used to be a much poorer crowdfunding. If you didn't have a fanbase which you targeted and brought to Indiegogo, it showed no result. We weren't on it, we did it at the wrong time, and this is how it went.
During development, we received offers from various publishers, in the end, however, we decided to self-finance the project; part of it was that the offers we received did not convince us. For a studio without a finished game to show, they were clearly very limited because it is a high-risk investment. I'll tell you the truth. I never felt like saying: yes, give me money, and I'll finish the game. It was our first game. [...] Thus, I financed the ongoing expenses with my funds, and the others contributed with their work.
In the game there it's a beautifully conceived horror atmosphere. It's incredibly hard to create this feeling of goosebumps when you write a storyline. How did you know how to do it?
One of the rules I set myself was to first and foremost write in a very emotional way. I threw improvised stuff onto the page and then tried to edit it as little as possible to give it a proper form.
I always wanted the surroundings to be a mirror of the psyche of the protagonist. For example, I decided to begin on a beautiful spring day with butterflies and birds contrary to every cliché which maybe would have called for a storm and wind. Why did I make this choice? Because the surroundings had to reflect this 16-year-old girl. Thus (in) nature, flowers represent her age, which is a time of explosion of life. We realized a subsequent feeling of distortion through light effects with very marked shadows [...]. The wonder of youth is celebrated up to the point where one enters the asylum. In broad daylight and with the sun shining it is completely dark because once entered all vitality is extinguished. That's the rule which helped me very often to choose one style over the other, one kind of lighting over the other, always thinking about representing the mental state of the protagonist in the surroundings.
I saw that you participated in the Greenlight program on steam. How was this experience?
There, it went very well. That was the real Greenlight, as opposed to today, where everyone gets greenlit. I am a little upset about this development because I thought Greenlight to be something very appealing, especially for the community. The experience was a good one. The game was received with enthusiasm, and we were accepted pretty quickly. That was maybe the moment of greatest satisfaction. Also, because we did not expect it. It had been only recently that we had started talking about the project outside of the studio. Being on Steam today seems normal, but at the time it was a dream come true.
Now that you've published the game, how have you evaluated your success and were you already able to draw some conclusions about what worked, what didn’t work--both, regarding the product but also the marketing?
We consider it (as having) gone well [...] [though] surely ToL is not (a) big commercial success. This is clear, and we didn’t expect it to be due to the very fraught subject matter. I think it probably would have had a little more potential with a slightly more structured marketing campaign. Maybe, if we had collaborated with the publisher who eventually helped us on console, we could have had a simultaneous release on the three platforms; probably the result would have been better. That being said, it’s not a disappointing result either. The game is still alive, and the audience still has an excellent reaction to the sales on Steam. We have not sold out, yet. We're at over 25K copies — but sold on average at 80% of the official price of the game. It's not the big hit, but we're evaluating 30K copies as break even, and we are approaching that. [...]
For the console, it's a different discussion, because a publisher helped us there. We had a different marketing approach with THQ Nordic that managed retail all over the world. [These are] all things that alone we would never have managed to handle because of required time investment.
I noticed that on YouTube and Twitch, ToL videos streams have a lot of visitors for an indie game.
[That is probably] because it is a narrative game that you can watch very well on YouTube. The only situation where we had an important breakthrough regarding YouTube, sales, and perception of the title was Germany. [There] we had Gronkh, the biggest German YouTuber, and his girlfriend Pandorya, who did the German voice-over. The result is that Germany, which has long been a less successful market for us, has now become the biggest one. It even mirrors the United States in sales volume. It’s strange. For us, Germany is our small gold mine. From there, we had extremely positive reviews, and German gamers also perceived the game correctly.
What can you say about your next project?
What can I say? I can say the title because it has now appeared on applications for European grants. The title is Martha is Dead. It’s a psychological thriller, this time, tied less to the history of mental illness, less documentary, but continuing to reference the topic of mental problems. We stick to where our expertise also lies because in years of research and creating contacts we now have a solid network of acquaintances, collaborators, and consultants.
Anything else you’d like to say?
One thing I’d like to add: I hope that this game can in a small way contribute to destigmatizing mental illness. I find that a video game has that fantastic feature that can suck you in. If you can develop a bit of affection or empathy for this girl, for a few hours, you will live in the mind of a "crazy" person. You will understand that this madness is nothing but a normal person who simply has mechanisms that work in a way that is a little different, but they’re not an alien. They’re a human like us. We are all much closer to mental illness than we think. I hope that this experience can help in conveying that message. [...]
Grazie, Luca, for the interview.