If you were surprised to see Xalavier Nelson Jr.’s studio Strange Scaffold announce a foray into publishing, just wait until you hear the developer’s advice on brevity. The creator of Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator and An Airport For Aliens Currently Run By Dogs is no stranger to elaborate game titles, but when it came to Strange Scaffold’s first project as a publisher – developer Damien Crawford’s Purgatory Dungeoneer – one of Nelson’s first conversations with Crawford revolved around landing on a punchier title.
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Admittedly, Purgatory Dungeoneer‘s full title is My Grandpa Died And All He Left Me Was This 1 Dungeon In Purgatory Filled With Nihilistic Adventurers – so perhaps it may have been in need of a trim. But Nelson, a man who recently said that publishing would allow him to “reach God himself through a strategy of unpredictable diversification and expertly-executed airborne manoeuvres,” would be the last person you’d expect to bring that up.
Speaking to NME, Nelson explained that Strange Scaffold suggested a briefer title because in the world of publishing, the studio now has a responsibility to look out for its developers without compromising on their visions – however wordy they may be.
“In terms of promotional art, we couldn’t fit all of the words in there. But, as you can see from the Steam page, we… how do I put this? We identified that Steam would be very angry at us if we used the full title, but we stuck in the full title anyway, as that’s what I consider to be the true title of the game,” explained Nelson.
“Finding that balance between practicality and artist vision is a constant calibration inside Strange Scaffold which also made it a really good fit with Damien. They could say ‘yeah we need a different title on Steam’ while also saying ‘the full title of the game is and always should be My Grandpa Died and All he Left Me Was This One Dungeon in Purgatory Filled With Nihilistic Adventurers.”
Whether it’s a shared passion for bizarre names – Nelson lovingly labels Crawford’s titles as “too long to be said by God or man” – or something else entirely, Nelson sees a lot of promise in Crawford and wants to give them something he wanted when he was starting out.
“The first thing [about publishing] was finding someone who was the right fit, someone who for lack of a better term, could take advantage of Strange Scaffold being the publisher that I wished I had. Most of the problem I had, especially early in my career, wasn’t actually getting a budget, considering the scope of games I was making and the production strategies I was applying to make them, it was specific support.”
As to what he wanted, Nelson puts it bluntly: “a publisher that would support me in the individual ways in which I needed – otherwise, get the fuck out of my way so I could make them money.”
Stepping into that role is easier said than done however, and Nelson reveals that he was “days from basically deciding it doesn’t make sense for us to be a publisher.”
That soon changed, as Nelson says he “couldn’t get Purgatory Dungeoneer out of my head,” and saw the potential in viewing the project as “two development studios collaborating as opposed to a publisher and developer [role].”
“It’s been really exciting to find someone else who also has the ability to maintain a really singular vision but still has space for other people to still provide input. [I’m] just laser focused on ‘how can I support you and get out of your way?’”
However Nelson understands that what Crawford needs for Purgatory Dungeoneer may be vastly different to what Strange Scaffold’s future projects require. For Nelson, that flexibility is exactly why he took up publishing.
“I think the most exciting part about how I’m planning to produce this if we continue to publish, is always going to be deeply situational with the developer,” Nelson explains, adding that “if what you need from me is aggressive indifference, my tired mortal form will appreciate your preference.”
“Finding developers who know what they want and can identify roads to get there, you’d be surprised how difficult that can be. It’s really comforting to work with someone who sees a path to making the video game that they want to make without destroying themselves.”
Healthier game development is something that Nelson has always been vocal about. It’s a topic that Nelson has applied to his own development cycle and he’s found that with publishing, those same passions translate well.
“In a lot of ways I see [publishing] as an extension of my development mindset. Always trying to look at how to enable people to do their best work, in the healthiest environment possible to reach a singular vision. Intentionally providing input while releasing the final version of that vision to someone that we trust. One big thing that I’ve encountered, especially as a developer who has now signed publishing agreements, and seen a multitude of them, is how much publishing is based around a fundamental distrust of a developer and their specific process.”
“I want Strange Scaffold to be able to publish things very rarely. When it makes sense, and when it does make sense to do so very flexibly for the specific needs and vision that a developer has identified. I don’t see it as a new arm for Strange Scaffold, I see it as another extension of this philosophy of, how can we find another, flexible, human-centred way to make games profitably and well. So far, we’re very excited by the results. Even if we never publish a thing again, it isn’t a reflection on the developer, it’s just because we’re likely exploring that question in a different way. It’s a question I want to ask a thousand times.”
For someone who was moments away from deciding against publishing, Nelson already comes across as someone that’s already busy making his idealistic view of publishing a reality – even if it may have already upset his lawyer.
“We had to make an entirely different kind of legal contract,” recalls Nelson. “Our lawyer sent a draft, and it was so far off from what we wanted to build that I had to draw up something new with the lawyer from scratch. If that goes well I want to release it as an open template for other developers to consider their own more flexible arrangements. Although both my lawyer and my producers might be upset at me for saying that, in a public forum.”
For Nelson, that change was more than necessary, and based on his own experiences as a developer. “The thing that really gets to me, and that I have really prioritised as far as constructing that new type of legal agreement, was changing the language of leverage between developer and publisher. I have been told in private, friendly conversations before, ‘you are too self-sufficient for us to publish you.’ That was a really distressing message to hear, because I assumed that building up contacts with platforms and positive relationships there, and having that apparatus to pull in art needs and QA needs, and localisation needs, and to essentially be a machine that could contribute in a collaborative way in pretty much any sector of a game […] I assumed that would make me more desirable. But I found [on] many occasions that made me less so.”
Though some publishers may have shunned Nelson’s larger-than-life approach to game development, it hasn’t stopped him from finding success with Strange Scaffold. As to how that success will extend to Purgatory Dungeoneer, Nelson already knows what he does – and doesn’t – want to see.
“What success looks like for My Grandpa Died and All he Left Me Was This One Dungeon in Purgatory Filled With Nihilistic Adventurers is that Damien feels that they were able to, within practical and reasonable expectations, make the game that they wanted to, and in a flexible, supportive and healthy environment, and that the game, for both parties, makes more money than was put into it,” explains Nelson.
“If it makes even a dollar more than its budget, and Damien feels satisfied with the result creatively, then that’s a giant success for me. Honestly, that’s my greatest goal and also fear. I never want to work with anyone and have them not feel that they were proactively and extensively supported. Even if the effort was unsuccessful financially. I just really want to do Damien and their game justice. If the game comes out well, but Damien is not happy with the process that brought it into being, that’s the thing that keeps me up at night.”
From the outset, it certainly seems like Nelson – with his passion for healthier development and talent for annoying suits – is pushing the envelope. But with this change comes risk, though it’s a risk that Nelson has deliberately invited:
“If Damien walked away from [Strange Scaffold] tomorrow, that would be unfortunate, but I intentionally wanted to create the same relationship with a publishing and development partner that I would with any of the collaborators I’ve worked with, as far as them being contractors and working with me to make these things. You stick around because you want to, not because the consequences are so dire, or the impact on your psychology or your life would be so monumental that to walk away would mean setting a version of your life on fire. Anyone and everyone who participates in the development of a game should be able to walk away unscathed. In an ideal setting. We’ll see how that works as applied to publishing.”
Like the titles of Nelson’s games, Strange Scaffold’s move to publishing is big. It’s bold. But one question still remains: can Nelson bring meaningful, healthy change to the world of publishing?
“I don’t know yet. But I’m excited to try.”
Interview by Jake Tucker, words by Andy Brown. Purgatory Dungeoneer will launch on PC later this year.