Agony, according the critical consensus, was agonising—a dreary jaunt through hell that even its fever dreams of disgust and deprivation were unable to elevate. The game was mauled for its perceived misogyny, archaic design, and subpar execution.
Such a disastrous reception to a debut game could easily kill a studio, or at least result in a rebranding, but Madmind Studio took a different, more courageous route. In the months following the initial release, the team dedicated itself to taking control of the tailspin narrative around the game, improving the project significantly, and finally delivering on fan expectations with Agony Unrated.
Since then, Madmind seems to be putting the past in the rearview mirror, actively working on two new games: the more realistic horror experience Paranoid and the Agony spin-off Succubus.
In light of these bold moves, OnlySP took the opportunity to speak to Madmind CEO Tomasz Dutkiewicz to learn more about why the studio is taking this unexpected route.
Before getting into the future, though, the past shows that the team was familiar with hardship.
“The very first project that we all have worked on was Hellion: Mystery of the Inquisition,” explained Dutkiewicz. “For many of us, it was their first adventure with gamedev. Unfortunately, the company announced bankruptcy before the game was finished, and team members took up work in other companies.”
Nonetheless, Dutkiewicz had a vision, and, alone at the end of 2015, backed by the promise of assistance from former colleagues, he took that vision to Kickstarter as Sacred Agony. With an eye-watering funding goal of EUR€544,000, that initial attempt fell far short. However, people were interested.
“Encouraged by the positive reception of prototype films from Agony (which at that time appeared under the name ‘Sacred Agony’), we have decided to bring the old team back and start our own company.”
That was in the second half of 2015. Madmind was officially formed early the following year, though several months would pass before Agony would again step into the limelight as a crowdfunding darling.
This second time around, Agony was successful, but that success was tempered.
“You could say that [the] Kickstarter campaign was a success,” said Dutkiewicz, “but few people know, however, that the entire amount of money obtained during that campaign covered only part of the Agony production costs. [… The] Kickstarter campaign for Agony, even though it collected three times more than the assumed goal, raised just over EUR€120,000—the production costs along with marketing was six times that much by the time the game was released.
“In the end we had to use the help of an investor who helped us finance the game. Otherwise, Agony would never have been released.”
Even so, as the planned release date of March 30, 2018 neared, the game was delayed, reportedly for last minute polishing. What followed was a confused story of legal woes and contractual obligations that left fans wondering about the status of the game.
Now, more than a year later, Dutkiewicz opened up about what happened.
“Agony‘s Kickstarter campaign aimed to release the game on consoles too. To do this, we had to establish cooperation with the console publisher. At that time, we were not sure what to expect from this contract, but with time it turned out that all versions of the game, regardless of the platform, must be identical. This was, of course, our oversight and error, for which we later paid dearly.”
That parity clause was problematic due to the graphic content that the team had incorporated into the game, which would likely have resulted in an Adults Only rating, and “this would most likely result in the break of the contract with the publisher and financial penalties, which we could not afford at the time.”
The consequence: censorship. Backers of the project responded negatively to the news, demanding some way of playing Agony as it was originally intended.
Dutkiewicz was prosaic about the furore. “The players who supported us on Kickstarter had justified claims […] But you must remember that the game we were advertising on the Kickstarter, regardless of whether they were screenshots or trailers or gameplay, looked the same when it comes to censorship. Each version of the game was the same.
“We have never showed anything in the advertising that was later censored. Everything we have shown was in the censored version of the game that was released. Lighting and some special effects have changed in a few places, but this had nothing to do with censorship.”
Indeed, even in its censored version, Agony is one of the grimmest, most graphic horror games on the market, justifying Dutkiewicz’s statement that Madmind “cannot agree with what some people said: that we advertised a different game than the one for which the Kickstarter backers paid.”
Nonetheless, the story of censorship does not end with what was available in the release version. As word spread of cut content, the team announced a PC-version patch to restore the game, but even that was never to be.
“Despite all the effort and negotiations lasting months we also were not able to issue a patch removing the censorship from the PC version of the game. We were bound by the law and so we had to wait for our contracts to expire. […] We will never repeat this mistake again and if we decide to use an additional publisher one day, the agreement between us will have to be signed on the terms that our team will fully accept.”
As should be evident by now, Madmind learned many lessons during Agony’s development—about crowdfunding, communication, contracts, and more—but perhaps the hardest lessons were yet to come. The game finally launched on May 29, 2018 and was excoriated by the media. So poorly was the title received that it has the dubious honour of being one of the 10 worst games of 2018 according to Metacritic.
Perhaps most shocking of all was Dutkiewicz’s admission that “We were worried about the reception.” He did not provide further details about those concerns, but said instead that they were offset by pre-release impressions garnered from the demo and feedback at conventions.
“The premiere of the day was a wakeup call for us.”
“The reviewers and players voiced many of the game’s imperfections and it was impossible not to agree. Agony turned out to be a different game than the players envisioned, and the number of issues players have encountered when the game released turned out to be huge.”
He implied that a part of the reason for the mismatched expectations was that the game transformed during development. The original vision was a five-hour adventure with “more dynamic gameplay” while the final result lasted twelve hours that were dominated by exploration through poorly lit locales.
“It quickly dawned on us that the original vision […] should not have been changed during the development.”
Morale in the studio, understandably, was low.
“After the release of Agony, many people suggested that we should act similarly to many other companies in this situation—to close the studio and open a new one, with a ‘clean account’.”
However, rather than admitting defeat, the team looked forward: “It was hard. It was no laughing matter. But we have decided to try as hard as we could to give ourselves a second chance.”
“We owed it to ourselves and especially the fans.”
That would-be phoenix was Agony Unrated, a standalone game that was made free to existing owners of Agony. This version brought with it a swathe of improvements to lighting, textures, character models, quality-of-life elements, and, of course, the implementation of even more gruesome content.
This re-release was entirely self-funded and self-published, and the response seemingly made the effort worthwhile: “The reception of Agony Unrated was warm and enthusiastic. People were satisfied with what they’ve got. And we were satisfied too.”
Even so, the Madmind brand is sullied, and Dutkiewicz knows it.
“It is true that we have many faithful and great fans, but both players and the press have a negative opinion about us. The weak premiere of Agony and the whole fuss about the censorship strongly affected the company’s image, and Agony Unrated is only the first step to rebuild it.”
The team is using the struggles it has already faced as motivation to be better next time. That desire comes not only from inside the team, but outside as well, with Madmind determined to correct the wrongs and prove to its fans that their faith is not misplaced.
“Many fans have supported us from the beginning and believed in us. We wanted to thank them by showing that we can be better […] Our upcoming productions will prove to players that we are able to make good games with a nice and satisfying gameplay and that’s what we’re focusing on right now.”
Those games are Succubus (some preliminary details of which are available here) and Paranoid, which moves away from the hellscapes to an apartment in the 1980s.
Madmind has managed to bring these two projects to life from the cusp of closure thanks to the decision to release both the censored and Unrated versions of Agony, each of which helped to assure the financial future of the studio. Neither Succubus nor Paranoid has a release date as yet, but perhaps that is simply because the studio is determined to do things right this time.
“Many fans have supported us from the beginning and believed in us,” said Dutkiewicz. “We wanted to thank them by showing that we can be better.”