Who knew so many people craved an opportunity to build their own cult?
Soon after its announcement at Gamescom 2021, Cult of the Lamb shot to the top of online wishlists everywhere. In the buzz that followed, it became clear that the indie developer behind it, Massive Monster, had struck gold.
The award-winning studio, founded in 2016, had already tasted success with previous releases, The Adventure Pals (which made a cool US $1.2 million) and Never Give Up, but their latest has taken things to a whole new level – so to speak.
Based between Australia and the United Kingdom, the team is on a mission to create games ‘bursting with creativity with a focus on personality and play’. Cult of the Lamb certainly ticks those boxes. As the team describe, the single-player roguelike casts us as ‘a possessed lamb saved from annihilation by an ominous stranger’ who must then repay their debt by ‘building a loyal following in his name’. So we build our village, perform god-appeasing rituals, conquer rival cult leaders, and deliver sermons all in a day’s work. It’s quite the trip.
Cult of the Lamb
Here we speak to design director Jay Armstong about cult-making and his advice to up-and-comers.
TAHLIA: To kick things off, what would be the three to five games that have had the greatest influence on your life?
JAY: Monkey Island was one of the first games I saw when I was a kid. It blew my mind and sparked my imagination. I went home and drew my own version of the game on paper! The second would be the first game I got sponsored for that gave me the career I now have. Without that game, I wouldn’t be in this industry. Third, Cult of the Lamb, of course! This game has already influenced my life in so many ways, and the journey has only just begun.
Some other games that have been really important are RimWorld, Crusader Kings II, Dead Cells, Enter the Gungeon, Stardew Valley – the list goes on!
TAHLIA: Massive Monster has consistently punched above its weight. How did this small but mighty team come to be?
JAY: We started out making tiny flash games for browser, which meant that between us, we’d made more than a hundred games over a few years. Being able to get so much experience in such a short space of time taught us how to move fast, and as a result, we’ve always been able to produce high-quality work very quickly.
TAHLIA: Cult of the Lamb captured people’s imaginations early on – it’s a pretty unique story you’ve brought to life! Can you recall the initial spark for the idea?
JAY: It came from the idea of combining two genres: roguelikes and sim colony managers/base-builders. Our previous games had been very linear, which meant people would have exactly the same experience every time, whereas games like The Binding of Isaac and RimWorld created unique experiences every time you played.
I noticed that no one had tried combining [roguelikes and sims]. After that, it took a lot of iteration and experimentation before deciding on ‘the cult’ as a theme. At one point, it was a ‘create your own hell’ game, but because the characters were so cute, you never wanted to punish them! When we tried the cult theme it all clicked into place very quickly.
TAHLIA: Case in point: you sold one million copies within the first week of release. What was that experience like for you and the team?
JAY: It surpassed even our wildest expectations! Because it’s all happened so fast, we’re still trying to figure out what it means for us and the company. We haven’t been together as a team since before the pandemic, but we’ll all be at PAX Australia, so we can finally celebrate the amazing success! In the meantime, we haven’t stopped working on the game. We want to support it, improve it, and continue to add more content to it for as long as we can!
TAHLIA: Did creating Cult of the Lamb present any unique challenges?
JAY: The most difficult thing was the game design. We always knew that both sides of the game had to feed each other, but because we were trying to do something new – or at least combining two familiar things in a new way – we had to experiment to find the most fun and intuitive way to do that. When you make a Metroidvania, for example, you can look at other games and see how they solved design problems, but with Cult of the Lamb – at least in terms of the structure and rituals – we weren’t able to do that. So we had to work hard at iterating – in fact, the game didn’t really come together until right at the end!
TAHLIA: In April 2020, you signed a publishing deal with Devolver Digital. Can you walk us through how you landed this huge contract?
JAY: Devolver was always our dream publisher. We’re huge fans and love all the games they put out. The only thing was we didn’t think they’d be interested. We also didn’t know how to contact them, so in the end, I guessed the email address of a contact there and sent them our pitch. They came back the next day. We spoke to them, and they told us then and there that they wanted to work with us!
It was so great to have a partner that was so certain. We’d been speaking to other publishers who dragged out discussions and seemed to be playing power games by keeping us on the hook. Devolver gave us confidence right away that they loved the game and would be great partners. We love them.
TAHLIA: On the flip side, when you’re approached by people – say emerging game developers – what advice do you tend to offer? Is there anything you wish you knew when you were starting out?
JAY: Something we learned with this game is that it’s very important not to become too proud of or attached to a piece of work. You need to be able to objectively assess something you’ve done and be willing to cut it if it’s not working. That can be quite hard to do, but it’s essential.
A good way to maintain perspective on this is to lay out three foundational ‘pillars’ for what you want your game to be or the experience you wish to convey. Then every decision you make can refer to those pillars. Does this feature directly relate to enhancing one of those pillars? No? Then cut it and do something that does. Having a shared vision will not only help you focus on creating a more streamlined game but also creates a focal point for everyone on the team. If you’re all pulling in the same direction for a common goal, then you’ll be able to go much further.
TAHLIA: That’s great advice. I love that. There’s obviously a lot of fun to be had here, but there are some darker themes at play too. What do you hope players ultimately take away from Cult of the Lamb?
JAY: We decided from the beginning that we weren’t going to make a game that preaches to you. Instead, it’s more of an experiment of power and the idea of power corrupting. We wanted to set up a game in which we give the player the power to be whatever type of leader they want, then step back and watch as they do increasingly horrific things for their own benefit!