Sea of Stars director reflects on the RPG’s development and incredible success

"It's a callback to how it used to be and why you fell in love with games in the first place"

Sea of Stars

Thierry Boulanger has been in love with RPGs for nearly his entire life.

As the French-Canadian game developer told The Escapist earlier this year, some of his earliest memories are of playing Chrono

Thierry Boulanger

Thierry Boulanger.

Trigger with his friend, even though they couldn’t actually understand the English text. Since then, he’s had dreams of making his own RPG, and for the past five years, he’s gotten to do just that with his Quebec City-based indie studio, Sabotage.

Enter Sea of Stars, a Chrono Trigger-inspired throwback featuring turn-based combat, a large pixellated world, and even music contributions from the iconic Square RPG’s composer, Yasunori Mitsuda. The story, which follows a party led by prophesized warriors Zale and Valere as they journey to stop the villainous Fleshmancer, is also the sort of quintessential classic JPRG tale.

For Boulanger, those formative years in Quebec of playing Chrono Trigger before he became fluent in English really helped him hone in on all of the elements that make up an RPG in the first place.

“Playing those games without being able to understand what was going on really made me see the mechanics and the music and the more kinetic side of things, because I had nothing else to latch on to or to care about as I played it,” he explains. “And it made me search a little bit more, and find things for myself a little bit more, and tell myself a story as I was playing. And I think that all contributed to developing this kind of sense of wanting to make something because I had to make a story up as I was playing the game.”

Sea of Stars cliffsideOf course, language barriers didn’t prevent him from still being able to grasp the sense of whimsy and adventure of classic games like Chrono Trigger, and it’s something he wanted to capture in Sea of Stars. 

“It’s not something that takes itself too seriously, but it’s still showing quality, and it can still have darker or more serious moments. I think there’s kind of this contract with the player where it’s like, ‘Look, you’re here to have fun,’ and for sure there’s a sense that the game should feel like they a day off, like a vacation, even within your ‘career’ as a gamer,” he explains. Part of that comes from the touching and wholesome friendship between Zale, Valere and Garl (read more on that here).

“It’s like, ‘Oh, this one is light, this one is a toy, I’m just playing it.’ In this sense, it’s back-to-basics; it’s a callback to how it used to be and why you fell in love with games in the first place.”

Put another way: “You’re like the Ghostbusters of this world,” he says.

“It’s a beautiful world, it’s very pretty, it’s very vibrant, but sometimes you have to go downstairs to take care of something hideous. It has this sense of you’re taking on a responsibility and you’re protecting a world that you care to protect,” Boulanger says. “It’s very much about hope and about wanting to do good and the idea that if you try, you will succeed. That’s more the message that I’d like to leave.”

Sabotage Studio

Sabotage Studio.

It’s a stark contrast to how the team felt earlier in the making of Sea of Stars. While all game developers were affected in some fashion by the COVID-19 pandemic, Sabotage’s plans were upended in a particularly notable way.

Given Sea of Stars‘ focus on ‘Solstice Warriors’ Zale and Valere, the team had the neat idea to announce the game in March 2020 during the Spring Equinox. As part of those months-long plans, flights were booked to San Francisco to attend the Game Developers Conference for in-person presentations alongside the launch of a Kickstarter campaign. However, GDC was soon cancelled due to COVID-19 lockdowns, and the team had to pivot quickly.

“We were looking for this thunderclap of ‘we reveal, there are articles, the campaign is live so we can converge everything.’ And a week before that we learned that it’s cancelled and everything, so that moment of, ‘do we still go forward, do we still launch the campaign?’ That was by far the moment where we felt the biggest risk because you can’t plan for the first-ever worldwide quarantine to happen. So that was a really big [challenge.]”

Ultimately, Sabotage did go through with a virtual reveal and Kickstarter launch, and fans quickly took notice, making it the biggest Canadian game on Kickstarter to date with over $1.6 million raised. That early demand, coupled with the team’s award-winning debut title, The Messenger, led to many publishers taking interest, but Sabotage wanted to self-publish for more freedom and control. It also ramped up from seven people working on The Messenger to around 25 developers on Sea of Stars.

Thankfully, that all paid off. Fast forward more than three years and Sea of Stars is a huge success. Upon its release on August 29th, the game was met with significant acclaim, becoming one of the year’s highest-rated titles with an impressive 88 on Metacritic. What’s more, Sabotage’s commercial hopes were that it would sell 250,000 copies in its first year; Sea of Stars hit that milestone in its first week.

Sabotage team 2

Sabotage team.

“We’re still floating,” Boulanger says with a laugh when asked about his reaction to the overwhelmingly positive response.

“We rented a big cabin and we flew everyone in because we have people abroad; the studio is in Canada, but we have people in the U.S. and Brazil. And so everyone came to us, and we rented a cabin, we partied all together for four days… And we had the launch together, live and everything, and so that kind of gave us the moment altogether of ‘this is real, we’re passing the baton of this project, it’s now about the players who will appropriate it.'”

While he notes that there is a bit of a “postpartum” in wrapping up the project after all this time, the team still chats daily and is overall proud of the game and how players have been receiving it.

“We have a sense that we want to make something that will touch people and kind of stay with them. We don’t want to take ourselves too seriously, but we try to be mindful that people are busy — they have limited time, they have limited money and they choose to invest [in us],” he says.

“We think of it as when you come to us, because you have some downtime or whatever, we want you to go back to your life and feel like that time was well invested and it gave you what entertainment is supposed to provide. In this sense, we think of it as playing our role, if you will, so the reception feels amazing.”

Sea of Stars is now available on PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch and PC. It’s also available through Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Plus Extra and Premium.

Find more from our chat with Boulanger on Sea of Stars here.

Image credit: Sabotage