Before there was Balete City the video game, there was Balete High. The graphic novel by Niley Bacolcol was following the rising trend of local comics delving into Filipino mythology. But with the number of books in the market already covering the setting, Bacolcol felt that he needed to do something different. This is where he decided to turn it into a video game.
Making a video-game is challenging enough. But Bacolcol and his team were aiming for something more. They were inspired by how games such as God of War and Assassin’s Creed had introduced gamers to different mythologies.
Sharing a love for Filipino mythology
Balete City tells the story of Makisig “Aki” Flores, who enrolls in Balete High in an effort to solve the mystery of his brother’s death. Along the way, he unravels the school’s darkest secrets, meets mythological figures and discovers powers he didn’t know he had.
As part of this, Balete City mines the country’s rich mythology, adding in many well-known creatures such as the familiar aswang, kapre and duwende. But the team went beyond these and also looked into including mythologies of other local indigenous cultures and added these in the game.
One of these is the T’boli group, whose culture Bacolcol describes as “vast and magical.” It was also his encounter with T’boli culture that drove Bacolcol to learn more about local and indigenous supernatural beliefs and mythologies, which eventually led to him creating the graphic novel that the game is based on.
Now, with Balete City, Bacolcol hopes to create something that would raise player’s interest in Philippine mythology the same way that his own interest was raised all those years ago.
Balete City could be the Philippines’ first triple-A game
To achieve their goal of making a game that would introduce Filipino mythology to gamers, the team decided that they had to make a game on par with other, big-ticket video games.
This is easy to see in their recently released prototype clip. Even with less than “25 percent” of their development work done, the game on display—a third-person open-world adventure—already looks to follow in the footsteps of games such as Assassin’s Creed or the Witcher 3.
But creating a game with triple-A production values takes both time and, more importantly, money. Bacolcol and the team started out by funding the game through Patreon. Here, they used the strength of both their 2D and 3D artwork to entice gamers to support it. Using their Patreon money, the team then focused on public relations and marketing to be able to pitch the game to investors.
Despite the money that they were getting through Patreon and investors, the team was still also funding the game out of their own pockets.
Team members having to work full-time jobs meant development on the game could only take place in their free time. This led to its protracted development—initially announced in 2019, the team took almost two years just to release the above prototype preview.
Things only got worse when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Indie game development in the time of COVID-19
When the current pandemic hit, many of the teams working on Balete City lost their jobs. This effectively slowed down the development of the game even more. This is because many team members were forced to focus on finding other forms of revenue.
“Many of us suffered from unemployment last year because of the current corona pandemic,” stated the team in an email to Variable. “This has greatly affected our development.”
Many team members left to find other work just to be able to provide for themselves during this time.
“We can’t simply force our team to work into something that isn’t funded yet,” they added.
Despite the setback, work still continued on the game.
In a way, being an indie team may have helped them weather the pandemic. Even before the quarantines hit, the team already coordinated work on the game remotely. Indeed, the team confirmed that there was little to no change when it came to communication and management.
That said, some team members still needed to go on hiatus to prioritize their families. But, the doors are still open for these team members to return should they decide to return to the project.
With all this, the question then is when can players expect to play Balete City. According to the team, they needed about three years with 50 to 60 people working on the game.
But even if they aren’t able to get the funding and staffing that they need, they’re still dedicated to pushing the game out the door—even if it takes them five or even 10 years to do so.
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