Ugly: How Indie Hardship Created Something Beautiful

Team Ugly is a studio or workshop, as we like to call it, formed by four entrepreneurs and developers blinded by the romanticism of the indie game world. It all started more than five years ago when Gerard Singuerlin, the first stray bullet of this story, was attempting to transform some napkin drawings into a video game.

This guy with his head in the clouds went on to have his first meeting with a programmer but, even with a lot of initial enthusiasm, Ugly didn’t go forward… The ideas weren’t enough to drive the game’s development, and the encounter ended as a failed attempt, with Gerard stuffing his napkins in his pocket.  He kept dreaming while his heart sank as he toiled away as an animator for a mega-commercial F2P game.  

Sketches of enemies in Ugly.
Sketches of enemies in Ugly.

One day the skies stopped being so gray, and Gerard attracted the attention of another programmer – David. He saw in him another opportunity to bring his ideas out to create something. This new duo clicked, and the technician’s obsession with squaring the circle helped the indomitable artist, and little by little, they began to develop the first prototype. 

The central mechanic of the game is a mirror, and the game stars a prince who is as ugly as a potato. Using the mirror, players can create a copy of the prince, who, well, mirrors all of your actions. This mechanic was expanded and allowed for a variety of puzzles to solve. When platforming mechanics were introduced, the game began to become very addictive. Designing the mirror mechanics and figuring out all the possible ways the mirror could be used was a crucial step in the process.

In addition to the mirror mechanic, another key element to solving puzzles is collecting keys. There were now two principal mechanics to the puzzle design. When the mechanics were implemented, we could see how fun they were working in tandem. Next, we focused on the game’s story and lore. We also knew we wanted to target around 5 or 6 hours of gameplay, and we wanted the artists to focus on the details in each room. The game relies on a lot of visual cues, so each room deserved a lot of attention to detail. Before starting production with the whole team, we decided that only the best level designs would survive. We started playtesting and picked out the most fun puzzle rooms, then worked on the storyline.

A diagram of the game's world and puzzle locations.
A diagram of the game’s world and puzzle locations.

The game and team behind it was coming together, and the clouds around Gerard’s head dissipated, even though an important piece was still missing. Gerard and David were not accustomed to – or even comfortable with – pitching their game to get funding, nor did they even know how much development would cost. They fulfilled the old stereotype of introverted game developers with little desire to put themselves out there. They had better relationships with Unity and Photoshop than with real people. Plus, there were too many hands missing to be able to transform this little game into something achievable.  

That’s when I, Rita Fortuny, came into the picture. At heart I am an artist, but at the time I was working as a project manager and art director for an e-learning company. I left everything behind, traded in my high heels for some trainers, and my business jackets for a Crash Bandicoot t-shirt. Now my hobby had become my profession! I could help with painting backgrounds, making logos, leading the communication. I took the role of the front-woman, and I talked about Ugly in all the places that I could possibly think of. We got a lot of recognition and managed to enter a business incubation programme (Game BCN). After that, we already knew the scope of the game, and next would be talking to publishers to get funding. We had a plan. And what I always say is: Better to have a bad plan than no plan at all. I was the one driving that plan. 

Ugly screenshot

During the pre-production phase, a glow appeared on the road to release. We thought it was a star or maybe a treasure chest to be opened. In fact, it was Jaime Vicente, an artist, and the next member to join the team. I have never met someone so unique in my life – he is one of those people who sees the possibility of an overflowing glass in an empty glass (or maybe he doesn’t even see the glass at all, but a beautiful unicorn). It was the sensibility that we needed. Ugly didn’t have any visual effects (VFX), no fancy lighting – it was missing that special glow. Now with Jaime’s inclusion, we were ready to take on the huge variety of tasks at hand.

Oh, but one more thing. Money. We didn’t have it yet. At this stage, everything we did came out of our own blood, sweat, tears, and pockets. Then David, our engineer, left the project. Time was tight, I was living on savings and so was Gerard. Team Ugly was 3 artists with a failed plan right now. But the battle is not lost if you don’t give up.

We managed to raise some money with the prizes we won in indie contests and used that to pay a new programmer to help us crystallize a demo. But then he left, rightly so, as we… had no money again.

Ugly screenshot

We put out a call for programmers once more, and it was Francesc Porta who replied, coming to save us all from bugs! He was just as passionate about indie games as we were. He was a programmer, but he had an absolute empathy and understanding for artists, and he also played music in a band. He started debugging and iterating mechanics with Gerard non-stop. Franc had an incredible symbiosis with us. 

And all of a sudden, our pitching to publishers paid off. We met and signed a contract with Graffiti Games to publish the game. With their help, we were finally going to make it happen. We could happily feed ourselves and live quietly while we finish the development of Ugly

From that moment on everything became easier. Composers joined the project as well as an audio team (Jan Fité, Andre Nascimbeni and Pau Busquet). A team of incredible artists (Nerea AAAA, Miriam Miriam Ocaña, Nerea Cano, Javi Roldán, Javi Chaler and Manel Soto) joined the ranks to help out. The team was complete, and the game was growing and getting better every week. 

Ugly screenshot

With a plan and the best teammates we could imagine, we spent the next year finishing the game and, now that we’re about to hit release day, we’re so excited for gamers to experience all the hard work and love that went into making Ugly.

Ugly comes to Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One on September 14.