Meet Team Cherry, the Adelaide video game studio that sold over a million copies of its debut game, Hollow Knight.
Situated in Epworth Building on Pirie Street is a small group of game developers. Adelaide has a thriving community of hobbyist and working developers, but what stands out about this team is that their debut game, Hollow Knight, has sold over 1.2 million copies worldwide in 16 months.
Team Cherry, Hollow Knight’s creators, started the project years ago in a game jam (a weekend community event where people gather to create a game within that timeframe). From there, developer William Pellen and artist Ari Gibson continued to flesh out the idea, eventually bringing on programmer Jack Vine and technical director Dave Kazi.
The team took to Kickstarter — like many indie game-makers following their passion — to crowdfund their project in November 2014. They asked for $35,000, and were funded $57,138 by 2,158 backers.
In 2015, Hollow Knight featured as one of six specially selected Indie Showcase games at Melbourne’s PAX Aus, the Australian branch of the globe-trotting gaming convention. In early 2017 Hollow Knight finally released on PC to huge critical praise. This year Nintendo featured the game as part of their presentation during E3 — the largest and most-watched video game event of the year — and brought the game to its Switch console in June.
The game itself is set in a beautifully dark underground insect kingdom where its inhabitants are going mad from an ancient plague sweeping their world.
“It’s a combination of a lot of games we used to play,” says Pellen. “We played a lot of games on the NES like Zelda II, Faxanadu, adventure games like that, where the core thing is that you can explore this seamless world. You can dig around and take your own path through it, finding secrets and stuff.”
Hollow Knight has been a consistent best-seller on Nintendo’s eShop distribution service since its release, selling higher than some of the gaming juggernaut’s own releases.
“The game was really influenced by those early Nintendo games so to see it on that platform performing as well as it has been is really fantastic,” says Gibson. “It’s full-circle from us being inspired as children playing these games, creating something in the same vein.”
The Team Cherry studio is lined by shelves full of the art that has influenced their style, including Marvel and DC graphic novels and Studio Ghibli art books. Hollow Knight is dark, gloomy and sometimes downright terrifying, but its hand-drawn aesthetic balances complex scenery and simplistic character design. “Everything had to be simply produced, and from that means a limited colour palette,” says Gibson.
“And characters that were really easy to draw, which is why there is that very graphic style with few lines and details on them,” Pellen continues. “It’s really easy to come up with stuff on the whiteboard and talk through what a creature looks like within a minute. We draw over each other’s stuff and you’re done.”
Adelaide is increasingly home to new successes in this field. In 2014, local designer and artist Ken Wong spearheaded the immensely popular Monument Valley for mobile devices, while in 2015 the hacking simulator Hacknet was a surprise hit on PC, then in 2017 Hollow Knight stood strongly alongside two other Australian indie games nominated for Best Debut Indie Game at The Game Awards, out of an overall five.
Team Cherry collaborated with other local industry folk on Hollow Knight as well, such as Shark Jump to ‘port’ the game from PC to consoles. The game’s locally produced soundtrack adds further depth to an already visually beautiful experience. Local composer Christopher Larkin, known for his music in both games and film, provided the sound to Hollow Knight. Larkin’s use of leitmotif—recurring musical cues and phrases to identify a character, setting or mood—through prominent viola and piano melodies, uniquely characterises the experience.
When looking at the game development communities in Australia, Melbourne is a beacon for creatives to forge a career, so what does this recent boom mean for Adelaide?
“Well, it seems like a pretty good spot to work like this!,” says Gibson. “Very cheap rent, which is what we needed. Very quiet, which is fantastic, and is to say there aren’t many distractions around the city. That’s really important as a developer, to be able to focus on your product like that.”
Team Cherry have no plans to leave Adelaide, believing the benefits of starting their business here will also allow them to sustain it. Hollow Knight is a commercial and cultural success, firmly putting Adelaide on the map as a home for innovative arts.
Hollow Knight is currently available on PC via Steam and GOG.com, and Nintendo Switch. It will be released on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 on September 25.
Photography: Sia Duff