On Oct. 25, 2013, StudioMDHR uploaded the first teaser trailer for its game Cuphead to YouTube. At 42 seconds long, the video established a 1930s art style and boss-focused run-and-gun gameplay, looking like an interactive cartoon.
It closed with: “Coming 2014.”
By the time the game started to gain some traction, the Canadian studio had already pushed its target date to 2015 — a process the team would repeat by later delaying to 2016, and then 2017.
For potential fans, the carrot kept moving farther away. Stories spread about it being one of *those* games, the ones that sit on shelves, cross the seven-year development threshold and appear on missing-in-action lists.
But according to brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, who led the project, that was all a bit of exaggeration. Behind the scenes, they say, the idea started as a small part-time job and gradually grew over the course of five years, ending up as the indie blockbuster that launched to critical acclaim in September.
To chart that path, we asked the StudioMDHR team to draw a series of images showing the biggest development milestones that happened along the way. And thanks to illustrations from Joseph Coleman, ink from Maja Moldenhauer and coloring from Tyler Moldenhauer, we have those pieces below.
Chad and Jared Moldenhauer wanted to make games since they were kids. They just didn’t know how. “I would do dumb things like design my own Mega Man on paper,” says Jared. “Like, this is what this boss would do and it would be so different. Mine's going to have the first female robot ...”
“It was more a fantasy” at that point, says Chad.
In high school, Chad dabbled with simple hobbyist games like one called Grandma Pickins. “You play as a grandma and you pick berries and the more berries you pick, you can make more jams or custards or maybe make a fresh torte,” says Jared.
“Ahead of its time, to be honest,” says Chad.
Then around the year 2000, the brothers decided to take a shot at making a commercial game, hoping to make a prototype and pitch it to get a publishing deal. They dabbled with a couple of run-and-gun ideas — one inspired by Contra called Omega Response, another with crayon-shaded characters called Ninja Stars. Neither of those got very far, as the staff ran into tech limitations, though Ninja Stars featured two main characters — one red and one blue — an idea that would carry through to Cuphead.
Time passed, and in 2010 the brothers saw a new trend happening in the game industry. Independent games like Super Meat Boy were breaking out — high quality games made by small teams were selling well not only on PC, but on consoles. This put the idea of making a game back in their heads.
So around the end of 2012, the two started kicking around ideas. They dabbled with things like a game based on school, with each level’s art style representing a different grade. And they, along with a third team member who ended up leaving, ended up on a run-and-gun game with a 1930s cartoon setting.
Then in 2013, as things were becoming more real, the team needed a main character to replace the “little weird green guy” with a hat they’d been using as a placeholder, according to Jared. So they brainstormed lots of ‘30s-themed concepts and came up with Cuphead as a character.
2013, pt. 2
In October 2013, StudioMDHR posted its teaser trailer on YouTube, hoping to drum up some attention. The art style stood out to those who saw it, but given the team’s low profile, few people had that chance.
A couple months later, the game made its way to a post on the message board NeoGAF. Seeing it there, Microsoft contacted StudioMDHR on Christmas Eve — which also happened to be a little over a week before the birth of Chad’s daughter. At this point, StudioMDHR still consisted of three people.
Microsoft wanted to see the game appear on Xbox One, so the two sides started talking and put together an initial deal. “We just chatted back and forth,” says Chad. “It got us to that 2014 montage clip. Like, whatever it is: three seconds of 2014.”
For many players, their first exposure to Cuphead came as part of a short clip Microsoft included in its 2014 E3 press conference, showing a variety of independent games coming to Xbox One. The clip lasted only about four seconds, yet put the game in front of millions of people — even if they didn’t quite know what they were looking at.
Chad and Jared didn’t attend the show. Chad remembers watching the press conference from home. “Twitter like, lit up a little bit more,” he says. “Nothing crazy.”
But the game became one of those things people talked about in the convention center halls, based simply on the quality of its art. Suddenly, StudioMDHR had a fanbase.
Following the show, the reception to the game gave the team a bit more confidence in what they were doing. Though they still weren’t sure how much they wanted to invest in the game. They still had other jobs, and spent months talking over various plans to hire more staff and increase the game’s size. By the end of the year, they decided to start hiring and up the scope by about a third — from eight bosses to 12 or 13.
“We took baby steps this whole project,” says Chad. “It was like, OK. Let's do it. Let's find a few part-time animators.”
As the game started to get bigger, the team kept pushing forward. In early 2015, Microsoft invited them to participate in a press event it was holding at 2015 Game Developers Conference. And following that, the buzz kept building.
“That's when Microsoft approached us to be like, ‘OK, listen. You might be going on stage [at E3]. There might be this thing,’” says Chad.
Chad calls that decision “definitely probably the major milestone” of Cuphead’s entire development. It’s hard to put a dollar number on getting a prime slot in an Xbox press conference, but Chad estimates that the marketing value of that moment was likely worth more than the actual dollars Microsoft gave them as part of their deal (which he declines to specify).
The boost in attention took Cuphead from being another promising independent game to being one of Microsoft’s showpieces for Xbox One.
Following E3 2015, Chad and Jared went looking for bank loans. By the end of 2015, StudioMDHR consisted of eight people.
2016 was the year StudioMDHR stayed out of the public eye and churned through work on Cuphead, adding more bosses to the game and growing the team to 14 people.
According to Chad and Jared, this was the last step in a gradual growing process for the studio. Over the course of development, the game kept popping its head up, getting more attention and looking like it might sell better as a result. And often when that happened, the team cautiously hired small numbers of additional staff to increase the game’s scope.
“We didn't ever say anything about that,” says Jared. “It just felt like the natural progression. ... [It] felt pretty much the exact same [each time it happened].”
“And it was the only way we would have [made a game as big as we did],” says Chad. “If you told us day one, ‘Hey, here's all your debt and here's what's going to happen; we're hiring all these people.’ We'd have been pulling the plug on the project.”
“It's like a frog being in hot water,” says Jared. “You're just a part of it and you're immersed ... but definitely at some point, you go, ‘Wow, five years of my life is gone.’”
Keeping with the tradition of making news at E3, at the 2017 show StudioMDHR and Microsoft announced Cuphead’s release date: September 29, 2017. The team had three months left to finish the game.
Chad and Jared say they ran into a bad crunch stint for the last four or five months of development; Jared says he hit a personal record for number of hours worked in a row at 33 or 34. And work on the game continued until about five days before release — at which point the team had to tie up loose ends like putting polishing off the Steam trading cards and editing the launch trailer.
For the game’s release, Microsoft and StudioMDHR put together a launch event in Los Angeles, with staff flying in to celebrate, and Jared points out that the team even had to do some minor editing on the plane to fix some Steam background image errors that came up at the last minute.
“It was basically like a nice five month crunch and the crunch didn't stop until we were essentially three quarters off the plane,” says Jared.
“Then we drove to a place and had a party.”