Courtship & Cthulhu – Developer Interview on Sucker for Love: First Date

Y’ever see a super Lovecraftian, Cthulhu-esque monster and think, “I wanna date that?”

If you said no, welcome to the club! If you said yes, get help. Also, look into Sucker for Love: First Date, the recently released dating sim from developer Akabaka and publisher DreadXP that lets you do just that. No, really.

With an obviously intriguing concept, a gloriously 90s anime aesthetic, and the most unique waifus this side of Genshin Impact, there’s a lot to dive into with Sucker for Love. From the trailer alone, I was left with a number of questions. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to get to talk to the publishers at DreadXP and lead developer Joseph “Akabaka” Hunter about the game, its development, and a lot more.

Ah yes, the Yandere.

Of course, with any Lovecraftian tale, there’s a bit of backstory you’ll need first. Ted Hentschke, Head of Productions at DreadXP, was on hand to fill me in on the deep lore behind the publisher and how we got to this game.

“I started DreadXP in 2019, end of 2019, as a gaming website,” Hentschke begins. He was previously a games journalist for horror-centric website Dread Central, which also publishes indie horror films. Hoping to better appeal to the horror audience in gaming, Hentschke launched DreadXP, aiming to shift from journalism to publishing indie horror titles. The move was timely. With the pandemic having just hit and the film industry coming to a momentary standstill, indie games felt like the only manageable thing to produce. Hentschke recounts his boss at Dread Central asking if XP had any developers lined up. The producer happily told him ten were already on the docket.

“I didn’t have any,” he immediately admits. “I… had no idea what the fuck I was doing.”

Well, nothing says Lovecraft like a bit of self-imposed existential dread.

Drop the skincare routine, Akabaka.

Luckily, this jaunt through the void didn’t last. With a small budget on hand, DreadXP managed to launch the first DreadX Collection, an anthology collection of indie horror games. It was met with a bevy of positive reviews. Hentschke tells me of how he initially just reached out to people he knew. With the success of the first collection, the scope could get a little bigger for the next. He name-drops Daniel Mullins, of Inscryption fame, and panstasz, developer of 1-bit hit WORLD OF HORROR, as notable contributors to the second collection. Among this top class of horror prodigies was one Akabaka.

“I invited Joseph [Hunter], Akabaka, to join that collection. He made Sucker for Love.”

Recounting their initial meeting at DreamHack Anaheim in 2020, Hentschke tells me just how the Sucker seed was planted.  “I saw [Joseph] previewing a game called Chromatose… I really just thought he had a very, very, very unique blend of visual novel graphics with unique gameplay. I was like, this is a guy that can both tap into a classical audience and modify that appeal to an extended audience… I called him and I was like, ‘Joseph do you want to work on this collection?’”

From there, it was slippery smooth sailing for the idea and its growth. Hentschke told Akabaka he wanted a Cthulhu dating simulator. He gave the developer the name “Nyan-lathotep,” a play on malign Lovecraftian deity Nyarlathotep’s name and anime’s love of cat girls. Then, Akabaka was left to his own devices.

Before talking to the developer himself, I also had the chance to speak with Abbey Smith, Assistant Producer and Content Manager at DreadXP. She’s also a game developer who worked on a previous DreadX Collection. Smith tells me of her marketing work for the publisher, including working with streamers and YouTubers for gameplay and reaction content. This work caught my interest. How exactly is a game like Sucker for Love marketed to people? What’s the elevator pitch for dating a horror icon? Or, trying to at least.

As I begin to ask, Akabaka himself joins the call. We’ll get back to that marketing bit.

After a brief intro, I get right to the heart of the matter. Most games with Lovecraftian influence tend to tap into the grimdark, existential dread side of things. Sucker for Love feels just the tiniest bit different. Thus, I ask the million dollar question: what made Hentschke and co. look at Eldritch horror and think, “I wanna date that?”

Well hello, Estir…

The producer notes inspirations like Hatoful Boyfriend and Doki Doki Literature Club, notable dating sims that spun the genre on its head with their wild twists. Hentschke wanted to do something with similar impact. Akabaka was the first person to come to mind. I asked the Chromatose developer just why that was.

Chuckling, he explains: “Because the first game [Hentschke] played that I made was another weird mesh of genres. It’s called Chromatose, and the battle system there is a weird mesh of visual novel gameplay and almost like a rhythm game… And so, I guess he took a gamble on the weird genre-blending developer in me to kinda make something weird in ten days.” Running with the initial idea and the collection’s theme of “Lovecrafting” (Hentschke was rightly very proud of his pun), the developer drew upon his experience and turned to visual novels.

“Since I was pitched with making some sort of crafting, love, and Lovecraftian horror, mainly working with visual novels, I didn’t really have the resources or time to make a full crafting system,” Akabaka says. “So we kinda settled for, ‘okay, well what’s a genre that has items in it that can be created and used, and also has love mechanics, and I was like, well… Dating sims!’”

We must protect that smile… or, whatever she’s doing.

I am left mildly in awe. The road to the Cthulhu dating sim was… a logical sequence of thinking? Of course it was, but there were less twists in the road to smooching a betentacled goddess than I thought there would be. To allow myself time to recover from the shock, I turn to Smith again. We return to the topic of marketing the “love” in Lovecraftian.

“It’s a lot of discussion,” she explains. “…it’s actually kind of complicated, [with] how you’re going to present a game like this. ‘Cause we want it to be funny, but we don’t want it to be cheesy, but we also don’t want it to step too far in different directions. We want it to be the perfect balance of everything.” She tells me of a marketing group chat that screens every last tweet. Every so often, this group gets a little treat from the fruits of their labour: “It’s funny going through and reading all the comments on the stuff that we have. Sometimes they’re a little weird, I’m not gonna lie. But what do you expect, right?”

Smith chooses not to elaborate on the weird responses; likely a wise choice. Hentschke, however, has no such reservations.

“It’s interesting because we have a certain line that we have to toe,” he jumps in. “The game is not adult content, like… The most advanced thing you’re getting is a smooch. A phrase that keeps getting thrown in our comments is, like, “Cthussy,” you know, something like that.”

A piece of me dies a little.

“And we’re more ‘Cthuwu,’ like…”

A piece of me dies a lot.

I’m sorry Cthu-what now?

As Smith falls apart in laughter, Hentschke hammers the final nail into the coffin: “On the development side, we’re Cthuwu, and on the audience side, [they’re] on the Cthussy side, and we gotta try to talk to them through — but like we can’t get to there (-ussy). We have to be over here (-uwu).”

I embrace the madness, and we manage to sum up this thread. In essence, a lot of marketing conversations for Sucker for Love boil down to, “how do we not be horny about this?”

Treading that line is something Hentschke is comfortable with, however. It helps build mystique, as he explains: “…the thing is, also, the game is a horror game. And not a lot of people are gonna get that just from the first glance. And that’s okay, because that’s kind of our intention, we want people to kind of like, be surprised by some of the content that they find. We have hints of it, but, you know, when people play, it’s a pretty gruesome game in terms of violence and body horror.”

I ask Akabaka what navigating the horny-wholesome divide was like in development. “It was pretty easy so long as I just kept in mind that people intend on streaming this,” he laughs. “Nine times out of ten all I had to do was [think], ‘will someone get taken off Twitch if they show this?’ If the answer is no, then it goes in the game.”

This community-first approach in both marketing and development stands out to me. I make a note to ask the team about that. Before I can do so, however, Akabaka drops a bomb on me with his timeline:

“…about three or so months ago (as of writing), development started on Sucker for Love: First Date, and I’ve been working on that one since.”

My eyes widen. Three months to develop an entire game is not the largest amount of time. The initial thoughts of “dear Lord,” however, are swiftly abated once I ask the developer what those three months were like.  “So three months in a vacuum would have been perfect for me,” Akabaka explains. “There is more involved than I thought there was going to be with making a game of this scale. So, next games will probably have a bit more lenient of a window. That said, I am happy with the game as it’s looking like it’s sizing up to be in a couple days. Everything that I wanted to get in the game is in the game. And I like looking at it, so…” he muses.

That the Sucker for Love developer likes the look of his game is no surprise. The 90s anime style is immediately eye-catching, and adds a level of charm to the otherworldly concept. I ask Akabaka if there were any particular anime that inspired the look of the game.

“Yeah, yeah, so I’m a 90s kid. I grew up around a lot of 90s anime… Urusei Yatsura and Golden Boy are probably the two strongest inspirations, aesthetic wise. They’re very old school type anime that have lots of peppy high energy, and they both have, like, skirt-chasing main characters,” he says, chuckling at that last part. “I really love [that trope], and so that’s what kind of inspired the main character’s obsession with smooches, and that plays into the Lovecraftian themes of obsession really well.”

Forget skirts, he should chase some shirt buttons…

So, the game boasts not just anime archetypes, but thematically resonant anime archetypes. That’s more than enough to prompt a quick bonding session over the medium — he was president of his high school anime club, I am now an adoring kouhai — before we move on to my final questions.

Turning my attention to Smith and Hentschke, I ask the DreadXP duo for one thing people should know about their jobs. Between the glamification of Aloy and idiotic takes on how animation works, there are a lot of hot takes on just what goes into making and publishing games. Our conversation felt like a good opportunity to clear up some preconceptions.

Hentschke begins by explaining what his job really is. It is, by all accounts, a lot. His stories range from taking better care of creators’ mental health, to avoiding massive-yet-fruitless development cycles, to game design of his own, to even trying to book “Weird” Al Yankovic for a role.

“Like, that takes a minute, but it can be done,” he says of the latter tale. “And I think that a lot of people out there, you know, they’ve already set in their brain, ‘well I can’t do that.’ Like I can’t get this person. My job is to go ‘why not?’ and try to figure out how to get it done.” Hentschke also takes the time to elaborate on just how involved a process the producer’s role is: “It’s a balancing act… You know, a lot of people just assume that a producer throws money at something, and then walks away. Or that they’re just constantly putting their hands in things, and, like, fucking it up. But that’s a BAD developer-producer relationship.” I ask him what a good relationship of that nature looks like. “A good producer, if they’re doing their job right, you hardly know they’re there. You go to them when you need something.”

Thus we find the producer’s dichotomy: intimately involved in all aspects, yet detached enough to barely register on others’ minds unless absolutely necessary.

Ln’eta, meanwhile, is someone who is very much on my mind.

Smith echoes Hentschke’s sentiments, going deeper into the human side of it all. “A big part is actually having a relationship with the people that you’re making games with,” she says. “The people who are making games are human. So, if something needs to be changed, for a specific basic human trait, like ‘hey you need to go sleep,’ or ‘hey you need to take care of yourself…’ people are not machines.”

Smith notes the negativity and nitpicking that can sometimes be found in indie game communities. To counteract that, she and the DreadXP team focus on creating a friendly, collaborative atmosphere. Any developer, under the publisher or not, is welcome. To close, Smith makes clear her and her team’s responsibility of making sure developers take care of themselves. Going further, the producer explains how this responsibility extends to us all, including the end consumer.

“Indie games are an investment,” she firmly states. “When you buy an indie game… you’re not only investing in that game and that developer’s future to have the funds to make something bigger and better. You’re also investing in that publisher, to continue to help those people make their dreams bigger, you know?”

Finally, I pose the same question to the man of the hour, Sucker for Love developer Joseph “Akabaka” Hunter. If there is one thing Akabaka thinks people should know about indie game dev, it’s this:

“Being a game dev kind of means the end of peace and privacy,” he begins, laughing for a second. “That’s the harshest thing, really, is that there isn’t really any sort of line of defence between the general masses and my inbox. It’s when being a game developer turns into a retail position.”

Pictured: the people in Akabaka’s DMs.

Akabaka goes on to explain the unfortunate free reign people have on his inbox, toxic haters and overstepping fans alike. Every jab, no matter how small it may seem, is felt. “It’s actually death by a thousand cuts for developers,” he tells me. “We pretty much absolutely hear from every single person that doesn’t like our game. It would be nice to also hear from the people who liked it.”

With that call to action, I decide to wrap with a bonus question to aid the effort. Asked to pitch Sucker for Love in one sentence, the DreadXP trio leave me some parting gifts:

“Local Man Ruins Everything for a Smooch,” Akabaka muses.

“One Smooch could Ruin the World,” Smith proclaims.

“Simping Ain’t Easy,” Hentschke opines.

Sucker for Love: First Date is out now on Steam.

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