Resisting change is futile. Change happens, whether you’re prepared for it or not. Some changes will completely turn your existence upside down, dragging you away from the place where you started. Others work in more subtle ways, making you realize the distance they brought to your life only years after they happened. And there’s change with a nuclear bomb effect, destroying the little hope you had arduously put aside. These are some of the themes to CHANGE, a game about homelessness created by Danny Hayes.
Danny Hayes is just now taking a breather, after years spent working on his game. After founding his company, Delve interactive, he had a terrible first experience in game dev which led him down a self-destructing path. An experience which led him to re-evaluate his life and the sometimes devastating effects of change.
CHANGE: a Homeless Survival Experience is a homeless-themed roguelike. Characters share a similar backstory, that of being abandoned and losing their job and house, but different maladies will affect the playthrough. At the start of the game, several gloomy days are spent begging for change to get by. Learning how and when to approach people will be the key in trying to survive. Perhaps, with time and patience, an opportunity to recover might materialize in the end. CHANGE is all about finding hope to try and get back up from the gutter. Of course, it’s also possible that we might lose sight of hope and abandon ourselves to a hopeless fate, thus giving up any possibility of “change”.
What inspired Hayes to dedicate years of his life to Change? The developer recalls wanting to pursue writing initially, then dropping out of college to start developing mobile titles. “That’s how the idea for Poncho was born in 2011, a platformer that was supposed to be my first solo game,” he says. The experience reached its climax with the launch of a Kickstarter that, unfortunately, failed to reach the expected sum.
Poncho then managed to attract the interest of a publisher, an experience that – as Danny recalls – ends up soured in a rather negative way. Although Danny can’t reveal details for legal reasons, he advises those who want to embark on this path to “be very careful and consider if you really need a publisher for your title”. To date, Danny confirms that he hasn’t seen a dime from all the work on Poncho.
Finally, when it was ready, Poncho initially only released on PlayStation 4 – a version that Danny feels was far from what he had originally planned. “So I set about working alone on the Steam version, so I could consider that to, at least, be complete. I ended up leaving my job and taking out bank loans to reach that objective. These are all things you should never do with the first game you work on. Eventually I found myself several thousand pounds in debt and evicted from my house. My only luck was to have friends and family so kind and available. They gave me couches to sleep on until I was able to get back on my feet. Without them, I would definitely have ended up on the street.”
That unfortunate time of edging so close to being homeless, exclusively having to rely on the kindness of others just to survive was an eye opener for Danny. “I wanted to see a strong change in this world, a little more empathy towards those who have been less fortunate. The upside, if you can call it that, of 2015 being the worst year of my life, is that it made me desperate enough to start work on CHANGE.”
Development began in the summer of 2015, with Danny working on it alone 90 percent of the time, he explains, despite the team being called Delve Interactive, it was mostly just him working on the game. “To date, I’ve been working on Change for about eight years. When I started working on it I thought it would be a quick project, a kind of strong artistic vehicle for my ideas. Instead, in the end, Change ate up all the rest of the time I had left to work on other stuff. That also happened probably because it’s a modular game, it’s easy to add new things and without realizing it you have spent months working on a small thing”.
The biggest hurdle for CHANGE, says Danny, was having to balance the more depressing aspects of being homeless with what was still, at its core, a game. “I understand that people can be rightfully skeptical of certain intentions from a game such as CHANGE. It is true that video games have rarely managed to deal with certain sensitive topics in a mature way. As for me, I just would like for people to sit down and try the game for a few minutes, I think it’s easy to see what is the idea behind CHANGE”.
Danny says the goal was to present some of the typical misconceptions about homelessness, so as to show the consequences. “I certainly didn’t want to just depress the players, but I also cannot hide the reality of these people. They have no choice but to try to be aware of their surroundings and stay away from negative events as much as possible.”
CHANGE, while still working to create a sense of isolation and depression for the main character who has been abandoned by friends, family and society, is not designed to just be a one-note experience. “I wanted the game to pace its moods, take the player on a journey,” says Danny, “so that it’s not always all black or all white. Interacting with the other NPCs, for example, as well as the shelters, give you a sense of community. Make you realize that, perhaps, you are not as alone as you think. Still, I realize how by just using a short text for the night events, I can easily change the mood of the player.”
With developers now bearing far more responsibility than in the past, CHANGE’ sociopolitical message shines brightly against a bleak landscape. “Having seen titles like Bum Simulator made me want to develop my own game even more. In the end, it is true that it does deal with the same subject matter as CHANGE, but that game is ridiculous and quite far from reality” says Danny.
CHANGE is also one of the few games to cover topics such as sexual abuse and the menstrual cycle of its female protagonists. “I originally intended to develop the characters as generally androgynous, but after seeing many thinking they were all male, I set out to diversify them.” Still, Danny realizes, many of those topics would be quite hard to display in a game where he was the only writer. “I realized there were a lot of can of worms, like sexual work and organized crime being involved. I tried to keep those cans as sealed as possible.”
Fascinatingly, Danny’s research was conducted mostly in the field. He went out onto the streets, exchanging cigarettes with various homeless people and listening to their problems, so he would have a better idea of what they were going through every day. The NPCs in CHANGE, then, are an amalgamation of the people he spoke with, including the canine companion, which was inspired by his experiences.
CHANGE came out of Steam Early Access in 2020, but Danny is still working on it, adding updates, rebalancing mechanics and adding new features. “It’s been an incredibly tough road” he says, “these years were basically spent sitting on a train with a laptop against the window. That messed up my back a lot, it definitely took its toll.”
Unfortunately, most of Danny’s attempts to make the public interested, did not end up attracting much attention. “I tried to get in touch with various streamers and YouTubers, as well as the press. I’ve noticed a general disinterest in the game. At least it has been nominated for several awards, plus some success in the Chinese market!” Danny exclaims.
Despite the lack of commercial success, Danny says CHANGE ended up turning a profit, which was useful for him to recover from a bad situation. As was always the plan, he donated part of the proceeds to charities. “To date we have managed to donate £7500, as soon as I finish updating the game, I will return to giving as much of the proceedings as possible”.
The greatest satisfaction of the project? “Well, although CHANGE was developed with my back bent over the laptop on the train, between jobs, the satisfaction of being able to say no to an interested publisher warmed my heart, considering what I have passed.” The developer continues saying he did not want anyone messing with the message of the game “I know some publishers are good, but in my case they’re not really needed. I always intended CHANGE to be a personal statement with no external interference.”
For the future of Delve Interactive, Danny mentions how, finally, he can devote his time to something else. “I’m almost done with CHANGE, so I definitely want to work on something different to cleanse the palate, so to speak. I have an ambitious title that I’ve been working on for a while; a fantasy RPG that I will announce as soon as possible.”
Still, after our interview in December of last year, the most recent update to CHANGE was in June 2023. Three years after release, the game is still receiving steady updates on Steam. It almost feels like Danny is trapped in a toxic relationship with CHANGE, unable to walk away. True enough, while he mentions being happy about the opportunity to develop a game so different, it is fair to say the relationship continues to take a toll on him.
“I think there is no doubt about it, CHANGE has changed my life for good. But it has certainly consumed a good deal of it as well”.