Music and fashion superstar Kanye West first announced he was making a video game based on his mother back in February 2015.
Kanye’s team says he’s still making a video game, but according to sources familiar with the project we spoke with, its future is uncertain following a production halt that lasted over a year.
That game, called “Only One,” is an iPhone game from Los Angeles-based film and animation studio Encyclopedia Pictura.
The first trailer for “Only One” was unveiled by Kanye West a year later during the Yeezy Season 3 fashion show and album listening party in New York City on February 11, 2016. At the time, West described the game as such: “The idea of the game is my mum travelling through the gates of Heaven.”
One and a half years later, and the game appears to be in limbo. Sources we spoke with say “Only One” hasn’t been in active production since the summer of 2016. One source familiar with the project said that people working on the game were told at one point that funding for the project had fallen through.
The studio behind the game refutes these claims. “We’ve continually worked on the project, through various stages of development, production, prototyping, re-development, more prototyping, then more production, before and after E3 2016,” Encyclopedia Pictura co-director Isaiah Saxon told Business Insider in an email exchange.
“Development of the game continues,” a representative for Kanye West told Business Insider. “Kanye is an artist whose creative process takes time, and he is lucky to be doing work in a medium that naturally lends itself to an elongated, constantly evolving creative processes. He is steadily continuing work on the game, and will deliver more updated visuals and progress as they grow ready.”
In other words, this is Kanye we’re talking about, and he’ll release the game when it’s ready.
But while Kanye’s team and the studio behind the game maintain that the game is still in the works, the project’s team has shrunk from around 14 down to a bare bones team. Except for the studio heads, all of the contractors originally involved with the project have moved onto other jobs, Business Insider confirmed, with some taking full-time positions at Google and Magic Leap.
Here’s what we’ve heard.
What kind of game is “Only One”?
“Only One” is a linear experience that’s focused more on collection than, say, solving puzzles. You play as Donda West as she ascends to the highest levels of heaven, avoiding obstacles along the way. There’s no concept of “death” in “Only One,” we’re told.
The game’s trailer seemingly confirms this concept: West’s mother Donda West is depicted as an angel ascending to Heaven. Donda West died in 2007, and both the song “Only One” and the game of the same name are dedicated to her.
We’re told that the game had three levels last time it was being worked on. It was described as an “endless runner,” like “Super Mario Run” or “Canabalt.” It’s not clear how close to completion the game was; a prototype was being demoed privately during the annual game industry trade show, E3, in June 2016, sources said. The game was also shown at E3 2016 during a live YouTube special from the show.
“Only One” was repeatedly described as an iPhone game, though it’s possible the game was intended for Android phones as well. Either way, “Only One” is a smartphone game rather than something you play on PlayStation 4 or PC.
The game is said to be especially graphically striking. “The visuals were really awesome,” one source close to the project told Business Insider.
Kanye’s long (and frustrating) journey from idea to iPhone game
Production on “Only One” seemingly began in late 2014; West first spoke about production of the game during a February 2015 radio interview with 105.1 FM’s “The Breakfast Club.” He said it was “about six months” into development at the time.
Before giving the public its first glimpse of the game at his Yeezy Season 3 fashion show in February 2016, West relayed a short tale about the process of making “Only One” up to that point.
“No, you don’t understand. I go out and meet with everybody in San Fran, and they will diss the f— out of me,” West said on stage. “And I’ll be like, ‘I wanna make a game,’ and they will be like, ‘F— YOU.’ That was hard to do, bro!”
West was seemingly referring to his experience courting game developers in San Francisco, the game development capital of the US. Eventually, he took his interests outside of San Francisco; the studio that ended up working on “Only One” is named Encyclopedia Pictura, a self-described “film and animation studio” based in Los Angeles. The studio’s past work includes music videos for Bjork and Grizzly Bear. “Only One” is the studio’s first attempt at video game development.
From late 2014 to June 2016 appears to be the main period when “Only One” was in active production, with a team of about 14 people. Encyclopedia Pictura’s official page on the Kanye West game project still reflects this team, though we’ve confirmed that none of those staff members are currently working on the project. Many have accepted full-time jobs elsewhere.
Encyclopedia Pictura co-director Isaiah Saxon attributes this to the nature of independent game development.
“The team has continued to evolve as we’ve gone along,” Saxon told us via email. “Sometimes we scale up for a production sprint, then scale down for prototyping and concept work. The people listed on the site are the alumni of this process, not the current team which is currently bare bones as we recruit for the next round of team production. This is a normal process for indy [sic] game development, because when you need to work on just ideas and gameplay concepts you don’t need a full staff.”
Soon after E3 in June 2016, sources tell us “Only One” was put on hold — nearly two years into production.
While the studio behind the game says production has continued since the game was originally announced, this directly contradicts what we were told by several sources close to the project, who characterised the game as “on hiatus.” In the summer of 2016, people working on the game were told that funding for the project fell through, according to one source familiar with the project.
It’s also worth noting that Kanye West himself had a rough 2016, making headlines outside of his album release for the early cancellation of his tour, a family robbery, and a forthwright admission to being $US53 million in debt.
Developing games is very different from creating an album across several years. Video game production — unlike film or music production — can be difficult to start and stop with new employees, though not impossible. Unlike films, which can be developed across more than a decade (like “Boyhood”), games are dependent on programming that’s unique to each; jumping in to that code can be a mess, and there can be other technical issues tied to the evolving hardware and software that would need to be taken into account.
But the game is coming, the studios says, though a target release date has not been publicized.
“We’re currently working on the project — building prototypes and trying out ideas — while simultaneously recruiting the next team of collaborators for a final production sprint,” Saxon wrote in a statement to Business Insider. “We’ve made a ton of progress since last year’s E3 announcement and feel that we’ve found something truly special with our game mechanics.”
Fans of West’s music know that he has a reputation for long-term, on-again/off-again projects; his critically-acclaimed album, “The Life of Pablo,” technically began production in 2010, though it didn’t come out until 2016. It’s entirely possible that “Only One” falls into that category.
Do you know more about the production of “Only One”? Get in touch with the author here.
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