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Amphora: Engaging Players As Much As They Want It

April 16, 2015 — by Industry Contributions

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Moondrop is a small indie game studio located in Hamar, Norway, focused on making games that are interesting, beautiful and respectful towards players. Two full-time developers, Stig-Owe Sandvik (designer/artist) and Andreas Fuglesang (CEO/programmer), determination, experimental methods and compulsive behavior are key ingredients when Moondrop makes games. 

“What should have been a short project with combat mechanics and no story ended up as an atmospheric story-based puzzle game that took a bit more than 4 years to make”, the developers recall as they share the story of their game Amphora


A Clear Idea of What We Wanted To Do

We were three guys freshly out of college, with very clear ideas of what we wanted to do. We knew we wanted to make games that were not exploitive towards the players, but would make their life more fun instead. We chose to focus on gameplay, though we also value originality and harmonic beautiful audiovisuals. With Amphora we thought we were making a small-ish game in terms of timescale on production, but after all we learned to never underestimate circumstances that are over your head.

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“Game design is full of choices and roads not taken”.

A Game for Different Stages of Player Involvement

We don’t want to reveal too much of the storyline, since we’d like the players to figure out as much as possible on their own. Against conventional wisdom, the player is not who the primary story is about. The player guides the story, and is still the most important aspect of it, because without them time stands still. But since our main mechanic makes the player a very powerful being, and very different from the other inhabitants of the world, we found it difficult to make the player avatar an equal participant in the story, and so the focus is on the more common characters that don’t have any special powers.

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The player initially has more power than other characters in the game, so the focus is on the girl whom they witness growing up.

The story focuses on a girl whom the player witnesses growing up. This is symbolical, as the player also “grows” while playing, understanding what the game is about and what they can and cannot do. There was also a goal to let players enjoy the game on several different layers, based on how involved they are. One can enjoy Amphora by just experiencing nice visuals and soundscape, but if they want more, they can discover a story unfolding, or the real story underneath, or uncover deeper meanings — but we don’t force or require players to dive into that, leaving the choice up to them.

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One can enjoy Amphora by just experiencing nice visuals and soundscape, but if they want more, they can discover a story unfolding.

Without A Single Word

We decided that a text-based story or tutorial wasn’t something we wanted to delve into. Both because it would be another element we’d have to create and use resources on, but also because we felt text is too often used as a crutch in games.

We didn’t want anything text-based, because text is too often used as a crutch in games.

It was also a part-experiment to see how far we could push a game to teach something without telling the player straight up what to do. Doing this gave us many headaches when designing levels, but in the end we managed to construct something that performed what we wanted. Now we just provide a few icons to teach the controls and the rest is up to the player to figure out. We want the player to play, not read text or see long tutorial videos.

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“The art style has been the one constant that we always kept”.

Not All Users See The Story, But Most Do Enjoy

So the Amphora story is told completely through the visuals and gameplay without a single word. It’s risky, since a couple of playtesters did not pick up on any of the overarching story. Later we made some things more obvious because of this. Still, a small fraction of players anyway didn’t get a coherent story out of the game, and one did not see any story at all. These players still said they were impressed with the game and enjoyed themselves, so we decided not to do major changes to how the story was told.

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Not all players initially understood the totally textless story told solely through music and visuals.

Making the tutorial was quite difficult, since part of players would never try to experiment. If they just tried to press anything they’d notice the interactivity, but instead they sat there staring at the screen. It took some very careful observation of the players’ reactions to get this right without them ending up completely confused, but we feel we managed to get this aspect mostly right. We will use these learnings in other games, as they seem to make the tutorial phase more enjoyable for the majority of players.

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Making the tutorial was hard, since players weren’t trying to experiment.

Mechanics, Design and Playtesting

The main mechanics is about lifting and drawing cords that can be attached to almost everything in the scenes. One issue was that this mechanic made the player very powerful, and therefore we struggled quite a lot to design puzzles that wouldn’t be trivial. Had we known how difficult this would become, we’d probably have taken steps earlier to either change the goal of the game, or even make the mechanics different. The game was planned to be longer, but the difficulty of designing as well as aiming for the highest quality restricted it.

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The game mechanics made the players extremely powerful, so there was a challenge of designing non-trivial puzzles.

We decided quite early in development that we would structure the game in singular limited scenes. This was part-technological – to avoid optimizations to make the engine run huge levels, but also a choice to be able to more rapidly iterate, rearrange and scrap scenes. We found that naming each scene something topical made discussion and editing easier, even if the names were never exposed to the players.

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Each scene was planned unique in all possible ways, but players were suddenly forgetting the mechanics they had already used several times.

We did early playtesting standing behind people’s backs, which might have made them perform worse than if they were playing the game at home, since they might feel like they are being judged. It’s been time-consuming for us as well, but for me it turned out easier to read what was going through their mind as they were actually playing, than watching recordings afterwards.

Have you ever walked into a room and forgotten why you went there? Don’t worry you’re not turning demented, it’s a common psychological phenomenon involving how our ancestors needed to think differently when they entered different environments. We’ve encountered a similar thing a lot with playtesters of Amphora. We wanted each scene to be unique, both visually and thematically, but it resulted in players suddenly forgetting the mechanics they had already used several times. For this reason the game became a bit easier and more straightforward than we planned – any small detail that could confuse players would confuse them.

A Team Member: Not Just Work Capacity, But Also Knowledge

Our biggest setback was when one of the teammates had to leave us. With him we lost a lot of knowledge that took much of our time to regain (by learning it ourselves). He was also our CEO at the time (as well as graphics programmer), so two important roles had to be filled. This pushed the team to being one artist/designer and one CEO/programmer, meaning almost double workload for both. Losing a team member means not only losing their capacity to work, but their knowledge as well.

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Losing a team member is painful anyway: not just workforce, but also experience.

We took up the burden of finishing the game, since we didn’t find anyone to replace our former team member. Our programmer did learn what that guy knew, but the time it took made us postpone the release for almost a year. This was great for the company as a whole, but the time lost made us reach the boundaries of budget.

Pragmatic Approach To Pretty Art

One of the more constant aspects of our game has been the art style. It was one of the reasons why we picked this project. And since silhouettes require less details and still look good, it would be possible to accomplish the project with just one part-time artist. That made the effects and colors ever more important as to not make the game look cheap, so we invested some extra time on image effects and particles etc. We got a lot of amazing feedback on our art, people seemed impressed, and so we were really happy with how that choice turned out.

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Silhouettes require less details and still look good, which made it possible to accomplish the project with just one part-time artist.

We are also proud of our smoke effect, which was both a blessing and a curse. It made effects easy to create, has a great unified style, but also came at a great cost of rendering lots of pixels with many dynamic textures. And its limitations made it difficult to work with and ended up taking a lot of time.

Good Audio On A Budget Turns Award-Winning

Not having a huge budget for audio, we commissioned a friend, Paal B. Solhaug, to do the music and let him retain most of the rights for it. We may have had him set to work a bit too early as we only had a few concept images and a not-so-clear description of the game. Even though he felt he didn’t have enough to work with, we were happy with the tunes he made, and they helped us set the vibe of the game.

As for sounds and ambience, a guy found us by pure chance when his teacher asked the students if they could make sounds for our project. One of them, Kristian Brastein, had the vision for the game that we were after, and ended up being a great addition to the project after he finished school.
Their efforts were praised not just within our team: Amphora won the Best Game Audio award at Indie Prize at Casual Connect Amsterdam 2015.

Remaking An Engine With A Working Prototype

When our team was graduating from school, our main skills were Flash and C++ development. We wanted more out of the game than what Flash could offer, so naturally went ahead and began writing our own engine in C++. Using some third-party libraries we managed to get an early version of the game up and running, though that’s when we noticed the downsides of our choices. After a year of feeling this effect we ended with the worst possible outcome: having to rewrite the engine and discard the pieces that didn’t work with our vision. It was a difficult decision that we agonized over for some time, but in the end it turned out the right thing and recognizing this was crucial for the continuation of the project.

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The worst possible outcome, like rewriting the engine, can happen to be that exact right decision.

Rewriting the engine while already having a working prototype meant that we knew exactly what was required of the engine when starting anew. This made the engine more robust in a way that supported the game better and enabled us to continue development much more smoothly from that point onwards. It made us realize the importance of what a more complete prototype could do for the success of making good tech choices, and how to know exactly the requirements of an editor for the game.

We decided on making an in-game editor, which may or may not have been a good idea. It was great that we could easily switch between the working game and tweaking every setting of a scene, but the editor suffered from not being a priority and had issues that never got resolved.

A game is in essence a sophisticated way to display data that is interactive.

A game is in essence a sophisticated way to display data that is interactive, but we made the engine data-driven way too late to understand the importance of this. An important discovery was when we made the decision to buy/use RUBE. This was by far the greatest tool that closed the gap between the tech and how the designer wanted to create the entities. It enabled the artistic feel of the movement of the characters and eased the development of content.

We have chosen to not use our own engine any time soon. We will continue making stylish games that focus on new types of gameplay, but will heavily reduce development time by using third-party tools and make our process more streamlined.

The team is currently busy making their next game Degrees of Separation. It will have some of the same design aesthetics as Amphora, but less experiential, as the concept this time is based on a working prototype. Amphora is available on Steam, Humble Store and Glyph and will soon be available on Mac.

Contributions

Real-time Personalized Player Marketing

April 10, 2015 — by Industry Contributions

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Written by Pini Yakuel, CEO of Optimove

One of the holy grails of personalization is the ability to implement real-time, data-driven player marketing. In other words, social gaming publishers that can deliver highly-relevant messages to individual players at the exact moment of greatest relevance will thrill those players, engender more loyalty, and gain an important edge in this competitive space.

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Seven Summits Studio: Making Memories Through Stories in Petite

March 31, 2015 — by Industry Contributions

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Seven Summits Studio is an award-winning independent game development company based out of Hyderabad, India. The studio was founded in 2013 by a group of passionate individuals who strive to create impactful experiences through video games.

Petite is an ambient experience that narrates a woman’s story while focusing on key incidents that happen in her life. Every level is a new situation, and each memory you unlock is a unique one, depending on the emotions you choose.

It is being designed by Asar Dhandala, who worked on Petite together with the writer of the story,  Vishesh Chopra, and the programmer, P.V. Sanjeev Kumar. The development cycle of the game is being mentored by Shailesh Prabhu and Nawaz Dhandala. Asar shares the story of their freshly released creation.


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Awakening of Heroes: Making MOBA Interesting For A Wider Audience

March 24, 2015 — by Industry Contributions

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COFA Games is a game development company from Serbia, currently working on a pretty ambitious project for an indie studio, called Awakening of Heroes. This is an unusual multi-player game that combines elements of team fight, strategy, arcade, town development and pre-game unions. Although still in the Alpha phase, Awakening of Heroes has appeared on Steam Greenlight waiting for your thumbs up to help it enter this huge PC game download store.

COFA Games’ CEO Nikola Mitic shares the story of their game taking place in a dreamlike city, and featuring a sweet old lady obsessed with extreme sports such as tombola and knitting, a mellow-heart butcher with an alter-ego of a math genius, a sexy chimney sweeper with a vendetta against Santa, a hipster in an atypical bad mood, and a grandpa daredevil. And of course the craziest superpowers one can come up with.


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Exploring Mobile Games as an Engagement Platform

March 20, 2015 — by Industry Contributions

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By Nick Thomas, Head of Gaming at Immersion

Over the coming months, I’ll be posting a blog series exploring untapped opportunities to increase engagement in mobile games, along with a few predictions on the future of the mobile gaming industry. We’ve been buzzing about this concept since the Samsung Developer Conference (SDC) in San Francisco, where Immersion was given the opportunity to host the panel “Left Brain + Right Brain = Engagement.” This session featured industry leaders from both the creative and analytic side of mobile gaming spectrum, and I was delighted to philosophize with industry experts Jeff Drobick of Tapjoy, Jeffrey Cooper of Samsung, and David Zemke of DeNA. Our wide ranging discussion uncovered a rich tapestry of ideas that illuminate some of the core mechanics in both designing and analyzing mobile games, which in turn provided insights for game developers on how to improve engagement in their games. This series will touch on some of the key takeaways from the panel and our work since, and will offer game developers some actionable ideas to implement in creating the more creative and engaging games.

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Orange Jet Fighter: From News Stories to a Jet Fighter Game

March 9, 2015 — by Industry Contributions

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GamesOnly.com is a Dutch game studio and game portal founded in 2009 by Robin Ras. Located in Amsterdam, Robin started to work with other game devs to develop Unity 3D games like the Orange Jet Fighter. “Being a big fan of jet fighter games, it was great to finally be able to develop something similar”, Robin says as he shares the story of Orange Jet Fighter.


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JELLIES!: Developers’ Team Gathered Through Instagram

March 4, 2015 — by Industry Contributions

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52 Hertz Whale are 3 guys from Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. They were once working at the same local IT company and decided to create an indie game together. Inspired by titles like Limbo, Badland and Ridiculous Fishing, these developers tried to create something unique and gorgeous, and they got it. JELLIES!, a color-matching arcade game. “It has a great simple design, unique entertaining gameplay and awesome little wicked jellies”, says Mikhail Shagin, the co-founder and developer in 52 Hertz Whale, as he shares the story of the game.


Contributions

Depth Hunter 2: Exploring the Waters of Game Development

March 1, 2015 — by Industry Contributions

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Biart Company was originally based in Russia, but later moved to the U.S. as part of its development strategy in 2011. As an American company it has released games focusing on underwater themes for gaming consoles, PC, and mobile platforms. Biart Company released its first mobile 3D games for iOS and independently published a project on Steam. Konstantin Popov, the founder of the company and producer for all of Biart’s games, talks about his experience as an independent developer over these three years.

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The Emergence of the Western Core PC Gamer

February 25, 2015 — by Industry Contributions

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In recent years DFC Intelligence has focused on segmenting the diverse base of game consumer types. The most important trend that is emerging in the game market is the growth of consumers that play on multiple platforms. For example, almost all console players also play on PC to some extent. Increasingly both console and PC gamers are playing on mobile devices.

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