Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Q&A with Cloudbuilt's developer, Coilworks

I talked about Cloudbuilt's unique blend of open levels and action platforming last week. Now the talented men and women at Coilworks were able to spare some time to answer a few questions about their upcoming rocket-powered platformer.
 What inspired you to become indie developers?
Anders Davallius (Creative Director): Well, I have for the longest time known I wanted to be a game developer, and to enter the indie scene is something that just felt natural to me. I am used to be able to be a part of everything that is happening on a game. So to enter a larger team where I could only focus on one thing alone, is nothing I’m interested in for now. So I want to work in a small team with other developers, where everyone has the opportunity to give input and to affect the outcome of the game in every way. Where we can create the type of game we want. Hopefully we will be able to do that while also making a living out of it, and hopefully without the stress and worries associated with being a small indie startup. I think this is something most of us at Coilworks have in common. We love games and want to create them, while also being an intricate part of its creation and affect the outcome. Everything from our games design, its technology, its art, its story, and its everything, is something we care for a lot and want to be a part of.

I think one of the first aspects that stands out is Cloudbuilt’s stylized look. Was this always your intent or did the visuals evolve over time?
Anders: As we sat out on deciding an art style we had a couple of goals in mind. The first goal was for the art to be stylized in a way that would not hold back the gameplay. What I mean with that is that we wanted to let the gameplay to be as over the top as we wanted, without feeling the need to hold back to make it fit with a , let’s say “realistic”, art style. We also wanted to find a style that was not overused and hopefully finding something interesting and kind of new. With that in mind we managed to settle on an art style during the first few weeks of development. The style has of course continued to develop and gotten better over time and is now close to being finished. Though, I still have some “issues” I want to address if there is time. But with the great reception we got on the visuals so far, I probably have to down prioritize those changes for now, even though they are something I personally would like to fiddle around with some more.

Watching footage of your game, Cloudbuilt seems strongly influenced by titles such as Mirror’s Edge, Prince of Persia, and Vanquish. How did games like these influence Cloudbuilt’s design and mechanics?
Anders: Well this is actually quite complicated, but I will try to simplify it a little. We were actually working on another title before this one, but due to over scoping; we had to cancel the project after one and a half year of development. That project then served as a source of inspiration for the basic mechanics of Cloudbuilt. We have then looked at lots of other games for inspiration as well. In the specific case of Mirror’s Edge and Prince of Persia we have of course looked at them, but I would say that we have tried to not be too influenced by them. We have tried to design a system of our own from the ground up. To highlight this I can try to explain some of the fundamental ideas behind our platforming and interactions in Cloudbuilt. 
We had from the very beginning a goal in mind to create a deep and responsive system that rewarded player skill and also enabled lots of freedom. We wanted the player to be able to give meaningful input at all times during all interactions and to be able to affect them as much as possible. We also wanted to let actions weave into each other by basing the interactions on momentum; giving them a more dynamic state. That means that a wallrun won't always be exactly the same, it depends on the situation you’re in when executing it. This enables a deeper gameplay where there is more than a binary outcome of failure or success. I don’t want to say that our system in Cloudbuilt is inherently better than the other games, as it is not without its potential downsides. All this new enabled control and focus in skill makes our system much harder to manage for a new player. But in the long run, I think that our system is more rewarding and enables more freedom/creativity, and for me that is a good thing. 
In the case of Vanquish I would say that many members of the team are huge fans of that game, but it has not served that much as inspiration for anything specific in Cloudbuilt.  But, there were one instance where we actually considered changing the animations of a specific interaction to become more like Vanquish, just as homage to that game! But in the end we decided to do it in our own style anyway. Even though we think we are pretty different, we are only happy to hear the comparisons, as we do love these games!

Another promising element is the game’s open level design. Is it difficult finding a balance between giving players the freedom to make their own path while also providing a challenging platforming experience?
Karl Emil Norberg (Level Designer): I’ll jump in here quickly! Most definitely, because of the freedom of the controls and environment interaction, players have the ability to use our levels often in ways we couldn’t imagine during their design. This makes it often tricky to try and make more specific challenges that a player have to navigate since they, often, can just circumnavigate around them by being a little creative.. That is not to say we wanna punish people for being creative with how they complete levels. Oftentimes we find most of the routes people use to be a really cool solution and keep them, maybe alter them a little, sometimes though we find ways that are just too easy to use and we either try to make something more creative out of it that is a lot more fun and challenging or, rarely, we would just try to remove or block it. 
Anders: As Karl said, we try to incorporate the creativity of the players into the changes to our levels. In a clear majority of cases we keep the newly discovered paths and try to make the levels better and more interesting by building upon them. I would like to call that process Emergent Level Design. Where our idea of a level in most cases grows and changes over time into something very different as we let people play and test it.  
It is really hard to make a good level that is challenging for skilled players that have this amount of control, but I only find that interesting. It is definitely possible to create extreme challenges but still keeping them open, it can sometimes be tough to determine what is too hard as well. One particular section of a level I have in mind is a proof that open challenges can also be really challenging. This is a more combat focused area in one of the later levels, and if we were to skip a few levels and get to that section a little earlier in the game, most players would probably feel it’s like an impenetrable wall. 
But it’s actually a challenge that can be cleared in numerous different ways by skilled players. We have lots of levels though, and by playing them all, you will eventually gain the skill to clear all the challenges. But don’t count on beating all levels the first time you try them out. That is also why we added a branching level selection. If you encounter a level that is too challenging, there is probably 1,2 or 3 other levels that you have yet to test out or clear. (That is actually inspired by Megaman, where you have 8 bosses with 8 different levels to chose from. If something was too hard I always found myself going back to try a different level, and eventually I got skilled enough to clear all the levels.)

Combat also seems to be a critical part of Cloudbuilt’s gameplay. Can you talk more about these mechanics and how they complement the platforming?
Anders: We very much intend for the combat to be a part of the platforming. We have 9 very distinct enemies right now, and all of them are designed not only to be combined with platforming in interesting ways, but also to be combined with each other to create more complex and interesting combat scenarios. We try to incorporate elements like precision,  timing, stress/pressure, reflexes, awareness and strategy into the combat and it will definitely affect the platforming. Too keep all this in mind at all times require a lot of skill, but we try to think about player choice here as well, and there is always different ways to engage in combat. Actually,  if you are really really skilled, you can clear all levels without shooting, by really focusing on timing, dodging, and platforming, and by being creative while planning your routes. It might not be the fastest way though, so you might have to sacrifice some of your speed. That's why a No Ammo mode is one of the unlockable extra modes that you get as soon as you clear a level (all extra modes will have their own high scores). 
Any way, if I were to compare our combat to any other game, it would probably be Megaman, but I would say; because Cloudbuilt is in 3D, uses more maneuverability and have larger environments, Cloudbuilt’s combat scenarios get pretty different, and it’s hard to really compare them. Though both games do have some similarities in the sense that they both use enemies that are fairly simple in their nature, but when combined with other enemies or platforming, gets challenging. 
Casper Nilsson (Artist): Enemies like turrets can disrupt your wall runs if you get hit, while others like flying drones will stun and push you if they get too close. You have to master your own movements and also learn your enemies mechanism to counter them in a quick and safe way. 
The more advanced paths in the game require more multitasking as you have to aim and navigate at the same time. Enemies like mines and moving force fields adds an extra challenge when you navigate on the platforms, But sometimes mines can also save you when you are chased by drones. Other enemies are placed to create a stress factor, while some are placed to create a challenge since you also need to manage your health in the game. 
A great skill in the game is to know when you should take out a certain enemy and when you should avoid them to save time. But you also have the choice if you want to take an combat heavy path or an acrobatic path on a couple of levels.

Do you have any plans to bring Cloudbuilt to consoles?
Anders: Well, we have been investigating it a little bit, and it is definitely technically doable as we have full control over our engine, though we might have to hold it of for now because of time constraints, there are two other aspects we need to consider as well. 
One is the controls. The game is designed for mouse and keyboard, and requires too much input to be comfortable on gamepads as most gamers are not comfortable using two triggers on one hand. It is a little bit hard to explain further, but I will try my best. (Though, we will launch the PC version with gamepad support, so you can all try it out for yourselves once the game is out.) On a mouse and keyboard most gamers have no problem using WASD for movement on one hand while also using shift/ctrl with one finger and space with another. With the other hand on the mouse it is easy to aim and shoot with the mouse button. That means that there is two directional inputs (aim and move) and three buttons (jump, shoot, booster). The directional inputs will require both thumbsticks on a gamepad, and as we require input at all times, it means you can't take your thumbs of the sticks to use the face buttons without losing control. That means that all other actions that you are required to use at the same time must be mapped to triggers/shoulder buttons. As there are three very important buttons, that means that two triggers will be used on one hand, requiring two fingers to operate. And that is the real hurdle. 
The other aspect we need to investigate is the potential interest from console gamers. Do they want to play Cloudbuilt on console, even if these control issues can’t be resolved? It is playable, but much harder and it does not feel as intuitive at all. So even if we launch with gamepad support on PC, we recommend players to use mouse and keyboard, even if they are used to play with gamepads. Things might change in the future (Valve seems to be playing around with some cool stuff), but this is the situation today. 
Generally when it comes to features and requests for platforms, we appreciate if people tell us what they are interested in, and we will make sure to look in to it if there is enough interest : )

When will gamers be able to play Cloudbuilt?
Anders: We have visited a few expos lately and let people play 6 of our levels there, we were meet with very good response, but I guess that is not what you were wondering about… we hope to release Cloudbuilt later this year, but as we are still in Steam's Greenlight process, we can’t really know for sure if that is possible. We are investigating our options, but if you want to help out, please give us a vote on Greenlight and help spreading the word! And if you have any feedback, questions or requests,  feel free to tell us in a comment!
You can contact Coilworks on Cloudbuilt's official site and vote for the game on Steam Greenlight here.

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