Good Friday does, of course, mean one thing: rotating abstract 2D worlds to aid the progress of a crazy-haired man made of paper. We ran a brief story about inventive, long-in-the-making indie puzzle-platformer And Yet It Moves a little while back, and since then the full game's been released. We'll have some impressions up on the site soon, but before that we had a chat with developer Broken Rules' Project Lead Felix Bohastch, one of the masterminds behind a game that began life as a project at the Vienna University of Technology. Soon afterwards, a prototype of AYIM became the 2007 Independent Games Festival Student Showcase Winner, so this commercial version is, quietly, a highly anticipated game.
Beneath the jump, Felix explains the thinking behind the game, why it's been so long coming, and why the physics-based platformer is a genre so weirdly beloved by indie developers.
We always liked to think that the unique selling point of And Yet It Moves is its core mechanic of being able to rotate the world by 90 degrees intervals and the gameplay we have build around it. We soon realized though that it's the look and feel of our game that draws people in, and that most people are interested in in the first place. People start playing And Yet It Moves because it looks different to other games.
Still, if the gameplay was boring people would stop playing it quite soon, so it's the art style that makes people play the game and the varied gameplay that keeps them interested in it. That's also what we are most proud of: that we could combine a focused and refined gameplay with a unique look.
Why the decision to go with a paper-like art style?
That mostly arose out of necessity. We are a team of four computer science students, so our team lacked a specialized visual game artist. We looked for a style we liked that we would be able to produce. The roughness and analog feel of a world set in a paper collage provided just what we wanted, without the necessity of 3D artists building it.
At first we just wanted to go with a pencil on paper look, but that seemed too empty and boring. We looked for ways to make it more interesting and came up with the idea of using ripped-up photos to make the levels more vibrant.
Trying to emulate an analog look is quite tedious though, and for the next project we will probably go for a more digital look. Should be more feasible.
What's the player response been like, in terms of the challenge/fun balance? And similarly, what was your methodology for establishing which challenges were suitable for release and what weren't?
At the beginning, after establishing the core mechanic of rotating the world, we started looking for challenges/puzzles that we could build and from these ideas kind of grouped them in originally four and then later three environments. These were just rough ideas, more like blueprints for challenges that could occur in a certain environment. From that we started working from quite linear from the easier challenges up to the harder ones. We built specific challenges and let people play them.
We did user tests from the start of development. Basically that meant that we bought some beer and invited friends and colleagues over to our homes. Then we put them one after the other in front of our game and watched them play our last creations. Especially at the beginning, that was often a painful process because some of the things we built were quite frustrating. A lot of people confused the directions to turn the world, lost orientation quite quickly and didn't quite understand when they ripped apart and when not. So we tried to design challenges that make the physics understandable and also included hints. We also made the spawn points point to guide players through the levels. For us, it was always a balancing act of including necessary meta game information without pushing players' experience too much out of the paper collage experience.
From these tests we adjusted the challenges - and ditched a few of them - and then rearranged them to fit the difficulty curve we wanted to achieve. And then we tested them again... The later levels were harder to test because we needed people who already knew the controls very well. We couldn't test the later levels on noobs, because that wouldn't have told us anything. So we tried to use friends that have tested previously and send them a few earlier levels they should play before coming to the latest test. Generally we always invited a variety of people regarding their gaming literacy, hardcore players mixed with people who play rarely. We tried to balance the game to satisfy a broad target audience, which sometimes made it difficult to judge if our game was too hard or too easy.
Had you always planned to make And Yet It Moves commercial? Is it a surprise to find yourself in this situation?
No. And Yet It Moves really started as a game concept for a computer science course, held by the Department for Design and Assessment of Technology at the Vienna University of Technology. We were actually quite lucky, because the four of us didn't know each other before but from the beginning we had a certain connection. We were all new to game designing but really interested in it and motivated to build something to be proud of. Our supervisors constricted us to make a 2D game, which really helped a lot because we could focus on game design rather then technical challenges. Shortly before we finished the prototype we realized that we could submit it to the IGF Student Showcase - that gave us another boost to finish and polish the prototype. After being part of the IGF Student Showcase 2007, media interest was great so we decided to take the risk and build a full version out of And Yet It Moves.
Everything kind of evolved during the last few years and a lot of things worked out quite well for us. Dreams changed into hopes and hopes turned into talks and contracts. It took some time but I have finally realized that when people ask me what I do I can say I design video games - and I love the look on people's face when they hear that.
How important has the IGF win been?
Being able to show our game to everyone at GDC 2007 was just amazing and a real motivation for us. Without the IGF we wouldn't be anywhere near where we are now. Maybe we would even have stopped doing game design. Through the IGF we got media coverage and interest that showed us that our game is something people are interested in. By taking part in the GDC we saw how interesting and diverse the game industry is, and met people which footsteps we could follow. Every year since then I totally miss GDC and hope that next year we have another project we could submit to IGF or have enough money to pay another visit. Like Petri Purho said: "Fuck Yeah! These two words describe IGF best"
As well as the IGF, the Indiecade festival was also a big help. Nintendo saw And Yet It Moves on a showcase of Indiecade and because of that asked us to do a Wii version. We could never reach out this far by ourselves, especially when we sit in good old Europe.
It's been a couple of years between that win and the full version getting a release - did it end up being a bigger project than expected?
Oh yeah it did! During the development process we learned what a difference it means to do a prototype and to make a full version. There's so much content, polish, and little details one has to look out for, otherwise it ends up being a crappy user experience. So there were a few things we underestimated: mainly the visual styling and the user interface. Because of that we blew a few deadlines.
We also couldn't work full time on And Yet It Moves, as we were all still studying at that time, and some of us will still keep studying for the next year or so. We used our evenings, free days and holidays to work on our game, and that is also something that can quickly drain one's energy. On top of that I did my MA in Game Design and Development in Holland while the other three stayed in Vienna, which made communicating a bit harder. We had to use online possibilities like a blog and Skype to keep up to date. We tried to finalise a lot of game design decisions before I went and because of that we had a solid base to work off. Otherwise, being geographically apart and working on the same game probably wouldn't have worked as well.
Why do you think puzzle-platforming (and often physics-related puzzle-platforming at that) seems such a favourite genre for indie developers? Is it something to do with the ease/cost of creating them, or a sense that it's a potential-filled genre that's been abandoned by the mainstream?
I think it is about focus. At least that's what it is for us. As a small team we don't have the resources to go for all the AAA stuff, so we have to confine ourselves and focus our efforts on one good mechanic where we can build a game around it. Physics related mechanics provide a very good basis for this goal because everyone knows them or has an expectation of what will happen. On top of that the procedural fuzziness of physical simulation helps a lot in building emergent gameplay, which means that a lot of variety can come out of a single core mechanic. This helps overcome a lack of content, which small teams can not come up with, by replacing it with procedurally created interactivity. So we can focus our game design on one mechanic, polish that one and be almost sure that we can develop that one mechanic into many varied challenges, providing enough content to justify a purchase for the users.
Besides these facts it is also true that physical calculations in real-time have only recently been possible, so they did represent a new thing everyone wanted to experiment with. I'm quite sure though that physics are here to stay - because of reasons stated above - and to expand. I expect some amazing fluid dynamic games to come out in the next few years!
Regarding the mainstream games, it is true that they have been ignoring the platform-puzzle genre a bit, because they needed to build bigger and shinier worlds. Little Big Planet is a proof, though, that this genre can still shine in the mainstream as well, of course through the inclusion of physics.
Do you feel like independent development is a viable way to make a decent living these days? Or would you be tempted to turn towards big-studio development if the opportunity arose?
We'll have to see if we can really make a living off our games, but we do hope so. I think that now is quite a good time for small studios, because the big players want to fill their online channels with innovative content. I'm sure Introversion, for example, had a way harder startup time. I don't even want to think about having to make a boxed version of our games. So the exposure of independent games to the market is quite high. One can also see that in the quantity and quality of titles that have been submitted to the IGF this year; indie games are quite trendy right now. So our goal is to continue working independently - the important part for us is that we can choose for ourselves what we work on - in a small team.
Of course this has its bad sides as well, taking care of marketing and press stuff takes a lot of time for example. So we wouldn't say no to any of the big players coming around with a big pile of money, because that would only mean that we could make games even better as long as we can keep our freedom. I think thatgamecompany, Media Molecule, etc. are enough prove that the big players are tolerant enough to let indie developers make good games even if they invest in them.
And do you feel like you've gained the exposure the game deserves? While hopefully it's been successful, it doesn't quite seem to have had the hype of, say, World of Goo or Audiosurf...
We can't really say if the game has been successful yet, there is still enough time to sell it - it's only been out for a week - and we actually don't know how much we should sell. We have no information of what similar games sell.
You are right that And Yet It Moves did not have the hype other indie games had recently, and of course we would have liked it to be picked up more by the media. There are a few factors why I think that has happened. For one And Yet It Moves is a PC/Mac only release and that market is more crowded. We think that once we can release the WiiWare version the interest of some of the big media will rise. While a simultaneous release might have proven better marketing-wise, we needed the feedback of users and desperately wanted to see our game out in the open. Seeing real players play our game gives us an enormous motivation boost. It would have been a bit of a waste to have the PC version collect digital dust on our hard-disks until the WiiWare version is out.
We have also been very quiet during the development, so there was no way a hype could have build up like with World of Goo. We started writing to the press too late, so I do think that once a few reviews and blog write-ups come in, we could still see more media interest and more units sold.
For the future we definitely want to be more outspoken and have a development blog and use Twitter and the like to get coverage before we actually release a product. Hey, and 2DBoy showed a spike in their interest graph once a certain site called Rock, Paper Shotgun wrote about them, so I guess the future can only be better...
Thanks, Felix. And Yet It Moves is now available from Steam and Greenhouse, or alternatively there'll be a DRM-free version available from its official site in the not too distant. There's 20% off preorders for that'un, incidentally.
Main photo © impulse/aws - Klaus Vyhnalek