Take a peek at the winding road to Flip's Twisted World.
In an earlier post I talked about how Flip's Twisted World began as a simple Flash prototype. This seed of the idea was called up & dn ("up and down"), a kind of palindrome: if you turn the name 180 degrees about the ampersand, it still looks the same. In this incarnation, the game was much more puzzle-based. It was played from a perspective outside of the world, and the player would click to tell their goblin character (the apprentice, Flip, was still a long way off) where to move. Large maze levels were divided into discrete rooms, a convention that survived to the final product.
As a multiplayer web game, play was turn-based and asynchronous. You could sign-in, take a few tries at solving a room of the maze, then log off and resume later. There was also no combat in this early version. What enemies there were would be one-hit-kills. Part of the puzzle was to learn their behaviour and avoid them outright, or lure them into traps so you could proceed.
The game had a very simplistic look, based on a cubic grid that made falling easy to predict (you would always drop straight down a row/column of the grid). A small set of simple tiles were used to build all the levels, with the idea that players would learn what each tile did, and be able to quickly scan and understand a level. The puzzle was in working out how to navigate these known entities in new combinations, rather than in dealing with new and unknown tricks all the time.
At this point I was hired by Frozen North Productions, and put the up & dn design document away.
To the Big Leagues
A few months later we were approached by a representative of Microsoft, asking if we could create a simple game to show off their XNA technology at the upcoming X07 event. We eagerly agreed... perhaps too eagerly. It was only after we’d said yes that we asked when the event was happening.
It was in two weeks.
With half of our team away on vacation or medical leave in-between, we had to come up with something FAST. I dug out my up & dn doc and said, "Hey, I've got this game design already done… can we make this?"
We simplified the gameplay, giving it real-time analog movement instead of turn-based point-and-click. This was also the debut of the young wizard who would become Flip. With no time to create many different tile types, the worlds were plain, but we added slug enemies and some simple combat (you could stun the slugs with magic, then twist them off the world).
Amazingly, we got it ready in time, and showed it off at X07 in Toronto. Early playtesters loved it, and we got a lot of great reactions to the innovative rotating gameplay (although our puzzle difficulty was up a little too high at first). The response was so good that we decided to drop the project we'd been working on and develop up & dn into a full game pitch.
The main criticism we received was that the game looked too similar to the then-upcoming Echochrome, owing to the fact that both games were inspired by M.C. Escher’s work. Echochrome has a very minimal, line drawing aesthetic and outside-of-room perspective.
To distinguish ourselves from Echochrome, we knew we needed to make the game more visually rich, and less of a simple puzzle game. We decided to develop the real-time platforming gameplay, following the lead of some of our favourite classic games like Mario and Sonic. In that tradition, we planned to have our character journey through multiple themed worlds, including old standbys like ice and volcano levels. Borrowing from Zelda and Mega Man, we would have players gain new powers in each of the worlds, allowing them to solve new puzzles and gain advantages over certain enemies and bosses.
The underlying cube grid of the earlier iterations became a major uniting motif and plot element at this stage. The game would have six worlds and six powers, corresponding to the six faces of the cube. The story was about universe contained inside a magical cube artifact that the Apprentice (Flip) accidentally triggers and gets drawn inside. He carries the cube with him, even though he's now inside it, and that's what gave him the ability to twist the world: he was holding it in his hand.
We developed an Xbox 360 prototype with some sample puzzles to show to publishers. The visuals were still simple due to our small team and short timeframe, but still a huge improvement over my original Flash and our later XNA versions.
How Flip's came to the Wii is a story for another day…
(To be continued – check back next week!)