The winding road to Flip's Twisted World.
In part one, I told the story of how Flip's Twisted World went from a web game design on paper to an XNA technology demo, and then to an Xbox publisher prototype. This week, I'm going to describe our journey in finding a publisher and migrating onto the Wii, as well as some of the changes that we made along the way.
We'd been developing the Xbox prototype to show to publishers for two months when we got an email requesting to see some game pitches. This was a little unusual; usually the developer has to reach out to the publishers to get noticed, especially a small indie studio start-up like ours at the time. The attention we'd gotten at X07 and that year's Game Developers Conference was really paying off.
The email was from Majesco Entertainment, best known for their wildly successful Cooking Mama franchise, and hidden gems like DoubleFine's Psychonauts. Majesco at the time was looking for original Wii and DS pitches.
We'd mused about the Wii previously – about how cool it would be to twist the world with a flick of your wrist – but couldn't see a way to break into that market as a start-up with no connections to Nintendo, and no prior experience on the platform. Game development can be a catch-22 sometimes: nobody wants to fund your game unless you've already made a game in the same genre and on the same system.
Majesco took a chance on us, new to the platform as we were, and by spring of 2008 we had a signed contract and the Wii development hardware we needed. Now we just had to figure out how to use the system.
Brave New World
While the Wii is a truly innovative system with some dynamite games and a most enviable player base, I would be dishonest if I didn't talk about its limitations. It has a lower resolution than the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, and lacks their powerful shader systems for creating visual effects. The toughest limitation is memory, though. The Wii has less memory than some smartphones on the market. That means that as you add more things to your game, you start to run out of room, and the processor has to fetch data from further away.
Our early builds were crippled by inefficient memory use: worlds a tenth of the size of what you see in the final game would struggle to keep up 30 frames per second. We had to rethink a lot of approaches we took for granted when working with PC and other consoles.
Graphics, too, were a big challenge. With no shaders, we had to learn from scratch how to create a host of common visual effects – something I may write a separate blog post about in the coming weeks. Our early test renders and in-game visuals were flat and lifeless, and suffered badly from artifacts.
We got hammered pretty hard after E3 2009 when we first showed the game, because we still hadn't completely licked these problems. That feedback was a big inspiration to our team to overhaul the game's systems and graphics, and I think the results speak for themselves. It was a long road, but we finally learned how to make a great-looking game on the Wii.
The Home Stretch
Toward the end of Flip's development cycle things started to change very quickly. Majesco's testers gave us a lot of support and feedback at this stage, to help hone the game into something awesome. The tutorial world was added and (the cube) Pivot's role was expanded to that of sidekick and guide. One of the biggest changes in terms of gameplay was the way we handle fall damage.
Even back as far as the Xbox versions, we'd handled falling differently from other ways of dying. The reason is that twisting the world really stretches your three-dimensional thinking, and so it's easy to sometimes make a mistake and fall off the world. We didn't want players to feel discouraged from experimenting with the mechanic – some of the coolest moments in the game come from twisting when you're not really sure where it will lead, and discovering something totally unexpected.
Early on, we'd start players back at the beginning of the room if they fell too far, or deal a little damage for really long falls that weren't quite *too* long. Unfortunately it's notoriously difficult to judge distances in 3D platformers, so a lot of players were getting hurt when they weren't expecting it, and repeatedly starting over at the beginning was getting repetitive.
To address this we added checkpoints throughout large rooms, so a fall would only ever set you back to the last checkpoint. We also removed fall damage completely. Now a fall is either perfectly safe, or sets you back – never hurts you. We still need to limit fall distances to keep players from twisting straight to a goal and skipping a puzzle, but this approach turned out to be much more fun and enjoyable.
The Fun's Just Beginning
All told, we put almost three years into building Flip's (although only two counting from contract to completion). It's been a long road for all of us here at Frozen North Productions, and we've learned a lot and had a lot of fun along the way. I can't wait until next month, when Flip's Twisted World hits store shelves, and the whole Wii world gets to see and play what we've created. I hope you'll take it for a spin!