Creature in the Well's limiting, limitless unknown
Flight School Studios creative director Adam Volker shares how a two-person team turned constraints into creativity
Adam Volker thrives on limitations. Self-imposed limitations, that is.
For example, after working on multiple AAA titles that saw him restricted to football assets and space MMO control panels, he moved to indie to draw "more wizards and crap."
But now, given the flexibility to make whatever he likes, he's finding creative ways to stretch his skills as one half of the two-person team making Creature in the Well. He, along with fellow creative director Bohdon Sayre, compose the Montreal "satellite branch" of Flight School Studios. The remainder of the studio consists of 30 people based in Dallas, and for the most part they aren't involved in Volker and Sayre's project.
One reason for this is that Creature in the Well is entirely Volker and Sayre's baby. Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz, Volker says that Flight School has given the pair a surprising amount of freedom to make whatever they feel like, even though this time the thing they felt like making is a pretty dramatic divergence from the rest of the studio's portfolio. Volker categorizes Flight School as an "emerging tech IP house," and much of its current and past projects are VR or AR games. Not so, Creature in the Well.
"We don't take anything for granted when it comes to development of interaction"
Rather, Creature in the Well emerged from Volker and Sayre's prototyping of something Volker says was "two-player air hockey with characters" that they eventually added pylons and bumpers to.
"It's very piece-by-piece," he says. "It's not like I woke up in the middle of the night and shouted, 'I have an idea!' It's not quite like that. Bo and my creative method is very analytical and piecemeal."
Despite the decidedly flat-screen design of Creature in the Well, Volker says the pair have learned a lot from their past experiences working on both VR games and cinematic experiences.
"[Our VR experiences] have helped us look at design really abstractly," he says. "We don't take anything for granted when it comes to development of interaction. We're not going to throw in third-person, over-the-shoulder shooter controls and not evaluate them. We always try to ask fundamental questions about mediums we work in. Is this project a story project? If it is, maybe we don't try to reinvent the wheel for gameplay. If this is a gameplay game, how does the story fit into a mechanic without overriding it? Those are things we try to lock in at the beginning to make sure we're doing the project justice."
Volker and Sayre's piecemeal air hockey ideas took shape into a game that can be described as a "pinball hack-and-slash dungeon crawler." The player controls a robot who descends into a desert mountain cavern to repair and restore the machines inside, saving a sandstorm-battered town in the process. This is accomplished by using a melee weapon to control and fire projectiles at pinball-style obstacles, such as bumpers, appearing in different puzzle configurations.
While the whole thing is within a fantasy setting, Volker notes a stark difference between the first part of that description and the rest. Desert towns, ancient machines, hidden monsters -- those are all things players have heard of or seen before in other games. A pinball hack-and-slash dungeon crawler may be an amalgamation of ideas players are familiar with, but it's still a fairly unique concept in its own right.
"We came up with this rule, which is an old Amblin Entertainment idea, an old Spielberg thing called the 30/70 rule," Volker says. "People like things they're familiar with, with one major twist. So 70% of the world is something they're familiar with and 30% is something they're not. So for instance, it's our world, but there's an island full of dinosaurs. Or, it's the suburbs of Los Angeles, except an alien lives with a small boy in his backyard.
"People like things they're familiar with, with one major twist. So 70% of the world is something they're familiar with and 30% is something they're not"
"When we had the [pinball hack-and-slash] part, we felt like that was the 30%. So we decided we'd do the dungeon part, because people who watch the trailers and hear about the game will say, 'Oh, I like those games with a twist.' It feels fresh and new, but it isn't so new it's intimidating and overwhelming and no one knows how to play it."
Since Volker and Sayre are a two-person team (with some contract help here and there), they're limited in the amount of specialized skills they have between them. As a classically trained artist, Volker had to learn to work in Unreal Engine specifically for Creature in the Well, which he says was the biggest challenge he's undertaken so far in the development of the game.
"When we were in Dallas, we had a lot more support on the projects," he says. "Bo is a Renaissance man, he knows every part of the pipeline and can do it professionally, but I didn't when we started. This is the first time I've actually worked in the engine. Before, I was doing a lot of concept art, a lot of storyboarding and stuff like that, but not the meat and potatoes of production. I had to learn a lot of software to become comfortable enough to get the outcome I wanted on this game. It wasn't a creative hurdle so much as it was a learning curve."
But normally, learning an entirely new skill isn't an option for their small team. Instead, Volker and Sayre have adapted their ideas to fit their own limitations, often turning those limitations into creative expression in the process.
"We design the game to our skillsets. There's a lot of darkness, because we didn't want to model that much stuff. We tried to build a story around a character that was hidden in darkness. There's literally only eyes and arms for the creature because we didn't have time to animate and model an entire bad guy.
"We think creativity should be applied to production just as much as it should be applied to ideas. And we don't over scope things we can't handle. One of the things Bo can do which is not his core discipline is animation. We're going to try not to pick a project that's heavily character-animated with a big cast because we're not equipped to accomplish that."
"Reuse is where you save time. As beautiful as I can make things look, players just want to play the game"
"The Creature is a good example. The Creature is made up of the same arm, and when we had multiple arms we just took the same model and mirrored it. We created eyes for it to act with, but those decisions came out of the fact that we couldn't animate or model an entire creature. We needed an antagonist for the game and we had this idea in one of my sketchbooks where there's a garbage can that talks to you, and all we have to do is have a speech bubble coming out of the garbage can, and people will imagine what the creature inside looks like. That's fun for players to participate in -- this thing in the darkness that is supposed to be scary that you never see all of. That's a limitation creating a feature."
Another example he gives is that of reusing room models across multiple dungeons. The rooms are the same, though the puzzles within are different.
"We were making eight dungeons and there's not a lot of us to make them," Volker says. "So I would make a hallway, for example, or a room. And then we would assign a color palette for the dungeon, and when the room gets reused, it looks different because the colors are different even though it's the exact same hallway. That was a way to try and be efficient about what we did and change it enough so players weren't like, 'Ugh, I've seen this a thousand times,' but we'd get a lot of reuse out of it.
"Reuse is where you save time. The gameplay inside of them is what players are there for. As beautiful as I can make things look, players just want to play the game."
Flight School Studio's Montreal satellite office is small but mighty, and Volker and Sayre are already considering what they might do when Creature in the Well is done. They may add more full-time developers and scale up a bit on whatever comes next, especially if Creature ends up a success. And as a unique game among Flight School's portfolio, the reception to Creature may also end up influencing the direction the Montreal team takes with their next project.
"We like telling stories and making art in interactive spaces of every kind," Volker says. "If this becomes a smart, good outlet for us, we'll keep doing them. Bo and I want to keep doing them."