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Unfolding the heart of games with Paper Trail

Henry Hoffman discusses the challenges of growing a sustainable indie studio in Newfangled, how he landed a deal with Netflix, and the art of finding hooks

Trade body UKIE has maintained a lovely tradition for several years now: celebrating a UK Game of the Show at Gamescom.

The task of finding a winner has fallen onto for the past couple of years now, last year leading us to the wonderful Shadows of Doubt.

There were many worthy contenders this year again, but our decision went towards a title that channelled the perspective-shifting cleverness and striking visual identity of a Monument Valley or a Carto: Paper Trail, from Newfangled Games.

"The game is like a top-down puzzle adventure where the key mechanic is being able to fold the level that you're on," explains Newfangled CEO Henry Hoffman. "Each level has a front side and a back side. What's really interesting about that is when you fold over the front and the back, the two worlds merge together and you can use that to solve puzzles in interesting ways.

"We didn't realise at the time, but it gave us a whole bunch of really interesting paper-based mechanics. What's nice about that is it's got this top-down perspective, which creates these really interesting optical illusions and extra paths."

Hoffman is no stranger to perspective-shifting titles as he is best known for being the creator of 2016's colour-changing puzzler Hue.

"I've been working in indie games for 15 years or so," he says. "But the problem I found with the model that we were following is you start up a new company, you make a game, you have a publishing deal, you get some money that you can pay yourself back with, and then you wind down that studio and then do the same again. It became this cycle of starting up and closing down studios which I did for a while – we were able to sell the [Hue] IP [and] our studio [Fiddlesticks] to Curve Games so that was good, but it meant that there was a real talent churn."

Having repeated this cycle a few times, Hoffman was keen to build a "long-term sustainable studio." He had worked with his brother (art director Frederick Hoffman) on Hue and it's with him that the initial idea for Paper Trail was brainstormed, too.

"I remember my brother had a piece of paper that he drew some random pictures on and he started folding it over and we thought that was really interesting, that you could create a side-scrolling puzzle game doing this, where you fold the level over and navigate between the two worlds," he recalls.

"We started messing around with different viewpoints as well, we did a full top-down view which enabled us to create paths that redirect the player, which provided much more space for gameplay, whereas with a side-scroller you're bound by gravity so you're always going to be on a single play field of a single dimension.

"Full top-down games are aesthetically kind of boring because you're just looking at the top of character heads, or rooms and buildings, so we came up with this tilted top-down perspective. We kept building out from there and we spent a year putting it together with a business plan, trying to do it all properly."

Hoffman explains that, in his previous studios, he was always partnering with "a business person," so Newfangled was the first time he had to handle that aspect himself. Even if he picked up business skills over the years, he says he "didn't really know what [he] was doing."

"When I was at university I started my first company, we made a game called Mush then, and I went and gave a talk and said, 'I'm never going to learn the business side of things, I'm always going to delegate that to someone else' to which someone in the audience replied, 'It's just a matter of time, as a game developer in the indie space, you will eventually learn the business side of things,' and ultimately they were right," he laughs.

This mattered to him for Newfangled because Hoffman says "Fiddlesticks had super unsustainable practices," so he was keen to not repeat past errors.

"I was working 18 hours a day, seven days a week, basically for a year, and by the end of it I completely burnt out. My entire identity became attached to that game, as in: if it fails, it would have been a catastrophe. I've tried to distance myself from that now and spread that out among the team.

"But it wasn't just that, it was about [having] no view of the future. The view was very firmly set on releasing Hue with no consideration as to what came after that. Whereas now, we're thinking about the next game and we've got sustainable work hours."

In line with its goal to build a long-term sustainable workplace, Newfangled runs an internship programme to foster local talent, through which it hired junior designer Kyle Newman, after his internship and his graduation from the Norwich University of Arts.

The studio also became a visa sponsor as soon as it could, so Hoffman could bring talent from abroad as he had met lead game programmer Gonzalo Ceciliano de la Peña while attending non-profit accelerator programme Stugan.

"We have a dedicated office in Norwich – we're the only game studio in Norwich currently – and that was a bit of a culture shock for him coming all the way from Mexico City," Hoffman smiles, also mentioning that the team works with freelancers in China and Japan. "We're hoping that Norwich will become a great little hub and for more studios to come in. So it's much more about building a team, having a long-term view of how we're going to fund future projects, and building a sustainable work-life balance so people don't burn out after the first game and have no interest in working on the next.

"We're doing everything that we can to retain talent, we've got a really nice workspace, and lots of different funding options."

Newfangled CEO Henry Hoffman

Newfangled is supported by Astra Fund, which Hoffman describes as "a philanthropic venture fund" that specifically finances "thinking games," and has also signed a partnership with Netflix to release the game on its platform (in addition to a more traditional release on consoles and PC via self-publishing sometime in 2024).

The deal with Netflix actually came together at Gamescom, after Hoffman initially approached someone from the company at a "random party at GDC," he smiles.

"Then at Gamescom, that's where they saw our game and they overheard someone saying how the game was really good and would work nicely with touch controls, which seemed to be the turning point in their mind. We went on to win the Best Family Game Award at Gamescom, and because Netflix is targeting a family audience with their portfolio, all the pieces came together perfectly for us."

He continues: "I think the challenge with mobile is that premium games don't really do very well, so the only real avenue for any sort of premium style game is through the subscription services, whether that's Apple Arcade or Netflix Games. Through those services, you're no longer thinking 'what audience am I appealing to?', you're thinking 'which audience of these subscription providers am I appealing to?'

"The only real avenue for any sort of premium style [mobile] game is through the subscription services"

"So that immediately rules out violent games because Apple and Netflix are caring for a family audience. Games with pre-existing IP are appealing to that kind of audience, like a Lego game or Harry Potter, but it's next to impossible for an indie studio to get an IP like that.

"The next thing is that you need a hook, and there's different hooks that you can have as a game developer. For me personally, I've been designing mechanically-interesting games since the beginning – that's what I've always found really exciting about indie development. Games are still relatively new as a medium and it's not like all of the game mechanics have been fully explored yet. I don't think it's quite like the early days where there were new game mechanics coming out right, left, and centre, but there's definitely still space for new game mechanics to be explored and that's our speciality and studio ethos."

On the flip side, he says that mechanics can be a bit of a crutch as a game designer, so Hoffman is mindful to not rely solely on a clever mechanic to carry the game.

"The mechanic doesn't have to be the hook. It can be an amazing story, world, character, or the entire aesthetic combined," he continues. "A game that I point to like this is Night in the Woods – it has no real unique mechanics necessarily, but everything else about it is super identifiable and super eye-catching.

"So while we're using an interesting game mechanic as a hook – because it's very easy to sell to people in a 20-second GIF on Twitter, and it's very easy [for potential partners] to understand it within a short space of time – what I would love to do is for us to get to the point where we can make games that aren't necessarily defined by their mechanics, but are in fact amazing games where the hook lies within the heart of the game itself."

Beyond the folding mechanic, Paper Trail is a game about growth, generational change, and experiencing adulthood. The Hoffman brothers wrote the story together, and dialogue is voiced, too.

"If we make a big enough success on launch, we should have enough money to fund the next game. We're working with various government bodies now, so we're hoping that if we can get some grants as well, that will support us next year and we'll be able to grow the team by another three people. We also want to move into a dedicated space and become a more long-term, sustainable AA studio a bit like Ustwo – they have an amazing model, some of the best worldwide talent, and they have an amazing work-life balance."

On the game side of things, Hoffman also mentions Geometric Interactive's Cocoon as an inspiration, says he'd be interested in exploring "less hardcore and more experimental" puzzles, more atmosphere-driven titles.

"But for now, we are still a bit scrappy, and it's kind of a little bit all over the place. But I think we'll get there. If we can grow the team by another three people next year I think we're going to be in a much better place to create a long-term sustainable studio, which will help with our next game, which is much more ambitious – we want to make a 3D game with puzzle elements.

"Paper Trail is quite a hardcore puzzle game really, so it's a little bit surprising to us that we've managed to get such a broad appeal. But what we want to do is create even broader appeal for the next game – we want it to be a more Zelda-esque, I guess you could say open world, maybe a little bit of combat but not like crazy violence or anything. Maybe some crafting mechanics, something to create a game with broader appeal."

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Marie Dealessandri avatar
Marie Dealessandri: Marie joined in 2019 to head its Academy section. A journalist since 2012, she started in games in 2016. She can be found (rarely) tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate and the Dead Cells soundtrack. GI resident Moomins expert.
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