In this series of features we invite 'Nindies' to share thoughts on their experiences in 2016. In this entry we chat to David Rusak, Producer and Designer at Drinkbox Studios. We consider the creation of Severed as the studio's follow-up release after the critically-acclaimed Guacamelee!, and its move to the Wii U and 3DS eShop.
The big story this year, naturally, was Severed. Going back to the start of the development, how did the original concept come together? (As a sidenote, this blog post provides some detailed insight.)
Our concept lead Cuxo's pitch video (below) was the seed of the whole idea.
After we finished a long period of work on Guacamelee, we held an internal game jam, splitting the studio into small groups to work on a pile of assorted prototype ideas. Cuxo produced this video, and his group's resultant prototype was definitely a favourite. Throwing together concepts like 'Punch Out', 'dungeon crawler' and 'deep, strategic Fruit Ninja' felt like it was taking us in a really fresh and unexplored direction, and the story sounded dark and intriguing.
Though artistic similarities are there, this is very different experience to Guacamelee. Was that a deliberate choice to cut loose and produce an entirely new kind of game, or was it a natural process following that game jam?
I think part of the motivation for doing that game jam in the first place was to try out something novel. The core gameplay idea for Severed was such a departure from the 2D platformers we've done with Guacamelee and the Blob games - and the basic tone of the story was at least as much of a departure - that right off the bat it was clear we were steering in a really different direction. I think this was part of the charm of the idea, coming off of a good few years of us just developing, porting and expanding on Guacamelee.
Having such a different, heavy theme gave us a chance to really take Severed's story seriously and think hard about how to give it the biggest impact, which was a very cool challenge.
The thematic focus in Severed was always about pushing a kind of 'nightmarish' feeling, centering Sasha's internal personal struggle, and all the while trying to avoid common fantasy tropes. For Guacamelee, a lot of our energy was put into fleshing out the Mexican-flavoured setting in the fullest way we could, but the story itself could be light, goofy and referential a lot of the time. Having such a different, heavy theme gave us a chance to really take Severed's story seriously and think hard about how to give it the biggest impact, which was a very cool challenge.
It arrived on Vita in April; when did development start on the eShop versions in comparison to that Vita original?
Since we had already released Guacamelee STCE on Wii U, our engine already ran on the system, so getting Severed up and running on the platform happened fairly quickly after the Vita release. The 3DS took a bit longer, due to both design and technical challenges associated with the platform.
Can you talk about how the Wii U and 3DS versions came about - did you approach Nintendo, or was it the other way around?
We approached Nintendo about bringing Severed to Wii U and 3DS. We were pretty happy with the reception of Guacamelee on Wii U, and had also had positive conversations with other indie developers about the sales of their games on 3DS. With Severed being a touch-based game and both the Wii U and 3DS having touch interfaces, we also thought that the game would be a good fit on both of those platforms.
The Wii U and 3DS versions, and the crossbuy support, were announced by Nintendo during E3. Can you talk about how that reveal came together?
As soon as we had figured out our launch window for the Wii U and 3DS versions of Severed, we reached out to Nintendo to let them know our plans. Our launch timing lined up well with a promotion that Nintendo was planning, the "Nindies Summer Jam", and so they invited us to participate in this promotion, as well as in the events leading up to the promotion (including E3). We always had planned to support cross-buy for 3DS and Wii U because we don't think people should have to purchase our game(s) multiple times to play on different devices (whenever possible).
Were you happy with the reaction of Nintendo fans to the reveal?
Hugely! The response when we revealed the Nintendo versions of the game was one of the biggest we've seen for anything to do with Severed, and these fans have been awesomely enthusiastic since then.
In terms of gameplay, what key challenges or changes did you face in making the switch from Vita to Wii U and 3DS?
Aside from sheer technical obstacles, the main challenge with these versions was that both involved a fairly dramatic redesign of some of the game's interface, with no really obvious answers at hand for the best way to do it. For one, the 3DS's little touchscreen required a different, more legible font and fitting everything into a 4:3 aspect ratio - both of which predictably set off a whole cascade of visual issues.
The response when we revealed the Nintendo versions of the game was one of the biggest we've seen for anything to do with Severed, and these fans have been awesomely enthusiastic since then.
Both devices also offer a nice, larger screen (the TV for the Wii U, and the 3DS's top screen) which has no touch capability. Having a direct, tactile experience of slashing with your finger, and being able to very accurately control that slashing, is essential for Severed to work at all. But this means staring at the touch screen and using the bigger, nicer screen to - just show the minimap? Show the normal game visuals duplicated? In the end, after some playtesting, almost everybody liked having the map on the big screen, so we kept the option to switch but left that as our default. Players like having options, and they might fiddle around with these kinds of settings initially, but most people just permanently switch to whatever's most efficient after a short time playing (in this case, having the map up top) even if the presentation is not as beautiful.
This was your first 3DS title, can you tell us whether that was a particularly challenging port to produce, or was it a mostly smooth process?
It was more challenging than most, in part due to the design issues mentioned above, and in other large part simply because of its performance limitations. Of all the platforms we shipped Severed on, it turns out that the platform with the lowest hardware specs is also the one that we have to render the game world 3 times on - once for the bottom screen, and once for each eye on the top screen. As I'm sure you can imagine, this was quite technically challenging.
Only a small number of titles offer cross-buy between Wii U and 3DS; what was the main motivation for implementing that offer with Severed?
We're a big supporter of cross-buy for our games whenever possible. We first did cross-buy for Guacamelee on PS3/Vita, and were really happy with the community response to this. We don't think it makes sense to charge twice for the same game on multiple devices that will be used by the same person, and think that it's pretty unlikely that people would want to pay twice for the same game anyway, so why not give the additional copy for free?
Has Severed been a success on Wii U and 3DS, from your perspective? Also, while naturally we're mindful of NDAs, have you noticed any trends in terms of which version is more popular between Wii U and 3DS?
So far Severed seems to be selling better on 3DS than on Wii U, but not by a huge margin. Severed is the first game we've released on 3DS, and the investment we made in porting our engine to work on the 3DS was pretty significant, so it's good to see that people are purchasing (and hopefully enjoying) the game on 3DS.
Overall, how would you describe the experience of bringing Severed to both Wii U and 3DS?
Working with Nintendo to launch Severed on their platforms was a really positive experience. Their team really helped us in the final weeks of development to get through the certification process smoothly, and they gave us great eShop placement as part of their Nindies Summer Jam promotion. We couldn't be happier!
Looking back at 2016, what have been the biggest highs and lows for Drinkbox Studios?
Severed was first imagined as a pretty limited project that we'd quickly move on from. It turned out a lot bigger, and its unconventionality as a game gave us many unexpected design challenges along the way. On top of that, we drove from the Vita release straight into the iOS, Wii U and 3DS ports, which consumed a lot of our time for most of the remaining year after the game was 'done' in April. Working on bringing a game to other platforms is sometimes a bit of a grind, as it's lacking a lot of the 'creative' part of the game development process.
After all of that, the recognition the game has gotten toward the end of this year - with the Canadian Videogame Awards wins, the Game Awards nomination, and probably peaking with the recent 'best iPad game of 2016' on the App Store from Apple - has been a super gratifying result of all that effort.
Do you have any messages for our readers regarding the team's 2017 plans, and of are there any thoughts around supporting Nintendo Switch in the future?
We can't say too much about 2017 just yet, but we're working on some pretty exciting stuff, and hope to be able to talk more about it sometime this Spring!
Our main thoughts surrounding the Switch at this juncture are "Heck yes" and "I can't wait to play around with this"!