When Nintendo confirmed the upcoming closure of the Wii U eShop (and the 3DS store, too), thoughts immediately turned to exclusives that'll be lost. The most prominent of these on the system, we'd suggest, is Affordable Space Adventures, a unique game only on Wii U and destined to stay that way. When it's gone, it'll really be gone.
There's sadness in that; within our team there are a few passionate advocates for the game, and if you have a Wii U and the funds we recommend grabbing it while you still can. A game that arrived halfway through the system's generation in 2015, it made unique use of the GamePad in a way very few games did, especially in the eShop. Its development was fascinating, too, a collaboration between Spin the Bottle: Bumpie's Party developer KnapNok Games and the often solo-dev Nifflas, who also released Knytt Underground on Wii U. It was a collaboration rooted in coincidence and creativity, and was very much of its time.
With the game now reaching its 7 year anniversary, and with its imminent disappearance from the Wii U eShop in mind, we caught up with key figures behind its creation. We had a group chat with Nicklas Nygren (Nifflas), and former KnapNok Games senior figures Anchel Labena and Lau Korsgaard. The conversation covered the project's origins, development and some rather strange tales that highlight just how much fun the team had making the game; it was a chat with plenty of laughter and fond memories.
As a starting point, how did the project start and come together as a collaboration?
Lau Korsgaard: Back in the days, for Wii U, me and Anchel were working at KnapNok, and we did a little game called Spin the Bottle. It’s a sort of physical party game, and we were super excited about the platform and what it could do in terms of social interactions. We were exploring the physical party game space. And I don’t know why, but Nicklas was hanging around in the office! We released a game, that was fun, and Nicklas was around in that period of time and we’d play games.
Anchel Labena: It should be noted that it was an office very, very open to different people from the industry. We were in a building where there were different studios on each floor, and every once in a while people would come over for a few beers. This was very common.
Korsgaard: At some point Nicklas just pitched the idea of “I know what game I would make if I was working on Wii U”. And he had the idea of a spaceship simulator.
Nicklas Nygren (Nifflas): The way I came up with it, I think it was because of Steel Battalion on the original Xbox. It had this controller, this big custom controller for managing a tank. Somehow I was really inspired by this and I really wanted to make a game with a spaceship and a physical interface, but knew I could never pull that off as an Indie developer.
While I was thinking about this the Wii U was announced with a separate touchscreen, and I realised that could be the interface. I pitched it to KnapNok as they were working with that hardware.
I don’t know why, but Nicklas was hanging around in the office! We released a game, that was fun, and Nicklas was around in that period of time and we’d play games.
I remember Spin the Bottle had a lot of interest, especially as it made so much use of the GamePad. Was Affordable Space Adventures always planned as Wii U exclusive back then, or were there thoughts about other platforms as well, albeit with changed mechanics?
Korsgaard: Actually, our company was founded on trying to make a Wii game, a wizard duelling thing where you were looking at each other, not the TV. We had this spell duelling game, had a bunch of prototypes really early, and it never turned into anything good. It was a good idea but impossible to realise!
But then, it was a bit like with Nicklas. This platform came out and we were like “wait a minute, this is an opportunity”. Having the GamePad as the centre of attention, our games about looking at / interacting with each other were suddenly possible. It sparked these ideas.
Labena: Also, I have to point out how similar our concept was to a certain minigame in 1-2-Switch!
Korsgaard: Oh yeah, the spell duelling, but they actually pulled it off! When I saw it I was like “aw, that’s what I was trying to do over the last 10 years!”.
By the time of 1-2-Switch people were 'over it' with motion controls though, the interest had died off?
Labena: It has kind of died off. Even with games that were exclusively motion controlled, like Skyward Sword, the HD version added standard controls with the joystick.
I was always curious, in production how did the process work? How were roles divided between the KnapNok Games team and Nicklas?
Nicklas could jump into everything, doing art, music, programming and so on. It was interesting! But I think it worked well.
Nifflas: Yeah we were in one studio, and with such a small team everyone was wearing multiple hats. I was not only doing game design but I was also doing some 3D model building and things like that.
Korsgaard: I think the interesting thing is that Nicklas had just made games himself before this. And we just had a little studio of 7 people, and would have a programmer and artist, things like that. Suddenly we had this guy who is used to doing everything and is really good at it, so we had to figure out how to work together. Because Nicklas could jump into everything, doing art, music, programming and so on. It was interesting! But I think it worked well.
With 38 levels (prior to a free DLC update that added 5 more), was a lot of early work focused on progression, introducing mechanics and so on?
Nifflas: We didn’t sketch that much, actually, I think I’m used to trying to tackle the final thing first. So we didn’t really block out levels, we tried more to work on the geometry as part of the level design. I think fairly early we had all the spaceship features, but the levels were quite improvised.
Korsgaard: More or less you build the spaceship and systems, and had that entire thing. This is the end spaceship, and you also made proof of concepts of the types of puzzles we could do. Heat management, floating puzzles, so you did all these proof of concepts. But actually making the levels we’d just put something together pretty close to final.
I don’t know how we sketched out the ‘journey’.
Labena: Here’s the original GamePad screen, and the second iteration.
Korsgaard: That took a lot of time, the usability – how do you use a thing, and understand the thing. That went on in parallel with us building the journey and levels. It was only at the very end we had something truly workable!
Was part of the challenge maintaining balance between single and multiplayer? Did you do a lot of playtesting with different configurations?
Nifflas: I think we did frequent playtesting.
Labena: Something I found funny after reviews came out, some were saying “this is obviously a single player game with multiplayer tacked on later”. But then other reviews said exactly the opposite!
Korsgaard: The truth, if we can spoil it. We always built it as a single player game, but it always just kind of worked in multiplayer. So at some point in development we were like “what happens if we split this down into multiplayer?”.
Labena: I remember that was put together in a day, from what I remember, the first prototype of multiplayer. And it worked! But it was not that late on, we’re talking about over 2 years before release.
Nifflas: Yeah, I think the optimum way to play is with two players.
Korsgaard: It gives very different challenges. It’s interesting to talk about the balance. We were aware it would be two different experiences and we kind of liked that. Some puzzles are hard in single player, and others are harder in multiplayer because you have to talk and time things. So it’s two different experiences.
I’ve also seen situations with well-known developers visiting the studio, and they were being assholes to each other on purpose!
Labena: When we took the game to events I would always try to put people together with a stranger to play; at first they’re not really talking to each other, but then they start working together and having a good time, which was fantastic to see.
I’ve also seen situations with well-known developers visiting the studio, and they were being assholes to each other on purpose! Martin Hollis (GoldenEye, Perfect Dark), he was constantly cutting off the engine at the worst possible time!
It's the Mario Kart effect, play it with friends and that friendship becomes completely disregarded! I remember the game being shown at Eurogamer Expo (now EGX). How important were events for showing the concept to the public and media? Maybe showing the concept was tricky in a trailer, especially?
Korsgaard: I think the thing that’s most important is that going to a show gives the team a boost, and forces you to get something done that can be shown! It was always stressful, but standing and seeing it be played, at that time for small Indie teams, as well as a marketing thing it was hugely rewarding internally. Seeing people play and talk about it, it’s passion that fuels these projects, so getting positive feedback is massive.
It launched way back in April 2015, but the Wii U (by then) was struggling commercially. Was that a factor, at all, for you? Was it concerning?
Korsgaard: Yes, sure, not many Wii Us were sold. But for us, there wasn’t much competition, right? For developers like us the question is do you want to compete with a thousand brilliant titles on a huge marketplace, or compete with two or three other brilliant titles on a smaller marketplace. I think the game did fine, from our perspective?
Nifflas: It did yeah, absolutely.
Korsgaard: So it made money, that was great for us! And it was obviously backed by Nintendo, they loved that we were doing it and were making big banners on the eShop and all sorts of things. There were a lot of opportunities.
Labena: It felt like we were the only Indie game fully putting the GamePad to use, and also Miiverse. That was a big part of it.
Nifflas: We also got to visit Nintendo headquarters for an interview thing, which was epic!
Labena: I’m laughing because I took a photo when that video appeared on the Wii U eShop as a promotion, and there’s this tiny sofa. You were telling me it was super uncomfortable and awkward!
Korsgaard: We didn’t have to sell millions of copies, we just had to sell enough!
I remember there was an enthusiast base of Wii U owners keen to support the game because it actually used the GamePad.
Labena: That’s it. If it were to launch on Switch right now it would be a completely different landscape. It’s a very difficult place to compete for Indie titles now.
After release, did you think of ports for other platforms?
Korsgaard: Can we talk about it?! The thing is, it’s a challenge to release something true to the experience. We talked about what we could do on PC, were there any options? I think in the end it would have meant quite a bit of investment and design thinking, could we make that stuff work on any other platform? I think it was too hard for us to find an easy way.
Labena: The closest was 3DS, but it wasn’t going to be easy. It was like alright, the New 3DS could support Unity development. But then you’re targeting a really small userbase within a smaller niche for Indie games. Whereas if you want to port to the full 3DS family that would have been a considerable investment getting it to work. It wasn’t a great trade-off.
On some level I’m happy it’s just the Wii U experience. It was so made for that platform, even the form factor of the controller, the cheapness of the plastic, it was part of the fiction of the game!
Korsgaard: On some level I’m happy it’s just the Wii U experience. It was so made for that platform, even the form factor of the controller, the cheapness of the plastic, it was part of the fiction of the game! We actually imagined that controller that the pilot was sitting with.
Labena: The heads-down display!
Korsgaard: Yeah! On the loading screens you saw pages of the manual showing the controller and how to operate the ship. That controller is part of the experience. So, the way it was not the most responsive screen, that kind of stuff, was part of the feeling!
Nifflas: It was a very fun way to do it.
It was a game that was funny but also dark, exploring the intimidating planet in a cheap ship. The tone was a great fit. When you look back now, do you see it as 'of that time' and hardware in a way that can’t be said for many games?
Nifflas: I would like to design another game like it, it was so much fun to do. I don’t know how it would be possible to do, but I wish I could do another one!
Korsgaard: I’m happy that Affordable Space Adventures stays as a Wii U experience, but the design ideas still have energy and fun stuff to explore.
Labena: I have something for you to explain Nicklas, so I took Miiverse screenshots back then. There’s one that was posted where somebody found a certain something.
Nifflas: Oh, they found the sheep? So, in any game I do I try to represent a friend who has tested a lot of my games. We have a joke that I always try to put his sheep somewhere in the game.
Labena: It was pretty well hidden, but someone did find it! They were like “what is this sheep”.
Korsgaard: Don’t you also have to break out of the level and fly outside the geometry?
Nifflas: Yeah, it’s outside the level!
Such a nice, innocent time with Miiverse.
Labena: I’m sad that died out, it was such a cool thing and different to social media. Everything was so tied to the game, that was cool. It was fun to see fan creations. I have another with the spider from Limbo and ‘Roberto’. Did we ever reveal and call Roberto by its name?
Nifflas: I don’t know!
Korsgaard: That robot is a story in itself! So, when we made the teaser for the game, we just felt it needed a bit more. So we hinted at a robot showing up out of darkness, but there was no gameplay around it. We just made the robot to scare people in the teaser.
Nifflas: But then we had to put it in the game somehow!
Korsgaard: Yeah, in the end we were like “oh no, the robot”. It was just the most complicated thing, a biped with a mouth, and we had to make gameplay around it. We were like how will it animate and work? It was just impossible, and it turned out good, but it was such a big investment of work just because of a teaser shot of a robot. It almost became the last thing we actually added. We were like “oh no, we still need to add Roberto to the game”.
You see that all the time with teasers, years after trailers you think “wait, that wasn’t in the game?!”.
Nifflas: Yeah, like the Outer World trailer, it said “is this suddenly going to be in the game… no!”
Korsgaard: There can be such a big difference between what makes a good trailer and what is actually good gameplay. Sometimes you get stuck in a corner!
Labena: Yeah, for AAA games it’s so easy to show all the bombastic cutscenes and epic moments. With this type of game it’s difficult to show engaging gameplay. I do remember for the release trailer we showed people playing the game, and they weren’t ‘us’ or actors. It’s literally people from Nintendo of Europe that just recorded a full session of them playing the whole game. So we thought, let’s use this!
A unique time getting that level of support from Nintendo, such a different period for them. You had the right moment to get a big push and extra marketing.
Labena: Back then they were doing dinners with developers, ‘Nindies’ as they called them.
Looking back, do you have a favourite or standout memory from the game?
Korsgaard: I have a lot of good memories of us sitting and playtesting. We had a lot of Friday evening playtests where we’d grab people from around the office, a couch full of people playing and yelling with a beer or two. That was a great time.
Labena: People would just say “hey, can we check it out”, and we’re just say sure, come in! It was a very open door policy.
Nifflas: I think I enjoyed all the new things I had to learn. I’d never used Unity, or programmed in C#, so the lead programmer taught me a lot of stuff. I learnt some 3D modelling and modelling. It kickstarted me in Unity which I still use today.
We'd like to thank Nicklas Nygren (Nifflas), Anchel Labena and Lau Korsgaard for their time. Be sure to share your memories of Affordable Space Adventures in the comments; if you haven't played it yet, make sure you do while it's still available!