[Housemarque's Aki Raula and Ilari Kuittinen delve into the difficulties the team faced when developing its first 2D adventure platformer, Outland, including how a change of core gameplay introduced difficulties mid-production.]
Housemarque as a company has been around for over 15 years. We started as a PC developer (our first game was a version of the Commodore Amiga's Super Stardust on PC), produced two snowboarding games for PC and Xbox, before moving onto the current generation and its downloadable game space.
Our best-known titles include the PSN hits Super Stardust HD and Dead Nation. Outland is our first cross-platform title and we are continuing on that path, while not forgetting our great relationship with Sony (e.g. Super Stardust Delta for the PlayStation Vita).
When we originally put together the concept for Outland, the aim was to make a 21st century version of the old 8-bit platforming adventure games. Initially the idea was to take titles like Pitfall II (Atari 2600 et al.) and Rick Dangerous (Commodore Amiga) to a whole new era.
The main character was to be an Indiana Jones-like adventurer, roaming around jungles in search for ancient treasure and truth. Key emphasis was on the physicality of the world, and not yet on the two polar-opposite energies and inhuman agility we ended up with.
For the first six months after signing a contract with Ubisoft, the main character had a pistol but no melee abilities. He was also able to slide slopes and perform longer jumps after gathering speed from those slides. From quite early on we added a special spirit mode where one could do considerably more than in the normal mode: execute heavy melee attacks and run at faster speed, accompanied with appropriate visual effects. This mode was the stepping stone for the final game's spirit-switching mechanic.
Around nine months into preproduction we started to suffer from a lack of direction and vision; originally the concept was more about old school adventure and puzzle solving. It then moved towards "Sonic meets Indiana Jones" before settling to agile platforming and Ikaruga mechanics.
What added to the lack of vision came partially from restrictions our engine had early on in the project -- we couldn't really do cool physics based gameplay that we had envisioned. As a result, we tried to reinvent the game several times during those first nine months of development.
Even if our journey took longer than originally planned, we ended up with a game that (in our opinion) successfully marries two genres into one. While we lack in some gameplay areas, such as enemies, world structure, and collectibles, we excel in others, such as the tight controls. This is a fact that could not have been achieved without the tremendous character animation by Mr. Tomi Kokki. Ubisoft also made sure we had the bar set high on the (character) animation side, and we think we definitely delivered on that front. This fact can also be seen in many of the reviews that praise the character animation and smoothness of movement.
Overall, we are very taken with and pleased by the reviews and reception the game has gotten. Outland received Editor's Choice nods from IGN and GameSpot, to mention a few. As with many other postmortems, it is easy to imagine that a game with great reviews must have had a carefree development process, but in most cases this isn't true.
Aside from the early experiments done during the conception phase, the project had a clear and unique design for the visuals. From early concepts -- six months before we had anything running on-screen -- to the final ones, that visual design stayed consistent.
The key idea from the get-go was for the in-game art to match the concept images 100 percent. Most games have a huge gap between what the concepts look like and what the actual game ends up looking like -- our goal was to make the game look like concept art running in real time.
Visuals ended up our strongest suit, and the most recognizable aspect of the game (along with the polarity concept). We have received a lot of praise from the press, as well as gamers, for our unique looks. Some people draw comparisons to games like Limbo, Braid, or Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet; while we were aware of these games, none of them really acted as inspiration, as our looks were defined before we stumbled upon those masterpieces.
In any case, we all give a big hand to our lead concept artist, Mikko Eerola, for staying true to his vision from the start to the finish, even if the road wasn't always easy.
2. Genre Merger
Working on a platformer that tries to push the genre forward can be tough without a solid breakthrough idea. While we could have had a great game had we realized the original concept for Outland, we believe the addition of the polarity switching component truly brought the game onto a whole new level of uniqueness. Maintaining the action-adventure aspect was always one key direction for us -- polar gameplay took that concept and added a twist, while maintaining the overall idea beautifully.
Once we agreed on going towards this direction, it was relatively easy to get the basic gameplay going. After just a few weeks of development we had prototypes running that proved we had made the right choice. From there on it was up to the level designers to do their magic and tap into the wealth of ideas; the concept is such a rich source for gameplay scenarios that we believe we only scratched the surface with Outland.