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Kim Swift On Creating Quantum Conundrum

October 12, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

When Portal and Left 4 Dead lead designer Kim Swift left Valve in 2009, it came as a surprise to most in the industry. Valve, for many game developers, represents the pinnacle of studios: it's independent, it's self-sufficient, it's staffed by a bunch of cool people, and it's in a comfortable enough position to take its time and make sure the games it produces are done right, much to the delight -- and frustration -- of its fans.

Swift soon popped up at developer Airtight Games. According to statements released by Airtight at the time, Swift came in as the studio's new project leader to help build and lead a team devoted to creating games for a more diverse audience (the studio at the time was wrapping up its first project, Capcom's Dark Void, which was anything but casual).

As Swift tells it, the opportunity was just too irresistible to pass up. Valve, for all the good it did for her career, was growing faster than she was ready for.

The expanding team sizes and the fast-paced schedules made her democratic,vid design-by-committee approach to game development difficult to maintain, so when the opportunity came up to start over with a small team, she packed up and left behind the studio that gave her a chance fresh out of college to start anew.

Finally, nearly two years later, Airtight has revealed its first game with Swift as captain: a physics-based puzzler for Square Enix called Quantum Conundrum, which sees players progressing through stages by manipulating their environments through entering and exiting different dimensions, each of which makes the world behave differently.

A "fluffy" dimension might make everything nearly weightless, while an anti-gravity dimension lifts up everything that isn't attached to the walls and a slow-motion dimension slows everything down to a crawl.

Players are tasked with combining the dimensional effects to cross chasms, manipulate the world and eventually get to the exit door of each stage.

If that sounds a lot like Portal, you're right. As Gamasutra learned in an interview following our private demonstration of the game, even Swift admits that Quantic Conundrum is an evolution of the genre she helped to define.

I get the feeling there's going to be a lot of Portal comparisons.

Kim Swift: Mm-hm!

Is that something you're prepared for?

KS: I mean, it makes sense! This particular genre, the first person platforming puzzle game, let's see. What exists in that genre? Portal. Okay. And I worked on Portal so it's like yeah, of course it's going to be compared.

I'm not... offended [laughs] or shocked, it's just like yeah, that's about right! And if you look at it from a high level, sure, they're similar games. They're both in the genre. But at the same time it's a completely different game style. We're definitely going a little more quirky and cartoony, in as far as art style goes. Our story is way different, and the gameplay is different as well. It's not just about making holes in walls, this is about manipulating the entire world around you and changing physics, and the look and feel of the game, with every button switch.

This strikes me as a natural evolution of the ideas that began with your student game, Narbacular Drop. It seems like Portal built from that, and this builds from Portal.

KS: Well, these are the kinds of games that I like to play, and therefore they're the games that I like to make! The guys that I've been working with have been having a fun time making the game. And so to me, I think that this particular genre needs more games in it, because people find it a lot of fun.

"First person platforming puzzle." Is there even anything more in that genre than just Portal?

KS: Not that I'm aware of. I think that's just it. So as far as begging comparisons to Portal, it's kind of hard not to. I imagine it's like when first person shooters just got started, and there was literally one, and then there were two. That second one is going to be like, "Oh, it's exactly like the first one."

Yeah, I remember them all being "Wolfenstein 3D clones."

KS: Exactly! But as the genre evolves, and there are more and more games, it's like, yeah, they all have a particular core that they have in common with each other, but they're completely different games. Like, I wouldn't compare Halo and Half-Life.

When you left Valve and went to Airtight, the public explanation was that you left for a specific opportunity. Is this a concept you brought with you, or is this something that they'd been working on?

KS: So, I had this idea, and basically came to Airtight with the idea. It's something that had always kind of been in the back of my mind while I was working for Left 4 Dead 2, but I didn't tell anybody until I actually left.

Once I got to Airtight and met everybody from my team... I like to run things very democratically. I want everyone to have a say in what they work on.

So rather than just saying, "Hey guys, this is the game we're going to do, and you have no say in it," I asked everybody, "Hey, put together a one-sheet of what kind of games you want to make, and we'll all sit there, take a look at everybody's different games. We get to pitch to one another, and then we'll vote on the ones we want to try."

So we decided on this game just because it was the quickest to prototype. That was something that was really important to us, because we have a small team and a limited budget. We wanted to make sure that whatever game we chose to place our bets on was something that we could find out was fun right away. And so within a couple weeks we had something prototyped, and it was a lot of fun, so we decided to just keep going.

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Hamish Todd
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There are two other good FPS puzzle platformers.

Somnia - which is seriously the best prototype I've ever played.

And Antichamber/Hazard: The Journey of life - again available only in prototype, but an excellent excellent game which unlike Somnia is being fleshed out

I'm not trying to look clever - as prototypes, I know they're minor cases. They seriously need a shout though.

Hamish Todd
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Huh, I'm thinking of more now, like QUBE, Devil's Tuning Fork, Paradox Shift, Unfinished Swan and Tag: the power of paint... those first two are the best though.

Again these are only prototypes. This tells us one thing: Portal has been pretty damn influential.

warren blyth
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I was going to mention that "the Ball" was a puzzle FPS. maybe not a great game (? I didn't complete it, and sometimes felt a little bored), but I'd say it counts. no?

or am I missing something?

(I'm tempted to suggest Amnesia was a puzzle FPS... but I guess it's better described as a horror survival FPS.? Is the key that a "FPS platforming puzzler" has to eschew violence? or does it have to entirely focus it's story/setting on a puzzle solving conceit? Amnesia has parts about jumping from one thing to another. other parts about stacking physics objects to reach things.)

-thanks for all these links/names by the way. Tag was the only one i'd heard of before.

Hamish Todd
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@Rog We're not talking about portalling games, we're talking about puzzle platforming FPSs.

@warren Don't mention it, here's some more that popped into my head!

In order of recommended-ness:

html I shouldn't have forgotten this one.

And even more trailers to come:

=/ someone should do an article on these things. Or commission me to do one!

Devil's Tuning Fork, by the way, isn't much worth playing past the first three puzzles. That'll sound odd, but seriously, the last levels are barely-disguised and roundabout retreads of the first ones.

Somnia, Antichamber, and Antimatière - those are the most important.

Christopher Supino
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Why hasn't Mirrors Edge been mentioned?

Joel Bitar
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Why should mirrors edge be mentioned here?

I think ME was a great game, but you could literally run straight through it without ever stopping to think about anything, just follow the colours.

I think this was a great way to play the game as it added to the feeling of stress and being on the run, but fps-wise it's more of an opposite to portal than even the CODs.

Lance Burkett
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But when you turn the colours off, then it turns into a really good puzzle game.

Joshua King
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Is there shooting in any of these games? It bothers me that folk so often use "FPS" to describe a game that is simply just using a First-Person view which is _very_ different to what you expect to get from an FPS game. Do I need to get a life?

Lance Burkett
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The meaning of words change, but the connotations usually remain the same. DEAL WITH IT! :D