[In a new Gamasutra interview, we talk with Finnish developer Frozenbyte about their quirky 2D platform action title Trine and the challenges of developing physics-based puzzle games.]
Scandinavian developers Frozenbyte have recently released the PC version of Trine [YouTube link], a hybrid action/platforming 2D scroller where the player was any one of 3 different characters at a time. The concept is novel and the art style is lovely -- far above what you'd expect from a small indie team.
Talking with Lauri Hyvarinen, CEO of the company, our topics included the challenges facing developers of physics based puzzle games, the place humor has in games, the game's impending (September 17th) PSN release, and how well the game's been received, among many other things:
For those unaware, can you describe who you are and what kind of games you make?
We're Frozenbyte, a Finnish game development studio. We founded the company in 2001 and wanted to make games we would like to play ourselves. This is still true, and we've in fact made a decision not to get stuck in a certain genre and instead let our thoughts run wild. Maybe we won't do flight simulators or hardcore strategy but everything else is possible – whatever gets us excited the most at any given time!
You previously made Shadowgrounds, somewhat of a cult hit with the PC audience. How has your experiences with that game helped you develop Trine, which is very different in its own right?
Looking at all the things that went wrong with the production of Shadowgrounds, and then at all the things that have gone wrong with the production of Trine, you could say the experience didn't help at all!
But in the end, I think having Shadowgrounds and Shadowgrounds Survivor under our belt definitely helped, as we've been able to look at them and say “hey, we made these games, they're out there, they're good games, people like them”.
That's an enormous mental resource to tap into. If they were sucky games, I doubt we'd have had the guts to go through all the trouble of making another new IP. It's also given us some confidence on the business side of things.
One thing that we learned with the Shadowgrounds games is that making good or great games alone doesn't bring sales worth of the chair I'm sitting on (and no, my chair isn't a fancy pants one, trust me). With Trine we have tried to amp up the marketing side of things, and to some extent it has succeeded – the gameplay videos for Trine have got great feedback and lots of views.
Of course it helps that Trine is a rather unique title and has an excellent art style, so people get interested in those things even if they don't know much about the actual gameplay (which should rock your slippers off).
Game development is a continuous learning process though, and every day we learn new things on every aspect of the process.
Trine seems to be an interesting mix of 2D puzzler and Gauntlet-like hack and slash. Why did you choose to merge these two styles of play?
It's been an iterative process. That's how it always goes with us, at least so far. The results speak for themselves so we're probably going to keep the basic things the same in the future too, despite optimizing the whole process.
Anyway, Trine started out as a very normal platformer, set in a magical fantasy world with three characters. In fact, it wasn't a “full” Frozenbyte project in the beginning, but instead more of a very small-scale project of our programmer/producer Jukka, who had set out to create a sort of an old-school platformer set in a medieval fantasy world.
We ran into some publisher and funding problems with our “main project” at the time and decided to shift focus to this platformer game. We redesigned the game and really wanted to make it stand out. It's quite a bit different now than what the original plan was.
Puzzle games are often judged purely on how challenging the puzzles are without becoming frustrating. How are you going about keeping the puzzles enjoyable at the same time as having action present in the game? How are you ensuring that the game quality doesn’t suffer?
By playtesting the game a lot! It's a very iterative and uncontrolled process for us, if I'm totally honest. The level designers have a lot of freedom to create what they want and then we just play the levels a lot. I'm often found sitting next to our main level designer, either playing or commenting on stuff.
Is there a developed story and detailed world that the game takes place in, or have you left it up to the player to glean what they will from what they are presented with?
There is a detailed world and story. While we may not be masters of storytelling, we've always wanted to have a story component to our games, because it drives things forward and gives a sense of progression. Trine probably has our best story so far, and it gives the game a nice, fairytale-esque feeling and atmosphere.
Basically the story is about three characters – a thief, a wizard and a knight – who happen to get bound to a magical object called the Trine. They all have their own characteristics story and gameplay wise too, and it's the use of their abilities that makes the game so much fun.
We also wanted to have good voiceovers, and we are happy with the end result – despite a few problems while producing them. For example, we were running out of time and needed to do things quickly, so we only had time for a take or two for the narrator’s lines, which is really not ideal.
And we had actually rewritten the whole story and all dialogue just the night before, so in hindsight there’s a few things I would’ve liked to change. But overall it turned out really great and we achieved what we aimed for with the story and the atmosphere.
With the game having such an emphasis on puzzle solving, how are you making sure the player is still challenged without being frustrated by the friendly AI?
That's actually a common misunderstanding – there's no friendly AI at all. You play all the characters, switching on the fly. You can be jumping down from a ledge with the Thief and suddenly switch to the Knight, to crush the skeletons waiting down below. The player is never forced to switch characters though, and most puzzles and situations can be solved with any character, or any two characters.
In general we've gone to great strides to challenge the player but not to frustrate, we have a checkpoint system that resurrects all characters, respawn points when you die and so on. We had some issues with the last level of the game due to time constraints but we’ve fixed it to some degree in patch (on PC, on PSN it’s fixed already in the release version).
The game features three characters, and up to three people playing co-operatively throughout the game. Was creating the multiplayer a challenge?
Since the game has been designed from the ground-up to feature three characters, it doesn't really matter if it's a single player or a co-op game. Of course, in co-op you have two or three characters on-screen at once, so it gives the players a lot more tactics and they can really have some fun with the physics (the Knight could grab a rock and another player could jump on top of it and then the Knight throws it high up to a ledge where the characters are supposed to go to).
I have to say that the co-op is only local at this point, though, there's no online multiplayer in Trine. It's a catch-22 situation for us because online multiplayer requires a lot of resources and time, which we never seem to have. I'm hoping that Trine succeeds well enough so that we can finally rewrite the gameplay engine and add support for multiplayer.
Then again, oldschool same-couch multiplayer is the best, we've noticed.
Humour is at the forefront of the character descriptions. How important is humour to the game?
It's important, although we strived harder to get the overall tone of the game right, which is the most important thing. Most of the humor is focused on the Knight character, who is probably the most memorable character we've ever created, and a bit on the Wizard too. Trine is not a comedy though, it falls somewhere in-between. It's a lighthearted game, you could say.
The main trailer for the game shows off some lush backgrounds and very detailed characters and environments for a smaller indie title. Do you feel that presentation is important to smaller games?
I think it's human nature to like good visuals. How you define said visuals is a different story, though, as there are so many options available these days. For Trine, we wanted to make the game visually as appealing as possible – even to mainstream audience. We are not targeting any specific gamer group, really.
How has Trine been received? Has it been as expected?
Both gamers and press have generally loved Trine, though there's been some complaints about the price and platform hassles. The game itself has been praised, so we have been very happy about the reception.
With the recent boon of indie gaming, projects such as Trine, which are looking highly professional and yet still aimed at a more casual audience, are becoming more and more common. How do you feel the current climate is helping or hindering public reception of your game?
I don't know if it has much of an effect on Trine, really. We've always been kind of in the middle of this all, in-between the AAA retail supergames and small indie inventions. Maybe it helps in the sense that people are starting to see that there's a lot of variety to be had in games, and every game doesn't need to be a multimillion budget super game to be enjoyable.
I think what we’re still missing is an acceptable pricing middle ground for the consoles’ online services, it kind of seems that gamers are not yet willing to pay more than 20 of any currency for a downloadable console game, and that’s hopefully something that will change in the future as more “big” games enter the downloadable arena.
Trine is now out on PC and coming soon to the Playstation Network. Have you found one platform easier to develop for than the other? Is bringing a smaller, indie game to a console significantly harder than to the PC?
We were a PC-focused development studio so PC is a no-brainer. However, with consoles the great thing is that you know how it's going to play – there's no variables. For a small studio, it can get hard to support all the different PC hardware systems out there, and in most cases it’s not even the game’s fault but missing drivers or bad configurations or just some random operating system malfunctions.
Development for the PS3 has been surprisingly smooth. We had the game running in roughly five weeks (the basic game engine code), and there hasn't been any major hurdles. We've also been really happy about the support and feedback Sony has given us.
Has there been any particular reason the PS3 version has been delayed?
Well, that’s the only downside to downloadable console games. It’s out of our hands basically. On PC, with digital distribution, it’s just like “okay, the game is done, let’s release it tomorrow”. On consoles it takes weeks, even months if the game gets stuck in the technical quality testing stuff. It’s not anybody’s fault really, and it guarantees a better end product, but the time it takes can be frustrating.
With Trine, there have been a few small bugs that we had to fix, and the testing process itself has taken quite some time, as Trine isn't the easiest game to test due to the physics and unlimited gameplay possibilities. I think we are waiting for the PSN release just as much as gamers out there, it is our first console game after all and it’s going to be very exciting to see it available on PSN… the wait is killing me too!
Trine has been featured pretty massively on Steam. How do you think this has affected sales? Have the majority of your sales been through Steam and similar services?
To tell you the truth, we don't know the exact retail sales figures yet, but we have been happy with the Steam and Direct2Drive sales. We’re still trying to get the game to other online distributors, and will hopefully have the game on those soon as well. To summarize the sales, Trine has sold better than the Shadowgrounds games.
With Trine now released and out in the wild, do you plan to support it in the future? If so, how?
We have already released a few patches, fixing most if not all of the major technical issues, and currently we are contemplating the release of the level editor and some additional minor fixes. There might be something else in the future also, but that's still uncertain.
[You can grab the demo for Trine here, and buy it on Steam here, and D2D here.]