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Road Not Taken a personal game, created pragmatically
May 14, 2014 | By Alex Wawro

May 14, 2014 | By Alex Wawro
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When it comes to making games, indie developer Spry Fox prefers to seed small ponds with big fish. From Flash portals to E-ink Kindle readers, the company has a history of releasing games like Triple Town into markets it believes to be underserved in order to nab a critical advantage: visibility.

"The single biggest factor shaping indie success at the moment is, I think, whether your game is seen; whether people hear about it, know about it, buy it," Spry Fox co-founder Daniel Cook tells me during a recent Skype conversation. He's trying to explain his company's decision to partner with Sony and publish its upcoming roguelike, Road Not Taken, on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita.

Road Not Taken was originally announced as a 2013 release for PC and mobile devices, but that was bumped back to "sometime in 2014" late last year, around the same time the studio confirmed the deal with Sony to bring it to PSN.

Cook, a game industry veteran who left a job at Microsoft to cofound Spry Fox in 2010, claims the deal came together off the back of a few friendly conversations with Sony. To hear him tell it, the folks at Sony are very friendly to indie developers right now for the same reason that most platform holders tend to be very friendly to third-party developers during the first few years of a console's lifecycle -- they need to get more games on their machine.

"It's a wonderful time to be looking at consoles -- for the moment," Cook tells me. "This is a unique time where the first generation of successful indies still have money left, and they can still self-fund. I don't know if thatís going to continue in the future -- it depends on whether thereís a second generation of successful indies."



Spry Fox would seem to be one of those success stories -- Road Not Taken is entirely self-funded, the product of roughly two years' worth of work on the part of Cook and a team of developers who wound up iterating on a match-three puzzle game prototype until it evolved into a procedurally-generated roguelike about rescuing lost children.

Making games that run on human hardware

Spry Fox manages a variety of game projects in parallel using a product development process known as stage-gating, whereby the studio has internal teams working on multiple projects that are periodically evaluated ("Does this have a potential business opportunity? Is it artistically interesting?") and either reinforced or axed.

It's a bit like the sort of internal game jams that many studios regularly run, though Cook

"This is a weird game for us...It's a very different style of shipping than we do on our other titles, so there's immense tension and uncertainty in how people are going to react."
is quick to point out that Spry Fox subjects its internal projects to a more rigorous evaluation process than your typical jam.

"I often say that games are code that runs on human hardware," Cook tells me. "Itís super easy to make a prototype that doesnít actually 'run' on human hardware at all. You see this in a lot of game jam games, stuff that doesnít work on people at all."

Road Not Taken, a roguelike game about a ranger with a finite lifespan rescuing children in a foreboding, procedurally-generated forest, has survived the studio's internal gauntlet. It started out as a prototype with one designer -- Cook -- and one programmer, Cristian Soulos. The game was based on a casual puzzle game Soulos had made for his wife years earlier, one that she loved to play.

"I think you were a crane, like a crane that lifts things and drops things," says Cook. "We were talking about match-three games at that point, we iterated on that and we said, 'well, what happens if you turn it into a roguelike?'"

So they dropped the omniscient view of the puzzle board and zoomed in a bit, added an avatar for the player to control along with some crafting and collecting systems, and found that after three or four weeks of development the prototype still had something special; it still managed to run on "human hardware." The project was cleared to continue and more developers were brought on to Road Not Taken, including artist Brent Kobayashi.

Kobayashi -- who previously served as art director at Tiny Speck on the now-defunct MMO Glitch before joining up with Spry Fox -- is the lead artist on Road Not Taken and is responsible, in Cook's words, for basically nailing what the game looks like today on his first try.

With Kobayashi's rustic artwork laid atop the Road Not Taken prototype, the team began doing the hard work of finishing the game -- in Flash, with a Starling build -- and using ScaleForm to port it to PlayStation 4 and the Playstation Vita. The team has chronicled much of the game's development on its blog, from which the images and videos in this article are drawn.

Now Cook is hoping to launch the roguelike puzzler this summer, while the selection of Playstation 4 games available on the PSN marketplace is still relatively sparse.

"All marketplaces mature and get crowded," Cook tells me. "I donít exactly know what the timespan on the new consoles will be, but I would guess that the sales that you get this summer will be radically different from the sales you get next summer if you donít have promotion."

Coming to terms with the choices you make

Road Not Taken will be the first Spry Fox game to launch on a Sony console, and as a story-driven single-player experience it's also a relatively novel experience for Cook, who has previously worked on endlessly replayable puzzle games (Triple Town) and purely multiplayer titles like Realm of the Mad God.

"This is a weird game for us, in that it's a piece of media that can be finished," Cook tells me. "It's a very different style of shipping than we do on our other titles, so there's immense tension and uncertainty in how people are going to react."



During our conversation I press Cook about what inspired him to make Road Not Taken -- what inspires a man known for making mechanics-driven puzzle and multiplayer games, a man who got his start in the industry illustrating Epic MegaGames' classic arcade shoot-'em-up Tyrian, to design a roguelike about traversing a foreboding, snowbound forest and rescuing lost children?

"It's a painful topic, so I tend not to talk about it," says Cook. But he manages to open up, anyway.

"So...the game is about not being able to have kids," he says, after a brief pause. He tells me about the path he was led to believe his life would take, the path that leads past a good education, a good job, a loving marriage, and a happy family.

"That's not how my life went," Cook tells me. "Most of the people I talk to, that's not how their lives have gone either. So this game is really about coming to terms with that."

Much like the Robert Frost poem from which it takes its name, Cook tells me Road Not Taken is meant to be a game about finding meaning in the choices you make.


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Comments


Chris Foster
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I'm sold. Never heard of this game until today and I'm adding it to my list for PS4.

Daniel Cook
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Ask me anything. :-)

Appreciate the write-up, Alex.

Steven Stadnicki
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I'd be curious: can you break down about how much time the various phases of the process (initial concepting, iteration on broad mechanics, polishing of a 'complete' design) took? Or is it such a continual process (written out that way it feels almost like a simulated-annealing sort of structure, with broad jumps around a 'landscape' of designs that steadily narrow down until you're doing purely local optimization) that it can't really be broken into phases like this?

Daniel Cook
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Initial concepting: An hour? A day? Not a ton. This is 95% throwaway work...really it is just an exercise to start prototyping.

Core mechanics: 3 -5 weeks? This one came together super fast compared to most of our prototypes. We had movement, key verbs, basic maps and objects.

Production / Complete Design: 2 years. :-) Cristian, Brent and I were on it at first and then another programmer Fedor came onboard. This was adding the metagame, playing the game and polishing. The core game didn't really change much at all, but lots of new objects and many tweaks to how the core was packaged. At one point there wasn't permadeath. Then there was. Then mixed permadeath / checkpoint system was settled on...and that's all since GDC. :-)

The broad jumps tend to happen during the prototyping. The metagame and art are a way of amplifying and shaping that core fun. The polish is about kills the rough edges and amplifying the good points of the holistic experience as much as possible.

So there are definitely phases. They aren't cleanly defined and moving into the next phase is an exercise in judgement, willpower and hindsight. :-)

Pete Devlin
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Thoroughly interesting approaches Daniel, love the idea of 'human hardware'.

Julian Cram
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Question for you Daniel:

Why PS Vita and PS4, but not PS3?

Daniel Cook
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@Julian Platforms often have a push for a particular platform where it becomes easier to get on those platforms (better deal terms, development funds, or even just the time it takes to say 'yes.') With the launch of the Xbox One and PS4, the console makers are likely in the phase of actively looking for good games.

I don't know internal politics here for the PS3, but usually older platforms don't get the same content acquisition support as platforms being launched. The other main reason for us, as a small indie, is that launching on lots of platforms at once is actually rather hard. :-)

(If you are curious about how the dynamics of platforms tend to play out, check out an old GDC talk I did called the Game of Platform Power: http://www.lostgarden.com/2011/03/gdc-2011-game-of-platform-power
.html. The examples are a little outdated at this point, but the basic patterns still end up being accurate.)

Steven Albertson
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The last paragraph of the interview was beautiful. Do you see Road Not Taken as a refection of your own life and the choices or roads you may or may not have taken?

David Ngo
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Hi Dan!

Always inspired by your push for developers to create "evergreens" or "electronic hobbies" instead of games with an "end". I actually thought Road Not Taken would be more like TripleTown in that respect. So I was surprised when this article revealed it was story-driven and had an ending. Seems like a big departure from this "evergreen" philosophy. Curious why you chose to go down this path. (btw, I'm not judging either way, just wonder if you acquired new knowledge/perspective to make you pivot)

Thanks,
David

Daniel Cook
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Mostly it happened because we are constantly doing experiments and this is what this experiment wanted to be. :-) There's a bit of a portfolio management aspect here as well. We had a lot of multiplayer and evergreen projects going on so it felt smart to try something completely different since you never know quite where the market will shift.

To be clear, it *is* a rogue-like and some folks will put hundreds of hours into the game to learn all the nooks and crannies. The 'content' you work through is more about learning than about consuming. Think of it like 'beating' Spelunky.

I'd love to turn it into a hobby, but that's not something I can plan for, especially with this form of game. The dream is still alive though!

R. Hunter Gough
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looks great, Dan! Can't wait for your PS4 exclusivity to expire so I can play it on PC! :)

Daniel Cook
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Road Not Taken will also be available on the PC through Steam at launch. Only a 'console exclusive' :-)


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