How Sunburn! became a game about dragging your pals to their deaths
Worst-case scenario: your spaceship is gone, your crew is scattered, and there’s no hope for rescue. Your only option: Grab your crew and fly into the sun, so at least you don’t die alone. What kind of game is that? Grim meditation on mortality, or fun physics puzzler?
Thanks to the vision of Secret Crush, AKA Diego Garcia, Toni Pizza, and Aaron Freedman, it’s the latter. Using the sides of a landscape-mode phone screen to navigate left, right, or boost “upward” (as upward as you can get in a zero-gravity environment), you buzz through scaling gravity puzzles to ensure, as Sunburn! repeatedly reminds you, “nobody dies alone.”
Inspired by a Ray Bradbury Short story called Kaleidoscope, Sunburn!’s success on mobile highlights the advantages of the student incubator/small team process. Sunburn! sells for the low price of $2.99, but that scales to the development costs of the game: a 15-week prototype and planning cycle in Garcia, Pizza, and Freedman’s Production 2 class at NYU, followed by a 3-4 month cycle at the NYU Game Center Incubator. Garcia and Pizza explain Sunburn!'s first life was as a PC game.
“We started working on a platformer version,” Diego explains, “and that was originally going to be structurally more like The Legend of Zelda, where it would be a big universe you're flying around and, trying to kill your crew as big groups. But then the captain wasn’t dying at all, and cutting the rope wasn’t fun, so we decided to go for a level-based structure.”
The first prototype included making a level editor, so that the three friends could churn out levels quickly to iterate on what kind of platformer they were aiming for. With the crew’s introduction, and the way their dialogue can play off of each other and their different personalities as you idle in space, it’s possible to sense that older design and ties to the original short story.
But their earlier playtesters were more drawn to the way heavenly objects interacted with each other. Diego recalls that spinning fireballs and tunnels built out of asteroids began drawing the most attention, so they took that type of level and made it grow.
Pizza took the lead on level design, but Garcia and Freedman’s vision was infused with her own after the team scheduled an entire session for what they called a “level jam.” Using the level editor, they rapidly turned out playable levels that fit each of their own sensibilities, then split off on their own again to finish development.
Pizza’s two biggest lessons from this process came from the jump to mobile, and how the levels they started making didn’t work at all when playing on an iOS device. “The levels we had on the PC version were much larger, and there's a lot of space where at times you'd be the only character on the screen, just floating, it was too slow for the iPhone. It felt like you were doing nothing for too long.”
The second lesson--when the team landed on mobile--was that their black holes that didn’t quite perform how players expected. Sunburn!’s black holes don’t quite function how they do in similar space games like Gravity Ghost or Angry Birds: Space. Those games incentivize your player’s escape by having you ride circles around the gravity well, but Sunburn! wants you to take a straight, well-timed line. “I was kind of surprised moving from the computer version to the mobile version how hard people thought the black holes were," Pizza said. "That's still something people struggle with today.”
Sunburn! resembles a lot of pixelly puzzle games on mobile storefronts, but its creators argue much of its success comes from weird quirks born of that sad first vision laid out by Bradbury. Its pixel art boils everything down to representational icons, with every object in the game being a symbol for the physical or psychological force captured within. In this sparse space, designs draw a clear line between that which is uncaring and physical, and the little lives you are uniting in one last screen-shaking stab against futility.
With the goal to protect that aesthetic, (and the budget), Diego says they found themselves making decisions against the kind of retention-driven methods many mobile games employ. The game has no star-rating system and no mission-clear status that involves you only killing some of your friends to drive “perfect completions.” Its only real metric of success is the speed time for completion, something borne of internal testing where the three friends would just race each other to drive their digital pals into a fiery death.
As so many games rely on outer space as either a playground for domination or a home for terrifying biological horrors, Sunburn!’s developers found a niche carving puzzles into the surface of cosmic inevitability, and through quick iteration, launched themselves into the fiery market of the modern mobile app store--going out in an appropriate blaze of glory.