How a Gears of War dev built the chill Shape of the World on the side
Stu Maxwell spends his days designing blood splatters and giant guns at a triple-A studio, and his nights making a serene exploration game about planting seeds and floating across treetops.
It’s a development life of contrasts: his indie game, called Shape of the World, is about as far removed from his full-time job as lead VFX artist at Gears of War developer The Coalition as you could possibly get.
That day-night cycle is now over. Shape of the World came out earlier this month, ending four years of development, during which Maxwell also became a father.
Balancing a full-time job with two young children is more than enough for some people—so why did he feel the need to take on his own indie game on the side? And how has he found the transition from being one part of a huge development team to driving forward an entire project?
Finding an outlet
Maxwell says that he “really likes” working on Gears of War, but realized soon after he joined The Coalition in 2012 that he was “signing up to a particular aesthetic for a long time”.
He therefore sought “another outlet” where he could let his imagination run wild. After plenty of sketching and speed-painting possible concepts in a coffee shop before work, he landed on a relaxing, psychedelic exploration game in which the world would grow around you as you moved through it.
Inspiration for what would become Shape of the World came from many sources: walks in the woods of Stanley Park in his hometown Vancouver, early memories of getting lost in exciting places as a child, and the freedom and serenity of games like Proteus, which is the most immediate comparison point.
The aim was never to make money, but to “contribute artistically to the realm of gaming”, Maxwell says. He’d been showing friends Flower, the 2009 PS3 game, for years, and found that even those that weren’t into gaming were impressed. He wanted to get the same reaction.
"Even though I know how stressful and painful it can be [to develop] while raising a family and holding down a job, I still have a creative itch."
“I love playing Gears of War, but all those friends who’d I bring over to my house and they’d admire the artistry and chillness of games like Flower and Journey, [Gears of War] has no role in that," he says. "I wanted to make something that added to that audience.”
Development was initially “really nice and relaxed”. He was getting positive feedback on early prototypes, which was enough to encourage him to turn it into a fully-fledged product to sell, rather than just an itch.io download as initially intended.
But a combination of having his first child and advancing in his career made development “much more complicated”, and at times “very stressful”.
Rather than throw him off course, the challenge helped solidify Shape of the World’s direction: he wanted to make something for people like him. “I knew at the beginning I wanted to make something psychedelic and fun and explorative, but by the end I knew it had to be a short, relaxing experience for very busy people.”
A day job means side projects can be anything they need to
He tightened the scope from a four-hour adventure to something that you can complete in a 90-minute sitting. And as the sole creator, he’s been able to make that kind of decision whenever he wants—and says he’s enjoyed the contrast between that freedom and the “razor focus” on tiny details that makes up most of his job at The Coalition.
“In VFX, maybe I’ll be developing the blood. How does the blood material feel viscous and gloopy and reflective? I’m really massaging the pixel in that situation. In Shape of the World, I’ve had to do everything: the engineering, the game design, the art style. It’s been really educational having that breadth of discipline.”
He’s particularly taken to design, and that’s where he feels he’s improved the most. Early play-testers generally fell into two distinct groups: “objective-driven” players that wanted to plot the most efficient route through the levels, and explorers that wanted to “faff around” as much as possible.
“I made the decision to bring them both in, to loop everyone in,” he says. He made objectives very visible, so players knew where they needed to head, but also added lots of side activities and areas to explore off the beaten path.
His other design drive was to make it more interactive than the relatively passive Proteus. In Shape of the World, you can throw seeds that blossom into trees as they hit the ground, and clicking on those trees will give you a quick momentum boost. Time it right and you can build up lots of speed, flinging yourself between tree trunks.
Making those design choices has given him the confidence to get more involved with design decisions at The Coalition, he says. He’s now “having more conversations with designers, and speaking up more when I see design things I’ve been thinking about”. He says he plans to take a break and focus on his work at The Coalition now that Shape of the World is out of the door.
But that doesn’t mean this is the last game he’ll make on the side.
“Even though I know how stressful and painful it can be [to develop] while raising a family and holding down a job, I still have a creative itch”, he says. “I want to open up Unreal and create another prototype, I like to open up my sketchbook and dream about another game that could exist.”
Those dreams currently consist of a game all about gardening. “There are no gardening games that focus on the experience at all, and that’s the main reason people garden,” he says. He’s envisaging a “psychedelic, colourful, musical” world that captures the “surprises” of growing a garden, of plants creeping over one another in interesting ways.
Maxwell doesn’t know whether he’ll ever turn that concept into reality, or how long it will take him if he does, but you can tell that part of him can’t wait to start again. For now, he’s moved away from indie development—but it sounds more like gardening leave than an extended break.