Where do you go next after your first commercial title was a 3D sliding-tile puzzler? That must have been the question San Francisco-based Lazy 8 Studios asked itself after the success of PC and iOS title Cogs had died down a little.
Originally released in 2009 for PC and Mac, and later finding its way onto iOS devices, Cogs did exceptionally well with critics and gamers alike, thanks to its steampunk visuals and refusal to settle for the norm. The game received even more attention as a featured part of Valve's Portal 2 'Potato Sack' ARG earlier this year.
Now the three-man Lazy 8 Studios, consisting of founder Rob Jagnow, lead artist Brendan Mauro and software architect Jon Le Plastrier, is looking to push the envelope all over again, following Cogs up with something entirely different.
Say hello to Extrasolar, a space-bound adventure game that Jagnow hopes will capture a good number of imaginations.
"The core premise of Extrasolar is that a private space agency recently landed hundreds of toaster-sized rovers on the surface of an extrasolar planet," Jagnow explained to Gamasutra.
"That company is crowdsourcing exploration, so players from anywhere in the world are invited to take control of one of the rovers to help explore the planet one photo at time," he continued. "On the surface, the game appears to be about exploration, but as the player starts to unravel the mysteries of the planet, she/he soon gets wrapped up as a central character in a story of intrigue and human conflict that's playing out back on Earth."
It would appear that the ARG experience has rubbed off on the team quite a bit. "Extrasolar might best be described as a mash-up between Alternate Reality Games and more traditional video games," Jagnow said. "Borrowing from ARG tradition, we blur the line between fantasy and reality to the point where the player may, at times, wonder where the science ends and the science fiction begins. Rather than playing a character, most ARG players play the game as themselves."
However, Jagnow is quick to note that Extrasolar is not simply another ARG. "There are some important areas were we also differ significantly from previous ARGs," he explained. "Most ARGs are run in real-time with new content being released to the community at set intervals. Puzzles are solved by huge groups of people working together."
While Jagnow says this setup helps build strong communities and viral spread for a game, there are problems with such an approach. For instance, "with a story that takes place in real-time, there's usually zero replay value," he said.
Jagnow said the Extrasolar dev team is also looking to address the issue of latecomers to the ARG. "Players who learn about the ARG late into its production may have a high barrier to entry because they need to get caught up on everything that's happened so far," he noted.
"To address these challenges, we've designed Extrasolar to be a largely single-player experience with a linear narrative that unfolds at a pace that's comfortable for the player," he continued. "We use a Google Maps interface as the primary method for sending commands to a rover. When photos come back to their gallery, players use another tool to identify species or tag artifacts that they discover on the planet. Based on these actions and a few others, a story plays out through emails, voicemails and video messages."
The team has been working on the game since April 2010, just after the iOS version of Cogs was released. Since then, the trio has been building the game's world and story up so that, when the game eventually launches sometime next year, players are already familiar with the fictional agency eXoplanetary Research Institute.
The fake company already has a website, where future players can keep track of how the story is set to unfold. "Initially, I had planned to keep the project secret until much closer to the release to really rope players in to the strong fiction a la The Blair Witch Project," said Jagnow.
"But due to the unusual nature of the game, we decided we need to spend some time educating players about what to expect. In contrast with most ARGs, we released a press release on the same day as the website launch to give people a glimpse behind the curtain and assure them that this is, in fact, a game."
Jagnow is very wary of accidentally making players feel like they've been cheated by the ARG. "Other ARG designers have learned through experience that as long as you make a great fictional world, players will happily suspend disbelief. What nobody likes is to feel like they've fallen for a hoax."
The idea, then, is that players will be so enthralled with the unfolding storyline running through Extrasolar that they'll want to keep jumping in and out for short bursts every now and again. The big question is, how does Lazy 8 plan to keep players wanting more?
"This is definitely one of our biggest challenges," Jagnow admitted. "We're front-loading the content so that when players first start the game, they'll have about 20 minutes of stuff to do before they reach the point where they need to wait for their first photo to get developed. At a minimum, players will need to wait six hours between photos."
These constraints, he says, are essential for various reasons. "First, it plays nicely into the fiction. When a player tells his/her rover where to go, it's reasonable that it will take some time to relay that signal to the planet, drive to the rover to the new location, take the photo and relay the data back to Earth."
"While this is all happening, time will tick by on the destination planet. The sun moves through the sky over a 15-hour day, flowers bloom, and the moons pass through their lunar phases over a period of weeks. Players can optionally delay their photos to capture the planet at different time of day."
Of course, this is simply a fortunate side-effect of the situation -- there's also the technical side to think about. "The other reason for the time constraint is for business and technical reasons. By forcing a long delay between photos, we have the opportunity to render high-quality images on a server without having to worry too much about traffic spikes."
"In fact, the whole concept for the game came from this constraint," he noted. "My academic background is in high-quality rendering, so I started to brainstorm about games that could be played with high-fidelity, time-delayed images rendered in the cloud. The result is Extrasolar."
When it comes down to it, however, this still means players simply have nothing left to do in the game during those six hours waiting for photo development. Jagnow doesn't believe this will be too much of an issue.
"Thankfully, casual games players are already accustomed to this with games like FarmVille and Cityville," he said. "I'd like to believe that coming back to a beautiful, unique image of an alien landscape filled with exotic species is more rewarding than coming back to a website to harvest your crops."
Extrasolar will be a free-to-play title, with all the basic actions available to all players. Microtransactions will let players experience extra features like 360-degree panoramic photos, night-vision photos, upgrades for their rover, and high-resolution wallpaper downloads of photos.
"To be honest, I'll be the first to acknowledge that this game is a huge risk," Jagnow admits. "We're innovating a lot of areas, which may make the game unapproachable for a casual audience."
"There's no guarantee that the sci-fi theme, unusual gameplay mechanics and blurred line between fantasy and reality will have broad appeal. We also know it will be a huge challenge to write a story that makes players feel connected to characters that they only interact with through brief emails and video clips."
Yet the enthusiastic developer isn't put off one jolt by any of this, noting that Extrasolar has been "an enormously fun and rewarding project for me and the rest of my small team here at Lazy 8 Studios."
"I'm confident that even if Extrasolar is a financial failure, we're expanding the horizons for future game developers and challenging the status quo. I mean, how cool is that?"