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August 4, 2021
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Holding things up in two dimensions: The Pillars of Flatland

by Paul Sztajer on 07/09/12 09:22:00 am

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(Reposted from SeeThrough Studios)

The weekend before last, I went to Canberra iFest as a speaker (I'll get a summary of that talk and the slides up shortly!). As a part of that, I saw a talk by Daniel Fisher of Halfbrick about their design process, where he said, amongst other gems, that one of their key processes is to decide what the 'three pillars' of their game is. That is, the three things that wholly describe and are wholly important to their game look, feel, sound, taste and smell, possible sans the taste and smell.

So last Wednesday night, we crowded around a table at a local pub and worked out our pillars between the impassioned yelling of the local sports fans (State of Origin Rugby, for those of you playing along at home). Below are a combination of minutes of the meeting, conclusions from it and the process that we took to get to our pillars.

Oh, also, the pillars will be there somewhere.

Going into the meeting, I had a fairly basic agenda:

  1. Hold loose discussion about what we liked or wanted in every aspect of the game
  2. Figure out the three pillars
  3. Discuss each aspect of the game again with the pillars in mind to come to some sort of shared vision

Parts 1 and 3 of these had a bunch more subpoints to ensure that we actually hit all the different points, but that's the basic structure. I'll pick a few key parts of this process and go into some more detail.

What we liked

The first thing we looked at is what we specifically liked about the different versions of Flatland. I'd love to know what you all thought to see how it lines up.

Note here that it was important not to look at what we didn't like. We're not trying to solve problems, but instead we're trying to figure out the core, important 'awesome' bit of the game. What's not working doesn't factor into it.

Version 1: Escape from Flatland

What we liked:

  • The basic splitting mechanic
  • The simplicity of that mechanic
  • The ability to use rubble as terrain
  • The atmospheric writing

Version 2: Fallen Angle (96 hour version)

What we liked:

  • The voice + music
  • The Story and noir theme
  • The level theming and differences between the levels
  • The frantic pace

Version 3: Fallen Angle (Alpha release version)

What we liked:
  • The allies
  • Explaining controls within the game
  • Checkpointing
  • Textures and lights (ie. prettiness)

Version 4: Shapes of Grey (0.3 - Supanova Version)

What we liked:

  • The Stealth Concept
  • The switching colour mechanic
  • The voice
  • The flashlights
  • The introduction of mechanics

The Pillars

So what are the pillars of flatland?

Physicality - The intense physicality of the world, through the original splitting mechanic and the presence created through an uncluttered interface, is something we find really important. This simple idea of physicality is a really good way of selling the reality of the world without necessarily making it realistic.

Horror/Noir - This is a mix we're really interested in exploring. When we say Horror, we're talking about the horror of the human condition and what people are capable of, rather than the blood/gore aspects that you see too much of these days.

Minimalism - We talked a lot about meaning, and how it's important for things to be intended. A minimalist approach allows us to think in a deeper fashion about our design. Also, the game simply looked better in Fallen Angle when we weren't going for detail than when we did our Supanova Shapes of Grey build.

What this means

We didn't come to any specific conclusions about what these means, but there's a few different angles we're starting to explore. The first is making the story and narration less specific and more symbolic, to match the minimalist aesthetic. Another is to look further into replayability and choices to ensure that the few things that the player can do are meaningful. We talked a lot about how all 6 episodes are going to relate to each other and work as a whole, as well as how this fits into our pillars.

In the end, we've got a fair way to go still. I don't doubt that we'll change some of the words in the pillars (as there are surely words that more accurately and elegantly describe our vision than those) over time, but the meaning behind them is now fairly well defined and understood by the whole team. And that's pretty exciting.

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