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Trine (2009, PlayStation Network and PC) is a fairytale-inspired platformer with realistic physics, which offers three characters and requires clever solutions to a myriad of challenges. The gameplay is based on fully interactive physics and each character's different abilities and tactics can be used to invent new ways to overcome obstacles -- and save the kingdom.
Frozenbyte was formed in 2001 by gaming enthusiasts with no professional game industry experience. Our debut game -- Shadowgrounds (2005, PC) -- was well-received by critics and gamers alike and we felt like conquering the world. In 2006, after the dust had settled on Shadowgrounds, a great "AAA" concept was developed.
Most of the company worked on the project for almost two years, while smaller teams worked on prototype projects and outsourcing work that made it all possible. Of these projects, only our internal Shadowgrounds Survivor (2007, PC) was ever released.
Ultimately it became clear that the publishers who had enough money did not believe in our ability to deliver the AAA game we were pitching to them, and the publishers who had enough faith did not have nearly enough money.
In hindsight, asking for five to 10 million dollars, going from PC-only to multiplatform overnight, and hiring a lot of new people should've set off our own alarm bells too.
Shutting down the project was a painful process and resulted in a company much smaller in headcount. The remaining development team was left without a project, but these developers quickly found their home in the Trine project -- previously a one-man operation with a couple of interns in its pre-production stage. The project looked promising and suitable for a bigger release than originally planned.
As the third game for us, Trine had a lot riding on it. If it would not be successful, it would be hard to find the strength to carry on, and the financial debts would probably devour the company. But it was also a project full of potential -- Trine was to be the rebirth of Frozenbyte.
1. The decision to re-design the game
Trine, then under a different name, had been in pre-production for almost two years. It was an old school-inspired (MSX era) platformer with focus on large freeform levels. We often referred to it as one programmer's "hobby project". The project was also a test bed for interns and new employees. It was starting to feel like fun.
With the added manpower from the failed AAA project, the game's original design was seen as too small and unambitious -- and it was deemed to have major design flaws due to its old-school roots. The game was essentially redesigned over the weekend and greenlit for production the next Monday. The team needed work to do.
How do you transform a game designed to be made in a few dozen man-months into something that takes hundreds of man-months? While the process was painful, the key was understanding that change was necessary. Many of the original design decisions were made to fit the original plan -- less than 12 months of production with a team of just a few inexperienced people.
The game world was to be "free" and very adventurous, levels were to be copy-paste jobs, including plenty of backtracking, finding keys and other puzzle elements, and having a difficulty of old-school proportions -- unforgiving by today's standards.
The new design evolved over time but certain things were set from the beginning. More weight was given to physics, and a key factor was giving the Wizard the ability to summon physics objects into the world.
One of the main gameplay elements in the original design was a time limit for character change. Essentially levels were supposed to have segments that had a time limit for completion, and the player could choose whichever of the three characters he wanted to tackle the challenge.
If the player failed and couldn't get to the end of the segment within the time limit, he'd have to do it again (perhaps try another character). This design was now seen as punishing the players and was completely removed, which changed the core gameplay drastically.
The original design also had much less differentiation between characters -- all characters had more or less the same basic attributes and their differences came from the various items that the player could give to them. The characters were redesigned and given distinct personalities and capabilities.
While some criticism has been laid out as to why the capabilities were not made into a single character -- and in fact many prospective publishers commented on this -- we felt and still feel that the three character decision was key in making the game feel cohesive, have a better story and have more marketing power.
The three characters are mentioned in every article about the game and the message it says to potential players is very clear. It also brings in mind classic old-school games such as Lost Vikings, which was welcome, even if the game's new design was not as big of an homage to old classics as its original design was.
A key point in the new concept and its level design was allowing players to play the game in their own way and solve simple puzzles with any character or their combination. Almost all situations in Trine can be solved with any character and clever use of the environment.
While many of these design decisions brought a lot of anxiety with them, they were crucial to the success of Trine. The game can be seen as a very relaxed, play-at-your-own-pace type of adventure, suitable for both hardcore and casual gamers, and this fact has probably attributed to the game's success.