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[What happens when a developer that was born in the iOS space transitions to making games for consoles? In this postmortem, Simon Oliver, founder of HandCircus (Rolando series) shares the experience of moving to PlayStation 3 development with Okabu.]
We started HandCircus in 2008, and got off to a flying start with our first title, Rolando, which launched on iPhone in December 2008, in the very early days of the App Store. We partnered with Ngmoco, which was just starting up at the same time and shared a passion for the opportunities presented by the iPhone, and its potential to transform the gaming landscape. We followed up with a successful sequel to Rolando in summer 2009, taking everything we'd learned in the development of the original and building on mechanics and visual style.
Once Rolando 2 was wrapped up, we began to think about our next steps as a studio. We were riding high of the successes of our first couple of games, and decided we wanted to think a little bigger for our next title.
The world and storyline of the original Rolando had evolved in quite an organic way, and Rolando's characters and world proved to be very popular with the iOS audience.
This led us to greatly appreciate the importance of characters and design of the environments, and when we began discussing the next game, one of the earliest objectives was to create a world that had the capacity to grow into a multi-game, multiplatform entity.
In autumn 2009, we started the planning, prototyping and mood board assembling for the early stages of our next title, codenamed "Project 3".
Working with ngmoco had been an amazing opportunity, and provided a wealth of experience in many areas of the development and publishing process that I was completely unversed in at the time. The commercial success of Rolando and Rolando 2 put us in a great position -- we were now able to fund the development of our next title ourselves, and potentially self-publish. Although it would mean taking on a considerable workload and risk, this would have some major benefits, particularly the full ownership of our own IP.
Following the early stages of pre-production, we spent early 2010 speaking to potential partners. Keeping ownership of the IP was a key requirement to any partnership, but our previous experiences had demonstrated how beneficial a strong partner can be.
We were looking to do something a little different with Okabu, so it was important to find a partner that really shared our vision for the game and was really passionate about the project. Of all the potential partners we spoke to, Sony really stood out from the competition. The people there really got the game and it fitted in well with their objectives to build a rich and distinctive portfolio for PSN.
After presenting the game and explaining our vision for the title, we were fortunate to be accepted into the Pub Fund program. This gave us the full support of Sony while allowing us to keep full ownership of the IP -- the perfect arrangement for us.
We had a pre-production phase of nine months, following by a production phase of 12 months and final launch in October 2011 on PSN. It's been an invaluable experience, and we've learned a lot along the way!
1. Co-op and the Casual Audience
While we may have not catered fully for the core gamer (see "What Went Wrong"), the feedback and reviews that we had from casual players was fantastic. One of the key targets was casual co-op players, particularly those that might be slightly asymmetrical in their abilities -- perhaps a father with his son, or a couple playing together (with one player possessing a greater ability than the other).
We really wanted to provide a variety of activities and play styles, so that if one player is more experienced they can take care of the more challenging parts of each level -- leaving the second player to collect pickups or look for the various secrets hidden throughout each level.
From the very early stages, we spent a considerable amount of time prototyping and user testing to make sure that the game was as pick-up-and-play as possible (particularly with non-gamers). The very first prototypes were strikingly different -- co-op was absent, and the game had a more advanced twin stick control system and used a crazy amount of buttons.
As the weeks passed, we ironed out the kinks in the controls and continued to simplify and build in many assist systems (such as snapping and camera guidance) to make the game more approachable. This really paid off, and the problems our early testers encountered began to fade away.
It's been a joy demoing Okabu at various shows and festivals (from GDC and E3 to GameCity in Nottingham) and watching such a diverse audience enjoying the game. We've had players as young as three able to pick up the controller and start guiding our cloud-whale heroes around the level.
Asymmetrical play has been a particularly fun phenomenon to observe, as we see the more skilled player guiding the other around, passing on instructions, and creating a trail for the other to follow. A lot of the emails that we've received from players since launch have been from couples playing together, and it's great that we managed to create something for that audience.
2. Development and Execution of a Visual Style
Coming from the iPhone to the PlayStation 3, we were obviously targeting a completely new audience, but we hoped that there would be some crossover with iPhone gamers and some awareness of the Rolando series amongst the community. With that in mind, one of our objectives was to create a visual style that was fresh and distinctive, but that still shared some common ground with Rolando in order to bridge the gap between the two audiences and hopefully bring fans of our previous games along for the PS3 ride.
The early days of pre-production were spent exploring mechanics and concepts that would provide a solid foundation for our new game, and we settled on the idea of cloud characters fairly early on. Using clouds as our heroes seemed to present some great opportunities, from the ability to absorb liquids and rain down upon the ground, to sucking up small objects and building up and firing electrical charges. Their appearance and properties also seemed to reflect the environment that they occupy, which drew us towards the themes of nature and industrialization.
Around this time, the BBC Natural History show Planet Earth was being repeated on TV, and a section of one episode proved to be a major inspiration to the project. Set in the Okavango Delta in Botswana (from which Okabu takes its name), it began with images of the bone-dry delta, starved of water and completely lifeless.
Once the waters began to arrive from the distant mountains, the various seeds that had long sat lifeless under the ground began to germinate, and small plants and grasses began to grow. This in turn led to a growth in the insect population, which in turn drew birds from all around.
Fish began to arrive from further upstream, and mammals journeyed to this newly formed oasis. In the space of weeks, this dry barren land had been transformed into lush wetlands teeming with life, and it was this vision of the power of nature that served as a bedrock for the development of Okabu.
We started to explore different sources of inspiration for the art direction, and following on from the wetlands of Botswana, we were soon drawn to the landscapes and cultures of Africa. Piecing together mood boards of images of the Souks and Bedouin encampments or North Africa and the vibrant villages of Ghana, it really struck us how rich a seam of inspiration there was in front of us, and how underused it has been in games.
Digging around in bookstores, we found a wonderful book by the German photographer Michael Poliza called Eyes Over Africa. He'd hired a helicopter and flown over 19 African countries, documenting the dramatic landscapes and striking habitats he'd encountered. This soon became our bible and served as inspiration for the characters and four worlds of the game.
Another key objective for the art direction was to imbue the game with a real, illustrative storybook aesthetic. While this is a more straightforward task in a 2D game, we were now making our first forays into creating a full 3D title, and so early on we experimented with getting the look right and maintaining the vibrant, block color look that illustrator Mikko Walamies' concept art shared with Rolando.
Presented by the relatively beefcake-like performance of the PS3 -- compared with the modest power of the first gen iPhone we had previously been targeting -- it was tempting to dive into elaborate rendering techniques and to amp up the detail of the assets and environment. The more detail we added, however, the more it felt like it was detracting from the game and the art style. Simple, bold visuals felt much more effective, and we ended up going for a straightforward, two step cel-shader that subtly hinted at the shape.
As an indie developer, it's obviously important to differentiate your title from bigger-budget releases and to take advantage of your diminutive size. Differentiating our art style was a big part of that (as other indies do so well, such as Pid, Eufloria, Sword & Sworcery, Papo & Yo). The bright, cel-shaded world of Okabu is worlds apart from most mainstream releases (even those targeting kids) and really help set us apart. We've had so many compliments about the visual style. The team did such a great job building this charming world to dive into.