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The long, tricky road to release for musical exploration game Fract OSC Exclusive

April 18, 2014 | By Mike Rose

April 18, 2014 | By Mike Rose
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Business/Marketing, Exclusive, Video

Around four years in the making, psychedelic music exploration adventure Fract OSC is finally getting a well-deserved release.

The game, which plays out like some kind of crazy Tron, Myst and Rez mashup, originally won the Independent Game Festival Student Showcase back in 2011. It went on to be honored in numerous other awards shows too, including SXSW, IndiePub, the Canadian Game Development Talent Awards, Fantastic Arcade -- oh, and the IGF once again in 2013.

Four years later, and with the game due to launch on April 22, the Fract team tells me that while the spirit behind the original student prototype is still there, the main course has definitely evolved further than they could have ever imagined.

"After winning the IGF, we wanted to take the game further and focus more on the electronic music and music-making aspect of it," explains Quynh Nguyen. The student prototype was built solely by Richard Flanagan, but he brought his wife Nguyen and programmer Henk Boom onto the project once he realized he could potentially take it further.

"We ended up starting over from scratch, more or less, with the aim to take what we called the 'slice' and turn it into something bigger," continues Nguyen. "As we were all new to this, we of course got pretty excited and made all sorts of ridiculously ambitious plans."

The original plan was to have four different worlds, each inspired by different electronic music equipment -- synthesizers, drum machines, samplers, and turntables. But the team quickly realized that they were overscoping rather badly, and instead decided to focus on just the synth world instead, hence "OSC," referring to "oscillator."

"There were so many times that we didn't feel like we would ever finish, or at least, make it until the end."
"While we had a rough idea of the game, the specifics of it took a lot of iteration, especially as there was a lot of interplay between the design and the audio tech that we built," she notes. "So I'd say it definitely keeps the original vision, in a loose sense, but the details of that vision evolved throughout the process of development."

It's understandable too, that the Fract team made plenty of mistakes along the way, and numerous times were on the verge of giving up. A four-year development cycle on something so unique and different is always going to be tricky.

"There were so many times that we didn't feel like we would ever finish, or at least, make it until the end," admits Nguyen. "Hindsight is, of course, always 20/20, but looking back we definitely made some mistakes due to our inexperience."

Being over-ambition and overscoping on the project, as detailed above, was one of the core issues that ran throughout development, especially on with a complicated concept at Fract's heart.

"In the midst of development, it was really difficult to manage all of the moving pieces," she tells me. "Since music-making is such an integral part of the game, we ended up developing a custom sound engine that allowed for real-time synthesis and player control over sound, alongside more conventional samples - but it took awhile for the tech to evolve, and this in turn influenced puzzle design, which is directly connected to the audio tech."

Take these problems and then try to layer them over a big open world, and all of sudden you've got a multiplier for disaster, and plenty of design and technical challenges to overcome.

"Then add to that being pregnant and having a child in the middle of it - I don't know what we were thinking!" she laughs. "That was really tough - trying to get back on track with production completely sleep deprived, and just generally managing the really steep learning curve of being a parent and making your first game (with your spouse, no less)."

"There were definitely some dark times for us where we were feeling pretty burnt out, getting sick all the time, fighting a lot and just generally feeling discouraged and depressed."

There were some notable saving graces along the way, including the Indie Fund backing that occurred last summer. The Fract team had talked to the Indie Fund backers at the prior GDC, and mentioned that they could do with a little help to make that final push towards release.

"They were super kind and jumped on it," notes Nguyen, "for which we are eternally grateful. We had been bootstrapping the project largely from our own savings, part-time work and borrowing money from our families up until that point, but were running out of funds."

It had got so bad, in fact, that Boom was forced to find full-time work elsewhere during the last year of development just to keep himself afloat.

"There were definitely some dark times for us where we were feeling pretty burnt out, getting sick all the time, fighting a lot and just generally feeling discouraged and depressed."
"So the support from Indie Fund allowed us to get him back on board at the end when we needed him," says Nguyen. "Plus, they're just all-around amazing people, so being able to turn to them for advice has been really helpful."

This is it, then -- four years of work leading up to this moment. Will people like it? Was it worth it? How are you meant to feel at a time like this?

"It's a weird combination of excitement and relief," Nguyen says. "we've all been burning the candle at both ends for far too long, so we're really looking forward to a break. It's been a long, difficult haul so it'll be nice to have some time to enjoy life again."

She continues, "It's also nerve-wracking - we really hope that people 'get' what we're trying to do, but we also recognize that not everyone will. I think the fact that we've set up the game to be really open, and leave a lot up to the player makes for a really unique experience, and that players are up for the challenge. But there is that initial learning curve where people might be confused and want more handholding, but we're confident that if they can get past that stage, they'll really take ownership of their experience - so hopefully they'll do that!"

As for the next step, Nguyen is excited at the prospect of finally putting Fract aside and getting on with family life.

"Talking to other devs, I can see how the all-encompassing nature of game development can leave one kind of lost once the game is out," she says, "and no doubt there will be a bit of aimlessness after release."

"But we're also lucky in the sense that we have an amazing little two-year girl that has been pretty patient and understanding throughout the process, but will no doubt be delighted to have our full and undivided attention very soon. So I think that'll help ease the transition."

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