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Fleshing out Clustertruck's high concept into a satisfying game

October 17, 2016 | By Jack Yarwood

October 17, 2016 | By Jack Yarwood
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Video



Imagine a first-person platformer that has you leaping from the top of one big rig truck to the next as they race down an endless obstacle-filled roadway. Sounds promising, right? Now imagine turning that elevator pitch into a fully fleshed-out game.

It can be daunting to spin out an innovative high concept into a saleable product. If you don't find enough ways to elaborate on the central conceit, it can become repetitive. But if it becomes so oversaturated with twists and new ideas, it can lose the simplicity that made it so appealing in the first place.y

The recent release Clustertruck from Swedish developer Landfall Games is a clear example of a video game that manages to avoid these missteps. It's unusual premise proved to be a springboard for a much deeper and more lengthy experience that never loses its charm. Since its release at the end of September, it's garnered over 65,000 sales (according to Steamspy) and a good critical response,

How did Landfall manage to spin out the core concept of truck-hopping into 90 distinct levels?yIn their 12 months of development time, they added a string of abilities and items that can be unlocked. They created a speedrunner-friendly design. They also built a custom map maker.

Petter Henriksson, one of the programmers of Clustertruck, explained more about how they fleshed out their concept.

The eureka moment

Wilhelm Nyland [Clustertruck's lead designer] thought of the idea back in 2015, going from Gamescom back to Sweden," Henriksson recounts.

"That drive is super long, like 15 hours long, and it was a hot day, and we were stuck in traffic," he says. "There were trucks everywhere, and Wilhelm thought that it would be so much easier if we could just get up and just jump on the trucks and get home, because nothing was moving. And that was it -- then he came home and prototyped it.e

Experimentation

The team employed a trial and error approach rather than any formal deliberation. Obstacles and abilities were introduced by the programming team, playtested, and kept based on consensus opinion. They had a build that they shared as a free public alpha after just a couple months of development.

They began to experiment with an array of obstacles that would introduce added chaos and increasing challenges. They added lasers that could bisect you as you hopped from big rig to big rig. Giant rotating wheels with spokes that you had to dodge.yAmassing several hundred hours of playtime each, the team continuously refined elements of the gameplay, removing the features that they deemed counterintuitive to their vision.

They created a range of powerups to help players navigate the treacherous challenges or boost their playthrough time, such as a double jump, air dash, and even a limited duration jet pack.yThen they playtested endlessly to make sure that the power-ups didn't spoil the total experience by making it too easy. (Some special abilitiesythat didn't make the final cut were a freeze bolt that locked trucks in place, and a cannon that obliterated obstacles.)

All of these powerups are entirely optional, as each stage can be completed without the use of any special skills. The team at Landfall Games designed the title specifically so that experienced players could find choose approaches and create new challenges within each level, boosting replayability.

"Inherently when you make a game, you're so much better than the average player at it," Henriksson states. "So you try to make a game that's still fun and enjoyable for you to play when you're experienced at it, and if you're less good, then you can use abilities and you'll still be able to finish. It adds kind of an alternative, optional difficulty level, where you can decide for yourself."

Using player feedback

In addition to the trial and error mentioned above, input from people playing the free alpha also played a huge role in making sure all the trappings were beneficial. The voice chat app Discord served as a direct mode of contact between the development team and the fans.

"We can't stress enough how the Discord community has been super valuable. We've been able to do a patch, push a thing out, and be like, 'Guys, what do you think about this? What's working? Is this ability too good? Is this ability too bad?' When it comes to that, they understand some parts of the game better than we do."

One particular area where this was the case was in respect to speedrunning and score chasing. During the alpha release, many speedrunners were finding it extremely difficult to optimize their runs, so they approached the programmers through Discord in order to voice their grievances and offer suggestions.

"In the alpha you would sometimes end up in a position where you were at the front of the truck line and you could no longer jump any further, because there were no more trucks," says Henriksson. "Speedrunners got there really quickly, and they would just be standing there waiting. Wilhelm then tried to ensure that each level never put you there, so that if you were fast you'd finish."

By listening to the community that was playing the alpha, Landfall Games ensured that the finished game was enjoyable for people at many different skill levels. The studio also formed a dedicated community that would keep returning to the game, either to compete against their best scores or test themselves in other ways. Many of them no doubt became paying customers when the final version launched.



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