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A few weeks ago, AER: Memories of Old launched on Steam, PS4, and Xbox One after a long, long development cyclethat effectively began as when the founders of Forgotten Key Games were finishing university. It's a beautiful game with a really pleasant-feeling flight system, and after seeing it at PAX West earlier this year, we were eager to talk to its developers after its release.
So today on the Gamasutra Twitch channel, we sat down with lead developer and designer Robin Hjelte to stream some of AER's gameplay and ask how he and his team made the flying feel so good. We knew the answer would involve a lot of design and iteration, but we were surprised to learn how much of it had to do with rooting a game design process in aesthetic goals established in a university thesis.
You can watch our full conversation with Hjelte up above, but if you're soaring through the clouds as we speak, here are a few quick takeaways from Hjelte's development experience.
Many games start with a specifc idea about play and interaction. Maybe it's from a prototype, maybe it's a mod from another game. But what's interesting about the origins of AER is that its first seeds were planted in a university thesis that Hjelte and his colleagues worked on that focused on aesthetics and mood over playfulness.
According to Hjelte, the papers that he and his coworkers worked with focused building game worlds about Cubism and Minimalism, as well as making a games focused around one core aesthetic. Once production on an AER protoytpe began, the team settled on a flying mechanic to anchor the experience. Even as development continued and changes were made to the project, Hjelte says these core design goals remained steady until it was time to ship.
Don't show all your best stuff too soon (or if you do, be prepared)
Like many indie games, AER has been in development for a long time (it was an Indiecade nominee in 2013). When looking back at Forgotten Key's work marketing the game, Hjelte says there's one key thing he wish he'd done differently. Early on, after making changes to the game's direction, he and his colleagues cut a trailer envisioning the game they meant to build. That trailer was covered on Kotaku and Rock Paper Shotgun (which was [and still is] good press for indie developers).
But in the interim years, as development trundled on, the team realized they'd sort of blown their big, flashy announcement years before they were ready to ship. Even with trips to PAX and a helpful marketing push on Imgur, they found that they didn't have many new visuals that could attract audiences in a similarly big way. Hjelte went on to clarify that early marketing is still a good idea, and early buzz can be wrangled into a launch community, but advised other indies to maybe save some more powerful visuals in the run-up to shipping their game.
Flight is about feel as much as physics
Before we signed off, we asked Hjelte really quick about what he felt made for good flying in video games. Hjelte chose to emphasize the importance of building a specific feel for flying as opposed to trying to simulate specific physics simulations. Earlier in the stream, he discussed how earlier AER prototypes involved a hang glider that could only propel itself on wind gusts scattered throughout the world. This...wasn't fun, and a lot of changes to the shapeshifting gameplay seen in AER now came from a decision to make sure players could propel themselves through large open spaces, not just hunt for gusts of wind.
For more developer interviews, editor roundtables and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel.