Of everything we streamed last year, AER: Memories of Old was one of the most visually striking and emotionally calming games we encountered.
We had a lot of questions about how AER's small indie team figured out such a strong flying mechanic, so we invited game director Robin Hjelte to join us on the Gamasutra Twitch channel for a conversation about the game's design.
What followed wasn't just an insightful look at university-driven game design, but also a realistic conversation about producing and distributing an indie game in 2017 when you're working on a small budget.
If you missed our chat or just prefer reading to watching, we've transcribed some of the more relevant parts of our conversation below. You can also watch the full stream embedded above, or click here to see it on Twitch.
Bryant Francis, Editor at Gamasutra
Alex Wawro, Editor at Gamasutra
Robin Hjelte, Designer and Director of AER: Memories of Old
Inspiration from Cubism and Minimalism
Wawro: What is it about this style and philosophy of game design that appeals to you and your team?
Hjelte: The ideas we had when we wrote our theses, the actual texts and ideas we had there, that later on became this game.
There were two main theses that were written. One that I was part of, we were writing about how to build aesthetically-focused games, games that were built around one core experience, and how to do that as much as possible. The other guys were writing about how to build game worlds inspired by cubism and minimalism. That's where it started out.
I was having the idea that if you can try to uncover what the feeling or experience of aesthetic of a game is by playing and interacting with it, and trying to put it into words, or into some kind of target, like what is the core experience we want to convey with the game, then you can start designing with all the core elements, like the design of the game, the mechanics, the art of the game, the game world, the story, etc., to kind of ramp up to that experience.
We had a few different ways of describing this goal in the beginning, which kept true through the whole development, even thought a lot of things changed around it. One of the most important aspects was having a game that was solely about exploring. Having a game that allowed the player to feel really free while exploring. We didn't want to do a "walking simulator," right out. We wanted the game to feel like an adventure, something that was fun while you explored, and that's how we started working on the flying mechanic, to have that aesthetic core that drove the exploration.
Wawro: Yeah, maybe we could dig a bit into that as well. When you're trying to design something you might call a "flap-'em-up," for lack of a better term, when you have a game that's purely about just flying and soaring. What feels good about that, and what feels bad about that, to you?
Hjelte: We had a really hard time understanding what was really fun about the game. We knew that the flying was fun, in itself, really early. If you just look at the flying mechanic, we didn't start out with her turning into a bird or anything. We started out with a little girl with a hang glider, who couldn't flap her wings or gain speed in any way, but just gain height flying into upward streams of warm air.
It was quite fun in itself to fly around, but it didn't give you that freedom, because you were locked into the level design. We asked ourselves, why do we traverse this magical world in such a mundane way? We came up with a story about the birds and everything, and came up with the idea of just, why didn't we tap into the fantasy of turning into a bird? It feels very natural in a flying game. And we tried out some different ideas involving some kind of stamina system.
But the more we investigated what was fun about the game, and the more got feedback from people in our vicinity who played it, we just realized the sensation of just jumping out and transforming and just flying around was what was most fun.
We had been a bit hesitant to just go that was was that it felt like a big challenge, and it turned out to be a big challenge. If you just have a place to fly around, it kind of works for awhile, but it can eventually get to be boring. We wanted to build something that felt like an adventure where you were doing something, and we had other parts that we wanted to come together to create this whole experience. But stuff such as challenges becomes almost redundant as you have a totally over-powered mechanic that can let the player do pretty much whatever they want to. Like, level design is very difficult.
Indie Marketing Thoughts
Wawro: I'm curious to know how you guys went about getting attention for this game, to get it in front of the people you thought would enjoy it the most.
Hjelte: I think this is probably the most difficult thing in game development right now, because there are so many people doing so many really high-quality games, everything from recreation things where you shoot to relax, to stressful, to horrifying, etc. There's almost no niche left where you can just do an excellent game and that will be picked up be successful by itself. The main thing we tried to do was identify who would really like this game. "Who are like us?" And then we tried to find them and reach out to them in a good way.
It was definitely very difficult. We tried out an Imgur post on launch day, but we started a long time earlier, to reach out. Actually for this game, I think we started too early. In 2013 we released a trailer. We did a demo of the game during out Bachelor thesis project, and after that we looked at it and said, "Is this what we really want the game to be? Probably not." So we came up with a lot of new ideas. We changed the concept and made a trailer of the game we wanted to make, rather than making the game first, and that took us a lot less time obviously.
It was part of the pitching process as well. We posted this video online, as a work-in-progress concept trailer, pretty much a trailer for a game that doesn't exist. It was picked up by Kotaku, Rock Paper Shotgun, Destructoid, et cetera. We started there and tried to continue doing that kind of stuff for a long while, and grew a fanbase from the beginning. We were trying to keep that going, but as I said it was a bit early, so keeping that momentum going for four of five years is a very difficult task. (laughs) It's difficult. I would probably do it different, if I started from the beginning today.
Wawro: You read my mind. How would you do it differently?
Hjelte: I would wait much longer before i announced anything about the game. Because getting something interested in something is not really the biggest problem, it's keeping people interested, and making sure they remember what they've seen. Making them engaged with experience. Connect with people.
If you release something so many years beforehand, then it's very difficult to even remember that right down the line. Especially if you're working with press. A lot of press usually want to have new value to give out to the readers of the magazines, and that's not always the case if you've shown a lot of the game from early on.
Wawro: It was very kind of you to say magazines. There's still more than one video game magazine! Especially outside of North America!
Making Good Game Mythologies
Francis: I'm curious about what your personal philosophy was about, I remembered you asking your team about fables that they remembered and storytelling stuff, how did you conceive of this kind of backstory for the world, and how did you try to make it feel mythic?
Hjelte: It's such a long process, there's been way many inspiration sources. From the very beginning, we wanted to make something that was a bit like after some kind of apocalypse, and the people reset into another state of being, and we felt like we needed this creation to get it all together in one story.
And I was reading a lot by a really old fantasy writer called Lord Dunsany, who was writing at the end of the 1800s. He had a book called The Gods of Pegana, which was one of the very first intentionally fictional worlds written and described in a book for re-creation purposes. That is really a very interesting, different kind of fantasy world compared to everything that came with Tolkien and after him.
I drew a lot of inspiration from that, but I also looked at Native American legends and Japanese mythology, and tried to build something that was something new, and respectful of those ideas that are found in those different types of contexts.
For more developer interviews, editor roundtables and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel!