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How InnerSpace's developers made a flying game that has no 'up'

January 17, 2018 | By Bryant Francis

InnerSpace, out this week on consoles and Steam (including the Switch), is an unusual flying game that trades precision dogfighting for a sense of science fiction exploration. Its worlds are spherical, there isn't an actual "up" direction, and you spend more time patiently floating through the void than past enemy ships (there aren't...even any real enemies, actually). 

It's one of the first big indie titles to land in 2018, and to discuss its development, we invited the fine folks from PolyKnight Games onto the Gamasutra Twitch channel to discuss its development and design. Even though this is the team's first commercial game, it turned out to be an especially insightful talk about building odd games that happen to run on the Nintendo Switch.

You can watch our full conversation up above, but in case you're diving into the belly of a demigod as we speak, here are a few key takeaways from our stream. 

In InnerSpace, it's okay to crash into things

A large portion of our time with PolyKnight Games was spent discussing the game's unusual flight mechanics, which ALMOST feel like an arcade dogfighting sim but somehow far less stressful. One key mechanic is the game's "drift" function, which lets the player continue on a vector while re-aligning their ship to move in a different direction. 

According to PolyKnight's Tyler Tomaseski (who was the lead programmer on InnerSpace), a key part of making this mechanic work was making sure players felt okay slamming into things by accident. In most flight simulators, crashing is damage-inducing or an outright end state. But to create a more relaxing and otherworldly flow, it was essential that the system be programmed to let players fumble about, so they could spend more time paying close attention to details than dodging walls.

An abstract art style can help alleviate frustration

At one point, Tomaseski and his colleagues turned the tables on us, asking our impressions of the game's puzzles. What followed was a discussion about how InnerSpace's abstract art direction means that puzzles become less frustrating because players enter the game with less preconceptions about how objects should interact. For instance, it was more surprising and delightful to learn how crashing into certain objects triggered bright colors and vibrations on the controller, allowing us to fill in the gaps between the unusual art assets and the intent of the design.

In a relaxing game filled with large & interesting spaces, the PolyKnight developers explained that it was constantly a balance figuring out when players were lost and therefore frustrated, or when they were idly floating about and enjoying themselves in a relaxing experience. But since the game has such an ethereal art direction, it was easy to tweak those sensations by giving players more things to "do" in this strange world, rather than constantly tune every moment for high interaction.

Joy-Con motors can make weird sounds

Nintendo has made a lot of noise about what its Joy-Con motors can be used for, but did you know they can be used to generate specific noises? Tomaseski explained to us that the chirps that emerge from the Joy-Cons as you approach the game's collectible objects are generated not by a speaker, but by programming the Joy-Con motor to vibrate in a very specific way that resonates with the controller's plastic shell. There's apparently a whole Git library of these sounds, and while it's not as simple as simply telling the controller to play a given musical note, it's still possible for designers to come up with interesting noises from those controllers that can improve gameplay. 

For more developer interviews, editor roundtables, and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel.

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