Translating a game concept from 2D to 3D creates a tangled web of problems.
There are lots of details to tease out, including how to translate character movements into a 3D space, implementing a camera system that works with the play style, and ensuring the core idea isn’t then lost in the process.
Daniel Steger, of Stegersaurus Software Inc., was all too aware of these problems while developing Mount Your Friends 3D: A Hard Man Is Good To Climb, the sequel to 2014’s successful competitive multiplayer player game Mount Your Friends. He made a bunch of changes in the sequel to facilitate the switch to 3D, changing the control scheme and even experimenting with different camera styles to ensure that vital information was clearly and efficiently communicated to the player.
In Mount Your Friends 3D, much like the original 2D version, you take turns with your friends and online players to climb a tower of burly men. The goal is to get to the top within a certain time limit, but this is much harder than it sounds. The tower becomes higher and more difficult to climb with every new player who reaches the top. Whoever can go the longest without being eliminated will be declared the winner.
The original Mount Your Friends (2014)
Surprisingly, Mount Your Friends 3D didn’t actually start as a sequel to the first game at all. Instead, it was a prototype for something entirely new -- a 3D mountain climbing game.
“Originally Mount Your Friends 3D started as a different game," Steger explains. "I was working on a 3D game about climbing that wasn’t related to Mount Your Friends. It was just an exercise in learning Unity. At some point, I just kind of looked and was like, “Why aren’t I just using the engine to make a 3D version of Mount Your Friends?” After that eureka moment, Steger began working on the game in earnest.
Pretty soon he started to run into problems however, having particular trouble with translating the controls into a 3D space. Moving into 3D meant that he had to wrestle with an all-new physics engine he was unfamiliar with, as well as provide for the addition of depth. In response, he came up with a new control scheme for the game, with two notable changes that made it far more intuitive.
An early prototype of what became Mount Your Friends 3D
The first change was to cut the number of limbs the player controls. In the original game, the player can control all four limbs, but this presented a huge problem for the camera in the 3D version.
"One thing I think I probably should have done when I was doing this pre-release testing was get in contact with some of the best players from the original game...I really should have grabbed them for their opinions much earlier on in the process."
“I’ve actually made builds that had it where players could control all four limbs and with the 3D camera it made a complete mess of things,” says Steger. “You were always kind of having this camera angle where you couldn’t see all the limbs at once and they would overlap with each other.”
Steger cut down the controllable limbs to just the arms as a solution, with the player using these to direct their movement instead. This allowed the game to retain some accessibility, while still being slightly unwieldy.
This time around, Steger wanted to put a much larger focus on flinging your character, instead of crawling, with this presenting its own risks and rewards in regards to climbing.
He also made the choice to move the gameplay away from the twister-like style of the original game, where you needed to hold down different keys and buttons, assigned to the separate limbs, to stay attached to an object. This didn’t work as well in 3D, so Steger instead implemented a magnetic pull between the character’s hands and nearby objects to assist the players in climbing. This made the controls far more suitable for handling the depth in the stages.
He recalls, “I was finding when I didn’t have an auto-magnetism system in place, you would try to climb and it would be impossible to actually stay on the tower, because there were so many directions where your arm could end up going that it was unlikely it would go straight towards the tower, even if you were right by it.”
The magnetism keeps the player latched on to the tower and doesn’t require them to hold down the corresponding button to remain locked on. If they wish to detach themselves from the tower, instead they have to press the same button again, which will release a hand, allowing them to then attach it elsewhere.
Steger also added visual indicators in the game to help players understand this new mechanic. However, this was a later addition that was only introduced after watching some players struggle to fully grasp the ins and outs of the movement.
“I was sending it off to all these YouTubers and websites,” recalls Steger. “And I was watching in horror as they were trying to climb and it didn’t have that helper in place. One of them had figured out that the arms were magnetic, but they couldn’t figure out where the magnetism would go when they let go. So, they understood the system that was there, but they didn’t understand what was going to happen at that moment.”
He added a line extending out from the end of the player’s hands to indicate which direction the magnetic pull would pull the player. Though this added a bit of visual clutter to the screen, it was well worth it, making the information a lot clearer.
Of course, all of this effort would have been wasted if he didn’t get the camera system right. This was perhaps the largest obstacle Steger had to overcome on the project, requiring a lot of effort to get things to how he wanted them.
In the original game, the 2D perspective gave players a lot of room to see everything that was on screen and the camera was automatic. This meant that Steger had to think of a new solution in 3D that would give the same freedom, which was especially difficult, because, unlike other 3D games, the levels are generated dynamically, meaning he couldn’t use hidden helpers around the stage to guide the camera’s movement.
“I’ve messed with the camera a lot and kept messing with it after the game released, which kind of scared me because, essentially, you’re changing something that every player was trying to get used to at the same time. But what I wanted to do with the camera was make it so that as few people as possible needed to manually control it.”
The specific camera movement he settled on was for the camera to start behind the player, pointing straight at the ground to hint to them that they should aim towards it to move forward; then when you start climbing the tower, the camera starts tilting up gradually, using the core of the tower as a reference point. This is to give the player as much information as possible. Every time a new player reaches the top, as well, a new node is then placed at that spot, which indicates that this is the player’s new vertical position, adjusting the camera slightly as a response.
Steger did a lot of playtesting for the game prior to release, showing the game to a bunch of people at a co-working space in Toronto. This allowed him to get valuable feedback on the game as it developed, taking their suggestions and listening to their advice.
In spite of this, he regrets not getting more involved with the Mount Your Friends fan community while making the sequel. This is a process he has since started that has already paid dividends, leading to the introduction of new modes – such as the return of the horizontal mode -- and tweaked controls and camera settings.
“One thing I think I probably should have done when I was doing this pre-release testing was get in contact with some of the best players from the original game," Steger concludes. "After the game came out, I’ve been connecting with them and chatting with them a bit about what they like and what they don’t like about the new game. I really should have grabbed them for their opinions much earlier on in the process.”