Tales From the Devs #2 | Game Design

Calligram Studio #2 | Game Design

Welcome to the second episode of Tales From the Devs with Calligram Studio! After accompanying them to the A MAZE festival in Berlin, where the game was part of the official selection, we spoke to Jigmé Özer about the game’s game design. We take a look back at his point’n click influences and gameplay choices.

Point’n Think: Let’s start with the creation of Phoenix Springs. You’ve said that you were drawn to point-and-click games from an early age. Was it this nostalgia that led you to choose this genre for Phoenix Springs, or did other influences play a part in your decision process?

Jigmé Özer: Growing up with classics like Monkey Island and Grim Fandango, I grew to appreciate the genre’s unique blend of storytelling and puzzle-solving. However, it wasn’t just nostalgia that guided my decision-making process. Point-and-click games offer a distinct narrative experience, akin to navigating a digital novel where each click reveals a new chapter in the story. The roots of the genre, text adventures, have provided a solid foundation for the creation of immersive narratives, allowing players to actively participate in the unfolding of the plot. It’s a medium that encourages exploration and discovery, where each puzzle solved brings players closer to solving the game’s mysteries. So when we designed Phoenix Springs, it seemed natural to adopt the point-and-click genre as the ideal medium for weaving a captivating tale.

Point’n click is a genre that focuses on exploration, puzzle-solving and immersive storytelling. In this type of game, players interact primarily with the environment, usually using a mouse or touch screen. The aim is often to progress through the story by solving puzzles and collecting objects to unlock new areas or progress through the storyline. An emblematic example of a point’n click game is LucasArts’ Monkey Island series, where players take on the role of a character exploring exotic islands, interacting with colourful characters and solving humorous puzzles.

Many independent studios have chosen to revisit this classic genre with new ideas, contemporary themes and innovative approaches. These games often offer unique experiences, focusing on rich narratives, complex characters and captivating puzzles, while retaining the nostalgic charm of traditional point’n click. The advent of digital distribution platforms such as Steam, itch.io and GOG has also played a crucial role in the growing popularity of independent point’n click games. Titles such as Kentucky Route Zero, Chants of Sennaar and Norco are perfect examples of this new wave of point’n click. These games represent an evolution of the classic genre, offering deep narrative experiences and innovative gameplay mechanics, while retaining the aesthetics and charm characteristic of the genre.

PnT: The mind map mechanism in Phoenix Springs is a refreshing change from traditional inventory systems. Can you tell us how this innovative gameplay element evolved over the course of development, and what the challenges were in finding the right balance?

Jigmé: When we began the creative process, it became clear that traditional object-based puzzles didn’t quite match the thematic depth we were trying to achieve. The game’s emphasis on mystery and knowledge necessitated a change of approach, pushing us away from conventional puzzle structures. Initially, we experimented with a hybrid system that mixed object-based puzzle elements with mental challenges. However, this approach proved disjointed and detracted from the cohesive narrative experience we wanted to deliver. It became clear that puzzles based solely on object acquisition seemed arbitrary in the context of the Phoenix Springs story.

Aware of the importance of aligning game mechanics with the narrative, we have made a decisive shift by adopting a knowledge-centric approach. Instead of relying on traditional inventory systems, players must gather and synthesise information in order to progress. This evolution in game mechanics allowed us to create a deeper link between the player’s actions and the progression of the story. The mind map mechanism emerged as a natural extension of our narrative-led design philosophy. By focusing the puzzles on the accumulation and application of knowledge, we were able to foster a more immersive and intellectually engaging gaming experience.

PnT: The influence of games like Return of the Obra Dinn is evident in Phoenix Springs’ emphasis on storytelling through gameplay. How did these games inspire your design choices, and what advances did they make in shaping the player experience?

Jigmé: Our experience with The Case of the Golden Idol was a key source of inspiration. This game highlights the power of engaging players through deduction and exploration, drawing them deeper into the intricacies of the story. As we considered the development of our own game, this experience reinforced our confidence in the viability of a knowledge-based approach. Seeing players immerse themselves in the process of solving puzzles based solely on the information presented on the screen reaffirmed our belief in the potential of story-driven gameplay.

Return of the Obra Dinn led to a breakthrough in our approach to puzzle design. We recognised the importance of ensuring that each puzzle in Phoenix Springs made a significant contribution to the overall narrative. We strived to imbue each puzzle with layers of narrative, enriching the player’s experience with information about the game’s world and characters. One of the key principles we’ve adopted is that every obstacle the player encounters should serve as a gateway to a deeper narrative exploration. While not every puzzle adheres perfectly to this principle, we strive to maintain a consistent narrative thread throughout the game experience.

PnT: I imagine it wasn’t easy to balance the difficulty of the puzzles in Phoenix Springs, given the game’s emphasis on knowledge-based gameplay. How did you come up with puzzles that were both difficult and fair?

Jigmé: We recognised early on that providing too little information could lead to frustration, while overwhelming players with too much information could detract from the sense of immersion. Our approach to puzzle design focused on introducing different levels of complexity and noise, striking a balance between challenge and accessibility.

An analogy I often use to illustrate this concept is that of keys and doors. If a player only has one key, they can methodically try it out on each door until they find the right one. On the other hand, if they have several keys, each with unique properties, they add an extra layer of challenge and strategy to the puzzle-solving process. This notion of noise – extraneous information that may or may not be relevant to solving a puzzle – has become central to our puzzle design philosophy. For example, in smaller, more restricted levels, such as a three-room house, we have deliberately included a greater density of information to encourage players to sift through and discern the relevant clues. Conversely, in larger environments such as the oasis, we reduced the amount of information available to avoid players feeling overwhelmed or bogged down by too much detail. This approach has allowed us to create a dynamic gaming experience in which the level of challenge varies as the player progresses through the game.

PnT: Over the seven years it took to develop Phoenix Springs, what were the biggest challenges you faced, particularly in aligning the game mechanics with the narrative?

Jigmé: Throughout the development process, we had the onerous task of ensuring that each puzzle, obstacle and gameplay element fitted seamlessly into the overall story, enhancing rather than hindering player immersion and engagement. A recurring challenge we faced was the need to make difficult decisions to remove puzzles that didn’t serve the overall story or seemed arbitrary in the context of the game world. While these puzzles may have worked in isolation, they didn’t contribute significantly to the wider tapestry of the story we were trying to weave. This process of selection and improvement required careful thought and a willingness to prioritise the cohesion of the narrative over individual gameplay mechanics. While the process of removing puzzles was undoubtedly difficult, it was also essential to maintaining the integrity and coherence of the overall narrative. By prioritising the emotional engagement of the player and the cohesion of the narrative, we were able to overcome these difficulties and create a coherent, immersive game experience that resonated deeply with players.

PnT: Throughout the process of developing Phoenix Springs, did you seek advice or information from industry professionals, or did you follow the process independently?

Jigmé: Our development process was a bit lonely at first, with little outside input apart from online resources and communities. We relied heavily on internet resources and platforms such as Mark Brown’s Game Maker’s Toolkit to deepen our understanding of game design principles and techniques. As newcomers to the industry, we didn’t have direct links with established professionals and mentors. However, as our project progressed and we began to showcase Phoenix Springs at festivals and demos, our interactions with other developers provided us with valuable information and insights. Attending conferences and events allowed us to immerse ourselves in the wider development community, fostering contacts and exchanges with like-minded people. These experiences proved invaluable in providing context and feedback on our work, comforting us in our choices as we navigated the complexities of game development.

Game Maker’s Toolkit is a YouTube channel hosted by Mark Brown, a content creator specialising in the analysis and criticism of video games. The channel is dedicated to exploring the game mechanics, design concepts and storytelling principles that underpin modern video games. Through well-researched videos, Mark breaks down various aspects of game design, offering viewers a unique perspective on the video game industry.

Mark’s videos cover a wide range of topics, including gameplay balancing, level design, narrative immersion and much more. In his Boss Keys series, for example, he takes an in-depth look at the level design of games such as The Legend of Zelda, Metroid and Dark Souls.

PnT: Your approach to level design in Phoenix Springs is both complex and immersive. Can you explain how you drew inspiration from real-world elements to create the game’s environments?

Jigmé: The level design process often begins by visualising the world in which the game’s events take place. For example, when designing the oasis, I considered not only its immediate surroundings, but also how the desert landscape extended beyond. This holistic approach to world-building helped shape the layout and structure of each level, ensuring that they were coherent and grounded in the game world.

As I delved deeper into the intricacies of level design, I found myself focusing on the finer details that made each place feel truly inhabited. It wasn’t just about creating visually arresting environments, but also about imbuing them with a sense of history and purpose. For example, when I designed the living spaces for the characters in the oasis, I thought about how they interact with their environment and with each other. This attention to detail brought the game world to life, making it dynamic and immersive. One example that comes to mind is a lesson I learned from the City of Tears level in Hollow Knight. In that game, the developers created a level where it rained constantly. At first this may have seemed a purely aesthetic choice, but on closer inspection it turned out that the rain was caused by a leaking tank located above the level. This attention to detail and logical consistency is something I wanted to replicate in Phoenix Springs, ensuring that every element of the environment had a purpose and contributed to the overall feel of the game.

By following and developing its Metroidvania roots, Hollow Knight has ensured that each individual area of its world is filled with a massive amount of detail and activity; and for many, there are few places as fun to get lost in as the City of Tears. The Land of Endless Rain is the heart of Hallownest and a decaying monument to a dying realm, but above all a jewel of level design.

PnT: Can you tell us more about the game engine and project management tools you used during development?

Jigmé: Initially, we considered Adventure Game Studio and Visionaire, both designed for point-and-click adventures. However, Unity’s versatility, particularly when it came to mixing 2.5D elements, ultimately won us over. This flexibility was crucial in achieving the visual design we had in mind for the game. As for the graphics, my wife’s talent shone through when she used Procreate on an iPad Pro. Her drawings and animations integrated effortlessly into Unity, enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the game. However, while the technical aspects were falling into place, project management presented a major challenge.

We experimented with various project management tools such as Jira, Trello, Asana and so on. Despite their qualities, none of them seemed to correspond perfectly to our needs. It was a process of trial and error until we came across an unconventional but effective solution: spreadsheets. Yes, that’s right, good old Excel became our project management powerhouse. With spreadsheets, we could meticulously track tasks, assets and dialogue options, making sure nothing fell through the cracks. Each cell became an organisational canvas, colour-coded to indicate task status and progress. What’s intriguing is that our journey has taken us back to a traditional tool in the digital age.

The choice of game engine is of crucial importance when developing a video game, particularly in the independent sphere. Game engines are the foundation of interactive game development, providing essential tools and functionality to simplify the creative process. Features such as graphics rendering, physics simulation and artificial intelligence support are integral components provided by game engines such as Unity, Unreal Engine or Godot. These engines allow developers to concentrate on creating game content rather than building complex systems from scratch, saving time and resources. In addition, the choice of game engine should be aligned with factors such as compatibility with the target platform, programming language preferences and the scope and requirements of the project.

Each game engine offers its own unique set of features and capabilities, catering for different development needs and preferences. Unity attracts developers looking to prototype quickly and deploy across multiple platforms. Unreal Engine is popular with developers looking to create high-fidelity visuals and immersive experiences. Godot, an open-source engine, offers flexibility and customisation options, making it an attractive choice for independent developers looking for cost-effective solutions and total creative control.

PnT: Finally, the title Phoenix Springs evokes themes of rebirth and renewal. How does this name relate to the narrative and the overall experience of the game?

Jigmé: While I can’t reveal all the intricacies of its connection to the story, I can tell you that the name has deep significance in the game’s story, as it represents a glimmer of hope in the midst of the hostile desert landscape. Phoenix Springs symbolises a place of rejuvenation and metamorphosis, where characters undertake profound personal journeys and discover hidden truths about themselves and the world around them. Drawing inspiration from real places like Alice Springs in Australia, which similarly represents an oasis of life in an arid landscape, I wanted the name to evoke a sense of wonder and attraction. Just as travellers are drawn to the promise of solace and serenity offered by such destinations, players are invited to embark on their own journey of exploration and self-discovery in the world of Phoenix Springs, just as they would have done in Twin Peaks.

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