Worldbuilding & Design Lessons, part 1

It’s been a strange road so far, developing this game. What started as an interactive art piece full of birds, balloon trucks and time manipulation soon grew out of proportion into an epic adventure about a child lost in a world where anything was possible. We were five guys with lots of ideas, and narrowing this game down into something that actually seemed doable has been a long process of killing many of our darlings and finally unifying our vision. We’ve had elephants. We’ve had spear-throwing. We’ve had umpteen versions of our central mechanic.

So far so gamedev. What’s always been true for Vane though is that it’s a game sold and told entirely through visuals. It started as a visual experiment, and more than anything else, it has taken us a year to craft all the layers beneath that pretty onion in a way that doesn’t detract from the appealing outer layer we started out with. 

We underestimated just how much the “nothing” in between the “something “ matters

Little by little we arrived at a set of principles that will allow us to tell our story. First of those is that space and pacing is key. We have the advantage of a fairly desolate landscape as the setting, but we underestimated just how much the “nothing” in between the “something “ matters, first and foremost in terms of level design. Our BitSummit demo earlier this year illustrated this perfectly, where two towers sat surrounded by other structures leading up and around them against the background of a roaring storm. Lots of drama, lots of different things going on, and in a spot on one of those towers was the entrance to underground tunnels. Nobody found it. Instead most players took off across the desert, and when that desert was punctuated by an insignificant little prop we put there to break the emptiness, they’d swoop down and expect something to happen. Fail.

It’s also a matter of carefully doling out stimuli in general, and figuring out the age-old question of how to make sure the player sees what you want them to see. If you dazzle them with new visuals, effects, a new environment AND sudden explosions of sound all at once, only one or two of those things will get through to the player. When we were testing a key reveal about our world and the character you play, we put so much emphasis on every one of those channels that some players missed the central element altogether. Since one of the tenets of Vane is to tell a story through events and the environment, reducing the noise overall and introducing elements in bite-sized chunks has proven crucial to commanding the player’s attention when we need it.

Coming across as arbitrary, too opaque or too obvious is never far away

In order to respect the player’s time in the game world, we had to make it internally consistent, however otherworldly that logic might be. Since this story is told only through environments and events, leaving it up to the player to piece it together, the foundations had to be solid. Coming across as arbitrary, too opaque or too obvious is never far away. This has led to our primordial melting pot of cool ideas being viewed through the prisms of a number of different versions of the game, some left to marinate and help inform the overall stew, some reexamined again or thrown out altogether. The process has been long, exhausting at times, but we think it has helped us stay true to the original mood, without sacrificing the internal logic that will keep players interested all the way to the end.

At this point mood & internal logic informs every aspect of every decision, with a gameworld, a story and characters that set the stage for a really cool journey. Who knows, maybe this'll be special.