Vessel is the first project from Strange Loop Games, a Seattle-based studio founded by two Pandemic Studios Brisbane veterans, John Krajewski and Martin Farren. We recently had a chat with John to find out more about the IGF 2010 Technical Excellence award nominee, and he accomodated us with some very revealing answers on why this game should be on everyone’s radars in the coming months.
Hi John, can you provide a little background on Strange Loop Games and your upcoming release, Vessel?
Strange Loop Games is what we’re calling the new studio that I’m starting with my partner Martin Farren. The idea behind our studio is a game company that puts the power of modern hardware towards gameplay, not just graphics, and Vessel is our first game with that idea in mind. It’s a 2d action/puzzle game set in a physically simulated universe, meaning everything is maximally interactive. One of the unique things we’re doing is our fluid simulation, and the way we form characters out of this simulated fluid.
What is the story in Vessel about?
The game will be about a lot of things, but at the most surface level it’s about an inventor named Arkwright who has created this new device, the mechanized-fluid automaton (known as Fluros for short) that has revolutionized the world by providing free labor. Those are the fluid creatures you see in the trailer. That’s where the game starts, and through the course of the game two major things are happening – the Fluros are beginning to grow minds of their own, evolving and turning on their owners, and Arkwright is developing his next great invention, The Device. These plotlines intertwine and merge, as Arkwright uses the evolutions of the Fluros in development of his invention, leading up what will hopefully be a grand conclusion.
Can you tell us more about the fluid simulation system?
I started off many years ago toying around with a physics simulation engine after reading some papers from Chris Hecker, and just kept adding to it as I found more interesting ideas to integrate into it. Eventually I decided I wanted to try out fluid, and found a way to make it work with the rest of the object physics I already had. It took a lot of tweaking but slowly got there, and of course it just looked like a bunch of dots until Martin came on board and made it pretty. The tools and level editor all kind of grew around the physics engine, since that was the core of our tech, and it really helped determine what type of game we wanted to make.
What was the inspiration for Vessel and the storyline? Is the game actually just something that grew out of your physics simulation engine?
In a way it was. I’m of the belief (one that is becoming more common and pronounced these days) that what you’re doing in a game, the actual mechanics of it, and the story line should be inseparably intertwined. Braid is the shining example of this. Without giving too much away, our game Vessel (and the name hints at this as well) is about the relationship between life, matter, and machines, and all the grey areas in between. In the game your main mechanics are to manipulate matter and machines and deal with these Fluro devices that are kind of semi-alive, and so our story is about that too.
Is the character design for Arkwright inspired by a real person?
More inspired by an attitude. That insatiable human thirst for progress…
Can you tell us why there has been no media (screenshots, trailer) released for Vessel before the IGF finalists were announced?
We’d held off mentioning anything on the game until now because we’ve been so focused on working on the game, and we wanted to wait till we had something slightly polished to present. We still have a lot of work to go but we decided we wanted to share the development process with people a bit, and hopefully get people excited about the game.
Who did the music for the trailer? And can we expect more tunes like that in the final product?
The music in the trailer and in the game is on loan from Jon Hopkins, this amazing electronica/chill out artist. It fits our game perfectly and hopefully the game will ship with a complete soundtrack by him, but that’s yet to be decided.
Anything you can tell us about the trailer that most people might not notice at first glance? What are some of the areas shown in the video, and can you explain to us some of the gadgets seen in it?
You see a bit of Arkwright’s backpack in the game, that’s his main way of interacting with fluid. You can attract water and store it in your pack, then spray it out again using different nozzles. We want to keep the mechanics themselves pretty simple to use, with the complexity coming out of the different types of fluid you interact with, the different rules for its behavior etc. In the trailer you can see four types of fluid – water, lava, glow-goo, and orange pulp (5 if you count steam), and these all have special uses that the player learns about. You see some of the other contraptions he uses, like the fluid-shield which you get a quick look at. This is a device that holds fluid in a field above it, which you can use for various things (fill it with water to defend against lava Fluros, for example).
Are all the creatures in the game made out of fluids? What are some of the more interesting interactions between the player and the creatures that we can expect to see in the game? Any other objects made out of fluids (other than fluids)?
Yep, thats the plan. All creatures are made of fluids, and environment gadgets being a mix of fluids and objects. Even fonts. In the trailer you can see the letters forming out of fluid, that’s using the exact same tech as for the Fluros. Most of the gameplay will come out of these interactions, and it will be multiplied by the types of fluid available. So a creature formed from lava is going to interact with the environment different than a creature formed from water, and that’s where the puzzle element comes in.
What is the significance for the tree in the green house shown in the trailer?
That one’s a bit of a spoiler so won’t say too much. But you do see a tree elsewhere in the trailer, and Arkwright is building his Device by re-purposing things he finds in the world..
The trailer seems to show the game at a very advanced stage of development. What’s left to do on your checklist?
There is still a list of things we want to achieve. We’re going to do a full pass on the art, much more detailed and elaborate style, and we’re working on some techniques for 2d rendering that will be really interesting. Game-wise we want to optimize the engine and get our fluid volume way up, and design wise we’re planning to add new fluid and Fluro types.
When do you think we can see the new art? Will it be anything like what David Hellman did for Braid?
Actually Hellman’s website has been massively helpful for us, just to see the iterations and progression of Braid’s art really gives insight into the process of how great art gets created. The fact that it’s 2d like us is especially useful. Style wise though we want to take it a different direction. The art in 2d games really seems to be experiencing a renaissance as people start applying the power of modern video cards to a 2d canvas instead of 3d one. I’ll be happy if we end up with a 2d game that is maxing out the 3d video cards in people’s machines.
How long is it exactly that you’ve been working on Vessel as a team?
It’s ramped up over time. As a full team of 5-6 people, 4 months. As myself and Martin, a year.
Are you working full-time on Vessel from now until release, or can we expect side projects from your team in the next few months?
The plan is full time now through release, and it’s looking like that will be achievable.
How long is the game? And how many hours do you think it’ll take for someone to play it from start to end?
The IGF demo is about 2 hours. We plan to make the shipped game 6-8 hours long probably.
The ending to Vessel in the IGF build you’ve submitted was a great closure to a brilliant build-up. Since you’re planning to add another four to six hours’ worth of content, will the storyline be changed to accomodate this, and will there be a new/reworked ending? Multiple endings? Will it be anything like what Jonathan Blow did to Braid? (earlier versions of Braid had a different ending compared to the final release build)
The bar has been set high with Braid’s ending that’s definitely true! We’d like to keep the same ending to the game and use the extra 4-6 hours as a much richer lead-up to that ending. There’s a few things I want to tweak about the ending that hopefully really tie everything together, but I won’t say too much about that..
Targeted platforms for Vessel? And if you get it on the console, will you still release it for Windows?
We would love to do multiplatform, and all simultaneously shipped if possible. There are a million things that could make that difficult/impossible to achieve, so it’s too early to say when/what we’ll ship on, but I think it’s safe to say we’ll be doing one or more consoles, and PC.
What is needed to run the game (if on PC)? Will consoles be able to handle the physics engine? How about the Wii? Should we count out handhelds? And Will Mac and Linux users be left out in the cold?
It takes a pretty beefy machine at the moment, but we’re doing some hardcore optimizations right now and that will bring it down. I expect you’ll need at least a dual core to run Vessel well. Xbox360/PS3 will definitely be able to handle the physics – really looking forward to porting our engine to them and seeing what we can do with all the sexy hardware they got in them. Wii we’d like to do as well, and I think we can make a really great game on it with this tech. Handhelds like iPhone especially we want to experiment with, and see what we can do there. Mac and Linux we’d love to support, and we’ll have to see what kind of resources we have to do it.
Targeted release date? Rough dates?
Greater than 6 months, how much greater is yet to be determined.
2010, or 2011? Definitely not 2012 as the apocalypse would have happened by then.
Yes, we will definitely ship before the apocalypse. That would be murder on our bottom line.
Taking into consideration the amount of console porting work for the engine and certification processes, is it a bit hopeful to expect the game out in the next year? For example, Fez (an IGF award winner) won the category they’ve competed in two years ago, and the game still isn’t out today. And Braid went through the same thing as well. Where will the development funds come from until then?
Yes, it might be a bit hopeful, these kind of things take a lot of time. As for funding, we may have some leads but for the mean time we’ll be continuing our current method of funding (eating Ramen noodles.)
Do you already have plans for what to do after Vessel?
It’s a bit far in the future to predict. But we’d like to see what else we can do with this tech we’ve developed.
You’ve been nominated for a spot in the IGF Technical Excellence category. What are your thoughts about the other games competiting for the same award?
They’re all extremely impressive. It’s great company to be in. I think they’re all kind of ‘technically excellent’ in different ways too, and that’s what I really love about indie games and the community surrounding them, its not about who’s pushing the most polys, it’s about what kind of innovations are going on, and if your game is 2d or looks unusual that isn’t going to hurt it at all.
Have you played any games from the other IGF finalists yet? And what are your thoughts about them? Any favorites?
I’ve played a few but not enough! I can’t wait for GDC to check them all out. Rocketbirds I’ve played and that one is fantastic. Monaco looks like incredible fun and that’s probably what I most want to try, I love the ASCII style they use, but with lighting, a kind of neo-retro style. Gorgeous.
Two IGF finalists this year are working under studio names that sounded very similar. Is there any association between the two teams?
Ratloop is the Rocketbird guys, another former EA Australia guy I used to work with James Anderson is on that team. they’ve done an amazing job on their IGF entry. A lot of indie devs came out of that studio after it went under.
So who are these other indies from that studio? Is Pandemic the name of the studio you’re referring to?
Yeah, Pandemic is correct. I don’t know for certain all of them, but there were the three of us and some others. Some of them are still working jobs and I dont know if they want to be announced.
That seems to be a common thing, big studios going under and these smaller developers emerging out of the ashes. It’s like the industry is shifting under the weight of economy, in ways that I think will be for the better.
Were both studio names thought up after discussions between the two groups, or was it just a coincidence?
No connections there, I’m not sure the story on Ratloop’s name but theres room for more than one loop in this industry.
Our name Strange Loop refers to the self-referencing loop, a feedback loop/paradox, which encompasses a lot of the ideas we have about games as a medium – games as a feedback simulation involving the player, and the meaning that might emerge out of that. It’s a bit heady but is a lot simpler in image form: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strange_loop
Comparisons have been made about your game and Super Mario Sunshine. Can you tell the readers why Vessel is way better?
Hah, I definitely can’t do that, who would take on a Mario game? There are some similarities with the equipment but the approach and mood of the games are very different. I actually haven’t played Mario Sunshine, but I’m going to need to get a copy now!