One factor that often distinguishes the production cycles of independent titles from those of triple-A game studios is the room for flexible deadlines. Though the â€œwhen itâ€™s ready policyâ€ may at times provoke impatience in those waiting on long promised titles, the flexibility to rethink their deadlines is among the greatest advantages that homebrew developers have in controlling the quality of their creations.
Game designer and critic Matthew Burns has conceived of Shadegrown Games as a company consciously focused on a slow and steady production schedule, a potentially problematic philosophy to maintain outside of the indie sphere. His team’s debut title Planck is a music game that weds rhythm action with visual cues from top-down shooters, where the overall gameplay architecture aspires to be so novel that itâ€™s difficult to describe.
When asked about Shadegrown, the founder likens its process to shadegrown coffee makers. There the idea is to â€œplant coffee in with other crops so that it isnâ€™t just a field packed full with coffee plants. You harvest less coffee that way, and you make less money, but itâ€™s better for the environment. Itâ€™s more of a complete ecosystem.â€ In the case of game design, the analog is taking the form of seven contributors creating assets part-time and gradually redesigning Planck from the ground up with each build.
Planck‘s staff members are currently plugging away, unrushed when there is time to spare. They include designers Brenton Woodrow and Chris McCarthy, composer Chad Bechard, artist Justin Kimball as well as programmers Kyle Murphy and Andrew Richardson. The project counts among its precursors Everyday Shooter and Rez, while indie titles Audiosurf and Beat Hazard also informed design decisions, though Shadegrownâ€™s will feature multiple original pieces written specifically for the game system.
“With Planck we are working with included music,” says the lead designer, “but trying to incorporate many different samples and variations of each song, so that the player can explore an authored track with many different interpretations as they play.” While the developers informally refer to the mechanics of Planck in the familiar terminology of shooters, your ship neither takes damage nor destroys enemies. Rather, the vessel unlocks sounds from the instruments it encounters and adds them to the soundtrack mix. The addition in the latest build of a rippling plane beneath your ship adds another twist to the conventions of the outer space shootâ€™em up, lending the terrain an aquatic feel.
The challenge at this point is to characterize the game, as a conscious element of the design has been to sidestep genre conventions, steering emphasis away from objective markers of skill. The shmup enemies you encounter lend you sound fragments, which you put together to create an interesting piece of music. At the moment, metrics like attaining points or taking damage have not been factored into the design. Shadegrown wants to discourage enforcing a single right way to play.
When asked about the difficulties of describing the game concept in words, the creators contend that though Planck is not easily categorizable, ultimately this property is a strength of its design. “The hope is that once people do get their hands on it, they’ll be able to understand where we’re coming from.â€
To find out more about Planck, visit the Shadegrown Games official website.