Located within the Copenhagen branch of GameAnalytics is our GameHub, where anyone can come and use the space in order to develop and grow their games. One such group of developers are frecle, who are about to release Youropa, a title ten years in the making. We caught up with them before the launch of the long-coming game…
What is Youropa?
When Youropa is torn apart by a mysterious force, you must use your unique wall walking ability to navigate a strange fragmented city, restore it to former glory and learn who you really are. Youropa is a gravity defying platform puzzle adventure about breaking rules, being upside down and thinking outside the box.
The game comes with a full single player campaign, character, level and map designer. It’s out on Steam in Spring 2018.
How did frecle come about? Could you tell us the story of the company and how it came to be?
Lasse Cleveland and I had been studying Interaction Design together and worked for the same company before setting up frecle. After a few years working on different projects, we thought it would be fun to set up our own shop. That was back in 2006 and we worked on advertising, games, installations and a lot of other things up until the end of 2014, where we put frecle on hold. I started frecle again April 2017 along with a small team, while Lasse stayed on as an advisor.
How big is the team?
We’ve been 2-6 people working on it for the last year, before then 1-3 people on and off.
Youropa is an idea you’ve had for nearly a decade – there was a test at 20% of the way though back in December 2008. What does it feel like to have been working on a game that long?
It’s been in between a lot of other projects, so we haven’t been looking at it 10 years straight. But it sure feels good to wrap it up and get it out, it’s been a long time coming, and I’m super proud of the game we’ve ended up making. It’s been a work of passion all the way through, if we hadn’t loved the concept from the get go, we would have cut it long ago.
Was there a specific reason why the development was so long on this title? Did you find yourself having to go back to the drawing board occasionally?
So when we started out, we fairly quickly had something working that was sort of fun, looked nice, and had potential to become great. It took about 3-4 months of prototyping to get to a point where it was obvious there was fun to be had.
So this was before app stores, Steam, self publishing on consoles and all that. So basically the way to get something out was to find a publisher. We’ve never been great business people, but we managed to attract attention from a number of publishers. One of them being Microsoft. After a few demos and early talks, we were quite excited at the prospect of working with them, and the feelings seemed to be mutual. So we went all in on finalising a full design spec, delivery milestones, building a team, started Xbox 360 conversion and negotiating terms. Everything was flying and after some 8 or 9 months of hard work we had a contract with our signature on it. Unfortunately the signature from MS never came. We never got the full details of the reasons, but I think we were just to inexperienced for them to make the bet on us.
At that point we were completely broke, and were scrambling to secure some contract work to make the pay coming. Thankfully we managed to get on top again, but we were quite blown out over the whole process, so we decided to not give it ago with another publisher. We let it rest for some time, while contemplating what to do, and we never really recovered from there. We kept working on it, on and off, but in between contract work, so progress was quite slow.
Around the end of 2013 we were joking about doing a kickstarter for Youropa, and somehow the joke spun out of control. So while also working on contract projects, we spent time on putting a kickstarter campaign together. But even with a lot of work on the campaign, we had done a really bad job of understanding how crowdfunding works. It was a complete failure. And then we agreed to never work on Youropa again.
That was kept until the end of 2016 where I was ending some projects and was all of a sudden in a situation where it was possible to self finance the rest of the production and bring a few good people on to the project to help wrap it up. So in April 2017 we picked it up again and have been at it since then.
With a project of this length, at what point do you decide that the game is finished?
When I decided to go back to the project, I had a very clear plan of how I wanted to wrap it up. We had a lot of cool building blocks and some fun gameplay on a micro level, but we hadn’t managed to come up with a solid framework for connecting the individual parts. So the final stage of production has very much been about taking what we had, explode it and then reassemble it in a cohesive experience. Due to the open nature of the design and the integrated editor and map tools, it would be very easy to keep reconfiguring the game flow, but I think we’ve hit a sweet spot of something not too easy and not too complex. So we’ve tried to trim it to a good experience, and then remove all the extra bits that did not add much to the overall game.
You also made the entire engine yourself as well. How laborious a process was that, and what was the decision behind doing so, instead of using someone else’s engine?
When we started out making Youropa in 2007 it was a very different game development scene, Unity was quite substandard and Unreal was super expensive. Back then it was quite normal to make an engine from the ground up, and I already had a fairly decent engine working. So it wasn’t a big thing, it was simply a logical decision. Coming back to it is a lot like coming home. For me as the sole developer on the project, I think it’s super nice and easy to work with, but it’s a lot more specialised than off the shelf game engines.
We were looking at whether it made sense to port the game to another engine, but the numbers didn’t add up, because we had so much done already. The downside is that porting to other platforms is a little slower, but it’s still less work than porting the game to another engine. (We have a 95% operational Mac version that was done in less than 2 weeks)
The mechanic of sticking to walls, but still having platform elements seems quite a unique one. Where did it come from, and how hard was it to implement into the game?
Gravity defines the way we live our lives, so we thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if you could overcome it in a way. We found it to be an interesting mechanic to only let you as the player defy gravity, but let the rest of the objects in the world react normally. That’s where the idea of suction cup feet come from.
It did take a few iterations to make a system that worked properly, and having low level access to the physics engine (we use PhysX) certainly helped make it easier to do.
When you create a game like Youropa, how do you design the puzzles, and what thought process goes into creating a consistent challenge that’s still fun?
The design is very much centred on constantly challenging the player, so as you play the game you will gain new abilities that give you new opportunities. So the puzzles are designed to first teach you how the basics of your abilities work, and then we start building on top of that, so that there is a constant evolution to the game. That’s the very essence of the game, that you as a player evolve over time. As the game starts you are very limited in what you can do, but at the end it’s a much more freeform experience. I think that’s a super interesting process to go through as a player, instead of giving you new weapons we give you new ways of traversing the world.
Because you can walk on any surface you can get to, it’s very easy to loose your orientation, so we’ve had a rule of making the levels as small as possible. It took quite a few iterations before we had a good understanding of how complex a puzzle can be, while still being accessible.
We try to mix it up so that you encounter some off beat fun every few levels, to give you a breather from gravity defying brain twisting puzzles.
When it comes to the character customisation, what made you decide to give the players so much freedom in terms of what they could make, even to the point of customising enemies?
We were quite inspired by designer toys, which was a big thing back in the early 2000’s. And as we always wanted to include the tools in the game to let people making their own experiences, it seemed logical to also let them design their own enemies.
There are a lot of games that let you design your character, but I haven’t seen the approach we’ve taken with complete paint jobs in other games. It’s quite similar to a 3D paint package, and doesn’t have the same kind of restrictions as your typical character designer. Currently it is largely cosmetic, but at a later stage it would be interesting to make something a bit more freeform.
The previous project I made was Play-Doh TOUCH, which let’s you build something in real Play-Doh and then bring it to life in the game. It would interesting to marry that with something like Youropa, but that’s for the future.
On that subject, what was the impetus behind allowing people to create whatever levels they wanted with the level editor?
For us developing games is the most fun in the world, and we simply want more people to join the fun. I think what’s quite special in our case is that we actually build the game and entire city you play in the main game using the same map and level editing tools we give you as a player. So you can build a complete city very easily if you want to.
One of things we will be working on after launch is a better way of sharing your creations.
With a system like that as well, it must be difficult to make sure that people can create stages that are possible for others to solve without being too hard, while also allowing for enough creativity?
It is super easy to create levels that are very difficult to navigate and find your way through, but the opposite is also true. The levels we have made are meant as a sort of introduction to some design principles you can use when you make your own levels. But it will be fun to see what players come up with.
Have you seen any amazing stages that you’d wish you’d created, or ones that are so puzzling that you’ve struggled to solve them?
We’ve certainly played some impossible ones 🙂 But there’s also been some very creative uses of the elements, that we hadn’t expected ourselves. It’s really interesting to see what people make from the same starting point.
How have the GameAnalytics team in Copenhagen helped you with the game?
They’ve been very helpful in discussing best practices for how to track various statistics, and we’ve also gotten a little extra help in integrating the SDK. On top of that they are a really nice group of people that are truly interested in games and deeply knowledgeable about their own product. I’ve used GameAnalytics in other projects, but it’s the first time I’ve had the joy of that close of a collaboration with the team.
How much would you say GameAnalytics have helped you in the process of making the game?
Up until this point we have done a lot of user testing, which I think really is the first thing you should do. So we have collected spoken and written feedback as our primary analysis method until recently.
We are only just getting to the point where we can really leverage GameAnalytics, and start number crunching on a larger scale to understand what players in the wild are spending most time on, where they are dropping off etc. The interesting thing is that the numbers often tell a slightly different story than you get from user feedback. Having the GameAnalytics team close at hand is great when we need to get a deeper understanding of exactly what the numbers are showing.
Is the engine something you’ll release now the game is ready to launch, or is it something you’ll keep and use for any upcoming titles?
We haven’t really made a decision about that.
Once Youropa has been released, will you take a break from making games, or will you go straight on to the next one?
After release there will be a lot of work in supporting Youropa, because of the user creation element there will be a lot of interaction with the players going forward. So even after release I think it’s safe to say, it will stay in development for the foreseeable future.
I have a few ideas about what the next project might revolve around, but nothing solid yet. My approach is very much to start with a simple idea and then do various prototypes around that theme, to find an interesting angle. If an idea is actually worth pursuing often takes a good amount of experimentation to understand.
Finally, is there anything you want to say to people who have wanted to make their own games, but don’t believe they have the time or power to do so?
People can do whatever they set their mind to, it may take 10+ years, but there’s no reason you couldn’t do what you dream of.
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