"We feel really strongly about making games that are relaxing or therapeutic," says Flock art director Richard Hogg, explaining why the adorable collect-em-up leverages design in pursuit of feeling.
It's a philosophy that's visible in much of Hogg's past work. The veteran artist has spent years etching life into abstract oddities like Hohokum, Wilmot's Warehouse, and I Am Dead alongside frequent collaborator Ricky Haggett.
The duo's latest endeavor, Flock, is cut from the same cloth, but this time around the two developers, in tandem with the Hollow Ponds team, are hoping to create something that, while undoubtedly peculiar, feels more accessible.
During a recent interview with Game Developer, Hogg and Haggett explain that Flock was born out of a desire to let players slip into a kinetic flow and take flight—either solo or with friends. There's no manufactured impetus. No countdown clocks or malevolent threats. Instead, the breezy title simply asks players to tend to a herd of wide-eyed sheep, serenade strange critters to expand their floating flock, and soar across a painterly world on the back of exotic birds.
For Hogg and creative director Haggett, Flock is about "expression," but the duo initially struggled to figure out how to format their ideas in a way that felt tonally cohesive. Building on the foundation laid by Hohokum almost a decade ago—Hogg describes Flock as a "spiritual successor" to the cult title—the pair sought to inspire the same feelings of curiosity and wonder as the synaesthetic puzzler without repeating old mistakes.
"Although it's kind of a spiritual successor to Hohokum, one thing we really didn't want to carry over is that real obtuseness that tells you nothing," says Hogg, noting that Hohokum had no tutorial, UI, or hints of any kind. "A lot of people love that about the game, but I've also seen lots of people bounce off it for the same reason."
Flock is a more conventional a video game than Hohokum
To avoid those pitfalls, Hogg and Hackett wanted Flock to be a more "conventional" video game. "It has NPCs that tell you things and an onscreen UI," notes Hogg. "It has a mechanic by which you charm creatures and get them to join your flock." It is, by all accounts, very video gamey. But pursuing those more tried-and-tested mechanics also created tension. Hogg and Haggett wanted Flock to be accessible, but that meant the experience sometimes became a little too familiar.
Hogg explains that, at one point, Flock featured RPG-like mechanics that saw players receive multipliers based on what creatures they'd charmed. There was also a leveling up system that would unlock or bolster abilities. "Every time you charmed a creature you'd see a lot of numbers that explained what made that a successful or unsuccessful event," says Hogg. "There's still a little bit of that in the game, but we realized we'd gone too far down that route. It hurt the mood of the game, because those numbers take up too much of the player's attention."
The team felt those metrics would provide the wrong sort of motivation. Instead of catching creatures because they liked how they looked or sounded, players might feel compelled to expand their flock purely so they could level up. "Technically, even though players could still ignore all of that and just chill out and watch a sunrise, the reality is that if you put those mechanics and structures into the game, people will focus on them," says Hogg.
Implementing a UI that didn't detract from Flock's mellow vibe was another sticking point. Hogg says the title "has quite a lot of UI elements" that it absolutely needs, but fitting them on-screen became a huge design challenge. "There was a lot of stuff on-screen that you were looking at. You wound up focusing more on those elements than on the environment itself, and it was just killing the vibe in a way that was quite hard to put our finger on," he continues.
The solution? Allow the UI to simply melt away when it's not needed. Players can pull it back into view with a button press, and there are certain contexts—such as when a new creature is discovered—where it will materialize automatically, but beyond that it's a case of 'out of sight, out of mind.' Hogg says the aim was to let players exist in Flock's world "without being interrupted by information," and notes that while Hollow Pond's solution is undeniably "simple," it's also extremely effective.
Behind the eye-catching creatures of Flock
There are all manner of creatures to collect and catalogue in Flock. Some take more conventional forms, such as your beloved sheep and drifting sky-whales, while others are decidedly more unorthodox. There is, however, a consistent simplicity to their design that Hogg explains was very intentional.
"You have to consider what the flock is, as well as what the individual creatures are," they explain, noting how they moved away from complex designs that incorporated legs or wings in favor of cleaner shapes. "Players will be gathering shoals of these creatures, and if they're all too complex and detailed you lose that sense of cohesion. I had lots of early concept art that really leaned into this idea of the collective flock, and I kept referring back to that when I was designing individual creatures."
That's why, according to Hogg, many of the creatures in Flock are essentially "flying sausages with faces." Some are more reminiscent of snakes or worms, and there are others that resemble fish or insects, but when brought together not a single one appears out of place.
Taking a more measured approach to creature design was also helpful on a technical level, because each player—including those who choose to play together—will ultimately have a whole group of critters flowing behind them. If the designs became too complex, there was a chance the game might buckle.
Notably, Hogg explains that none of the creatures in the world of flock have natural predators. Earlier on, I asked whether players will need to perhaps protect their sheep from threats or micro-manage their flock to ensure they don't accidentally introduce a peckish rapscallion into the mix. Curiously, Hogg says that Hollow Ponds did flirt with the idea of adding predators and other "bad" actors into the fold because it felt like the "obvious" thing to do.
"We had ideas about how something might happen to your sheep if you left them alone for too long—like, maybe something would take them or eat them. There were also lots of ideas about bad things happening if you introduced certain creatures into your flock. For example, maybe a creature would start eating the others—you know, like when people accidentally introduce the wrong fish into their tank," says Hogg.
"But we moved away from all of those ideas because they just didn't feel fun. They didn't feel suited to the game. They seemed really obvious when we first started brainstorming, but they actually didn't go the distance when we started playtesting."
As for where players can find those creatures, Flock takes place in an open world that will feature unique environments and plenty of secrets. What it won't include, however, are "biomes," with Hogg suggesting the studio's approach to world building will employ a more naturalistic approach.
"I have a real chip on my shoulder about games that have very starkly linefeed biomes. I really don't even like the word 'biome' very much, because it's a word that ecologists don't actually use very much. It's used by game developers in quite a lazy way, I think, to describe a flavor of place that doesn't really occur in the real world," says Hogg.
"It's even started to become a word that players use, and I find that really upsetting because it's not a word people use in real life. So, we've tried to be quite naturalistic in terms of having plausible ecology, especially in the sense of thinking 'what happens when two environments meet?' What does the border look like between those two areas?"
"Even though it's not a very naturalistic looking world, we tried to imbue a bit of plausibility in terms of how the environments are shaped and interact."
Designing Flock's friction-free flight
Exploring those environments will require players to buy into their roles as flying shepherds and master the art of aviary transit. As Hogg mentioned earlier, Flock was always envisioned as a title that would let players soar, but imbuing the title's colorful warblers with a sense of dynamism required the team to think about how the flight mechanics might intersect with the environment itself.
Haggett (who joined the interview later on) explains that flight in Flock has been stripped back in service of freedom, and crucially, flow. "The player can fly almost anywhere. We don't have a stamina meter or any real resistance. The whole core aesthetic of movement and flow is that there should never be any friction," says Haggett. "When a bird flies through a bunch of trees, it appears to avoid them naturally. It flows around them smoothly. In Flock we have this kind of invisible blanket that's been draped over the whole world that basically smooths everything out. No matter where players go, the bird will flow around things really smoothly."
By smoothing out the landscape the team hoped to eliminate any clunkiness that players might encounter, essentially turning the world into a verdant skatepark. It was an important consideration, because Flock won't allow players to simply sail over objects on a whim by manually adjusting their elevation. "There is no 'go up' or 'go down' mechanic," he adds. "There's just move around–left, right, turn."
Naturally, there will be occasions when the bird will automatically clear objects, while players will be able to grab some air and glide momentarily if they "ramp up a hill," but for the most part they'll be cruising at near-ground level.
That meant Hollow Ponds has to spent time tuning the tracking of the landscape so that no matter what action a player takes, it feels as if their bird always intended to follow suit. "As players are flying along, you never know if they're going to continue heading straight or perhaps take a sudden turn and go up a hill," continues Haggett, noting how the environment itself has to accommodate the most unpredictable flyers. "This isn't a game where you can crash your bird into a tree or wall. There are no flat collisions of any kind. So, just making movement flow in a way that feels pleasant was one of our biggest priorities."
Flock is likely to hit shelves next year. If you're curious to hear more from Haggett and Hogg, you can learn how the pair cobbled together Flock's spiritual forebear, Hohokum, by reading our in-depth retrospective.