This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.
Sparkles & Gems, which was nominated for the IGF Nuovo Award, has two characters going head-to-head in a mixture of Breakout and Match-3 puzzle games. Winning isn't everything in this game's world, though, as, win or lose, you'll steadily continue the story of your relationship with some surreal, yet lovable characters.
Resnijars spoke with Game Developer about creating an experience where winning and losing are considered essential, how a thrift store wooden horse carving would inspire the story, and the importance of creating a feeling of community and support for oddball characters the world is hostile to.
Who are you, and what was your role in developing Sparkles & Gems?
Resni: I go by Resni and my role was more towards gameplay, 2D art, and music/sound.
j a r s: My name is j a r s and I helped write and implement large parts of the story, playtested the game, and did 3D art.
What's your background in making games?
Resni: I've been making games for over a decade at home because I can't do normal employment due to mental illness and sleep issues, etc. I started using Stencyl before the program was even officially released, I’m not a programmer type, so it was amazing to me that I could make games at all. I end up shifting focus a lot between different creative skills like art, music, etc., so being able to use it all for games feels right.
j a r s: I started about eight years ago, shortly after meeting Resni, who at that time had been developing games for a while. They showed me how to use Stencyl and I made some janky experimental pieces on my own, and we made a few small projects together. It wasn't until grad school where I learned 3D modeling and was able to hone my writing ability, which I now apply in the games we make.
How did you come up with the concept for Sparkles & Gems?
Resni: I randomly played a game called Puchi Carat on a Game Boy emulator, and it was a very fun experience for a play session but didn't have a ton of depth. I imagined a game like it with power-ups that would help keep things entertaining, as well as mechanics that were more dynamic.
I had also been playing bad phone games at the time that were more satisfying than they should have been, so I wanted to experiment with the idea of making a more "casual" game that kind of plays itself and was fun to watch, then see how the random/unpredictable elements interact. Breakout is already hard to control, so I thought that would be a pretty accepted genre to explore making a game where things aren't really in your control and a lot just happens randomly.
With previous games, it felt bad that some people would always be like "I love the game but I'm not any good at it so I can't get far" or things like that, so I wanted a game that anyone could play. It might not be immediately obvious, but no matter how good or bad you are at the game, you progress through it at about the same speed. Both winning and losing are essential, so it doesn't really matter which you do and the game will accommodate you.
I was trying to make a type of "casual" game that I'd like to play. When you lose in treasure mode, then you receive your rewards you had been building up. When you lose in story mode, you become more powerful for the next battles. I hoped that by giving the player rewards for losing, they wouldn't sweat it about if they're winning or not. I also hoped that if anyone played two-player, then players with different levels of skill would still have fun because of all the randomization and luck.
j a r s: We were inspired by a game called Puchi Carat, which I watched Resni play through. I've always liked Breakout, and I thought it was cool how Puchi Carat did a twist on that type of game while adding additional simple narrative elements to it.
What development tools were used to build your game?
Resni: The game was built in Stencyl. The music and sounds are from FL Studio, the 3D modeling was done in Rhino, and the 2D art in GIMP.
What interested you in mixing breakout and gem-matching games? What made you feel that these worked well together?
Resni: Over the years, I would occasionally daydream about making a head-to-head puzzle game in the genre of Puyo Puyo, but doing AI for that isn't something possible for me. However, with Breakout, the computer just has to move towards the ball pretty much. It doesn't do any aiming calculations. If it did, then probably no one would notice anyway.
Can you tell us about the process of creating this puzzle gameplay? How you made the two concepts work well together?
Resni: The gameplay is really just copying Puchi Carat but trying to add some more depth to it. I think Sparkles & Gems's gameplay is kind of a chaotic mess, but that's what I was going for so I'm happy about it. It's hard for me to think of it as a puzzle game because you have so little direct control. I like the surprise chain reactions that happen in Match-3 games, so I wanted to replicate that. It's kind of gambling-ish, but just about something stupid (it’s an "addicting" gameplay mechanic).
Originally, I was thinking the blocks were going to function in a more typical Match-3 way with gravity (except it would have been upside-down gravity to work with the paddle at the bottom), but that wasn't making sense for game. The sparkly-gems that remove a line and close in the gap when hit was a way to implement Match-3 type chain reactions into a game where the blocks don't have gravity. And the blocks shifting around each time you hit them was a way to add more chaos and make a lot more happen each time you hit the ball, because normal Breakout games usually feel tedious pretty quick, in my opinion.
What thoughts went into creating the power-ups for the game? Into creating fun things for players to work toward?
Resni: A lot of power-ups don't really help you, but just change the gameplay. Getting the power-ups is random and out of the player’s control, so I thought it wouldn't be as interesting if the one with a power-up always had a clear advantage. I don't remember what I was originally trying to achieve with the "wave ball" power-up, but when I tested it, it was totally silly and frustrating, so I wanted to keep it because I thought it would funny.
Sparkles & Gems features an expansive story alongside its puzzle-based play. What inspired the game's story? Why bringing visual novel elements into your puzzle game?
j a r s: Around the early stages of development, we had purchased a carved wooden sculpture of a horse with a bunch of symbols on it from a local thrift store. We loved it and thought it was weird and silly, and would oftentimes joke with each other about what its personality would be like. Then, we thought it would be cool to make a character in the game based off of that, and that kind of started to snowball into the story concept.
Using the "business horse" (Sandway) as a main foil kind of guided the narrative. The other characters then started to develop nicely and they were fun to write for, so it seemed appropriate to have a visual novel-type story to really flesh out their personalities.
What thoughts went into the creation of your touching, and delightfully silly, story and characters?
j a r s: Well, Sandway came from the wooden sculpture that had "business" looking symbols adorning it. Of course, they would have to be all about professionalism and business endeavors. Then, the other characters developed to contrast Sandway and were inspired by different things in our life. We have cats and like ice cream, so that was an obvious combination. We're also gay furries, so we wanted a ferret boyfriend in there, too. At that point, a geometry clown just seemed like a natural addition to round out the crew.
The story revolves around characters trying to find a sense of placement in a world in which they have hard time fitting in - something that we both feel like personally. We wanted to create a sense of love and acceptance for these oddball creatures, and for them to form their own little community of support to help them navigate and grow in a world that may be hostile to them.
What drew you to the game's art style? To this look at an earlier time in 3D artwork?
j a r s: We both grew up having games from the mid to late 90's—these have had probably the biggest impact on us. So, the aesthetic from that time spills into the things we create. I think we also know what our strengths and weaknesses are in respect to rendering things, with Resni being good at pixel art and me being good at rudimentary 3D stuff, so we just built off of that.
One game that I did think about often in regards to its art style while making our game was Baku Baku Animal, which I had on a demo disc for my computer when I was a kid. I remember being drawn to it cause it had these creepy little animated animals rendered in 3D that would interact with the playing space. I would say the little animated portraits during the gameplay sections in Sparkles & Gems was pretty inspired by that, as well as other puzzle games like Puyo Puyo/Mean Bean Machine.
Players that do well can decorate a room with some unique, fun items. What ideas went into creating this collection of things? Why give players a room to decorate as a reward?
Resni: I liked the idea of players grinding for something aesthetic, made up of lots of little goals to reach. We had talked about the idea of decorating a room for another one of our games together, but that didn't happen.
j a r s: I think we liked the idea of the player being able to decorate a little room with stuff as a reward for playing. We like to do that to our own place with art and the silly things that we find (like Sandway!). I've also really loved being able to do that in video game spaces, like the Sims and Sonic Shuffle. It's kind of a nice thing to decorate a room full of stuff that has meaning to you, and we wanted that stuff to range from fairly innocuous items like a toaster, to more abstract things like an Oolophant.
There is also an undertone of lambasting business-y things and capitalism in general throughout the game, so we just kind of played into the absurdity of that by creating a currency exchange system that is used to unlock stuff. Most of the objects have an air of specificity to them and there is a limited number of them to unlock, so we were hoping it would act as a way to drive players to play more of the game so that they could complete the full list of un-lockables.
This game, an IGF 2022 finalist, is featured as part of the IGF Awards ceremony, taking place at the Game Developers Conference on Wednesday, March 23 (with a simultaneous broadcast on GDC Twitch).