Designing Vandals, a turn-based stealth game about graffiti artists

"Even a puzzle game can be a stealth game...because you have to figure out how to get the perfect move," says dev Cosmografik in discussing the design of turn-based graffiti puzzler Vandals.

Théo Le Du Fuentes (aka Cosmografikenjoys a varied life.

In recent years he's worked for clients like Red Bull, Ubisoft, and Societe Generale. That's not including his experience as part of street art collective, Raspouteam (deliberately referencing Rasputin) or Type:Rider, a moderately successful font-based puzzle platformer for PC and console.

It's Cosmografik's latest title, Vandals, that's most intriguing, however. A mobile game developed in conjunction with European public service television channel ARTE, Vandals has you infiltrating famous streets across the world in a bid to spray walls with street art while dodging police surveillance. Unusually, for a stealth game, it's entirely turn-based. Its mechanics are instantly familiar to anyone who's played one of the Go series of games, such as Hitman Go, but its roots stretch back long before such titles.

Gamasutra recently talked to the developer to learn more about the idea that had been brewing for years, and how he was able to turn a relatively action packed concept into a more thought provoking turn based puzzle game.

A decade in the making

"Even a puzzle game can be a stealth game...because you have to figure out how to get the perfect move and the perfect game."

"Vandals was a project I had the idea [for] 10 years ago. I was playing a game made by Pyro Studio from Spain called Commandos," he explains. Commandos was a real time strategy game set during World War II; stealth was key to success as players helped a team negotiate enemy areas before destroying tactical outposts in a far more subtle way than simply 'running and gunning'. As Le Du Fuentes played it, he realized that its combination of an isometric view point, appealing animations, and general sneakiness would provide a "very good setting for a graffiti game".

However, it wasn't for many years afterwards (until after Type:Rider released in 2013) that things progressed for this inkling of a good idea. Talking with AGAT film/EX Nihilo producer, Arnaud Colinart, about what to do next following Type:Rider led to a firmer plan. As Le Du Fuentes put it to Colinart, "I would like to make a strategic game around stealth and infiltration gameplay...around graffiti," and that's exactly what Vandals became.

The first iteration was an isometric based real-time strategy game with a free camera, and different characters to control. "During this iteration I imagined what this game could be in a FPS mode," points out Le Du Fuentes, "so we've prototyped this too." Such thinking led to the implementation of being able to actually paint on the in-game walls, something that continued into the final version.

As design continued, it swiftly became apparent that with a very small team of people rather than a studio, Vandals just couldn't work effectively as a real-time strategy or FPS game. So, Le Du Fuentes switched to mobile.

By this point, the Go series in the form of Hitman, Lara Croft, and Deus Ex, was already there. As Le Du Fuentes points out, "the foundations were set up already," so it was an easy switch to turn-based gameplay with that all important focus on graffiti and history.

"I had the idea maybe 15 years ago, and we started to develop three years and seven months ago," explains Le Du Fuentes, with about two years spent developing Vandals as it looks now.

The building blocks of design

Following a predictable path with mobile development, everything is made with Unity. "We used Illustrator for interfaces, [as well as] Photoshop...and 3ds Max and Maya for 3D assets," notes Le Du Fuentes.

The actual design process was quite quick; within the engine is a custom tool to design levels quickly which the team embraced.

"Just put some blocks, update the architecture, and everything will be generated based on these blocks," acknowledges Le Du Fuentes.

In Vandals, each city is different because of the street art the location is known for. Sao Paulo, for instance, has more climbing because it has a "very vertical way of painting." In some places, the actual game mechanics have been affected by their location. "I wanted to give some feelings about how the cities are explored by street artists [via] the gameplay," explains Le Du Fuentes. It's a subtle change that isn't always obvious, but still forms the foundations to Le Du Fuentes and his team's way of thinking.

"We decided to keep the challenge very simple to understand," Le Du Fuentes points out. "You can just finish the level without being caught by the police...Then if you want to complete the game 100%, we decided to make a more complicated version of each puzzle that you have to figure out how to stay invisible."

Different choices and different solutions

Le Du Fuentes is keen to stress that Vandals isn't 'just' a stealth game - each level is an intricate puzzle that's asking for players to explore in order to gain the most rewards. "We wanted to fit [gamers'] play style," he explains.

Gathering friends round to play all the levels to garner feedback, Le Du Fuentes and the team were impressed to find that some players managed to find better solutions to levels. Reassuringly, "they didn't find any problems" bar one which was already patched by some point.

Much of that is likely down to the extensive research conducted beforehand. The team read a lot of articles on what constitutes a stealth game, and Le Du Fuentes noticed that it's sometimes more about the "possibilities than the solutions" that a game offers.

"One sentence that really comforts me...was from Mike Bithell, the designer of Thomas Was Alone [and Volume]," starts Le Du Fuentes. "[He] said in an interview that stealth games are puzzle games but disguised, hidden into an action game. It's more about solving puzzles than doing the action because all the reward comes from being able to solve the puzzle that looks impossible," Le Du Fuentes explains. 

"That's the sentence I really means that even a puzzle game can be a stealth game...because you have to figure out how to get the perfect move and the perfect game," he adds. "That's why we put the emphasis about being invisible. You cannot hurt anyone. You are very weak [and] if the police see you, they will start to chase you."

Vulnerability is key

Le Du Fuentes purposefully keeps the player weak so there's always an alternative away from violence. Much like, he points out, in real life. "If you go outside to paint outside in your environment, you have to be careful with all your moves." he notes.

With experience in street art and spending time as a graffiti artist, Le Du Fuentes is acutely aware of the dangers, admitting that he's been arrested several times. Citing it as a "really good period of time that gave [him] a lot of inspiration," Le Du Fuentes was part of a collective named Raspouteam, focusing on bringing what Le Du Fuentes considers as the "unknown history or the loser's history" to Paris in the form of street art.

Vandals doesn't quite offer the 'unknown' history of its cities, but in terms of providing a suitably stealthy and apprehensive approach to such scenarios, it's an appealing change of pace within a genre so focused on speed. "I've tried to get the essence of what is painting outside in the city at night," Le Du Fuentes concludes.

Out now for mobile and PC, Vandals was developed by Cosmografik and Novelab, produced by Ex Nihilo and published by Arte France.

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