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Kim Swift On Creating Quantum Conundrum

The ex-Portal designer talks about her new project, Quantum Conundrum, which is currently under development at Airtight Games and to be published next year by Square Enix -- and in particular, the development methodology that allows her to innovate in the action/puzzle genre.

When Portal and Left 4 Dead lead designer Kim Swift left Valve in 2009, it came as a surprise to most in the industry. Valve, for many game developers, represents the pinnacle of studios: it's independent, it's self-sufficient, it's staffed by a bunch of cool people, and it's in a comfortable enough position to take its time and make sure the games it produces are done right, much to the delight -- and frustration -- of its fans.

Swift soon popped up at developer Airtight Games. According to statements released by Airtight at the time, Swift came in as the studio's new project leader to help build and lead a team devoted to creating games for a more diverse audience (the studio at the time was wrapping up its first project, Capcom's Dark Void, which was anything but casual).

As Swift tells it, the opportunity was just too irresistible to pass up. Valve, for all the good it did for her career, was growing faster than she was ready for.

The expanding team sizes and the fast-paced schedules made her democratic,vid design-by-committee approach to game development difficult to maintain, so when the opportunity came up to start over with a small team, she packed up and left behind the studio that gave her a chance fresh out of college to start anew.

Finally, nearly two years later, Airtight has revealed its first game with Swift as captain: a physics-based puzzler for Square Enix called Quantum Conundrum, which sees players progressing through stages by manipulating their environments through entering and exiting different dimensions, each of which makes the world behave differently.

A "fluffy" dimension might make everything nearly weightless, while an anti-gravity dimension lifts up everything that isn't attached to the walls and a slow-motion dimension slows everything down to a crawl.

Players are tasked with combining the dimensional effects to cross chasms, manipulate the world and eventually get to the exit door of each stage.

If that sounds a lot like Portal, you're right. As Gamasutra learned in an interview following our private demonstration of the game, even Swift admits that Quantic Conundrum is an evolution of the genre she helped to define.

I get the feeling there's going to be a lot of Portal comparisons.

Kim Swift: Mm-hm!

Is that something you're prepared for?

KS: I mean, it makes sense! This particular genre, the first person platforming puzzle game, let's see. What exists in that genre? Portal. Okay. And I worked on Portal so it's like yeah, of course it's going to be compared.

I'm not... offended [laughs] or shocked, it's just like yeah, that's about right! And if you look at it from a high level, sure, they're similar games. They're both in the genre. But at the same time it's a completely different game style. We're definitely going a little more quirky and cartoony, in as far as art style goes. Our story is way different, and the gameplay is different as well. It's not just about making holes in walls, this is about manipulating the entire world around you and changing physics, and the look and feel of the game, with every button switch.

This strikes me as a natural evolution of the ideas that began with your student game, Narbacular Drop. It seems like Portal built from that, and this builds from Portal.

KS: Well, these are the kinds of games that I like to play, and therefore they're the games that I like to make! The guys that I've been working with have been having a fun time making the game. And so to me, I think that this particular genre needs more games in it, because people find it a lot of fun.

"First person platforming puzzle." Is there even anything more in that genre than just Portal?

KS: Not that I'm aware of. I think that's just it. So as far as begging comparisons to Portal, it's kind of hard not to. I imagine it's like when first person shooters just got started, and there was literally one, and then there were two. That second one is going to be like, "Oh, it's exactly like the first one."

Yeah, I remember them all being "Wolfenstein 3D clones."

KS: Exactly! But as the genre evolves, and there are more and more games, it's like, yeah, they all have a particular core that they have in common with each other, but they're completely different games. Like, I wouldn't compare Halo and Half-Life.

When you left Valve and went to Airtight, the public explanation was that you left for a specific opportunity. Is this a concept you brought with you, or is this something that they'd been working on?

KS: So, I had this idea, and basically came to Airtight with the idea. It's something that had always kind of been in the back of my mind while I was working for Left 4 Dead 2, but I didn't tell anybody until I actually left.

Once I got to Airtight and met everybody from my team... I like to run things very democratically. I want everyone to have a say in what they work on.

So rather than just saying, "Hey guys, this is the game we're going to do, and you have no say in it," I asked everybody, "Hey, put together a one-sheet of what kind of games you want to make, and we'll all sit there, take a look at everybody's different games. We get to pitch to one another, and then we'll vote on the ones we want to try."

So we decided on this game just because it was the quickest to prototype. That was something that was really important to us, because we have a small team and a limited budget. We wanted to make sure that whatever game we chose to place our bets on was something that we could find out was fun right away. And so within a couple weeks we had something prototyped, and it was a lot of fun, so we decided to just keep going.


Does that democratic approach carry over from Valve? Were you able to work that same way?

KS: On Portal definitely, and to some extent on Left 4 Dead 1 and 2. A little less on 2, because we had such a short timeframe to make the game -- it was like a year start-to-finish, which was amazing to me that we actually did that [laughs].

Yeah, I was surprised when it was announced. It was like, "Already?"

KS: [laughs] We were surprised too. It was like, "Oh my god! We did it, we're not running on Valve Time! Holy crap!"

Kind of compare the two studios for us if you could, as far as the development practices between them. What's the same? What's different?

KS: I guess to me, as far as working on this game, it felt more like working on Portal just because we have a really small team and we're all pretty young, and we're kind of goofy. We give each other a lot of crap and joke around every day. And so I really like that a lot.

Valve has gotten a lot bigger since I've left. I know when I was there, when I first started, the company at least doubled in size while I was there. It might have even tripled. So I definitely like smaller companies where I get to know everybody, and know who their kids are, and know who their dogs are, and they bring them into work! And just having a fun, almost family-like atmosphere.

How big is the team right now?

KS: We're 16 people!

That's pretty small.

KS: Yes it is! [laughs]

Is everyone on this game?

KS: No. So the company as a whole is like 40 people, I think? Maybe 50? So there are two projects at the studio. There's ours, that has 16 people, and there's another that has the rest.

So you're the small team.

KS: Yeah. We're the tiny team.

It seems like this genre is going to get a lot more crowded soon. In general the physics platformer has started to take off, especially with the indies. Do you think it could become a proper, popular genre?

KS: I think so! It's the type of game I want to play anyway, so I don't see why not. The more people that actually buy the product, you know, supply and demand, as publishers start to realize these are viable types of games they'll start putting money into them.

How much of these mechanics came out of the prototyping process?

KS: We got a prototype up and running within a couple of weeks with...I think we had fluffy prototyped right away. That was easy to do. And slow-motion was prototyped right away as well. So we just started playing around with a bunch of different ideas.

Once we prototyped a couple dimensions, we were like, "These are really fun!" Then we went to the whiteboard and started brainstorming as many different dimension ideas as we possibly could, figuring out how long it would take to prototype them, and which ones we thought would interact the best with the couple of dimensions we had already.

During the demo, one of the mechanics you showed us -- kind of creating a sine wave by turning gravity on and off and feathering an object across the room -- you said was an accidental discovery during prototyping?

KS: Yeah, totally. Once we had a couple of different dimensions prototyped, it was just like, "Well, let's play with it," in almost a white box room with a bunch of random crap in it. We had a zoo level that just had a box and like, a weird ball-looking thing, and just a bunch of other random shapes in it. And we were just kind of playing around and seeing what was fun and capitalizing on that in terms of figuring out what our gameplay mechanics were going to be in each dimension.

It sounds like most of the development so far has just been finding fun and figuring out what to do with it after?

KS: Yeah. Pretty much.

So you didn't start off so much with a high level concept?

KS: The high level concept was "We're going to make a game about changing dimensions, and each dimension is a tool for you to use in order to manipulate your environment." Then it was a matter of coming up with a bunch of different dimensions and then figuring out which ones we felt had the most permutations of use, and then interacted the best with other dimensions. Because we wanted to, at the end of the game, have all five dimensions present in one space at the same time, and how those would actually interact with each other and get the most switching back and forth between them.

How are you going to deal with it narratively?

KS: Right now it's very dry, because there is no voiceover. But eventually we will have a voiceover for Professor Quadwrangle. He's able to tap into the intercom system and communicate with you through there.


So once you figured out what these puzzles and mechanics were supposed to be, what visual cues were necessary to guide the player?

KS: Going back to the barebones design of how we actually picked which puzzles to use is, we would all -- once again, designing by committee -- we would say, "Okay. Our game is separated into three different wings with various difficulties, and the first wing that you go to, you only get normal and two dimensions, so three to play with" -- because we didn't want to inundate the player with too much information at once.

So we say, "Okay, we need to teach the player how to use this dimension, and here's all the things that this dimension can do. So let's pick one of those particular skills that we're trying to teach them, and figure out a level just to teach them that one skill. And then let's figure out how to reinforce it, so we'll come up with a couple puzzles that are going to reuse that particular skill, and then add a new one and keep going."

Once we figure out what puzzle we're going to build, we want to then kind of whitebox it and make sure that it plays right. Then we rearrange the room compositionally so that way... I call it "design compositions."

Instead of it being like a painting where everything is still, you want to use things like motion, lighting cues -- not only lighting but the shadows too. As you can see [playing the demo] our window shadows are actually pointing, literally, at stuff. So figuring out a good lighting composition for the level, as well as detail.

So if you compose a scene where there's a bunch of detail in one area, players tend to just look at that. So just using a lot of psychological cues that you would use composing a painting, and doing a scene like that for a video game.

It seems like you've always done that. It seems similar to the way you must have put Portal together.

KS: Yep! I lit and designed Portal's levels too! [laughs] So yes, that's how I learned how to do things. It works the best. You know you've done a good job composing a scene if a player walks in a room and immediately looks at what you want them to look at first. It's like... "Yes! I won!" And if they walk around and they're just kind of confused and not sure where to go, then that means we did something wrong, so we've got to figure out how to get them to look at what they want to look at first, second, and third, and then compose the scene that way.

How much playtesting does that take?

KS: We have weekly playtests, where we grab somebody and run through from start to finish of what we have, and a couple of us will sit and watch and take notes and then track bugs based on what we've observed. Then Square Enix will also be running testing for us too, as far as bugs go.

You have the shoulder buttons up on the HUD, and you've also got this company logo. Did you realize you needed those?

KS: We're still playing around with the HUD itself, the HUD we have up here right now is not final. But yeah, we definitely like having the ability to have you see on screen which dimensions you have where. Because certain times you will only have a couple dimensions, and sometimes you will have all four. So it's just kind of handy to have them up on the screen.

It doesn't seem to get in the way very much. It feels like you've got a bit of a fisheye camera, where you can really see around it.

KS: Yeah. We definitely test a whole bunch. We're still in the midst of iterating on our HUD. But I think the reticle is going to stay the same.

You've got five dimensions total?

KS: Yep. Five total. When we were first developing this particular project, we were just kind of playing around with logos for Professor Quadwrangle's company. So he has a couple different logos, one for himself, one for his company, Quadwrangle Industries, and that particular one is a take on a biohazard symbol that we thought was kind of clever. We're trying to be clever.


Can we go back to design composition a bit? I found that really interesting, as far as visual cues and making a player go where you want them to go.

KS: It's composing a scene like you would for a painting. So let's say I have a basic room [Swift sketches on paper] and I want the player to go here, right? So what I want to do as far as geometry is, let's say, let's have these walls curve in, because it's going to lead your eye along this line here. And you can see, we've done that quite a bit with our curves and angles.

It's not just because they're just quirky and fun, they actually help point and compose the scene where we want you to look. So in the case of, say, this image here, we wanted you to look at the image of Professor Quadwrangle. We wanted you to look at all the stuff over there in the corner, and we also wanted you to look at the ledge up there too.

So as you're coming in this room, I immediately want you to look at the right. Even though there's important stuff to the left, I want you to look at the right. So the way I lit this particular scene is because there's two windows up here on the side, I wanted you to look off to the right. So I made sure to use a light that cast at kind of an extreme angle, because that tends to look the best.

It's creating an effect where it's kind of leading you with the lights.

KS: Exactly. So not only are you lighting this space because you want to cast light in that area -- because lighter spaces, people are attracted to something that's light as opposed to dark. And then in addition to that, I'm using the negative space of the window itself to basically be an arrow that says, hey! Look over here!

I would have never noticed that.

KS: Mm-hmm. But it's those little subtle things that people don't really notice. But once you look at it from a compositional standpoint, that's what's going on.

Do you have a background in art composition?

KS: I have a rough art background. I used to do comics a long time ago. I've kind of been all over the place as far as disciplines go.

Well, as a game designer, you kind of have to be.

KS: Yeah. I have a little bit of an art background, and then went to school for computer science. So I've done programming and I've done art, and now I kind of do design, which is a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B.

Is this what you've been working on since you went to Airtight?

KS: I had a short stint with another project for a very short period of time, but it eventually got cancelled. Then we started this one right away. I joined in... November of 2009? We worked on that one for eight or nine months, then we started late spring to prototype and shopping for a publisher around summer of last year. So we've been working on this for a little over a year.

What's the target demographic for this game? Looking at it, it could be cartoony, or it could be for the young at heart.

KS: We wanted to walk the line of not alienating a particular audience. So we wanted to entice kids while at the same time not making hardcore first-person shooter players go, "Ugh, oh my God, this looks like a game for five-year-olds. What is this crap?" So we definitely are trying to walk the line in terms of keeping the humor in the art style as well -- give you a good giggle. As well as using bright, saturated colors just because, I don't know, we felt it fit more with the game.

Is this being developed as an IP that could be commercialized also?

KS: You'd have to ask them [laughs, pointing at a Square rep].

So it's Square's IP.

KS: Yeah, it is now!

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