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Gamasutra speaks with Moon Studios CEO and creative director Thomas Mahler about the metroidvania-styled design decisions that made this year's Ori and the Will of the Wisps a success.
May 18, 2020
10 Min Read
Released earlier this year, the "metroidvania" Ori and the Will of the Wisps is the critically-acclaimed, commercially successful sequel to 2015's Ori and the Blind Forest. Gamasutra spoke with Thomas Mahler, CEO and creative director at Ori developer Moon Studios about the creation of Will of the Wisps and some of the design decisions that made the game a success.
Metroidvanias are a lot more common now than they were even in the GBA era, when we had to await whatever Nintendo or Konami put out. What new things does Ori and the Will of the Wisps bring to the genre?
With Ori and the Blind Forest, our goal was to elevate platforming in metroidvanias and deliver that element to a level of quality that could even compete with the stuff Nintendo puts out, which was quite the lofty goal, but I think we delivered on that.
Back when we started working on Ori and the Blind Forest, metroidvanias were almost non-existent on the market. It was almost unfathomable to imagine one of the bigger publishers to invest heavily into a metroidvania-title... fans of those games have always wanted Konami to make an HD 2D Castlevania and that never happened... so that was another one of our goals: Deliver an outstanding visual experience that really shows the world what a 2D metroidvania could look like in today's time.
Our goal with Will of the Wisps was to not just deliver a phoned-in sequel, but to elevate every pillar of Ori and the Blind Forest to a crazy degree. We wanted Ori and the Will of the Wisps to become a sequel akin to how Nintendo improved upon Super Mario Bros. when they made Super Mario Bros 3. We really tried to perfect all the elements that were introduced in Ori and the Blind Forest: The visuals had to be way better, the combat had to be far more engaging, the story had to be expanded upon, we wanted the whole progression loop to become more satisfying...In the end, I think we're quite proud of what we shipped and hope that Ori and the Will of the Wisps will be remembered as a sequel that "got it right."
Ori has a gratifyingly graceful and rapid movement. How did you manage to pull that off?
Simply through our insane iterative polish process. Platforming is one of the core elements in Ori, so we knew we had to get that element perfect. We spent a crazy amount of time just trying to make the movement as fun and satisfying as possible and there's so many things that go into that. The controls had to be fine-tuned for an ungodly amount of time, the animations had to be top-notch, sound effects had to play into the mix, particles, etc. Many times in game development multiple things across multiple disciplines have to be tweaked just right before something starts to feel really fun to play.
What is the process of creating such a lush and non-grid-based world look like? What was its design phase, and what are your favored world building tools?
Our world-building tools for our design department were honestly quite simplistic. We start the level design process in the simplest way possible, by first starting with a strong concept on paper. Then we move on to the blockout phase where we simply draw polygons that define the platforms and shapes Ori will run and jump on.
Then you do a lot of tweaking and nudging things around while you're constantly playtesting the level you're building...Once all that's done, you need to present your level to other designers to get harsh and honest feedback. Repeat that process a few times until everyone loves the blockout level and then it eventually gets the "design approved" stamp, which means that the level is ready to move on to our artists who then start the process of set dressing, which in itself is quite an involved process. But the point is that we start in the simplest possible way and only move on to art and set dressing when we know that the anatomy of a level is good to go.
The world in the game has a lot of dynamic objects, like bouncy twigs and swinging ropes, and Ori picks up a skill that allows them to even use projectiles as a movement opportunity. Did those items present, along with the non-grid-based map, any gating challenges, to keep players out of regions they may not be prepared for yet?
Oh, constantly. Again, we believe in iterative polish, which means that every inch of our levels gets scrutinized all the time by many different people. There's a whole pipeline built around just getting a level to be ready to go into the final game.
In Will of the Wisps, you might have noticed that we had to rig literally hundreds of objects so that they react to Ori's movement. Alexey Abramenko, the designer and programmer behind the Intrusion series of games actually did most of that stuff and we're super proud of the work he delivered. The world of Niwen feels much more alive than what we were able to deliver back then during Ori and the Blind Forest because of that.
And yeah, because we're dealing with physics, there's some sequence breaking that players might be able to do due to physics... and once again, it's just a matter of tweaking things until the Design Department is happy overall. Making a metroidvania game is probably one of the toughest challenges you could look for in terms of game design simply because the entire game basically has to become one huge puzzle: Change an element over here to the right in the world and it might have bad effects on this one spot to the far left of your world... on top of that, you have 300+ levels, so you can imagine how much of a challenge it was to build this world...
One cool aspect of the game is all the collectable Spirit Shards there are, each of which provides a minor power and they can be powered up. There's a variety of these, some navigational (like sticking to walls), some protective (decrease damage) and some with weird applications (switching health and energy). What does a good Shard ability look like, from the perspective of making them?
We saw Spirit Shards as the natural evolution to the Ability Tree System that was featured in Ori and the Blind Forest. Instead of following a path and having to upgrade certain skills that the player might not even want to acquire, now we allowed you to directly collect those shards within the world to create your own custom loadout. That also meant that we were able to go a little crazier with the shards, since you don't really have to invest into a shard if you don't like it.
There weren't really any strict rules as to what constitutes a good shard, we just decided based on our gut feeling what'd make sense and what wouldn't. Overall we just wanted to use shards to allow people to maximize efficiency of their particular playstyle.
Let me ask about game testing and iteration. Was the design of the second Ori game, informed by the making of the first one, largely straightforward or did you have to remake some parts in response to testing? At what point during development do you think it's best to start bringing testers in to try out various areas, abilities and enemies?
I've come to find that nothing in game development is really all that straightforward! It's always quite a crazy process, even if you think you've planned it out all nicely--sure enough a curveball is already coming towards your direction and it's really just about how you react to that. We didn't take Will of the Wisps' development lightly.
We knew it'd be difficult and that us having made Ori and the Blind Forest before would only give us so much confidence since we introduced so many new elements to the design. We didn't want to phone it in in any way, literally everything was up for scraps again. And I honestly don't think it ever really works that way, unless you're making a sequel that's basically just a small deviation of your previous game--in which case I'd probably question why exactly we'd wanna do that.
Regarding testing, we test everything as early as possible. We have our own developers constantly playing through the game and for Will of the Wisps we also hired two of the best Ori speedrunners in the world in order to really show us sequence breaks and techniques that us lowly designers couldn't even dream of pulling off.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps has a money system. Currency is earned by hitting lanterns, killing monsters and found in lump sums. Were you afraid that the introduction of a currency-based upgrade system would lead to players grinding for cash, boring themselves specifically to fill out their skillset early?
No, not at all. I'm the kinda player who also sometimes grinds in RPGs and games with elements like that just to get an early advantage. As long as the process of doing that is fun, I think it's all fair game. We didn't want to constrain that in any way since we were pretty confident in Ori's core abilities being really enjoyable anyway. We obviously did do quite a few things to ensure that players couldn't grind and then easily sequence break, but the thought process was: "If people want to grind to get an early advantage, more power to them!"
The attack patterns of the monsters in the game are fairly interesting, I think, in a classic kind of way. Metroid enemies often just seem like they're doing their own thing and are more in the way than active opponents, but Ori's foes directly target you like predator species. It works in a way that single monsters aren't too difficult, but when multiple monsters are together, their intersecting attack patterns produce their own challenges. How did your team create and iterate through those monster attack patterns?
This question is opening up old wounds...Getting the enemies to work properly was easily the toughest challenge of the entire project. We initially dabbled with the craziest ideas, we even tested if procedural enemies or procedural locomotion would work in Ori... and we failed pretty dang hard. The enemies obviously had to work hand in hand with the new combat system, they had to feel like a good challenge against every single weapon or spell, they had to always consider other enemies around them and there were just so, so many edge-cases to figure out.
I'm quite happy with the final set of enemies we shipped, but getting them all to work in a way that feels good considering Ori's moveset was incredibly difficult and we had some of our smartest tech-people tear their hair out all throughout the project in order to make the enemies work properly. And once again there's just never a one-size-fits-all solution, every enemy behavior tree had to be considered separately and had to then be tweaked to work with all the various moves Ori can perform. There's really no formula there, we just had to pull through and make it all work...and I'm glad we did, but I still shudder when I think back of how difficult of a problem that was to solve.
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