This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Creature in the Well abandons you in a deserted town filled with bizarre machines that can be awakened by bouncing energy balls off of them, adding adventure & mystery to pinball action.
Gamasutra sat down with Adam Volker and Bohdon Sayre of Flight School Studio, developers of the Excellence in Visual Art-nominated title, to talk about the work that went into creating a sense of mystery through the game's visual style, how the developers worked their limitations into strengths, and the challenges of designing puzzles and combat around the ball bouncing gameplay.
Volker: I’m Adam Volker, and my job was to oversee the art parts of Creature in the Well, as well as creating the look of the game and architecting the story. Since the team was so small, Bo and I’s responsibilities overlapped a bunch and I also contributed a lot to the level design.
I’ve bopped around the games industry in my career, working for a short time at places like EA Tiburon and Bioware, as well as Midway Home Entertainment as a concept artist. Bo and I joined Flight School Studio when the company started at the beginning of 2017. However, he and I have been working together for about 8 years now.
Sayre: My name is Bohdon Sayre and I was responsible for much of the game’s design as well as all things technical, including all the programming and technical art like material development and VFX.
My job has been a moving target ever since I joined Moonbot Studios as a technical director for animated short films. Adam and I started working together at Moonbot, and we led the interactive division for a number of years before we essentially merged into a new group called Flight School. My game development experience started in children's book apps and games, and then eventually I got into console development. I’ve got a background in 3D art and animation; so, historically, I’ve worked on both artistic and technical aspects of the projects I’ve been on. I’m a self-taught programmer, which is the majority of the work that I’ve been doing for the past 10 years.
Ball bouncing with a sword
Sayre: Creature in the Well came out of a process in which we decided upfront to brainstorm and prototype three games, then pick our favorite to take into production. I was playing a lot of Rocket League and Ballz at the time (haha!) and, I was interested in some kind of game involving ball bouncing and physics. So, for one of the ideas, Adam and I brainstormed a concept that was essentially “a ball bouncing game, except you play as a character swinging a sword.” The original plan was actually some kind of multiplayer game like air hockey. But, as we got further into prototyping, we started having lots of cool ideas about puzzles and a “machine” with moving parts and pieces.
Sayre: We used UE4 to develop the game, Maya and Substance Painter for asset creation, and FMOD for audio. UE4 is an amazing engine. I actually came from 5-6 years of Unity development (and still use Unity on some projects), but have loved working with UE, especially on larger (at least larger for us) projects like this one. It’s the kind of tool where I feel like I improve as a developer just by continuing to read and learn about the massive amount of features and how they are implemented and work together. I also highly recommend FMOD as an indie. This was our first project using it, and it was far easier to learn and implement than I could have imagined.
Volker: Creature in the Well started out just as a top-down adventure prototype where the player hit a ball around. There weren’t bumpers at first - just a player and a ball. We didn’t necessarily start using the word pinball until one of our colleagues brought up the similarity during development. For us, we had been referencing games (apart from top-down adventure games) like Rocket League, Breakout, and Pong just as much as we were pinball. I think it allowed us to pull from lots of different genres and make something was unlike any one single thing.
Bringing organization to chaotic worlds
Sayre: Adam and I are big proponents of story and gameplay mechanics influencing each other. For Creature in the Well, there was a point where we established that the story was going to be about restoring power to an ancient facility. That goal of generating electricity and delving through a once forgotten labyrinth gave us all the structure we needed to design out different worlds, each with their own unique core mechanic. The throughline was that the player should be rewarded for every bumper they hit or obstacle they overcame in the form of electrical power that they are generating and can use later.
A lot of the iteration on the core “combat” came down to controlling chaos. The physical nature of the game created situations that were wild and unwieldy, so we headed in directions that gave the player more control and behaviors that provided organization to the world. A lot of the challenges then became about timing puzzles or executing a series of specific difficult actions in a trials-like format.
On what drew them to the game's visual style
Volker: Iteration. Trying to start with a strong statement and then continue to refine it through repetition is the process I’m most comfortable with. We needed something simple that would allow the energetic bouncing ball that the gameplay centered around to be the center of the player’s attention. Keeping the play area simple and clear for the ball was the most important thing. As we started to figure out what the gameplay needed, the goal for art was to decorate the world with details that would augment what was happening in the gameplay.
Mystery through visual design
Sayre: Adam created an early concept about this mysterious town that was trapped in the middle of the desert. It was isolated, and although there were people still living there, it was very melancholic. We took that and evolved a mood that took inspirations from games like Dark Souls to create a setting that we liked.
One of the first scenes I roughed in was the start of the game, where the player walks through a barren desert to reach the back entrance of the Temple. It was inspired a lot by Zelda’s Lost Woods (in most recently Breath of the Wild) and the goal was to set players up for a mindset of exploration and hunting for secrets. All of the environments were really designed with that same mentality: making something asymmetrical and mysterious, building the setting in which the strange story takes place.
Creativity in limitation
Volker: Practical considerations about Bo and I's core skill set lead a lot of how the game ended up looking. We decided to remove lighting from the game because it wasn’t a core competency for either of us. It would allow me to paint textures that would be the final look, and it allowed us to let everything outside of the levels we built to dip to black. The atmosphere of the game is part artistic choice and part limitation.
Hopefully the game’s visual style leaves a lot to the imagination of the player. For instance, it was important to us that we never fully see the Creature, leaving what it really looks like up to players to decide.