This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Four players must climb a mountain in Frog Climbers, each scrambling for handholds on the rocks and vines as they rush to the top. This seems like a situation where you'd have a hard time catching the frog in first place, but the devs at TeamCrew came up with the idea of letting players use other players' frogs as handholds.
Now, the person in first place is just another thing to grab onto in your own push to come in first, creating a scramble where the players themselves become platforms. This creates even more chaos and competition in the race, adding in the fun element of being able to mess with others while also making sure no players get left behind.
This clever student game earned TeamCrew a nomination from the Independent Games Festival, and Gamasutra spoke with member Sebastian Larsson to talk about how they designed a racer that kept every one of its players in mind, helping all skill levels be able to keep up with each other.
What's your background in making games?
We are a bunch of Swedish game design students in our twenties, so we are very much learning as we go! We met during our education at the University of Uppsala, department of game design, and through a production course produced the prototype for Frog Climbers which evolved into the full game over the next 1.5 years. Developing Frog Climbers has been a very educational and humbling experience.
How did you come up with the concept?
The party game approach itself came from the fact that the game was to be shown at a conference at the end of the initial production course - encouraging us to design experiences which were easy to pick up and encouraged playing with friends. With this outlook we also purposefully designed the game to help out less skilled players, to allow everyone to have fun together.
The course also encouraged creating games using unique inputs, which forced us to think creatively. We had a vague idea of allowing players full control of their avatar’s movements, making the player’s input match the avatar’s very closely. We decided to allow the player full control of the hands, and from that point climbing seemed like a good match.
We knew we did not want human climbers since it had been done before and humans are complicated. We went through a series of animals before finally finding videos of frog climbing on Youtube. It seemed like a perfect fit for the silly aesthetic we were going for.
What thoughts go into creating obstacles and paths to be put together for the game's mountains? In generating a space where four players can fight as they climb?
The process changes depending on what type of block I am designing. When creating classic mountains designed for less skilled players, it is important to ensure players can scale the entire mountain while only using basic climbing techniques. At the same time, I have tried to encourage more skilled play by creating paths which are faster but require more skill. That way, players are pushed to become better even in a casual context.
In terms of designing a space for multiple players, the main challenge involves ensuring there are multiple paths one can take - allowing players to climb a side path if the other path is cluttered with frogs. The level design itself also sometimes acts as a catch up mechanic. By letting paths loop above previous paths, less skilled players can grab the feet of the frog in the above path allowing them to catch up. Another trick is to add vines which will snap when grabbed, falling down to create a path for players who are falling behind.
Being able to use other players as climbing tools adds silliness. What do you feel that being able to mess with the other players adds to a racing game? To multiplayer in general?
Player interaction is the key to a great party game. In particular, being able to mess with your friends is very satisfying. I think the climbing mechanic is extra powerful since the taunting is embedded into the core gameplay - grabbing an opponent is like second nature. Players will actually scream as they grab people and are grabbed - getting that kind of feedback has been super satisfying.
Early during development, one of our main inspirations was how Mariokart handled rubber banding mechanics to ensure players are always interacting with each other. My experience with racing games in general is that it’s not a lot of fun being first. To solve this, one either needs to ensure the top player has something to do - or help less skilled players catch up.
Our response to this is how you can grab friends in Frog Climbers. A player who is falling behind can, if they have the skill, grab the feet of an opponent - then the knees- then the backpack and lastly the grip the leading frog is holding. In that way players who are behind are literally given a ladder to the leading player’s position - if they are skilled enough to utilize it fully. This combined with the ladybug catch up mechanic makes it so that players of a wide range of skill can still play together and have a good time.
What development tools were used to build your game?
We used Unity as our engine and Photoshop to create all of the assets. Lastly we used Sourcetree for version control.
How much time have you spent working on the game?
Development started spring 2015 during a production course. After great reception of the prototype, we decided to continue development during our free time. The game was released on Steam October 2016. That’s 1.5 years of work which was done during our free time, although we do not have any documentation of the exact work hours. I would estimate we worked together an average for 10-15 hours per week.
Frog Climbers offers daily climbs for players who wish to test their skills. How much work goes into creating a new speedrun daily? What do you have to consider when creating daily content to challenge your best players?
This was a very fun problem to solve and one we are quite happy with. The way we have set up the level generation system is that levels are generated in handmade chunks, each level consisting of 3 chunks. Depending on the type of mountain being generated, it’ll select chunks with specific tags, for example “hard” tags.
For the daily mountain, our programmer Semih found a way to use the date of the day as a seed for the mountain generator - allowing the game to randomize mountains from Frog Climbers' list of mountains endlessly. In that way the daily mountain feature is entirely automated.
We really wanted to feature a single player experience for when the party is over but did not have the time to develop more levels or assets for a story mode. The daily mountain feature was our solution to this problem.
In terms of difficulty, Frog Climbers’ core mechanics are physics-based, resulting in that there is a lot to learn in order to climb quickly. In that sense we were really lucky - since speedclimbing an easy level is as rewarding as speedclimbing a hard one no matter how difficult the mountain itself is, a player can always optimize their climb techniques.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
Yes oh dang there are so many good games! It’s humbling to be nominated among such giants. My personal favorite is Quadrilateral Cowboy. It’s all of the great storytelling in a Blendo game - plus gameplay! I could go on and on but let’s just say they’re great.
What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?
In a very saturated PC market, getting noticed is super hard. Especially on Steam, there are just so many games there that it’s easy to get lost, even if the game itself is of good quality. Having a strong hook that gets people interested and building communities as early as possible improves chances. Going into the project, our main focus was making games, but as development continued we realized that keeping up with social media and engaging with our audience is a job in itself, taking a ton of time.
Regarding opportunities - the games medium is growing both in terms of customers and in regards to games available. It’s easier than ever to develop games using engines and the internet lets anyone talk directly with their target audience as long as you’re ready to put in the time. Let’s make more things!