This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
A vast landscape is open for the player to explore, shape, and document in Mu Cartographer, a game where players manipulate an alien device to look over and alter the lands they see.
Mu Cartographer offers many mysteries with little direction, letting players figure out its interface by fiddling with it to see its effects on the land. As they slowly come to understand the strange contraption, they can unveil more secrets buried deep in these colorful landscapes, combing through them with every change they make.
Titouan Millet's creation of curiosity and exploration earned him a nomination for the Nuovo Award from the Independent Games Festival, and Gamasutra recently spoke with him to learn what went into creating a mysterious device that lets players explore colorful, shifting lands.
What's your background in making games?
I taught myself programming while being in a game art section in a video game school in the North of France. I discovered indie games and they resonated with me. I decided to focus on personal game projects rather than working in a company to be more free to experiment and create original content. I quickly went into abstract and experimental projects, enjoying working with colors, shapes and motion, and to generate visuals by code.
How did you come up with the concept?
It was during the Exile Game Jam 2015 that I came up with the idea for Mu Cartographer. Initially, I was simply showing examples of a tool I use to make shaders in Unity. One of the examples ended up becoming an interactive landscape, explore-able and shape-able by modifying values in the shader.
What development tools were used to build your game?
I used Unity with one of my favorite plugins: a nodes-based tool to create shaders called ShaderForge.
How much time have you spent working on the game?
I worked on Mu Cartographer for one year, but not full time. I’d say it would make six months of working full time on the game.
Why give the player an interface they would need to learn to use?
A big part of the game is to learn how to use the machine. I could have made a whole tutorial, but it would have removed the surprise and a part of the abstract sandbox aspect. The idea was to reward the dedicated players who spend more time trying to figure out how the whole system works. With the acquired knowledge, they can manipulate the shape of the landscape in a more precise way, and they will discover more secrets.
Still, I wanted the interface to be fun to play with even without understanding its mechanism in its whole. The coexistence of these two aspects, experimental exploration and colorful sandbox, was one of my main objective with Mu Cartographer.
The visuals of Mu Cartographer are striking, drawing the player into colorful lands. How did you create that draw within the player through visuals? How did you design the look of the game to pique the player's curiosity and need to explore?
The landscape is procedurally generated, and corresponds to the configuration of the interactive elements on the abstract machine at a given time. It means that if two players set the machine in the exact same configuration, they will be able to contemplate the exact same landscape.
I worked on how much freedom to give the player and how much I would give them precision in their ability to shape the world. In some previous versions, there were way more detailed values alterable by the player, but not all were truly relevant or obvious enough when converted into actual visual modifications. I wanted each single interactive element to have its specific visible effect on the map.
The base of the landscape itself is made of a set of textures that I had to create myself and add details to them in order to offer variation in the landscape. I wanted the player to be able to find/create a certain amount of different landforms, mountains, rivers, clouds, seas, forests, valleys…
Also, the color palette you choose to render the world and how much you zoom in the map totally changes how you interpret what you see. And all that is only at a given location on the map. Now, add the possibility to move through it and you obtain a great deal of discoverable landscapes. I believe that all that, added to the story to unravel and all the secret cities to discover, creates the need to explore.
Why give the player a means to share their favorite locations through Twitter?
In my mind it was the same thing as taking a picture of a landscape during a trip or a hike in the mountains. The feature to post a screenshot directly to Twitter allows the player to immediately share their discoveries with the online community. It is nice to search Mu Cartographer on Twitter and see all the different landscapes people have discovered and shared. Some players were really dedicated in documenting their trip through screenshots thanks to this tool.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
I’ve played a bunch of them. I’m in love with *Oik OS*, the dog opera by David Kanaga. I’ve been able to play an early version of the game and to talk a bit about it with David, and I’m very curious to discover what it’s going to become.
What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?
It is hard to stand out, and to communicate about your game when you’re alone. It is not easy to make a living out of it (I personally don’t). I guess big events like the IGF are real opportunities to show and talk about your game, and to meet a lot of other indies. But it has a price, and not everyone can afford it. Being nominated for the Nuovo award is really an honor for me, and an exceptional opportunity to tell the world about Mu Cartographer.