Space Budgie studio on the pros and cons of Early Access

'Consumer expectations of Early Access have changed quite a bit since we launched last year. Players are much more careful about choosing what sort of games they'll buy.'

Glitchspace is a first-person puzzle game in which players hack objects in the environment and modify their properties to progress.

It's been in Early Access for a while, but it's had a spike of interest since the developers released a new alpha version which completely overhauls the game's look, feel, and puzzles.

Ronan Quigley of Space Budgie has answered some questions for us about the game, their experience with Early Access, and the recent changes they've made.

What is the elevator pitch for Glitchspace? How do you describe it when you can't show someone the game?

Glitchspace is all about using visual programming to solve puzzles, whilst discovering key coding concepts along the way. Gameplay involves manipulating programmable blocks by putting together the functionality of the program that you're looking to make. For example, you could create a platform that applies powerful forces to yourself, allowing you to bypass obstacles to reach new areas of the game's cyberspace world.

Overall I'd characterize Glitchspace as a mixture of Portal and Minecraft, with inspiration from coding tools like Scratch thrown in for good measure.

How did you come up with the idea for Glitchspace?

The initial concept came from two of our original co-founders and programmers back in 2012. It started off as being about a programmable gun that allowed you to fire off programs into the game's world. Most games that employ a shooting mechanic use it as a means of destruction, but with Glitchspace we wanted to explore what would happen if you could use it as a means of creation by reprogramming the game instead.

We then prototyped a multiplayer sandbox element (that even had enemies at one point!), but we quickly realised that it was going to be too big for a team of our size and decided to scale it back down into the single player puzzle experience that we have today.

How do you approach level design for Glitchspace?

The levels are usually built around the puzzles themselves. The design starts with a rough idea of what the actual puzzles will do; these are usually doodles and notes on paper.

The basic layout is then quickly mocked up in engine to allow the puzzles to be tested and iterated upon. We tend to not to draw out floor plans of levels as it can be hard to visualise a 3D space on paper. We might make a few doodles, but usually tend to get straight into it; blocking things out as we're going along. During this stage we make sure to keep things flexible so as not to invest too much time into a design that might change.

Please tell me about your studio's background in game development.

We're coming up to our third year as a studio and working independently has taught us a lot about managing our expectations, scope and the importance of getting your core gameplay right first and foremost.

We started out as a graduate team in early 2013. Rather than get jobs elsewhere, we chose to just go it alone and form our own studio. Back then, we felt that if we were ever going to give it a shot that now would be the best time to do so.

At Space Budgie, our mantra is all about developing games that can do more than just entertain the player. We look to make titles that tackle topics that are often unexplored through play. 

Outside of Space Budgie, we also work with a programmer from another local studio who works on the technical side of things for us.

I notice that Glitchspace's alpha 2 has completely different levels from the original ones that were available in Early Access. What led to that change?

So when we first released Glitchspace, at the time we thought that we had a good chunk of the game done.

However, there were a number of problems that quickly surfaced from watching people play it. Some of the issues were to do with there being no sense of flow and the aesthetic choices that were made at the time. However, the most obvious one for us was that the game's visual programming mechanic was usually very difficult for people who had no background in coding to understand.

Whilst there was a lot of positive feedback in this area, with players saying that they were learning something from the game, we didn't think that it was living up to the potential that we knew Glitchspace had and it felt like it was very closed off to any players who weren't a programmer by trade.

All of this came to a head at the end of last year, so we decided to take a step back, thought about the strengths of the game as it stood, and tried to work on fixing the aforementioned weaknesses.

With our alpha 2 releases the game is now in a much better state, with the majority of feedback that we're getting reflecting that as well. There's certainly still some issues to work out, but we're getting much closer to where we want the game to be.

The new levels come with a lot of new artistic/decorative touches. What was the artistic direction/vision behind that? What inspired it?

Initially the change in direction from an aesthetic point of view was a result of certain issues players were having with the old art style. We felt like to a point, form needs to follow function and despite the original artwork gaining a fair amount of compliments there were common issues with eye strain and depth perception.

In order to solve these we decided to look towards aesthetic influences that maintained a minimalist feel but enabled us a little more freedom to embellish and solve some of the issues.

The main ones that we ended up drawing from were Piet Mondrian and an installation artist called James Turrell, who primarily focuses on the use of light within a space.

Mondrian's influence helped us break up the geometry in a way that instantly helped with depth perception. Turrell's use of light helped us create spaces that were interesting without the need for complex textures.

In the 2.0 update, we explored further inspirations from various architectural styles, but for the current 2.2 R&D build we've opted to strip it back again. This choice was made not only to speed up our workflow, but also brings a level of consistency between the various areas that we felt we'd started to lose sight of.

In what ways has Early Access been a good fit for Glitchspace?

Certainly it's been immensely valuable in helping us understand how our game should play, what it should contain and where it should go. It's also allowed us to start building a community of players for the game early on which we can hopefully continue to build on towards the final release.

It's also been a great way for us to show the public the sort of games that we look to make. Since we first debuted Glitchspace, we've been very fortunate in that we've had a lot of interest in the project from not only the games community, but outside it as well. For example, we're working with educational institutions to bring the game to schools and are looking to take this area further next year as well.

What downsides has Early Access had for the development of Glitchspace?

Personally, my perception of Early Access has changed quite a bit since we first released the game. Whilst it is a great testing ground to help you get a much better understanding of how your game plays in the hands of others, it can also end up being a serious crux for you if you're not careful with how you're developing your game.

Our case in point would be in rebuilding Glitchspace midway through development. In retrospect, this is not something that I would recommend anyone do, as a big part of whether or not you can succeed in Early Access is down to how you maintain momentum and build up a sense of community with your game.

When we chose to restart Glitchspace, we (naively) hoped it would take us 3 months to do. In the end, it wound up taking 8. And with a team as small as ours, you can't expect the audience that you have built up over time to wait around for you. I guess the moral of the story here is that until the core experience of your game is right, I'd personally avoid releasing via Early Access. Otherwise, any gains that you think you might get will likely only be short-term.

What have you learned about Early Access that might impact your decision to use it again or not in the future?

We've recognized the importance to think about whether or not the game that you want to make is a good fit for it. I've personally found that most of the titles that have seen success in Early Access are typically very sandbox-y or roguelike-orientated, as these sorts of genres usually offer up a lot of replayability.

With a puzzle game like Glitchspace, that can of course be much harder to achieve. This is something that we've certainly learned the hard way and as a result are putting more work into the sandbox elements of Glitchspace now, as opposed to later on in development.

I also think that consumer expectations of Early Access have changed quite a bit since we launched last year. Since then, there's been a number of high profile games either failing to deliver the features that they said would have, or even worse, not being finished at all. This effect has probably also blown over from Kickstarter as well and as such, players are much more careful about choosing what sort of games they'll buy.

This has also made us much more careful as well in what we say we can do, too! Nonetheless, the Early Access model is something that we would certainly consider for our future games, but only if whatever project that we end up making next is a really good fit for it.

What has been the most unexpected challenge you've faced in developing Glitchspace?

It's easily been making a programming game that makes sense to non-programmers! The nuances and variables that you have to consider to make Glitchspace a game that is actually intuitive to play are many and very hard to properly do. This has required a ton of iteration, though every failure along the way with it has brought us much closer to getting to a happy medium for it. All going according to plan, we should hopefully have this nailed down once the game is fully released.

What has been your favorite thing about the development process?

Definitely getting the game showcased to the public at various festivals/exhibitions (and even museums!) along the way. Meeting face to face with players like that is always a great motivational boost.

As I alluded to previously, Glitchspace has also been used as a teaching tool in several schools, which isn't something that a lot of other games can say. So that's been a nice bonus for us too!

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