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Swinging and skateboarding as an adorable spider in Webbed

Road to the IGF 2022: Webbed sends players out into the wilderness as a helpful spider, spinning webs and swinging through the forest to rescue a loved one.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

Webbed sends players out into the wilderness as a helpful spider, spinning webs and swinging through the forest to rescue a loved one. As a crafty spider, you can do quite a few neat tricks with your web, from using it to swoop around to creating webs to carry you across pits, giving players all kinds of means to deal with the game's puzzles.

Game Developer had a talk with Sbug Games, developers of the IGF Excellence in Design-nominated game, to discuss how Just Cause 2 influenced a game about spiders, how experimentation with a fun element can lead to great puzzle design, and the challenges that come with creating a web swinging ability that feels great.

Webbed_1.jpg

Who are you, and what was your role in developing Webbed?

Noah Seymour, co-developer of Webbed: I am Noah Seymour! I am a nonbinary game developer/designer and I did the level design for Webbed, as well as helping out with general design and whatnot. Indie development has a lot of hats, but I wore barely any compared to Riley [smiles].

Riley Neville, co-developer of Webbed: I’m Riley Neville. I did the programming, art, and most of everything else that wasn’t level design and music!

What's your background in making games?

Neville: I’ve been interested in making games since I was a kid, but only started picking it up as a more serious hobby a few years ago while working a full-time web development job. When my first real game STAB STAB STAB! started to get a tiny bit of attention on social media, I made the reckless decision to quit my job and focus on game dev full-time.

I rushed STAB STAB STAB! onto Steam a couple of months after that and luckily it made just enough money to keep me from going completely broke while I kept working on prototypes for the next year. After a few failed attempts at making another game as a solo developer, I eventually stumbled upon the spider platformer idea which would become Webbed. It was just a little sandbox prototype, but the people I showed it to really enjoyed it. Noah even offered to make levels for the game, and I cannot stress enough that if they hadn’t joined the project, this game would never have been made and I probably wouldn’t be a game developer anymore!

Seymour: I studied game design at uni immediately after finishing high school and then struggled to find a job in the industry for a few years after that. It took my continued work on my own little games and my participation in our local games community, Squiggly River, to eventually be in the position to ask Riley to work on his little Laser Spider Playground prototype, which became Webbed! That's all to say that Webbed is really my first step into the world of professional game development, and I am blessed and honored to have had it turn out so well!

How did you come up with the concept for Webbed?

Neville: Webbed started as a 2D "de-make" of Just Cause 2. I really loved the movement mechanics in that game and wanted to see if I could replicate the parachute and grappling hooks in 2D. Once I had a simple prototype with a grappling hook that could attach two objects together, I realized that if I could get the grappling hook ropes to attach to each other, I could make something that looks a lot like a spiderweb.

So, the obvious choice from there was to make the main character a spider, and since I was getting sick of dark and gritty games at the time, I wanted to make the spider as cute as I could. Once Noah joined the project we found there was a lot of untapped material with native Australian bugs that really helped the world of Webbed become something unique.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Neville: We used mostly GameMaker Studio 2, though some of the art was done in external programs, and the bigger creature animation was done using Spine 2D. Noah also did a lot of the level design with plain old pen and paper!

Webbed_2.jpg

What sort of research did you do on spiders and the world of insects for your game? How did this research affect what you were creating?

Seymour: The bugs and spiders in Webbed were a very fun part to research during development! Australia is filled with heaps of unique creatures with lots of super cool and special behaviors! I have always loved to learn the cool facts about our local creatures, so I knew a few bits about our creatures already, like stingless honey bees being our only native social bee! 

Before Webbed, I had been working on a silly game about allowing up to eight players to control the individual legs of a spider, and because of that game, I started looking into spiders and how they worked. While doing this I realized how cool spiders were, so I came into Webbed with a lot of hobbyist spider knowledge, but was able to learn even more once starting.

As for how this research affected the game, we mostly came up with broad strokes for where we wanted insects in the game, and then found bugs that fit those details, making the visuals depict the creature.

The spider's web abilities are a core element of the game. What thoughts went into creating the spider's many web abilities (swinging, creating webs, etc)?

Neville: The core web abilities come from an equal parts mix of Rico Rodriguez, Spider-Man, and actual real-life spiders. Starting from the base of a Just Cause 2 de-make, we get the ability to pull yourself towards a point in the environment, as well as attaching webs between two points in the world, affecting physics objects. From Spider-Man, we got the nice arcs that preserve your momentum between swings, allowing you to almost fly with well-timed grapples, and the impactful feeling of shooting webs. And from real spiders, we got attaching webs to each other, using them as paths to walk on, and catching flies!

A fun feature that came pretty late in development was webs wrapping around solid objects as you’re swinging from them. I decided to implement this after gamedev Twitter went wild over the cable physics in The Last of Us Part 2. I didn’t really think web collision was that important before, but I’m so glad I added it because it really makes the environment feel properly solid in a way it didn’t before.

What challenges did you face in getting the web swinging to feel right and fun? To make it feel natural, yet exciting to simply swing around?

Neville: The controls were a big struggle. There are a lot of games with grappling hook mechanics out there, and almost as many control schemes. So, early on in development, I made a point of playing as many of those games as possible and analyzing exactly how each input affected the ropes and characters’ movement.

There are many ways you can use your webs in the game, but we didn’t want a super complicated control scheme slowing down the gameplay or increasing the learning curve. It took a lot of trial and error to settle on the two button grapple/weave control scheme we did. It doesn’t capture everything we wanted you to be able to do perfectly (for instance it’s not very easy to lower yourself from the ceiling on a web), but it’s a tradeoff we had to make to get fast web placement and springy swinging to be as intuitive as possible.

Webbed_3.jpg

From here, how did you design interesting worlds and tasks around using those abilities? How did the spider's abilities shape the game?

Seymour: Designing the world of Webbed was most of what was on my plate during development. We wanted to emphasize the core web swinging and web building mechanics in the levels and explore what you could do with them. My approach to this was to create areas that distinctly emphasized a type of interaction—the bees area being focused on swinging, ants about solving puzzles with object manipulation, and beetles focused on momentum and asking the player to be accurate with their web placement.

The specific obstacle/puzzles came from experimentation with the mechanics in those areas and then picking out the good ideas from the bad. If we look specifically at the first puzzle in the Ants power room (where the ant falls down the mudslide and asks for help), the player must use their web to connect a lever to a rotating cog, turning the rotation into a timed toggle and allowing them to reach the next puzzle. 

This puzzle started as an idea first conceived in the testing room for the moving platforms. Riley had just thrown the code together, and was using the room to make sure it worked with things like lever activation and moving different kinds of solids. But by placing the lever next to some of the platforms, we could use web weaving to create a weird stop start machine, it didn’t do anything beyond wobble, but it was fun to do! 

This idea was then refined at least two times (to make sure it could be readily understood, and also to actually put a reward at the end of the puzzle) before becoming what we see in the game. It turned into one of the strongest puzzles in the game, in my opinion. 

This process of taking a fun prototype toy or hopeful idea and turning it into a puzzle through experimentation and refinement was the main approach I took to building the world and puzzles for Webbed.

Webbed also has the player doing some silly or unique activities (spider skateboarding?!). What drew you to add these elements? What do you feel they added to the game?

Neville: I added the skateboard because Spyro the Dragon had a skateboard and it was sick. Growing up playing PS1/2-era collect-a-thon platformers, they always had this uncompromising focus on fun first. That’s a vibe I want to hold onto in our games. A skateboard doesn’t make sense in this setting? Of course it does! A bird from an entirely different game is teaching the ants to skate! It’s fun!

Same goes for giving the spider laser eyes. A bunch of people complained about it because of how “unrealistic” it is. Sure, that might be a problem if we wanted to make a realistic spider simulator, but if we instead just add robots, skateboards, and magical levitating opals, then now it fits in perfectly well and the world of the game is more fun and whimsical!

Insects can be off-putting things, but you have tried to make them cute while still giving them a realistic look. What thoughts went into designing insects that would look like their real-world counterparts, but still be endearing?

Neville: It really doesn’t take much to make a bug character cute. Sure, the big puppy dog eyes of jumping spiders are a great way to get people immediately on board, but there doesn’t have to be anything inherently unpleasant about looking at a bug. My goal with the characters in Webbed was really just about making them readable in pixel art while keeping their appearance pretty close to the real creatures they’re based on.

Many games seem to take the opposite approach, making giant threatening insects. They make carapaces extra spikey, eyes extra small, and add layers of slime just to gross people out. You kind of have to do that if you want a bug to be scary, because if you just represent a bug in the way they actually exist in the world - small, round, relatively clean, and usually not attacking you - then there’s not a lot to be put off by.

The red bull ants in Webbed aren’t cute because we made them cute, they’re cute because look at these little creatures!

Webbed_4.png

Don’t get too close though. These ones absolutely WILL sting you and I hear it really hurts.

This game, an IGF 2022 finalist, is featured as part of the IGF Awards ceremony, taking place at the Game Developers Conference on Wednesday, March 23 (with a simultaneous broadcast on GDC Twitch).

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