Game Developer Deep Dives are an ongoing series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren't really that simple at all.
Earlier installments cover topics such as lessons learned from ten years of development with Ingress engineering director Michael Romero, how legendary Dwarf Fortress programmer Tarn Adams updated the game for its official Steam release, and how the developers approached the balance between realism and simulation in Chef Life: A Restaurant Simulator.
In this edition, Rain Games CEO and level designer Peter Wingaard Meldahl reminisces on his team's thoughts in the aftermath of their first game's release and how they explored Teslagrad's roots to reinvent its sequel.
Almost ten years have passed since Rain Games released the original Teslagrad–a labor of love from a small indie studio located in Norway. Teslagrad, the side-scrolling puzzle-platformer with a magnetic twist, was released on December 13, 2013, and comes alive again this year with last week's release of Teslagrad 2.
My name is Peter Wingaard Meldahl, and I am the CEO and level designer at Rain Games. It’s been quite a while the team and I released the original Teslagrad. It was our very first game, and as a small team, we allowed ourselves a humble home-baked ceremony.
When we released the game, talks about what our next game should be began immediately. We decided not to do another Teslagrad game right away. It had been a grueling delivery, and the team had been living and breathing Teslagrad for years to make it happen. We were also worried that if we immediately jumped into a sequel, it would simply be made up of the things that didn’t make the cut in the original. We needed time, time to try new things, and remember what made us so excited about this universe we had created in the first place.
We decided to stick with this universe but explored other genres and parts of the world than the one we first introduced with Teslagrad. That original setting stayed with us, though. The game turned into a bit of a sleeper hit, and we kept updating it and porting it to more platforms. Now, across all 13 platforms we have ported the game to so far, two million copies have been sold.
So, after finishing World to the West and Mesmer, we were itching to make another Teslagrad game. It almost felt narcissistic, as we are very much nostalgic for our own game.
But this time, we didn’t start with a blank page. Teslagrad itself had a very specific expression: the visuals, the silent storytelling, how the world fit together, and the interface with no HUD obscuring any part of the screen.
I knew we would have to keep these at the core, or it would just not beTeslagrad.
At the same time, I knew we had to renew ourselves. Luckily, I had six years to dream about what I would like to do with a sequel, which offered plenty of time for new ideas to grow stronger, and for wisdom to whittle away the bad ones.
We wanted this new adventure to take place in the same world. We did want it to be a slightly different location, though. I had dreamt up this place called Wyrmheim. It would be a northern region and the home of the tribes that once threatened the peace in Teslagrad (the place) and started the main plot of the original Teslagrad (the game).
In the original, the style of the world was somewhat Eastern European, with some Nordic undertones. In this title, I wanted to flip that. Wyrmheim as an area would be a Nordic-looking area with some Eastern European undertones. The original people here would be based on Viking culture, and the Teslamancers that came into the city would bring more advanced technology and cultural pieces from the larger world.
Knowing this, we packed up and went for a tour of the fjords and the ancient places of Norway (of which there are plenty). Our studio is in Bergen, Norway, which is smack dab in the middle of the fjords. So, we decided on a 2-day excursion with a sleepover and hit the road!
It must be said, though, that the nature and sights around here are… Insane. Being locals, we have been to many of these places before. But going here with a game project in mind suddenly makes you see everything through a different lens. I appreciate it on a whole other level now.
Back in the Viking age, this part of the country was not connected by roads. The fjords were the travel lanes, and thus everything is anchored at these coastal places with pockets going further inland. Any ground not at a 90-degree angle will be farmed!
The landscape is daunting in a lot of places. You see pieces of history and instances of modernity alike cling to what is clearly the land of giants.
It is hard not to feel small in a lot of these places. The scenes are dominated by mountains that feel massive beyond reason.
This is the land that made Vikings write about trolls and Jotuns, and that later would inspire many of the landscapes that Tolkien describes in his books. When you are here, you get the feeling that something must be living, unseen in these places. That humans can cling to the valleys, but that this land is not ours.
The tour gave us tons of inspiration for the natural landscapes, but what about manmade constructs? Well, luckily, this area also contains the very last standing structures from the Viking age: the stave churches.
If you have never seen one of these in the… wood, then you should! For now, a picture will have to suffice.
They’re quite unique, decorated with scales and dragon heads to scare off evil spirits in case certain new gods the Vikings had imported needed some assistance. The building was constructed with locally carved timber and tarred to let it last through the ages.
Being close to these buildings, you can see how they have aged. And there is a smell. A slight note of ancient timber but also a distinct smell of tar, like the sturdiest whisky you could imagine.
Back in the day, the Vikings also worked stone for some of their most expensive buildings, and not everything was as decorated as a place of worship. But this was the style they used back in the day. I was given to thinking: what would have happened if this culture hadn’t been slowly integrated into the larger European culture but had remained in their natural bubble? What kind of structures would they build? How would these people build something like a factory hall? Or an oil platform?
I knew I had never seen anything like that before.
As these ideas fell into place, it revealed itself: a land of mystery, monsters, and oilpunk Vikings. And dominating the center of this land, a tower filled with ancient technology built by the Teslamancer ancestors long ago to control this wild land and ensure that the people here did not rise to become a threat once again.
You arrive as the young Teslamancer Lumina, who was established in World to the West. The daughter of the protagonist of the original Teslagrad. The last game featuring her stranded her in strange lands with strange people, and this time she is making her way home. And she might find it here. Old machinations and ancient technologies are sequestered throughout. But there are also ghosts of the past, and not everything remains dormant.
There are some necessities when designing a Teslagrad game. The blink power was very enjoyable in the original, and we decided that the player should have it right away this time.
Magnetism was very much the core of the first game, so we obviously had to bring it with us into this new adventure.
There was something that had always bothered me, though. Magnetism in the original Teslagrad did not really deal well with uneven surfaces. Now, Teslagrad was built mostly on a grid, but if we wanted to do Nordic nature any justice, then I knew that a grid was out of the question this time. We had to get curvy. Ideally, the character should be able to reorientate themselves towards a surface if they are attracted to and walk along it.
After some experimentation, presto:
Over the years I had also seen that the people who really love Teslagrad and played it for years loved how you could move in the game. Teslagrad uses a proper physics engine, which means we must design every level with considerable care. But on the plus side, you retain momentum properly and combining this with forcefully repelling yourself off magnets made for some great ways to move incredibly fast if you were clever and had mastered the mechanics. I wanted to expand on this and make it more available to players who were less willing to pour days into perfecting their mastery over the system. I don’t want to spoil every new ability that you get in Teslagrad 2, but a lot of them are centered around movement. They also tie into each other to let you perform neat tricks and allow you to breeze through the levels.
We have worked on Teslagrad 2 for over three years. Though it has been a ton of work, I can say that we have had a great deal of fun putting this game together.
It’s been a while since we released a Teslagrad game, and we hope that people will like the new title as much as we do.
Personally, I hope that I will be allowed to keep exploring our strange world, and I have enjoyed bringing the local Norwegian flavor to it a lot. Though, like last time, we will not jump straight on a sequel. I don’t believe I am quite finished with what Teslagrad can offer, but the team will need some time before we are ready for another one.
It has also been great fun to create the region of Wyrmheim. If the players enjoy it as much as we do, then perhaps our next title will get to explore that part of the world more. Anything is possible!