This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Lonely Mountains: Downhill looks to capture the feeling of finding your own way along a biking hill, seeking the varied routes you can find that will lead you down to the bottom.
Gamasutra spoke with Daniel Helbigand and Jan Bubenik of Megagon Industries, developers of the Excellence in Design-nominated title, to chat about the game's beginnings as a mobile title, the importance of making the bike riding feel fluid and natural, and what thoughts went into filling a trail with exciting opportunities to reach the bottom of the hill faster.
Helbig: My name is Daniel Helbig, and together with Jan Bubenik, I founded Megagon Industries six years ago. I am mainly responsible for the level design as well as the UI design and programming. But, as we’re only a team of three it’s always “all hands on deck”, so everyone did a lot of different things over the course of the development.
In 2008, I started as a game design assistant at Keen Games, working on the DS and Wii version of Anno - Create A New World. The last few years, I mainly worked as a freelance Game Designer, and together with Jan, I also designed and programed a few premium mobile games on the side. We released … and then it rained in 2014 and Twisted Lines in 2016. Due to the amazing feedback on Lonely Mountains: Downhill, Jan and I decided in 2017 to work full-time on the game. Our artist Noah joined the team in late 2018.
Evolving concepts of biking
Helbig: In 2015, Jan and I were both big fans of Skiing Yeti Mountain by Featherweight Games. The game is simple, but has incredible tight controls. We also really loved the style of Lara Croft GO and Monument Valley. This mix inspired this rough idea in my head to make a 3D racing game with offroad trucks(!) on a low-poly mountain.
Luckily, Jan is a big bicycle and mountain bike fan, and although he liked the basic idea, he scratched the whole offroad truck thing, which was probably the best decision we ever made. Instead, he started to work on this prototype for a biking mobile game. Although the idea was simple and the first steps seemed promising, we spent quite some time - probably the first year - on multiple iterations of the physics, controls, and camera behavior until the game really started to become fun - even on a mobile device.
At some point, we got a lot of positive feedback on social media for the game and people started to ask if the game would also be available on PC/Console. When we implemented gamepad controls, we realized that the game felt even better. So, we made the wacky decision to shift the whole development to PC and Console - a decision that resulted in 4 years of development. So, there was never really this one big masterplan for the game; instead the concept evolved over time but every step always felt like the right one to do.
On the tools used to create Lonely Mountains: Downhill
Helbig: The game is made with Unity. Besides a few plugins (rewired, R.A.M), we created lots of custom tools for the game. We have our own terrain system and editor, our own pooling and LOD system, and almost all shaders are tailored for the game. The rider and all the animations are done in Maya while all the environment assets are made with Blender. We’re using FMOD for all our audio needs.
A bike trip to unexplored places
Helbig: Although we did a lot of design iterations over the years, the core vision for the game was always very clear to us. We wanted to focus on accessible and fun controls, a challenging game without any need for AI enemies, and no sports tournament feeling. Instead, we wanted to offer this romantic fantasy of a nature untouched by men. An experience which is actually really hard to have in real life nowadays and that, for someone like me who lives in a city like Berlin, mostly exists on postcards and in documentaries. Over the years, we realized that there are a lot of people with this kind of wanderlust, who secretly dream to get away from civilization and to explore the wilderness - in our case by riding a bike.
Danny MacAskill’s “The Ridge” was also a big inspiration at the start of the development.
Designing trails for fun and communication
Helbig: The environment design follows the same basic principles as the game design. That means that although the mountains in the game are inspired by real locations, they are not trying to be realistic. The highest priority always lies on a fun trail design and everything has to support that. We also wanted to create very recognizable level design situations so that players can quickly learn the trail design. That’s why every trail - even on the same mountain - looks very different and visually changes over the course of one trail.
Capturing the feel of biking
Bubenik: Although we didn’t want to create a complex simulation, capturing the actual feeling of riding a bike was very important. That’s the reason why the first year of development were mainly focused on iterating on the bike physics and controls, as they go hand in hand to create the core experience. Riding a bike in real life (once you learned it) is simple, and that was our goal for the game.
Besides that, the animations, subtle particle effects, and the audio design played a huge role for the game feel. There is a dynamic system which factors in different attributes like speed, sliding, braking, ground type, wind etc. to create the actual bike sounds. We have to thank Lukas and Alex from Syndrone for putting so much time into it.
Finding humor in crashing rather than losing motivation
Helbig: For me, personally, it is the contrast of this very peaceful world and the really brutal crashes. Together, they create this shocking but fun experience. And although the game is stylized and you don’t see any bones breaking, your imagination does a pretty good job to fill in the gaps.
Gameplay-wise, we tried to have a positive “trial and error” design, similar to games like Super Meat Boy, where you have this “just one more round” feeling. To achieve that, we took extra care to have no loading times, which means you can just instantly restart after a crash. Also, each trail is divided in several 10-30 seconds sections. As you always start at the last one when you crash, you don’t lose much progress and it doesn’t get (too) frustrating.
Still, be sure to keep your eyes on the road!
Encouraging players to take risks
Helbig: I believe a part of it is just born out of intrinsic motivation, as, for the most part, the game doesn’t force you to go for a risky ride - but people do it anyway. It’s just really rewarding to try out a new shortcut and to find out that it actually works. So, players that know the game barely stick to the main route anymore.
When we learned that there is a lot of fun in exploring the trails and replaying them several times to find new shortcuts, we tried to come up with a meta game that gives you extra incentives to play the same trail again and again. We also tried to offer different difficulty modes without forcing them on the player. So, you can unlock all trails and mountains by just playing it safe, but when you go for the quick times, you get rewarded with additional bikes, outfits and paint jobs. There is always more than one path to the finish line!
Making players feel at ease with the controls
Helbig: When you ride a real bike, you don’t actively think about how to control it. There are no buttons for shifting your weight, jumping, sprinting, nor controlling a virtual camera. That’s why we wanted to keep the controls as simple as possible, and the main reason why you can’t do any tricks, bunny hops, differentiate between rear and front brakes, or control the camera. This way, the player can just focus on the riding and the trail ahead.
One of the surprisingly severe challenges was the way steering works. We tried out two different versions (an absolute mode which is relative to the screen and a bike centric left/right steering mode) to see what people would prefer and it turned out none of them is actually better than the other. Instead it’s mainly a question of personal taste - so in the end, we kept both of them in the game.
This game, an IGF 2020 honoree, is featured as part of the Independent Games Festival ceremony, which was streamed digitally this week and can be viewed on demand on GDC's YouTube channel.