This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Uurnog Uurnlimited is a game of unintentional mayhem, where players collect animals and puzzle-solving (sometimes explosive) blocks, bringing them to a save room that saves their every mistake. Each block the player brings back can have some interaction with the other blocks the player grabs, sometimes causing a chain reaction in their save room that may cost all of their progress, or possibly the player's life, in ridiculous fashion.
Niklas Nygren's experiment in setting the player up for their own accidental disaster, as well as its dynamic music, earned Uurnog Urrnlimited nominations for Excellence in Audio and Design from the IGF, and Gamasutra sought the developer out to learn more about how he made music that changed to suit player hijinks, as well as why he turned the save point, a place to protect from mistakes, into a shrine that captures those failures forever.
What's your background in making games?
As a teenager, I attempted to make RPGs in Klik & Play and then The Games Factory. These games were way too big for me to ever finish, even if I tried making them today. In my early 20's, I suddenly got the idea of making a smaller game in Multimedia Fusion on my spare time (a game is called #Modarchive Story about an IRC chat channel), and my friends enjoyed it! So, I made more games. A few years after, I decided to make games for a living instead of in my spare time.
How did you come up with the concept?
The best game I had on my NES was Super Mario Bros 2. I love the mechanics of picking up items and carrying them around. After exploring them earlier in FiNCK, I always knew I wanted to come back to them again. Then, there was the idea about a world where only the state of a single room was saved which had been lingering around in my head for a while.
The thing that got the Uurnog started was that, for many months after releasing Affordable Space Adventures, I was prototyping, but couldn't find anything I wanted to work on. Luckily, Mario Maker was released, and I found myself making lots of levels in it. So, I asked myself why I had no problems making Mario Maker levels when I couldn't make a game on my own, and realized the answer was that it's super fast to experiment and have something playable in Mario Maker, which makes level creation fun.
I decided I wanted to try making a platformer, and that's where it struck me to combine the SMB2-like mechanics of picking items up, and the save room idea for storing those items. Then, I started out making a level editor inspired by Mario Maker (though not as polished of course) and started designing areas.
What development tools were used to build your game?
Unity! Apart from that, most tools are my own (Bleep, the game's SFX synthesizer can be downloaded here, and Ondskan, the game's music software can be accessible by pressing Shift+D in 's main menu, then F3 once a game is loaded).
How much time have you spent working on the game?
I spent a bit more than a year on the original Uurnog. Half the development time was the game's integrated music software. Then, I spent a bit over half a year on Uurnog Uurnlimited to add new levels, music, and figure out basic neural networks so that I could integrate it with the new music software. In total, it's probably between one and a half to two years.
How did you design the algorithmic music of Uurnog Uurnlimited? What drew you to make music that builds itself to suit the gameplay?
Games like Dyad, Proteus, and the LucasArts adventure games that used iMUSE showed me that game music could be very dynamic. It's also under-explored compared to e.g. videogame graphics. Since I started to use Unity, I constantly experimented with my own music tools on the side of developing Affordable Space Adventures with NapNok. An early prototype made it into my mini-game 7 Nanocycles. When it was finally time to make Uurnog, I had finally accumulated enough knowledge to build the music software entirely into the game, and at that point I simply had to because I could.
What do you feel this music added to the experience of the game over a more traditional soundtrack?
It's tricky to say! I'm honestly not sure if players will generally notice or care as much as me, but I really hope some do! To me, it just feels good when the chords are different in the save room every time you enter it, a bomb explosion changes the key of the currently playing song, or when the music has a more groovy tempo because it's being played at night.
I still consider the version of the music software that made it into Uurnog a prototype, though, and I'm already working on version 2, which will allow the music to be way more dynamically flexible and varied. This time, however, I'm starting with the music software, I don't know what game I'll use it for, or if it'll even be a game.
What drew you to make the save room, traditionally a place used to erase mistakes, into a place that saves those failures as well?
Rougelike-likes taught me that worse consequences for dying can make a game more exciting, but I had noticed a pattern that usually games would often either save everything or make you lose all your progress. So, I started to wonder if there isn't a lot of middle-ground to be explored where managing what's saved and not becomes part of the gameplay.
What challenges did you have to deal with when making failures permanent in the save room? What difficult situations arose from creating this mechanic?
The most challenging thing was making sure the save room layout and items were designed so that a situation could escalate into maximum chaos. Almost all items are designed to interact between other items in dangerous ways. The gun can go off when an item is dropped on top of it, a box shoots out its content if being hit by a gun or a bomb explodes near it. When testers couldn't help laughing at the disaster that unfolded despite the progress they lost, I felt I was getting the balance right.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
Getting Over It is my favorite among them! The one I'm the most excited for, however, is Baba is You, and I can't wait to get to try it!
What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?
The industry changes so fast, and it's way harder to get a game noticed these days than a few years back. The worst problem, however, is how toxic the culture around games can be, especially toward minorities. Most online platforms where it happens aren't taking the problem seriously enough. When it comes to opportunities, the most important one isn't about whether we succeed or fail with business stuff, or make the most popular games. I rather think of it as an opportunity to try to be good to people, and care beyond one's own interests.