Isle Of Spirits is a casual oriented survival game released on PC/Xbox One.
I will tell you how I designed Isle of Spirits to offer a unique survival game experience to be played casually so that this kind of game is accessible to all players, mostly those who don't play games frequently.
How the idea emerged
I was playing some survival games like Don’t Starve when I ended up to be a little frustrated because the games didn’t let me play peacefully and casually, and was so hard for me. I asked myself, is there any survival game for casual gamers ? I started thinking about how a survival game could reach an often forgotten public of this genre.
The technical choices
Before starting coding for months, I started to design the core gameplay and the different ambiances of the game.
First, the 3C (camera / controller / character). I liked the view we get in some games like “The Sims” or “Animal Crossing”. Casual gamers are not often comfortable managing themselves the camera. I chose to allow the player to move the camera only around one axis, like a radar, as he will most of the time use it to check for resources around him. The point of view I chose allow to focus on the player character and elements close to him, that’s all. Also, I was thinking about a way to handle camera collision, and I decided to place the camera in a way it will never hit any obstacle. No collision management should be better for players not accustomed to camera management. But it also need to manage the case when the player character is behind an obstacle. I highlighted the player character through obstacles to let the player still seeing its avatar, and mostly neither asking him to move the camera or doing it without asking him his opinion.
For the controls. I tried to use an unique button to interact with the environment. The movement controls are basic: moving, jumping and a sprint input for players wanting to play a little faster.
I had to design the character capabilities and the player experience too. I wanted a game in which player has to learn by himself how to survive, letting him discover its environment. The question the game would ask to the player (if it was able to speak, thanks it’s not the case): “Personally, how would you survive if you would become a castaway ?”
The next part to design was the ambiances. After all, it is a survival. I wanted to focus on an invisible danger, and not using hostile NPCs. So, I started by the main danger: darkness. Darkness has always been a source of fear, as we are not seeing through it, any noise can stress us. And that’s what I focused for the night: the sound. I chose to play terrifying creatures sounds, and in 2D, to prevent any spatialization, as it will prevent player locating the source of danger, making it omnipresent. Letting the player imagining himself the danger is often more interesting than putting a monster in front of him.
A variant of the night was the mist, having far spirits laughs and red eyes appearing during day. A thick fog during the day can be very terrifying, as no light can dissipate it.
But danger should sometimes be visible too. As I wanted a desert isle for the game, I started thinking about natural disasters.
I designed them more to get some fight than to kill the player. Tornadoes can steal player resources, quakes can destroy isle chunks and monsoon change the walkable area for a specific time. All of this elements contribute to create our second character: the isle itself.
The divisive choices
Some of my choices are really divisive.
First, the permadeath. It allows the player to start again and learn from his own mistakes. The intention is not to punish, as we can see in other games, but both to award the progress and adding a little tension. Also, to keep this tension, game can not be saved manually, it automatically save itself each day, preventing player trying things without any risk.
User Interface and inventory management were a strong challenge. Complex interface can be repulsive and break immersion.
An inventory should be clear and intuitive, and it is very difficult to not just reproduce what have been done in successful games. The first question was: should items be stackable or not ? In a lot of games it is the case, but lets thinking about logic for a casual gamer: why I could get for instance 15 stones but only 5 different objects in my pockets ? I decided to forbid any item stacking in the inventory, after all, the player character is a normal guy wanting to survive, not the over skilled man we can see in action movies.
As for all menus, craft screen was designed to show you all recipes on the screen, without any need to scroll: all the information on one screen.
Time to get lessons from my choices
I did several choices that seem to no be always appreciated.
First, the minimalist approach. Fans of the genre like content in this kind of game. My intention making this game was to provide an experience, having a start and an ending, based on one goal: escaping the isle. So, I implemented only content needed by the core gameplay, no house/character customization, complex building, etc. Doing this exclude a quite large range of players.
Secondly, the lack of options. Casual gamers don’t really like taking time to adjust video settings, sound settings or others settings at all. They just want to launch the game and play instantly, like on many mobile games. I tried to make a game in which all settings are chosen for you: the game resolution use your screen resolution, and to allow player playing smoothly on low end devices I added what I called the “performance” mode. Activating it adjust the game graphics quality dynamically at runtime: dynamic shadows quality and dynamic resolution has been used to get more frame rate when the game detects it starts running quite slow.
I also made the choice to consider player playing at gamepad if the game detect any connected gamepad, otherwise it should not be connected. In fact it is not always true, we saw (a bit late) streamers trying to play with keyboard and mouse while they have a gamepad always connected to their machine (probably to avoid plugging and unplugging), and not understanding why the camera was so sensitive.
Finally, I also tried something I never seen in video games: not using an universal “back” button. You always press a unique key to exit any user interface. I made an exception here. For instance, the idea was to close the chest with the same key used to open the chest. How a casual gamer would know they have to press a different key to close the chest ? And it’s not comfortable for players using to play video games frequently, it can in fact be considered as stupid, and they are not really wrong: why would we change the rules we are following for years now ?
Bringing survival games to the most casual gamers has been a very strong challenge, and probably at the cost of losing a large audience. I sincerely think the core mechanics are good, but the choice of this kind of experience has a cost. Trying to deconstruct what we constructed during years in the video game industry is a lot risky too: breaking general rules, and creating new ones trying to projecting myself as a casual gamer is the point I am still uncomfortable with. Was it a good choice ?
If I had to conclude in one sentence, I should say making this game in this way has been an interesting experience but I also risk to lose gamers while failing appealing casuals ones.