June 8, 2011 3:30 PM | jeriaska
Planck Level 2 Trailer
Shadegrown Games founder Matthew Burns describes Planck as an amalgamation of vertical shooter and musical instrument. The player guides a speeding ship across the surface of an aquatic environment, generating pieces of music through swerving and firing. Each level offers a distinct set of instruments and obstacles where the visual art consciously mirrors the dynamic soundtrack.
We caught up with the independent developer during the E3 Expo to hear about the newest additions to Planck, namely the Scored Mode and Level 2.
Your studio is called "Shadegrown," referring to a specific approach to independent game creation. How would you say these practices have suited the needs of your development team?
Matthew Burns (Shadegrown Games): Part of the concept behind Shadegrown Games is giving something room to grow... not just the games, but the people who work on the games as well.
So often in the triple-A industry, I see big companies harvesting people: taking bright, young graduates from school who are just thrilled to be working on a game and mowing them over with work. You get a higher rate of return in the short-term, but then you have these employees that are burnt out at age 30.
To me that's like planting a crop that exhausts the land and depletes the soil. You don't get the best, most creative experience by working for decades and decades in overly specialized roles. I think it's very important for game developers to be multi-disciplinary and to have well-rounded interests.
You yourself are involved in a number of different pursuits, from writing for gaming publications to contracting with developers, even as you are leading this team at Shadegrown. Do you find having this breadth of activities offers you creative advantages as a game designer?
For me personally, it's incredibly valuable. I've always had multiple interests and wanted to pursue different things, and everything I do has always informed every other thing that I do.
When I create music, the timing and rhythm affects how I engage with the timing and rhythm of my writing. Writing is about presenting concepts to people in a way they will understand, which in turn affects how I approach game design. Everything informs everything else.
What new details were you looking to communicate in the latest Planck gameplay trailer, coinciding with E3?
The new trailer is a summation of everything we've done so far. The biggest new element is the addition of a different level of the game, with completely new art and totally different sounds. I'm excited about this because everything we've shown so far is patterned after one particular piece of music. The BPM and key stayed the same, essentially exploring spaces within one framework.
The new level introduces a framework for a different piece of music: faster in tempo, with a grittier sound to it, and all the art reflects that. When people see the delta between these two levels, maybe they'll get a better sense that our goal is for every sound to be tied to a piece of art, while every level has its own unique sound set, motes and firing effects.
There's an encounter that viewers might interpret as a boss battle toward the end of the video. What gameplay will be entailed in these instances?
I would say that it's a different type of encounter but not necessarily a boss "battle." In the Planck universe there are creatures both large and small, and depending on the type of energy you collect, you may encounter motes that don't normally appear. A large enemy like this lets us dive a little more into individual variations on a single type of sound, like the complex dubstep-style "wobble" you hear there.
There are no death states in Planck, which seems to suggest that there will be few obstacles to flying through the entire game without repeating a stage. Do you have any concerns about whether there will be enough content in the finished game to satisfy players?
This goes back to one of the long-running themes of Planck's development, which has been the balance between its "gamey-ness" and its being a sort of interactive music toy.
There are two major modes in the game now. One is the original "Free Mode." It's my hope that people will really explore it, understanding that the joy of the game is not in the getting through it. The point is to explore how different sounds work on top of each other, challenging yourself to make interesting combinations of new sounds.
If you run straight through, it's a little like playing a song on an instrument really fast to get it over with. Wouldn't you rather jam on that instrument, explore new things and have fun with it?
Planck Scored Mode Trailer
How have you intended to introduce more guided gameplay into the recent build of the game?
We now have a Scored Mode, previewed in our recently released video. This is partially a way for us to help people who are very goal-oriented. When we did our playtests, a lot of people said to us, "Hey, you need goals in this!" Instead of fighting that reaction, we thought of a lot of different possibilities for the game, such as achievements, but what we kept coming back to was giving people a score.
It's such a simple thing, but it's also very easy to understand right away. We tried to make the score work in such a way that it rewards you for the kind of behavior that we want to encourage. You have to play well, avoiding hitting motes so as not to reset your score multiplier. You also need to explore the variety of the musical space in order to get a really high score. Implementing the score actually helped us from a design perspective think about our gameplay mechanics in a new light and helped us integrate them together.
You've been hired on a number of triple-A games to help ensure against scope neglect, offering advice on how not to outstrip development budgets and deadlines. Has your experience in this area been applied to determining an appropriate scope for Planck?
A thing that I've been thinking about recently is that our team was a little overly ambitious when we set out to make this game. We are only just now getting to Level 2, and it's been quite awhile. I speak to a number of other people who are going indie after having worked in the triple-A game industry and a big topic that keeps coming up is the importance of keeping your scope down.
It's so easy to convince yourself that you will be able to make this very large game. If I had to do it all over again, I might have preferred to make this one something a little bit smaller. It's become more ambitious than even I had anticipated, and I'm supposed to be good at doing estimations of scope. That's what I was paid to do for a decade in the triple-A game industry. (laughs)
Planck is still in development and you are still discovering what approaches to design work best for you. When down the line your team is generating revenue, do you see yourself departing from the open-ended schedule that has characterized the making of Planck?
Even if Shadegrown Games did become a "real business" and we started working on development full time, that doesn't mean 24 hours a day. I think game developers do their best work when they have time to go home to cook a home-cooked meal, to do other things. They're still mulling over problems from work in the back of their minds.
Then would you describe a goal for your studio as being a profitable enterprise, but one that follows an alternative business model?
That is the hope: that Shadegrown Games can help us sustain ourselves so we can make games the way we want to make them.
[For more information on Planck, visit the official website. Images courtesy of Shadegrown Games]