April 15, 2014 1:30 PM | Lena LeRay
Winning Blimp is a two-person development studio that specializes in sci-fi themed games influenced by games of the 16-bit era. Their upcoming war simulation game, Stratolith, earned them the BitSummit Award for Excellence in Sound Design, recognition which seems quite appropriate for a developer that uses "concept music" to guide the game design process in lieu of concept art.
The two members of the Winning Blimp team are Bear Trickey, a former Q-games developer, and Alex May, an artist and sound designer that Trickey pulled in to help him while working on the prototype for his first solo game. That prototype didn't work out so well; after some frustrating hitches in game development, Trickey had an idea for a vertically scrolling block breaker game. They shelved the original prototype and went to work on what would eventually become Ambi-ON.
It's a free-to-play mobile game in which the player is tasked with clearing parasites off of a space elevator. The parasites make up the bricks that need breaking, with some requiring multiple hits, others exploding to take out all the bricks around them, and a few acting as traps that redirect the player's missile in a random direction with a permanent speed increase. There are three levels of procedurally generated, endlessly scrolling difficulty and the game only allows the player to miss a rebound once. Ambi-ON makes great intuitive use of a touch screen, putting the paddles at whatever vertical position the player is touching on a bar to one side (and that bar can be moved to the left in the options screen, for people who want to play left-handed).
Ambi-ON was the first game on which May and Trickey worked as a team from the get-go, and after initial discussion of what the game would be, the first thing that got done was the creation of the title track. Throughout the development process, they used it as the primary artistic reference, or "concept music", making it "essentially a substitute for concept art". This became the pattern by which all of their games were to be made, with the music playing a key part in creating the feel they want. "We always synthesize all our [music and] sound effects, instead of turning to samples or real-world sounds," says May. "As a company we focus on sci-fi themed games that are inspired by the classics of the 16-bit era (SNES, Genesis, Amiga) and we find that synthesis is the most effective way to achieve a sonic feel to our games which pays homage to that era."
"In keeping with the above, the music is all sequenced in a tracker program called 'renoise'. Back on the Commodore Amiga the tracker style music sequencer was the chief music creation tool for game development, but it's also just a damn brilliant piece of software which I've used for many years," adds May.
Unfortunately for Winning Blimp, in spite of being happy with the final product and how it came about, it wasn't as successful as they'd hoped in a commercial. May puts that down to a few flaws in the game's design, not enough marketing, and a general lack of experience with freemium game development. At the time, however, they found it frustrating and decided to channel their energies into creating a sort of anti-Ambi-ON, something lighter in tone and slower in pace. May composed a ten-minute ambient track, Trickey pulled out that first failed prototype, and they set to work using the music to reshape it into a puzzle game they named Mosaique.
In its final form, the version which was commercially released, Mosaique is a strategy puzzle game designed to be finished within the length of its ten-minute music track. The player is presented with an interface whose upper portion is an algorithmically generated field of colored blocks. The field has a border, outside of which is a single colored block. Two of the buttons on the bottom portion rotate that single block around the outside of the field. The third button sends the outer block inward. In a mechanic inspired by Zoop, the block will break any blocks of its own color in its path until it either hits a wall or a block of a different color. If it hits a different colored block, it takes that block's place and the displaced block becomes the outer block; otherwise, the block bounces back outward.
The goal is to break all of the blocks and clear the field for each of seven levels. Whether a player wants to get super-strategic and go for a high score or just chill and play the game is up to them. The only in-game limiter on how a person plays is an energy meter of sorts which gets lower when the player sends the outer block in and fills up when they destroy blocks. Get bigger combos, get more energy back and a higher score. A player just playing for fun can easily destroy blocks at a rate that will keep them afloat. Someone playing strategically, however, can completely fill up the meter and the next time they send their block in it will destroy an entire line regardless of the blocks' colors.
At the price of $0.99, Mosaique hasn't made as much money as some of the quality free-to-play puzzle games out there, but May says it's made back the money they spent marketing it, and it's spent a lot of time in the Popular Puzzlers section of Apple's App Store. Apple even used it in their demo of iOS 7 during their keynote speech at WWDC 2013. It's been a bigger commercial success than Ambi-ON in spite of being a pay-up-front game in a genre dominated by games that can be downloaded for free.
Winning Blimp is currently working on their third game, Stratolith, which is their first game to come to PC as well as mobile. This is the game that won them the Excellence in Sound Design award at BitSummit. Part of the title track, which is the "concept music" for the game, can be heard in the trailer below.
Stratolith, which is due out later this year for Windows, Mac, and iPad, will be an electronic warfare simulation game in which the player is in control of the defense system of the floating city from which the game takes its name. The city of Stratolith is under attack by aerial drones, and to defend against them the player must hack some of the drones and reprogram them to fight their former allies. There won't be any coding (fake or real) involved, however.
"The hacking process incorporates a physics based game mechanic similar to noise cancellation; the idea being that two waveforms perfectly out of phase with each other will cancel each other out," says May. "As well as a visual representation of this via the oscilloscopes on the interface, we also plan to experiment with representing this mechanic through sound. Our final goal is to have the sound effects in the game form a kind of abstract music which the user can have some extent of control over. It is by no means an 'interactive music game' or anything so grand as that, but we would just like to include some subtle connections between the sound design, in-game music, and the sound-related hacking game mechanic."
In addition to putting thought into the connection between gameplay and audio, the Winning Blimp developers are also trying to make the most of their screen real estate. Not one thing on the interface is purely decorative. Although the look and feel of the interface takes its inspiration from the title track, everything on the screen is a functional part of the gameplay. "There is nothing that is there just to give it a futuristic look," says May.
Winning Blimp's music-first approach won't be the only thing tying Stratolith to their first two games, however. "All of our games are set in the same fictional sci-fi universe, and Stratolith will be the most ambitious game yet as far as the amount of information about this world that we will divulge to the user," says May. "I used a tectonic simulator to generate a semi-realistic world map for the chief planet of the solar system, 'Stratopeia,' and the player will be able to uncover fragments of this map as they play deeper into Stratolith."
It's easy to see how Ambi-ON could fit into a sci-fi setting, with its space elevator covered in space parasites requiring removal, but Mosaique's connection is far from obvious. When asked about how Mosaique fits in, May replied, "Although Ambi-ON and Stratolith give more direct reference to their respective backstories and place in the Stratopeia universe, with Mosaique we intentionally did not promote this in the game. Our feeling was that the target user we were trying to appeal to would not be interested in a kooky sci-fi backstory behind what is, essentially, just a casual puzzler wrapped up in an aesthetically pleasing package. We did not want to force down the player's throat a storyline when we knew that in the case of Mosaique it would not add much to the experience. At least not for the target player we were hoping would pick up the game. Instead, we put the storyline on the website (and it is lightly alluded to in the app's description text and trailer video) for people to see and enjoy if they were interested."
"The Stratopeian universe we have will permeate all of our games, but it has never been something that we feel should be forcefully imposed on the player if it doesn't enhance the game experience for them.... We like to have the backstory there for people to enjoy if they take a macro view of all our work, but we also don't want that story to turn certain types of target players away."