Graveck is a small development studio located in Minneapolis. Founded in 2007, Graveck was the one of the first companies to fully adopt Unity as their commercial engine. They have primarily focused on mobile games, releasing Skee-ball, Skee-ball 2, Jump Dewds, and multiple Disney titles. Strata is Graveck’s newest game, and it’s a bit of a step in a different direction. Ty Burks, Creative Director at Graveck, shares that story.
Last January, we were deep in development on contract work. I’m sure many studios are familiar with the contract and original work compromise: you work on contract jobs for a few months to be able to work on your own original games for a few months. During this time, I was jumping back and forth on a few ideas for new titles during weeknights. I needed to work on something new. But every game idea I wanted to pursue would take a team at least double our size, heavy animation, economy balancing, etc. I decided to take a different approach. My objective was to try making a game that could be played as a paper prototype. I wanted to create a super simple game that could be played with physical objects, but that would also be enhanced by a digital version. I cut up paper, folded paper, stacked blocks, tossed objects around… basically tried to find some kind of new game with a physical feel to it.
When the idea clicked, I spent the entire night cutting up pieces of paper so I could have my fiance play it when she got home. It worked. Layering the ribbons, matching the colors, and having to fill the entire grid ended up being a perfect combination of simple, yet challenging gameplay I was looking for. The reaction of somebody understanding your game design and continuing to play without you asking them to is one of the best feelings I’ve ever experienced.
A Personal Touch
The next week or two was spent mocking up the main game layout on the computer, and putting together some interface screens in a similar style. The approach with the visuals was to keep it minimalistic, but maintain a sense of tangibility without going overboard on textures. It’s a very simple game mechanic, and I wanted to reflect that throughout the entire game. Every aspect of the game is at a 45-degree angle to follow the gameplay visuals. The interface uses the same mechanic as the gameplay, so you understand how to interact with the game even from the title screen. I wanted to really maintain the physical feel of laying ribbons down on top of each other, so it was important that we nailed the feeling of dragging ribbons. It was a test in discipline to keep everything consistent, but we’re proud of the result.
After I was happy with the mockups, I pitched the game to the team. Matt Gravelle, Graveck’s Co-Founder, began a prototype almost immediately. At this point, Strata was a side-project at night, since we were still deep into contract development. We both continued to iterate on the game, and Matt developed the ribbon transition between interface screens. I was putting together color palettes and testing out some of the bigger puzzles. The game was coming together quickly.
Nick Miller, our Lead Engineer, jumped on the project when things started slowing down with our contract work. Nick and Matt developed a level designer that allowed me to place ribbons, and then sort of “print” it to a grid. I could then go in and manually remove colored squares from the grid, but still make sure that each level had a nice balance of color. We had an automated level creator at one point, but I didn’t feel right using it. Strata is a somewhat intimate game for me, and I wanted to create each level by hand. I wanted the control of the difficulty and making it look good as a completed puzzle. Nick also created a level analyzer algorithm that will test every combination of successful ways to solve the puzzle, and spit out a difficulty rating. This helped a lot in pacing most of the game. Early on, we were a bit worried about not seeing any obvious strategies in the game. As you play through the game, there are a few things you can pick up on to finish those difficult puzzles. We call two of the strategies “Lock In” and “Solid Row”, but you’ll have to figure out what they mean for yourself!
We started testing the game on willing participants. A lot of times, we got the same response (and still do): “It looks really nice, but I have no idea what’s going on.” We went through quite a few iterations of our tutorial, both functionally and visually. By constantly testing on people, we were able to focus on what the core items the player needs to know are. An early tutorial gave players a bit too much freedom to experiment, and we seemed to lose them. The last iteration of the tutorial has the game show you how to fill the grid, places a wrong ribbon, pulls it back, and then completes the puzzle. It makes sure you understand, and then asks you to give it a try. This seemed to get the best response, as it gave the players a peek at what the game looks like completed as opposed to having them struggling to guess.
We decided to release Strata as a desktop version on the Mac App Store, Desura, Chrome, and Steam Greenlight. We found during development that it was still quite an enjoyable experience to play on your desktop. Releasing on these platforms allowed us to gain feedback before our main release on mobile platforms, and test out some new markets. Strata was featured on New and Noteworthy and What’s Hot on the Mac App Store for a couple weeks, and reached #1 in the Games category.
Strata was a fun departure from the types of games we’re known for. It came from focusing on designing a game I believe in, and then sticking to the design. There are no star ratings, objectives or currencies. Strata is a simple game where you challenge yourself, and get out of it what you put in. We definitely learned a lot about keeping things simple and are applying it to our current games. With Strata, I found the user experience was complete when we couldn’t simplify it any further. I believe that to be the biggest lesson learned from development, and something I will carry to future projects. Sometimes, less can be more.
Strata was featured on Indie Prize Showcase at Casual Connect USA 2013, and was nominated for Most Innovative Game Design. It was also a Finalist in the Unity Awards 2013, for Best 2D Visual Experience. Strata will be available for iOS on September 12, 2013.