A World Full of Big Clunky Cogs: Vessel Interview

Conducted By Adam Ames

John Krajewski, big man on campus over at Strange Loop Games, took some time away from coding to discuss his one-of-a-kind action/puzzler, Vessel.  You will read how a physics experiment led to development of Vessel, why he released a demo, his thoughts on marketing and the PC industry, plus much more.  Here is a taste:

What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?

Finish something. Anything! Starting is easy, finishing is hard. Have realistic scopes. This is an amazing time to get into the industry as an indie, there are so many tools and platforms to use to launch yourself on virtually zero investment.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Vessel.

My name is John Krajewski, I’m studio head at Strange Loop Games. My role was programming the physics engine and gameplay and designing the game

Where did the idea for Vessel come from?

It grew out of an experiment with a physics engine. I was always fascinated with physics simulations in games, and as a hobby project I started an engine in my spare time that would simulate liquid. Over the years it grew, eventually to the point that we realized it could make a great game. The main mechanics of the game were gleaned from the most interesting parts of the liquid simulation (combinations of liquid, bringing liquid to live, destroying liquid life), and the story and world was formed around that (a mechanical world, about an inventor who has created the ability to invent liquid life forms)

 In its current form, how close is Vessel to your initial vision?

It’s hard to say, because the vision came in stages. I’ve always felt that creativity was guided discovery, and Vessel’s concepts are due in large part to that philosophy. We grew the mechanics iteratively, building something, experimenting with it, seeing what was fun, and then pushing it forward. We would become inspired by the unexpected results of the very thing we were developing, in that sense it was a perpetual motion machine that pushed itself forward.

As for the initial impetus that started Vessel (a game that made deep use of liquid), I think we are pretty close to what that was, even if we couldn’t articulate exactly what we wanted at first.

Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Vessel and if you faced a similar challenge.

That is definitely a challenge in our game, especially since we’re a puzzle game. The best tool we found to prevent this from happening was constant playtesting, getting fresh eyeballs on the game. You get so close to a game you can’t see it clearly, and having other people give feedback was invaluable. The playtesting in the last couple months improved the game dramatically, and there were some large problems that were completely invisible to the whole team that were illuminated. For example, players felt like the Factory level was a maze of branching paths, which completely surprised us because it’s actually linear, with offshoot dead-ends for each puzzle. To someone who had never played it though this wasn’t clear, and we corrected it by adding sign posts to the game, numbering the puzzles and adding arrows directing the linear path. This easily fixed what would have been a very bad problem had we shipped with it.

Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Vessel.

These were handled by the very talented members of our team Leonard Paul and Kiearn Lord (audio) and Milenko Tunjic and Mark Filippelli (art). We wanted everything in the game to have a cohesive, connected feel, and the art and music was a huge part of that. The core of the game had been set – you’re giving life to these Fluro liquid-machines, and from that the art and music grew. We wanted a mechanical world, full of big clunky cogs and whirring machinery that contrasted with the sleek Fluro liquid machines. We wanted a spectrum, between these machines, to the semi-alive Fluros, to the player, and the fantastic machine world fit that purpose perfectly.

On the music front we started with Jon Hopkins very early on in the project, we were able to get a temporary license from his production company and we had that music attached throughout development. Leonard did an amazing job of designing how the music dynamically mixes in with gameplay, and Kieran Lord created the music engine that makes it possible. The end result works perfectly with Hopkins’ music – a classical feel, but ‘all is not right’ in this world, and you can feel it with the music. The dynamic music was a huge success at establishing a changing emotional tableau for the game, and almost every review mentioned how much they enjoyed it.

Level design was a challenge that I took on, and over the course of the project we found a great methodology to create the puzzles of the game in a productive way. For us it was all about constraints. Each puzzle needed to teach the player one thing and only one thing to solve it, and thing always had to be something they had the pieces in their head to solve already. For example, in a particular puzzle the player would know that a) lava + water = steam, and b) Fluros can be made out of lava + water. It was then put upon them to make the leap combining those two – that they could combine a lava fluro and a water fluro at an opportune location in order to fill a pipe with Steam. We set up these puzzles to require mental leaps like that, and it’s a great feeling when you put the pieces together. Nothing is arbitrary that way, the game is letting you discover something amazing and natural about the systems it has provided to you.

Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?

It takes a degree of self-discipline that you don’t have to have when you work in an office full of people. You have to really love the game and working on it to be able to do it.

For the most part, big budget studios no longer release PC demos while almost every indie developer does. Why do you think this trend is occurring? Tell us why you released a demo for Vessel and the difficulties in doing so.

I think it’s a question of marketing pull. If you’re a big studio and you can saturate the market with information about your game, you don’t need to make a demo. These studios can reach a huge portion of their market directly and inform them what the game is. As an indie this is a lot more difficult, we can’t saturate the market, we do what we can and mostly our customers are the ones that want to discover us, that seek out these new and interesting experiences. Giving a demo will help communicate exactly what it is we’re providing. Indies especially have a challenge here due to the innovation in their games – it’s not always obvious what a game is like when it’s based on a new mechanic or something unusual. A big budget AAA shooter though is a lot easier to understand (it’s a lot like the last shooter) and player’s know what they’re getting.

How important is it to get instant feedback about Vessel from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?

It’s invaluable being able to connect directly to your audience like this. The game is already out and done, so we can’t change a lot, but we are very quick at fixing bugs that players find this way. It’s also extremely useful for the long-term benefit of building a brand, finding the audience that likes what we create and holding on to them. They are one of most valuable things our company can have, finding an audience is hard and we have to make sure we don’t let go of them, keep supporting them and involve them directly in our next projects.

How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Vessel professionally?

You have to take everything with a grain of salt, entertainment and art is a subjective thing. You also have to remind yourself that you’re not trying to please everyone, because if you did you would be creating something bland and watered down. That said, there is certainly strength in numbers, and the consistent positives and negatives (almost the same in every review) surprised us, these are the ones you really pay attention to.

How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?

There’s some discussion going on lately in the indie-sphere about whether these are a good thing or bad thing for the industry. They raise sales dramatically but at the cost of devaluing games, I think consumers become trained to wait for these sales. I think a lot of their success is due to supply and demand, it’s a crowded games market and players only have so much attention to distribute.

How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Vessel?

Love it. It’s great to see individual experiences with the game, everyone plays slightly different. Watching the first time someone plays it and the surprise on their face when they encounter the unusual things we’re doing is the best of all.

I think allowing people to get into your game and create levels can really extend its life, building a community around a game that would be difficult to do otherwise considering its a single player experience. -End

We would like to thank John for his wonderful answers and unique insight.  You can pick up Vessel via Steam or on the official Strange Loop Games website.  Buying direct nets you a DRM-free copy, plus a Steam key.

Also be sure to watch the trailer for Vessel below.

Follow Strange Loop Games on Twitter and Facebook.

Follow TruePCGaming on Twitter and Facebook.

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