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This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Ultimate Chicken Horse is a racing platformer between four players. Each chooses a cute animal character before dashing through perilous platforms and weaving around elaborate traps. It's a deadly game for those barnyard animals, but one designed by the players themselves before the match even begins.
Ultimate Chicken Horse doesn't just ask players to race, but to build the track, giving them an array of platforms and traps to lay out. This creates a unique situation, as players must build a route that will simultaneously kill their opponents and grant them safe passage, all while three other players are trying to kill them with their layouts.
This creative and competitive dilemma earned Ultimate Chicken Horse a nomination for Excellence in Design from the Independent Games Festival, so Gamasutra sought out Richard Atlas of Clever Endeavor Games to talk about how his team designed a racing game built around letting players create the track.
The team has a pretty varied background. I studied mechanical engineering in university before finding a team to create this game studio, and now I do design, business, marketing, and other admin stuff. Kyler's background was in animation and film, and he worked on a few games including Gardenarium before co-founding Clever Endeavour Games. Alex, the other co-founder, and Ben both studied computer science in school. Ben had worked on a couple of games before working here, most notably Rimworld.
The concept actually started as a game jam in September 2014. We hadn't started the company yet, and we wanted to make sure we could work well together under situations of high pressure so we tested ourselves that way. The themes involved modularity, "the Ultimate ___" (hence the name), and another theme that we ignored. We showed the game off at a local meet-up and got an overwhelmingly positive response, and decided to put some more work into the game. Eventually it became much bigger as we continued to realize that it was actually a real game, and added online multiplayer and more features. And now we're here!
We use Unity as our game engine. Our animator mainly used TVpaint for 2d animation and art, along with Texture Packer Pro which is essential for packing all those drawings into sprite sheets. We use Workflowy to manage all of our To-do lists, sprints, and organize our ideas. WWise is the audio software used in conjunction with our audio team Vibe Avenue to create the sound and music and implement it in the game. We use GameSparks as our cloud backend for storing levels people design and share online. We use BugGenie for tracking bugs.
We started full-time on this around February 2015. Before that was part time for a few months making small fixes, but we weren't making much progress until we started full-time. Since then, it has been our full time job.
Well, the game was always multiplayer at its core. The game is designed around the fact that you should make it too hard for your friends, but easy enough for you. This is what brings the challenge to the game and makes it interesting. The fact that four people are playing means that the level is built in a more interesting way (4 people trying to design at the same time) and everyone enjoys the challenge they're overcoming as they brave the traps placed by others.
The emphasis in the game isn't the speed, it's more the survival. There are bonus points for arriving first, but the main goal is simply to make it there alive. In addition, each run phase is very short, usually under 20 seconds. This makes it so that if players fail early, they don't have to wait very long until the next round and they don't get bored.
I think there's definitely some amount of camaraderie that's forced by needing to cooperate. The game is competitive, but especially at the start players tend to communicate to work toward making something possible. We've noticed at shows like PAX that players who don't know each other will be instantly talking during the game, giving tips, yelling at each other, etc. I think this is a great sign of a party game because it creates rivalry and camaraderie at the same time.
The first key was balancing traps and useful platforms. At the start, during the game jam, we only had a few traps and basic wood platforms. The more we added, the better it got as each new block creates a wealth of new combinations that can be used to create different gameplay experiences. Beyond that, the goal has always been to create blocks that are different enough from one another in function, and fill gaps in movement possibilities.
For example, we added the ferris wheel (a block with several platforms that rotate around a center like a ferris wheel) because we noticed that we had a lot of horizontal and vertical motion of platforms but nothing circular. That block filled the gap for that type of movement, and we generally avoid blocks that are just a twist on something we already have.
The intention with the simple, silly animal characters was always to make them easy to relate to, easy to embody, and easy to know. Everyone knows the names of all animals in the game, so players and spectators alike can immediately cheer and comment on the game. There is a lot of possibility for expression through the animation of the character which allows players to express themselves on-screen even if it's not related directly to gameplay. For example, we have a button solely dedicated to dancing, which actually gets used more than you'd expect...
Our lead artist, Kyler, added his comments about a couple of games:
Inside - The subtlety of the puzzle design strikes me all the time in this game. The answers are usually not binary, it's often something like "between 1/3 and 1/4". These subtle answers to game puzzles always make me feel more immersed in the world, and kind of like I actually have street smarts, instead of just pure puzzle smarts.
Overcooked - The battle kitchens have been some of my favorite multiplayer fun this year. Stealing ingredients and finishing dishes is oh so satisfying.
I feel like this question could be a 2000 word essay, but I'll try to keep it as short as possible. I personally think the biggest hurdles are funding, mindset, and building a team. Many people will disagree with this, but these are my thoughts (not the thoughts of the company, just for the record).
Funding: It's really hard for startups to get funding. It's much harder for startups in an industry like game development to get funding because there's more risk involved than many other industries. This is in part because we don't understand the industry like we do the film or television industries (which have been around for much longer), and partly because it's an art form and art is notoriously hard to predict.
Mindset: Very closely linked to the funding point, I think that a big issue is companies that don't think of themselves as businesses. It takes more than great art, great code, and great design to make a sustainable company. Being able to focus on things like finding funding options, pitching ideas, marketing, etc. are essential to long-term success and I think many groups of people make games without this mindset.
Building a Team: Finding a team that has all the attributes a team needs for success is a challenge. I think we got fairly lucky in this regard - it's been almost two years and we haven't split up, ripped each others' heads off, or stolen each others' money. I think our team gets along really well in terms of personality, understanding and respecting each other's expertise, and trusting one another. Getting team members together who share the same goals, understand the work involved, and are skilled at what they do is a big task, and I stumbled upon some awesome people.
I think the biggest opportunity for developers today is the ease of access. It's never been easier to make games using game engines like Unity, Unreal and GameMaker, and more tools are being developed to simplify this further. With more games comes less visibility, but Steam is trying to make this better with updates to their store and YouTube gaming is still growing at an amazing pace. I think every game has a stream audience, and with a good game and the right hustle, it will get seen. Our team has always had the thought that if we make a damn good product, people will see it... then again this optimism may come in part from survivorship bias, so I guess we'll see what happens on the next game ;)