Puzzle platformers aren’t something we see a lot of nowadays. They’re always few and far in between, but when they do come about, they’re usually quite inventive. That was the vibe I got from Project: Singularity, which is a co-op puzzle platformer developed by a small team of students from Murdoch University that was on display at the Perth Games Festival this year. As a fan of the genre, I was immediately keen to learn more, so I caught up with the lead designer, Joshua Bryan to talk about how it came to be and why he chose to develop a game in a fairly niche genre.
For those who aren’t familiar with your game, can you give us an elevator pitch?
Project: Singularity is a 2D puzzle platformer with an emphasis on cooperation and asymmetrical player perspective. Basically, one player is made of “Black” energy, the other is made of “White” energy.
There are a few simple rules; you can collide with the opposite type, it will drain your life as you do, you will ignore the same type, and you can collide with each other. Using this core mechanic players must work together to complete the “singularity” experiments, a series of challenges designed to test player’s ability, puzzle solving, coordination, and perception of the game world.
Creating the game was a part of your curriculum, is that right? What was involved in that?
I believe the main focus of this project was not so much what we made, but how we made it and functioned as a team. Obviously, the outcome is incredibly important, and I think it actually reflects the good team dynamic we formed over the project.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to face during development?
There were two major challenges for me as the project lead; learning to manage, and learning to code.
I didn’t really know anything about coding, so I had to learn how to over the course of the project to get things going and try to get our vision to come to life. At times it was quite stressful and slowed down the design process, as I’d spend ages agonising over simple code due to my lack of knowledge. In the end, the knowledge was well worth the hassle and the time I spent on learning will probably pay off more when it comes to designing in the future.
The same goes for managing everyone. We were all new to this, and up until now, I’ve never really had my leadership skills tested. It’s one of those things that comes from experience, especially in terms of learning what each role’s workflow is like and how to mesh those roles together in a productive and healthy way. It was also tricky personally as I never wanted to feel like I’d stepped on someone’s toes when I made decisions or asked people to reiterate work they’d done.
What did you think of PGF and how did it feel showing your game to the public for the first time?
It was incredible! Meeting all these accomplished and experienced devs and being able to stand with them ourselves and seeing people enjoy the game. It was all immensely gratifying. The day put a lot of things into perspective for me, and has given me a lot of confidence in going forward with this project independently.
Did you receive any helpful feedback?
Of course. In fact, almost any time we watch people play the game there’s a high chance we’ll spot something ourselves that leads to the game becoming better. Reception from players was great and reassuring, and advice from some of the other developers was also quite welcome. One of the biggest things I took from the day was the need to create a nice, short, but incredible experience, so that players could have a quick snappy session and come to love your game within 5 minutes. This would allow the next potential fan to step in and have a try without waiting all day long.
A lot of the platforming requires you to think outside the box. What inspired you to design the levels in these ways?
Going into the project and development as a whole, I think many of us want to stand out. I was always motivated to try and have a fresh concept, and I love to draw on the unlimited amount of fun that two or more players can have in a game. This is partly what led to the game’s co-op based nature, and over time as the game evolved we constantly thought about the different possible ways two players could interact with our mechanics, as well as how to create difficult yet definitely possible puzzles. A big inspiration was the way in which one player might catch on before the other, leading to this brilliant little moment of teamwork and knowledge sharing. It can be quite bonding.
How did you conceptualise the idea for the game?
I tried to come up with a game that would work given the assignment and the timeline we’d have. This was a big reason for going the 2D route. I’d prototyped in 2D previously, and I believed certain art styles would allow for assets and levels to be created with a relatively sensible workflow given our experience.
Initially, I started with an abstract concept that sounded interesting; two players (black and white) in a level of nothing but black and white. Black was the ground for one player, and white for the other (with the opposite colours being the only “passable area”). This strange asymmetrical perception sounded interesting, and early prototypes had a unique feel to them. Over time, though, we decided to follow a more detailed and complex sci-fi dystopian theme, with the world and the mechanics bouncing off of each other with that core abstract premise in mind.
Were there any other puzzle platformers in particular that you took inspiration from?
Definitely. I think one of the earlier inspirations and games we played as research was “Battle Block Theatre,” due to how cool the cooperative side of it is and the way in which you can just sit down and annoy each other instead. We definitely wanted to create a similar feeling, as a lot of joy can come from occasionally smashing your buddy in the face when he’s trying to make a jump you yourself have just pulled off (and I think in the end we’ve achieved that to an extent). That game has a very unique feel and floatiness to its platforming, and the almost annoying “head jump” mechanic it has in which players can just ride each other was part of the inspiration for our own attempts at a “riding” mechanic.
What inspired the team to place such an emphasis on the cooperative part of the game?
As I mentioned earlier, part of the core reason the initial concepts were interesting was the basic idea that players had split perceptions of the world. This naturally kind of evolves into “well, how can we force them to help each other given their own abilities?”. Over the course of development, it became clear that half the fun of the game was the sheer fun of working together, especially with someone you had some sort of bond with (as well as cheekily getting in their way from time to time). Even now, as I’m considering the need for a toned down single-player in the future, I still see coop as the real meat of our core concepts.
Is it nearing completion? What’s the plan once you finish your degree?
It’s been interesting, as, until PGF, we had been working almost entirely with it as our final goal. We’d see how it went, and then reevaluate afterwards. It put so much into perspective, to be able to present a reasonably polished game and receive the feedback we did. I finish my degree next semester, but I’ve basically finished all the cool games-related side of it.
Going forward, I intend to become a better team leader and continue to lead my merry band of munchkins on this project until it becomes both the game I always envisioned and hopefully some sort of releasable experience that we put together as a well-functioning team. It’s a lofty goal, and we’re still inexperienced, but this whole event, as well as the tight-knit, friendly local industry, has given me a lot of confidence in my team and my ability to guide them.
This game in particular would be such a good fit for the Switch. Have you given that any thought?
Truth be told, I’d only considered releasing on PC, as this is our first project really and we lack a lot of experience. Perhaps a year from now, I would love to be sitting here trying to work out the specifics of releasing on several consoles including the Switch. A game with such a focus on coop, that lacks online playability (for now) is a great fit for consoles instead. Again, after the boost PGF gave us, I’m starting to seriously consider the possibilities, and, if we’re up to the task, a Switch release might definitely be one of them.
If you’d like to follow the development of Project: Singularity, you can up to date via team’s Facebook page here.