Matthijs van de Laar is the Creative Director at Twirlbound, a Dutch entertainment game development company. His main occupation is the design and production of Pine, as he oversees the project and holds the creative vision.
Erik Meyer: To reiterate, the game involves a boy helping his displaced tribe of humans find a home; humans are not the dominant species but one of many on the island. Describe the formation of this idea and the creation of species diversity. How did each come together (deciding on everything from humanoid foxes to mammoth), and how does your team work to balance the environment?
Matthijs van de Laar: The idea of adaptation was easily linked to a theme of evolution and survival, so we imagined it would only make sense if the player, a human, would have to struggle for survival too. We ourselves are big fans of worlds that do something completely different but are always grounded in reality. We worked on the idea of an alternate ‘evolutionary timeline’ in which species of our own world evolved slightly differently because of slightly different circumstances – and the first ideas for species were born.
For example, we imagined our real-world caribou to have won out over their natural enemies, the wolves, through smart group behavior. What if they got the chance to do that, become even better at forming groups, and develop language, etc.? This created the Cariblin, a slightly aggressive species with tools and wolf clothing to support their communal behavior.
A small story like this was born for each species. Foxes are known to be smart, but what if all other species are smart, too? They have to bring something more if they want to survive. So, our Fexel uses tools like bombs and grenades while keeping a distance. What if mammoths never went extinct? They’d still roam the world, like our Mannoths, even though you’d not spot them on every corner. And if they did, elephants would have perhaps never gotten bigger, so that’s where our Alpafant came in – a small, horse-like elephant species.
Balancing is a difficult task. A designer from Naughty Dog once said that the most difficult part about making games is that you don’t know what you’re making until everything comes together. For Pine, that’s certainly the case – which is why we’re reserving a huge part of development for seeing the ecology with all species and trying to balance them all out. This does include natural balancing algorithms – low-tier species will have a larger population, while high-tier species have a smaller but stronger population. Because that’s how ecologies work!
EM: Survival and tools can create fun minigames and an impetus for exploration; crafting in gaming has become huge in the last few years. What do you add, in terms of mechanics, and how do you compare your system for item interaction to others you’ve seen?
ML: Instead of focusing on simple, straightforward crafting, we want the mechanic to focus on learning about tools. The interactions with the species should give you insights into the cultures of these species, so we’re mostly experimenting with how we can bring that experience to the crafting, survival, and tools mechanics. A good example of a prototype we are creating is helping a species find some food and then trading that food for a certain piece of equipment or a resource – but first, you have to learn about the food that species is eating. We think observing can be a really strong mechanic in a game like Pine.
EM: The adaptive AI fits with the evolutionary theme; how many strategies do you see players having to adopt while playing, and how do you avoid there being a ‘clear best’ combat strategy, i.e. an exploit that breaks everything the AI can throw at it?
ML: This requires an intricate balance of moves, timing, and patterns. The ‘fun’ in games has often been identified as relating to pattern recognition, so we have to make sure the experience is grounded in that. Meanwhile, it’s even more important to give the player a ‘spectrum’ of options that is wide enough to actually assume patterns of their own. In the end, this feels natural – you react to what the AI is doing, which will mean you slightly adjust your own patterns to win again. It’s been pretty tough to balance out all ‘styles’ so far, and not have a winning strategy, but in the end, this boils down to a lot of testing and tweaking, making sure that the full potential of the system is used.
We don’t intend to make the AI smarter than the player, because we could, by feeding it information about the player before the player can even respond. Instead, we’re always attempting to make their reaction time ‘human’, so that it becomes a dance of action and reaction between the player and the AI. This does mean that some enemies will be stronger against the player, and some weaker – but we need control over that to make the game feel smooth. ‘Breaking’ it won’t be easier or harder than in any other game – that is, each AI can be won over in the end.
EM: Describe your team dynamic; you seem like a tight-knit group of guys, but what is your daily development process like? How much do people simply start with landscape, filling in and adding story, or do you script heavily before placing assets? What parts of the process have been clear, essential, and unquestioned, versus the gray areas that require conversations?
ML: As a team of 6, communication is strong – we can easily discuss important decisions quickly. This ties into our all-important mantra that we carry with us throughout development: iterating is easier than creating. As a creator, it’s sometimes hard to finally put something down on paper and show it to people – that’s why we more or less force it early on in a process. By having created something, people are always more prone to look at it critically, rather than sitting on it for longer in isolation. We aim to try out something really quickly and then iterate on it as much as possible. So far, that has been a really fruitful approach.
Some aspects do require more thought and discussion before creation. Especially tying the vision of evolution and a continuous world into actual mechanics have been the subject for a lot of meetings. Bigger mechanics include the species’ food management or their own minds with regards to quests, in addition to details like the layouts of semi-procedural villages.
Once the basics are discussed, we do have a lot of freedom in the team. Everyone is so invested in the project that they know what would be best. Sometimes we start creating an environment and make cool structures and scenarios in that, but sometimes we start with the design – we always look at what the project needs. Every day we come into the office and work on content while constantly quickly discussing everything as we go – because it’s as simple as turning around and quickly discussing the matter.
EM: Your Kickstarter campaign is in full swing and on track to meet its goal; what have been the challenges of this part of your project, and what has come easily?
ML: We’ve been preparing the Kickstarter for about 7 months – ever since we started on the Square Enix Collective in October, we’ve been trying to iterate on the page as much as possible. Making the page and the information went rather well – the most effort went into our Kickstarter Announcement trailer. For that, we desperately wanted to combine making a trailer (marketing efforts) with the development of the full game (production efforts), so that we wouldn’t fall behind because of the campaign. This also worked well, but it did mean that we had to take a very close look at who is making what, and when.
Marketing is always difficult, especially without a specialized team member and without a budget. But we tried to increase our following as much as possible before the Kickstarter, so that we could bring people with us that were as excited as we are. The start of the campaign went rather well, and especially new audiences were attracted through the games category on Kickstarter. Now that the mid-campaign period has started, we’re doing everything we can to keep that momentum going!
EM: The connection to Darwin ties the game to a fascinating element of science and history, yet evolution can be brutal, unforgiving, and painful (for the losers). Beyond the basic struggle of the protagonist, how do you couch these concepts in the game world?
ML: It’s a beautiful, two-faced concept indeed. While our game is colorful, we do want to tell the story that is evolution. Without giving too much away, the story is implying a few of the darker sides, such as the ripple effect on species that can come from a small action.
Furthermore, the way we introduce the world of Albamare should reflect the theme of evolution, too. We want players to feel a shift from ease to tension as the world becomes ‘bigger’ for them and the ecology more intricate. This is in parallel with the natural difficulty curve a game should have – as Hue proceeds with the story, into the Out, players should feel that breathing system of evolution grow more and more daunting. The music underscores this as well – we want to start off smaller but make it sound bigger as you uncover more of the island, with some slightly darker tones, possibly.
EM: Not unexpectedly, the trailer and screenshots are lush, filled with life. Talk about the game’s natural aesthetic; what considerations did you give to how everything looks and the reason it looks that way? What feeling do you intend to give to players exploring a forest for the first time?
ML: For the art direction, we’re always going for something stylized, as it sticks to us much more. In 10 years, stylized games can still be recognizable and hold up among newer generations, and that’s really important to us. However, if we’d have made it even more stylized, like The Wind Waker style in the Zelda series (while beautiful), we’d have lost important details. For the evolutionary or adaptive aspects to work visually, we need quite a lot of detail and thought in all the designs we make for species and environment.
The environment also must never feel magical. We’re aiming for a very grounded look that still invites players to explore and discover how things are in this world; when players first walk into the forests outside of their home tribe, we want them to feel as if nature doesn’t care about any species – it just exists however it pleases. Then, as the world ‘expands’ for the player by uncovering more, they should even be intimidated but also inspired by the landscapes, soundscapes, and effects.
EM: While humans in Pine live in a marginal position, this flips the script, compared with the current state of humanity (people have spread across nearly every inch of the planet, excluding the bottom of the ocean); how do you see adaptability and change in the contemporary context of the Earth?
ML: Tough question! Working on Pine has given a kind of opportunity to reflect on how human beings are in our world – something we maybe don’t do often enough. It’s so natural to live the way we do – but if there had been different circumstances, our clothes, language, and buildings wouldn’t necessarily be as common. Sometimes, we take it a bit too much for granted…