Creating the beautifully inventive art of Creature in the Well
Volker talks about how Flight School were able to elegantly meld such distinct gameplay mechanics, elaborates on how they designed Creature in the Well's challenging environmental puzzles, and explains how a budgetary constraint allowed them to think outside of the box to create what some people are referring to as one of the most terrifying video game bosses. The creative director also shares how they delivered on the game's comic-book aesthetic by leveraging vertex painting in Unreal. Finally, Volker provides development tips geared towards small teams. Creature in the Well has been described as a pinball brawler and is a game that infuses hack-and-slash dungeon crawling with puzzles and pinball mechanics. How did you end up combining so many disparate genres together?
Creative Director Adam Volker: We built the game on the back of a multiplayer prototype that was more akin to air hockey than pinball. We were adding bumpers to the arena of this title to spice it up and found out that the bumpers had a lot of potential. A few puzzles later (and playtesting inside the studio) we had something we felt was more promising and the development pivoted towards single player and dungeon exploring.
Without a lot of exposition, new gameplay mechanics are eased into naturally, equipping players with the knowledge to intuitively solve difficult puzzles. How did you walk this fine line between educating players and holding their hands?
Volker: It was tough. The tutorial dungeon of the game was something that got iterated on the most. In the end, we used the power requirements on the doors to gate players. Making sure they were not able to progress until they had solved the puzzle in the room. If we could guarantee that they had, then we knew they had to have figured out a few key elements of the game’s core design. After that, we felt it was more about introducing challenge at the right pace. There are still some integral things like the healing pools and Danielle’s workshop that some players miss too often, so we’re looking at ways of explaining those two mechanics better.
With eight distinct dungeons, many of the levels in Creature in the Well serve up challenging environmental puzzles to solve and deadly traps to overcome. How did you go about building them?
Volker: Bohdon Sayre, the technical side of the core development team, had built eight unique test levels that he wanted to use as the north star for the directions the dungeons should each take. I came in after that and started to flesh them out, expanding on the ideas he was using in each of those demo levels. Each dungeon has a main mechanic that gets expanded on as you go deeper. We introduce it, test your understanding of it and present optional challenges that, if completed, will offer new items that might make the dungeon easier to complete. Every dungeon ends in a fight with the Creature where that same mechanic is the focal point to confirm the player understands how it works.
With a massive and mysterious multi-layered stage presence, the actual creature in Creature in the Well has been heavily praised as being one of the most memorable bosses in modern video game history. How did you come up with it?
Volker: Wow, really? That’s so flattering! The Creature was a combination of budgetary restrictions and a desire to let players' imaginations run wild. We feel like a villain with a bit of mystery can be special and unique for everyone who encounters it. We didn’t want to spell out exactly what the Creature was. We just wanted to tease what it could be. We hoped it was scarier that way.
The boss battles are a challenging highlight of the game that really test both your finger dexterity and tactical puzzle-solving skills under pressure. How did you design them?
Volker: The boss fights in Creature were really an attempt to take the thematic design at the heart of each dungeon and turn it up to 11. We wanted to challenge players with one last bit of flair to punctuate all the exploring and secret sleuthing they had just done. We also felt like they needed to feature the creature more directly, since throughout most of the dungeons, it just watches you from the pit but isn’t really part of the dungeon.
With the game offering weapons like the hammer, which slows down time, and dual blades, which provide aim assist, how did you approach designing the numerous different gameplay tools the game has to offer?
Volker: Internally, we referred to the weapons as “Zelda-style instead of Dark Souls-style,” meaning we wanted them to have functional differences and not statistical differences. For our game, we felt like we could have more fun with players if we gave them a few weapons that changed the core gameplay instead of coming up with many weapons that leaned more towards RPG-style gameplay. After that, it was just about asking ourselves the question, “what would be cool to be able to do with a weapon?” And the answer was usually in response to a trap mechanic we had designed into one of the dungeons.
Creature in the Well has been widely praised for its tight controls, which are key to overcoming many of the game's deadly traps. How did you get the game to feel so responsive?
Volker: This should be attributed to Bo. He programmed the character controller and animated almost all of it as well. This really just came together through iteration and testing. It was also important to us to be aware of how the character controls and the camera functioned together. We discussed it with players at every stage of development and tried to find out what people expected to be able to do and then tweaked it until it felt right.
Creature in the Well features a stylish comic-book aesthetic that excellently blends a flat 2D look with 3D models. How did you come up with and execute on that vision?
Volker: The style is based on one of my favorite comic book creators, Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy. We needed a style that was striking but also simple enough that the frenetic and hectic multiball gameplay could be played on top of it. That combined with our small team, we came up with a number of tools in Unreal to push the toon shader in the engine to get the final look.
The game features really slick fluid animations. How did you achieve that look?
Volker: The animation was done by some of our cohorts at the larger Flight School Studio headquarters in Dallas, Texas. Many of the extra help we had were animators who come from a film background but have a passion for games. They brought their A game and really made some great work. That and Bo did a bunch of the animation and, being the primary programmer on the project, he knew exactly how the animation was going to be used, and I feel like that helped it gel together really well.
The audio in Creature in the Well is outstanding with a haunting, memorable musical score and cartoonish sound effects. How did you achieve the game's excellent audio design?
Volker: We wanted to combine the juicy sounds of a pinball machine with the electric themes of our game world. We used a lot of pitched-down machinery sounds, rubber twangs, and bells until we found the right palette. We felt so strongly about it. We had no music for the first trailer of our game, just sounds effects. For the score, we worked with an old friend we had previously worked with named Jim Fowler. Having that established relationship really helped us get to the feel of the project quickly; the same with SFX. We had help from the larger Flight School Studio back in Dallas.
How large was the development team?
Volker: The core development team was myself and Bohdon Sayre, the art side and technical side, respectively. However, one of the advantages of Flight School Studio is that when we have a need, there is a larger entity that can help us with assets throughout development. We had help with the modeling, animation, sound design, and production from the larger studio. We also had help publishing the game from the incredible group at Popagenda, so it’s really a team effort.
Flight School Studio seems to be a very innovative company. Can you tell us more about it?
Volker: Flight School Studio works on all kinds of odd projects. The company is only a few years old, but we’ve worked in VR/AR and all sorts of physical installations. Our passion is interactivity in all its forms, good design, and engaging stories. Technology advances at such an incredible rate these days that it keeps us on our toes project after project.
What made Unreal Engine a good fit for the game?
Volker: Unreal Engine’s architecture is easy to understand. It’s visually oriented (which I particularly like) and scaled well when we had to add people to the project. I found that we could get the game to play and look exactly like we wanted to with the engine.
Did you have any favorite Unreal Engine tools or features?
Volker: Vertex painting! It’s my new favorite tool to get all that reuse out of assets. It’s what built our bricks, and the speckle texture you see all over Creature in the Well. It's such a cool thing to use.
Do you have any development tips for other small teams?
Volker: Scope your project to your team, and make it as small as you can. The process of development is to add stuff to your game. So make sure it is small to start out with, so when you do start to add things to make it whole, it doesn’t grow so large that you can’t complete it.
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Creature in the Well?
Volker: People can visit creatureinthewell.com or find us on Twitter @creaturewell and Flight School Studio @flightschoolHQ.
In the Unreal Indie Dev Days 2019 panel discussion moderated by Epic's Christian Allen below, Adam Bromell from System Era Softworks (Astroneer), Tam Armstrong from Polyarc (Moss), and Bohdon Sayre from Flight School Studio (Creature in the Well) share lessons learned from their development journeys while providing insight into important topics such as funding, optimization, marketing, shipping, and more.