Image courtesy of Flight School Studio

Exploring Stonefly - A chill and tranquil action adventure game

Daniel Kayser |
June 1, 2021
As Game Director, Bohdon Sayre tackles technical challenges in new technologies while iterating on game prototypes that eventually become releases from the studio. With a background in computer animation and a vast technical knowledge of production pipelines, Bohdon is Flight School Studio’s Swiss army knife. He is hands-on with every interactive project at the studio, providing not only technical direction but also artistic vision at every step of the process. His past game titles include Diggs Nightcrawler, Island Time VR, Emmy Award nominated Manifest 99, and IGF Award finalist Creature in the Well. Bo was previously the CTO of Moonbot Studios, where he set up the studio pipeline for their Academy Award winning film, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.
Stonefly isn’t your typical mech game. That’s likely because its creators, Flight School Studio, isn’t your typical developer. Composed of what is essentially a collective of artists and technicians scattered across Dallas, TX, Los Angeles, CA, and Montreal, Quebec, Flight School Studio aims to explore the unknown across mediums spanning games, film, AR, and VR.

With its latest project, Stonefly, the team is looking to build upon the lessons learned from the top-down, pinball-inspired, hack-and-slash dungeon crawler Creature in the Well while challenging the traditional notion of what a mech game is. This is all wrapped inside what’s described as a chill and tranquil action-adventure about self-discovery, legacy, and belonging.

Just as the game launches on June 1, 2021, we caught up with Flight School Studio Game Director Bohdon Sayre to learn more about the origin of the project, who the experience is intended for, and how an interest in both nature and bugs served as the basis for this thoughtfully-crafted, non-traditional mech game. 
 

Thanks for joining us! Stonefly looks fantastic and certainly isn’t your typical mech game. Can you explain how the core concept came about?

Bohdon Sayre, Game Director at Flight School Studio:
Stonefly had a few key starting points, and all of them were seemingly unrelated but played an important role in how it developed into a solidified idea. We had made a prototype of a bouncing ball a long time ago (before we started Creature in the Well!) and there was something interesting about it that we wanted to preserve. Adam Volker (Creative Director on the project) and I wanted the setting to be somewhere greener and more filled with nature after having done the mechanical and desert environment of Creature in the Well. We immediately decided that little bugs could make up the conflict of our game, and that it would be fun to design many different creatures and their different behaviors. We were thinking the gameplay might be in the realm of tower defense, or maybe even Dynasty Warriors. We also like focusing on core themes and physical elements: for Creature in the Well, it was electricity, and for this game it was all about air and wind. Those things combined led to an early prototype of the game that was a simple capsule jumping and catching air streams, with little bugs that crawled around and you could push them away with a gust of wind.

In Stonefly, players will embark on what's being described as “a chill and tranquil action-adventure about self-discovery, legacy, and belonging.” Can you elaborate on the type of experience you’re looking to offer and who the target audience is?

Sayre:
Stonefly is for a pretty broad audience. It’s more narratively driven than our previous game, but is still packed with plenty of action. You’ll spend a lot of time fending off buggos and developing your skills in piloting a mech, but it’s not always high energy and that’s where the chill comes in. There’s a lot of texture in how the game unfolds, from very linear, more narratively-driven levels, to more open areas in which you can just explore and glide around. This helps keep things fresh since you’re often going between different types of goals. Although piloting a fully decked-out mech can be pretty complex, we think players of all skill levels will still be able to pick it up, and there are even some assist options to help out or make things more casual.
Image courtesy of Flight School Studio
Can you please talk a little about the game’s main character(s) and any relationships that they may form with NPCs on their journey?

Sayre:
Annika Stonefly is a young inventor who works in her dad’s mechanic shop, fixing up ‘rigs’ (the bug-shaped mechs of our world). She’s really intelligent and loves reading everything there is to know about the flora and fauna of the world. She hasn’t yet found the confidence she deserves, and it’s something she’ll build with the player along the way. Annika sets out on a journey to recover a stolen family heirloom, and encounters a group of strangers known as the Acorn Corps along the way. Corps are groups of highly-skilled pilots that often partake in risky missions that yield huge amounts of valuables. The Acorn Corps is somewhat of an outcast group, and Annika unexpectedly forms some meaningful friendships with its members: Ravenwood, Daven, and Clara. Together they help each other learn more about the world and themselves.

If the trailer and still images are any indication, it looks like players will have a variety of customization options and skills/abilities at their disposal. Can you please describe how these systems work and how they correlate to gameplay?

Sayre:
Yea there are tons of things to do as you build your mech from a piece of junk to the best in class. We’ve separated cosmetic and functional features so that you can always make your mech look however you want it to, while also benefiting from all of the upgrades and new abilities you will craft. As Annika encounters new bugs and new locations, she will come up with new inventions automatically. A lot of this research is tracked, and the player can view how many of each bug they’ve encountered, as well as which ones may lead to new inventions or need more research. Once an ability or upgrade has been invented, the player must track down the resources they need to craft it. We’ve also designed it so that you’ll never need to equip or manage which abilities you are using. When you unlock a new ability, you can use it in the field easily, and all abilities will eventually be usable together with interesting combinations and strategies.
Image courtesy of Flight School Studio
Players will take on a variety of bug types throughout the game. Can you please describe their variances and your process for designing the game’s enemies?

Sayre:
The core combat involves the player flipping over bugs by stunning them from the air, then pushing them off the level with a gust of wind that must be charged while on the ground. This sequence of swooping around the arena while airborne, then trying to find space to land and push bugs, is also what has dictated a lot of how the bugs are designed. There are smaller bugs who are solely focused on eating minerals, and you’ll need to keep away from the ones you want before they’re all eaten up. 

After that, we designed bugs that generally fall into two categories: ground and air. One of the core bugs is called a Scissor Scarab, and if it catches you going after the same minerals that it wants, it will try to push you back. It does this by opening its pincers, waiting for you to land nearby, then lunging and biting your mech, knocking it across the level. This basically makes certain areas of the arena unsafe to land, making it important to choose carefully where you can charge your push ability, and is why we call them ground guards. Other bugs will defend mineral deposits in the air, which makes it unsafe to float around, and you’ll need to hit the deck in order to dodge their attacks, making it harder to continually stun bugs without getting hit. 

The combination of various bugs that target different areas, close ground, distant air, etc, is what makes them all work well together. When we tried to come up with the various designs, it was all about diversity in the type of behavior and purpose of each one. Each buggo you’ll encounter is memorable, and often has a specific counter that you’ll want to use in order to deal with them quickly. The larger creatures can also often block attacks, and you’ll need to find their windows of vulnerability in order to flip them over, and eventually push them off the level.

Stonefly has a really interesting art style that is inspired by both mid-century modern design and the natural world. Did the project start with this art style or did it evolve over time?

Sayre:
The art style of Stonefly has definitely evolved over time, as a combination of both previous look development we’ve done, and an effort to push forward into new territory. We started with some really striking concept art that established many of the textural qualities, and a lot of that can be seen directly in the backgrounds and in many of the shared properties of wood, grass, and other surfaces in the game. But there’s always an evolution that happens as we try to translate the concept from 2D to 3D, especially with lighting and other techniques that we establish along the way in how we design and author each asset.
Image courtesy of Flight School Studio
The game will take players on missions through a variety of undiscovered naturescapes including tree canopies, marshes, and prickly briars. How important are the game’s environments to the overall experience and what was your process for developing them?

Sayre:
One of the very first goals of Stonefly was to create a stage for beautiful environments and to really showcase diversity in the biomes you explore. Traveling through these various places is really important to the feeling of the journey taking Annika farther and farther from home. Like many of the assets in the game, it all started with concept art pieces that set a variety of really impactful moods, then we ended up picking which ones we wanted to see and in which order. The way in which we author textures allows us to change the colors of any object very quickly and easily; so, the second step is largely about roughing in the color palette of each biome, along with picking which assets are featured more in each location. This allows us to create a lot of unique looking locations, without having to author completely new assets for each one.

One of Flight School Studios’ previous titles, Creature in the Well, was essentially a top-down, pinball-inspired, hack-and-slash dungeon crawler, which is equally as unique. What, if anything, did you learn from the process of developing and shipping that game that you’ve applied to the development of Stonefly?

Sayre:
So many things, it's hard to describe them all! Despite these two games feeling so different, they do share a lot structurally, and we were able to accomplish so much more in Stonefly thanks to the experience we gained on Creature in the Well. Technically, a lot of the experience comes down to nuance in how to structure certain game systems so that they are more stable and versatile. Shipping a game is its own skill, and when you have to fix or revisit potentially any aspect of the game, having reliable patterns is really important. There are a million pitfalls that you’ll discover when you ship, and going through that helped tremendously in planning our second large title. 

Creatively, we also discovered a lot from Creature in the Well. It had similar challenges in terms of teaching players an entirely new type of gameplay, and thinking about how players responded to each new piece of information was helpful in designing the onboarding process for Stonefly.
Image courtesy of Flight School Studio
Why was Unreal Engine a good fit for this project?

Sayre:
Unreal Engine is an incredible tool, and a game of this scope with a team our size would not be possible without it. The openness of the engine eliminates all guesswork, and at the same time provides a resource for learning new programming patterns and techniques that we leveraged within our game. Games are a moving target and all of the features that no one would consider flashy are what make Unreal such a powerhouse. The hundreds of available debug and development tools like analyzing content, managing references, validating assets, and run time inspection of literally everything make it an amazing dev environment.

Are there any particular UE tools that helped your team throughout development? 

Sayre:
I think the most notable feature used in Stonefly was the Gameplay Ability System. A large part of the game's design was built around this powerful plugin and its features, and it opened up a path for so much more gameplay than we could have made otherwise. Probably second to that would be Editor Utility Widgets. Being able to quickly create development tools that can appear both at runtime in debug menus, and also used within the editor at design time, means we can unlock certain workflows that would otherwise make some features impossible given our schedule.
Image courtesy of Flight School Studio
Congratulations on receiving an Epic MegaGrant! How has that impacted the project?

Sayre:
The Epic MegaGrant was huge for our project. It’s always extremely hard to do everything you want to do on a project, and we always inevitably make cuts and downscope. The extra time that it gave us was really instrumental in transforming the project from functional to finished, and we’re extremely grateful for that.

What platforms will Stonefly be available on and where can people go to learn more about it?

Sayre:
Check out stoneflygame.com to learn more. The game will be available on PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam and the Epic Games Store.

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