With an emotional narrative and a unique mechanic, A Fold Apart aims to capture player’s hearts through the story of a couple in a long-distance relationship. In celebration of Valentine’s Day, OnlySP recently spoke with Mark Laframboise, designer of A Fold Apart and co-founder of Lightning Rod Games to discuss the games origins, development, and gameplay.
OnlySP: The game was inspired by the true story of one of your developers. Why was it important to share this experience in an interactive medium?
Mark Laframboise: It was based on my own personal experiences with a long-distance relationship. Before starting Lightning Rod Games, I was working in California at Disney and my wife was still working in Orangeville, Ontario as a teacher. So, for about a year and a half, we were in a long-distance relationship, which was honestly really tough; there were a lot of emotional ups and downs during that time. After we started the studio, I really wanted to make a game that explored some of those emotions of being apart from someone that you love. The whole idea of it being an interactive medium is more just a way of personal expression; I am a game designer, so making a game felt like the most natural way to explore the story. But I didn’t want to make a game that was just a story about a long-distance relationship; I wanted it to have gameplay that also helped reinforce the idea of being apart from someone that you love. I didn’t have a great idea on how to do that right away though.
One year after GDC, Steven [Smith] (my co-founder) and I were sitting down for brunch after attending the Experimental Gameplay Workshop (my personal favorite session at the conference and one that we were fortunate to be part of with A Fold Apart in 2017), and we were just trying to think of cool ideas for game mechanics that we hadn’t seen before. One of the ones Steven came up with was folding paper, sort of like the back of a MAD magazine, and I thought that was really interesting, but couldn’t really immediately see any gameplay to it. It was a couple of months later though where I realised that paper folding could actually work really well as a representation of a long-distance relationship. And that’s because if you have a piece of paper with a character on one side and a character on the other side, they are effectively living in two different worlds; they can’t reach each other, they can’t interact with each other. It’s kind of like being in a long-distance relationship. But if you fold that paper, you can combine the two worlds together and it creates a way for them to basically reunite. And I thought that was kind of a good metaphor for what it feels like when you are living apart from someone. While you’re apart, you just sort of wish you could just merge your two worlds together. You’re usually not in those different places because you really want to; it is usually forced through work or other real-life reasons—maybe family or friends or school—and you just kinda wish you could take your physical locations and merge them together. So, that was kind of the basis for where the idea of A Fold Apart came from.
OnlySP: How much freedom do players have when customising their characters and why did you include this feature?
Laframboise: For the customisation for the characters, we are allowing players to choose which gender the Teacher and Architect characters can be. We never actually refer to genders in the game but they kind of present as traditionally male or female, so overall there’s four different combinations of character that you can choose from in the game. Adding this type of choice and diversity in the game is really important to us and it has proven to be really important to some of the players that we’ve seen playing the game at conferences. We really wanted people to be able to play the game and experience the story in the way that was most comfortable to them and most relatable to them, and, so far, I would say we’ve really succeeded in that goal.
Although A Fold Apart is based on my own experience at its core, it’s not a story that is just about me. I want it to be relatable to people who have either gone through a long-distance relationship themselves or tell the story in such a way that someone who hasn’t been in a long-distance relationship before can still kind of experience the emotions that are involved in that type of situation. To have that higher emotional impact, we really felt it was important for players to be able to choose whatever combination of characters helped reflect how they feel the most.
That’s also part of the way that we hire as well—and this is a bit of a tangent—but for our hiring processes, we actually include a blind evaluation aspect to try to eliminate (or at least reduce) any unconscious bias in the hiring process. It’s really important to us to be an inclusive studio, both in how we operate, and in the games that we make.
OnlySP: The game features a unique mechanic where players must fold elements of the screen to bring the characters together. What process went into developing these puzzles?
Laframboise: This is really cool actually! Because the game is about folding paper, literally every puzzle that has been designed for the game was drawn up on grid paper first. I have like a whole stack of grid paper on my desk right now, and it’s every single puzzle that we have in the game including a bunch of puzzles that I initially designed on paper but we decided to cut for playability purposes.
There’s a couple of mechanics that we explored at one time or another that, when we tried to do them digitally, they just didn’t feel good—they didn’t work the same way. Folding paper is very tactile and sometimes there’s a bit of a gap between what it feels like to hold a piece of paper and flip and fold it in your hands versus being able to do that with a controller. There’s some mechanics that just don’t end up working. The ones we’re using I feel really confident are going to come across really well and play really well in the game.
Every idea was easy to iterate on grid paper: I just drew it out and saw if it worked. Then what we have is a tool in Unity which is kind of recreating the grid for the puzzles. Steven developed this grid system where I could basically draw the puzzles I’ve made directly into the game and then generate the platforms from there. We end up with this really basic grey box prototype for all the puzzles right away where I can make a puzzle that is on foldable paper, add the platforms, put the player in there, put the stars in there, and then test it. It probably takes 15 minutes per puzzle to try it out, so it’s pretty quick. Once we’re happy with the way that a puzzle works we pass it over to art to decorate afterwards. The design flow for that has been really good.
OnlySP: How did you translate the game’s controls to a controller?
Laframboise: A digital piece of paper feels very different than a piece of paper you can hold in your hand and fold. We wanted to represent that well and, especially if it’s coming out on PC and console, it has to work with a controller. Keyboard and mouse is pretty straightforward since we have a cursor, so you just click the edge or corners that you want to drag, and you fold it that way. For controller, we were trying to figure out good ways to do it. We had three control schemes which we tested before we came upon the one that we’re using now for launch. The first one (which I kind of expected was going to be bad) was where you use a mouse cursor emulation with the right stick. That felt really terrible. [Laughs] We scrapped that pretty quick.
The other one we did was like a hot snapping thing. In the game, to keep things simple, folds have to move directly from either the edge or the corner inwards. It’s only from those eight directions just so that everything lines up on the grid afterwards. One thing we tried was having you push the right stick in one of the eight directions, it would highlight the edge you are selecting, then you would press A, grab it, and then you’d pull it back. That was the one we used for a bit then we decided to experiment a little bit and see if we could skip that selection step entirely. Because everything is only moving in these eight directions, we were wondering “Can we just have people fold in the direction they want to from the beginning?”, because it feels a little bit more like paper. The way it works in the game now is you just start moving the right stick to the left and it will automatically start folding the right edge over to the left. There’s no cursor or anything like that, basically the right stick is the paper and which direction you are pulling it is which edge gets pulled towards the center.
One of the ways that we tested that was through a partnership we have with the User Experience Research Lab at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. We are working with Dr. Pejman Mirza-Babaei to test all of the control schemes and difficulty testing for all of our puzzles. We have been able to get players to come in and allow us to watch how they use the different controls, and through that testing we were able to determine that the third controller scheme was definitely the best one based on how people played the game. It was the one people were finding most intuitive.
Our tutorial has changed quite a bit, even the order of the puzzles. In the game right now, the very first puzzle is to just flip the paper. Originally it was a folding puzzle but we realised that players have to fully understand the idea of the paper having two sides first before they know that they can fold it. We also teach folding twice now. Originally we taught flip, fold, then unfold. But then players would get to a puzzle where they had to use those tools, but they would forget how to fold. We now we do flip, fold, another fold, then we unfold and then we combine them for the last puzzle of the tutorial. It’s had a lot more success.
We’ve also done some iteration on how we present hints for reminding players what the controls are. We have seen people still struggle with the tutorial and then by Chapter 2 they’re not struggling with the controls anymore, they are actually into the part where they are trying to solve the puzzles which is great, that is exactly where we want them to be. It’s a matter of making sure people understand the controls as early as possible since paper folding is a pretty new mechanic we’re teaching that is unique to our game. A lot of the control reminders are something we are still working on and improving towards launch.
A side scroller 2D game—which ostensibly A Fold Apart comes across as when you look at it—almost never uses the right stick. People assume the right stick is something you only use when you play 3D games like a first-person game; you need to use one for camera and one for movement. But in 2D side scroller games you almost never use that right stick. We see this every time we go to a show: when we tell the player, “Hey, use the right stick to fold!”, people are sometimes like “Wait, what?” They overlook the fact that the icon we use has an R on it for the right stick. We’ve been trying to figure out ways to more cleanly convey that it’s the right stick so that is something we are still improving. Right stick is folding, left stick is moving, A to commit, B to unfold, it maps intuitively once players get it. We’re seeing that people really get more into puzzle solving in the second chapter which is great. That is something we’ve worked on for a while, to get everything working well on a controller.
OnlySP: You have previously mentioned that as an indie developer, your team is choosing to release the game on all platforms. Additionally, A Fold Apart launched a Fig crowdfunding campaign which was unfortunately unsuccessful. How has the financial situation alongside multi-platform release impacted the game’s development?
Laframboise: We are going to be launching the games on all platforms that we can. Right now, the goal is to have PC and Switch come out simultaneously in Spring 2019 and then we are going to have PS4 and Xbox One follow after that. We have no announcements for any other platforms although our goal is to get it out on other platforms potentially afterwards, which we’ll hopefully be able to talk about later in the year. The platform development stuff has not significantly impacted us financially.
We are fortunate enough to be Canadian developers who have access to some of the Canadian digital media funding. A lot of A Fold Apart’s funding has come from the Canada Media Fund and the Ontario Media Development Corporation (which is now called Ontario Creates). It’s kind of a combination of both investment that we pay back through revenue sharing with the Canada Media Fund and also partially a grant from Ontario. The majority of funding for the project has come from these public sources. The Fig crowdfunding campaign for us was never something where we needed the crowdfunding campaign to make or not make the game. It was more we wanted to use it to supplement the funding that we had in order to either increase the scope or explore new things like character customisation. We probably would have done more there instead of using the set models or maybe adding more puzzles. But we’re really happy with the scope of the game as is, so the Fig campaign was more like, if we get the money, we can make the game bigger or grow our audience a little bit as well. So, it wasn’t successful—I think there’s a few reasons for that, but fundamentally I think the project and the natural demographic that uses Fig just maybe didn’t overlap as much as we’d like. It’s a good learning experience. I think if we had a project that I felt was a better fit for the demographics that we learned that Fig had, I wouldn’t be shy of going back there again; I just don’t think A Fold Apart was the best fit for the platform.
Art, design, and narrative are the elements that bring A Fold Apart to life. Check out the second part of our interview, in which Laframboise shares the history behind the art style and mechanics of the game.
The Long Return Creates a Beautiful Aesthetic in Each Level — An Interview With Max Nielsen
The Long Return is a beautiful third-person puzzle adventure game, following the story of an orphaned cub. The player explores hand crafted levels as the cub retraces the steps it once took with his mother. The Long Return’s level design is familiar yet still distinct and refreshing, taking inspiration from both new and old games to create this muted low poly feel.
This gorgeous, debut project is the work of solo developer Max Nielsen. Although he is currently finalising the game ahead of its release later this year, he took the time to talk to OnlySP to reflect and tell us more.
OnlySP: What inspired you to bring The Long Return to life? Was it an idea you were sitting on for a while or did it come on quite suddenly?
Nielsen: Actually, I never planned on releasing this game, or even finishing it. I had just quit my job at Microsoft and wanted to create a quick demo for my portfolio, so that I could apply for jobs in the industry. At the time I was working on a 2D RPG mostly for fun, and I knew I would need to make something in 3D for the bigger studios to give me a chance. So I decided to make a fairly simple demo with around 10 minutes of gameplay. However, while working on it, I got offered a job as an application consultant at a great company, and they said they would let me work on my own games and run my own company on the side, so I accepted the job and since then I have been working on this game as a hobby on my free time.
OnlySP: Each zone in The Long Return has such a pleasing aesthetic, how did you go about level design in a mostly natural world?
Nielsen: I am a huge Nintendo fan, Zelda OoT is still my favorite single player game ever, and I had just played through Zelda BotW, and wanted to create a world with a similar color palette and feel. After trying out a few different things I decided to use the low poly style because that would mean I could actually model some stuff by myself. I think I’ve gone through the level design of each zone in my game at least 10 times since I started, it’s crazy how much you learn just by trial and error (although time-consuming).
OnlySP: Will the game have a stronger focus on gameplay and location or story. Is The Long Return is a mix of the two?
Nielsen: Since the start I really wanted to tell a story without any words or text, and I have kept true to that. Instead I tell the story using memories and visuals. This does set certain limits to how gripping and detailed the story can be, especially when working with animals, but I think the message comes across quite well. The game is, at its core, a puzzle/adventure game, and you spend most of your time solving different puzzles and finding your way past obstacles, accompanied by an amazing original soundtrack that I still cannot believe is for my game.
OnlySP: Being your first big project game, what have you learned during development?
Nielsen: That list is incredibly long, and hopefully I can create a post-mortem detailing most of it. But I would say the main things I will take away from this project is:
– Plan, research and test; When starting out I kind of just created features for the game by trial and error, this leads to some really messy code. Nowadays I always make sure to properly plan, take notes, research best practices and test everything in a dev-environment before putting it in my game.
– Marketing is a necessary evil, even as a hobby developer with very limited time, I still don’t do enough of it, shame!
– It’s okay to take a day off, don’t burn out, it’s supposed to be fun!
OnlySP: Overall, how long has it taken for you to develop The Long Return?
Nielsen: Roughly a year. But I’ve been working on games for 4-5 years before that as a hobby.
OnlySP: Do you have any plans after The Long Return is released?
Nielsen: Big, BIG plans, haha. While I love this game and all I’ve learned, I am so excited to start my next project. It is much more “my type of game” and I have very high hopes for it. I won’t say too much yet, but it will combine my two favorite genres of single player games; RPG and city management.
The Long Return is set to release in August 2019.
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