Affordable Space Adventures is notable for being one of the few Wii U games that puts the console’s unique controller right at the core of its design.
In her talk at GDC Europe, Dajana Dimovska, CEO & Co-founder of Danish studio KnapNok Games, spoke about the design and development of the inventive Wii U title.
Flying solo – or with a group of friends using Wii remotes – Affordable Space Adventures tasks you with negotiating a hostile planet while paying constant attention to the various systems that make the ship operate, many which are managed via the Wii U Gampad screen.
The game was designed from the ground up for the Wii U, which the team at KnapNok Games thought was not being used to its full potential.
“One of the main reasons it’s an award-winning and well-received game is that it really fits the Wii U and it was designed for the Wii U,” says Dimovska.
“We intentionally wanted to make something different. We were impressed by the platform and we thought it was not used by developers to the potential it had.”
“So we did a little puzzle simulation spaceship game where you are controlling it with the Gamepad and thumbsticks but – since it’s like a simulation – we wanted to simulate a spaceship computer on the screen so it’s part of the fiction.”
The studio is well-known for its use of novel interfaces in games that often eschew traditional controllers. KnapNok previously released the bizarre – and often hilarious – Spin the Bottle: Bumpie’s Party to Nintendo’s home console in 2013 and a collaborative painting app to the Wii in 2011.
“After four years of existence we decided that we knew a lot and we’d experimented with a lot of social and gesture recognition gameplay, but we had never really had a big success, and couldn’t publish a really good game by ourselves,” says Dimovska.
KnapNok partnered with fellow Copenhagen-based developer Nifflas’ Games (Nicklas Nygren) – creator of Kyntt Underground – and they worked together to design a game that would use the Wii U Gamepad in new and inventive ways.
“We have two different approaches that worked really well for this title. KnapNok is more into innovative social game experiences,” says Dimovska.
“We’re really like jam artists, we really do it quick, to test and see if the gameplay works. But we were missing the craftsmanship because we kept on doing a lot of experiments.”
“In contrast, Nifflas works to perfection,” she says. “All his games are really atmospheric, with really clever and tight puzzles. Nicklas is a one man studio and everything he does is of final quality.”
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With the help of a little funding from the Danish Film institute the two companies entered into full development. And by being a Wii U exclusive – by necessity, given the control scheme – Affordable Space Adventures was guaranteed a level of Nintendo eShop coverage that many other games don’t receive.
“It was a more ambitious title that we had done before,” she says. “The fact that we were two different teams with two different competencies really complemented each other. It meant we could do it faster and that we shared the risk.”
Whilst Nifflas handled the game’s art and puzzle design, KnapNok’s attention was focused on the Gamepad screen and its interface design.
“We really care about what happens in the living room: how people play the game, who they’re playing it with, is it fun to watch and so on.”
The result is a game that is notably different in single and multi-player modes, despite featuring the same puzzles and level design. In single player one person has to control everything. However, with other players, the burden is shared and the game relies on communication to create a fun multiplayer experience. It’s why games like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes are so ludicrously enjoyable, and oftentimes enjoyably ludicrous, even if designing for local multiplayer isn’t always the best sales tactic.
“The game is complex,” admits Dimovska. “You move the spaceship and have a searchlight to control, so that’s two thumbsticks. Some of the buttons are used for the scanner and for the flare, and then you have the engineer which is the computer, the interface on the touchscreen. So we split it between two or three players by giving the movement of the spaceship to one person; the scanner, light and flare to another; and the third player is the engineer with the screen.”
“It created a different type of play to the single player experience because you have to collaborate. You yell at each other but you don’t have to be that experienced, because it’s all about working together.”
Which such an elaborate control scheme, educating the player was all important. Rather than stick to a dry tutorials, humour was used and became part of the game’s narrative, the everyday story of a spaceship rental that goes wrong.
“We had a lot of conversations about how to do that, so that it doesn’t feel like a tutorial. So the setting, the humour and the universe was set up in such a way that tutorials became part of the story. The premise of the game is that you can rent a spaceship and go and explore.”
The Gamepad interface for Affordable Space Adventures received as much attention as its puzzles. A UI designer worked full-time on the project, continually revising the look of the heads-down display throughout development.
“It was a very difficult process to produce the game and produce the interface at the same time. We had to do a bunch of iterations as new gameplay systems were showing up. In the end we came up with something not too futuristic looking but very easy to read that worked very well.”
Upon launch, Affordable Space Adventures received many positive reviews, with many reviews citing the impressive use of the Wii U game pad and humorous multiplayer interactions. Affordable Space Adventures also went on to win many accolades, most recently picking up Best Game Design at the Nordic Game Awards 2016.