You probably haven’t heard of the Vienna-based indie game studio Broken Rules. But with just five full-time staff (and three part-timers), it’s managed to become one of a handful of exclusive developers to have a launch title on Nintendo’s Wii U.
A brand-new platform. A tiny studio. A hard launch date with no opportunity for delays. Broken Rules cofounder Felix Bohatsch shares how the team pulled it off.
After releasing its first title for Mac and PC in 2009, Broken Rules was brainstorming a new game. Their approach wasn’t to find the most likable protagonist to cross-market T-shirts and plush toys but to explore killer interaction, a hook that made a few pixels flying on the screen feel like an exciting game.
What they conceptualized was Chasing Aurora. You could call it a flying simulation, highlighting its racing and hide-and-go-seek elements. Or you could call it a physics game, highlighting its rarely advanced wind engine. But those labels overshadow the single, defining interaction that the studio decided to pursue above all else.
“The core idea was the dream of flying. Not simulated flight but how we as humans imagine flight,” Bohatsch tells me. “In summer, if you watch swallows fly around, playing with each other and catching small insects, this kind of playful flight was our inspiration.”
This model was prototyped through a series of demos. And once Nintendo got a peek, they were asked to flesh out the concept in a full game to be part of the Wii U launch.
Yet the interaction model is just one part of the experience. Every game needs a setting. What Broken Rules found was right outside its homebase in Vienna: the Alps.
“When you look for influence from stuff you don’t know much about, it seems exciting or novel to you. We consciously decided not to do that,” Bohatsch tells me. “We’re based in Austria. We know the Alps. It is a very exciting, rough, weathered, wild environment.”
No doubt, a development grant from the local government made a difference in their decision to feature local scenery. But for Broken Rules, having true, first-hand knowledge of an environment–even if it’s transformed into a fantastical, geometric doppelganger within a game–is key for a sincere product execution.
“What I was afraid of mostly was kitsch or clichés–something created because you don’t know how that environment or that exotic world really is,” Bohatsch explains. “You start producing stereotypes, being inspired by second-hand knowledge. We want to make something that was authentic–not really realistic–but has a feel that is grounded in the real world.”
No doubt, Broken Rules is currently taking the gamble of the young studio’s life: Not only are the designers releasing Chasing Aurora, they’re a year into development in another game set in this same universe (and even more games could come). But this is a very efficient approach to design. By breaking what could be one mega game into several smaller pieces, they can hone experiences to be fantastic, all while actually shipping products.
“It’s so easy to set goals too high or too hard because you want to make this one perfect game,” says Bohatsch. “We consciously try to remind ourselves, keep the project down, keep it doable for our size, cut features away we won’t be able to finish–kill darlings.”
With Chasing Aurora, that meant compromises were made. The biggest, and most controversial, was that, while the game supports up to five players in the same room, Chasing Aurora has no online multiplayer component. That makes the game a bit of a throwback, and probably incapable of succeeding on the networking-heavy platforms outside of Wii U.
“If you play local multiplayer there’s this whole social context, you have someone next to you interacting right there on the couch, drinking beer and having fun with you. That’s what Chasing Aurora was made for,” Bohatsch says. “We don’t have online multiplayer, mainly because our games are mainly physics based, so it’s a lot of work to make them hassle-free online. It’s a technical challenge that we currently don’t want to put that much energy into. We want to focus our limited resources on something else.”
That “something else” is the next game in the Chasing Aurora universe, a single-player, more exploratory adventure, currently in development.