Creating a free to play game is one thing, creating a mascot to boot is another. Shedworks Games creative director, Gregorios Kythreotis talks us through the development of Swing King and the Temple of Bling
How did the concept for Swing King's gameplay come about?
The gameplay concept was inspired by an old game called Clu Clu Land for the NES. Our friend Zion Siton had created a prototype for a bigger 3D, PC game using controls, which had you controlling each hand individually.
We could see there was potential in the idea but it was a little overly complex, and after a few pints at the London indies pub night and a little coworking we decided to jump on board with the project and co-develop it with Zion. We decided make the game something more playable on the go, going with a one-button input and creating a level structure that was more accessible and fun to play.
What were the inspirations for Swing King?
Clu Clu Land definitely had an impact on the project, to begin with, although it wasn’t a project we looked at in great detail or felt inspired by beyond the conceptual stages of development.
We love the work Nitrome put out, and we’ve been to their offices a few times so all of their projects from Silly Sausage to Leap Day and Green Ninja have been really inspirational in the development of our project. An older mobile game we looked to was The Last Rocket by Shaun Inman. That was a really fun game that I think actually might be one of the closest fits to what we’ve ended up with.
Creative director Gregorios Kythreotis and technical director, Daniel Fineberg
How did you choose the monetisation mechanics you've implemented for the game?
We decided to go free-to-play because we are a pretty small studio and we wanted to get the game in as many hands as possible. We didn’t want any in-game economy or selling coins or anything like that. We just wanted to keep it simple really.
We ended up using an incentivised checkpoint and advert based structure, primarily because it fits in really nicely with the level design structure we wanted to go for. Players can play the entire game, completely free and not watch any video ads or pay a small fee to remove all ads in the game and essentially get a premium experience.
Let's talk about your UI design and the positives (and negatives) of a functional, minimalist approach.
We’ve made some mistakes in the past when it comes to over-complicating a UI and we felt that unless you have the time to really nail something more complicated, it’s best to just get the stuff out of the way quickly and let players get to the gameplay part of the experience.
Whilst we could have gone down the road of something more elaborate like a Kingdom Rush or a You Must Build a Boat, it didn’t feel like we needed the sort of extra level of interaction those games offer, like base building or upgrading your characters. We instead looked more at something a little more reserved like Threes or Mini-Metro. It just reduced the amount of moving parts and things that could suddenly go wrong, which always cause problems as you head into the final stretch of game development.
So who is the Swing King character and the inspiration for him?
So the titular Swing King is a monkey we’ve called Mumbles, partly because it sounds cute and partly because it rolls off the tongue. We wanted a character who was fun to look at and was almost exploding with energy, and I like to think we’ve managed to capture that. Mumbles is always on the move, constantly swinging, bouncing and hunting for treasure so I think him being a manic ball of energy fit really nicely.
How do you design an engaging character when you have very limited options for exposition?
So I think the biggest part was really getting the idle animations to have a frenetic energy to them. Mumbles constantly looks around with an anxiety I think is really endearing, but another big part is using the animations for the moments he interacts with things like bouncing off a wall, exaggerating these in ways that are expressive and fun to look at.
Another way we try to make the player feel a little more connected to Mumbles is through our camera movements, we have some directional movement in the camera for key moments like bouncing off walls, swinging around poles, dying etc. that help to connect the view the player has of the screen with the action of Mumbles.
Finally, using bigger graphics of the character in the title and end screen, as well as in promotional art helps to flesh out details that you can’t see in the gameplay. If you think about classic NES games, the actual artwork might not have the detail you had in your head as a kid, but a lot of those details will have been filled in by things like the box art, instruction manuals, TV ads etc. and I think using higher resolution graphics for the title screen, for example, helps to continue that tradition.
How do you keep the character likeable when the puzzle genre (and free to play) has the chance of negatively impacting the user experience?
I think how simple our monetisation structure is will help here. The monetisation is not tied to anything directly related to the character. We aren’t selling hats, or different characters or power ups, which if done poorly can serve to devalue the character in people’s minds.
However, the point you make is valid more widely. I think any developer making a puzzle game needs to make it accessible, whether it’s free or premium. Initially, the game came with a much more stripped back look. We had tried a 4-tone look that was a bit gloomier and moody, it didn’t work to represent the gameplay that people expected when they picked up the game and it made things that we knew were fun look bland.
The main character was initially a robot and didn’t convey the ‘swinging’ mechanic we expected people to engage with very well, it added an extra layer of things we had to explain to people trying the game for the first time. After showing the original version to people in the industry, the idea of changing the setting so we could have a recognisable character as the lead came into our minds, and that’s where Mumbles came from. We thought a lot about the mechanics we wanted to convey in the theme and the idea of a swinging monkey felt like a really natural, inherently recognisable connection.
It’s not like we have a devilish plan to make Mumbles into a huge IP we can spin merchandise out of, but at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious. We think there’s an opportunity here to deliver the player a lead character that he or she can connect with, which can only help the game’s chances. It helps add a bit of life to a genre that can be a solitary experience. If it leads to further games that feature Mumbles in the future, that would be great - I think some indies shy away from creating a lead character out of fear they’ll never be able to compete with Mario or Sonic, and I think that’s an assumption that can be challenged.
How much are you as the designers responsible for the positive user experience? Is there a magic formula to create a fun time for the player or is a lot of it down to them and their puzzle solving ability?
It’s definitely more scientific at bigger companies with more resources and AB testing and stuff like that, and we do use some analytics to look at levels that people might be struggling with but generally, it’s related to direct user feedback and gut feeling. We had some amazing user feedback in our beta. Even though we only had a small pool of users, they were all really responsive and able to give coherent feedback.
I suppose your job as a designer is to then interpret that feedback. A user might think that a level is too hard, but you need to figure out why exactly that level is too hard, or if it’s instead because you haven’t taught people about this specific mechanic well enough. The art asset and its animation could be confusing to understand for some reason. The answer isn’t automatically, ‘let’s make this level easier’ you have to try and assess, why and address that more directly if you want to make a fun and engaging user experience.
What did you enjoy or not enjoy about developing the game?
I really enjoyed building our levels and watching people try to solve the puzzles that I obviously knew solutions for. I’d love to leave little quite obvious traps for people to fall into, leaving a coin in a place that would kill you if you approached it the wrong way. It’s something that is obvious if you look at properly, but at a glance, people might not realise and I love catching them out if they aren’t paying attention properly.
One of the more painful parts was definitely the animation work. It’s not something I’d done before and there were a lot of growing pains there, it did turn out quite satisfyingly in the end so, even though I didn’t love that learning process the end result was something to be happy with.