The Develop Post-Mortem: Device6

The Develop Post-Mortem: Device6
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

August 3rd 2016 at 9:37AM

Simogo’s seminal mobile adventure garnered widespread acclaim with its audio-centric structure and stylish design. James Batchelor finds out more about the tech and creative decisions behind this mobile hit

The first bite is with the eye, as the saying goes, but in some cases it’s what you hear that you remember the most.

In the case of Device 6, the mobile text-based adventure game from acclaimed Swedish developer Simogo, the audio became instrumental in the title’s success, giving players an experience they would be unable to complete without sound.

Interestingly, however, creating an audio-centric experience was not actually the objective. Instead, the clean presentation of the game meant Simogo could not depend on visual cues to guide players in the right direction.

“Because so much of the game is so minimalistic in its presentation, we had to rely a lot on suggesting things rather than showing them,” explains studio co-founder Simon Flesser (pictured). “Having so much of the game suggested to players through the audio almost became a necessity.”

Looking back on the development of Device 6, Flesser described the experience as “an incredibly, and unusually, smooth project”, with little in the way of major challenges.

“The fact that none of us are native English speakers, and had to create a game so heavily based on text in English was probably the biggest obstacle,” he adds.

Part of the reason for the smooth development cycle was Simogo’s previous title Year Walk, released earlier that year. Simogo learned so much from developing this adventure title that it essentially laid the foundation for much of Device 6.

“Many interactions are similar to those in Year Walk, which was also a very audio-centric game,” says Flesser. “We could use a lot of the knowledge, as well as the actual code and systems, from that project. So we didn’t have any huge challenges because we didn’t go in entirely blank.” 

POWERING THE DEVICE

Like Year Walk before it, Device 6 was built in Unity – an engine that has proven to be accessible and adaptable for many an ambitious indie project. The team also ended up using Maya, as the game proved to have more 3D elements than initially expected.

While Unity has been used to build countless successful mobile game, few were as reliant on sound and music as Simogo’s project, so the team found themselves having to improvise more solutions.

“The way audio works on mobile has not always been optimal,” Flesser explains, “so we’ve had to write a lot of our own audio things to make sure everything is doing what it should.

“Audio-wise, we are quite primitive to be honest. Outside of Adobe Audition, I did most of the audio using Audacity and an old tracker called Madtracker 2 – for which I bought a license in the late ‘90s. I still use it today, and I really like designing sounds in music tracker software.”

The fact that none of us are native English speakers, and had to create a game so heavily based on text in English was probably the biggest obstacle.

Simogo is famously a very small team, and so ended up bringing in some external expertise to ensure Device 6 matched up to their original vision.

Year Walk composer Daniel Olsén returned to create the music, which plays a key role in the game, while regular collaborator Jonathan Eng wrote a song. Eng even appear as one of the characters – and he’s not the only one.

“There’s quite a few other game developers that recorded tiny snippets of voice-overs for us to use in the game,” says Flesser. “We also had a lot of friends helping us with proof-reading.”  

NOW HEAR THIS

Audio design is perhaps Device 6’s greatest accomplishment. Sound effects complement the text, emphasising the actions described in each passage and drawing players into the narrative. Audio cues indicate whether players are making progress with a puzzle, while voice-overs provide clues to later puzzles.

While other studios pride themselves on recreating authentic sounds – such as racing devs recording real engines – Simogo is proud of how inventive it was when finding the sounds it needed for the game.

“I think a lot of audio designers tend to be too ‘literal’,” says Flesser. “The more important the audio is, the more it has to ‘feel’ right rather than ‘being’ right.

“In Device 6, we used a lot of unexpected audio sources to get the vibe across. There’s a lot of old fax machines, calculators and so on that we use – type of sounds that fit with the technology theme.

“I also think it’s fun and useful to sometimes make some things produce sounds that they logically shouldn’t, to add more interaction feedback.”

Even when it’s not required, I get sad when people don’t play attention to the sound design in games. To me it’s not only as important as any visuals, it’s also a very important part of interaction feedback.

UNMISSABLE AUDIO

While Device 6 does include a soundtrack, Flesser and his team were careful to ensure it remained subtle in order to avoid distracting the player from the other audio clues.

“I would also urge designers to not overuse music,” he says. “If there’s always music, it can become less impactful when used.”

While many mobile titles now come with the disclaimer “best enjoyed with headphones”, Simogo took things one step further by ensuring that gamers would be unable to progress with their smart device muted. 

Arguably this could be seen as a move to emphasise how underused audio can be on mobile titles, but Flesser believes it goes further than that.

“I think audio is underused on all platforms – although maybe especially on mobile, where people will tend to listen to music or podcasts and completely turn off sound while playing games,” he says. 

“You can’t complete some puzzles with sound turned off in Device 6, so it’s required. But even when it’s not required, I get sad when people don’t play attention to the sound design in games. To me it’s not only as important as any visuals, it’s also a very important part of interaction feedback.”

SMART DEVICE

While most of the praise for Device 6 stems from its audio and narrative, Simogo’s Simon Flesser is justifiably proud of the minimalist visual design as well.

“Because the game riffs so much on ‘60s culture, I looked for inspiration in that era,” he explains. “Mostly album covers and graphical design. 

“I also looked quite a lot at design for electronic manuals and that type of thing, as the game is so heavily centered around our relation to technology.

“Thankfully, because the visuals are so minimalistic, there wasn’t much fear of it distracting from the audio experience.”

All this week, Develop is taking a deeper look into sound and music in video games through our Audio Special.