Northplay, a Denmark-based game design studio, is currently putting the finishing touches on Headland with intentions to launch this December – after working on it for more than three years. As we learn in this interview with Michael Flarup, founder and designer at Northplay, it's been a long and winding journey. Here Flarup shows us how Headland came to be, and what he's learned about game design along the way.
Thanks for having me, it’s always exciting to share something we’ve been working on for so long. Headland is the product of a long and arduous creative process. A lot of different people have touched it throughout its production cycle with the core drivers today being Christian Laumark and Julian Abela, who work for me at Northplay. It’s their art and systems knowledge that are really making it all come together.
We’re calling it an action-adventure game, but really it sits at the intersection between a lot of different genres with both a narrative arc and action RPG elements, like combat and item upgrades.
It’s a story about a young boy, Nor, who has his imagination core shattered by a powerful force. You team up with your robot friends to find the fragments and fight to regain your limitless creativity.
"The price of not following in someone else’s footsteps is a high chance of getting lost and not having anyone to look to for guidance."
What players will hopefully find is that this is a very different type of mobile game. It’s ambitious and it goes against the grain of the platform in many aspects.
At the heart of that experience lies the enormous amount of work we’ve spent rethinking how a game like this should be controlled. Action RPG’s on touch have historically had a lot of heavy-handed UI with on-screen buttons, digital D-pads and menus. They often feel like mini PC ports converted for fingers.
We threw all of our assumptions out the window and tried to build controls entirely around touch. You swipe and tap your way through combat, you hit in-game interaction points and you tap through dialogue. At every interaction, we’ve asked ourselves what the best way of doing this on touch would be, and tried to build that solution. The result is a lot of small and big innovations that all come together to create a very accessible and fast-paced experience. It really just feels like it was built for the devices we carry in our pockets.
Releasing a narrative, premium game on mobile that you can complete in 2020 is by itself also a rare thing. The game isn’t built around microtransactions and there are no retention mechanics. The game is free to download with the first 20 minutes playable, and the rest of the game unlocked through a single purchase. It’s a game with an ending. In a mobile game landscape of hyper-casual quick-fixes, we wanted to make an experience we wanted to play that felt more like the games we bought and cared for when we were kids.
It’s exciting to make something new. Something that’s different from what everyone else is doing. You get to ask hard questions and reimagine. You get to take ideas apart and look at the components. But new needlessly comes at the expense of familiarity. The price of not following in someone else’s footsteps is a high chance of getting lost and not having anyone to look to for guidance.
Game design has a lot of that and Headland in particular has faced a long history of setbacks and reboots. It originally started as a Viking action game called Norse (some of its roots still visible in the game today). The original intention was making an action and exploration game for touch that really peeled back all the inherent complexities of that genre, with gameplay that was fast-paced, accessible and fun. The controls came into its own in those early days and largely made it intact into the game today.
But it wasn’t without challenges.
We spent a lot of time building the tech to make swiping feel just right in the game. Believe it or not, that’s something humans have a fine-tuned sense of. We built auto-aim that made you seamlessly hit the right targets around you. We then built combat around these new paradigms of touch. Creating and rigorously testing dynamics that played to its strengths and limitations.
Standing still and tapping wasn’t fun. Evading and repositioning worked great. So we designed encounters that force the player to think about placement. Enemies with attack markers and slow-moving projectiles. Granular life systems that are not too punitive as to dissuade players to take chances. Carefully balanced difficulty and progression that wouldn’t turn a broader demographic away but above all, the right feel to it all.
We went to great lengths to avoid cumbersome UI and designed in-world interaction points for things like opening portals, purchasing and upgrading. You even buy the game from a physical in-world Northplay store by hitting an interaction point. We built as much of the UI as we could into the game world itself to make it all more seamless.
"Game design is such a multidimensional activity that large chunks of the discipline remain unknown territory, even after having shipped many games."
The story was another major challenge that’s echoed through the many different phases the game has been through.
Sometime after the Viking phase of this game (which was originally envisioned as more of a rogue-like game), I started yearning for a more linear progression. Not only because we were struggling with randomly generated content (rogue-likes are hard) but also because I had a long-standing desire to leave players with a feeling after having completed the game. I wanted to tell a meaningful story with an emotional payoff. I wanted the game to be more than a finely tuned combat and loot machine. I wanted it to have heart.
I saw the narrative angle as something that would help us with the blueprint of the scope itself AND give it that much-needed soul I was yearning for. How hard could narrative game design be, right?
Well pretty freaking hard in the best of circumstances. Game design is such a multidimensional activity that large chunks of the discipline remain unknown territory, even after having shipped many games. This might seem surprising, but you’d be amazed at how many such blindspots are clearly visible in big commercial projects made by large teams. I see them now more than I did five years ago.
Narrative design was foreign land to us and here’s why we struggled: We, as a studio, are obsessed with how something plays. When we make games, we iterate fast on prototypes. It’s all about mechanics and game-feel from the start. That’s something I’m chasing as a game designer, and that passion turns into products that in turn attract people and foster a culture of improvisational and iterative design. It’s a very visceral and rewarding way to create an entertainment product. It creates games that feel great; they’re literally built through play and constantly tested and tweaked. It’s the Darwinism of game design.
It’s also absolutely impossible to plan, and narrative design requires planning. It requires you to have a pretty good idea of what you want to say and where you want to end up. It’s the difference between improv comedy and putting on a classical theatre play.
It’s easy to spot my mistake now, at the end of this road. I thought a strong narrative would help galvanize a much-needed structure for the game, but what I was really doing was introducing the antithesis of how we’ve historically made our best work. I have later seen many others make the same mistake, walking into the narrative woods never to emerge with a finished game.
Luckily we got help from award-winning game author Morten Brunbjerg, who helped us frame the theme of what we wanted to say. A story about the loss of limitless imagination we all experience growing up and how you can only really hope to regain fragments of it as an adult if you fight really hard. It’s something that resonated really well with our profession.
From this framework our world builder and artist, Christian Laumark was able to apply another of his many talents: writing witty and creative dialogue. It took many long Slack calls, revisions and rewrites during the pandemic lockdown before our cast of quirky characters started to come together on the page.
Ultimately the story also had to be told in a way that worked with the many systems we had built. It had to align with our core designs built around game-feel. It had to merge our improv comedy with that classical play. It hasn’t been without compromise, but I’m very proud of the result.
Whether or not this is a smart move really remains to be seen, but after having watched the mobile gaming landscape degenerate into hyper-casual, metrics-driven dopamine slot-machines, I didn’t feel like adding to that development.
From a game design perspective, I’ve always been drawn to the accessibility of mobile. From a financial perspective, I’ve always been drawn to the distribution of mobile. Those two things helped us get our start with millions of players enjoying our games.
Our claim to fame on the App Store has been games like "Conduct THIS!" and "Fly THIS!" Which were once described to me by a mobile publisher as ‘Dinosaurs’ because we didn’t have the right metrics to support user acquisition. Maybe they’re right. Here I am, making another dinosaur and it might very well be the last one.
Absolutely. I sat down with Christian Laumark, who has designed and built most of the game, and put together a little behind the scenes walkthrough.
We usually start by sketching out the concept of the level, to imagine what it's going to look like, and make changes if the design isn't holding up. It's a good way to ensure that you don't waste time trying to realize an impossible idea.
Then we proceed to tiling out the terrain of the level with landscape blocks, which can easily be fitted together into all sorts of different terrain. We then decorate the level with, grass, trees, rocks – known in game development as "dressing."
After layout is complete, we design all the battle encounters to fit the difficulty of the level and provide a satisfying progression.
In the end, we set up the functionality of the level. What is going to happen where and when — all the conversations with the characters, scripted encounters, and other special things that are happening in that level. We use a custom cinematic system we built for this exact purpose, so it's easy for the level designer to do all of this without having to write any code.
After the level has been all set up, we test it to make sure it's working as intended, and it's fun to play. Most levels have to fit into some larger progression in the game, so there’s also a few logistics to think about when it’s slotted into the overall arc of the story. We do a range of tests at the office with external testers who come in to play through parts of the game while we scribble down notes. Sometimes, feedback from those sessions leads us to make changes to specific levels where our ideas might not have translated into gameplay as well as we thought.
I’ve always been interested in making games, and games have in turn influenced my visual design career a lot. When I was 10 I’d sit next to my friend a few houses over and make games in this old engine called Klick’n’Play. I was a geek and a gamer growing up in the nineties.
My career eventually turned to graphic design but I never forgot games and I never stopped playing— and while I’ve done a lot of work in the startup and app space, I think a lot of the visual design that I’ve produced over the years have a certain video-game quality. Icons have been a big passion of mine and I tell myself that you can see that in my work.
To be honest, I think quite a few different industries have skill-overlaps that are useful in the game design process. Game design is this multifaceted and expansive discipline that has more inroads than most other areas I have ever worked in. It makes the games industry a wonderfully diverse place filled with people from all sorts of backgrounds.
The traditional designer mindset can be both a blessing and a curse when you start designing games. On one hand, I feel like a big part of our jobs as designers is to design with empathy. To put ourselves in the user's place and try to create the best experience from that vantage point. I also think the best designers infuse those experiences with opinion, style and joy.
"The wonderful thing about game design is that literally anyone can start doing it right now."
Most designers also have a very keen sense of product. They’re working at the intersection between vision and reality. They’re used to translating between big ideas and small practicalities. Being empathetic toward users and being fluent in the language of products helps make strong game designers that understand what their players are looking for and how to give it to them.
On the other hand, designers are used to working in a world of rules. Whether it’s print or screen, website or app, poster or icon. A big part of being a good designer is knowing what’s possible and how to do it in the best way under a certain set of restrictions. That thinking can get you in trouble in game design. While there’s obviously a rich history of how to do things in games, it’s a lot less restricted and some of the best thinking comes from not relying on rules. The traditional designer will have to unlearn years of finding "the right way" to do something and will have to contend with the fact that there are many ways to achieve a result, and that those results are a lot more subjective.
Aesthetics is another area where I feel like more traditional designers can bring a lot to the table. Game design, with its depth, breadth and endless possibilities, can seem scary. One thing you can rely on is your taste in visual style. You can bring that taste to any medium and it’ll be an asset. Making something look good is a much bigger and more acceptable part of making games, and so while you might not at first have a good grip on how to create the right game-loop, you can sure as hell make it look nice.
In Headland I’ve been doing art direction but also simple things like color-grading and tweaking the post-processing stack to make it look just like I wanted. I have also worked on VFX in the game, which has been a new frontier for me. You might find that the tools are different, but your taste is very much applicable.
Game design is incredibly hard to learn in a vacuum. You can’t digest a lot of books or just watch a lot of YouTube videos (but those things can help you later on). Like a lot of other things in life, you have to go do it. And the wonderful thing about game design is that literally anyone can start doing it right now.
Remember when you were playing as a kid and you’d make up all sorts of rules for the fantasy playing out in front of you? That’s a form of unorganized game design.
As adults we might have a hard time channeling that if we don’t have a very special purpose in mind. So to get started with game design, you really want to design a game— preferably one that someone else can play. Designing games for yourself is incredibly hard and thinking about an audience is helpful.
"The key to game design is remembering how to play."
Games come in all shapes and sizes and if you can’t program or you’re not feeling like jumping in with a game engine, you can still make physical games. A simple board or card game is a really good place to start. Heck, throw dice in front of you and decide on a winning and losing condition and you’ve just made your first game. Playable game.
Game Jams have also traditionally been a great learning experience and once the world reopens, you’ll probably find a jam near you or you could join one of the many online ones that happen every year. Essentially you’ll make a game in a set amount of time, like 48 hours. At these events you’ll quickly see that most people have something to contribute to the game design process — even if they’re not seasoned game developers. Most people there don’t know how to code, many don’t know how to design but everyone remembers how to play.
The key to game design is remembering how to play.
Headland will be out mid-December, come hell or high water. You can preorder Headland for iOS and Android here.