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Indie Puzzle Game 'Hue' Is Unfinished but Still Highly Addictive

'Hue' is the brain-teasing triumph of 2016 that you've probably not seen coming—clever, compelling, and still in the works.
All imagery courtesy of Fiddlesticks/Curve Digital

Henry Hoffman and Dan Da Rocha, working under the banner of Fiddlesticks, are the architects behind Hue, a puzzle game that is both reassuringly familiar and fantastically original.

A side-scrolling platformer where a color wheel is used to make foreground objects disappear and reappear against the background, and the central character—the titular Hue—can move some of them around the environment to reach new points or avoid one-hit-kill obstacles, it sounds very simple. Having played a couple of work-in-progress builds of the game, though, in reality, Hue is already striking that same sweet spot that the greatest puzzlers of the modern gaming era, from Portal to The Witness, have successfully nailed.


Hue escalates in difficultly gently, but always makes the player feel clever for solving its problems, at any level of challenge—be that simply spinning the color wheel to remove a crate from your path, or carefully timing jumps with switches between shades to ascend the ledges of an otherwise impassable vertical shaft. Both times I've picked up the pad for a preview, I've been unwilling to put it down again. It's immediately addictive, even in an unfinished state—the final game is due out several months from now, its release date entirely TBD. Sometime in the summer is the aim of Hue's publisher, Curve Digital, the London-based company behind previous indie greats like Action Henka game I still can't get enough of—and The Swindle.

And it's at Curve's HQ, not far from VICE's own London office, where I sit down with Hoffman and Da Rocha to discuss the making of Hue to this point, some months shy of its release to the public. I'll be following this piece up with another conversation with the pair, several weeks from now, to illustrate just what can change in a game's development as it reaches its final stages.

A design sketch for 'Hue,' showing the layout of a potential level

VICE: The game's been shown at expos and the like, and it's already won its share of awards, which you proudly display on your website. That feels like a massive head start for its prospects—but how much of this attention do you put down to the fact that you guys already have a reputation in the indie games field?
Dan Da Rocha: Well, we first worked together on Q.U.B.E. That game was funded by Indie Fund, and Henry was doing his own game at the time, published by Microsoft. And then we came together to form our own company in 2012. And development of Hue began at the end of 2014.


Henry Hoffman: And I think what we've done before has definitely helped with Hue's visibility. Dan's made a huge number of contacts in the industry, which is something that I didn't have. I'd worked closely with Microsoft, so I had them, but Dan knew all the indie contacts. And then when we were putting this game together, it was really about seeing what the reception would be like. It helped to have made another one before this, a very casual one, which we made in three months for the Windows 8 release. That game, Mortar Melon, was really well received, despite being super rushed out.

Da Rocha: That gave us the exposure of us working together properly.

Hoffman: That really tested the waters, to see if we could work together. I was doing a huge amount of development, and Dan was managing the business. We were chasing a few other ideas. There was a food, restaurant simulation game, that was somewhere close to an RPG, but it never came together.

So the getting stuck in and meeting people side of making an independent video game, nowadays, is of massive importance?
Da Rocha: Yeah, definitely. Go to the expos. Enter competitions. If you get lucky, win a few awards. We've been to thirty events in the past year with this game, which is pretty insane. Obviously that costs money, but a lot of these events cover costs.

Hoffman: It's just difficult to know where you can go with your game, if you're just starting out. We used a website, called PromoterApp, which has a database of all the events on its Promoter Calendar. That's been hugely useful. And because we've got me focused on the game and Dan on the business, we've got the resources to make it to all these events. If you're set up with a designer and programmer and you're both making the game together, it's really difficult to justify that time away from the project.


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When was the first time you showed the game off?
That was interesting, actually. We built a well-rounded prototype of the game in just two weeks. We'd spoken to some investors, and they loved the idea, but I stupidly told them I'd deliver a prototype in a fortnight. But the second they saw that, they were right on board, and that was a real contrast to the other projects they were looking at, which were just pitch documents at that point. And that prototype, built in two weeks, actually won some awards, which was perfect for getting our foot in the door. After we did that, it was another six months before we arranged a deal that enabled us to work on the game full time; and then after that, we moved the game's engine, so we had to relearn everything in that respect, and it was a pretty steep learning curve.

That engine is Unity, which I understand makes it "easier," relatively speaking, to port the game between platforms?
Yes, there was that reason that we considered, as Unity does support a breadth of platforms. And also performance—Unity is good on all platforms. I'd previously been working in Construct 2, which is like an HTML5 engine, and we just couldn't get sixty frames per second on our target hardware.

The first exterior mock-up for 'Hue'

I saw you both tweet very different things, recently: Dan, that Hue had just won another award, and Henry, that you'd gotten trapped in the game, so it still had some bugs to get rid off. So is that where the game's at, five or six months from release—it's mostly all there, just with these creases to iron out?
Well, the framework is all there, and I'm happy with something like seventy percent of it. But there are still bits that need redesigning, that don't fit or work as I want them to. But I would like fewer creases at this stage, too. There's a lot more ironing to do.


But here you are, showing the game off to idiots from the press, like me. And I first saw it last summer, at Gamescom, which is kind of a big deal. Just how intense were things, getting a build ready for an event of that scale?
Gamescom was massive. It was crazy. So with our development schedule, we didn't really account for putting together specific builds for events, so we'd get to a week before another one, and realize that we didn't have that week to work on the game properly, as we needed to churn out this build. The days get longer, certainly.

At the start of development, you have all this energy of creating something that people are excited about; and at the end of the process, you're kind of crunching to get the finished game together. But in the middle, there's this lull, where you lose your motivation a bit, and what keeps you going is taking the game to all these events, and getting the positive feedback. The problem with that, though, is that it becomes easy to get distracted by them, and lose sight of actually making the game. And I think that happened to us, a little.

'Hue' teaser trailer, from summer 2015 – the voice-over is placeholder audio

So what have been the biggest headaches on the game's development to now, and what have been the biggest breakthroughs?
There have been a number of different things. One thing that we're really happy with now is color-blind support. We've been speaking to people and getting feedback. We were trying to match patterns, if people couldn't match colors, but as the art style changed from something a lot more basic to what we have now, which is a lot more detailed, patterns no longer worked. So now we have these symbols, to indicate what matches what. We've done a lot of testing with it, and it seems to be working really nicely after a lot of trial and error.

A big obstacle was having a mechanic where colors could overlap and blend. We liked the idea of creating new colors in the overlap space, and then you change the background to create this negative space. It was really exciting to us for a while, but it just didn't work as a gameplay mechanic, which was incredibly frustrating. It was more of a technical challenge to ourselves than something that really worked to make the game more enjoyable, but we still burned two months on it. It's really easy to get caught up on technical obstacles, because you feel you have to solve this problem.

Da Rocha: Also, we're working with a few contractors on this, three of them, and picking the right people is very important. You can lose a lot of time by picking the wrong people—when their work proves to not be up to par, that pushes the project back in the schedule, and that happened to us a couple of times. You don't want to be the bad guy, though, and you want to give people a chance.

Hue is forthcoming for a range of platforms. We'll catch up with Da Rocha and Hoffman again, soon, to see how the game's progressed. Meantime, you can follow its progress on the game's official website.

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