The Making of Indie Puzzle Game ‘Hue,' Part II
When I last met the makers of this great little game, they were 70 percent happy with it. On the eve of its release, are they 100 percent satisfied?
Every time I've played Hue, I've loved it a little more. Now, having had my hands on a pre-release (but very nearly final in this case) build of the game for a third time, it's firmly established as one of my favorite games of 2016—and it's not even properly out yet. It might not look like much, all bold colors and simple shapes, somewhere between Thomas Was Alone and Limbo, but in terms of how it plays, it's got the potential to match those titles for critical and, I think, commercial appeal.
The basic premise is that the world has been robbed of its color by a wicked doctor, and the player-controlled character, Hue, must collect shades to progress through the game, in search of his missing mother. How he does this is simple but brilliantly effective: Using a right-stick activated color wheel, you switch the background color—and whatever obstacles are the same color disappear from the foreground, allowing Hue to pass by as if they're not there at all. There is much more than simple blockages to get around: In what I've played so far, I've dodged boulders, gigantic skulls, and laser beams; I've navigated fast-moving platforms through one-fall-and-you're-dead passages where being able to change colors mid-jump is essential. It's a really intuitive system, but one that is adaptable to all manner of different challenges. (Color-blind players are also catered for, with symbols placed atop each color.)
The game is made by Henry Hoffman and Dan Da Rocha, under the umbrella of Fiddlesticks, and is published by London-based indie Curve Digital (The Swindle, OlliOlli, The Swapper). Already the recipient of a handful of indie expo awards—check out the full list at the game's official website—Hue comes out for Steam, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 at the end of August, with a Vita version following soon afterward. I last met up with Da Rocha and Hoffman in March, when Hoffman was about "70 percent happy with it". Now, I wanted to see what'd been changed, improved, refined to get the game release-ready—to learn a little something about the game-making process, and the importance of the final few weeks of development.
VICE: So that's the nearly finished version of the game, right there, that I've just played. What's changed since I last played it, in March?
Henry Hoffman: There's a ton of what I like to call "invisible stuff," that we do to make the game more playable, I guess. So, you know when you're overlapping a color now, and that prevents you bringing up the color wheel, to begin with that was a set width—if you were overlapping, you were overlapping. Now, we've changed it so that if you're falling that allowance will become slightly larger, to accommodate your falling speed, and it'll get smaller if you're running. There are variations there, to make the game easier. We've added a "ghost jump," so you have a small amount of time as you fall off a ledge to actually jump, which makes the platforming more forgiving.
Last time you played it, we had a lot of placeholder audio. We thought then that the writing was finished. Nope. It was definitely not ready. I must have rewritten it, the entire thing, 30 or 40 times since then. And I was rewriting and rewriting right up until we did the final voice recording, on that same morning.
But that comes about, I suppose, when you reach a state of Zen about how the game plays, which allows you to focus on stuff like the story that's being carried by it?
HH: Once the game was playable, from start to finish, it was able to see it as a whole. Before, it's very fragmented in your mind, and you're not sure how things will tie together. I found that I didn't much care about the "whole," back then—I was just focused on getting each segment to work well. And then, when it's suddenly done and you can see the broader picture, you're just like: "Shit." There was a lot of stuff that needed to be redone to make the game work as a complete experience. And we found that the story was quite good at the beginning, and OK at the end, but it didn't really develop characters as we'd like, and there wasn't any real emotional arc. I didn't think the story was convincing, but now we've rewritten it so that it does work within the framework of the game.
'Hue,' "coming soon" trailer (note that the release date is now a week later)
What I love about Hue is how it has this really endearing aesthetic, but it really is out to get you, to kill the boy at the center of the story—as you've seen when I've been playing it. It's a lot closer to something like Inside than static screens might imply. Did you have to dial back the difficulty at all, to make sure that people would see that "complete experience"?
HH: When we've been testing the game, it's not so much that the game is, or was, too hard, but it was definitely too punishing. Players thought the game was unfair, that they were losing and it wasn't their fault. So we've added things that allow a degree of contingency and make everything more forgiving. Those split seconds of generosity make it better for everyone. We've also done things like add an indicator, a little dot, on the color wheel—before, it was easier to accidentally select the wrong color. Now we're making it clear that if you get that wrong, it's definitely your fault, and you have no excuse.
So a lot of what's gone on is refining, really. But these are the improvements that make the game, right? Until it's perfect—unless these things can never actually be perfect?
HH: I don't think they can. There are bits of Hue that I know I'll never be happy with, not without a seven-year development cycle. But I'm coming to terms with that at the moment. I had to accept it on previous projects, but on those I'd be really enthusiastic at the beginning of them and then be desperate to see the back of it come the end. Here, this has happened in reverse. At the start, I felt bored, but as the game's matured, and I've realized that the mechanic really had legs, real enthusiasm took over. I could happily continue working on this for another couple of years—but I don't think we're allowed.
Well, I'll look out for the Hue: Definitive Edition in a couple of years.
HH: But seriously, just this morning, I was thinking about new puzzle ideas. They'll pop into my head when I'm on the Tube, or wherever. But you have to accept there's an end point to any game—but maybe, if it does well enough, we can do a second Hue. I know that we've not exhausted the possibilities of what we can do here. Even with the mechanics that are in the game now, there are so many variations that we haven't tapped into yet.
The game's on most platforms going. But what does an indie developer need to do to reach that many systems?
HH: So I've been through certification before on a project with Microsoft, and that process put the game back a whole year. It was totally unexpected; we'd never done it before, so we had no idea what we were doing. We weren't hitting any of the requirements, over and over, so that was a massively longwinded process. And that's part of the reason why we teamed up with Curve for this project, because they know all about the requirements for each platform, and they've got an in-house QA team with people in it that have actually worked at the platform holders before. So they know everything inside out.
I've been doing a lot of the porting myself—to Xbox, and to PlayStation, and everything. I'll run that past QA, and they immediately tell me what needs changing, for each platform. I think we've passed everything—I think we can say that? It was pretty painless, anyway. And we are bringing the game to the Vita, too. I know it's not a brilliantly supported console, but it's important for us to be on as many platforms as possible. The Vita's sort of become this little indie machine—and I think when you do release a game on Vita, there's this expectation of quality, and that your game will fulfill this indie ethos. And that's something that we strive to do. I don't know if we necessarily achieve it or not, but we try. It's a great little platform, really.
We did want to get the game on mobile, too, but it simply doesn't lend itself to touchscreen controls. It's just too platform-y. You need that right stick, too, which is why it couldn't really work on 3DS. For PC, it can work with mouse and keys—you can select from the color wheel with the mouse, and it actually has greater fidelity than the controller, but the controller setup is more intuitive. Touch controls were fine for the puzzles, as we found out because we did implement them, but they make the platforming impossible. We wanted to build the best levels with the mechanics we had, and once the game began to fully take shape, it was obvious that mobile wasn't going to work, so we just scrapped it.
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What's Hue taught you about your own ability to make video games? What are the main lessons you take away from it and into the next project?
HH: I've learned more on this project than any other one I've done before, and one of the key things is downtime. I always assumed that downtime in video games—as in, the parts of a game where not a lot is happening—was padding, just empty corridors and stuff. But what I found is that when you're building level after level of increasing intensity, it becomes overwhelming. So what we do now is follow a really difficult puzzle with a bit of downtime, where you just jump through some simple corridors and receive a letter, which continues the story. Adding that downtime has made a massive difference to how enjoyable the game is, I think. That's something I never realized before.
I've learned a lot about narrative design, as I'd never really done any writing before this game. That was a whole new world. And through bringing the game to so many platforms, I now know how to structure my code, to make porting easy. So there's been a whole load of stuff.
Dan, do you want to add anything, at all?
Dan Da Rocha: I guess the project could have been managed better. We've learned a lot there, about getting the right people in to help us. We spent a bunch of time and resources on people who didn't work out for us. So getting the right people in from the beginning is going to be key on future projects. But, hopefully, if this game does well, it raises our visibility, and maybe we attract that higher level of talent.
Hue is released on August the 30. Find more information on the game's official website.
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