As the developer behind the recently released puzzle platformer Hue, UK based Fiddlesticks had its work cut out when it attempted to release its Metroidvania style game on PC/Steam, XBox One and PS4. And whilst the PS Vita version is still some way off, both Fiddlesticks members – Henry Hoffman and Dan Da Rocha – have ensured that their game has all the hallmarks of what makes a great two-dimensional puzzle-platforming game.
With an evocative aesthetic that brings to mind games like Limbo, Hue however takes a slightly different approach by focusing on its colour swapping mechanic. And with reviewers citing Fiddlesticks’ creation as being “one of the most original and engrossing platform puzzlers of recent years“, I sat down with Henry Hoffman (Creative Director at Fiddlesticks) to talk about how his game caught the attention of publisher Curve Digital, and what difficulties he’s had in ensuring performance parity across all platforms.
Fiddlesticks was started up two years ago. What is your development history and what inspired you to start up Fiddlesticks as opposed to working with a conventional developer?
So me and Dan both went to a university together, which is in Newport (Wales), and (at the time) had a good reputation for its games development course. Dan was a year above me. I went in, and I wanted to start working on games straight away. And in the first year, I created a prototype called Mush which we entered into a global game development competition called Dare To Be Digital – which we went into with zero experience and ended up winning with a team of five. This got us nominated for a BAFTA which was massive for us at the time. That BAFTA nomination got us in cahoots with Microsoft who offered us a publishing deal. So before I’d even graduated from university, we’d gotten a deal with Microsoft and released a game on Windows Phone as an exclusive. This was a massive opportunity.
This was all with five people?
Yes. This was a different company, and not Fiddlesticks. During this time, Dan was working on a game called Q.U.B.E. which ended up getting funded by Indie Fund and ended up becoming a massive success. I did a little bit of work with him on that, and did all the UI as well as a lot of the 2D art stuff for that. So we knew each other through that…
Was Q.U.B.E. the product of a 3-man team?
Q.U.B.E. was from a 3-man team, but there was some contracting…
What happened to the third person?
I wasn’t a core part of the team. I was just helping them (Toxic Games) out essentially. And they’re still going, and are working on Q.U.B.E. 2. So Dan’s kind of between different companies at the moment.
So would it be fair to say that Fiddlesticks is pretty much just yourself?
I built the game, so I built the content. But Dan manages the business side of things because I’m terrible at accounts and doing business stuff (laughs).
How were you able to gain Curve Digital’s publishing support?
We first pitched the game to an investor, who gave us the funds to put the game together. Our investor was really pushing for us to go with a publisher so that we had publishing support. We ended up pitching to about 15-20 different publishers. Most of them were interested, but because Curve are based in London and have a very good relationship with other independents, and have a great track record with games like Thomas Was Alone and The Swapper, we thought it would be a really great fit. One thing they also offered, which a lot of other publishers didn’t offer at the time, was development support. Because it was just me building the game, it was very difficult for me to build all the levels and to create all the artwork and stuff. So they offered a little bit of level design assistance, and the final bit of art that we used for marketing… that was produced by them as well.
Hue has no guns. How do you intend to market the game to gaming audiences who are gun orientated? In other words, how will Hue appeal to gun-toting Americans?
(Laughs) The American version has guns. No, I think we are targeting a very different audience. I think we are targeting the more independent gamer that appreciates a little bit more depth to characters and to narrative. Asking questions that maybe other games don’t. Such as philosophy, perspective, one’s place in the world… There’s a huge audience for that outside of games. I’m one of those people that plays games for those reasons. We’re really just targeting our game towards those people, and if a gamer believes that a game needs to have a gun in it, then Hue probably isn’t for them.
Although here are games that use colour – like Splatoon and The Unfinished Swan – there are very few games on the market that take a similar angle when it comes to playing with colour. What was the inspiration for Hue and how did you come up with the colour changing mechanic?
When we started the game, we’d never seen the mechanic being done before. When I design a game, it all starts with a core mechanic idea, and I kind of grow the game out from there. For the mechanic itself, there was very little inspiration. It was a natural evolution from a Game Jam where the purpose was to use the right analogue stick in an interesting way. So if an object matching a background colour visibly disappears, what happens if it physically disappears? So it was a natural evolution from that mechanic. I can point to lots of sources of inspiration that influenced the art-style, the dialogue, the narrative, the world… but the mechanic itself came from a very simple place – which was just us messing around. It didn’t come from another game or anything like that.
The story is quite deep and isn’t exactly filled with lots of dude-bro moments. What sort of research went into it?
I did a bunch of research into colour theory, and there’s this thing called the “Knowledge Argument“. Knowledge Argument is a story about this female scientist in a black and white world, who lives inside a black and white room with a black and white television, and she can only ever see in black and white. If she knew everything about colour, and knew all the physical properties – such as how light refracts when it bounces off walls – if she knew everything about it, would she be able to see it? Would that give her new knowledge? Would it be learnt and give her new experiences? There were a lot of questions asked that I thought were really interesting, and that’s really where the narrative came out from. We ended up doing a whole bunch of research on different colour theory which influenced everything else.
The mother who is investigating the colour theory in the game is professionally voiced by Anna Acton. What made you decide to cast her?
We went with a casting studio called OMUK, and they put together a bunch of voice-samples for different actresses to play a part. We listened to a whole bunch, and there was just one which carried just the right amount of emotion where it wasn’t completely overwhelming. There was just the right amount of emotion carried through the undertone of her voice. It was really layered. What we found when we worked with her was that she was really able to tune her emotion to our cues. “Maybe that’s too much. Maybe it’s more matter of fact and more scientific”. Its like her voice acting had this emotional dial that she was able to turn. She had complete control over her emotion and how she delivered her lines. For me, that was fascinating. I’d never done something like that before, and working with someone in the studio with that breadth of experience was really interesting.
What about the soundtrack composer – Alkis Livathinos. How did you pick him?
What happened originally was we put together a prototype, which was a very short demo, which I think we used to secure a publishing deal. Before that, I’d spent ages on the internet looking for music that I felt fitted with the game – that captured the emotions, the narrative, and everything else – but still felt unique and gave the game its identity. It was a very simple piano track that we used in our very first teaser trailer two years ago. We did that, and the track captured the mood, so we approached other composers to try and replicate it. But we weren’t able to get the style that we were after, so we approached the person who produced that piece of stock audio. They could have been anywhere in the world, and it turned out that they were only 40 minutes away in Stratford (London), so we ended up meeting up with him. We asked if he could put together five songs for the entire game, and he said “yeah, that’s fine”, and a year later we have over 30 songs.
When you consider games like Braid, its soundtrack was licensed from music artists on Magnatune. You’ve also got musicians like Austin Wintory who made the soundtrack for Journey, as well as bands like 65daysofstatic who made the soundtrack for No Man’s Sky. How consistent were Alkis Livathinos’s song compositions with regards to the piano track, and how consistent were his soundtrack efforts in living up to your vision? What sort of direction did he require to make the score? Why go with him as opposed to licensing pre-existing tracks? And why not go for musicians (like Austin Wintory) who have a bit more experience in composing game soundtracks?
We had a very good grounding, which was the stock audio that Alkis Livathinos did, so we knew that he was very capable of producing the style that we were after for the game. I guess the question was whether Alkis was going to be able to communicate different moods, changes in pacing, and whether his style was going to be able to adapt to those changes throughout the game. That was something we definitely struggled with at the beginning, and it was very much not him delivering music to me, but rather a collaborative effort where I was finding other tracks online… he was putting together playlists, and I was putting together playlists. We were pulling bits that we liked out of other songs, we were testing them in levels, I was producing video after video of play-throughs where he would take the footage and put free-style music over it. It just turned into a massive collaborative effort where we ended up scrapping a lot of music. We’ve got 30 tracks but we could easily have had 40 or 50.
Is the soundtrack coming out on vinyl?
We are hoping to put the soundtrack out on vinyl and it’s available for purchase on Bandcamp.
How long would Hue take to complete for a conventional player?
That’s a difficult one to nail down as the rules regarding a conventional player don’t necessarily apply to this game. We’ve found some really hardcore players to really struggle with some of the puzzle elements. We’ve found 6 year olds to come and play and just blitz through the game as well. But we’re marketing Hue as between 5 to 6 hours I think.
Hue is described as being a Metroidvania style game. Metroid obviously implies Nintendo. What plans are there for Hue to come out on Wii U or NX? Speaking of which, have you been in contact with Nintendo with regards to developing for the NX platform, and if so, what do you know about it?
So I have been told explicitly to say “No Comment!” to anything NX-related. But I will speak broadly… I would love to target any Nintendo platform. At the moment, I’ve done the porting. So I’ve ported to XBox One, to PS4 and Vita. That’s been a big technical challenge, and I’ve not released on all of those platforms simultaneously before. It turned out to be a massive undertaking, and I would have loved to have targeted Wii U and other platforms at the same time, but it just wasn’t possible with our time-scale and our budget. But I’m sure that if the game is popular enough that there could be a case made for supporting Nintendo platforms – especially Nintendo platforms that are yet to come out. I would absolutely love to target them, but I don’t know huge amounts about them either.
Have Nintendo approached you the way Microsoft approached you when you did your previous game Mush?
I don’t think I can talk about that unfortunately. Sorry (laughs).
You mentioned as to how you had difficulty porting Hue to PC, XBox One and PS4. Obviously the Vita version is coming out later, but given that the developers of Mighty No 9 had lots of development resources, and yet still weren’t able to put out the game in a manner which performed consistently across all platforms. What steps did you take to ensure that your game achieved platform parity?
Hue is pretty much identical across all platforms – PC, XBox One and PS4. That’s not really been a huge problem, because I know the game inside out as I coded it. Optimising it to run on those platforms has been fairly straight forward. I know what I needed to change and was able to make performance changes. Vita has been a bit more of a difficult challenge as it is the equivalent of 4 year old mobile hardware. So the only thing that is changing at the moment are a few cosmetic changes – things like vines are physics based and demanding of the hardware… they’ve been switched for more static vines. The gameplay however is exactly the same, so we’ll have parity there. I’m really aiming for 60fps across all platforms.
Hue has 100-odd levels. Mario Maker proved that there aren’t a lot of good level designers out there. What difficulties did you have in constructing levels? What steps did you take to ensure that every level felt unique and that standards were kept high?
It was massively difficult, especially with the gameplay mechanic that is a bit different to traditional platformers. It took a lot of trial and error at first. Every level had a unique reason for its existence. I still have level ideas that I just didn’t have time to implement. The mechanic itself has enough legs to create enough variety between levels. We did try to get some people on board to help us out with level design, but when you’re the person who has come up with the mechanic and have developed it from the ground up, you understand it inside out. So when we tried to get other people involved, they just didn’t have enough knowledge of the mechanic as well as its different implications so as to build levels that fit our vision. A few of them did. I think we have one level that someone else built within the game, and maybe three or four that were inspired by other peoples’ levels. So there has been some outside influence, but most of the levels were built by myself.
You’ve obviously had external help with regards to having certain levels made. I mentioned Mario Maker earlier on. Are there any plans for modding capability, so that users can make their own levels? In other words, will there be a “Hue Maker“?
(Laughs) If I’m making a game, I would always love for there to be some sort of way for players to create their own content. The problem with Hue however is that the mechanic is very… explicit. It has certain undesirable consequences when you combine certain things in a certain way. So each level is carefully constructed to work within the limitations that we’ve built. I think if we started to give players free reign, things would just fall apart. We’ve had to construct the levels within our own limitations, and we’re not at a state to give players free reign.