That Sneaking Feeling: An Interview With Curve Studios

Finding myself enamored with Stealth Inc., I set out to talk to the folks behind this incredible stealth puzzler. I reached out to Curve Studios, and was lucky to get in touch with Rob Clarke, Curve’s PR and Marketing Manager, and Jonathan Biddle, Stealth Inc.‘s lead designer and creator. Read on to learn the problem with stealth games, the frustrations behind crafting puzzles, and why simplicity makes things better.

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For quite some time now, ‘stealth’ has been a dirty word in gaming. Due to the success of game’s like Metal Gear and Splinter Cell, stealth missions began to get tacked on arbitrarily. It seems quite dangerous to base an entire game around this mechanic, would you agree? What did the studio address to change the perception of the ‘stealth’ genre?

Rob Clarke: The problem we found with ‘stealth’ as gameplay mechanic was that it punishes you for experimenting. Often you find games with elaborate levels and brilliant AI design, but if you play the game exactly how it is meant to be played, you end up missing out on all of that cool stuff because you’re too afraid to move out from the shadows. With Stealth Inc., the way that checkpoints work and the overall pace of the game mean that you’re absolutely free to experiment and try out different methods of getting around a puzzle without the fear of having to spend hours retracing your steps.

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I really enjoy Stealth Inc.‘s grading system. Clear time and the equipment used is priority for the online leaderboards, while deaths and finding the hidden helix play a role in the player’s personal ranking. With so many ways to succeed, was this an attempt to allow players to hone in on the skills they prefer, not limiting their goals to just beating a stage as fast as possible?

Jonathan ‘Bidds’ Biddle: Yes, we thought it was important that players could focus on the things that are important to them. Some people may prefer to take their time, not get spotted, not get killed, and so for them time isn’t such an issue. Other people may make a racing line for the goal, but play sloppily and quickly. Both of these techniques are valid, so we were keen for players to feel like their skills were recognised. Of course if you want to get the S Ranks, you need to perfect levels in all categories.

The game’s puzzles are built in such a way that it’s impossible to block progress. You can’t paint yourself into a corner by misplacing a block or something, the player can always continue onwards. Is this harder to design than puzzles with hard fail states?

JB: Ah, yes, those situations do come up fairly often while we are designing the game. We try our best to prevent them from happening and fix all of the situations that we find, but with so many people playing the game in so many different ways, there are always things that slip through. It’s certainly easier to just disregard these issues and rely on the Restart Level button, since it’s effectively less work. Ensuring all puzzles never enter an impossible state is a pain!

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Stealth Inc. reminds me of your previous work on the Fluidity series, especially Spin Cycle. They are both based around large puzzles rooms that require multiple solutions to open the exit. What makes them different is that Spin Cycle will restart the level if the player loses their health, while Stealth Inc. is much more forgiving with check points and lack of a health bar. Why did Stealth Inc. take a friendlier approach to failure?

JB: The answer to the question is that the two games are actually quite different in their approaches. Stealth Inc. relies on precision and binary outcomes; your player character is either alive or dead, seen or not seen. This is a fundamental in Stealth Inc., and the rhythm of the puzzles and the checkpoints are built around it. Since it’s a time-based game, the goals are kept simple (hack the terminals and get to the exit), and players encouraged to complete them as fast as possible. In Fluidity: Spin Cycle, the goal for the player is much less focused on speed, and more on interacting with the puzzle elements; solving the puzzle is the goal, and the puzzle is much more complicated as a result. With this shift in focus, players don’t want to be constantly worrying about instantly losing their life – they already have enough to worry about. This is why there’s a health system, and ways to gain back that health, which also ties into exploration with the collection of pickups. The water in Fluidity is difficult enough to move around without players having to worry about a single mistake costing them all their puzzle progress. (There are checkpoints in Spin Cycle, by the way!). Essentially, Stealth Inc. is more difficult – and if the difficulty is high but the penalty for failing is not too great, then players will not become frustrated by a challenge.
It’s interesting to note that Stealth Inc. was originally created as Stealth Bastard on PC, and released in Nov 2011, so it predates our work on Fluidity: Spin Cycle. I was actually developing Stealth Bastard in my lunch breaks while I was directing the original Fluidity.

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The game does an excellent job of layering new mechanics in each of the game’s ‘worlds’. You also managed to restrain yourselves from overly complicating the puzzles. Was it difficult to keep things fresh without introducing too many new mechanics?

JB: We have a fairly open way of creating levels here. The level designers are given free rein to experiment with whatever elements the game will have open to them, and we just see what interesting stuff they come up with. We have a weekly review where we all sit down and play through the week’s work. We all comment, and then make decisions about what changes to make. Typically if a level has too much in, or too many mechanics, it will be picked up, since it will feel over-complicated and just the wrong side of frustration. There’s a fine line there, but with our experience of creating puzzle-based platform games (Explodemon, Fluidity, Fluidity: Spin Cycle, Stealth Bastard, Stealth Bastard Deluxe) and having had such a knowledgeable publishing partner in Nintendo, means that we’re pretty good at making those calls now.

With the different equipment, the player can change their play style, often making the stage easier in the process. Is the purpose behind the equipment to allow the player alternate ways to play, or is it a means for speed runners to find the quickest route through the stage?

JB: We didn’t have enough time to weave the equipment into the campaign, as the development time for the original Stealth Bastard Deluxe (which we released on Steam) was incredibly short. I definitely wanted to put some cool gadgets into the game, and so they instead made their way in as toys, each one giving a different perspective on how to play a level. Long after the game is completed without equipment, I wanted lots of ways to keep people coming back and trying new things, finding fun things about the game that they’d not experienced before. The teleporters however were what the game was originally based around. Early on I decided that I was making a 2D stealth game about using teleporters to move from shadow to shadow. However, when the designers here starting making levels with them, it was obviously a step too far for an initial concept – it took a large amount of effort to make interesting levels with them, and I’d argue that we never did. Once I decided to take the teleporters out, the game took shape and we ran with it. After making the original game, and the Deluxe version with the teleporters as an optional extra, I wanted to revisit the concept, building on what we’d learned since. That’s where the Teleporter Chambers DLC came from, and I think they ended up being the best levels in the game.

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The music is fantastic, and definitely adds to the experience. Each stage has moments of pause and of high adrenaline, but the music manages to suit both. Was it a struggle for the composer to find the tone that suits the game?

JB: Ricky Honmong, who made the music, is actually one of our animators, and music is only his spare time hobby. He’d been making music tracks for a while and sending them to Sam, who was one of the key designers on Stealth Inc.. Between the two of them, they evolved the tracks along with the game while we were developing it. We tried out a huge number of tracks in the game to see how they felt, and like most things, ended up taking bits out and simplifying them. It seems that having too many features is a bad thing for repetition; whether it’s music you’ll hear repeatedly on a short loop, or gameplay that you’ll play over and over because you’re dying a lot. There definitely seems to be a them there.

Any hints on what we can expect from the exclusive DLC we’ll be seeing later this year?

RC: Our first step is to get level sharing up and running on the PlayStation versions as a free patch. After that, we’ll be looking at expanding the main game by adding in new chambers and mechanics.

Curve has served as a digital publisher for their own work, as well as games made by others. There’s a risk involved in publishing your own games, but Curve does have full control of their products. When publishing games creates by others, is the studio a little more on edge about its acceptance?

RC: When we work with other people’s games, we’re very aware we are working with something that has been a huge part of their lives, sometimes for many years. It’s really important to us that the original developers aren’t just signing over the rights to port a game. Many porting houses offer that sort of service, but Curve are more about working with indie developers more closely and producing enhanced versions of games, often adding in new features. Developers can be as involved or uninvolved in the process as they wish, so if they feel like something isn’t quite working out, it’s easy for us to talk to them and find a solution.

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Seeing as how you brought Thomas Was Alone and Stealth Inc. to the Vita with cross buy support, is this something we can expect from you going forward?

RC: We obviously can’t guarantee that every game we make will be cross buy, but right now it’s certainly something we would like to continue doing and something that has worked out well for both us and our fans.

Is there a secret, underground bidding war amongst publishers like yourself to bring indie content to devices like the 3DS and Vita?

RC: There are only really a few publishers completely focusing on the indie market. We work in a very niche section of our industry, so it doesn’t make sense to be hyper competitive and nobody really benefits from that, least of all the developers. We think we’ve set a fairly clear market for ourselves and are now backing that up with games like Stealth Inc. and Thomas was Alone. Having said that, we do enjoy a bit of friendly, healthy competition!

As a publisher, what does Curve Studios look for in a game?

RC: We look as much at the developer as we do at the game. If a developer has a large team or experience working in the console world, we can’t be as valuable as we can be to a one or two person team that doesn’t have the time to work through things like QA and submission on consoles. Our only real criteria with games is they will ‘translate’ over to console, and that’s usually a matter of tweaking interfaces and controls to fit with those devices.

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In dealing with the digital stores of both the 3DS and Vita, do you feel that market is more accepting of content priced above the 99¢ threshold seen on smart phones?

RC: We’ve done very well on both the 3DS and Vita, so obviously the market is happy with paying above the sort of prices you often see on the App Store. The type of people who will buy a dedicated gaming handheld instead of just using their phone are usually looking for deeper, longer and more challenging experiences, and those experiences take more time and money to develop, so I think there’s more willingness to pay a fair price for those. Handheld gamers are more likely to compare a £9.99 indie game with a £49.99 triple-A title as value for money, while people who play primarily on their phone are more likely to compare you to freemium games, where £9.99 is suddenly a huge asking price.

Stealth Inc. is available for purchase for the Vita and PS3. It is is cross buy title, which means $9.99 USD nets you both versions. You can purchase the game here.

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One thought on “That Sneaking Feeling: An Interview With Curve Studios

  1. Pingback: stickitinyourpocket | The Spy Who Loved U (Stealth Inc. 2 – Wii U)

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