Cloudberry Kingdom – Interview with Jordan Fisher (Lead Developer & Co-Designer)
Despite all the big names and the halls full of AAA blockbuster releases, one of the titles that caught my eye the most this E3 was an indie platformer known as Cloudberry Kingdom. After falling in love with its pixel-perfect platforming and procedurally-generated levels, I spoke to Lead Developer and Co-Designer Jordan Fisher about why it’s like Tetris, working with Sony and Nintendo, and why he’s not allowed to come up with the advertising slogans.
It’s a procedurally-generated platformer where the computer creates all the different scenarios and potential levels ahead, and it tests them all out while you’re playing the previous level in the background, how difficult is that to design? It sounds incredibly complicated to make!
It wasn’t easy! So before we even started on the graphics and the gameplay, we spent two years just on the AI system. That was mostly just doing the numbers and working it all out, I have a maths background so it was very math-intense, but it was a lot of fun and a super blast to work with. Once we had that technology really locked down then we could take the time to really flesh it out into a great game.
You’ve also got the whole system where if you can’t finish a level the AI will show you how it’s done.
That’s right; every level it makes is always possible to beat. Even if it makes these incredibly insane, weird levels with twenty billion fireballs on it it’s still possible to get through it.
When I was playing it the jumping physics were absolutely perfect, how did you manage to refine that to the point where it wasn’t too floaty or too quick?
I’m pretty obsessive compulsive [laughs], so I spent a couple of months just tweaking with stuff like “How much friction is there? How much acceleration?”, and you have to keep playing with it until it’s all there. And there are also little hacks, so if you play some platformers you feel like you fall off ledges too easily, right? So the hack for that is that once you run off the platform you have to give the player like three or four frames where they’re not on anything, but they should still be able to jump. There’s a million things like that that you don’t think have to be there, but when they’re missing the platforming just doesn’t feel great.
That’s right, you don’t want to make it obvious, you want to make it like a tenth of a second so you feel like you have control even though it doesn’t make any sense.
You can move in mid-air for the jumps as well! There’s loads of different elements at work with fireballs, spikes, and monsters coming out at you. How many different possibilities are we talking per level?
I haven’t done the calculations, but I’d say there’s more potential levels than there are particles in the known universe. That’s what we claim, and I stand by that claim!
There’s also the competitive element where everyone’s trying to get the highest score, but you’ve also got the bungee mode for that co-operative element as well. It seems like a really interesting mode but a really cruel way to mess with your friends.
It’s so easy with the bungee level to just mess with your friends, but at the same time to get to the end of the level you have to get your friends to the end, you have to co-operate or else carry his dead corpse with you. It’s like a really weird kind of co-operative play.
I imagine that changes all the physics calculations as well?
Absolutely, but the levels are all designed with that bungee in mind, so you can see when the computer plays that it’ll have its bungee partner and it’ll be flinging him up in the air, and you can see all the bungee dynamics at play there, it totally uses everything to get to the end.
It’s kind of like Tetris; you can start at level nine if you want to, you know, if you’re crazy, but you can also go further than that. You can go to level whatever, it never maxes out, it just keeps getting harder.
Did you have to code an incremental difficulty system in the AI as well, then?
That was actually the hardest part, we did spend maybe four or five months making the AI know how to make a level you can beat, the rest of the time was all just teaching it how to make it the right difficulty. That was really challenging and just took so much tweaking.
So when you design the levels yourself do you have to prove you can beat the level yourself, or will the AI do that for you?
We don’t have a designer where you get to specifically place the things, we have a designer where you mess around with these sliders, so you can say “Give me fireballs, but don’t give me any of these things”. You can tell it what you want and how much you want, and the AI will say “Okay, I’ll make a level like that”. It kind of takes that work out of level design but it still gives you that feeling of power of deciding what you need.
What’s your favourite combination of items and modes to play with when you’re trying to introduce it to new people?
When I’m showing it to new people I usually just start them off with something nice and easy to play on classic until they get to level thirty or forty. Then I’m like, alright, let me show you guys the masochistic difficulty. We go to free play, crank it all up and they look and they’re like “No way!”, and then I show them the AI beating it.
That’s what happened to me! All the sliders were up to maximum, I looked at the level and decided it wasn’t possible. The computer did it in thirty seconds and made me feel like an idiot!
It’s a perfect AI; if there’s a way, it’ll find it.
Every now and then. I think I’ve seen it twice in the last four years, the AI will just eat a fireball and I’m like “Wait, that didn’t happen correctly”.
How helpful were Nintendo in regard to helping you get the game made and ready to ship?
Nintendo’s been super helpful; from the first day that we reached out to them about a year and a half ago, they got into the idea, they loved the game, and from both a technical and a business side they’ve been on point helping us to get to where we needed to be, so it’s been an amazing experience.
And Sony have also been particularly helpful?
Sony have been great as well, both companies are really pushing the indie scene and they recognise the potential we can bring to their platforms.
Is there hope for Microsoft and the Xbox One, do you think?
I, uh, I don’t know. I think there’s definitely potential and it might just be that they haven’t had time to focus on it or say much about their indie stuff. I think they know. They must know, right? I think they’re definitely planning some stuff but at the moment we’re just going to have to wait and see.
I think at the moment the policy is that you have to have a publisher behind you now, isn’t it?
What’s strange about the Xbox is that they were the first person to really push Indies. With the last gen – the 360, the Wii and the PlayStation 3 – they were the first ones with Xbox LIVE to really say “Yo, we have a platform for Indies” and sure you have to go through a publisher, but even then at the time that was phenomenal, there was no other way to do it. It’s kind of strange that they were the innovators and they’ve kind of lagged behind, so I’m going to be really curious to see how they respond to Nintendo and Sony’s really excellent support.
There are situations where they’ll do that, Sony has the indie platform where they’re really generous and they’ll give you the money to help you with development and then they ask for a year of exclusivity. We didn’t do that because we had our own investors, basically. Nintendo hasn’t really been asking for exclusives, which is really nice. Microsoft ask for it every time, but we’ve been really lucky so far that we’ve avoided that. We’re in a really great situation where we get to launch the game everywhere at the same time.
So how would you try and summarise the game to anyone who hasn’t played it before?
My business guy in the company hates it when I say this, but my three word pitch is “Mario On Speed”.
You should have that as the advertising tagline!
I thought so, but apparently there’s some business restraints about that, something about referencing Super Mario in that way, but I don’t understand all that, I’m just a simple programmer! [laughs]
Cloudberry Kingdom is out soon on PSN (30th July), Steam (31st July) and Wii U (1st August).
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