A Q&A with nada studio on the Making of Starman: Tale of Light

A Q&A with Two Architects about Their First Game, Featured in the App Store

Immersive monochrome puzzler Starman: Tale of Light was released on iOS in November by two brothers, Sergio and Jacobo Abril, and was soon after featured by Apple, no doubt for it’s beautiful design, eerie atmosphere and well-crafted gameplay. We asked the brothers to share their design process, the inspirations behind making the game, and what they’ve learned most.

Can you introduce your team and what each person worked on when you were making Starman?

There’s only two of us behind Starman. Sergio Abril (28) and Jacobo Abril (25), brothers and architects from Spain.

To give you some context, we can start by saying that while Jacobo was finishing his degree in Architecture in 2015, Sergio was in Japan doing an internship for SANAA, a Tokyo based architectural office. However, we both wanted to do something on our own. One day in January ’16 we decided to create nada studio; to put together all the things we loved (architecture, design, technology and sound). A video game seemed like a right place to experiment, and that’s how Starman was born.

Brothers Sergio and Jacobo Abril, Founders of nada studio

Design had to play a main role in the game; we’ve always felt confident about design, and we loved the idea. With that in mind, designing sceneries and mechanisms on our own seemed challenging but certainly feasible.Same applies to 3d modelling, which is something we’ve been doing for years. However, there is more into making a game; a game is not only a nice image, you need to animate characters, code behaviours, make sound FX and music, optimize everything, and lots of other things you don’t think of when you start a project like this.

There were so many topics and skills to be learnt, that we had to split tasks. We both directed the game and lead the design, but while Sergio focused in coding, level building, and environment animations, Jacobo created conceptual illustrations for every level, learnt to animate the character, and controlled musical production.

Starman: Tale of Light Design Sketches
Starman Design Sketches

We have spent a lot of time learning new things as we needed it, learning through constant trial and error.

For those that haven’t played Starman, can you summarise what it’s about?

Starman is a monochrome puzzler. But it is more importantly an experience, a moody experience. It is also an adventure in which the player can stop andreflect, at an unhurried pace. The objective remains uncertain, so it is a matter of enjoying the journey; allowing yourself to be carried away by what happens around.

Starman: Tale of Light Game

It’s about feelings, architectural sceneries, thinking and perception. It is a game where you see yourself immersed in a certain atmosphere. Sometimes you can feel some sort of nostalgia, even melancholy. We believe there is something hauntingly beautiful about it. Starman is a game with its own tempo, to be experienced without rushing.

The game has a very distinctive design in terms of the visuals, but also in creating an atmosphere of mystery and uncertainty with the music you use, the magical glowing lights and the monochrome dark, the lone character, the scenes now deserted but as if they were once filled with people… Where did your inspirations come from for the design and the atmosphere?

Starman is about the recovery of something lost, something that is not present anymore but can still be felt; in a place where time appears to have stopped. This very feeling was the most important thing, and so we are super glad that the mood resonates with people.

More than inspiration from something specific, there is an intention of creating an atmosphere and communicating a certain feeling. There are many examples of different arts that deal with similar intentions and that we have a high regard for.

Traces of this mood can be found in the work of Edward Hopper or Giorgiode Chirico, in the photography of Edward Burtynsky. There are echoes of architectural works such as the holocaust memorial in Berlin by Eisenman, orAtmospheres, a written essay by the swiss architect Peter Zumthor. The music in Async, by Ryuichi Sakamoto. The scenography of movies like BladeRunner. Nature is also very present, and the relationship between nature and human beings; the feeling of being alone in the woods.

Starman: Tale of Light gameplay

The tools that we have used are also equally important; the isometric perspective is something that we have been using in architecture for many years. It excels in making spaces readable; and also allows the player to immerse in the scenery and get into the story. Monochromatic design was fundamental; black and white, light and shadow are something very subtle yet extremely evocative. Music needed to help set the tone too. It couldn’t be the type of music that screams “I’m here” but rather a good company during the journey. We believe that everything kind of assists in creating a feeling of solitude and uncertainty.

In the end, the visuals and atmosphere of the game are not the result of specific references. Trying to transmit an emotion is what has guided us throughout the process, with lots of work and iterations, to the point that everything just felt right to us. We had to be very careful because sometimes adding layers and layers of details would result in a scene losing its initial character.

The levels have a number of objects that you have to play with and interact with to see how they operate and give you clues as to how to solve the puzzles. How did you go about designing the levels so that you provided hints for the user, without giving away too much as to make it too easy?

We wanted puzzles to be challenging, but not frustrating. And that’s quite hard to achieve. Moreover, everyone’s mind is not the same, and so the way players perceive the difficulty of a level is different. But we tried to find the right balance on each stage, while keeping an incremental complexity across the game.

Starman: Tale of Light Design Sketches
Starman Design Sketches

The truth is that we achieved this after quite a few iterations. A lot of our initial work didn’t make it because it was not consistent enough, or because we found, after testing, that some mechanisms could be misleading. We adjusted, changed, and even discarded many of them by testing them again and again ourselves; and then, when we thought they were ready, we would let our family and friends test things.

Starman: Tale of Light Design Sketches
Starman Design Sketches

Behind something simple, there is always a lot of work. Same happens with puzzle solutions; they are made in such a way, that after completion, they look simple and easy. Every element is placed so, and reacts in a specific way that, the user can come up with a solution by himself. At least, that is what we want players to believe, even if we have provided them with tiny hints. Subtle animations, little zoom-in’s and illustrative sounds, along precise placement of every element, are a really important aspect of puzzle resolutions. A small change, even if imperceptible, can lead to an incredibly higher rate of success (or failure).

We can find a good example of this in the fourth level of the second world, the factory (spoiler). When you get there, you are supposed to slide a cube through a ramp, but from a very precise spot; that’s the only way to make the cube jump to its destination without losing the contained energy in the process.

The challenge here was letting people know that, in an apparently non-physics-based game, you could actually try to slide a cube. In the beginning, the ramp was always down; and even though you could change its angle adjusting a moving wheel, almost nobody tried doing that. They thought of the ramp as an static element. Something as simple as setting the initial angle of the ramp to zero, forced players to both learn how to handle the new wheel mechanism, and also consider the ramp as a key element to find the solution. Success ratio doubled after this little addition.

Starman: Tale of Light Level

Finding the proper way to teach people how to use our mechanisms was crucial; specially since we introduced new elements constantly.

We decided to take a minimal approach: to introduce subtle hints instead of just using text tutorials everywhere. It might be harder to do, but the result is generally nicer, less obstructive, and most important, it makes players feel better when they understand and complete a puzzle. We think it’s way more rewarding.

Did you do any marketing or promotion or have a plan as to how you would get people talking about the game?

That’s maybe one of our weak points. We tried to engage people on twitter from the very beginning, posting weekly updates; but even though our followers increased noticeably, it was not even close to the number needed to have a visible launch. We needed to reach more people, and we didn’t really know how.

Three weeks before release date, we prepared a short trailer and started posting it on Reddit; luckily, one of those threads went (sort of) viral on /r/Apple, reaching the top within a few hours, and with around a thousand upvotes. We got hundreds of comments, and also many people showed interest in our game. We offered a last minute beta testing before the release, and people were excited to try Starman. We even started getting some media coverage in places like PocketGamer. It was both crazy and great.

We should have had a better marketing plan, but the truth is that we can’t complain about how it all worked out in the end.

How long did it take to design, develop and release the game? What stages to the design and development were there, and what was involved?

The development of Starman had 3 distinct phases.

In a first stage, over the span of 6 months, we tried a white boxing approach.We would come up with some mechanics and then we’d build them in a rather lousy way to the point they were playable. Once they were all built, we would try to make them look good. The truth is we ended up with a whole bunch of episodes built, but we soon realized that all the work we had done didn’t feel right. As we wanted the visuals to play an essential role in the game, this approach was kind of a disaster for us. Mechanisms were not integrated in the scenery, it was like dressing something up. We couldn’t set art aside in the level design and expect things to fit magically afterwards. We don’t think it was wasted time though, it served us like a valuable training.

The first stage led to a second. We wanted mechanics and aesthetics to be intertwined, so we had to rethink everything from scratch; it was really a challenge because as much as we didn’t want playable ugliness, we didn’t want beautifully boring screens either. Although none of phase 1 designs made it to phase 2, we got some ideas that became good starting points.Second phase took us about 9 months.

Starman: Tale of Light Game on iOS

Even though we had completely redesigned the game, there was a third round. After the end of phase 2, we reviewed what we had done so far and we felt that the first episodes couldn’t measure up to the level reached in the last ones (likely because as we advanced in the process our workflow became more consistent). In this last phase, most mechanisms were fine tuned and some episodes were subject to complete transformation; this allowed us (not without pain) to achieve a consistent result that we were happy with.

For us, white boxing didn’t work out; it’s likely that our mindset made it impossible for us to separate the game functionally and aesthetically. In architecture, the functional and the aesthetic usually work hand in hand; that might be the reason that the second approach worked better for us. We have to say that although this workflow proved to be fruitful, it was painful at times, and exhausting overall.

At the end of this process, just a few months before finishing the game, our beloved dog – a Retriever named Selva – passed. She was the one taking care of our health, reminding us to take a walk from time to time. She had been with us for almost 15 years, so we felt really tied to her. That’s why we decided to make a little tribute in her memory. It was the least we could do.

Starman Dog Tribute
Starman Dog Tribute
A Tribute to Selva, the Abril family dog

You’re featured on the App Store, how did that come about?

The Reddit thread granted us a good degree of visibility; once we had the game uploaded (but not released), we were contacted by a cool guy atApple. We then started conversations to have certain editorial support. It was awesome, we were caught off-guard. It’s obvious that we were very lucky, as the usual thing is to go under the radar. In the end, we are a tiny little

What did you learn most about making Starman that other developers might be interested to learn for their game development and that you can take into your next project? Would you do anything differently?

We believe it can be summarized in 3 points: learn self management skills.Try to engage people from day 1. Listen to what others say, but trust what you think.

Looking back, there are some things we would approach differently. We would have tried to start marketing campaigns earlier, instead of leaving it until the last minute. We are aware that when you are a small studio with very few resources this is easier said than done; but you have to make an effort.Regarding self management skills; you are alone against time, and you need to learn how to organize properly. Not only to get things done, which is important, but for your own mental health. One needs to find a balance.

Don’t forget to live, there is family and friends out there; things to see and do.

Starman Tale of Light on the App Store

Do you have plans to release Starman on Google Play or any other stores, any any other upcoming projects? Or a sequel perhaps?!

We would love to port Starman to other platforms, but we can not reveal anything yet. As for if we are thinking about a sequel or mulling over new projects, we are taking both options into consideration; we have lots of ideas and concepts in mind, and we have already started working on some of them. We really love designing and developing games. Crafting Starman was a great experience, but we like to think this is just the beginning.

Starman on the App Store

Thanks so much to Sergio and Jacobo. Starman: Tale of Light is available on the App Store.

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