SO WE’RE NEARING THE POINT WHERE ALL THE LOCATIONS IN THE GAME HAVE BEEN DESIGNED. HOW DO YOU FEEL THE DESIGN OF THE GAME STANDS CURRENTLY?
Alex: We just kind of did a high level reassessment a little while ago, level-design style-wise, and we realized that we really wanted to take a new pass on pathing. Because the game is kind of all of these nodes with content in them with either paths between the nodes or no paths because it’s just on the surface of the planet, and when it’s easy to see the node it works fine, because you see an object and you think, “Oh, I’m supposed to investigate this.” But we realized a lot of the paths…
You’d be in a place with a node with paths leading to different places away from it and players would kind of choose which one to go down randomly, and you wouldn’t have any real idea of what you’d find on the other side...which isn’t bad, per se, but the whole point of the game is having your choices motivated by your curiosity. So we decided to telegraph where paths lead. Ideally this happens visually, so you think, “Oh this path leads to a tower in the distance, I’m going to follow it.” But underground this doesn’t work as well so we’re trying to add trailmarkers and some things more cryptic so you have a little bit of information to go on when choosing instead of just flipping a coin.
Alex: You know one of the earliest things we wanted to do with Outer Wilds was create the feeling of seeing something in the distance and you choose to go there and being rewarded by that. It was kind of a realization that--because the planets were too small so the horizon curvature was too intense or because you’re in a cave--players were clearly wandering. And it’s not that I’m opposed to wandering, but I want players to know whether or not they’re actively wandering. We want to remove aimless wandering from the design, because the game is entirely freeform, we don’t tell you what to do, but we give you enough information that you make conscious choices. We wanted to bring that clue structure that works really well in the high level design into the moment-to-moment gameplay.
SO HOW DO YOU BALANCE THAT CLEAR PATHING & INTENTIONAL CLUES WITH THE SURPRISE AND EXPLORATION THAT SO MANY LOVE WITH OUTER WILDS?
Alex: Well this is something we’re just starting to do with pathing and I think the key is going to be creative about it while not telegraphing where things go. I mean, I can tell you “This path goes to the Southern Observatory,” and that doesn’t really prepare you for what it looks like or what it is. If we change that message to say “This path goes to the South Pole,” how does that change what you do or think? Depending on what information you know or how curious you are, that might inform what you decide to do. We’re trying to avoid explicit signs as much as possible, but it’s been a creative process to incorporate.
Alex: There’s A LOT more thought put into it. I was always surprised that people enjoyed the Alpha as much as they did because the level design was, like, pretty #$% in a lot of ways. They were interesting as rough sketches as to what the planets would be but they were made really quick. We can play a lot more now with where players can move, and with increased Nomai tech we have a lot more tools with how we can play around with level design. And that really helps us play to the strong suit of each planet and its themes and how they change over time.
Like the original Brittle Hollow: we had these paths that would break apart as the planet breaks apart, but the difference now is that the paths are a lot more reasonable at first but break apart in much more coherent and interesting ways over time--like if this part of the path breaks, how do you still get through, or if these part breaks how do you still get through, etc. We go through all the options. We playtest and we try a lot harder to make the journey more interesting with more environmental obstacles to consider moment-to-moment.
THE GAME IS CLEARLY NO LONGER MADE BY A ONE MAN BAND. WHAT IS IT LIKE HAVING ANOTHER CONSISTENT DESIGNER ON THE GAME WORKING WITH YOU?
Alex: We try to split things 50/50 between Loan and myself. It’s cool because we have radically different styles and we’ve come up with a lot of ideas we never would have otherwise without collaborating. The revamp of the approach to pathing and level design I mentioned earlier, that came out of Loan & I discussing how we could get the meta design into the moment-to-moment design.
We definitely have different styles but we hand off ideas pretty well. We always start together on the whiteboard no matter what we’re designing, and it’s not like one person takes one planet and one the other, it’s pretty back-and-forth: I wonder if players will be able to tell stylistically who did what.
I definitely focus on moments of revelation in my design, and I’ve seen that start to pop up in his design, and Loan really loves to use as many mechanics as possible in crazy ways, and I think that’s started to bleed into my stuff as well. So...it’s pretty good.
Alex: I wish we had designed all the planets from the ground up knowing about all the functionality of the probe. Because the probe was invented first and foremost as this camera thing and we’ve integrated it into all these different designs and if we’d known about what it was going to be I would’ve made a lot of different decisions about hazards, systems on planets, etc.
The flip side of that is the planets that work best with the probe are not the ones that change over time in the most interesting ways, so maybe it’s ok that the probe doesn’t work to the same degree everywhere. Because of course another design goal was to make things change over time and not every place is going to be an example of both goals all the time. I think that’s ok.
NOW THAT WE’RE FINETUNING DESIGN, WHAT ARE YOU MOST LOOKING FORWARD TO?
Alex: Running playtests where we just let players loose across the solar system instead of playtesting specific paths locations for difficulty tuning. No more. Now it’s like, “You. you’re free. Now go. Because we’re going to learn a lot more about things like ‘How does the order players encounter things matter,’ ‘Is it too easy,’ ‘What attracts the players’ eyes, ‘Do players follow clues or do they just go crazy,’ all those fun questions. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m excited.