Posted by Bret Hudson July 22, 2020
Pond Games, a team-of-one game studio from Adelaide, Australia, released their debut title, RITE, earlier this month. A tough pixel-art platforming born from the likes of N++ and Celeste, the game makes a stunning impression as a first release from a new studio, attracting a cult following, with things such as a speedrunning Discord community popping up. We streamed RITE gameplay earlier this month, and were curious how this game came to be. Thankfully, Pond Games' Daniel Freer was happy to chat.
Interview conducted by Bret Hudson and Jared Cohen.
Let's start from the beginning: how did you get started with game development?
It's been something I've wanted to do most of my life, but it was only with the development of RITE that I gave it a proper go. I've played around with pixel art on and off since high school, and in more recent years I've done a few game jams with other people, usually just focused on art. Professionally I've always made coffee. I opened and ran my own shop in 2013 and sold it in 2016. I moved to Berlin mid-2018 and while living there, I met Stephen Lavelle (creator of Stephen's Sausage Roll, puzzlescript, etc).
Oh wow! That is an exciting connection to make.
We ended up going to a few jams and later met up weekly at a co-op space to work on our respective projects. Since moving back to Australia mid-2019, I finished development of RITE, still working part time as a barista.
Beyond the doing art at jams, have you worked on any other games?
Not really! A friend and I started making a game a few years ago and got pretty far with it, but ended up getting bored of the project and never saw it through. Just before making RITE, I made a little asteroids-like from a tutorial series to familiarise myself with GameMaker Studio 2, but that was just a single day endeavour.
Which games influenced development of RITE the most?
The two main influences for RITE were N++ and Celeste. I've sunk many hours into the N series. In those games, each level is confined to a single screen and is built up from a bunch of blocks and hazards to avoid. I wanted to keep the scope of RITE pretty small to give myself a decent chance of seeing the development through to completion, so I adopted similar limitations.
As fans of platformers will already know, Celeste is an amazing game in so many aspects. Moving [Celeste's protagonist] Madeline is really satisfying, so I spent some time thinking about why that is and applied what I'd learnt to my game's movement and animations.
As a kid I played a lot of Super Nintendo, and I think that shows when looking at and listening to RITE.
In RITE, did you use mood boards or do palette planning?
Not so much, I do have a few different folders of (mostly) pixel art that I'll often skim through to get the creative juices flowing. For the palette specifically, creating palettes is something I've always struggled with but I am slowly getting better. I was often tweaking the palette I made for RITE throughout development. Next project I want to block out colour schemes for areas in really low detail mockups/sketches before settling on a final palette.
How did you approach the 3D pixel art animations? They're mesmerizing, almost hypnotic!
Thank you for the kind words! All those animations are drawn frame by frame in a pixel art program called Aseprite. Often the process would go as follows: draw a fully rendered frame of the sprite, then draw an outline of some of the keyframes, followed by the remaining inbetween frames, still just outlines.
After that I'd fill in the outlines with the basic colours, thinking a lot about how lighting and shadows should play. Finally I go through and add the remaining details and antialiasing to every frame; this last step is my least favourite as it is dull and repetitive but still requires attention and thought.
That's insane! Surely I had assumed you used some sort of 3D model.
What's your strategy for designing levels?
It was largely organic and changed all the time. Levels always began as grey boxes on a black background. Sometimes I would go in and just try to make a pretty shape with those and then see what it's like to jump around in that space before adding too many hazards. Other times I would go in wanting to try a specific idea, and if I could get it to work I'd design the rest of the level around that thing. Some levels started as little thumbnails in a sketchbook as I'd often think of ideas when I wasn't at my computer.
I always tried to make each level about one or two specific things rather than a mish-mash of ideas, though I'm not confident every level achieves this goal.
Were there any mechanics you considered adding but decided against it? How come?
So very many, most of which weren't included due to my lack of programming experience. Programming has been a tough thing for me to learn: it hasn't really clicked with me and I don't enjoy it. Initially I wanted bouncing springs, a thwomp-like hazard, a level timer with leaderboards, and a ghost type of enemy that chases you around without being constricted by the walls. The level timer and maybe a death counter will likely be added in the future, though not with any kind of online leaderboards.
What's your favorite room name in the game?
I haven't actually thought about this! I think it's a tie between "hurtles" and "elephant is the room", but basically any name that is a bit of a pun.
In hurtles, the saw blades act as deadly hurdles, and "elephant is the room" is a play on the saying "elephant in the room," but in this case the room is shaped like a (pretty strange looking) elephant.
With RITE being your first release, how has the response been for you?
Such a rollercoaster! The feedback is almost entirely positive, so I am extremely happy about that. Releasing something that you've spent so much time working on is incredibly mentally taxing. I am fortunate that it has been well received and with only a few minor issues - no game breaking bugs or anything.
What were some of the biggest lessons you took away from development on RITE?
So many lessons! Aside from everything I've learned about programming and using GameMaker Studio 2, I'm really glad I decided to keep the scope relatively small. Initially I wanted to make a small platformer in 3 months, RITE ended up being a year and a half of part time development. If I'd dreamt a bit bigger, it's likely the game would have never seen the light of day.
Scope creep was something I was aware of, and this project has really ingrained that as one of the primary things to consider when starting a new project. The ability to make compromises is a great skill to have. I've also learned that it's very much okay to step away from a project for a week (or weeks) if it's needed.
When RITE post-launch bug fixing and additions wrap up, do you have any ideas on what you want to work on next?
I have loads of ideas, as I'm sure most game developers do. I do want to spend some time doing fun little projects first before jumping into something larger (things like making a texture pack for minecraft or having a solid go at making something in Dreams PS4). I'll most probably do a bunch of game mockups to further develop my pixel art abilities, but from experience this is often how I fall into starting a bigger project.
What are you plans for Pond Games? Do you want to bring more people into the mix?
At the moment it is only financially viable to hire contractors for specific things. I'd really like to work long term with a programmer. I think I'll be able to create much better games working with someone who knows what they're doing in that area, allowing me to focus more on design and visuals. Having a permanent team is the ultimate goal, but the structure of Pond Games will largely depend on how RITE and future releases do.
At very least I will continue to make games as a solo developer part time. I am absolutely in love with game development.