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Shattered Planet: towards the perfect procedural death labyrinth

Kitfox Games has just released its first game. CNET Australia caught up with studio head Tanya Short to talk IAP, inclusivity and the perfect PDL.

Fledgling studio Kitfox Games has just released its first game, ticking all the boxes for an excellent mobile experience. CNET Australia caught up with studio head Tanya Short to talk IAP, inclusivity and the perfect PDL.

(Credit: Kitfox Games)

Shattered Planet is the rare bird on the mobile games market. As a first release from a brand-new studio, it's certainly a surprise — carefully executed from start to finish to provide an in-depth experience that can be played in either short or long stints.

The game itself is what some developers are starting to call a procedural death labyrinth (PDL), an alternative term for the gameplay style more commonly known as roguelike. Players take the role of a clone explorer who is working to map and catalogue a planet that has been blown apart. As "PDL" implies, every level is randomly generated, and — like a permadeath dungeon crawler — you have to beat enemies, collect loot and find the portal (in this case, a teleporter) to the next level, with every death losing all your gear; but not, interestingly, your stats.

Shattered Planet's excellence, though, becomes a little less surprising when you take a careful look at where it came from. Kitfox studio head Tanya Short knows her stuff. After cutting her teeth on mods and MMORPGs — including a several-year stint at Funcom working on Age of Conan and The Secret World — and forming an incubator, she has embarked into the world of independent development with her very own studio, a team of developers who worked together for the very first time on Shattered Planet.

"Not only had we never worked together, but we weren't even friends," Short told CNET Australia. "We were basically four strangers, who were semi-acquaintances only because of a local indie dev meetup here in Montreal. Creating a studio together was a bit of a risk, but we all had an extremely positive first impression of each other, so I’m glad we went with our instincts."

Two things, she said, helped: the first was that everyone on the team went in with a clear role. Short was the captain of the ship; Xin Ran Liu was the art department; Mike Ditchburn was responsible for programming; and Jongwoo Kim was in charge of gameplay features.

The second is that the team got together to work on a jam and worked together brilliantly — which really boosted confidence in their abilities.

"Xin, Mike, and I did the Indie Speedrun together at the end of September last year," Short said. "It's a game jam that you can do over any 48 hours in September, and together, we made Sculptorgeist, which was a finalist for winning the jam. So after we pulled that off, I felt much more confident in our abilities as a team. Unfortunately, Jongwoo wasn't able to join us, but he later jammed solo with Xin and actually won the Montreal International Game Summit Battle of the Studios with their eight-hour creation GravCore, so... after that, I felt doubly confident!"

(Credit: Kitfox Games)

Initially, Shattered Planet wasn't necessarily going to be a PDL. The procedural part came about as a means of trying to stand out in crowded mobile markets, but Kitfox went through a process of creating several prototypes in a week-long jam before hitting on the final version of the game. The core ideas common to all versions were procedurally generated levels, and the basic plot of a captain exploring an alien planet.

"We made one that was more of a builder, creating colonies as you go," Short said. "We also made a puzzle game that was a bit like Minesweeper. But our favourite was more of an RPG, with a touch of progression… it was the most fun, so we kept working on that prototype and set the others aside. A few weeks later, we started calling it Shattered Planet. A few weeks after that, when we started adding in aliens and items and experience points, we realised we had re-invented the 'roguelike' or PDL by accident."

Aside from its sci-fi setting — and the frankly beautiful art — there are a few aspects that set Shattered Planet apart. When you start playing the game, your avatar is an Asian woman (although you can change within the first few minutes of play), with options for characters of different races and styles all free and playable at launch — a rare choice in an industry where the accepted wisdom is that "female main characters don't sell".

"We were nervous at first [about the default avatar option], because of the common wisdom, and we tested it in beta," Short said. "We watched carefully to see if retention (the statistic that indicates how often players come back to the game) or spending habits changed, but there was literally no noticeable difference. I have to add a disclaimer that it might be partly because our marketing still features a white dude, and it might be partly because you get to customise your character after two-three minutes. But with all of that factored in, I think we still saw less 'rage-quit' than most major studios would have predicted."

(Credit: Kitfox Games)

It's also not quite as high-stakes as the more traditional roguelike. When you die, all gear is lost; but your stats (which you can boost with training in the lobby) and encyclopedia of creatures encountered on the planet's surface remain. This serves to make the game accessible, but also dramatic enough to keep things interesting — but, Short explained, this evolved over time.

"We started with it being completely high-stakes, with you losing everything on each death, other than the Datalog (encyclopedia entries), but we felt it didn't have a wide enough appeal," she said. "So at pretty much the last minute, we decided to make the character stats persistent, similar to PC game Rogue Legacy, and we had much more positive feedback from playtesters."

One thing we appreciate in the game is the attempt to implement fair in-app purchases (IAP). Making a game completely free is not really an option for a commercial studio, and IAP — when it comes to mobile games — is where studios can make the most money. However, while many studios will implement IAP in such a way that the player feels they have to pay, Shattered Planet went in a different direction.

There are a few items in the game available for purchase: non-human avatars (an alien and a robot); and crystals, with which you can purchase items. These can also be obtained during the course of play; and, since items are lost when your clone dies, purchase doesn't feel compulsory in order to keep playing — the game can be enjoyed as much with IAP as without. And, Short hopes, enough people will like the game that they will spend a few dollars here and there.

"We felt that even if we made $0 with a free game, at least lots of people would get to try it and maybe they’d gain a little respect for Kitfox, which we can put towards our next title," she said. "Whereas in the worst case if the game were premium and we made $0, the game would simply die in obscurity because nobody actually played it. [But] Some people will still spend money when they’re not forced to. They’ll spend out of joy, affection or curiosity. Probably not as many, and certainly not in the same volume, but I refuse to participate in predatory or manipulative tactics, regardless."

Shattered Planet is available for free from the iTunes App Store, and will be coming soon to Android and PC, the latter of which will have an up-front price instead of IAP.

For updates, you can follow Kitfox on Facebook and Twitter, or sign up to the studio's newsletter.