In the early 1990s, platforming games were as plentiful as FPS titles are today. As the years went on and the market evolved through new consoles and players growing older, platformers slowly started to recede. While never on the verge of dying, the platforming genre only has minor releases as opposed to the colossal deluge it once had. Despite the changing times, that isn’t stopping former Ubisoft Montpellier developer Romain Claude from venturing onward with Splasher.
As a 2D platformer, Splasher may look rather conventional on the surface. Besides the vibrant colors and fast gameplay, Splasher goes a step further than another genre facsimile. With a unique gameplay basis focused on different paint colors that players use to navigate, Splasher channels Super Meat Boy more than Mario. It’s this direction and focus that makes Splasher a throwback to an era of gaming almost forgotten.
RESPONSIBILITY IN DEVELOPMENT
Romain’s time at Ubisoft Montpellier was one that was enjoyable despite the otherwise large nature that accompanies high-profile AAA game development.
“When I worked for Ubisoft I honestly had the chance to participate in projects with decent creative freedom,” said Romain of his past. “This doesn’t mean that anything you suggest ends up in the final product. But the discussion is always open and people above you will let you prototype things before judging an idea. This is crucial by the way because you don’t make games by only talking. And you don’t know what’s compelling by only talking neither. I think you can express yourself in both AAA and indie games if you have the chance to land on beautiful projects with good teams.”
Despite the pleasant work situation he had at Ubisoft, Romain wanted something more gratifying and with a greater sense of responsibility. “The difference [between indie and AAA development] is more on the responsibility level,” Romain said. “How much are you responsible for the success of the game? How much are you responsible if the game fails? When your work in a big company such as Ubisoft, even if you’re a lead designer the answer is not that much. When you work on your own, the answer is 100%. What do you get in a big company if the game is a success? Your salary and a cold “good job”. What do you get if the game fails? Your salary and … forget it. “
STARTING THE MIX
Initially starting off in 2013 as a simple development exercise within Unity, Romain found himself intrigued to do something more. At first inspired by the gameplay of Super Meat Boy and Rayman, this mere prototype evolved into something greater.
Romain spoke with Two Left Sticks and said, “I started to think about paints, and of course I remembered Portal 2 and Power of Paint, the initial student prototype from Digipen, that inspired Portal 2‘s paint feature. Boom, Splasher was born. So nothing planned, just experimentations that led to a concept.”
THE POWER OF PAINT
Splasher may look like another indie platformer that has some charm, but it isn’t yet another superficial homage. Instead, it moves forward with new concepts based on an almost forgotten twitch nature of platforming.
The platforming of Splasher may seem familiar as it follows a kinetic pace in which the player hops, jumps, and quickly navigates in order to not just clear the level, but avoid dangers in the environment. An added paint mechanic expands on this base.
Fitting of the world created by Romain, players need to utilize types of liquids in order to do things such as jump and wall run. This in itself may present another sense of familiarity, but Splasher takes the concept a step further with a different control layout.
“First of all there is something important about the gameplay of Splasher, it’s the fact that you move and aim with the same joystick,” said Romain. “Of course you immediately get feedback from players saying “why don’t you make a twin stick shooter, this is too awkward”. It’s actually a deliberate design choice. We are making a platformer, not a shooter that requires accurate aiming.”
This element of utilizing aiming and movement together makes Splasher an innovative title far beyond the other copy & paste platformers of the past. Romain elaborated on the system more by saying, “We see the shooting mechanic as an action you have to perform at the right moment, but not necessarily with high precision. This is why everything you can shoot at has a cursor-snap behavior on it. The level design is entirely built in a way that you always have to deal with interactions that are accessible within this constraints. This does not mean that the game is easy. It just means that regardless of the difficulty, we want the game to be always fair.”
The actual elements players use within Splasher are a perfect encapsulation of the world. With liquids consisting of water (activating mechanisms), Stick Ink (sticking to walls/ceilings), and Bounce Ink (higher jumping), there’s a simple, yet intricate, set of tools at the player’s disposal.
On how the liquids of Splasher influenced the design Romain said, “By combining these different abilities, we designed each level to offer interesting challenges, by paying a close attention to both learning and difficulty. We want the player to feel a compelling flow from the beginning to the end of the game.”
The design philosophy Romain had when creating the game says it all about Splasher; it’s easy to learn, yet hard to master.
THE WORLD OF PLATFORMING
The focus of Splasher is, of course, platforming, yet even classic titles in the genre often went a step beyond that. With some focused exclusively on speed running, other platformers provided a mixture of combat with exploration. Splasher opts to provide a more focused experience rather than a jack-of-all-trades, but master of none.
“Exploration is something we decided not to do. This was because we wanted to concentrate on one kind of challenge and craft it best as we can. On each level, you’ll find two special rooms that offer a more exotic challenge. These are a bit like the small cage-maps in Rayman Origins and Legends. These are interesting variations because they offer more diversity in the overall rhythm of the level. They’re also both challenging and have surprising moments”
FUN OVER DIFFICULTY
Romain worked on Rayman during his time at Ubisoft, which lent some inspiration on how he crafted the levels, but he found inspiration in other titles as well. Rather than adhere to the past, Splasher takes a modern approach in its game design.
“Another important aspect of the game is the fact that you can retry as much as you want when you die. This is inherited from flash games, and that is why Super Meat Boy is so addictive.” Romain’s inspiration of titles such as Super Meat Boy not only speaks to his admiration of them but also of a game design element which is somewhat archaic.
“The old lives system is actually inherited from the arcades. It was initially designed to incite players to get over their frustration by paying for another round. But for me, there is no point to being so punitive in a modern game. It’s an obstacle for too many players who don’t have patience. On the other hand, these same players are actually open if you let them try again with no boring limitations. I am actually this kind of player. Let them learn at their own pace, let them having fun for gaming sake. Once again this for me is the main aspect in the success of games like Super Meat Boy.”
FINDING THE RIGHT TONE
Splasher’s concept had to find a proper visual representation that truly encapsulated the whimsical nature. To create the world of Splasher, Romain worked with his friend Richard Vatinel.
How does one create an original world focused on paint? Finding such an answer wasn’t easy for Romain or Richard. “At the beginning, it was not easy for Richard to find the suitable art direction for Splasher. We did a consistent amount of iterations between 2014 and 2016. But whatever we tried, I always wanted him [Richard] to express himself best as he can, in a style that talks to him,” Romain said.
Eventually, the two found inspiration for Splasher’s artistic direction in cartoons. Both enthusiasts of the genre, Romain and Richard opted to move forward in a cartoony aesthetic which fit perfectly. With this decision settled, Splasher moved forward to bring a direct realization of the concepts Richard had drawn.
“The interesting part of Richard’s work is that they were almost no differences between concepts and in-game assets. That’s the beauty of HD 2D. It’s not like converting concepts into pixel art for example which can force the artists to design some stuff twice.
AN ODDWORLD INFLUENCE
Classic titles such as Crash Bandicoot inspired the cartoon style of Splasher, and Oddworld provided additional inspiration for the game’s visual and overall direction
“I have to say that game design wise Oddworld is the starting point of many things I’d like to achieve,” Romain stated. “Oddworld Inhabitants games are for me the almost perfect mixture between having a compelling gameplay, sandbox aspects, a simple scenario with a strong message, humor, and level art that is constantly supporting the gameplay. You’ll see that Splasher kind of reflects that a bit.”
Despite the praise that Oddworld received, it’s rare to see games directly inspired by it, not just in respect to the visuals, but the powerful messages behind the comedic action. It’ll be interesting to see how Romain presents the story within Splasher, and if it’s something players will gravitate towards.
As a designer foremost, Romain’s job is to make an entertaining experience and that’s something he takes to heart. “As an indie if the game fails you get nothing and your reputation stays grounded. That’s how you learn, and it’s a good thing. But if the game is a success you get a huge reward. I’m not only talking about money but the most important; you start to exist for the players as the guy who makes games they like. You become legit in making games for them.”
“This responsibility thing and the risk/reward ratio involved is — for me — a way more exciting manner to approach game dev. It stimulates your will to excel. But let’s face it: it’s insanely difficult. I wonder every day if I will be able to make it as an indie in my life. Sometimes someone like Notch wins the bingo, but the reality can be very ugly.”
Aware of the risks involved in indie development, Romain is moving forward in a way that’s not stretching himself thin. Even more, he finds himself motivated to make a fun game rather than the potential monetary landfall.
That said, if everything comes together, in the end, Splasher can become a series. “If it proves to be successful, yes I think we will. We’re also considering community elements such as racing your friend’s ghost in speedrun modes, a level editor and even multiplayer. I co-designed the Kung Foot mini-game on Rayman. So, I have tons of other ideas like that.”
Set for an early 2017 release on Windows, with PS4/Xbox One following in the Spring, players won’t have to wait long to experience Splasher. Innovative in a way rarely seen, Splasher aims to take players in a direction not experienced before with roots planted in the past, present, and future of the platforming genre.