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[INTERVIEW] RUGGNAR & Early Access Games

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We are in the golden age of electronic entertainment. The rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime has paved the way for fresh new shows to be released en masse, without having to compete for broadcasting slots. Soundcloud and Bandcamp allow musicians to share their music with the world and build their profiles without signing onto any record label. In much the same way, video games have experienced a revolution. Its name is Early Access.

Game development is hard work. It takes countless hours of building assets, coding, and testing. It’s a full-time job, and that job becomes even harder when you’re working with a small team – or by yourself. ‘Early Access’ means selling an incomplete version of a game to the general public. I sat down with Cyrille (Sirill) Bonard, developer of the upcoming indie game Ruggnar to discuss how Early Access has affected the industry.

Cyrille describes Ruggnar as “a platformer set in dark, gloomy places. Light is a precious resource, so the game is built around that concept: using a small supply of short-lasting candles to spot deadly traps, solve puzzles, and find treasure. Ruggnar is tough, and you’ll need to develop a balance of caution and speed to get the highest score.” He compares Ruggnar to Spelunky, another wildly popular platformer where you delve into caverns to amass riches and fail over and over until you get good, everything clicks, and you sail through the game like a pro. From my time playing Ruggnar, I can say this comparison is accurate. Ruggnar challenges players to use their wits as well as their reflexes. An online leaderboard incentivises speedrun-style play, while various modes present different opportunities to showcase your skills: can you be the fastest through a particular level or gather the most coins in an endless, procedurally-generated level?

Ruggnar’s systems are bare-bones at the moment, with a great deal left to be implemented. That made me curious, how does Cyrille organise his time to ensure the game makes big leaps forward with every update? As I suspected, Cyrille explained a ‘multiple branches’ approach to developing Ruggnar.

“I try to add new content on a weekly basis. This could be a new level, new hazards, new mechanics, new effects, or new puzzles. I have a strict order of priorities: first, the time I’ll spend on an update. Some things take longer than others to implement, and players need to see constant improvement, so I’ll deliver bundles of little features before moving onto the bigger stuff. Secondly, I think about the features necessary for the complete game. Thirdly, the fun factor; and fourth, the cost. As a one-man studio with limited resources, some features aren’t feasible at the current time so I might delay them until later in development. I never ‘cut’ an idea, but sometimes I push them back.”

To give an example of where Ruggnar is at in development, Cyrille described features he’s currently working on, which includes a “Daily Challenge” mode that will have players competing on the same level “and [doing] their best to be the fastest and greediest.” He also plans to add an in-game shop where the player can use their amassed gold coins to buy new types of candles, empowering their exploration.

Everything goes back to the theme of ‘light’. Ruggnar’s art-style utilises rich shading and contrast to make the player really believe they’re exploring dark, brooding dungeons, where the warm orange light of candles and torches is a comfort. Asked about Ruggnar’s lighting, Cyrille went into depth,

“The main difficulty is to imagine all the ways a candle might help with your journey (lighting torches, tossing a candle to illuminate your path, kindling firewood, burning ropes, exploding barrels…), along with all the ways the environment might extinguish it: dripping water, wind, and insect swarms, to name a few. When I construct a level, I avoid making the player take ‘leaps of faith’. You can use candles to check how deep a fall is or whether any platforms exist to help you cross a gap. Of course, playing in the dark can be exhausting, so some levels will take place in broad daylight.”

A good thing, too, Ruggnar’s tutorial level is beautifully lit, starting off at midday and fading slowly to night as you near the looming castle. It would be a shame not to see more of this environmental, progressive lighting, just to take a break from the claustrophobia.

I asked Cyrille to sum up how Early Access has helped him. He had plenty of answers:

“The benefits are numerous; I have a small community of players. Early Access helps me to build a profile, so people have heard of Ruggnar and look forward to its release. I work alone, so it’s a way to involve my player-base in the creation process, gathering feedback and new ideas from them. And, I won’t lie – making sales in the meantime is a huge bonus. I can reinvest the money directly into Ruggnar, to ensure a better, fuller experience.”

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