A few weeks ago, the PlayStation Network was graced with yet another exceptional indie release for the PlayStation 3. “ibb & obb” came from the small team at Sparpweed, and was headed up by Richard Boeser, the driving force behind the co-op puzzle game. The game puts players in the roles of the titular characters as they work together to traverse a world full of maddeningly wonderful puzzles. Players can try to take on the game alone, but it’s much better when played with a friend. As a follow up to our review, we had some questions for Mr. Boeser, who provided us with a much better understanding of the game as a whole, as well as some unique insight into the development cycle of “ibb & obb.”
Multiplayer: Your final game was clearly designed to be a co-op experience, but your early prototypes look to be single player. How did you decide to make a co-op game, and what was the thinking behind including the single-player option?
Richard Boeser: The very first prototype was indeed single player, but at that time I did already feel that two-player co-op would work good with the concept of the double gravity. I built the first prototype to test how moving through the two directions of gravity would feel and it told me that you could reach places I wouldn’t have expected to be able to. It was far more suitable for a puzzle game than I had thought.
After that I added the second player to see how that would work and from then on the second player never left the concept.
Only quite far into the process we decided to add the single player. While building the levels we often needed to test the game on our own and after a while you get really good at that and start enjoying the challenge that it brings. We decided to add it more as a really hard bonus mode than a proper single player campaign.
Multiplayer: Did the inclusion of single-player force you to go back and redesign any of the puzzles?
Boeser: We didn’t make changes to the puzzles to fit the single player option better. Maybe we should have, some parts are really hard. But then again, we’re only a small team and budget and time were limited. It might would have added too much work to the project
Multiplayer: How do you think opting to play alone changes the difficulty of the game?
Boeser: It increases it by tenfold. The game becomes a totally different experience.
Multiplayer: Did you look at any other co-op games for inspiration? Or perhaps how they handled single player?
Boeser: “Little Big Planet” was probably the game that felt closest to “ibb & obb” and “Portal 2″ in co-op mode. “Little Big Planet” does a great job at designing levels that are good for both single and multiplayer. In “ibb & obb” all mechanics revolve around the cooperative play which makes it not suitable to play with only one character. If we had chosen that approach we would have had to design a whole different set of levels and different mechanics, basically design a whole new game. That just wasn’t doable for us.
Multiplayer: Have you found that players prefer the challenge of the single player or the camaraderie of the co-op?
Boeser: A few have said that, though most players consider it a punishment.
Multiplayer: At what point did you decide to implement the voiceless communication system, and how did that alter people’s experience with the game?
Boeser: “ibb & obb” requires quite a lot of communication between the two players. Obviously that goes best when playing together on one couch. Online you can use voice chat, but that is only enabled when both players have a headset. With PlayStation 3 most players don’t use a headset. So we figured we needed an additional system to let players discuss their plans.
When watching people play you’d see a lot of players pointing to the screen explaining things. We tried to mimic the pointing with a system that allows you to draw trails on screen. We’ve kept it really minimal as the controls for the rest of the game are very simple and accessible.
It turned out that even when players play locally they use the trails, because they feel it is more clear than pointing at the screen. And it’s sometimes surprising to see how well it works when using it online.
Multiplayer: How did you fine tune the controls so that players didn’t get frustrated, particularly when up becomes down and down becomes up so often?
Boeser: Players don’t really seem to have difficulties with switching gravity. The double gravity mechanic is quite easy to grasp, also it’s not related to the controls like in “Metal Storm” or “VVVVVV.”
We tweaked the controls in such a way that they are also accessible to people who rarely play games. Some more experienced players have asked for more direct controls, and for those we’ve added d-pad support in the latest patch.
Multiplayer: What was the thinking behind including the bouncy, yellow ball “characters”? Do they, or any of the other characters besides ibb and obb have names?
Boeser: They’re called Fins, which is short for friendly inhabitants. The world ibb and obb are visiting is actually theirs. You’ll pass through some of their cities as you go through the game.
The other characters have rather unimaginative names like levelmen, secretmen, crawlers and bouncers.
Multiplayer: The character design is pretty basic, why did you decide to make ibb and obb so simple?
Boeser: I want their appearance to match their abilities. They have no arms as they can’t hold things, no mouth, because they can’t talk. I guess they could have done without eyes, but we definitely wanted blinking eyes in the game.
Multiplayer: The art style for the game has changed quite a bit since the initial prototype – how did you go about making the decisions around those changes?
Boeser: At the start of the project I only focused on the gameplay. When that felt solid I started to think about the looks.
At that time it was just me working on the game, so I needed an art style I could manage on my own. I had experience with vector based art and decided to go for a system where I could create compositions using a set of decorative shapes. On average those sets contain around 20 shapes and in most levels we use around 4 decoration sets. That’s enough to decorate the levels in a way that doesn’t feel repetitive.
Multiplayer: Do you find players gravitate towards either ibb or obb?
Boeser: No, not really.
Multiplayer: Do you have a favorite?
Boeser: Yes, ibb. Sorry obb.
Multiplayer: What was the biggest surprise throughout the course of the game’s development?
Boeser: I was surprised to see that in the earlier prototypes the two players weren’t really paying attention to each other. They both just did their own thing. Then I added the diamonds popping out of the dead enemies. That way one player could take out an enemy and the other had to pick up the reward on the other side. This totally changed the way the players interacted. Now they had to keep track of the other player and had an incentive to stay close to each other.
Multiplayer: Lots of people are hoping to see your game make its way to the Vita – is there hope that they may get their wish?
Boeser: In our eyes, “ibb & obb” is most fun when played together locally. From that perspective the Vita doesn’t seem the most logical choice. That said, we have had many requests for it and will keep the option open.
Right now, we’re going to work on the PC version first.
Multiplayer: Would you have designed the game any differently if you were launching on a handheld instead of a console?
Boeser: Yes. I would have designed a totally different game if it had to be for a handheld.
Multiplayer: Have you made any Unreal mods since you began working on “ibb and obb”?
Boeser: No. I now use Unity for prototyping.
Multiplayer: What do you hope people take away from “ibb & obb”?
Boeser: I hope they’ll play it with a friend and feel that they shared an challenging adventure.