A Quick Discussion With Hank Zwally, One Of The Creators Of “Cradle”
Do you mind introducing yourself, Hank? How do you play into Mojo Games Studios? What got you into gaming?
I’m president, lead designer, project manager and founder of Mojo, but basically my job is to provide the high level vision of what Cradle is, along with designing its in-game systems. Another founder and I came up with the concept for Cradle a couple years ago. I started Mojo about a year and a half ago to see that vision through and Cradle has since been fleshed out and refined by our design team.
I love gaming and always have. I started at age 2 when my mother put me on her lap and played the original Doom. I’m still indebted to her for all the explanation of what things did in games before I could even read! I have been gaming ever since.
What is Cradle?
A dream. Cradle is the game of my and my team’s dreams, and making it is also kind of making a dream come true. We’re all hardcore gamers, and have spent countless hours playing and thinking about games. Cradle is the culmination of what we’ve learned. It’s the fantasy adventure game we at Mojo, and hopefully all players, have been waiting for.
In terms of specifics, Cradle is the story of an exiled traveler who stumbles into an ages old struggle between humanity, nature and the gods. It’s an open world, fantasy adventure featuring five playable classes, four unique open worlds, and lots of deep gameplay systems, ranging from the augmentable weapons and armor to our Medica system whichlets you craft healing items. We want the player to comeaway from Cradle with something memorable, we want it to be something that will leave a lasting impression on players.
Does the game have any main inspirations?
Absolutely! I’ll break them down by how they have inspired us.
Hexen - Nonlinear, environmental storyline.
Starcraft - Easy to learn, systems, but incredibly depthful and hard to master.
Shadow of the Colossus and Journey - Compelling story and emotional narrative, general feeling of the game.
Halo - Fluid, dynamic, skill based, sandbox-style combat.
Far Cry 3, Skyrim - Expansive, explorable open worlds.
Doom, Quake - Observation-based secrets.
Guild War 2 - Level design, environmental tie to gameplay rewards, jumping and environmental puzzles.
Dark Souls - Player agency at the heart of gameplay.
Gears of War - Epic scale, humanity is depending on you whether they know it or not.
The great inspiring works of Hayao Myiazaki.
What do you think best immerses the player in a game?
Many things – and I’ll go through a few – but first and foremost not breaking their immersion. When a player becomes immersed, the longer they stay immersed the more immersed they become, and so the first step to creating the best immersive experience is to identify what things break player immersion, and then prevent them from happening in your game.
There is a need for rules to your universe. One of the most immersion-breaking things is when something doesn’t make sense in the world. Games frequently blow immersion with magic. As players go through a game, they develop an intuition and sense for how magic should work in the game world, and expect magic to behave within that intuition. Time and again games use magic as an explanation for anything and everything that’s un-explainable in their world- often in ways that go beyond the bounds of the player’s intuition. When players see this, it blows their immersion.
Another way that immersion is frequently broken is in the character creation and class selection screens. Instead of having a screen where the player reads through the descriptions of each class and then picks, in Cradle the player enters a shrine where there are 5 statues, representing each of the 5 character classes along with the first weapon and armor of that class. Behind these statues are depictions, descriptions and murals that convey what the player needs to know about each class. To choose the class, the player physically walks up to the statue of their choice, dons their armor and weapon, and becomes that class.
Immersion happens on both a conscious and subconscious level, and as developers it’s imperative that we recognize and address this. For example, the biodiversity, speciation, and variety of flora and fauna has a huge impact on how much the player becomes immersed (more variety gives more of the illusion that the game is real and immerses the player) but no player comments on how much more immersed they are because of this.
UI design is also big. The goal of our UI design is to give the player exactly what information they need, no more no less, in the most intuitive and non-intrusive, visceral way possible. Rather than bars and numbers, we’ve found more subtle ways that get the same message across. When it comes to our HUD, we do everything we can to convey only what the player needs, with as little screen obstruction as possible.
Other than that, we are ensuring our world has a deep and rich history so that players feel the reality of Cradle. It has a past, present and future, and the last is for you to decide.
At the end of the day, we are doing anything and everything we can to create an experience that sucks the player from reality into our fantasy world.
It is said that the game has multiple open worlds. How does an indie developer manage that?
One of the biggest time costs in making a game is all the rework. Time and again designers come up with new, and often better, ideas that need to be added to the game, only to have these ideas cause a ton of changes to the game and therefore rework. We approach game design from an extremely top down view, and our development strategy is far from normal. What I mean by this is that we first define everything at a high level (conceptually, what we want to accomplish in terms of message, gameplay, experience etc.) and then work tier by tier fleshing out the design into implementation. So far, this way of developing and designing has lead us to very little, to no rework and I’m confident that our approach will continue to provide such results.
To be honest, I don’t think this project would be remotely possible if it wasn’t for our novel approach that reduces rework to next to none. Other than that, having an incredibly talented, passionate and driven team. Being manager of these guys is a pleasure, and the team cohesion and sense of friendship that we share makes our communication very efficient. We all share the same goals and dream, and the passion to achieve those dreams.
Additionally, we follow tried and true modular design approaches to define a visual language and to build each of our four open worlds with maximum reuse, while still maintaining the sense of realism that comes from large amounts of variety.
With such a huge game, there has to be some interesting stories regarding its development..?
We are early in the process, so not too many stories, but the story of why and how we came together is worth telling. When Mojo was founded 2 years ago, we were mostly college students who shared the same goal – to create the game we’d all been longing for, and hopefully shake up the semi-stagnant and comparatively unexplored realm of first person RPG’s. Since then, our team has grown to include both experienced and new talent in the industry, all who share our passion and dream. The team cohesion that comes with this is awesome, and I want to illustrate this with a story from our dev.
The 48 hours before GDC 2013 was a crazy time. We had been preparing for months, but we were nowhere near where we needed to be to get a pre-pre-pre-alpha gameplay video out for the conference. At the start of this 48 hours, we had only the terrain layout and lighting done for the level we wanted to showcase. Over this time, the core team worked non-stop, with every action planned out to the second. The precision we needed here and the haste was outrageous, but by the time we needed to leave for Sanfran, it was somehow finished.
We literally composed and created the entire level in that time and videoed right as the taxi to take us to the airport showed up. While on the flight our composer Marcus Zuhr synced the music to the video and it was ready to go by the time the conference started.
This could have never been done without the type of team cohesion and clarity of vision that we all shared. It enabled us to work so hard, and so swiftly that one of team members destroyed their garments… which we found out about through an email titled “GDC destroyed my underwear”.
Any parting thoughts? Thanks a lot!
We will be heading to Kickstarter in the next couple of days, so keep an eye out for a ton of new content coming out over the next few weeks. From combat to significant in-game footage, we have plenty to show everyone, and can’t wait to do so!
IndieDB page: http://www.indiedb.com/games/cradle1
Mojo Game Studios page: http://mojogamestudios.com/