Over the last few years we’ve received a lot of things that we’ve wanted to do within the world of video games yet there’s always something that has eluded us. While we’ve travelled to far away planets or become league champions, not a lot of games have allowed us to hit the snowy slopes for simulated skiing and snowboarding action.
In some ways it may seem odd for there to be a desire to hit the slopes in a game that accurately depicts snow based sports, but not everyone has the chance to hit the powder in the Alps. Games in the past such as Amped or Shaun White Snowboarding have allowed us to get our desire to hit the snow out of our system, but those games lacked the simulated approach that people wanted to experience.
It may have taken awhile, but a development studio has risen to the task of creating a skiing/snowboarding game that will actually please those who are fortunate to hit the slopes and those who never have. In development by indie studio Poppermost Productions, SNOW is attempting to do what no one else has done: provide a sim based game that has the depth gamers want but it still approachable.
After a period of radio silence, SNOW has returned with some rather prominent changes, both to the gameplay and what kind of business model the team at Poppermost is approaching. Poppermost Production’s Game Director Alexander Bergendahl fills Shogun Gamer in on the advances SNOW has made in the past year and what gamers can expect from the project.
Ian Fisher: It has been over a year since we last chatted about SNOW so in a nutshell what has been going on with the project and the dev team?
Alexander Bergendahl: This past year, the biggest changes we’ve made are to the art and the code, which we’ve re-built from scratch. On the art side, we’ve completely redone the environment, created a new player model and clothing, and replaced all the animations that you saw in the playable prototype last year. On the code side, we overhauled the entire thing so that we had more control over the core experience.
There’ve also been some exciting business developments, starting with the official formation of Poppermost Productions last spring, and more recently, we’ve announced our partnership with three of the top names in freeskiing.
Ian: One big change that has gone on during development of the game is that riding mechanics have been altered to be entirely physics based, a first for a snow sports game. For whatever reason they may have, a lot of developers have shied away from featuring completely physics based action in sports games with a few minor exceptions such as the most recent FIFA entries and the football game Backbreaker. So what made you and the rest of the team want to go the physics route with the riding mechanics of the game?
Alexander: Relying on physics in any game has its advantages and disadvantages. Physics add a great deal of realism to an experience but also result in unexpected events that can interfere with the final product.
We built the prototype to showcase how we imagined SNOW could look and feel. Because it was just our imaginations- our vision- and because it was only a prototype, we felt comfortable implementing limited mechanics. Effectively, there was a lot of programming short-hand so that we could get to what we all saw in our heads. But SNOW isn’t about what we see in our heads- it’s about letting everyone’s imaginations run free over the mountains.
So when we re-built it, we knew that we had to do it for real, to put the experience firmly in the hands of the players, not subject to the limitations of our imaginations. That means real physics. Yes, that can cause some complications and yes, it can lead to some unexpected results- but we prefer the unexpected that results from player’s imaginations only being limited by physics as opposed to some conservative mechanics that really hamper what people can do across our open-world environment.
Ian: Right now there may be a level of worry amongst some folks that the physics based riding mechanics could be a bit unruly, at least in the sense that hitting one small bump on the mountain could send them flying in a horrific yet amusing wipeout. So how is the development team leveraging offering a sense of realism in how the game feels and controls yet still allowing complete fun to be had in respect to gameplay?
Alexander: Our goal is to create an experience that is awesome for first-time players but rewards skill, invention, and persistence. In the first place, that means finding a perfect balance between realism and fun. It’s not an easy task, but we’re confident that we are already part of the way there and should have things locked down shortly. We are tackling this issue in two directions.
First, we start by tuning the game to feel as realistic and unforgiving as possible. Starting at this point means that serious players, that get to know the intricacies of the game mechanics and push the envelope, are rewarded. Then, through internal gameplay feedback sessions, we start to pad some values that affect the gameplay to ensure that the first-time player experience is there. The second way we work to find a balance is by tweaking the environment.
As we’re building the mountain from scratch, we have the ability to move every rock, cliff, tree, and snow dune. From our gameplay sessions, we can clearly see where the mountain feels unfair and make the necessary changes. The game should never feel unfair, but it should punish you for not taking things seriously. Finesse is fun: one of the reasons people respect all-star athletes is because what they accomplish is really difficult. We want to make sure that that level of difficulty and that learning curve exist in the game, but that the first-time experience is still excellent fun.
Ian: Previously it was planned for SNOW to feature a control scheme similar to the Skate games from EA, allowing gamers to pull off tricks in a way that’s accessible yet feels fulfilling at the same time. At this stage in development is it still planned to feature that control scheme within the game or have things gone in a different direction?
Alexander: We are definitely still using EA’s SKATE as inspiration for our controls. That being said, there are two important considerations: our sport and our targeted platform.
Yes, skiing and snowboarding are action sports like skateboarding, and controlling movement is similar whether you’re on a skateboard or on snow. However, the core set of tricks for skateboarding are quite different from skiing and snowboarding. We love the idea of inputting tricks using gestures, but have to make sure that the gestures resemble the trick when adapting SKATE’s controls.
The other aspect we have to consider is that SNOW is currently targeted towards the PC. SKATE’s controls work perfectly for a controller, but were never adapted for the keyboard. We expect a number of users to use the keyboard when playing, so we have to make sure that both control systems work and are balanced.
Ian: With the new riding mechanics in place and a control scheme settled on, what general layout will SNOW have as a game? Will there be standard race events or will gamers be able to explore the various mountains in the game and have fun picking up scattered treasures?
Alexander: SNOW will have two equally important game modes: events and exploration. For players that want to prove their skills alone or directly against their friends, there will be a vast number of events to compete in that push their riding and trick skills as well as their knowledge of the mountain.
Exploration is also very important to us as an actual game mode, and not something tacked on. We want players to spend time familiarizing themselves with the mountain and get rewarded for doing so. Players who spend time learning the mountain and all its intricate routes will not only do better in competitive events, but also find new, hidden areas, all while being rewarded with unlocks and collectables.
Ian: A major component of SNOW is obviously the various mountains that appear the game. Can you talk a bit about the creative process that goes into creating the mountains and what sort of gameplay elements (more focus on tricks or sticking to a race line) you and the rest of the team strive to include?
Alexander: We actually did a blog post about this last year as a mountain at this level of detail hasn’t really ever been created before and I think it’s quite an interesting process. The steps involved are not necessarily that complex, but result in a dense environment that even I haven’t been able to fully explore yet.
Basically, we start by sculpting the terrain into the shape we are looking for, highlighting any large mountain formations. At this point we also give the terrain a quick painting so that it’s clear what areas should be skiable or unskiable (snow vs. rock). We then give the mountain - bit by bit - a basic detail pass, placing both larger and smaller rock formations to refine the skiable areas, creating various routes. Once we’re happy with the pacing and varied terrain of an area, we give it a detailed pass. This is when we place smaller rocks as well as vegetation.
This process allows us to continue testing the different areas while we’re still working on them. It’s important that we offer players various routes to take and features to interact with wherever they are on the mountain. This requires us to work iteratively.
From a gameplay perspective, we divide the mountain up into three sections: the top, middle, and bottom. Each section has distinct and consistent pacing and focus. For example, the top of the mountain is steep and covered in rocky outcrops and obstacles. Players need to navigate this area carefully and control their speed when dropping cliffs.
Ian: Even though the mountains in the game will be realistic, what things are being done to enhance them more or less? Will certain sections have natural ramps and things of that nature to allow for big air moments or will things be almost completely realistic, thus putting player skill to the forefront?
Alexander: Just like in SKATE, we are building an environment with gameplay in mind. We aim to fill every section of the mountain with both obvious and hidden jumps and different objects off of which to grind or trick. We hope that creative players will make use of these features in ways that we haven’t even imagined.
Ian: What kind of advances have Poppermost made within SNOW in respect to harnessing CryEngine 3 and using that to create the visuals in the game? Things looked a bit barren in the initial SNOW trailer released in 2011, so what has been done to make the most out of what CryEngine 3 provides?
Alexander: So the initial video that we released at the end of 2011 was a rapidly developed prototype. We knew that the visuals wouldn’t blow anyone’s socks off, but wanted to let people see what we had in mind: one of our goals throughout development has been to keep our community involved in the process, so we wanted to get people in at the ground-floor… even if it wasn’t furnished or vaguely polished.
Our goal is to create an awe-inspiring environment that captures the big-mountain vistas we all respect and admire. Over the past year, we’ve been able to make a lot of progress towards this goal, especially when it comes to improving the environment. CryENGINE 3 comes with a bunch of great tools for doing this, so we’ve been able to accomplish a lot within a short period of time and with limited resources.
Pre-Alpha game footage from December 2012
Ian: At this point Poppermost is still a small development team as it’s an indie outfit. So with that said what has it been like trying to create a game like SNOW which is demanding in what it strives for but not having the manpower of fifty people to tackle the various cogs of the giant machine that is developing a game?
Alexander: It’s definitely not an easy task we’ve set ourselves. As I mentioned, we’ve tried to keep SNOW’s development as open and transparent as possible. This is great as we get direct feedback from the community, so we immediately know what works and what more there is to do. On the other hand, this also means that we get a lot of unhelpful feedback from the harsher (usually anonymous) users of the Internet.
Thankfully, even though our goal and vision for SNOW is quite grand, the steps that we need to take to get there are not insurmountable. We are not building a heavily scripted game with a lot of one-off features. We’re building a core experience that’s set in an open world, and thankfully one that doesn’t need to be as detailed as, say, GTA’s Liberty City. We’re confident that we’ll be able to deliver that outstanding core gameplay experience, and silence all those anonymous trolls!
Ian: Over time has there been any desire to either alter the visuals of the game or add additional flourishes to perhaps fall in line with other snow based sports games we’ve seen in the past such as movement trails or intense colors? Or has the general consensus been to provide realistic visuals that stick out in a good way?
Alexander: From Day 01 we’ve made sure that we don’t follow in the footsteps of most other action sports games. We’re here to deliver an authentic experience, not to pass off some pandering, derivative version of the sports we know and love. We think that many of the games that succeeded in the past either did so because they were the only show in town, or because their core gameplay was solid in spite of the “punky” presentation.
As such, we think that there’s an incredible game experience that embraces realism and doesn’t insult the people who dedicate their time to these sports by reducing the sports and cultures to loud visuals... And we’re happy to say that the community response has totally vindicated our approach.
Ian: Sometimes when people hear the world CryENGINE 3 they immediately think one thing: modding. A few other games that utilize CryENGINE 3 allow modding to be done on the PC to further deepen the core experience. SNOW may still be early on in this stage, but are there any plans to allow users to create mods, perhaps altering parts of an existing track or creating their own mountain from the ground up?
Alexander: This is definitely something we’ve discussed internally and our community keeps on requesting. We would love to open up the amazing editor of CryENGINE 3 to our users and let them build portions of the mountain and share them with each other. User generated content is an amazing tool to keep players connected with the game, so we’re definitely looking into how we can incorporate that into our development plan.
SNOW seems to be on track to do something unique within the sports genre and it could very well give gamers the first true skiing/snowboarding experience that isn't entirely rooted in arcade gameplay.
Be sure to stay tuned to Shogun Gamer for part 2 of our SNOW interview with Alexander as we discuss the free-to-play basis of the game and the arrival of prominent skiing legends within the project.