Fusing creative gameplay
FRACT OSC by Phosfiend Systems
Published: April 30. 2012
Phosfiend Systems fuses creative gameplay with sound synthesis in its upcoming FRACT OSC
“The idea behind FRACT had been brewing in my head for quite some time, in one form or another,” says Richard E. Flanagan, creator of FRACT and founder of Phosfiend Systems. “I had always wanted to do a project that brought together all of the things that I loved (early computer culture, the original TRON movie, graphic design, and electronic music, among others) but had never gotten the chance.” After he quit his job to pursue games, however, that changed: The game design program he was in offered up an opportunity to work on a project of his own, and Flanagan seized the opportunity. “I thought it was a great chance to try and make that world, in the form of a game—a world that I myself would want to play in.”
For those who haven’t seen the trailer, FRACT is a first person puzzle-adventure game for Windows/Mac. Its closest analog is perhaps the Myst series, but FRACT is set in a significantly more abstract world, inspired by electronic music. The gameworld is literally based on sound; the player is tasked with exploring this abandoned, broken-down world and then figuring out how to rebuild its forgotten machinery by solving sound-inspired puzzles. As they do so, they’re given tools that allow them to noodle around with sound and eventually create their own melodies. “Ultimately, we want the player to have fun with music creation, and be able to play around with different musical tools—in the case of FRACT OSC, synthesizers,” says Flanagan.
The team at Phosfiend Systems is currently comprised of four people. The prototype that was submitted to this the annual IGF festival was developed by Flanagan on his own, but once Flanagan and his wife Quynh decided to take the concept further, they brought on a programmer named Henk Boom. Sound intern Paul Forey worked for a few months last summer, and just weeks ago, Aliceffekt was brought onto the team. “We've been pretty lucky with our team so far—while everyone has a ‘role’, we're all quite versatile as well, which helps to fill in the gaps,” says Flanagan. He says that learning to work and communicate effectively with others has taken some adjustment, as has learning to manage the amount of work, which isn't always equally distributed. “Another thing we've learnt is trying to keep the scope manageable,” says Flanagan. “Since this is a project that we all care about, it's always tempting to want to make it even bigger…but we are learning to try and keep the scope manageable so that it's still achievable.”
Despite coming into the project with zero Unity experience, Flanagan says that getting the initial FRACT prototype up and running—which was done for a final independent project for his game design program—was a rather quick process. “I finished that version in a matter of months,” says Flanagan. Interestingly, Flanagan had originally thought to make FRACT a point-and-click adventure game, and it wasn’t until Aliceffekt came into one of his classes back in 2010 and showed off some prototypes he’d made with Unity that the idea to make a fully realized 3D world began to take shape. “At the time, I was unfamiliar with Unity and was really impressed with what he was able to do, and it inspired me to try and use it for FRACT,” says Flanagan. “It seemed pretty accessible, and I thought it would complement my skill set and looked to play nice with some of the other tools that I use, [such as Flanagan’s popular] Cinema 4D. Considering how limited my programming knowledge is (i.e. pretty non-existent), I think it's a real testament to the accessibility of Unity that I was able to make a working version to submit to the IGF all on my own.”
I think it's a real testament to the accessibility of Unity that I was able to make a working version to submit to the IGF all on my own.
When he was developing the initial prototype, Flanagan used Unity Answers quite a bit to not only figure out the solution to problems, but in some cases even figure out what his problems were. At the time, he was mostly making that version for himself, because it was something he was passionate about. “I never expected it to resonate with others so much,” he says. “It was really only a taste of what I had always wanted to do with the world.” After IGF, Flanagan decided to stick with Unity since he was already familiar with it, and it seemed like the best choice for the team in terms of value and features. “It's quite affordable, especially for a small start-up team as ourselves, and quite feature-rich,” says Flanagan. “There were a few things that we wanted to do [with real-time sound synthesis] that lay outside the realm of the current engine, but Henk has managed to find ways to integrate it with Unity and it is now doing everything we need. So it's been a good fit so far—for the most part, we haven't had to compromise on any visions for FRACT OSC, so we're pretty happy that we decided to stick with Unity.”
Once the team set its sights on expanding out the game to a full release, its own expectations changed quite a bit. “It wasn't just about making a game for fun, it was about making a much more complete, cohesive experience that integrated a much larger music creation component to it,” says Flanagan. “We also wanted to make a much more polished game. So it was much more complex and ambitious than the original prototype, and it's equally been a lot more challenging to find the proper path to achieving it.”
The FRACT OSC project has been experiment in many ways. “Since this is our first big project, it's been a real learning process and we're constantly having micro-epiphanies,” says Flanagan, who points out that the game has been through a fair amount of iteration, and many points at which it has significantly changed direction. “Hindsight being what it is, we realize now that what we thought at the time was ‘production’ was really pre-production. There was still so much design and tech being explored and determined at that point, and I would only say that it's been in the past several months that we've been moving more consistently in one direction.”
While Phosfiend Systems will probably stay at its current size for the forseeable future, Flanagan says much of the company’s future plans will ultimately be dictated by the response to FRACT OSC. “Taking an idea that existed solely in my brain, to externalizing it to something that two, and now three, other people are working on and contributing to, has been a process,” says Flanagan, who says that managing time has probably the most difficult aspect of running the studio. “Everything takes longer than you think it will. Many people have told us that, and even when we think we've got a better handle on our time estimates, things take even longer still, especially when we're constantly figuring out what the best way to get things done.” His advice to those attempting to realize their creative vision in game development? “Never underestimate how long things take, and if and when you can, get advice from others who have been through it themselves. And realize that iteration is part of the process.”
The Road to FRACT
“I've always wanted to make games, but for one reason or another followed other career paths well into my late twenties,” says FRACT developer Richard E. Flanagan. Several years ago his wife Quynh pushed him to jump on an opportunity to study game design at the University of Montreal, and after some worry and hesitation, he went for it. “It was there that I cultivated a better understanding, method for communicating, and approach to designing systems that lead to game design,” says Flanagan. “For my final independent project I developed a very early version of FRACT, which later became the version I submitted to the IGF in 2011.”
“My early inspirations were from the games I grew up playing, as they had a very formative effect on me,” says Flanagan of his earliest gaming muses, which include the classic Lucasarts and Sierra point and click adventures, as well as Cyan's Myst. “Myst was a bit of a revelation for me, as it was such a vibrant and fascinating world, with mechanics that felt like they really fit in the universe.” As far as current designers go, Flanagan says he finds inspiration everywhere. “There is so much awesome stuff being developed these days, with some really exciting stuff in the Indie Community,” he says. “A few that rock, in no particular order, are Doug Wilson (Johan Sebastien Joust), Jonathan Blow (Braid, The Witness), Adam Saltzman (Canabalt, Capsule). But honestly, there is so much interesting stuff going on in the indie space right now, it's hard to name them all!”