Super Penguins by Supersolid
Published: September 17. 2012
London studio Supersolid discusses the development of its first smartphone title, Super Penguins.
For those unfamiliar, Super Penguins is a “3D runner” featuring All Cute Everything: animals, enemies and power-ups galore. The game uses a combination of touch and tilt controls: Rather than simply copying the Temple Run formula, the team tried to do things a bit differently by streamlining things (see sidebar). Instead of swiping up/down/left/right, the game incorporates a simple tapping control to jump throughout. The tracks are more dynamic as well, with obstacles like pillars and icicles falling down, cliffs and hills bubbling up out of the ground, and more.
Though Super Penguins is London development studio Supersolid’s first game, the team has been working together for a long time. “We’re a team of three people who have previously worked in the mobile game field (pre-smartphone), and then on social games for the past 10 years,” explains illustrator/graphic artist Michelle Chuang. The team consists of Chuang, her brother and programmer/designer Tommy (“We dreamed about making games as kids, when we played Secret of Mana together,” she says), and her boyfriend of the past seven years Kenneth Fejer, an artist/designer/producer who is well-known in the pixel art/retro indie community. “So we are literally a family team,” she says.
Indeed, the three have been working together for the same companies, and almost always on the same projects. The three-person team created Ancient Empires, PRG and Shadowalker (and many others) for Glu Mobile, and Facebook game Restaurant City for Playfish. We were actually some of the earliest staff at Playfish, so we made many of their earliest titles,” she says. After Playfish was acquired by EA, the trio realized that they worked best as a small team, so towards the end of their tenure made up their mind to leave EA together to form Supersolid.
The team decided to develop Super Penguins as its first game for a host of practical reasons. “Firstly, we have never had to handle the external and organization [aspects of development] for ourselves,” says Chuang. “Without knowing anything, we wanted to try something simple as a test project, and see if the team still hold together.” Super Penguins was Supersolid’s first smartphone game, as well as its first made with Unity. “It was all new to us, and we knew we would learn by making mistakes, so we decided to take on something small with simple gameplay as our first project,” continues Chuang. “Our aim was set to make a casual game that could be developed entirely in Unity, with both iOS and Android versions completed and published in 6 months. A 3D runner seemed to fit in that goal nicely.”
There is so much to learn when we have to do everything on our own.
Where did the idea of penguins come from, then? “Well, originally, we wanted to make a monster runner, with Godzilla-like creatures as player characters, rampaging through the city, crashing and destroying buildings, knocking over cars and pedestrians, while chased by military missiles or police cars,” recalls Chuang. After diving into the development, however, it this didn’t feel like the right theme for the casual audience they were courting, and so the decision was made to go for the tuxedoed birds. “Who doesn't like penguins? And we wanted to have a more positive outlook for the game, to make it bright and cheerful, so instead of running away from something, the penguins are running to save their fellow penguins…and eat more fish, of course,” says Chuang.
The team got its prototype with the core game up and running within a month. “Most of the development time went into getting familiar with the tools and platforms, brainstorming new obstacles, polishing and balancing,” says Chuang. The final game ended up taking the team six months from start to finish, including two months spent entirely on the payment/cross-promotional/social integration aspects of the experience. But that wasn’t quite the end of the line. “We thought we could then move on to the next project, but now I can that see with all the PR matters, it will probably be another few more months,” says Chuang. “There is so much to learn when we have to do everything on our own.” The choice to use Unity was an easy one for the team at Supersolid. “We set out to use Unity as a prerequisite of the project at the very beginning, and based all other decisions accordingly, including the type of game, gameplay, graphic style, etc,” says Chuang. “Unity was chosen because we’re a very small team of three people.
With just one coder, Unity seemed like a perfect solution for cross-platform development, so we do not have to allocate our limited programming resource on porting. Unity has also been well-established to provide plenty of tools to facilitate the needs of small, independent developers alike. It was an obvious choice, and has proven to be the right one. It’s impossible to imagine how we could have done it any other way.”
“We developed and built the game solely for iOS at first,” she says. “Then we moved on to Android, and the whole process was unthinkably simple and straightforward.” When they decided they needed to modify the game slightly—for small tasks like removing Game Centre and payment implementation—it only just two weeks to complete the Android version and get it live on Google Play.
“With some background in making mobile games in the pre-smartphone era, we were used to having to deal with extremely lengthy porting process in the production pipeline,” says Chuang, who says the time it took to port games was often longer than it took to make it in the first place. “The sort of turnaround time made possible by Unity is simply too good to be true. It suits particularly well a small team with limited resources, and really is a valuable tool for anyone who wants to stay small and agile.”
Kenneth Fejer, the man behind Supersolid’s art, was the main reason the team was able to get Rich Vreeland—better known as Disasterpeace—to compose Super Penguin’s soundtrack. Vreeland’s best-known work is his lush, lo-fi soundtrack for this summer’s Xbox Live Arcade hit, Fez.
Magical Moments in Game Development
Our lightbulb moment cam when we decided to streamline the game’s controls,” says Supersolid’s Michelle Chuang. Originally, the team had the standard 3D runner controls in place, which meant that players needed to swipe up to jump or down to dock, depending on the nature of the obstacles. “Watching our friends and families playing the prototype, however, we realized that our tracks were highly dynamic, and the swiping was simply too overwhelming for most of the casual users.” So they decided to replace the directional swiping with simply tapping to jump, and modify all the track and obstacle designs accordingly.
That wasn’t the only notable development moment, however. “The funniest moment would have to be when we decided to include a beaver as one of the player characters,” recalls Chuang. “We actually tested some texture of the beaver with the iconic hair-do; the resulting look was so disturbing that even those among us who initially thought that the idea was funny felt uncomfortable about keeping it in.” In the end, they removed the hair and left in the beaver, satisfying all parties (including the beaver).