Steve Swink’s Scale, the game concept five years in the making

Scale

Scale’s arrival on Kickstarter attracted plenty of attention last month, but it’s really just the latest chapter in the evolution of a project whose concept first struck its creator Steve Swink five years ago.

The idea formulated while Swink sat watching Jonathan Blow’s Design Reboot session at 2007’s Montreal International Games Summit – it was the same year Valve released Portal, and while that game has certainly become an influence, Scale was conceived not as a homage to Chell’s wormhole-hopping adventures, but an extrapolation and evolution of something rather simpler.

“I do a lot of 3D modelling, so I was thinking about the basic spatial tools used to manipulate objects in 3D space, Translate, Rotate, and Scale,” Swink tells us. “Using the scale tool in a 3D modelling package feels cool and I thought I could make a game out of that. The only thing I was worried about was making it intuitive for people – I hit on the idea of having it be firstperson and letting the player point at what they want to scale.”

Swink sat on the idea, gradually fleshing it out mentally until he prototyped it during a gamejam a couple of years later. “People got really excited about it,” he says. “But it was fragile. I wasn’t confident I could solve the challenging technical problems involved. Dynamically scaling objects is just not something physics engines are designed to handle.”

Help came in the form of Eddy Boxerman, creator of the excellent, ambient absorption game Osmos. Boxerman helped Swink wrangle Scale’s physics so that the game’s development could start in earnest, but even with the help of a learned friend, Scale’s concept presented a multitude of design difficulties. How do objects respond and behave at different sizes? How do you ensure items look good, no matter how big or small? Isn’t there the constant threat of adding in game-breaking new ideas at every turn? The solution, says Swink, was to step back and create a set of consistent, coherent gameworld rules and let the players within it experiment with them.

“I wanted to – and have – left it as unconstrained as possible. Otherwise why bother, right?” says Swink. “I like games that have an answer to anything the player can think to do. Spelunky is a perfect example: for any “what if?” question you can ask the system, Derek [Yu] and Andy [Hull] have an answer. What if you steal from a shop or kill the shop keeper? What if you sacrifice the golden idol? When you answer all the player’s exploration with something satisfying…well, that is what makes an excellent, thoughtful, complete game. So many games don’t do that well enough, and their worlds feel cold, lifeless, and clinical.”

The core mechanics haven’t changed much, even since those early prototypes. Swink has mostly been concerning himself with adding different objects into the game world and then figuring out the answers to those ‘what if’ questions.

What has changed is Scale’s look and structure. It was demoed at E3 2012 sporting a Minecraft-esque aesthetic. “The pixel-3D look was easy to do for prototyping,” says Swink. “The main inspiration for the visuals has been a constraint: everything has to look good at any scale.”

Laying textures on polygons would have been problematic when blown up to a massive scale; the detail would have to be in the polygons themselves. “To get that to work, I think the faceted look is best. If it’s smooth then it just feels like there’s no detail, no roughness. But the polygon detail works well at any size,” says Swink.

The structure of the game also evolved from a linear, Portal-style structure, also demoed at E3 2012, to more of a sandbox. Prescribing a set course for its players was not what Scale’s design wanted, says Swink. “It wanted to be open and all about discovering secrets within secrets, finding interesting stuff hidden in plain sight by playing with the scale of everyday objects,” he says. “So the structure of the game has morphed into a Mario 64 or Zelda overworld kind of thing.”

It’s not quite right yet, adds Swink, and he is still implementing new features. His goal is to build an open-world in which every object can be scaled, though they cannot occupy the same space. There’s a narrative, too, driven by a breadcrumb trail of collectible particles, new locations are discovered by manipulating the scale of the game’s items and environment and different areas are all accessible from a hub world. There’s combat in the form of fending off “frog-like things” and spiders that’ll try to eat players if they reach a certain scale, and more features yet to be disclosed. “The common theme is: things behave differently at different sizes,” adds Swink, enigmatically.

Scale stands apart amidst what seems like a million other new videogames aiming to be funded by Kickstarter. It isn’t a remake of a fondly-remembered classic, it’s a fresh idea which seems so pure, so compelling and so full of potential that it begs the question: why hasn’t anyone made this game already?