A casual take on the city building genre with a funky flair, Spacefolk City challenges you to construct a floating city in space. The Spacefolk’s sun is going supernova, and they need your help to build up their city and find a way to escape impending disaster. Spacefolk City is a quirky game from indie dev Moon Mode, and it’s launching October 21 on the Oculus Quest and Rift Platforms.
As you build, you’ll decorate your city with a variety of absurd items and work to keep your Spacefolk citizens happy and productive. Each Spacefolk has different abilities for you to tap into and ensure their survival.
We sat down with Producer and Audio Designer Alex May to learn more.
What was the inspiration behind Spacefolk City? How (if at all) has the game’s premise changed over time?
Alex May: Spacefolk City was sort of a happy collision of a bunch of different ideas and influences that all came together at the same time. Therése Pierrau (our wonderful artist and creative visionary) had a concept of floating chunks of city structures connected together, with little beings moving between them going about their daily activities. She’s always loved the notion of little people in VR space, sort of like a cozy mix of an ant farm and a dollhouse.
Chris McLaughlin (our lead programmer and designer) then introduced various ideas influenced by classic city builder and sim games like Sim City, Roller Coaster Tycoon, and Populous. We all loved those games that were on the simpler side of the city builder genre, but still had a good amount of depth for exploration and enjoyment.
Finally, Therése and I collaborated on a visual and musical compass for the game’s aesthetic direction, which involved a fun absurdity and colorful, vibrant sense of humor. We just wanted to capture that fun “!!” sensation when you see something so ludicrous, you just stop and say, “Woah—I have no idea what I’m seeing here, but it looks fun!”
Looking back on the project now, we’re proud to say that these basic core premises of the game never changed, despite all the design, technical and logistical challenges we faced along the way. It’s always hard to keep a game focused on your original intent as development continues and ideas come and go, but we’re really proud that we’ve managed to do that.
How long was the game in development? Any favorite anecdotes you’d like to share?
AM: It was in development for about a year and a half. The three of us have been working closely together as a VR dev team for about seven years now, so pretty much the entire development cycle has been one long anecdote! We have a really good rapport with each other, and despite being from three different countries working in three different remote locations (even before COVID), we’re just very creatively comfortable with each other.
This project has been extra special though because we were able to involve collaborators from literally all over the globe: USA, Brazil, Hungary, Croatia, Sweden, Japan, the UK, Germany—that’s been so rewarding. I think we often take for granted how genuinely international game development actually is, but it’s something to be celebrated!
Tell us a little about your research process. Were there any surprises along the way?
AM: The three of us come from very different backgrounds in gaming, as consumers. That often results in disagreements between us about design direction, but on the flip side, it does allow us to draw from a very diverse palette of influences. So our research was mainly focused on that—the instinctual sense that we all bring to the game design process about what “feels right.” Luckily, through the years we’ve been working together, we’ve developed a respectful and efficient communication style with each other, so we can make the most of our differing ideas about what feels right without just getting irritated with each other! :)
Probably the biggest surprise for us was the complexity of the city building genre. We never expected it to be easy, but we also underestimated how much this genre would require a total rethinking of the development process. We learned (the hard way) that making a city building game is a bit like trying to assemble a machine by putting all the parts together simultaneously in one incredible movement, as opposed to piece-by-piece. That made iteration and testing very complex, because you can’t simply prototype one small facet before moving on. Everything sort of hangs off everything else, making it extremely hard to work incrementally.
AM: Comfort in VR is extremely important to us, and both Down the Rabbit Hole and Paper Valley feature imaginative solutions for VR gameplay that involve very little to no transversal movement. Working on those projects definitely helped us in creating gameplay mechanics that can be played in a stationary position, and therefore that are ultimately comfortable. Accessibility to all levels of familiarity with the VR genre is very important to us.
Any pop cultural references players should be on the lookout for?
AM: Sadly no. We tried to keep the game as culturally independent as possible. But music lovers will be happy to hear “the licc” in one of the songs. :) No Wilhelm scream, but we have the licc.
What’s the best reaction you’ve seen when playtesting the game?
AM: Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we haven’t personally been able to be present during testing sessions. So sadly, it’s been a case of sending the game away and then getting a questionnaire / feedback document in return. While we’re really happy that testers have consistently enjoyed the ridiculous sense of humor in the game, we’ve missed out on seeing those reactions in person. Not the worst inconvenience caused by the pandemic of course, but disappointing, nonetheless. Next time!
What influenced the character design and overall art direction?
Therése Pierrau: The characters were inspired by games like Ooblets and Animal Crossing, with their funky looks and lovely little personalities. Also, the look of clay animation was a big inspiration too. There are a few specific projects there which stood out to us: Flushed Away, Gelmi Art Studio’s work with Havaianas Rio in Clay, and media studio Buck’s work on a specific Bankwest Campaign—that smooth clay look and the bright colors!
The overall feeling of the game is a mash-up of various inspirational sources, all starting with the cardboard art pieces of Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan and their amazing tiny cities. Another inspiration was Oskar Stålberg’s work on the game Townscaper. Then a healthy dose of space, because... yes.
So the final look of the game came down to a mixture of the above inspirations, and the reality of developing for a standalone VR headset: Spacefolk City has a lot of loose pieces and tiny animated Spacefolk walking around being silly, so we leaned into the vertex colored, low-poly look to maintain good performance. It’s also cleaner and more readable, and the performance gains help to maximize comfort, which is always something we strive for.
Who did you work with on the soundtrack and sound design? What was that experience like?
AM: The music and sound design were half produced by myself, and half by Vincent Diamante, a long-time friend and acquaintance of mine in game audio circles.
Early on, Therése and I agreed that a funky, sci-fi tinged disco boogie feel would suit the game’s sense of humor. So I had in mind a sort of transitionary sound: somewhere in between late 1970s disco and jazz fusion, and the early synth pop and new wave movements of the 1980s. I specifically wanted to work with Vince on this because I knew he would understand the sound we were after immediately, which he did!
It was so much fun working with him on this, and with each song we were sort of edging each other on to see who could push the concept further. It was like, “OK Vince, I see your soaring ’70s synth solo, and I raise you this crusty ’80s orchestra stab sample! Whatcha gonna do now, huh?” In the end, I think we found ourselves ironically some way away from the original concept, but that’s fine—what’s important is the consistency of the soundtrack’s feel and how that fits with the game. And I think in that regard, it was a success.
What’s your favorite part of the game and why?
AM: Between the three of us (and all our super collaborators!), we’ll all have a different answer to that. I think for me personally, it’s just the aesthetic consistency of it all. I love how it’s a great manifestation of everything that’s wonderful about working together with the same team over so many years. All the elements we’ve individually contributed work nicely together to emphasize exactly the same aesthetic goals. We have a lot of areas that we’d like to further refine and improve, but in the meantime this aspect is something I’m particularly proud of!
What advice would you give to a developer looking to start building for VR?
AM: I think the key thing to remember is that VR is a genre in and of itself. Therefore, like any genre, it will have a number of artistic (and technical) constraints that you have to keep in mind as you design and develop. It’s not just a case of taking any 3D flatscreen game concept and brute-forcing it into VR—you have to really build from the ground up, taking into consideration VR interactions, immersion, and, above all else, comfort.
What’s next for you? Any exciting updates in the works?
We’re hoping to be able to continue gradually refining and improving Spacefolk City, and it would be wonderful to be able to do that together with a community! Beyond Spacefolk City though, we’ve got so many ideas for new projects that we’d just love the time to prototype and refine. Watch this space!
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
AM: We hope you enjoy Spacefolk City. Come join our Discord and share your city creations with us, because we can’t wait to see the crazy little city layouts people come up with. Have fun!
Mark your calendars: Spacefolk City brings the city building genre home to VR on the Quest and Rift Platforms October 21. You can also follow the game and developer Moon Mode on Twitter for all the latest updates.