Lost in the Garden co-founder discusses the free-moving futuristic racer.
We’ve seen our share of futuristic racing games lately, whether it’s WipEout making a return or Redout’s fun homage to classics like F-Zero. Lost in the Garden’s Lightfield is a racing game but one that isn’t bound on a linear path. The end goal is determined but racers are free to make their own road. Such a concept is difficult to pull off but Lightfield is managing it while looking gorgeous at the same time.
GamingBolt spoke to Lost in the Garden co-founder Simon Wallner about the game, the inspiration for its concept, creating a racing title that’s not bound to a singular path and much more.
"When it comes to routes, it is not just simply branching paths, but just a large number of potentially optimal paths."
Lightfield combines both free flying and arcade racing in a futuristic setting. What inspired the concept?
When we started the project, the original inspiration was “Slipstream 5000” from the mid 90s. Matthias always wanted to make a game in that direction, so we got together on a weekend to see where it will lead us. We started tinkering around with different ways of flying and controlling the ship and also how the level could look like. This continued over some weekends and at some point we arrived at a mechanic that allowed the ship to freely align to any geometry and thus our core gameplay of “snapping” was born.
During the development games outside of the genre of racing have also been an important source of inspiration for us. Finding your own path in the level and doing tricks like in Tony Hawk’s or snowboarding games for example. Or things were you could “break” the game like in Monsterstruck Madness where you could just simply go off track and explore the environments.
Visually, the game is to some part inspired by classical sci-fi themes but also from contemporary graphic design and art. We tried to not only recreate the existing but hopefully to add new sources and outside inspirations to the mix.
Given how the concept of “direction” is ambiguous in Lightfield, how did you go about designing the levels?
For the levels we went the classic route of “gray boxing” or “blocking” out the levels geometry. With the way our ships control, we had to invent a whole new set of level elements, a geometric language so to say, that we could then use to build the levels.
We experimented a lot, tried out different parts and elements of the level, different sizes, and then incrementally improved on them. Julia did a great job, to make sure that ends meet in the end, and that the levels are coherent and also offer a progression through the game. With each level, we introduce new level features one by one. The first track is more classical, and the last one is quite the opposite. One practical challenge with such winding and intertwined levels is navigating in the editor. Since there is no real up or down in most levels, finding stuff in the editor view is quite hard…
For us, the objective seems to be completing a track in the fastest time possible. What multiple routes are there to explore and how do these open up to the player over time?
Yes, in its core, Lightfield is still a classic racing game. Being the fastest player either in time trial mode or in races is the core mechanic. When it comes to routes, it is not just simply branching paths, but just a large number of potentially optimal paths. With increased skill, you will learn new moves like boosting off a ledge or doing additional tricks to get an extra speed boost, that will open up new possibilities. In the beginning, the fastest route might be to just follow the ground, but later on it could be a trade-off of how many advanced moves you want to risk during a lap.
During development we obvisously played the game a lot, but still, even now, I am not 100% what the fastest path is in each track and it might not even be 50%. There are some parts, where paths usually converge and a single, seemingly optimal path is more clear, but in other sections there are so many possibilities that we are very curious to see how the fastest paths actually look like once the game is released. Maybe we are wrong, and there is one single fastest path, as in so many other racing games. At least, we haven’t found it yet.
"We have 7 tracks in 4 environments, and even though this number might not seem all too large, they offer a lot of content and depth."
How do you balance between coherent track design with specific turns and the free flying aspect that allows a player to just bypass certain obstacles?
I guess I have to explain a bit more how the ship flys and controls to answer this question. The key is that you are going much faster when you are “snapped”, i.e. attached to a surface. As a player, you are trying to reduce the time that you are flying around freely, and it’s always the quite interesting trade-off between either going a longer distance on a surface or changing to another surface earlier but flying a longer distance.
In level design, we can use this to guide the player. You can fly around freely but we provide you with small or larger bits of geometry along the track to make you go faster. In this sense, there are also no obstacles in the track, everything is just something that you can try to use to find a quicker or more stylish path. Since we are still a racing game, we also had to add checkpoints of course, but they are only used to prevent cheating (like cutting off half of the track) and to give the player some guidance.
What are some of the tricks players can use to forge their own paths?
As mentioned before, the players can really almost go everywhere on the tracks. It can be a bit of trial and error, but with more skill it can also become a bit more meticulously planning a path and the trying to execute it for the best time.
The more you progress and the better you get, new lines will also open up for you. In the beginning flying a longer distance to get to a new surface might be too slow, but later on when you master the boosting off of ledges and gaining an extra boost from tricks, this path might actually become much faster than the naïve line.
How many tracks are there in the game? How would you describe their overall scale and length?
We have 7 tracks in 4 environments, and even though this number might not seem all too large, they offer a lot of content and depth. There is a lot to explore on each track, and to find good and interesting paths. It’s not like burning through all of the content in other games, where you feel like you know the track already after some laps. The more you get to know the track, the more things you start to notice, and also the better you get new possibilities emerge. Besides racing and time trial there’s also the “Exploration Mode”. You can easily enter it by going a bit off the track and collecting one of the many stars in the track. This is a bit of a guided tour through the level, form one star to the next, to show you what’s there and what there is to explore.
The levels are also more playgrounds than they are classical race tracks. We didn’t want to constrain players to a singular track and also a singular mode of how to play. You can fly around freely, find interesting spots to do a few tricks or to improve your skills. We tried to also offer a style of playing that is more like parkour or street skating than only going in circles quickly.
"Weirdly enough the music fits the game perfectly, and Zanshin also once mentioned that to him it almost feels like we created the game specifically to fit his music."
What can you tell us about the game’s multiplayer modes? How chaotic does it get when players are constantly going off the rails?
It seems that multiplayer works quite well. We’ve demoed the game in different events and shows and it seems that people really enjoy it, especially also in local multiplayer. What we also saw is that the gameplay might seem more hectic and chaotic to people that it actually is. Many people usually stop at our booth to just look at it being a bit hesitant to play. But once they pick up the controller and do a few laps, we usually see that they are surprised about how easily it controls, and that it is much more controlled than what it might seem at first.
What was it like working with Viennese musician Zanshin? How did his music add on to the overall atmosphere and tone of Lightfield?
We are incredibly lucky to be working with him. Raimund, our visual lead, found his music when we were working on one of the first prototypes. We only knew Zanshin loosely back then, but still he somehow allowed us to use the music for the prototype then.
Weirdly enough the music fits the game perfectly, and Zanshin also once mentioned that to him it almost feels like we created the game specifically to fit his music. It guess this is one of the lucky moments, when things get together and just fit, as if they were created only for each other.
Additionally to the music, Zanshin also created all the sound effects in the game. We spent a lot of time together to make sure the ship sounds about right, when it if flies around and moves through the tracks. If you are interested in the soundtrack, it is already available online.
Will there be any post-launch updates or content for Lightfield?
There are a couple of things that we have still planed and where we want to further explore Lightfield. We hope to be able to keep working on it for a little longer, and are of course very interested to see how players react to the game and what it is that they want more (or less) of.
"Maybe the biggest challenges are all the things you have to do, and also to meet the player’s expectations of how games ought to behave on each platform."
When can we expect the game to release?
We are currently working hard to finish everything up, and are shooting for a release somewhere right after the summer.
How much effort did it take to port the game over to Sony’s PlayStation 4? What was the biggest challenge you had to face?
Using Unity3D, just being able to run the game on the consoles was no problem at all. We are new to the hardware so form a technical and performance standpoint there was and is a lot for us to learn.
Maybe the biggest challenges are all the things you have to do, and also to meet the player’s expectations of how games ought to behave on each platform. You really have to cross all the Ts and dot all the Is on a console because this is also what players rightfully expect form a decent game.
Do you have any plans to support PS4 Pro?
We still haven’t fully decided the scope of Pro features yet, but this is something that we will be working in in the coming weeks.
What is your take on cross play between PS4 and Xbox One?
Since we are a small and rather niche title compared to all the other big games, cross play is not that important for us. For us, time is the limiting factor. Making sure the experience is right on each platform alone is our priority, and we rather spend our time on other features or content that we feel have a larger impact and contributing more to the game.
"On any system, through more and faster memory we will probably see new rendering and simulation algorithms that were simply not feasible in the past."
I am sure you must be following up on the iterative consoles…the PS4 Pro and Xbox One Scorpio, specially the latter which has over 12GB of memory. Do you think the latter will impact PC games in anyway (i.e. will 12GB of Scorpio will also increase memory PC requirements for games in the future)?
From the past generations, it always seems to be a back and forth between the consoles and PC. PC develops more gradually, and consoles take bigger leaps with each new generation that is released. When PC is ahead, the games push the envelope for future consoles and when the consoles are ahead they push the hardware on the PC side.
On any system, through more and faster memory we will probably see new rendering and simulation algorithms that were simply not feasible in the past. We did so with every generation and this is also what makes it so interesting for us to watch: Each new hardware enables new kinds of games, or at least new ways to do things. Just like the rise of digital distribution and good and affordable game engines enables us as an indie developer to make the games that we love.
What is your target frame rate and resolution on the base PS4 and Xbox One?
We always set our targets high, and the coming weeks will decide where we land.
PS4 Pro can handle 2×16-bit ops at once unlike Xbox One X but the latter has more RAM. What is your take on this?
We can’t comment much on the raw performance of each console, and for our game just raw performance numbers don’t matter that much. Using Unity3D, the engine already does a lot for us, but also as a team of 4, with only 2 programmers, we will never get to really push the hardware to its limit, like a full team of dedicated rendering and engine engineers could on a AAA production.
"As noted above, using an off the shelve game engine, we don’t get to play around with the underlying hardware that much."
Do you think you will be able to achieve native 4K and 60fps with Xbox One X hardware specs?
That’s still too early for us to call, and also depends on so many factors that make it very hard to predict.
As someone who has worked on the Xbox One, what is your take on the system’s eSRAM? I know that a lot of developers had trouble optimizing it in the past but how are things with it now? And furthermore, the Scorpio won’t have any eSRAM to deal. Does it make development matters easier?
As noted above, using an off the shelve game engine, we don’t get to play around with the underlying hardware that much. We started optimising from the top, also to get a better understanding of the hardware. Performance optimisations are very specific to each game, and a bottle neck on one might be a non-issue on another.
Is there anything else you want to tell us before we let you go?
As a small team of 4 working on our debut title as a studio, it is really great to see people interested in Lightfield. When you are developing the people you know are always telling you how good your game is, but it is not until you start to show it to people you don’t know that you really start to find out how good the game is and if they enjoy it.
For us, this process is starting right now, so we are very curious to see people’s reaction to the game.