A couple of weeks ago we saw the trailer for Stratolith for the first time. What grabbed me right away about Winning Blimp’s forthcoming iOS & desktop game was how much effort had obviously gone into the game’s presentation. A third of the screen is taken up by a big skeuomorphic control panel that would feel right at home in the worn-in blue collar sci-fi universe of Alien. You can’t ask for nicer window dressing for a game.
“Actually,” developer Bear Trickey told me, “everything you see there is functional. Every control you see in the screenshots and in the trailer has meaning and utility.” Oh. Oh, wow.
Stratolith is an analog game.
Winning Blimp is two men: Full Sail University game design instructor and programmer Bear Trickey and graphic designer/music composer Alex May, who’s worked as an industrial designer. If Stratolith’s controls look plausibly like real metal-and-bakelite things that you can reach out and touch, it’s because May actually designs things like that.
“Most our games come from these conceptual kernels,” Trickey tells me about a week ago as he’s getting ready to head out to GDC. “Mosaique was a game that we wanted to feel like popping bubble wrap. That’s why it’s a very light, colourful game.
“With Stratolith there’s a couple of things we wanted to capture. First is a game where all the action is happening off-screen. You’re experiencing it through an interface, this gadget-y panel thing. Alex really likes software synthesisers for making music, and we love the aesthetic of those.”
In Stratolith, you’re sitting in the object at the center of the radar screen in front of you: the Stratolith itself, a floating city suspended in the sky. The Stratolith is under attack from drones that you see on the radar. Using the console that occupies the right side of the screen, you can hack drones to take them over, then use your new minions to repel the attack on the station.
“[Alex and I] played text-based MUDs and roguelikes where all the graphics are just ASCII characters, so maybe you’d be super-pumped to see an ampersand show up. So that was our guide for Stratolith. How much emotion can we evoke from really simple symbols? Our challenge to ourselves was, ‘can we make a game where people get really excited when they see a number change, or a triangle appear on the radar?'”
To immerse you in the fiction and make that control panel feel like it’s right in front of you, Trickey and May have made one hell of a ballsy decision. The entire interface is diegetic: there’s no control metaphors, there’s just the actual knobs and buttons that control the drones. Think about how hard RTS games try to make the interface disappear and get out of your way. Stratolith is brazenly pushing in the other direction: mastering the interface is half the game.
“We want to have a real cinematic, sci-fi look to the game interface,” Trickey says, “but everything had to be functional. And it is. Every control you see in the screenshots and in the trailer has meaning and utility. There’s very little ornamentation in the game.
“When you hack an enemy drone, for example, you’re trying to make the opposite wave [on the oscilloscope] that you see. Like wave cancellation in high school physics, you’re making an equal and opposite wave.”
Trickey hopes that not relying on automation and laying the controls out in front of the player as he and May have done will encourage autonomy and experimentation.
“Each drone has 4 basic commands. You can attack another drone, you can move to a location on the radar, you can have it dock with the Stratolith. You can also have it ram another drone, which will definitely kill the other drone but at the cost of yours. You can also re-route power. So if you hack an enemy drone, you can boost its attack or movement capability at the cost of something else. So if you absolutely need a drone to get somewhere quickly, you can boost its velocity at the cost of its weapons strength. Drones also have their own special commands, so one might be able to jam radar or another might repair other drones.”
This is going to alienate as many people as it excites — Stratolith is like a flight simulator as much as it is a strategy game. But Trickey doesn’t mind. He’s got a very particular audience in mind for the game.
“I think that people who really like strategy games like the ability to craft their own strategy down to the very tiny details,” he tells me.
“With Ambi-ON and Mosaique, everything was procedurally generated. But with Stratolith, it’s a game with a clear beginning and a clear end. The more you play a stage, the better you get at it. That’s part of giving the player as much room as possible to tweak and adapt your strategy. So right now we’re deep in making stages and it’s all going to be hand-crafted so it’ll take more time.”