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The making of Knights and Bikes

We meet Rex Crowle and Moo Yu who make up independent studio Foam Sword.
Hello. I’m Rex Crowle, and I am one half of Foam Sword. And I’m Moo Yu, and I’m the other half. And we came together to work on a game called Knights and Bikes.
Knights and Bikes is an action adventure where you play as two girls who are cycling around an English island in the 1980s. And it’s kind of like that perfect end to the summer holidays where you’ve just got a little bit of time left, and you’ve got a new friend to bond with. And you go off and have all kinds of adventures together. The game does focus around the friendship between the two girls. But the adventure is premised on Demelza falling on financial hardship and trying to find a solution to it. So they go off on a journey to try and find the lost treasure of Penfurzy.
And because it’s an action adventure, it has a whole bunch of different gameplay styles. So some of the game it’s running around, it’s jumping on your bikes, pedalling very fast, having quite a sort of almost race-style gameplay. But then areas of story focus sections, and then also the way that the two girls use their various abilities together. So there’s a lot of cooperation between them. And that’s the way that you deal with enemies and solve puzzles and progress through the game.
I think the interesting thing about making video games is that there’s almost no one on the planet that can make them just on their own. You need very, very different skills combined together to make a game. And because Moo and myself worked together previously on some video games, we knew how that was going to be. And we were both interested, I’d say, in doing something smaller and more personal, and just really get very hands-on.
I think the biggest thing for me was you just wake up in the morning and you start working. When you work on bigger teams, it’s like you wait for the whole team to roll in. And you have a big stand-up meeting to figure out what everyone is working on. You spend tonnes of time coordinating meetings to make decisions on what everyone’s going to do. And on Knights and Bikes, every morning I just roll out of bed, sit down at my computer, and I start typing. Sometimes the most extreme pause is I’ll update and see all the art that Rex has put into the game. And I can start thinking about, oh, what do I want to do with that.
But yeah, I think that’s the biggest difference for me workflow-wise in terms of on big teams. There’s a lot of planning and getting everyone on the same page. And when it’s really only two people, and our skill sets are so separated, it’s really easy for me to just get on with the programming parts and just see what Rex has done on the other side of things.
We talked about some idea about maybe making something a little bit like the film The Goonies. And I think in The Goonies that getting that treasure is a bit of a MacGuffin, and they go off and- it’s more about how all the kids are interacting with each other and learning and growing. So that was our initial thoughts. The first sketchbook drawing you sent me, I just took a photo of it with my phone, clipped out all the different characters, and started making a prototype. And I want to learn Unity. I’d never used it before. So I thought, oh, I’ll experiment and try and put something together.
And I didn’t even realise that I’d just shared a Dropbox folder of this Unity project, and I didn’t realise that Rex could just download Unity and start editing it. So from these little phone photos of sketchbook drawings, Rex would actually draw real art assets and start popping a few things in. The important thing in that early stage is to get a bit of a feel for what you’re making. You know that you’ll come back and you’ll probably spend six months making that. And we probably spent a lot longer than six months trying to make that bike look just right.
But at that early stage, it’s just about trying to get a feel for what you’re making and letting the game start to almost talk back to you. A friend of mine who’s a very good producer, she always says it’s about listening to the game and feeling which way does it want to go. We did try to deliver whole chunks of playable content. Whether it was like, oh, this is a whole playable level, or this is a full- the game is split up into six different days. And I think at first we were like, OK, here’s a whole playable level, and then here’s a whole playable day. And then here’s two days in a row.
And I think it was really important for us to see how everything integrated together. I think sometimes it’s really tempting to just work on a tiny bit at a time and keep everything separate and not think about how does everything fit together, what is the full experience, rather than just having a bunch of pieces that you hope will come together later. And that’s definitely the main challenge, really, of doing quite a story-based game, is that, as Moo says, you have all of these bits. And there’s just so much work in making sure all those bits fit together perfectly and flow well and draw the player through it.
And, obviously, when we got to a stage that we could take it to events, that was really good. It’s a really good way of getting- it’s not quite free play testing because you have to pay to go to the event, but you just get so many people sitting down, picking up the controller. And it doesn’t matter how obvious you think you’ve made stuff, how well it flows. The problem is that you just become so good at playing your own game. And then when I see some kid pick up the controller, and it’s just horrendous. It is the worst thing.
But you just have to put your fist in your mouth and just write down notes and see where people are going wrong, or what technical issues are being uncovered by that. One of the other things I really appreciated about bringing it to events is you get to play test your game, but you also get to play test your pitch. So there’s a lot of people that will come up, and they’ll be like, do I want to play this? What is this game about? And you get to try and sell it to them. And the first couple times, you’re usually not going to get it right.
But you start getting this instinct for what resonates with people, and what are the parts of your game that people immediately get and you can sell, which becomes very, very useful when you need to start broadcasting across social media, doing interviews with the journalists, and that kind of stuff, is that you know to cut straight to the meat that’s been working with people in real life. So yeah, it’s sort of a double play test opportunity. It’s very hard to split off a bit of your personality to play the game fresh again.
So yeah, like I was saying, events and any way you can get other people to play the game is some way towards having your own QA team that you’re maybe missing.
So Knights and Bikes was made in Unity. I mean, specifically, I think we started the project in Unity 4. So Unity has come a long way, and obviously the project has come a long way. But it’s a really great framework because the iteration time is so low. I think that’s the biggest challenge that I always had with other development, is a lot of times you make a change, and you have to do a build process, and you have to wait five or 10 minutes before you see your change in action. Where with Unity, it was very much 10 or 20 seconds tops, sometimes two or three seconds. And you can just noodle and noodle and noodle.
And I think iteration time is really what makes the game sing. The more times you experience it, make a judgement call, try something different, that loop is the bread and butter of how you make games great. And I think, at least for us with Unity, you could do that very, very quickly. And I think the thing that sold me on it, obviously, was the first time I made that prototype and I sent it to Rex. The fact that I could build a prototype, and Rex could add art to it. And I didn’t have to teach him anything. I didn’t have to set up a custom build pipeline for him. It was just there.
It was really great for us as a team of two to not have to worry about any of that stuff. It became a really good way of being able to sketch out gameplay or cut scenes or anything like that. And previously, every game that I’ve ever worked on has always been in a custom-made engine. Which can be great, but so much technology has to be made if you just have a slightly different idea. Whereas I definitely found in Unity- a combination of Unity and Moo- it was you know it was very fast to try out a new thing of, like, oh, I wonder if we could make this thing explode when you throw a water balloon at it.
And it was just a case of setting up a couple of animations and plugging some bits in that had already been- that Moo had written. And it became a very playful process of creating.

Here, Moo Yu and Rex Crowle who make up independent studio Foam Sword, discuss their game Knights and Bikes as well as some of the lessons they’ve learned from its development.

Pay attention to how Rex and Moo describe their game in both narrative and gameplay terms. While they are able to convey the charm of their game’s narrative and setting, they’re also able to provide a succinct summary of its gameplay.

Moo speaks about the flexibility of working in a very small team: this is an important consideration when deciding what type of game development role or structure would suit you.

Road-testing your pitch is important: note how Moo describes the process of trying to convey the concept of a game to new players.

Iteration is a vital part of game development. Make sure you build in time to make mistakes and learn from them!

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Introduction to Indie Games

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