Sumo Digital is known for having a hand in major recent titles like Sonic Team Racing, Mortal Kombat 11, Crackdown 3, and the rebooted Hitman series just to name a few, but they also know their way around mobile game. Their latest venture is Spyder.
Spyder recently launched on the Apple Arcade. It’s a game in which players take on the role of a miniature spider-like robot called Agent 8. Agent 8 is a spy robot built to infiltrate technology and sabotage the plans of evil doers. Our own Blake Morse recently got to chat with Spyder’s lead designer Nic Cusworth on the game’s arrival on Apple Arcade, the first Sumo Digital mobile game in a while, and the design that went into it.
Shacknews: It's been a minute since Sumo Digital has published a title on iOS, what made Spyder seem like the perfect fit for it?
Nic Cusworth: Yeah, it’s been a little while since Sumo Digital published on iOS, but one of the strengths of the company is its approach to multi-platform development. Sometimes that work goes under the radar. For example, we’d previously worked with Disney and Apple on bringing Disney Infinity to tvOS. We also have two studios in the UK dedicated to mobile development.
When Spyder was starting out as a project we showed it to Apple and it just felt like a natural fit for Apple Arcade.
Apple is a company that truly backs creative talent, and we knew Spyder was going to be something a little different to the more standard platform/puzzle games. Working with Apple on the title gave us the confidence to really explore the possibilities of the game, knowing they fully supported the creative direction of the project.
Shacknews: Where did the concept for a puzzle game starring a robot bug come from?
Cusworth: Spyder began life as the winner of an internal Game Jam. It was a pretty different looking concept back then, but the company felt it was a strong contender to turn into a full title as we’d had some previous success with Snake Pass, which was also a Game Jam winner.
Even in its early stages, the thing that resonated with players was the ability to explore an environment in full 360 degrees. This freedom of perspective really suited itself to more puzzle heavy gameplay than, say – a shooter.
Shacknews: When did you come up with the spy motiff for the game? Did it come early on or during the start of the development process?
Cusworth: The Game Jam demo was pretty abstract, so a team was put together to create a few different concepts for how it could be turned into a full game. The spy genre was one of those concepts and it just stuck. It seemed perfect for creating a game centred around a small character in a human sized world, and of course the spider would have to be a tiny robot ‘Spyder’ to complete the fiction.
Shacknews: There's a lot of x and y axis changes as far as moving from floors to walls and around spherical objects in the game. It could've been really easy for players to get lost. What steps did you take to make sure that players stayed oriented in a world with so many possible perspectives?
Cusworth: This has been the biggest challenge of the project. Early on we had a camera that kept Agent 8 at the bottom of the screen. This had the effect of having the world feel like it was rotating around the player, rather than the player navigating the world. We also found players would get easily lost as there was no longer any concept of what was up and what was down.
It was pretty much halfway through development when we decided to switch the camera system so it was always world aligned. This change really transformed the game. While it was always neat to be walking on any surface, now it really felt like you were acting like a spider, and all confusion about where you were in the world instantly went away.
While the camera change was (literally) a game-changer for project, it didn’t come without its own challenges. Having the camera dynamically adapt to the different surface orientations was a huge challenge. We also wanted to try and limit the amount of interaction the player would need with the camera as we were building the game for a touchscreen.
The camera has been a bit of a controversial feature of the game. There are a lot of people who love how it works, but there are also players who have struggled with it.
For us – we committed to doing something different, something that would really sell the world, the space you occupy, and the uniqueness of Agent 8. We knew we wouldn’t be able to please everyone, but it was the right decision to try something new.
Shacknews: I love how each level is essentially just one giant puzzle to solve. When working on a level, what's the design process like? Does the core game gameplay concept come first and dictate level design or is it informed by the narrative design?
Cusworth: A key pillar of the level design was that missions had to be impossible for a human agent to complete. That really helped define the types of locations we could build.
A good example of this is the first mission where you’re crawling over a war room desk trying to stop a missile strike. A human agent couldn’t just walk up to the computer and stop the attack, but Agent 8’s size makes him naturally stealthy and able to infiltrate these spaces unseen by the enemy.
Even when humans are present in the level, we always stuck to the concept of human space and Spyder space. This concept of Spyder space really informed the choice of locations for each mission.
Once a location has been chosen, we create a brief that breaks down the moment to moment gameplay before the level designers and artists start to block out a level. It’s here where the level starts to really take shape. It’s a delicate balancing act to have environments that feel natural at a human scale yet are still interesting to navigate as a 4cm Spyder.
A lot of work goes into making sure there’s variety in terms of navigation, especially in the more open-world missions. It soon gets boring walking across a flat surface to your next goal without any kind of environmental challenge!
Offsetting that with trying to keep a sense of realism to the world isn’t easy, and we were learning all the time we were building the game. A lot of early work was thrown out as it just didn’t achieve the level of engagement we were going for.