Interview: How Spyder went from Sumo Digital game jam to Apple Arcade exclusive

Following in the slithered trail left by Snake Pass, Spyder was released a couple weeks ago as Sumo Digital’s second self-published title, and the second game that came out of their internal game jams.

Riffing off classic spy films, you guide Agent 8, a diminutive robot arachnid spy, through environments, using his ability to clamber up walls and across ceilings to solve puzzles and foil S.I.N.’s evil schemes.

We posted our review of the game a little earlier today, but alongside that, we spoke to Lead Designer Nic Cusworth on how the game came out of its game jam, dealt with the challenges of 360º navigation, and found itself as an Apple Arcade exclusive.

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TSA: What were the initial inspirations for Spyder, as it went through Sumo’s internal game jam process? Maybe after Snake Pass’ success, you had a bit of an animal theme running through your minds?

Nic Cusworth: Originally, like Snake Pass, Spyder was an internal game jam winner. We have these internal game jams and I think it was the next one after Snake Pass won, or maybe the one after, and three of the designers put together this demo of this quite aggressive looking geometric spider that could walk on walls, walk on ceilings. It really resonated with everybody and it won the game jam.

When you win, those projects get put forward tot a committee, and that committee decides if we want to go ahead and make a full game out of it. It was decided to go ahead and put together a demo, but at that point there wasn’t really any shape to it, it didn’t really have a theme, so a small team worked out a few different directions it could go in. It was really early on that the spy genre, and really the retro spy genre really stuck.

The idea of being tiny and being naturally stealthy in that kind of way links back to the spy genre and thinking how it’d be cool to just be observing the world from a completely different perspective.

TSA: That’s interesting about it coming out of the game jam without a clear theme to it. Comparing that to Snake Pass, was that in a similar place at the end of its game jam? Similarly a bit vague and not fully formed?

Nic: To some extent there’s similarities, but I think Seb always had a clear vision that he wanted to do a throwback to the N64 platformers with Snake Pass. That kind of immediately set that project on a trajectory that was known, so the game jam was a super stripped back version of what Snake Pass was, but it didn’t really need to go through a process of discovering how to use its mechanic. So even though there were similar in terms of aesthetics at the game jam stage, Snake Pass definitely had much more focus.

It took a little bit of time to find the right setting for Spyder.

TSA: How do the game jams work internally? I know lots of game jams will come up with a particular theme to follow

Nic: I think it’s a bit of a free for all! Often it’s an opportunity for people who’ve been tinkering away on things to grab a few more people from the studio and try to make something a little more fully fleshed out. So it’s a little bit looser in that it’s not a strict two day event, there’s often people who come to the table with something they’ve been messing around with, and then there’s obviously a little bit of time after that for the ones that are particularly successful.

So it’s a bit more freeform than a traditional worldwide game jam and a theme is set with a very specific deadline.

TSA: I can imagine a lot of the projects have got very different strengths, which will obviously make it tricky to judge which should win!

Nic: Yeah, and it is hard sometimes, because it is a bunch of very different ideas. There’s been a few that I’ve seen which have really stood out, but it’s often difficult to pick a winner, because they’re so radically different you can’t often compare. There could be two or three different winners, and we do have different categories, but the overall winner is the one that’s taken forward and developed more.

TSA: The key hook for Spyder is its full world 360º traversal, but how has the camera been designed for the game to accommodate that? 3D cameras have very often been the bane of a good platformer over the years…

Nic: So originally the camera was very different for the game. Spyder remained constantly at the bottom of the screen, so it was almost like the world moved around Spyder, rather than Spyder moving around the world. That worked fine, but you kind of lost perspective and it was really difficult to know which way was up, so you got lost a lot. So even though that felt like a more normal game camera, it really wasn’t working for this game.

It was only when we decided to do a sort of fixed orientation – so that the camera always stayed aligned to the world and Spyder would walk up walls and along ceilings, and you could see the effects of your ability to stick to any surface – that’s when the game really took a turn.

That also meant that we had a lot of work to do! Trying to create a camera that could frame that… having a character who can walk on any surface is a challenge on its own, but to then have a camera that can frame that? It’s been a big challenge!

Game cameras are so subjective, and I think that we’ve got a good solution. There’s been some criticism that players had to use two fingers to look around – it was interesting when we developed it that we built a camera that would guide you through a level and we almost didn’t put any camera correction in. We didn’t quite expect just how much control people would want over the camera, so that’s something we’ve addressed in an update.

It’s been a tough nut to crack.

TSA: I’ll be honest, I mainly played with an Xbox controller connected to my phone, but the feeling I got when trying a level or two with touch controls was that you should just play with one “stick” and leave the camera to do what it wants to.

Yeah, it’s trying to give you a golden path and it’s aware of points of interest, so it’s aware of things it should frame with you.

I think the game actually plays a lot better if you don’t interrupt the camera, but I understand that people want to look around, they want to know where that next objective is. So I think if you play through a level a second time you’ll find yourself less reliant on looking around and could find it a more fluid experience with the camera.

TSA: The levels can often feel quite direct and linear, which the camera will obviously play into in some ways. Was that a concession to needing the game to be more easy to pick up and play with simpler controls on mobile?

Really that came through experimentation and working out what did work for a level of this game. It took us a while to get a level that we really enjoyed playing. The more open we made things, the more confusing things became, because you’re dealing with a tiny spider in a human scale world, and if you don’t path the player through a level, if something’s so completely open, it becomes a bit of an aimless wander. The responses we were getting were, “Well, it’s cool and everything, but I don’t know where I’m going and I don’t what I’m supposed to be doing.”

A more linear nature to the flow of the levels really came out of focussing in on what’s fun about the game, and while there is freedom to explore the levels, there’s very much a single purpose at any one stage that you’re heading towards. That really was to just help the players navigate the space much more fluidly.

It’s a really difficult challenge to create something that’s human size and to then be navigated by a 4cm leg span spider. That can get really boring, real quick if you’re just walking along a vast open space!

TSA: Finally, there’s the interesting decision, not just to be a mobile title, but to be an Apple Arcade exclusive. How did that come about?

So, when the team put together this very early prototype of this spy genre game, and we showed it to quite a few people. The people that responded most to it were Apple, and it was at that point that they started to discuss their plans for Apple Arcade. We knew it was going to be a very interesting, mechanically different sort of game, and so we felt like having the backing of someone like Apple and putting it out on a platform where people are slightly more used to experimental games, we felt it was a perfect match.

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