“The thing I learned in this game is to analyse your own emotive process” – how The Falconeer took the Bob Ross approach to game development

Tomas Sala

The Falconeer is a solo project from Tomas Sala, published by Wired Productions. The game was an exciting first for both Sala and his publisher, coming as Wired Productions’ first ever console launch title – for the Xbox Series X|S.

That meant a tremendous amount of attention for what is a small indie game, especially when the next-gen consoles were very light on true launch titles. And for a personal, one-man project inspired by the desire to escape into a new life, it’s a remarkable achievement.

The Falconeer is an open world air-combat game, which sees players taking flight atop giant birds. It’s a visually stunning experience, featuring fast and brutal dogfights not just across a gorgeous skyline, but under the waves in the dark depths of the sea.

TAKING FLIGHT

Prior to working on the game, Sala had stepped away from his studio, Little Chicken Game Company, where he was the founding partner and creative director.

“I stepped away from being a co-founder in the studio, because I had burnout and I just didn’t like doing it anymore,” says Sala. “I didn’t like Scrum or Agile, it just didn’t click for me. I’m not that guy.”

You’d think solo-developing a game would be a challenge enough, “but the other reason was I wanted to work at home, I became a father for the first time during this project, and now I’ve got three!

“When I started thinking seriously about The Falconeer, my partner was pregnant with our eldest. And after he was born, all I wanted was to be at home, to work from home, and find a new way of living.”

Of course, this was back in 2017 – long before working from home became a reality for many of us. Though thanks to his early switch to home working, the pandemic had very little impact on the game’s development, Sala notes.

It’s a good thing too – while Sala had no way of knowing his self-driven game would end up being a launch title for a then-unannounced console, hitting that deadline is impressive in itself.

“At some point, I knew we were going to go for the Series X,” says Sala. “I’m a small fry in the scheme of things, but we knew we were going to try to get it out on there, which then evolved into being a launch title.

Speaking to him around launch, he notes that the further delay to Cyberpunk 2077 meant there was far more attention for his title. “Which is weird for our launch – you have a lot more exposure for The Falconeer, which is, in essence, a dinky indie game. It’s an off-beat idea made by one guy, and it got huge. We’ve got people fighting the console wars in the comments of our Tweets. It’s surreal, I can’t describe it any other way.”

The sky’s dynamic colour changes are a key part of the game’s distinctive look

DOING IT BOB ROSS STYLE

The game hasn’t just attracted attention purely for being a launch title, mind. It’s a visually stunning game to behold – though this is more due to its minimalistic art style, rather than the game being a graphical powerhouse.

“Growing up, I wasn’t a huge Disney fan, but I loved Fantasia growing up. It had these hand painted skies, and these simplified dinosaurs stomping about. I think I always liked that kind of thing.”

Sala describes his approach to designing the game’s visuals as “Bob Ross-ing it.” Taking advantage of the easy iteration allowed by Unity (see page 44 for more on that), and the game’s lack of premade texture maps to alter the game’s look on the fly.

“I just fiddled around with it without using textures, and made it just using gradients and geometry. I really enjoyed that, because the modelling part goes really fast, as I don’t have to do a lot of steps.

“But I also enjoyed it because, thanks to modern anti-aliasing, you can actually have sharp edges that look nice. Which is something we haven’t done in games because you had jaggies, so sharp and jagged was a no no.

“But graphically, if you look at concept art, the sharp lines and jagged rocks are beautiful. Especially if they’re simplified – some people call it cel-shaded or low-poly. I mean, it’s definitely not low-poly in any sense of that word, because there’s plenty of detail – it’s clean.

“Not using textures is just something I did to be different, which sounds quite pedantic. I started it, and it forced me to make the entire pipeline of the game in Unity in a different way. It started to look different, which is what I like.

“It’s a crutch I used to force myself to find different solutions to visual problems, like doing a day night cycle. I’m not a mathematical genius or anything, so I just called ‘brute force of trial and error,’ or ‘Bob Ross-ing’ it.

“So the sky is just a gradient from left to right and up-down. And then I connected that to a sun direction. So there’s literally a list of colours in my editor that says, okay, around sunset, I want yellow, orange, a bit of purple…. There’s no scientific model, it’s just me actually setting the gradients. And it looks really good. It doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before.

“Then everything else is just finding art that is the right level of detail to work, which is messy – like I am. So in the game, you’ll have very detailed ships with little turrets and little flags on it, but they’ll be next to it a giant rock, which isn’t more than a couple hundred triangles. To see gamers saying ‘oh, It looks beautiful. It’s great graphics…’ It’s not, not in any technical sense!”

This iterative, Bob Ross approach to the game’s design bled through to the development as a whole. From the start, Sala didn’t constrain himself to a singular vision of what the game should be, but allowed himself to discover the game along the way.

“It’s all an iterative process, again it’s very Bob Ross” says Sala. “I read this quote by George RR Martin. He says there’s two types of writers – architects and gardeners. The architects will have spreadsheets with everything mapped out in advance, that’s the Tolkien approach. And then there’s the gardener who will plant a seed, water it and wait to see what happens. It’s the Bob Ross style of making a story, and I’m all about that. I’m just making it and discovering it.

“And that’s where the criticism comes in – you can sometimes tell that. It’s just me, and time pressure kicks in at some point.”

There’s a lot of content on offer in the game

ESCAPING INTO A NEW LIFE

Still, this process was a valuable one to Sala – freeing him up to look at game design in ways he hadn’t before.

“The thing I learned in this game is to analyse your own emotive process where you go, ‘what am I trying to do?’ I didn’t ever do that before.

“The mother of my children, my partner, she’s a ceramics artist. So she understands things I don’t understand. She showed me that I was doing art, and that art is about emoting a lot of what you’re doing, and then understanding what you’re doing so you can work off that.

“So this game is about escape. It’s about escaping my work situation, into a new life. It’s flying off into my own fantasy. And the opposite of that is that ocean, that darkness of the water and swimming somewhere where you can’t see the bottom. I figured out that that was the core visual theme I was doing, and I figured out that people would enjoy that. Because everybody has that sense. You want to escape, but there’s always something dragging you back to reality.”

Speaking of coming back to reality, one-man indie projects are known for being stuck in development longer than initially planned. Ensuring that The Falconeer shipped in time to be a launch title must have been a stressful, nagging reality.

“Well, there’s a lot more grey hair now!” begins Sala. “There was a part of me that just wanted to keep going and not feel constrained, because that’s what the game was all about.

“But then there’s part of me that’s a realist, and has been in the industry long enough to see that… yeah, [the console launch] is a huge opportunity.”

DEALING WITH REALITY

To meet that opportunity though, Sala is very open about the fact that while he’s proud of the writing in the game – some of it just had to get done in order to get the game out on time. Not that any of us at MCV/DEVELOP can relate to compromising on our writing to meet a difficult deadline, of course.

“So I had no experience with voice acting,” says Sala. “And then suddenly I have deadlines and dialogue that needs to be written.”

There’s dialogue in the game that I’m quite proud of. As I’m writing in English, I had an editor helping me to make sure it’s in proper English, as I’m not a native speaker. There’s writing in the game that I’m really proud of, that had a time and a place where it was written.

“And then there is writing in the game that just needed to get done. So in some of the banter, there’s stuff that just needed to be written. It wasn’t rushed, but it could do with a lot more love. I readily admit that some of that writing was done on just the fact that needed to be done. But then there’s other writing, like the storyteller for the game, that had much more time to breathe. And you can see the quality difference in that.”

The need to get the game shipped goes beyond the opportunity to be a launch title. Sala stepped away from his old studio as he became a father and wanted to spend more time at home. While The Falconeer is unquestionably a labour of love, it ultimately became a responsibility to get the game finished.

“It needed to be done at a certain time. You know, nobody can live on air, and I have a family. Maybe when I was younger – you know, when you’re just living in a room somewhere, and you don’t have any dependencies. I might have said fuck it, and taken longer or whatever. But this always was going to be done on time, that’s how I started it.

“And it’s not done in the sense that I’m not done with exploring this world. I’ll need a creative break for a little bit, but I’ll happily craft on and there’s bits I want to add to the story, stories that still need to be told. That’s the beautiful thing about digital delivery. You can keep crafting on what you’ve made. That feels less stressful, in a way.”

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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