Co-founder of Ruffian Games talks us through the development of his love letter to '80s isometric adventures

Gareth Noyce on making Lumo: ‘Triple-A isn’t my calling’

Gareth Noyce has more than a decade of experience in triple-A games development, with blockbuster titles such as Crackdown and Fable II under his belt.

And yet his latest outing is a far simpler and much more personal affair.

Lumo is an isometric puzzle game inspired by countless titles from Noyce’s youth, and has been developed entirely as a solo project. We caught up with the Ruffian Games co-founder to find out why he opted to build the game on his own, how he’s attempting to recreate this classic style of game design and why he may never return to triple-A. 

Why opt for a smaller project after working on so many triple-A games?
The move from triple-A to Lumo took more than 12 months – it wasn’t a snap decision. I moved to Finland to be with my girlfriend and was looking at setting up a satellite studio for Ruffian. There are great investment opportunities over here, which I believed would give us the opportunity to create IP and self-publish on a wider range of platforms, but it was probably the wrong time to make the move and it didn’t quite work out.

When the dust settled, I had some offers on the table, but all were senior management roles or contracted fire-fighting work and I felt like I’d done that. The point of the move was to get out of my comfort zone and do something new, so falling back into a production role was not something I was willing to consider.

My girlfriend suggested using the money I had left to fund my own project, which was scary, but it did appeal to me. I’d just read Gary Penn’s Sensible Software book, so I was re-enthused about the things that got me interested in becoming a game dev in the first place: the developer stories, the magazines, the games, that whole ’80s/’90s vibe – so there was a strong feeling of "now or never" in the air.

Within days, I ended up having a drunken conversation with Ste Pickford over Twitter about Equinox speedruns and by the end of that I was convinced enough to have a pop at making something. Lumo was prototyped a couple of days later, and well, that was that.

I’ve been careful not to go back and play the old 8-bit games because I wanted Lumo to be a modern interpretation of what I remember being in them.

What appeals about the isometric game design?
Head Over Heels was the first game that I bought, so I grew-up to be a big admirer of Jon Ritman and Bernie Drummond’s work. I own everything they made.

I’d spent some time as a kid scribbling out room ideas for HoH on paper, and I remember writing out a new pitch for a version that used time as a mechanic – you’d jump back in time to affect things in the present, so you could progress through rooms – so I was pretty inspired by it. Looking back on it, these were the first few steps toward wanting to become a game developer.

The isometric arcade adventure was also something that hadn’t been done for a while, or at least, hadn’t been done within the confines of the original 8-bit template; room-based, very limited persistence, puzzles, platforming, heavy emphasis on exploration.

But if I’m honest: I just really liked the circularity. My first solo game is a homage to the first game that I fell in love with.

What challenges does isometric game design present, and how do you overcome/account for these
The obvious one is the fixed camera. Lumo is isometric view, not isometric projection, so the camera is a perspective camera – albeit with a narrow field of view. The limited perspective does help with the placement of most objects in the room, but things that are floating near the camera, or away from a direct lightsource will still be a problem. I do use quite a lot of dynamic lights, so there are plenty of shadows, but again, this doesn’t solve every placement, it just adds more visual cues that help in certain situations.

I think the most conscious way I account for this is that I’ve restricted myself to building the rooms to an invisible 1x1m grid. Part of this is to remain true to the 8-bit originals, but I noticed early on that it makes a difference to how you read the content of the room.

All the early rooms have floor tiles that emphasize the grid, and I avoid diagonal jumps for a long period to let players get used to it. I stuck with the grid for the majority of the game, and I’ve avoided perspective tricks as much as possible – except for a couple of secrets, because I’m a dick – so all the players I’ve watched have got a feel for it fairly quickly.

And for those situations where you can’t quite work it out? Well, there are keys to rotate the room by a few degrees, so the parallax will show you where everything is.

The hidden mini-games are essentially my quick tour through a few other isometric/’80s games that people would recognise.

What titles inspired your game? What elements specifically have you drawn on?
As mentioned, Head Over Heels, Equinox and to a lesser degree Monster Max. There was also a constant battle not to become a Zelda dungeon, which would have been an easy template to fall into.

I’ve been quite careful not to go back and play the old 8-bit games – for the most part, I’ve avoided even watching clips on YouTube, with the exception of that Equinox speedrun that started it all – because I wanted Lumo to be a modern interpretation of what I remember being in those games. Specifically, of the feelings Head Over Heels gave me as a kid.

HoH is pretty ingrained in me though. There will definitely be some familiar layouts, and the puzzles and platforming aspects are purposefully trying to ape what came before. There’s a lot of ‘me’ in there as well, though. At around 450 rooms, it’s bigger than the 8-bit games that inspired it and I’ve played around quite a bit with what the genre’s known for.

The hidden mini-games are essentially my quick tour through a few other isometric/’80s games that people would recognise. Some of these are included because they’re isometric, others fell out of mechanics that I’d built for rooms in the game that were just too good not to re-use. And the Nebulus homage is in there because, goddamn what a game!

There are a lot of visual gags and some quite subtle references to games that you’d recognize – if you’re a certain age. There are also a few direct lifts: my floor spikes are exactly the same as the floor spikes in Equinox, for example. Cheers, Ste!

The character being a wizard is also a nod to Solstice, but that was more by accident than design. I actually played Solstice after Equinox, so it never quite got its hooks into me. It’s a good touchpoint for the American audience, though.

What has today’s tech enabled you to do that classic isometric games couldn’t?
Lighting. Those lovely, lovely shadows. Making something that feels much more like a spooky Scooby Doo environment has been lots of fun. Having the light that highlights the secret parts of the world be under the player’s control was something that just wouldn’t have been the same before.

Physics. I don’t use a lot of physics, but it’s nice to have it as an option. Swing ropes, rolling balls, swimming, these all add little things that make the world feel more real and make the character alive. Sure, you could do them on the 8-bits, but it was a bit clunkier back then.

Scale. I tend to keep room sizes close to the size of the 8-bit originals, but it’s lovely to break through that now and again just to add variety. It’s also possible to have a lot more dynamic objects, so those places in the warp zone where I have the rooms build up around you look and feel really cool to me. It was fun messing around with that.

Audio has been really important to Lumo. The music adds so much to the game. It’s not retro, or quite what you expect, but a really great downtempo score from Dopedemand that cemented the whole atmosphere. I used Tim Follin’s Ghouls and Ghosts title music (Amiga version) in the prototype, as it had this lovely medieval vibe going on that worked with the spooky tone I was looking for, but the minute Dopedemand dropped his music tests in everything changed. The game brightened up and become a lot more jovial. I really like where we ended up with it.

I didn’t need to document my ideas, or explain concepts, or ask permission. I could wake up in the morning and build whatever was in my head.

Which do you prefer: smaller projects like this, or triple-A? Why?
Small projects. That’s always been the case. Given the choice of working in a team of 10 or a team of 100, I’d opt for 10 every time. I don’t know many developers that would answer differently.

Even in the biggest triple-A projects that I’ve worked on, the best bits that I’ve been involved with have always come out of a small collection of people with different skills, working closely on a feature that they really care about. That focus, collaboration and ability to mess around with something is what makes great gameplay moments. It’s the fun bit of game development that’s very easily lost when working in a large team.

For most of my career in triple-A, I ended up working on the management side. That was ok, I quite like taking responsibility and don’t have a problem making a decision (rightly or wrongly) or arguing about what I think is right, but it’s not exactly a creative role. It’s not meant to be. Fortunately I was able to work with leads and creative directors that were happy for me to roll up my sleeves and put things in the game when I had the time, so I can at least point to some things that I made, but it’s not comparable to Lumo.

For the most part I worked alone on Lumo. It’s the complete opposite of what I’d done before, as I wasn’t restricted. I didn’t need to document my ideas, or explain concepts, or ask permission. I could wake up in the morning and build whatever was in my head.

The flipside of that is that I’m limited by my own ability. There were a lot of things to learn, from tools and processes, to just how to implement something in code. It was fun, and stressful, but rewarding.

Lumo is mine. It’s very tightly focused on a specific thing that I’ve always wanted to make. It’s full of bad jokes and stupid puns that make me laugh. It touches on a bunch of things and people that really inspired me during a certain period of my life. And it’s the closest I’ll ever get to being like one of those devs I used to read about in Zzap64 and Your Sinclair.

There was also a constant battle not to become a Zelda dungeon, which would have been an easy template to fall into.

Do you plan to focus on projects like this in future, or will you ever return to triple-A?
I’m not quite at the position where I can ‘plan’ just yet. Lumo’s on the cusp of release so I’m still working hard toward that goal, after which there’ll be a period of support, just to mop up any bugs that I’ve missed.

I do aspire to make more games on my own and I’m definitely not short of ideas. But, Lumo was a two-year project, so let’s be realistic: it’d take another two years – at least – to bring something of similar scope to market. That requires a certain amount of funding.

I was a bit stupid to take on Lumo with the cash I had at the start – I should have made something smaller! Plus, if I was to go again I’d like to be in a position where I can do some sub-contracting for certain parts of the game, mainly to improve the quality (I’m rubbish at modelling) but also to reduce the development time.

Lumo’s the best I could make it to be, but I want to push myself to do better.

Would I go back to AAA? Well, never say never, but… no. I can’t see that happening. At 41 years old, there’s a limit to what roles would be available to me in triple-A and I’ve no interest in going back behind the production curtain and spreadsheet jockeying.

I live in a country that’s at the heart of mobile. There’re some incredibly interesting start-ups in Finland that are technologically forward looking. My friends are working on some fantastic, innovative games. There are far more options for a game developer than there used to be. Triple-A isn’t a calling card for me. I wouldn’t even say it was the pinnacle of what it means to be a game dev any more.

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