We talk to the creator of the classic indie game Armadillo Run.
Today we’re going back to 2006, a year that was characterized by major game releases like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Gears of War, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Guitar Hero and The Shadow of the Colossus. For me, this was also the year where I fell in love with a humble little indie game called Armadillo Run. In fact, I think the epic roleplaying game Oblivion was the only release this year that I ended up playing more, and I still consider Armadillo Run one of my all-time favorite games (unlike, it has to be said, Oblivion).
Simple and elegant
In Armadillo Run, you have one simple goal: To ensure that an armadillo – who has handily enough rolled himself into a perfect ball – gets from one location on the level to another. You can not control the animal directly, but instead have to find some way to move it where you want through indirect means. This is done by constructing everything from simple bridges to advanced lifts and pulleys, using a variety of materials and within an often quite restrictive budget.
The basic concept is a lot like the Bridge Builder games, which debuted a few years earlier and were an important source of inspiration for Armadillo Run. But since these were only about the construction of different types of bridges, Armadillo Run is a much more dynamic and flexible experience, that provides more freedom to create your own unique solutions. It’s no exaggeration to say that Armadillo Run took the «physics game» genre several steps forward when it was originally launched.
Armadillo Run was developed by a single person, Peter Stock from the UK. He got his first computer – an Atari ST – at the age of 12, and it was this that got him into games. But it was only later that he learned programming. After some experimentation on his own, he started to study computer science at the university, and ended up with a job as a programmer. But with the exception of some hobby projects made for fun, he had no experience as a game developer. This changed in 2005 – he’d recently moved to Canada, and had no real job there, so he decided to use his programming experience to create a commercial game.
– Armadillo Run was my first game, apart from a Tetris clone and some other projects I did just for myself. So maybe I should say my first game I made with the objective of publically releasing and (hopefully) selling. I had the opportunity to try making a game, living in a foreign country wihtout a normal job arranged, so I took it.
A lot of independent developers were already working to explore different ways of using realistic physics in games, and Peter Stock was very fond of these games:
– I was really interested in the new genre of «physics games», which were so fun to just play around with. I think it gives a richness of possibilities beyond those which the game designer envisioned. I felt I had an idea which was a little different from what was available at the time.
Stock names Bridge Builder as the greatest source of inspiration for Armadillo Run, but says he wanted to create something that had a somewhat more dynamic nature. Stair Dismount is also mentioned as a source of inspiration. This was a small physics game where the point was simply to push an unfortunate person down a staircase, and see how much injury he suffered in the fall. The more pain for him, the more points for the player.
– I loved Stair Dismount: a simple premise + physics = so many possibilities to explore. Watching some of the high scores was so funny and illuminating too – embedding a foot in the floor can be a great strategy!
The development of the Armadillo Run started with a prototype that was completed in a couple of weeks. This convinced Peter Stock that his concept worked, and was suitable for further development. The rest of the development took just under one year. The game was programmed in C++, and Stock made the physics engine from scratch:
– I like to learn how to do things for myself, so I wrote the physics code myself. Tracking down and fixing non-determinism bugs was tricky, but I learnt a lot from it. I feel that I’m better equipped now, after having had those challenges. So I think I’ve gained from that choice, but at the cost of speed of development had I used a third-party physics engine.
A good selection of tools
Armadillo Run gives you access to six different building materials: Steel beams, steel plates, cloth, rope, elastics and rubber. In addition, you can build rockets that act as engines. The different materials have different characteristics, the most obvious being that some of them (like plates and cloth) will block the armadillo, thus acting as floors and walls, while others (such as beams and ropes) will not affect him directly, and instead serves as a framework for your construction. But characteristics such as weight and how much tension they can withstand before they break also varies.
In addition to building, you can add timers and extra tension. For example, if you give a rubber segment high tension, it will expand with great power when it gets the opportunity. If it is not held back by anything, this will happen immediately after starting the level, but it can also happen later. Here’s where the timers are useful; if you use steel beams to hold rubber segments or elastic rope in position, you can add timers to them so that they break at a specific time, thus allowing the energy to be released exactly when you need it. Like so:
However, all these things costs cost extra money, and the most useful materials are also far more expensive than the basic materials. The rockets are the most expensive – so expensive, in fact, that they’re only available to use in a handful of the 50 campaign missions. The limited budgets make sure you have to think creatively to solve the levels. The easiest thing might be to use elastics to sling the armadillo wherever you want, but it may be more cost effective to set up a kind of elevator with weights instead. This was also intended:
– I tried to make an allowance for interesting use of materials, by making the more useful materials more expensive, so the cheaper ones are less powerful (less rigid, or less strong, or «edge» materials that can’t themselves interact with the armadillo). But balancing options when their use is so open and unknown has the possibility of the designer getting it wrong, and making some things under-valued or over-valued. I think there was an element of luck that the materials turned out to be balanced well enough to make all the four basic materials useful in creating the cheapest possible solutions.
Peter Stock tells us that he tried to think of different ways to solve each level, and make sure each of them had a few different approaches. With 50 levels, there were a lot of variation, and some levels offered far more freedom than others:
– I had some ideas for kind of «set piece» levels, with some kind of mechanism central to them (unless it’s cleverly bypassed). But I wanted other kinds of levels that are more blank canvasses. I felt these also gave the player more options to come up with different approaches, because there was not so much already laid down that they have to work with.
One of the great qualities of Armadillo Run is precisely this openness, and that it is possible (and even encouraged) to think outside the box. Creative players exploited these opportunities in ways that surprised even the developer himself:
– I am really amazed by the ingenuity of players, how they’ve made sophisticated launching and catching mechanisms that I never imagined would be possible with so few objects. […] I was amazed at how well people seemed to know my game less than a week after I released it. It felt very strange to go from being the best at my game to being mediocre at best. Humbling, but also quite fulfilling – that I managed to create something that was more than I thought it was. Although I can’t claim credit for that – it’s due to the emergent complexity of (my buggy) Newtonian physics.
As for these bugs, one in particular caused a bit of headache when it was discovered after launch. By placing certain objects close to each other, the game would create a kind of explosion, which could be used to launch the armadillo far away without having to pay for all the resources a proper throwing mechanism would cost. Peter Stock eventually decided to let this and other such bugs remain in the game:
– I was pretty nervous there might be game-breaking bugs that I just didn’t know about before release. It turns out that there were (kind of), but that they were interesting and most players I think liked that ‘magic’ you could achieve from exploiting the bugs.
– [If I could change anything,] it would probably be to notice and fix the physics bug(s) before I initially released Armadillo Run. But that may have made the game less fun for some people. I wonder whether the beauty of things is sometimes in the mistakes.
Create your own fun
Armadillo Run often required great creativity from the players, and for the extra creative, it also had a built-in editing tool that easily enabled the construction of their own levels. One of the great strengths of this tool was that it used exactly the same interface as the game itself, so by completing the campaign, you automatically obtained the experience you needed to create intricate and cool levels.
– From the start I wanted to make creating levels essentially the same process as creating a solution to a level. I knew that the players would be able to make better levels than I could, and although I think it’s important for a games designer to do the best they can, ultimately I knew that other people can do better than me.
The editor proved to be very popular. Players made everything from imaginative challenges for others to complete to advanced chain reactions, rollercoasters and mechanisms that had no other function than to be fascinating to watch. Some also made their own campaigns, often with specific themes. Personally, I spent hours creating various rocket-powered vehicles (with wheels and all), and then making obstacle courses for them, and seeing how long they managed to stay intact. I got a lot of extra fun out of the game that way, and it was a bit like sitting down with an advanced Lego set.
– I think a major source of enjoyment for people playing games is the joy and empowerment of creating something – quite like making games! :) This has been used more often in games design since Armadillo Run (some very popular, like Little Big Planet and Minecraft).
Peter Stock also made it easy for players to share their creations via the official website, where they could also share their solutions. This obviously resulted in players competing to solve the available levels as cheaply as possible. For a while, there was actually a very active community around the game, with regular contests and so on.
An early indie gem
Armadillo Run arrived at a time when buying games via download was still a new and unknown thing for many people, and gamers in general still bought most of their games in physical stores. There were plenty of independent developers like Peter Stock, but their games rarely received much attention from the mainstream gaming press, and it was not until a couple of years later that indie games as a phenomenon really took off. In spite of this, Stock experienced great success with Armadillo Run, and was almost overwhelmed by how much attention the game got:
– I was really quite amazed that so many people seemed to care about my little game! I didn’t really do much marketing – I just replied to people who emailed me about it. I think at that time there was quite a lot of people who had the own blogs about games reviews, and I think other people found out about it from there. There’s that network effect thing, where it only takes a few hops to cover a huge amount of people. I wouldn’t call it «viral», but I think work-of-mouth is the best kind of advertising. You just have to make something that’s fun enough so people choose to tell their friends. :)
While working on this article, I replayed the campaign missions in Armadillo Run, and although I have to admit that I used many cheap tricks to get past certain levels quickly, I still had fun with the game. This is the third time I finish it, and I don’t even dare to think about how many hours I spent with the game when it first came out, so it’s no wonder I did not get quite as hooked this time. But in general, I enjoyed the experience. The simple presentation is still clean and nice – it does not look sexy, but I’m still somewhat impressed by for instance the cloth physics. I also quite enjoy how open the game is, and how satisfying it is to finally see the armadillo reach his goal after working a long time on a complicated solution.
In other words, this is still a game that I recommend. Armadillo Run can be bought directly from Peter Stocks website, if you’re interested in trying it out.
Peter Stock is also soon ready to launch his next game. It’s called Lucifer’s Atoms, and it’s basically a much expanded sequel of sorts to Armadillo Run, where you now build in three dimensions. It’s quite a challenging game, due to the added dimensions and possibillities, but developers like Zachtronics have proven that there is a place in the market for difficult puzzlers. Sales numbers are not what drives the development, however:
– Coming up to releasing Lucifer’s Atoms, I have no expectations about how much money it will make. I think more like this: if I make a game I am happy with and proud of, if I release it and manage to sell only 1 copy to a person who thinks it’s the most wonderful game ever, then that’s a success for me. Or even if I sell 0 – I still think it’s exactly the game I wanted to make and play. Anything more is a bonus :) Maybe that’s a naive approach to game design and business (make what you would want to buy), but I think it’s a good way to stay true to yourself and maybe make trends rather than try to chase them.
Like Armadillo Run, Lucifer’s Atoms is very much a sandbox game, although vastly expanded. Among other things, you can create controllable vehicles and mechanisms, and there is even a programming language built into the game:
– Ultimately, I want to make a game that I want to play, so I think this biases me towards player-construction gameplay. I think a sandbox mode adds a lot to many games. I love that sort of freeform play, where you do whatever you want with the tools available. I guess it’s only really fun for games that have some level of emergent complexity, otherwise it gets boring when you’ve explored all the possibilities.
It’s no surprise that Peter Stock is making these kinds of gaming experiences:
– I think our interests are kind of an abstract part of us, that can come out in different ways. I’m interested in how things work: understanding them, improving their design, and creating new things. That comes out in a few different things, but I see them as all alike. I like to fix things when they break, I like to modify/improve things (like getting my ski boots to fit just right), I build things like my keyboard, and design a new key layout because Qwerty is rubbish, and I don’t like some things about Dvorak.
– I see programming as another expression of the same thing within myself. I think it could have come out as pursuing an engineering job. But programming gives a lot of individual power and freedom – I can’t think of another type of job that you could choose to do yourself alone, with such low financial barriers. I think my interest in games comes from a similar part of me – exploring and understanding how a system works.
I’ve been playing an early version of Lucifer’s Atoms, and wrote up a preview [article in Norwegian]. I’d like to thank Peter Stock for responding to my questions over several weeks, and of course for all the fun I’ve had playing Armadillo Run over the years.
Written by Joachim Froholt.
Spillhistorie.no is a Norwegian website mostly dedicated to indie-, niche- and retro games. If you liked this article, we have some more content in English.