The Evolving Design of Desolus
Published 2 years ago
A Solo Developer with an Ambitious Game
Behind every independent game is a story unique to its developers. Often lacking in traditional resources, Indies make creative decisions to overcome challenges in crafting games. Each independent game is a reflection of its creators within the context it was made.
My name is Mark Mayers, I am an independent developer based in Boston, MA. I'm the creator of Desolus, a surrealist first person puzzle game where you control a black hole. I started working on Desolus in August of 2014, and am the sole developer.
In Desolus, you explore dreamlike landscapes and power mysterious technology with solar energy. Throughout the game you unravel the secrets behind the Desolus, an enigmatic entity of unknown origin. Reminiscent of a cross between Metroid Prime and Portal, Desolus is an interesting mixture of the exploration and puzzle genres.  
The puzzles in Desolus are based around transferring energy from stars using a black hole, powering mechanisms in the environment.
Progressing through the game introduces several types of solar energy, revealing new puzzle mechanics and environments to explore.
Early Development
I started developing games in 2010 when I was studying Computer Science as a freshman in college. Initially I began with only an idea and a fascination for black holes. I wanted to make a game involving astronomy, with the gravitational attraction of a black hole as the core mechanic. Two inspirations from other video games are Metroid and Portal. I wanted to create a video game capturing the exploration driven gameplay of the Metroid series, coupled with the abstract puzzle solving of Portal. The isolation and melancholy atmosphere of the Metroid series appeals to me, particularly since games do not frequently explore these emotions. From Portal, I loved how the core mechanic of portals are elegantly combined with the rest of the puzzle design. However, I didn't want to directly emulate these two titles, but instead create something original taking concepts presented from both.
I set out with a goal to create an atmospheric puzzle game rewarding intuitive thinking and exploration. However, it would take several years before coming close to realizing that goal. Early years involved a great deal of experience gained through failure. However, this attributed to an organic evolution of the game alongside my growing experience as a developer.
Before I started Desolus in its current form, I created several prototypes between 2010 to 2013 exploring black holes as a concept. A previous version of 'Desolus' started out as a 2D platformer reminiscent of Super Metroid. Between 2012 and late 2013 I used a relatively unknown 2D engine. Development was rough, as I found the functionality of the engine limited the scope of what I wanted to create. My first encounter with Unity was during the Global Game Jam of 2014. In the Global Game Jam, you and thousands of others globally have 48 hours to make a game from scratch. The game jam is also a fantastic opportunity to learn new technology. Our team chose Unity as the foundation for the game. I had an overwhelmingly positive experience compared to my old engine. Intuitive online tutorials and documentation allowed me to learn the basics within a few hours. After the success of the game jam I decided to take what I learned and scrap my old 2D prototype. I started over with Unity and never looked back.
However, after the Global Game Jam I became overly ambitious. In early 2014 I had the mindset of, "I'm going to make an Indie Metroid Prime... by myself… as my first commercial title." Needless to say, the game I had envisioned was of ridiculous scope. Neither did I have the experience relevant to create that game, and I was met with early failure. I took a step back and thought of an abstracted form of my impossibly ambitious idea. I opted for a game that could be created entirely with my given resources and experience.
After a period of introspection, I decided to focus on my abilities and background as a computer scientist. I thought of how to reduce difficulty in creating traditional art assets, as well as limiting scope relative to my abilities.
Rethinking the Design Process
An early decision was eliminating enemies and characters from the design, as modeling and animations are not among my strengths. This cut out the need for models, animations, artificial intelligence, and dialogue; vastly reducing development complexity. I replaced what would traditionally be animations or models with an extensive particle effect system. Through tweaking a few numbers and colors, I can create a great deal of art assets relevant to gameplay.
I realized I wouldn't be able to create visuals anywhere close to AAA detail by myself. However, an a abstract art style largely based on procedural content was a great solution. The Desolus environments use a combination of procedural terrain, water, sky, and foliage. Art assets in Desolus are initially created by hand, with algorithms providing further detail. Aspects such as color, shape, and form are established though simple in-engine modeling programs before applying algorithmic detail. Supplementing my lack of traditional artistic experience with my strengths in programming allowed higher quality and faster content creation.
Although the process of art creation can be optimized, creating intuitive gameplay design cannot. The core puzzle mechanics for Desolus were perhaps the most difficult to conceptualize.
Since Desolus relies on abstract particle effects to convey puzzles and mechanics, players can’t necessarily draw on examples from other games or the real world. This creates a design difficulty, as certain mechanics can appear confusing or ambiguous. As a developer it’s important to empirically test the game and study the player’s actions and reactions. Player feedback drives the iterative design of Desolus; I’ve scrapped entire features and levels because of it.
I’ve taken nearly every opportunity to playtest the game, presenting at meetups, festivals, and conventions; highlights of the last year include IndieCade, MAGFest, and the Boston Festival of Indie Games. Over five hundred people have playtested the game in person to date, giving invaluable design insight.
Independent games are a reflection of their creators, and this is especially true for Desolus. Adopting a development process reflecting my own abilities and inspirations resulted in a game unique to me as a person.
Expect Desolus to be released later this year for PC and Oculus Rift.
If you would like to follow development, check out my Development Log, Twitter, and Facebook.
Mark Mayers