Project Aurora – Creating the Concept

If you're like me, you love seeing how other people design. Here's the process - and the docs - from the first stages of development on my latest indie endeavor: Project Aurora.

The Spark

The idea for Project Aurora came up accidentally, the result of experimental concepting for Project Babies. Armed with a rainbow glitter texture and some semi-transparent white hills, I was in the middle of making background sprites when I had one of those awesome perceptual shifts. It wasn't happy rainbow hills - it was the aurora borealis amongst the stars, casting bright spectrums on the snow. I doodled a polar bear on it, and it stuck. At that point, it was an aesthetic - there were no mechanics, nothing beyond the look, but I loved it. The entire game was this picture:

The Core

One of the rare times I literally "dreamt this up". In the dream I was actually a seal, swimming in arctic water black as void. I couldn't go on land - but that restriction made the water feel safe, like home. I found specks of the Aurora Borealis that had fallen from the sky and called out to them to wake up, wake up! When they were glowing again, I shepherded them together, guiding them through the waters. I woke up with a vivid emotional imprint, and a head start on the mechanics. At this point, the idea was still in "bright light" stage: it was vivid and pulsing with potential, but if I looked right at it with a critical eye I'd wind up blind and stumbling until I extinguished it. Instead I felt it out tangentially, mentally testing moments instead of mechanics, building the integrity of the experience up slowly in my head so that when it came to details I'd have a foundation to stand on instead of losing it to doubt and the slippery slope towards 'generic'. I picked these out as the four main emotions (and in roughly this order) I wanted to evoke:
  • Curiosity – what is this world? Drive to explore.
  • Wonder – the stars are flickering, the water lapping.
  • Solace – I am alone. The world is dying.
  • Smallness – I am a tiny piece of a cosmic world.
They would form the core of the game.

The Feel

I had enough of a start that I wanted to get this thing made, and the awesome Kim Koskamp and I were overdue for a project together. I wrote up an official pitch doc, set the milestones, and we decided to make it happen. The first time I'd mentioned the project to her, it was still in its rainbow bubble gum art aesthetic, so her initial character concepts reflect that feel: At first we weren't even sure we wanted a polar bear. Here we switched away from the bear cub aesthetic into something more of a 'spirit' character - older, wizened, and with inspiration taken from the smooth curves and minimalism of Inuit carvings. We also snagged some help from wildlife artist Amber Hill to help make sure we had all the major anatomy points down. And after several more iterations, settled on this:

The Mechanics

Oh, right, mechanics... We had a feel we liked, a character, an idea, and a set of emotions we wanted to evoke. We knew it had something to do with collecting pieces of the aurora, but how exactly? No idea. Necessity is the mother of invention. When our intended programmer went MIA, I connected with GDIAC - the Game Design Initiative @ Cornell - and sent around an updated pitch looking for AS3 or iOS devs. I was lucky enough to get an interested team of 4. ((You'll note that I dedicated an entire page to 'important aesthetics that will require dev work' -- when the core is feeling and emotion, aesthetics play a huge role)). That meant I actually needed to know how you play this game. I broke the mechanics into the rough sections I wanted:
  • (Explore World)
  • Find Shard
  • Activate Shard
  • Collect Shard
  • (Restore Borealis)
Bouncing ideas with Kim, we knew we wanted something sound-related. Since the team was iOS, I started thinking touch screen, and sound/touch mechanics. I was drawn to the old wine glass trick - circling a damp finger on the rim to generate a tone. But that wasn't fun enough alone, so I added a melody-recall challenge mixed with connect-the-dots. What does that even mean? Good question. I’ve found the best way to unfuzzy an idea is to get it on paper – which brings us to the storyboards.

The Storyboards

I like to start my storyboards story. If I can convey the story of a game in a paragraph, then I should be able to illustrate/storyboard each sentence and get a basic walkthrough. Right? Right. So here's the story:
The light has fallen out of the sky, into the snowy desert of arctic dunes and deep blue dark of oceans. ((setting, conflict)) * You are the eternal guardian, the tireless wanderer, the only living thing in the wasteland. ((character, mood)) * Seek the scattered remnants of the broken borealis, calling into the wind and waiting for echoes. ((purpose, mechanic1)) * The shards have forgotten their power and purpose; awaken them, resonate with them. ((mechanic2)) * Song ignites the shards of shattered aspiration, each unlocked by a melancholic melody. ((mechanic3)) * … [spoiler] ((conclusion/message)) [Image available in concept doc] *
Which brings us to the final concept doc, where we stand now. Up next on the agenda is working out user stories, getting a 30 second "feel loop" of audio for the project, and creating a paper prototype.


My process is a little different every time - and sometimes wildly - but hopefully you got a kick out of your adventure in my brain space, and stay tuned for more.
Update! The next in this series is Making Design Decisions, followed by Prioritizing Development.

5 Responses

  1. Thanks for the insights and good luck on the project!

    Especially the smallness emotion comes across really good just from reading the mechanics and the first art concepts.

    I’d love to see the pbear do a jam session using the shards as various instruments in the credits ;)

  2. Hi Chelsea,
    thanks for sharing your design process, it’s really interesting… and the concept is great, also.

    Found two problems in the page:
    – The updated pitch link is broken
    – comment form uses a font color identical to the backgrund color… which makes leaving a comment a bit awkward :D

  3. Hi Paolo! Thanks for the catches – The text comment issue has now been fixed, and hopefully the links are all working also. :)

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