Developer interview: Airhead

During a recent HandyGames press event, we got to see Airhead in action, a wonderfully creative platform puzzler where the main character has a detachable and inflatable head that slowly deflates and needs constant refills. Intrigued as we were, we got in touch with game designer and writer Tobias Jørgensen to find out more about the game, which is being developed in Denmark at Octato.

What can you tell us about the team at Octato that’s working on Airhead?

The core team is a small quartet of a producer, a programmer, a writer/level-designer, and the director who also handles graphics and animations.

Andreas Bødker, the director, has a long history in the animation industry. Airhead is his original concept, and it is very much a passion project for him. He’s also handling animations and graphics, while also being hands-on with game design and every other aspect of development.

Victor has worked on a couple of games since he graduated as a game engineer from the IT University of Copenhagen. He has built Airhead’s systems from the ground up using the unity engine, a challenge when dealing with an open world and a character that can drop its head. He also does brilliant work on the technical side of the visual art.

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Tobias, our writer, and level designer, also graduated from ITU but as a game designer, before joining the team. He has a background in languages and literature and is responsible for a lot of external communications, as well as writing tasks directly related to Airhead. He has done a lot of work making sure the world has a strong internal logic and can tell its story mainly through its environment and making sure the puzzles feel like a logical extension of the world.

Jacob co-founded Octato with Andreas and is the producer of Airhead. He juggles communications and coordination with our publisher and the day-to-day function of Octato as a company. He also has an incredible knack for networking and making sure we stay plugged into the industry as a whole – something that is surprisingly important for a small indie outfit like ours.

And while we are the core team, we owe a lot of thanks to a bunch of talented artists and programmers that have contributed to Airhead.

How did the concept for Airhead first come about?

The origin of the concept is difficult to pin down since the idea of Airhead has been buzzing in Andreas’ head for a decade before he got the opportunity to devote himself to the project full time.

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From the beginning, the concept of two organisms needing each other to survive has been the focal point, and this central concept has shaped both the puzzles and the story. Themes of dependency and taking on a responsibility you don’t fully grasp permeate every aspect of Airhead.

From there a large coherent world grew, creating the foundation for the final story of Airhead. It takes a much more focused perspective, really exploring one aspect of the world Andreas has created. In this way, we can deliver a story that is very personal but permeated by a rich backstory that is left for the player to piece together as they explore our game.

What have been the major development stages for Airhead, and which were most challenging?

In 2017 we finally pulled out our original Flash prototype and the old game design document from 2011 and looking at them we realized that we had to make this game.

From there a long period of development was focused on creating an early demo of Airhead we could show to investors and publishers, balancing overall development work with the need for fundraising. It was a challenging time, and as any new indie studio will tell you, there is a lot of rejection on the way to the one deal that will let you finish Airhead. But in the spring of 2019, we finally found HandyGames publishing, and they decided to back our little studio and our quirky idea.

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Not only has their investment allowed us to work non-stop on finishing Airhead, they have also supported us in a number of other ways, including quality assurance and testing – areas that are invaluable for making a great game, but can be very difficult to facilitate for a small company like ours.

The most challenging task in developing Airhead itself has been creating a puzzle game in an open-world setting. Some of the core challenges there have been balancing puzzle difficulties without a definitive progression order, making sure they feel like a natural part of the world, and designing the world in a way that rewards returning to earlier areas. Our game makes use of Metroid-vania style upgrades, which means Airhead’s areas had to be explorable in several different ways, which each return to an earlier area delivering a new experience.

Airhead features a semi-open structure, which is rare for a puzzle game. How do you keep the player moving in the right direction?

Signposting with both assets, light, sound, and having the NPC “guiding” the player have been the focus of our efforts, but there is also a map, revealed as you explore the world and an optional way-point system for players who would rather have clear goals than the freedom to explore on their own.

We are devoted to delivering a challenging game, that hardcore puzzle gamers can feel challenged and rewarded by, but we also don’t want to alienate players who prefer a more guided experience.

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It means our puzzles, especially those that actively incorporate exploration, will be hard and force you to think about the puzzles in a way you might not be used to. But while we love that type of gameplay, we also offer plenty of tools to even out the difficulty curve, giving players the option to engage with our world on their terms.

Part of Airhead is the fact that it’s also a story-driven adventure. How are players presented with the narrative elements?

Through cutscenes the player is presented with a deeper understanding of the creatures and other beings they encounter, while environmental storytelling will reveal the realities of the time before the player arrives in the area where Airhead takes place.

In addition to these main storytelling tools, Airhead also features a library giving further descriptions of the creatures and machines you encounter. These notes are written from a perspective and in a style that will give further clues about the world and its history, to players interested in delving even deeper into the story.

Where in development is Airhead at the moment?

We are nearing the end of the production. All 8 chapters of Airhead are playable, but we are still struggling with achieving just the right difficulty balance for some of the puzzles. From there, we still have a bunch of visuals that need improving, adding set-dressing and lighting to scenes, to preserve the unique look we have achieved in earlier stages of Airhead. And of course, there is still a period set aside for fixing bugs, thorough testing, and the many minor tasks associated with getting a game into its finished state – not to mention some pivotal late game cutscenes depicting the endings (*wink) of Airhead.

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