Developer Interview: Serenity Forge

The collaborative and wonderfully talented studio Serenity Forge released their latest masterpiece, The King’s Bird, on August 23. A momentum platformer boasting unique mechanics and soulful ambient visuals, The King’s Bird is only the latest in a string of individually produced or cooperative indies from Serenity Forge. Based in Boulder, Colorado, this indie studio is a serious, and thoughtful, powerhouse. We had the thorough pleasure of speaking with Founder and Executive Producer Zhenghua Yang (Z) about the studio’s work, its history, and its determination to create truly meaningful experiences for gamers everywhere.

Serenity Forge Logo

|| Is Serenity Forge’s core team still a group that met in high school? We hear your team members go way back, and we also hear you’re currently located in Boulder, Colorado. Have you always been located in Colorado? Who’s a part of your current team?

It’s kind of interesting depending on how you define it. The core team from high school consisted of 4 people, and 2 of the 4 people still remain here, so I guess in a way you can say yes! However, throughout the years we’ve continued to add more core members into the team that really shapes who we are today. We’ve always been located in Boulder, at first working out of a basement and now working out of a cheap office building east side of town. Our core leadership team consists of me, Kevin (our marketing/publishing director who is one of the 4 from high school days), Kersti, our director of development/art director, and Andy, our lead programmer. We have a very open culture where everyone is involved on design and ideas so each project has its own individual creative directors, but overall the company and production is lead by the four of us.

|| Why and how does Serenity Forge seek to produce entries that challenge the way their players think? We understand that Zhenghua Yang (Z) endured a nearly fatal illness that plays a part in this mission.

When I was 18 years old, I was diagnosed with a severe illness that caused me to be hospitalized for 2 years. I’ve always been a gamer and hobby game dev up until this point, however, it wasn’t until I was at my lowest point in life when I truly realized the value of video games. I played all sorts of different games, games such as Chrono Trigger that made me feel like a hero saving the world, and games like League of Legends that introduced me to new friends all over the world online. By going through this experience, I ended up meeting all sorts of medical people who gave me pointers on my illness, and also found the confidence to continue carrying on. Once I began getting better, I couldn’t help but think back and think to myself “these games I played were not meant to help me, but they ended up saving my life. What if I begin designing video games with the intention to help others? Wouldn’t that be very powerful?” That’s why we started our company and create games that always focus on giving players meaningful, tangible, real-world value. Whether if it’s our first Steam game Luna’s Wandering Stars that teaches rocket science, or our recent narrative experiences such as Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, we just want to use our abilities to have players walk away from playing the game as a better person than before.

|| How does it feel to have finally let The King’s Bird leave the nest? Congratulations on your most recent title released on August 23 – it’s a tremendous achievement, and it’s a stellar platforming entry.

The King’s Bird has been a very difficult project. It’s by far our longest project in development but also has always kind of been a side project. For nearly 3 years, the game was only worked on by 2 people on our team as a passion project inspired by games like Journey and Dustforce. However, once we were able to find the resources to fully jump on to the project as a whole team, we were working with 3 years of history and had to finish everything in less than 1 year. If I’m being honest, we had to cut way so much from the game that at this point it’s just a lot of sadness among our team. The world of indie development can be cruel and in order to release the game, we had to cut out around 80% of what we had planned for the game’s polish. As a team that’s so passionate for narratives and story, it was heart breaking for us when we realized we had to make heavy cuts to the game’s characters and plot. We essentially had more than 8 months of narrative work that never ended up making into the game due to many business constraints. That’s just how the world works sometimes and there’s nothing anyone could do about it. Regardless, we’re all nothing but proud of the game. When people do give the game a chance, they discover the unexpected fun that you get out of the very-tested game mechanics we spent years making. We’re really hoping that as time goes on, more people will be able to express themselves through playing the game.

|| Why momentum-based flight? What inspired the unique momentum-based gliding mechanic present in The King’s Bird? Was it difficult to design levels around? How does it complement the standard platforming we also see in the title?

Momentum-based flight just makes sense for a skill-oriented precision platformer. Take games such as Super Meat Boy, or Dustforce, or even a crazy combo chain in Super Smash Bros Melee, there’s always a strong sense of flow. The players almost enter this new state of mind when executing their skills. Being a piano player, I compare it closely to performance on the piano. It’s something that you’ve practiced so well, playing a song you love and you really pour your heart into it. That’s what momentum is, and that’s the kind of experience we wanted to create. When playing The King’s Bird, you’re always encouraged to flow forward. We want to give the players the freedom to both express themselves but also enter a new state of mind and empower them, feeling like they’re on top of the world when they achieve their goals.

|| Why did you decide to focus on accessible gameplay for The King’s Bird? In a world full of back-breakingly difficult titles, The King’s Bird definitively designates itself as “easily accessible.” How come?

As a gamer, one of the first things you see regarding the industry is that there are “hardcore” and “casual” gamers. We always felt like that’s a false construct and wanted to challenge its existence. Take piano for example, there are tons of very skilled piano players who might never really get into video games because they think they’re not good enough, and that’s not true. When you look at a very “hardcore” experience, they’re generally designed to look hard and attract only a specific group of people who know that they will enjoy that experience. But at the same time, tons of people enjoyed games like Ori and the Blind Forest or Hollow Knight, despite them being extremely difficult games. We wanted to make The King’s Bird to look accessible in order to almost… “trick” the player into thinking “yes, I can do it.” And then before you know it, they’re executing jumps and dashes on the same skill level as any “hardcore” precision platformer would, competing over high scores and improving on their time. We wanted to use this to change the perception that the blanket group of “hardcore gamers” doesn’t exist, and everyone can be “hardcore” about something.

|| How does not having text to communicate your narrative affect storytelling? Did you find it challenging to not be able to use words? Does the lack of talking speak to a larger underlying theme in The King’s Bird?

So in the end, we had to actually add text to the game, so the game isn’t textless like we originally designed (and this decision was made about… 3 weeks before launch?). We really wanted to take the narrative execution of Shadow of the Colossus or Journey and tell a story that way. The game is still very minimal and has very limited text. I guess the easiest answer to the question would be that not having text increased the game’s scope greatly, because now narratives had to rely on cutscenes and animations instead of text (which are much more time consuming to create). We also had to spend much more time polishing the world, art, level design, just to make sure we’re showing the right narrative. Overall, I think it created a more accessible and interesting experience, and we definitely learned a lot going forward.

|| How do the ancient Mayan, Southeast Asian, and Roman structural silhouettes play a role in The King’s Bird’s story, if they do? Why these cultures, specifically?

I’m glad you caught this, because they play a huge role in the game. The architecture design was something we spent a ton of time on in the beginning in order to really build a fleshed out world. We wanted to create a world that players feel like they’re going to vastly different areas and exploring new cultures every time. The Forest Kingdom is inspired a lot by the “Earth Kingdoms” out there, such as “Avatar the Last Airbender.” It’s a place of commerce, population, and life. It contains the slums, but at the same time, tons of nature. The Sunken Kingdom was inspired by the coastal towns of South East Asia and the Mayans. It also takes inspirations from Mediterranean towns, or Spanish architecture. Being a world where it’s secluded, filled with hidden knowledge, but also where 90% of the kingdom is now submerged underwater, we created an air of intelligence but also mystery. Lastly, the Sky Kingdom was inspired primarily by the Romans. It’s a group of proud, accomplished people who brought their own demise doing what they do best. Living in the sky on floating islands with fantastical waterfalls away from the “common folk.” These people build statues and pillars to express their egos and ultimately gives the game a strong sense of progression for the player to reach such amazing heights.

|| Serenity Forge’s publishing branch has the chance to go back in time and publish any past developer’s title. Which one is it, and why? Are there any studios or games you particularly admire, and would enjoy working alongside?

Oh, so many. Granted, that I have no idea how the business details are so maybe it’s not as simple as it looks, but in the imaginary world that we get to work on any past titles, Gone Home would easily be top of that list. Journey, Bastion, The Stanley Parable, Limbo, To the Moon, Braid, Papers Please, Mother series… All of these games are amazing inspirations that really taught us to become the developers we are today. We have an undying admiration for the team at Supergiant Games, as well as giant international companies doing amazing work such as Square Enix. We are continuously inspired by our friends, partners, and other developers on a daily basis.