A Co-Founder of an indie studio Wildbloom Jonathan Criner talked about their upcoming game Highpoint, how the characters were designed, and how the game was balanced.
My name is Jonathan Criner. I’m an Artist, a Co-Founder of an indie studio Wildbloom, and I’m directing Highpoint!
I studied Game Art at Full Sail University and began my career in 2011 at 38 Studios. I worked on Project Copernicus as an Environment Artist and eventually shifted to the Lighting discipline. From there I’ve worked at Volition (Saints Row 4, Agents of Mayhem), Hi-Rez Studios (Paladins), and finally at Epic Games on Fortnite. My work on Fortnite saw me shift from in-game lighting to Marketing/Cinematic Lighting for Splash Art/Key Art/Promotional images.
I’ve been very lucky to work professionally as a game artist but my long-term dreams and aspirations have always been game creation and direction – to nurture and refine a vision through creativity.
I’ve been working on Highpoint since 2016. 5 years is a long time but keep in mind that my art background did me ZERO favors when it came to creating a Multiplayer Sports Game from scratch. I also worked full-time (including crunch), had long commutes, and a growing family – this hasn’t been an “easy” pursuit so Highpoint certainly is a project born from love and perseverance.
I was inspired to embark on my game-making dream but there were a handful of experiences at the time which shaped the starting line of the project. I was playing a lot of Rocket League, IDARB, Gang Beasts, and more – games that are best with friends. American Football was also spinning back up and I think I was really intrigued with the idea of conceptualizing a sport from scratch!
It’s really the “Competitive Spirit” and “Togetherness” of games with friends that I think are the landmark inspirations I wanted to infuse into Highpoint. I’ve said before that Highpoint is “Inspired, not derived”; I was given a creative spark from a wealth of experiences, but I’ve run with them in our own direction.
Regarding the title, Highpoint can be taken very literally or in a more abstract, whimsical manner. Highpoint could refer to our raised goal that players score on. Highpoint could also refer to a meaningful moment, and that’s the way I like to think about it. Ex. “That was the highpoint of our summer.”
We’ve been really loose with our game visuals, barely moving beyond a “broad-stroke” phase; our focus has always been on gameplay and feel. Even with an art background, I was patient and prioritized a strong foundation of play FIRST. The restraint was important to me – I didn’t want a pretty game with bad gameplay. If you can make the game fun with primitives and simple visuals, then you’ll have something special when you bring the art online.
Most of the visuals were prototyped with engine primitives, or rough models, to prioritize ideation and a broad sense of mood/tone over excellence in craftsmanship. But, you can still see intention even in the placeholder visuals. Highpoint is all Summer Vibes and a “Clean Aesthetic” – all wrapped in an emphasis on materials, colors, and lighting.
All of this works to complement the action on the field, the pace of the gameplay, and our characters. Legibility is of high importance, and there’s a certain triumph of cohesion when you strip elements down to their pure forms – no texture, no high-frequency detail. Simplicity that’s well-rendered feels elegant!
I was pretty intimidated by almost every aspect of character design and development. The “floating” Head, Body, and Arms was very intentional. It allowed me a “safety net” to create the bots’ body parts in isolation, and it also reduced challenges with rigging, weight-painting, and animation.
Another reason for the design choice was customization! I want meaningful options and I thought there was no better way than to let players choose their head, their body, and their arms to create the look they want. That choice gives us substantial silhouette variety, each with its own personality, and it makes the customization experience tactile and expressive.
Add to that tons of options for colors, material response, holographic expressions (and more), and it just feels more personal and satisfying than a one size fits all “skin” approach.
Animation for the bots is done in Maya and then we layer in a healthy dose of physics during gameplay to create a charming, fluid (and very physical) look. I’m always shocked when people compliment the gameplay animation because, in Maya, it looks...mediocre at best?
That fluidity comes from a mix of raw animation, physics, and physical animation profiles, and gameplay impulses/effects to create the final look. Each move and impact has tailored physics responses to create the desired look and feel.
Examples: Shooting the ball has almost zero physics because reading the pose and action are so important. Most combat moves have very little physics influence so they’re snappy and responsive to input. We loosen that up for the gliding movement. We really turn things up during strike impacts. We go full physics simulation if your bot impacts the goal post, effectively making them go ragdoll. We have a global control for everything and we’re constantly turning it up and down to complement the play on screen.
Simplicity is so important to the way players interface with the game. We only have 1 Strike Button but we contextualize it for high versatility (all inputs in the game work similarly). We have combat moves that are ground-based and combat moves that are air-based and each has a light (tap) and heavy (hold) option.
It’s been so much fun to expand our combat and there’s more coming! Each move brings its own utility to the table (and its own knockback values). The uppercut is used to attack the vertical plane and hit opponents above you, while the spinning strike is better for horizontal coverage. Both of these are great for blocking shots but each does so in its own way. The heavy ground strike has big knockback and forces a fumble but has a big wind-up and telegraph while the light ground strike is fast without much risk but deals less knockback and requires 2 hits to cause a fumble.
There’s already a lot of mind-games and an almost rock-paper-scissors feel to the combat. More combat moves are coming, as is a big dose of refinement and polish.
Making Satisfying Goals
The number one question people ask is “Can I just Throw/Kick the ball through goal?” (like Soccer, Hockey, etc). Highpoint is built on physicality and tension, and both these elements come to a crescendo at the goal-line. We have thoughtfully designed this moment of confrontation – throwing or kicking the ball into the goal is counter to this– we don’t want you to avoid that moment, we want you to embrace it.
When it comes to the act of scoring, I loved researching what was out there (both real sports and video games) and spent time thinking about how to elevate it. I wanted players to cross through a highly contested “line” (similar to American Football) but the act of simply traversing across a threshold felt passive.
In an early experiment, I used a destructible plane of “glass” and it immediately felt great (and it looked cool too!). What better way to make scoring feel like a moment of action than to have players BREAK THROUGH the goal?! Visualizing the moment of impact is crucial so we seamlessly transition the player camera to a fixed “goal camera” letting players see that juicy transfer of energy (and the aftermath).
Highpoint is possession-based (the ball attaches to the player who’s carrying it). You can almost think of the players themselves as the ball. When you take a shot, you muscle your way through the goal. Players on defense use their combat moves to block (see also “punch”) the incoming player/ball. If your shot collides with the posts, you’ll fumble the ball and fall to the ground in hilarious ragdoll fashion. All of these outcomes provide their own flavor be it a celebration, surprise, or laughter!
The Pass Mechanics
Passing is still a work-in-progress. The challenge has been striking a balance between feeling intuitive and accessible for newer players, while offering room for freedom and expression as players grow in skill level. At different points in development, the mechanic has leaned heavily in one direction – from automatic (and very easy) to full manual (very difficult) passing.
Automatic passing was our second iteration and a pretty solid choice but it lacked flexibility, and as players wanted more control (and as wall-bouncing matured into an option) we moved on to our current system. Like our combat, this passing system has input versatility – tap or hold. A tap will lob the ball a set distance, similar to a short “screen-pass”. This is a great option for Endzone play and works well as a reaction to oncoming pressure. Holding the pass button down gives you a more bullet pass style trajectory and will also preview the flight of the ball – this is an excellent choice for long passes or for using the wall in creative ways.
All of this sounds pretty solid on paper but we still have some work to do when it comes to pass completions and identifying the incoming ball. More passes are incomplete than I’d like and the system takes a while for new players to pick up. While it still has a way to go, we’re seeing the largest amount of variety to date – long and short passes, wall passes, bounce passes, and Alley-Oops!
Balancing the Speed
It’s taken a lot of iteration to get where we are now! When it comes to finding the right balance, I tend to work backward from a high-level vision: what details can I address, what knobs can I turn to support that vision? The entirety of Highpoint is built this way. I’m not a book-learned designer, and I’d probably fail a Game Design 101 course. I have a direction I’d like to go and I follow my gut to check against it. Don’t be afraid to believe in yourself! I’d rather see games that walk their own path (even shakily), over games bathed in buzzwords that make safe choices for a homogenized (and ultimately forgettable) experience.
Game speed is crucial to the success of Highpoint. We’re really happy with where we are now but we’ll be paying attention to it every step of the way. The ”speed” of play doesn’t just refer to traversal as knockback values have a substantial impact as well! In older builds, knockback was so low that the game devolved into a chaotic brawl and left the sport feeling like an afterthought. I began a pursuit of more “meaningful interactions” and it’s done a lot more to balance the sport and the combat.
Every interaction has importance and we let the result breathe for a moment. There is more weight in interactions and you can feel the ebb and flow of the moment-to-moment play, just like an athlete outplaying another. We want to curate moments of competition and to see and feel the result of it.
We’re working to launch our Steam page now so that everyone can Wishlist the game! Once we do that, we’re wanting to start up “Community Play Sessions” – limited windows where we’ll preview and play the latest build together with the community!
From there we’re looking at Early Access! Looking to add more sophistication to combat, defensive options, updated movement, and TONS of new customization and gear! We’re happy with our foundation and we’re excited to build on it! Can’t wait to get Highpoint into everyone’s hands!