Merging 2D and 3D Mechanics to Create a Video Game

Andrew Czarnietzki told us about designing Curved Space, a game that combines both 2D and 3D looks, discussed the game industry, and gave some advice to aspiring game developers.


I'm Andrew Czarnietzki, an interdisciplinary Game Developer (Programmer and Designer). I've been making games for about 20 years, with most of that as part of the Serious Games studio I co-founded: Serious Labs. I’ve shipped a lot of projects, including a line of VR Crane sims. More recently the hobby project I was working on with my wife Jen Laface started to grow roots and turn into something real: Curved Space. We started production on Curved Space in 2019, and launched the game on June 29th! (PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Switch). We are excited to finally share this with the world!

Only By Midnight

We took the plunge in 2019 to dive into Curved Space and founded Only By Midnight. We also started to look at the big question of "what comes next". Curved Space plays to my strengths as a Programmer and Designer, but to take this studio to the next level we needed to go beyond the specific skillsets of Jen and myself. Enter our core team that brings world-class Illustration (Michael Csokas), 3D Art and Lighting (Gerry Ricard), and Narrative Design (Amber Scott). Together we've spent the last 9 months working on the prototype for our dream project, The Tragic Kingdom!

Curved Space and The Tragic Kingdom

Curved Space started with a love of classic arcade-style shmups, synth-wave/cyberpunk music, and a fascination with 2D mechanics projected into 3D space. At Serious Labs, I was the Designer for the lightmapping software pureLIGHT and spent a lot of time considering the encoding of information on a 3D surface. I started wondering "Can there be a fun game in 2D space expressed on a 3D surface? If so, how would this work and how could it be high performance enough for gaming?" 

The team was small: myself on development and Jen on adding a story and theme to my crazy mechanics. Jen asked the question "Why are we shooting things on a 3D surface?" and suggested we add "trans-temporal-space-spiders"!  

Once we secured funding we were able to bring in some additional support, especially around art. Gerry (whom I've worked with at Serious Labs for years) did an amazing job elevating the environments and ships.  

Curved Space was all about finding fun on a 3D surface. It leaned into classic arcade inspirations, as well as a retro 80's aesthetic. A lot of this was heavily inspired by the visuals associated with synth-wave/cyberpunk music. I fell in love with the music that I was listening to during development, most of which turned out to be from the record label FiXT Neon. FiXT has been absolutely amazing! We were able to license the full soundtrack through them, which really helped solidify the theme and feel for Curved Space!

If Curved Space evolved organically, The Tragic Kingdom is a much more considered answer to the question of "What would our dream project look like if we had our fully funded dream team?" We've always been big fans of action RPGs and Metroidvanias – games that feature exploration and can tell a real story. We were also inspired by games like Hollow Knight and Celeste – brilliant examples of what a lean team can achieve when the story, art, and game mechanics are perfectly in sync. Jen pitched us a concept about a "Man Made of Paper" with his "Dog Made of Ink" in a surreal steampunk dreamworld, unfolding the mystery of a magical cataclysm where the "world screamed green". The concept instantly resonated. Over the course of the prototype, we've built out a deep and meaningful narrative, as well as a unique art style that builds upon the 2D-3D concept by creating a 3D papercraft world inhabited by 2D living illustrations!

Merging 2D and 3D Gameplay

If you draw a laser beam in a normal 2D game or even a 3D game, it's a straight line. But if you project the 2D laser to a 3D surface, that line warps and bends in fascinating ways. It's surprising, surreal, but also somewhat consistent and intuitive. This led to a lot of the game design for Curved Space – really playing up the experience that happens when 2D objects and motions are projected into 3D space. It also fed a lot of the themes of dimensional intersection, such as the Rifts projecting from higher-dimensional space into 3D spheres and then 2D curves and obstacles.

The Tragic Kingdom further leans into the "surreal" feeling we get with the 3D distortion of 2D surfaces. We've used this technology to build what we call "Inception moments", where gravity shifts and distorts. If you consider the classic M.C. Escher drawing of the staircases, our technology allows us to navigate that space while still technically being a 2D sidescroller!

Under the hood, the big concept is to leverage the UV space of 3D objects to create a 2D world in which we can express physics and gameplay. One of the biggest advantages of going into UV space is that we can use the GPU to do some interesting processing for us, such as generating vector fields that are used for VFX and organic pathfinding. One of the biggest challenges is handling the non-Euclidean nature of the 2D space: I effectively needed to implement a 2D version of Portal to handle seams such as the one required on our Mobius Strip level.  

Using a Home-Made Technology

The core technology, which we've called the Surface Engine, is basically a library of tools that allows us to handle 2D physics on 3D surfaces. While there is a fair bit of DNA between Curved Space and The Tragic Kingdom, both use this technology in rather different ways. Curved Space unwraps more condensed objects like spheres, asteroids, and a Mobius strip – which make sense for an arena-centric game.  

The Tragic Kingdom (TTK), as a Metroidvania, needs to go beyond self-contained arenas. We've expanded the technology to allow us to define Lanes – basically wide ribbons threaded through 3D space. The 2D physics takes place on the surface of these Lanes with a whole suite of technology to handle how these Lanes are authored, how the camera works, and how the player can move between Lanes.  

We've spent a lot of effort making sure that the core technology is performant, stable, and also easy to author. On Curved Space it allows us to drive over 10,000 surface-bound objects on Nintendo Switch (>100,000 on next-gen consoles). For TTK, we've also created an in-engine system for authoring and manipulating Lanes – closing the gap between level design and 3D modeling.

The Target Audience

Curved Space is all about finding the fun within the 2D to a 3D surface concept – though it was certainly influenced by my loving twin sticks and shmups as a player! I also wanted to make something that people haven't seen before – game dev is more accessible than ever, but I didn't want to just make a default settings FPS. The target audience is basically someone with nostalgia for these types of games but open for a new take – see players who enjoy Geometry Wars, Steredenn, Rezogun, etc.

The Business Side of Gamedev

I've had some great mentors on the business side, which really helped prepare me for topics such as creating a new business, raising capital, and leading a team. Unfortunately, my mentors and personal experience have always focused on Business-to-Business enterprise software and not Business-to-Consumer entertainment games. I had an inkling that marketing and finding the audience would be a challenge, but it was still bigger than I expected. Thankfully we were able to raise some capital, shoutout to the Edmonton Screen Industries Office, which allowed us to invest in some external marketing support and eventually close a deal with Maximum Games. Maximum Games have been amazing to work with, and I’m especially excited to see the physical version of Curved Space!

While I've leveled up as a programmer in creating Curved Space, Jen and I have both learned a ton about the marketing side of the business. Understanding how marketing works and how to speak about our product has been a valuable skill! Our pitch to the Canadian Media Fund for The Tragic Kingdom prototype, let alone our new pitch to funders both private and public, would not have been possible without the lessons learned through Curved Space.

Becoming a Part of the Game Industry

The first part is to simply get yourself out there. I've had some great mentors in my history, and I am always happy to pay it forward and share my experience with others. I know several of my peers feel similarly. To any recent graduates out there – find these senior people in your network (including communities like gamedev Twitter or GameCamp Edmonton) and reach out! Invite devs like us for a virtual coffee!

Second, you'll ultimately need some skill in order to offer value and get a job in this space. The trick is finding some discipline that you enjoy. If you love what you do, practice comes easy – and with it marketable skills. It will take a lot of hours to get your toe in the door professionally, but if you get involved and put the time in, you'll build those skills. I would suggest however that while I'm “self-taught” for a lot of my own career, my biggest regret is not working with senior mentors earlier. I learned a lot about programming starting out, but my skill level jumped through the roof after I spent time working with guys like Steve Hladky from Serious Labs.  

I've seen a lot of new grads or hobbyists basically enter the market with junior-level skills and go "I'm going to start my own company, build a large team, and we're going to take on Final Fantasy". This never goes well. Part of this is scope, but the other part is that these teams often need to learn everything from scratch compared to being able to draw on the experience. I only founded my own studio after almost 20 years of professional experience and some really great business and technical mentors – even now I barely feel qualified to do so. Whether you are a new dev looking to learn programming, an entrepreneur trying to build the next great studio, or even an experienced veteran growing their career, I highly recommend finding good mentors who can help you be the best you can be in this space.

Andrew Czarnietzki, President and Lead Developer at Only by Midnight

Interview conducted by Theodore Nikitin

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