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Postmortem: Developing Viewfinder, a Surreal Perception-Bending Puzzle Game

Sad Owl Studios' Game Director Matt Stark shared some insights into the production process behind Viewfinder, discussed optimizing the game for different platforms, and recounted the game's successful launch.

Across tens of thousands of video games that get launched every single day, surreal video games featuring non-Euclidean geometry, optical illusions, and perspective-based tricks have always stood out for their unique approach to level design and gameplay mechanics, setting them apart from other genres.

Last year, Sad Owl Studios and Thunderful Publishing delighted fans of such games with the launch of Viewfinder, a perception-bending puzzle game that quickly garnered the attention of thousands of players, earning its place alongside classics like Antichamber and Superliminal. Powered by Unity, the game provides players with an instant camera that allows them to reshape their surroundings and uncover new locations, challenging them to navigate its levels and solve puzzles by manipulating reality.

To delve deeper into Viewfinder's story, development, and reception, we recently spoke to Sad Owl Studios' Game Director, Matt Stark, who shared insights into the game's production process, discussed the optimization for different platforms, and recounted the game's successful launch.

Discussing the early days of Viewfinder, Matt revealed that it was the first game he had worked on professionally. According to the developer, he started making the prototype during the second year of university, but once he'd seen how much attention the videos received, he decided to drop out of university and focus on developing Viewfinder full-time.

"I've always enjoyed exploring and prototyping ideas for games, and in 2018, I decided to start showing off my work and my process on Twitter. I'd heard the game development community was very active on the platform, so I thought it might help me get into the industry. Also, it was fun to connect with like-minded people and get feedback!

Over time, I increasingly focused on making the kind of things that were getting more engagement. For example, I focused on making things that were visually interesting and surprising. I love optical illusions, so I experimented with creating perspective-based illusions. It was around this time that I had the idea for Viewfinder, where the player could convert a 2D image into a 3D part of the world. I didn't start making it until I thought to incorporate a retro instant camera – seeing the photo come out of a recognizable physical object could emphasize the physicality and flatness of the photo, making it more surprising to see the photo become 'real'."

When asked about preparing the game for PC and PlayStation 5, Matt told us that the main challenge was the performance cost of taking a photo and placing a photo:

"Both actions are central to gameplay, and it's crucial that they both feel seamless and immediate. They require modifying a lot of meshes over the course of a single frame, so if the performance cost is too high, there'll be a noticeable stutter. Early on in the project, I worked around this by keeping the environments very low-poly, but as our visual style became more elaborate, we had to optimize the mesh code. Our programmer Jacob employed a variety of techniques to optimize the mesh slicing code to within an inch of its life!"

As you may have guessed, collecting feedback on puzzle games requires some finesse so as not to spoil anything for potential players. Here's how Sad Owl Studios approached that delicate task:

"Since surprise and solving puzzles are key elements of the game, we were cautious about what we shared publicly before launch. We primarily collected feedback from our playtesters, closely watching their playthroughs to identify potential issues. We released a Steam demo a few months before launch, and this was really helpful for identifying issues that only showed up on certain hardware, as well as generally creating some buzz around the game."

Upon launch, Viewfinder was warmly welcomed by the community, receiving favorable reviews from both gamers and critics alike and getting two nominations at The Game Awards 2023. Recounting the game's release and the time shortly prior to it, Matt had this to say:

"The days after the game launched felt absolutely surreal. People were creating reviews, playthroughs, and other content much faster than I could keep up with. The game was now entirely out of my control, but it was truly magical seeing it bring people joy. It was very interesting seeing how reactions compared to playtests and our intentions. It's satisfying when a player reacts exactly how we'd intended for them to, but it's also exciting to see them engage with it in unexpected ways.

I tried to keep my expectations low to reduce my stress. I've heard how tough this industry can be, so I tried to focus on the goal of shipping the game. I felt like the core mechanic was cool enough that I'd be proud of it no matter what state it ended up in. Since launch, I've been delighted with how well the game's been received. One aspect of the game's success that I've really enjoyed is how frequently people I meet have already heard of the game or even played it."

Finally, we asked Matt about the lessons his debut game taught him and the main challenges of Viewfinder's development. According to the developer, he got burned out from stress partway through the project, so he had to rethink his relationship with the work and learn to recognize and address bad work habits. "Game development is a marathon, not a sprint, and mental health is really important," Matt told us.

"I didn't have much experience with leadership or working as a designer in a team, so I had a lot to learn. Here are some points off the top of my head:

  • Don't get too attached to ideas and be open to change. A lot will change over the course of a project.
  • Be willing to deprioritize things. Understanding how much each thing matters for the player experience is an essential part of the role of the designer. Deciding to cut something can be just as important for the design as deciding to add something.
  • Being able to explain your decisions is important. It can help get other people on board, but it's also a really valuable tool for scrutinizing your own ideas. If you find it difficult to convincingly explain a decision, that might be a sign you need to reconsider it."

Matt Stark, Director & Designer of Viewfinder

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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