The Game Director and Co-Lead of Half Past Yellow Max Wrighton told us about the studio's upcoming adventure game Trading Time: A Croak Tale and talked about the trading mechanics.
Hi! I’m Max Wrighton, Game Director and Studio Co-Lead at Half Past Yellow. We’re a Copenhagen-based game development studio founded in 2017. Coming from a background of game-jamming and quick prototypes, Half Past Yellow was created to turn a group of friends’ passion into a business. We are currently a small team of 8 working at the studio on Trading Time. In 2018, we released an old-school dungeon crawler game for iOS and Android called Tiny Tomb, and if you like our work, you can check out a few free prototypes currently up on Itch.io.
I studied game design at Abertay University in Dundee before coming to Copenhagen to continue my studies at ITU. Half Past Yellow was founded just as I finished up with the university.
We began to work on Trading Time around April 2020. The initial idea was much smaller in scope, a simple game about exploration that had players tracking down wanted items and completing multi-stage trades with static NPC characters, there wasn’t even going to be jumping.
As a team, we are heavily inspired by Nintendo titles (both old and new), specifically Zelda and Mario. I have always liked the multi-stage trading quests found in some Zelda games, like the Big Goron Sword quest in Ocarina of Time or the lengthy One Small Favour quest in RuneScape. We wanted to refine these types of quests into a core gameplay experience in a world that is exciting to explore with lots to do. A Short Hike is a big inspiration to us in that regard, it is such a tightly packed and dense experience that encourages players to relax and enjoy their time with the game instead of racing to finish it.
During the early prototype phase, we expanded the idea a lot: How can we make the character more fun to control? How could time of day affect the world, items, and NPCs? How can items affect the player and NPCs? How do we tell an interesting story without dialogue? Now the game is an interesting mix of open-world exploration, platformer, and puzzle game where players are encouraged to get distracted on this quaint island of frogs.
With the art style of Trading Time, we aim to invoke a bit of nostalgia in players who enjoyed 16-bit top-down games and/or 3D games from the mid-90s to early 00s while still keeping the style accessible and interesting for brand new players who didn’t have those experiences growing up.
Artistically, we are inspired by 90s cartoons like “Tales from Moominvalley” as well as early 2000’s cell-shaded games like “The Wind Waker”. This combination of toon lighting, low poly models, compact textures, and vibrant colors results in the Trading Time style.
The world of Trading Time at first glance is very cute, vibrant, and cartoony, but we also try to show a bit of loneliness and melancholy in the narrative. This is what makes the game easily accessible and appropriate for all players while still giving narrative depth to players who look for it.
As a team, we have the most experience using Unity3D. This is mainly because when we were game jamming together as a group before Half Past Yellow, Unity was always a great way to get our projects up and running as quickly as possible in those tight time frames. Now at Half Past Yellow, we of course just kept using Unity and have built and collected our own little library of proprietary tools and a few plugins that we use to make life easier when making our games.
Beyond the game engine, we use Blender for 3D production and animation. Textures are made in Krita, Photoshop, and 3DCoat. 2D art is created in Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. For sound, we use Reaper, Cubase, WaveLab, with FMOD as a middleware.
We use Unity’s basic terrain tool to create the shape of the island and how everything is connected together. We block out areas of the island with cubes of different colors (green for forest, white for houses, etc.) and circle back to fill in those areas with environment art later. Playing the game while blocking out and refining the area is super important, we want the island to be.
We get a lot of mileage out of modular assets like trees, rocks, bridges, bushes, and more, these objects fill the space with life and make the island feel dense while more unique objects like statues, houses, and ruins make each area feel fresh.
We are a small team, so it is actually just our Art Director, Casper Petersen, who concepts, models, textures, rigs, and does the basic animations for all the characters in the game! We did have an additional animator working with us for a brief period on some unique animations, but as far as the pipeline goes, Casper is our one-man army!
Since Casper does both the concepting and the eventual modelling, he doesn’t make the concepts too elaborate but just enough to get the idea across and guide his modelling approach. A lot of the finer detail gets decided and fleshed out while modelling the characters in Blender.
After modelling, the characters are rigged using Rigify, Blender’s automated rigging system, which has nice “squash and stretch” and is generally fun to work with. To get the bouncy, toon-like animation style in Trading Time, we preserve the stretchiness when exporting to Unity by parenting all the bones of the rig to the root bone in Blender, essentially “flattening” the rig and allowing all bones to move independently if needed.
We can easily share animations (with a little clean up) between the characters with the rig set up this way. This allows us to save time and be a little more efficient in creating the large cast we have.
Economy and Quests
From a narrative perspective, there is no real economy on the island and the frog society is generally run on a bartering system, trading one item for another. One frog (The Merchant) is trying to kickstart a currency, but that isn’t going very well.
From a player perspective, quests are built out of multiple trades. The Sailor’s goal when they first arrive on the island is to fix their boat, but the materials they need are held by frogs who want something in return, getting the required items could mean more trades, puzzle solving, further exploration, or a little bit of cheating and stealing.
After deciding on a cast of characters, our approach to quest creation was to brainstorm what types of things characters would have and what kinds of things they would want, from there we could connect and expand these chains and bridge gaps with environmental puzzles. The end result is a spaghetti network of trading chains that span across the island between multiple frogs and The Sailor.
The main challenge in all of this has been communication with the player. We set ourselves the goal of simple picture and speech bubble communication because we like the visual and felt it fit thematically with the idea of washing up on a strange island where the locals don’t speak the same language. It has been really important for us to manage the confusion level of players. Ultimately, we want players to find their own way and engage with the distractions we put out across the island while also keeping their overarching goal in mind.
We are currently working on the full Trading Time release. The prologue story we released recently was just a taste of larger plans and Trading Time: A Croak Tale will feature a bigger island, more characters, bonus player movement abilities, and more. Beyond that, who knows? We’re always up to something new and strive to constantly create fresh, exciting experiences for our fans to enjoy - stay tuned!
For beginners, it is important to learn the tools of the trade with small projects, completing even the smallest of games (either alone or as a team) gives you a new appreciation for game development while adding to your portfolio. For me personally, attending a game development university helped a lot as I was thrown into a community of like-minded individuals who all wanted to create games. It allows you to get experience working in a team and possibly open the door to new opportunities like exchange programs and placements.
There are many paths to take into game development, so it is often hard to give generalized advice. The most important thing is to just keep making stuff! Get out there and meet people at game jams (offline/online) to help make little prototypes together, put your stuff online for people to see - make as many prototypes as you can! Don’t be discouraged by your first projects not being so great – games are hard! Just keep at it, always be learning, and eventually, you’ll realize that each prototype is a little better than the last.
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