Even prior to its release, AER has already garnered favorable nods from certain quarters of the games media, with RPS’s John Walker labeling the game as “looking like something rather ace“. Now that the game is looking to be released this year, I spoke to Robin Hjelte (CEO of Forgotten Key) about his fledgling Swedish independent game studio, and what inspired him, as Designer of AER, to make a “a game in which you play as a girl with the ability to transform into a bird. You will fly to explore and experience a world of floating islands, where exploration will be the key to unlock secrets and progress through a story leading you to the end of the world. Ultimately, you will challenge the Gods and save reality itself.”
Is AER Forgotten Key’s first game?
This is our second game that we’re going to release. We have released one small game earlier. It was a short, point-and-click adventure in our first year. But this is definitely the first major game that we are making.
We’ve been around for like five years. We started the company while we were in university. We won a game concept award. And then we won the same award three times in a row. We did a lot of prototypes and stuff that we wanted to do. But there was nothing that really caught our attention that much during those middle years before AER. And AER was the last one we won that award with. So we’ve been working with that since.
How long has AER been in development for?
Between two and three years.
Is that full-time or part-time?
Full-time. We were quite new. We started when we graduated from university. So there were a lot of things we did wrong early on. And there was also a lot of focus on trying to find partners to work with, because otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to go through development. These last one and a half year have been super productive. And we’ve been working with Daedalic during that time.
You’re quite a young person, and you have your own development firm. What sort of difficulties have you had in setting up your own development firm? And why decide to go down the whole independent route, as opposed to working for an established organization?
Almost everything was a challenge. We didn’t have money. There was no one from the team that had money earlier on. So I think it’s a combination of us really liking the concept that we put forward during our Bachelor thesis project, and the reality in Sweden is that there are maybe 300-400 game development students that graduate every year. But there are only like 2500 working in the games industry and earning money in Sweden. So it felt like it would be very difficult to find employment. So we went with what we had and tried to make something out of it. And it’s turned out to be a pretty good path to go.
I know that the inspiration for AER’s art style came from Journey and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. But what was the inspiration for the game itself?
For the art style, I would obviously say Wind Waker and Journey. But I think for the game… So we started out with exploration. And we wanted it to be something that encouraged you to explore. And for that we needed a fun way to move around. We needed some mystical world or something that really rewarded you for finding out new stuff. We needed things around it. So actually, when we started out, we made this really small prototype. It was like a few islands in the sky because we liked it and we had found this low poly art style that we also thought was pretty cool. But it wasn’t as refined as it is now. And you also had a little girl that could fly. But she actually had a hang-glider. So we tried to explore that. And then we encountered a way of doing this flying mechanic, which felt really smooth. And we just went with it. We continued to do that…
After that little prototype, which was built in five to eight weeks, we made a trailer for the kind of game that we wanted to make, based on what we had learned from that prototype. And it was that trailer that we released, before there was anything on the game… And it was picked up by all the major channels. And it was only afterwards that we felt like, “Okay, this is worth putting some risk into, because there are others apart from us who also like this.” And then we thought it was actually possible to go through with it.
AER’s an open-world game. Can you fly forever, or are there invisible walls after a certain point in time?
We have encapsulated the world. We wanted to do something quite nice where it just pushes you back into the world. But it was a bit more difficult than we imagined. And we wanted to put the focus on the stuff that actually mattered, which is inside the game. So when you fly too far out, you will just reset to the nearest respawn point. There is one in each island cluster, maybe a few more, I’m not quite sure. Within the world, there are no restrictions on where to go at any point, except that the temples are each locked with a key. And you have to find the keys first…
Just like Zelda…
So I guess it’s almost like Zelda, by which you have invisible walls around Hyrule…
The problem with open-world games… And I don’t want to mention Mad Max because that is more of an open-world game than your average quasi-open-world game, which AER is. What challenges have you encountered in ensuring that the open world isn’t boring, that there are plenty of things to do, and that there are loads of secrets to discover?
If you say “open-world game”, you often put expectations in the players’ mind. They think about games such as the Elder Scrolls series or Mad Max, as you said. And it’s not like we have all these different, small things that you can do or pick up or whatever. We have a really tight and polished flying mechanic. And we built the levels to invite the player to play. So when you fly, we have put up islands with small holes in them, and we have built paths that you can fly around. It creates a feeling as you fly down these paths. So that was one important part.
Then of course, when you land on these different islands, we tried to put down as many special places and story pieces that you can pick up. And the world just feels alive and reacts to you. And that, coupled with really cool vistas in almost every scene of the game, makes it quite enjoyable. So even though it’s quite large, it doesn’t feel overwhelmingly huge because you have this flying ability. And many of the islands are also there to just enhance the feeling of it being cool and fun to fly around. But we tried to hide as much stuff in there as possible. So there are some secret areas as well that you can go and find and look around in.
Inside the temples, we have also hid a few things. The temple areas are different because these are more linear than the open world. We wanted to have that contrast. So we have a change of pace during the game. So these are more linear where we present you with puzzles and some objectives that you have to complete whilst inside the temples. And the temples also have their own gods that reside in them and their own past stories. And we tried to build these super-atmospheric environments inside these places to really convey that feeling…
Is there any sense of character progression? I don’t want to mention “crafting”, but do you pick up any abilities and are there any RPG mechanics?
No, there is nothing like that. We want you to explore. The kind of progression we wanted a player to have…
…is entirely story-based.
Yeah, exactly. You could say that the game is more about finding stuff and then making sense of it. So you have a lot of different story snippets that are connected. But it’s kind of up to you to puzzle everything together. And that’s the progression we wanted to give to players. But if you complete a temple, the game will tell you that you’ve completed it. And if you complete all three of them, you will unlock the last location. So it’s that kind of progression.
It’s a story-based progression?
Yeah, exactly. It doesn’t give you…
So it’s more Journey as opposed to Zelda?
Yeah, I would say in that sense it’s more like that. But with puzzles and stuff, so it’s a bit of both.
Okay. You mentioned as to how AER’s got three worlds, or three dungeons, or three things you have to unlock before you get to the final stage. How long would the game take the average person to complete?
It’s very much dependent on how much you like to explore. If you land on every island and want to find everything, then it’s probably going to take you more hours. But if you’re aiming for just completing the game as fast as possible… about three to five hours.
What engine have you used? Is it Unity?
Yeah, it’s Unity.
What advantages do you think Unity has over other engines – such as Unreal?
We are a small team. And it’s been crucial that everyone in the team kind of learned the engine. And I think Unity is very accessible for a lot of people. And also, how easy it is to build your own tools inside the engine… Unreal is a very competent engine, and we could have done something great in that as well if we had put the same amount of time in learning it. But when you’re a smaller team, I think that Unity is just faster for you to work with. But it heavily depends on the skills of your team. So both Unity and Unreal are superb engines in their own way.
Unity is cross-platform, so with that taken into account, what platforms is AER coming out on?
We’re releasing on PC, Mac, and Linux, but also on XBox One and PlayStation 4.
Is AER a digital release?
I know of Microsoft’s ID@XBox program as well as Sony’s own indie publishing initiative. But even with that taken into account, because you’re a small developer that doesn’t really have a lot of experience in games development, how easy have Microsoft and Sony been to work with as an independent developer like yourself?
It’s been quite good. We worked with Sony earlier, so we have quite good connections there. It’s been quite a good journey so far. We have Daedelic with us as well, and they’ve been helping us out with that relationship as well. We’re doing the porting in-house, but we’ve got everything we need to do that. Now it’s more about making sure that AER actually works as it should and the game’s optimized enough to run smoothly on the consoles and then passes the certification process.
Any plans of releasing on Nintendo?
Not right now, but we’ll have to see. Building for a new platform is always expensive and difficult. So when we release on the current platforms, and if everything goes well, then we might consider moving to other platforms as well, Nintendo included.