The Starwhal Interview: Flopping Neon Narwhals in Space

Two years ago, Breakfall emerged from the Toronto Global Game Jam with Starwhal, a local multiplayer prototype about flopping neon narwhals stabbing each other in outer space. The game proved to be an unexpected grassroots hit thanks to word of mouth and well-received appearances at events like Wild Rumpus and Gamercamp, and the positive reception inspired the team to push the game into full development.

One Kickstarter campaign later, the finished version of Starwhal is now available for the PS3, PS4, and Steam and is slated for the Wii U later in the year. We spoke with the team shortly after the launch about the journey from game jam to retail, touching on local multiplayer design philosophy and a few of the trials the team faced along the way.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Dork Shelf: Where did the original idea for Starwhal come from?

Jason Nuyens: It started at a game jam about two years ago. We started with the idea of something simple but fun, something physics based, and we just said ‘yes’ to a whole bunch of things. It turned into flopping neon narwhals in space.

Jan Kozlowski: At the time we made the game we wanted something with janky-looking physics, so that’s why the narwhals look the way they do. People seem to love it. When they first play the game they immediately have a smile on their face and that gets them into that mode of one more game, one more game.


DS: Most jam games don’t go on to become full productions. At what point did you realize that Starwhal could be something bigger?

Mike Keogh: It did well at the jam, but I don’t think any of us had any expectation of this being our next big game. The response we got was amazing. People just loved it, and it got picked up by a bunch of big blogs and we started getting tons of plays on our website. It took off on its own, so we ran with it.

DS: How did the development process evolve once you began targeting a commercial launch?

Jan: We knew we had the core game that everyone seemed to love, so we didn’t change the core. The narwhals in the game are the same narwhals that were in the original version. We’ve added costumes and extra modes. A lot of people came to us and said, ‘What about power ups?’ That was an internal debate. We decided to keep it the same, but add a little extra around the edges.

Jason: Ricky Haggett and HoneySlug introduced us to some people at Sony and then it snowballed. It’s interesting. If you create something extraordinary, people will go out of their way to help you get that thing moving.

Mike: It became a question. If we actually want to sell this, what can we add to the experience? It’s a simple game. Everyone starts on even footing, and there isn’t a lot to learn. So we wanted to add features that are immediately understandable. I pushed for power ups, but backed off because the fun is not having an advantage. It was all about adding aesthetic content. We added tons of music, stages, and a single player challenge mode. It was moving out from that core without ever changing that center, which is what we have been doing for two years.

Jason: That’s two years of flopping narwhals.

Mike: What’s amazing is we’re not tired of the game. We still play it and have fun.


DS: Do you ever find that you’ve gotten too good at the game? Can you still remember what it feels like to play it for the first time?

Mike: We’ve talked a lot about the learning curve. Do people get so good they just dominate? I’m definitely better than your average newcomer, but they still tag me. It’s so fast and immediate. It’s a big possibility space from very simple inputs, and that’s what keeps it interesting. Different people express themselves differently when they’re playing.

Jan: A couple of the shows that we’ve been at, we did pose a challenge to newcomers, saying if you can beat Jason, then we’ll give you a free t-shirt. Very few people can do it. But we still view it as silly fun. If we’re playing one on one, then it’s serious business. But as soon as we put in a couple people – 2v2 on one of the lava levels – it becomes Smash Bros. for us.

Jason: On launch day we played 2v2 to stream it for newcomers. We started a brand new strategy, stacking on top of each other.

Mike: Narwhal phalanx.

Jason: It’s still fun for us to try new things like that.

DS: It can take a while for new players to learn the controls, so is there any concern that hazards like the lava become alienating for newer players?

Jan: The first game only had three levels, but now we’re up to over 25. Some people won’t like the lava. It might be too hard for them. But we have tons of levels that are completely beginner friendly. The first level in each world will never pose any kind of problem. We figured some people will play a lot and want an additional challenge. It’s available to them, but I don’t think we’re alienating any beginners, because we recognize that people want to have fun.


DS: Is that why you added the challenge mode, or was there pressure to add single player content to what is primarily a multiplayer game?

Jason: There was no outside pressure. However, we started thinking of ways to make a more well-rounded package. We knew we weren’t going to do online multiplayer. If we did, then we probably would have foregone challenge mode, so that’s the route we went down. We wanted to have increasing levels of difficulty.

Mike: It wasn’t a question of challenge mode or online multiplayer, because online multiplayer is the most requested feature, for obvious reasons. We would love to have online multiplayer. But there were some pretty significant technical challenges syncing all the physics. Challenge Mode wasn’t ‘instead of.’

Jan: I shouldn’t say ‘instead of,’ but we wanted to make sure there was enough value in it.

Jason: We added AI players. That was not in the earlier versions.

Mike: I gave the web link to a few people. They’re like, ‘maybe I’ll try later when I have friends over.’ We wanted something for someone to do if they were alone, a way to engage with the game. That’s where challenge mode and the AI come from.

DS: Starwhal has made numerous appearances at showcases like Wild Rumpus and Gamercamp. How important was that public demo process for building word of mouth?

Jan: It’s huge. Some of the earlier ones like Wild Rumpus and Gamercamp led to other things. We were at Fantastic Arcade in Austin, Texas. I think that’s how Rooster Teeth found out about us, and that was our big breakout in popularity because they did a Let’s Play video. They got, I think, half a million views, which was nuts, and then things started increasing from there.

Jason: If you’re developing a local multiplayer game, you cannot ask for better treatment than to be at all these parties. When you’re in a party setting, you just have more fun. You fool around more. It’s great for this kind of game.

Jan: Before we did the Kickstarter, we distilled a bunch of reactions, and what makes people realize the game is fun is not the gameplay itself. You see people’s faces light up. We put together a video for our Kickstarter that was 90 percent reactions to the game. It went over well. We had a successful Kickstarter.

DS: At one point the game had a subtitle, Starwhal: Just the Tip, which drew some criticism. What led to the change and what did you learn as a result?

Jason: We wrote an article about it, so at this point we point everybody to that article because it’d be hard to sum up everything without forgetting a point or two.

Mike: But to summarize quickly, some people just were not comfortable with it. Some people found it hilarious, and a lot of the early blogs ran with the innuendo. It was good for us early on. But it did come up at different instances, slowly over time, that a lot of people were uncomfortable, and so not wanting to offend, and for a few other reasons, we dropped it.

One major one that I saw at various events, you’d have children see this crazy neon thing, and then you see parents reading, Starwhal: Just the Tip. Their face fell and then they redirected their kids elsewhere. I guess we approach it like a Nintendo console. It is a family friendly game, and the connotation of the title was implying that maybe it wasn’t, that it was more adult. It was funny, and it definitely amused us initially, but it felt less appropriate as time went on.


DS: Local multiplayer is currently enjoying a resurgence. Is there any concern about saturation or competition in the marketplace?

Mike: For me, saturation is something all game companies should always be thinking of. There are a lot of games out there. It’s great for gamers, but it makes it harder to make money, or to anticipate how much money you’ll make with anything. I love all these games. I love Towerfall and Nidhogg. Samurai Gunn is awesome.

Jason: We met a lot of those teams by virtue of being next to them at conferences, and we love what they’re doing. We talk about saturation internally, and it’s really hard to say. Some of us think we’ve already passed the peak of local multiplayer popularity, and that now we’re going to simmer down. Some of us think we haven’t hit the heights still to come.

Jan: Local multiplayer games, people like to have a lot of them. They’ll have parties where they play all night, and it’s OK to have a collection. People will play Smash Bros. as a local multiplayer game, but that’s $60. If they can get a similar level of fun out of something like Starwhal, Nidhogg, or Towerfall, then I think that’s great. It’s maybe a better alternative.

Jason: What’s important is that developers don’t fall back on old tricks and keep trying to make something brand new and exciting. I’m proud that Starwhal feels new. If we can keep surprising people, then I think they will keep playing local multiplayer games.