The inspirations behind cult Kiwi brawler Grabity

Adam Goodall talks to the developers of Kiwi game Grabity about soccer cars, flailing swords and big honking machines.

I’m playing Grabity online and I’m getting absolutely caned by this person named Chinnaru. They’re showing up in every other game and wrecking my shop, boosting over to my side of the map and firing off crates like they’re homing missiles. I’m suffering, I can’t get above third place, and Chinnaru’s taunting me. “You can press enter to talk,” they message me in-game, somehow intuiting that I’m new to this whole thing. I bring this up with programmer Steve Salmond and artist Moritz Schlitter. “Chinnaru’s a monster,” Steve laughs. “He’s just merciless.”

Steve and Moritz, two thirds of New Zealand studio Ninja Thumbs, tell me I shouldn’t feel so bad about my lacklustre performance. Chinnaru’s a die-hard: he’s been around the game since Grabity’s beta-testing stage late last year and is a moderator on the game’s dedicated Discord channel. “He’s probably been our most hardcore player,” Steve says. Moritz laughs and adds, “He destroys us, if that makes you feel any better.” It absolutely does.

To be fair to Chinnaru, Grabity’s plenty challenging without him. Set up in the side-scrolling wide-shot style of Smash Bros and Brawlhalla, you and up to three other players play bulky little robots with Half-Life 2-style gravity guns. You use those guns to hoover up crates and fire them at everyone else.

Grabity moves at a breakneck pace, and yet it demands precision. Even for casual players, if you’re not constantly building speed, if you’re not constantly aware of where crates are dropping and people are fighting and getting to those places fast, you’re not winning. It’s an adrenaline shot of agile twin-stick platforming in a genre largely defined by slower, combo-driven brawling.

I talked to Steve and Moritz about the games and other things that inspired them to create Grabity.

Rocket League. Image: Screengrab.

Moritz: I came to New Zealand about nine years ago, maybe ten now. I went to high school here for a bit, and the good thing about high schools here in New Zealand is that they actually promote arts a bit more than they do in Germany. In Germany, I had no angle on what I was going to do after school because it was quite academic. It’s more stressful in that way.

Anyway, I found my way to art, went to Media Design School to do an orientation course and then taught myself to make 3D art. Then, two jobs later, I landed at Outsmart [Games, the Auckland-based studio behind SmallWorlds] and that’s where I met Steve.

Steve: I’m a little bit older than Moritz, and I came up with Doom and Quake and those kinds of games. I’m a real shooter buff. So I sort of missed out on the whole console thing until I landed at Outsmart Games. They were my introduction to couch gaming.

Moritz: [The time w]hen we started working on the game more intensely was during the time that we played Rocket League. What I remember from Rocket League – y’know, when you guys said for the first time, “Oh, you want to play Rocket League?” and I was like “What’s that?” and you were like “It’s soccer for cars” and I was like “Ugh that sounds so dumb” but we played it and I was hooked and I went home and bought it straight away to get better so I could keep up in the office – is this idea that you play it for the first time and it’s these intense, five-minute matches where you always feel like you’ve gotten better at the game and learnt.

The mechanics are very simple to begin with because everyone’s played a driving game before… and it’s the same mentality with our game. The core mechanic of grabbing and shooting objects is familiar to a niche audience – like, people that know it from Portal

Steve: I think anyone that’s played twinsticks could get it up and running.

Moritz: The core platformer mechanics are very familiar. You can get in the game, jump around, and then later on you can find out that you can stomp on enemies, you can use your crate to dash into enemies.

Steve: [Rocket League’s] really accessible at first but it has a really high skill cap. You can always learn something new in the game – like, develop a new type of mobility you didn’t have a week ago. That’s the feeling that we were trying to capture. We’ve really focussed a lot on that freedom of movement and allowing the player to grow into an expressive way of moving around.

Moritz: It was an interesting development process as well when we were coming up with the mechanics because we had that group of friends that we could play Rocket League with during lunch. We would then boot our game up at work and had our colleagues play it. We wouldn’t say too much – like ‘this is how you have to play it’ – and that way we could observe what they were trying to do, go home and make changes so that it was more natural.

Halo 4. Image: Screengrab.

Steve: The cool thing about Halo is, you’re just so mobile. You can sprint, you can hover. It’s not just a shooter where you are constrained to looking around.

Moritz: In Halo you have these assassination moves. If you sneak up behind somebody and you press the melee button you do an animation takedown where you tackle them to the ground and stab them. And afterwards, a healthy dose of teabagging doesn’t hurt. [Laughs]

We’ve got a crouch button in Grabity that doesn’t actually do anything. It’s purely cosmetic. It’s just so, after you get a kill, you can do a little victory dance. That’s translated out of the Halo days as well, because there was nothing more satisfying than sneaking up on somebody for the fifth time and they’d get angry at you – just shoot! Don’t do this!

Berserker. Image: Screengrab.

Steve: I was doing a lot of explorations with the physics engine in Unity through different game jams. That was definitely a big factor for me, exploring different concepts of what people can do in games.

I was doing Ludum Dare, which is a 48 hour game jam. They hold those three to four times a year. I got into them just because I wanted to get better at programming for Unity and that was a good way of doing it, but I got hooked on the designing side of it, which was something I hadn’t really thought a lot about previously – the mechanics of games, how you progress in a game. Game jams were really awesome for that.

The cool thing about game jams is it really forces you to crystallise an idea in a couple of days flat, basically. They give you a topic, and then you have to have a game two days later, so you’re forced into making interesting decisions that you might not otherwise do.

What’s your favourite of the game jam games you ended up making?

Steve: There’s a really dumb one I made called Berserker. It’s this stupid game where you’re this Conan the Barbarian-type guy and you’ve got two big swords in your hands and you use the mouse to wave them around in this kind of physics-based thing. I would never make a game like that if it was something I embarked upon with a lot of forethought.

Swordy. Image: Screengrab.

Steve: I was personally quite inspired by Swordy, which is a Kiwi game. I got to know the devs when they were making it, and I just rated that game a lot. I think it’s a really cool idea, and that played a part in us deciding to make something in that vein because it was so much fun playing it. I still remember when Hamish [MacDonald, developer at FrogShark] brought it over and demoed it to us, and I was like, ‘Woah, that’s sick. We could make a couch game.’

Swordy’s a physics-based character combat game where you’re these knights and you pick up different weapons and you swing them around, whirling dervish-style, and you try and hit the other players. It’s this chaotic, melee-type game… and it had that couch mentality to it, but it also had some really interesting physics stuff going on. I was jamming on physics things at the time.

Moritz: When we were working at Outsmart, [Steve] would show me videos and go, ‘check this out’, and it’s just machinery doing its thing.

Steve: I’ve this weird, unhealthy obsession with Youtube videos of big machines and foundries and things like this.

What types of machines?

Steve: I love CNC machines, for example. Do you know those Youtube videos, they’re just CNC machines making things?

So, I don’t know what a CNC machine is.

Steve: Oh. I can… dig up some videos for you, if you like.

Moritz: My personal taste is more… cartoonish, cute stuff. So I tried to couple, as best as I could, the sort-of sci-fi preference Steve has – I’d look at those videos and I’d look at the machinery and the shapes they use and I’d try to incorporate them – but at the same time, I tried to keep the proportions of the characters somewhat cuter? So that it’s not just full-on sci-fi mecha stuff. It’s a bit much for my personal taste.

I also like to have the option of keeping things a bit more silly, as well. I don’t know how much you’ve played of the game, but you unlock new hats, for example. One of the default hats is a plunger on your head, and it’s just keeping that option open: you don’t have to be too serious about the game, because at the end of the day it is a game.

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