Our third interview in our Canadian Developer Series takes us to the west coast. We’re focusing on the Vancouver-based studio, Klei Entertainment. We spoke to Mark Laprairie, the Project Lead of Hot Lava to talk about the studio’s new game, the nostalgic elements, and how Apple Arcade changed Laprarie’s views on mobile gaming.
We’ve been sitting down with some of the most prolific Canadian studios that have been working alongside Apple to create a robust catalogue on Apple Arcade. The $5.99 monthly subscription grants access to over 100 mobile titles, available on iOS, iPad, Apple TV, and macOS devices. When the service launched, Hot Lava immediately grabbed my attention. It was a pleasure to speak to Klei Entertainment to hear about the creative process.
Steve: I’d like to start with that incredible Global Action Team sequence. It’s packed with 80’s nostalgia and made for a memorable opening. Can you talk a bit more about this?
Mark: Yeah, the Global Action Team. You’re absolutely right! It’s really baked into this huge sense of nostalgia we have for our childhood. We’ve always been looking at nostalgia through rose-tinted glasses and not how things actually were when we were kids. But how we remembered that time and how it made us feel. Global Action Team was a reflection of how Saturday morning cartoons made us feel.
Jeff Agala, one of the art directors in the studio, has a love for that medium. Our studio does a lot of that traditional 2D animation so it was a really nice fit. Even though the game was going to be in 3D, we thought of a way to bring our core strengths as a studio in and craft an interesting world.
Steve: Hot Lava is such a thoughtful experience. Everything you find in the levels harkens back to childhood and adolescence. Was there anything you threw into the game like a poster or other asset that has sentimental value to you? Like a personal easter egg of sorts?
Mark: Every member of the team put their mark on the world in some way by contributing ideas from their childhood. In particular, there’s a mission where you escort a buddy through the coarse. It’s a cute, teary-eyed dog, and that’s actually one of the studio dogs that were here. We put a lot of ourselves into the project. That ends up being a reflection of how we’ve grown and how we were as children.
Steve: Hot Lava has these great environments like a gymnasium, playground, and school. What was the development process in the level creation?
Mark: There were a couple of things going on. One was sort of a back and forth between the artists and myself, trying to figure out how to make these spaces feel how we felt when playing those games. So we came up with this idea to make these almost mundane environments become magical and exciting. It was always trying to place things perfectly for gameplay and placing things in a realistic, cluttered way.
When we got closer to seeing how everything was laid out, not haphazardly, but with less designer precision, the game felt more fluid and you could be more creative when playing. You felt like you weren’t following a path through the levels, you were exploring it yourself. In many ways, when I watch somebody play, they don’t take the path I intended. They go off and find their own way. That’s actually a lot of fun, I think.
Steve: Having launched on Steam, Hot Lava already had those tactile controls built-in. On Apple Arcade, Hot Lava has motion controls and touch-screen functionality. Were there any challenges in developing those mechanics when bringing the game over to the mobile platform?
Mark: When we first set out to create this project, we were targeting keyboard and mouse. You have these binary inputs for WASD and this really fluid and precise movement with the mouse. We thought about how we could bring that experience to Apple Arcade without changing what the game is and sand down the edges of what we thought made it an interesting experience and maintain that premium game we were creating. While touch controls are widely accepted, I don’t think our game was designed well for them. So we looked at getting the precision of a mouse in a mobile experience. That’s when we started to look at the gyro because it has all those same characteristics. It’s very precise.
On top of that, it kind of ties into the whole theme of the game. You stand up and you start playing Hot Lava, you can almost play it in a cinematic sense––a piece of performance art. Swinging around rooms like you did when you were a kid. I think that brought so much joy to the team and got everyone behind it. We thought we were creating an experience someone may not have had before. I don’t think it would have happened had we not gone down this path to create it.
Steve: For a mobile user, I think so many of the levels are great as these digestible short experiences. Was that put into consideration when creating the game?
Mark: I think we’ve actually chosen the lengths of the levels with a bunch of other constraints in mind. I don’t think we optimized it specifically to be bite-sized for mobile. We looked at wrapping the players in this content and make it accessible on all platforms. We found that if you’re playing this long, arduous course, and died a hundred times, it overwhelmed the player. So it kind of onboard you into Hot Lava with the more bite-sized chunks of content that can get you in, and get you that win early on. The decisions we’ve made really lends itself well to mobile. where you do want to have that shorter experience. Though, I hope it hooks you into those longer levels later in the game.
Steve: Hot Lava is a great solo experience, but the game also has some online competitive ties to it as well. What has the reception on the online components been like from Apple Arcade users?
Mark: When it came to multiplayer, it came down to wanting to have this social-multiplayer experience. You’re not necessarily pushing each other into the lava. You’re not shooting each other like an FPS. You’re all in the experience together. You’re not beholden to anyone else’s multiplayer experience to have your own fun in the game. The world is made more alive and more exciting because of the presence of other players. You see them in your leaderboards and you’re motivated to become better at this game.
I think the response has done that. It’s created a world on Apple Arcade that if you want to play with friends on other devices, it makes you better at playing this game. It shows you different ways to explore and approach the content. Often times when I jump into a game, I’ll wave at a player using the emote wheel. They’ll wave back and we’ll start on an adventure together and play around. In some demos that I’ve been showing, they’ll pick up a basketball and start playing basketball on the playground level. All of a sudden other players will join in and they’ll all be having this weird, immersive experience that is so delightful. You never know what will happen when you introduce other players and it creates some memorable moments.
Steve: You can draw some parallels between Hot Lava and Mirror’s Edge. Was DICE’s game at all an influence when making Hot Lava? Are you hoping this niche genre of parkour-based games gains traction?
Mark: Yeah, that interesting. Mirror’s Edge is a wonderful game and oh my god is it beautiful! We definitely looked at that to look at our animations and movement of the character––how to make it weighty and interesting. The mechanics of Hot Lava are less like Mirror’s Edge and more like Minecraft and Roblox obstacle course maps. There’s already this weird, parkour gaming that’s going on under the surface, it’s just not wrapped up in a pretty package. People have been trying to create these movement-styled games in the community since I was a child, back in the Quake and Counter-Strike days. To this day, people have been trying to find ways to explore movement without all of the other mechanics of the game. A lot of the motivation there was to capture what those games and those modders have been trying to create and make a package that players could embrace and celebrate what players have been trying to play.
Steve: What games on Apple Arcade are you playing at the moment?
Mark: When the service first launched, I tried playing all these Apple Arcade games for hours and hours. You get into Oceanhorn 2 and others. There are so many deep experiences. It’s almost like a different way of using your phone. I just know there’s now unlimited entertainment that has some guarantee in quality. I know I’m not going to be clicking through ads and hit an artificial chokepoint to purchase something. It changes the way I think of using my phone as an entertainment medium. As a developer, it’s changed how I look at mobile gaming as a whole.
Steve: That’s interesting. Do you mind elaborating?
Mark: I think the idea of premium experiences and the expectations of a premium experience is what Apple Arcade is promising users. You usually have a trade-off of getting a game for free and invest time into finding out if it’s worth it or having to pay an upfront fee before playing. Whereas Apple Arcade lets you dabble and find out what is fun for you. With every download, you have this stamp of approval and know that the game has at least some merit and a chance for you to enjoy the product. That guarantee changes the way I think about mobile gaming.