Fighting with Physics - An Interview with Rochard's "Hulu" Virtanen

By Ryan Winslett in Features
Friday, October 28, 2011 at 11:00 am
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Rochard's ready to roll
In the future, outer space is basically going to be a giant coal mine. It's been confirmed by Hollywood films like Total Recall and Avatar, as well as video games like Dead Space and the recently released PSN-exclusive, Rochard.

Mines can be dangerous places, a fact that gets amplified by about a kabillion when the infinite unknowns of space, zero gravity and giant, dragon-riding Smurfs get thrown into the mix. But when the proverbial space poop hits the fan (also worse in zero G), some hero always rises to the occasion, ready to clean up the mess and kick evil square in the junk, sending it spiraling into an ocean of stars.

In Rochard, that hero is the titular John Rochard, a loyal, heavy-set meteor miner who can bend gravity with the best of them. When the bad guys come knocking in this physics-based puzzle shooter, Rochard's the dude who answers the door.

Developed by Recoil Games, Rochard has players solving puzzles, toying with gravity and shooting bullets at an army of invading goons. Lead Designer Juhana "Hulu" Virtanen took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with Joystick Division about the recent release, revealing some extra back story tidbits, the complexities of designing physics-based puzzles, and the future of the series.


JD: Tell me a little about Rochard's origins. When did development begin? How did the concept evolve?

Hulu: We started to work on the very first demo in September 2009. Our target was the Lyon Game Connection. The actual development of the game started in spring 2010 and took us about a year to finish. When we started to create Rochard we knew we wanted a side-scroller platformer with a nice twist. There was this after-party where a friend showed their new game that just came out: Shattered Horizon (Futuremark). The next morning I remembered only the beauty of zero gravity, which I promptly pitched in a meeting to the team as the possible twist for Rochard.

That really struck a chord in everyone so we came up with lots of cool ideas we then prototyped, like moving the character in zero G using the gun's recoil. What we found the most fruitful was the ability to control the amount of gravity on the fly, at will. The setting (space mining in asteroids) was a given.

I can't even remember how it evolved, because our Creative Director, Burt Kane, told me "Hulu, do you know if Rochard takes place in an asteroid mine?" and my immediate answer was "Of course it does!" The answer was the same whenever he presented the idea to other team members. Burt grew up in the countryside so he has this soft spot for big machinery. To me, as a designer, it presented the perfect excuse to alter the gravity in the game. Everyone in the team is a big fan of sci-fi, so we felt immediately at home there.

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JD: So who is Rochard? He's not the stereotypical space marine, so how did his character come to be?

Hulu: We wanted a memorable character that is easy to relate with, an Average Joe who could be your blue collar uncle. He starts as a reluctant hero who's pulled into a turmoil of events where he has to do what a man's got to do: save himself, his team and eventually the universe.

The main theme in John's evolution is him facing the ghosts from his past and overcoming them. He works as a team leader for Skyrig, the biggest astro-mining corporation in the known universe. Years ago he was this hotshot team leader whose team was number one on the Skyrig charts. His team got trapped in a collapsed mine and he decided that they should not wait for the rescue crew. This decision resulted in all the team members but John dying.

The contemporary John is a rather serious person and does everything by the book; safety first. A good part of the humor is based on John being such a square, although he always means well and really cares about his team members. He's a big man with an even bigger heart.

JD: Where did the team draw its inspirations for Rochard?

Hulu: We wanted to create an adventure in the spirit of the old Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies with some serious themes, but with lighthearted overtones. There are numerous movies and games that inspired us. There is also a clear 80's vibe present in the game. Not to make it "retro," per se, but as some of our team members (like me) grew up in the 80's, it is kind of a trip back to our childhood's Saturday morning cartoons.

JD: Was the game always planned to be a physics-based puzzle shooter? Did that concept dictate the game world or did the setting simply lend itself well to this type of title?

Hulu: The physics puzzle aspect grew to the game more and more during the development. In the initial stage we didn't have that much physics puzzles in the game. But they were rapid to prototype and offered fun gameplay, so we really focused on those thanks to Unity (the game engine) and PhysX (Nvidia physics engine). Burt had a very clear vision of Rochard's world so that dictated quite a lot. You could say we were creating a license game to an IP that didn't exist yet.

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JD: Can you tell me a little bit about your personal involvement with Rochard and what the game means to you as a creator?

Hulu: I'm responsible for the creation and balancing of the gameplay features and the overall user experience the player gets when playing the game. Burt was in charge of the world and the story, but at the end, Rochard is a textbook example of what a team of talented and motivated people can do. I see myself more as a catalyst to bring great ideas out of people. Being a Lead Designer doesn't mean I have all the greatest ideas and all the most awesome ideas come from me. Having a relatively small development team allows me to listen to all the team members and I see that as a huge asset. But of course I have to carefully select an assortment of the ideas and features to get a solid piece of work. As for creating Rochard, I feel privileged to have been able to work with such a superb, talented and experienced team of developers.

JD: The game has a distinct Southern slant on the humor. Where did that come from?

Hulu: That was Burt's idea. The game uses rather strong stereotypes at certain points and, at least to me, it was obvious John comes from the south. I think he also has some Canadian and Cajun blood.

JD: Rochard features a great soundtrack and solid voice work (Including the one and only John St. John). How were the VO actors chosen? How was the musical direction determined?

Hulu: The voice actors came from a contact through Jarno "Stakula" Sarkula, who's responsible for the sound effects of the game. There were several (seven?) candidates for John's voice and one just stood out a head taller than the others. I remember laughing out loud when I was told he's Jon St. John, the voice of Duke Nukem. He really nailed John's character and really brings him alive. I mean, I really love his VO work as Duke Nukem, but I think he does John even better.

The music in Rochard is composed by Markus "Captain" Kaarlonen from Poets of the Fall, and there is also one song performed by PotF, "Grinder's blues," which can be heard as the opening track of the game. Burt and Captain have a long history together and it was obvious from the start he would be responsible of the score. The two being able to work closely together and sharing somewhat the same taste in music proved to be something truly awesome. The soundtrack has a definite 80's vibe from epic movie themes to radio jingles to the Carpenterisque "The Fight," which always gives me goosebumps.

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JD: What would you say was the goal of Rochard? What did the studio want to achieve with this game?

Hulu: Well, since this is our first game we actually shipped it is an achievement for us on its own. Besides that, we really wanted to push the envelope in the downloadable market. We wanted to create an experience you can delve into and have the same kind of experience as if you were watching a good adventure movie with memorable characters and story. Something that a few years from now brings a smile to players' faces when you say the name out aloud. The game has won six awards so far, including Editor's Choice from IGN and Gamepro. That kind of recognition is always emotional, at least for me.

JD: What is your favorite thing about Rochard?

Hulu: As for single features I'd say the G-Swing. It's a lot of fun. John isn't a super hero, but the G-Lifter allows him to do some awesome stuff and the G-Swing is a perfect example of that. John doesn't have to run and grab ledges to climb and do all that parkour stuff. He uses the G-Lifter to compensate for his rather well-built gut.

The variety of puzzles built out of the force fields is also high in my chart, but to be perfectly honest, just between you and me, the absolute best is tossing a crate at the face of an enemy. I've been playing the game for two years now and it never gets old.

JD: What was the trickiest aspect to work on? Anything give the team some real trouble?

Hulu: The trickiest part was probably getting the physics play nice and reliable, as physics gameplay was our main thing. A lot of time was spent on debugging the physics system and polishing and fool-proofing the levels so the game would not break. In the end everything turned out just great, and the people playing the game don't have to see the effort put into the physics. It just works.

JD: Some of the puzzles are pretty devious. What kind of work went into the average puzzle? How long did it take to "nail down?"

Hulu: For an average level it took about two weeks to get the basic geometry and functionality done. Some of the levels were revised a lot later but the two weeks was perhaps a rough estimate. Production-wise, creating puzzle gameplay doesn't normally have the best bang for buck ratio. It is time consuming and the replay value is not as good as with the more straightforward combat. But the puzzles in Rochard have often two or more ways to be solved.

JD: Is there a chance we'll be seeing more of Rochard, perhaps in DLC or a brand new game?

Hulu: The adventures of John will definitely continue, but I cannot give you any details yet. All I can say is there is more to come. We'll be concentrating on Rochard. We really believe in the endeavors of John and we have lots of stories to tell, adventures to discover and devious puzzles to solve, not forgetting there will always be people who deserve a crate in their face.

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