Digital magic from Vienna! Meet "Expander" and Josef Ortner


In recent years, Vienna, Austria, has become a very vibrant place for videogame culture, with the most important hub being the games initiative SUBOTRON, founded in 2004. About two to three SUBOTRON events with local and international speakers take place in a smaller, but often crowded venue at the Wiener MuseumsQuartier every month, with the scope of content ranging from scientific talks (Arcademy) to more practical panels about certain aspects of how to get your foot into the industry.

This inspiring infrastructure has spawned a lot of friendship and professional relationships over the years that also regularly blend the barriers between indie developers and Triple-A people who also enjoy the possibility to reach an interested audience outside dedicated industry events. And of course, due to all the urban spaces, cultural institutions and universities inside and around MuseumsQuartier, it's a fertile ground for newcomers. Just a few years after SUBOTRON opened its doors, the former tech students of the now well-known indie studio Broken Rules made their first steps as a young company bringing And Yet It Moves and later Chasing Aurora to the world. A lot of creative individuals and students followed their path, getting to know each other and becoming motivated to do their own game projects.

986Josef Ortner (left) with his studio partner Armin

One of them, Josef Ortner, is particularly interesting. Josef is a not very loud, but immensily clever and companionable guy. A passionate, curious and good mannered gamer with no reservations to any genre or style,  deeply rooted within the idea of bringing his own creations into play one day. Two years ago, this time had come. Ortner finally founded his own company All Civilized Planets, where he had the intention of gaining some foot in the heavily flooded iOS AppStore. With his skills, patience, effort and dedication, he - with the help of his art colleague Armin - managed to get a well deserved attention for his first game HueShift (iOS/Android). It's a new take on the vertical jumper genre where you have to constantly switch your avatar according to the colors of the platforms, which is required for being able to ascend to the top.

HueShift managed to become a featured game in the AppStore and the same thing happened to the company's next game Expander that came out just a few weeks ago. It is a dead simple but challenging 3-D game where you control an automatically moving block through a blocky blue and red world with two heights: low and high. Apart from choosing between up and down, you can also stretch your block - hence the name of the game - to be better able to grab multiplier blocks. Although you can and do meet Josef regularly in Vienna at respective game events, VideoGameTourism chose to sit down with him via email to discuss some important aspects of Expander in full detail.

Expander is a clever tweak on the endless runner genre and also a 3-D game, which is quite exceptional in this genre. The camera changes automatically from time to time so that the player has to cope with different perspectives. On the other hand, because of the 3-D view, crucial spots are hidden sometimes which can result in a collision. How was the coming of the game in terms of the presentation?

At first the camera changes really happened at random times. Since this was too confusing, we introduced the "gates", which look like grey frames or bars. These are visible to the player and change the perspective as well as the speed of the game. The different points of view were all handpicked during the design stage in order to guarantee a possible safe route through every part of the game. Like many other arcade twitch games, getting familiar with the different obstacles is also something you must do in "Expander". After a certain level of familiarity, players can even collect multipliers that may be harder to see in some perspectives. We do that on purpose in order to challenge players and force them to take risks if they want to compete for the highest scores.

There is this constant struggle while you play whether you want to get a lot of blocks (to increase your score quickly) or just browse through the obstacles (because the game speed is increasing all the time). The need to balance this out pulls you into the game really well. Can you elaborate on the game design iterations in terms of interface and level design?

Since the game was conceived at a game jam (Ludum Dare, here is a video of an early prototype), the first version was not balanced very well. There was only one layer with obstacles and higher points were awarded the closer the box was expanded towards the edges. This lead to two main problems: players could press jump all the time to avoid everything and they did not understand how the point system worked. The next version featured a second layer with obstacles and already looked much like the final version. The multiplier cubes came in later and helped a great deal in communicating the point system to the players. They also allow us to build very clean level parts. The difficulty of the game is not based on complex level design, but rather it comes from the player balancing the risk versus reward; greedy players tend to take too many risks and lose earlier than someone coasting through the middle road. In the last iteration, we added the "gates" to show players when the shift in view is happening.

How did the colors - red, blue and white - come together? Combined with the star sign on the multiplier cubes, some people feel it is visually very close to the US-american flag or flags from different latin american countries.

Yes, a lot of people think it is a US-themed game but that is not the case. Armin, the artist who is responsible for the look of the game, even wrote a short blog post about it: We wanted a look that supports players when decisions are needed within the blink of an eye. Red and blue are very distinguishable colors when they are shown on a white background.

Expander is out for iOS (iCade support!), Android, Blackberry and also available for Windows, Mac and Linux. You can greenlight it on Steam.