A link between two worlds: The making of Oceanhorn

How Cornfox & Bros. set out to honour Zelda

A link between two worlds: The making of Oceanhorn

For as long as PocketGamer.biz has been online, voices from across the industry have called on Nintendo to make the move to mobile, bringing its collection of IP to what many consider to be a natural home.

Nintendo, for its part, has been resolute.

Mobile appears to be no more likely part of the Japanese giant's longterm plans now than it did four or five years ago – the chances of playing Mario or Zelda on your iPhone or Galaxy S appear remote, unless you count dodgy homebrew clones that, for reasons unknown, drop our favourite Italian plumber into Sonic's Green Hill Zone.

That's where Cornfox & Bros. stepped in. With Oceanhorn, the studio saw a gap in the market – or, more specifically, a Zelda-shaped gap. Speaking openly, Cornfox wanted to play Zelda – or, at least, a Zelda-like game – on mobile.

Rather than crowing to Nintendo about it, however, it decided to serve up its own solution.

Following a legend

Cornfox & Bros. was established in 2010 and is made up of three partners: the titular brothers Jukka Viljamaa and Antti Viljamaa, along with the creative director, Heikki Repo, who also handles art and design.

Repo means 'fox' in Finnish and Vilja means 'corn', so they smashed the names together, creating the kind of combo you won't find in any KFC.

The three originally met at Finnish studio Universomo, itself acquired by THQ Wireless as part of its operations in the country. Unfortunately, in 2010, THQ began to pull out of a region, which led to the three doing something risky. They set up their own studio.

Cornfox & Brothers

"We had already met the guys from Mountain Sheep, another small studio renowned for Bike Baron, Minigore, King Hunt, and Ice Rage," says Antti Viljamaa, lead programmer and co-founder.

"Through them we got the opportunity to work on Death Rally, which was published by Remedy. The success of Death Rally allowed us to concentrate on making Oceanhorn, subsequently, so that's basically our history."

Planning for Oceanhorn actually began back in 2010 right after the company was formed, but the Death Rally project meant the idea was put on hold for a year and a half. Indeed, it wasn't until August 2012 that work on Oceanhorn began proper.

Oceanhorn was always planned as an iOS game from the start, largely thanks to the studio's experience working with Apple's platform on Death Rally. Ease of development meant iOS was always the frontrunner.

"Of course, it was a game that we've always wanted to make - especially Heikki Repo, our designer, who's wanted to do a game like this since childhood," says Antti Viljamaa. "We looked at the iOS market and we could clearly see there wasn't a decent Zelda clone, or this kind of action RPG on the marketplace back then in 2010.

"When we had to put Oceanhorn on hold to make Death Rally we were kind of scared that something similar would emerge on iOS before we were able to launch, but luckily we feel Oceanhorn is still as fresh an idea now as it was then, and there's clearly room for it in the iOS market even now after almost three years since the first prototypes were conceived."

The fact that there could have been a similar game in the works by a competitor wasn't the only elephant in the room, either. The recent shift from premium games to the freemium model had the team a little worried.

"We always had the vision of Oceanhorn being a premium game, instead of this kind of freemium money machine," says Jukka Viljamaa. "So we were a little afraid of how Oceanhorn would do, but luckily it went well."

The company's publisher, FDG Entertainment, supported Cornfox, assuring the team that premium was the right way to go for this particular project - even though the general trend in the marketplace was going the other way entirely.

Though Cornfox was never tempted to shoehorn the freemium model onto the project, they were just worried they were too late. Cornfox doesn't believe there's anything inherently wrong with the model, but they don't believe in forcing the model onto an existing concept.

"We feel the freemium model needs a bigger machine to work," says Jukka Viljamaa. "With the model you often need back-end servers, analytics and all that - usually it's not very easy... maybe even impossible, for a small studio to handle that kind of situation.

"A game as a service needs people behind the scenes to run the service, at least according to our experiences. Whereas high production values are possible with even a small team with the premium model, if you have enough time and are clever enough in your design."

Needless to say, the Cornfox & Bros. team has a lot of time for JRPGs. Creative director Heikki Repo lived in Japan intermittently throughout his life, which is where his personal fascination for the genre was born. As a child he used to make crude design documents for his dream games, before entering the business officially.

The landscape was much different back then, of course - Oceanhorn would never have been possible on mobile devices at that time.

"Hekki had this vision for a game, but back then the devices just weren't capable of handling this kind of game," says Jukka Viljamaa. "But around 2010, when we first started the company, it started to feel possible to bring this kind of a game to the mobile audience."

Given Zelda's prominence on Nintendo platforms, were consoles ever an option for Oceanhorn?

"We feel that the closeness to Zelda wouldn't be a problem in the future," says Jukka Viljamaa.

"We haven't announced any definitive plans on where to go with Oceanhorn, but we're thinking of different kinds of options and consoles aren't out of the question. We could go towards console gaming - it's not intended to be a mobile-only brand and Zelda is only available on Nintendo machines, so…"

Smooth sailing

The similarities to Nintendo's opus are many, but – as critics have already pointed out – they form more of a homage than a direct rip-off.

There are the hearts that fill up, signifying the player's health. There are overt similarities when it comes to the game locations and the creatures that inhabit them. Most of the equipment is lifted straight from Link's adventure. Hell, there are even master keys.

The sailing in Oceanhorn is also quite obviously influenced by Wind Waker - the recent HD remake of Zelda's GameCube classic likely aiding Oceanhorn's sales. The sailing as it appears in the final game didn't always exist in the same form, though. In fact, it underwent more changes than almost any other element in the game.

"At first the sailing was going to be this classic RPG map, like what you see in many RPGs," says Antti Viljamaa. "A 2D map where you would draw your path, or point out your destination, and then you would be teleported there directly."

"We were hesitating on whether a fully explorable world would be too difficult to implement, but luckily we were convinced by Thomas Kern, our producer, to include a real playable sailing mode and we think it's a nice diversion from the regular game - it gives a nice rhythm to the adventure," adds Jukka Viljamaa.

"You can just pop on your boat and go sailing to the next island. We feel it enlarges the adventure and adds to the sense of scale.

"Obviously there are other similarities to the Zelda franchise and that's quite intentional. There's the heart system, the containers, the master keys, breakable objects where you can get items… It's all intentional, because we felt like people looking for the action-RPG experience on iOS need to be able to recognise this game as a genuine representative of the genre.

"There are some key components that we feel are essential to a Zelda clone. We feel there are differences though, like there's maybe a few more modern things that are familiar from other genres of gaming. Like we wanted to have some kind of challenge or achievement system, adding some replayability to each island.

"We wanted to give a reason to go back and find all the items and solve all the challenges, so it's a mixture of different approaches."

Cornfox was initially dubious about the addition of the sailing sections, afraid the technical limitations of the platform would scupper them.

The main worry was that pixel shaders utilise a lot of processing power and, given the low camera angle, it's possible to see quite a distance, meaning there are polygons aplenty on screen. After experimenting a bit though, the results were promising and Cornfox decided to take the producer's advice.

When it comes to the controls, handling the boat is relatively simple - the player just chooses a destination and the boat sails to it automatically. Cornfox considered manual controls, but never got as far as prototyping it because the sailing was added so late into the project.

Instead, the team used the boat's pumpkin seed gun to hand some control over to the player, keeping them engaged during travel.

"There could be many sort of mini games that could be added," says Jukka Viljamaa. "Like, you could have fishing, or that kind of thing while sailing and we just chose this one. We just experimented with it and it seemed like a fun thing to do. We wanted to keep it simple so we didn't want to have too many options. It's also a way for the player to stock up on items between islands."

Implementation of the shooting controls was relatively simple for the team, with simple iteration the key to achieving the right feel. Because the game also supports iOS game controllers, it was also a case of finding parity across control modes - Cornfox wanted the shooting to feel satisfying whether you're using touch or a gamepad.

Rough seas

Sailing wasn't the only thing that changed and morphed during development, either.

"I think the biggest change was at the beginning of 2012," says Antti Viljamaa. "At that point we had a game that was kind of open ended, like more of a mobile game where you can continue forever - you can search the islands over and over again.

"But after that, we played that on our Christmas holiday and it just didn't seem fun. So we came up with the idea of adding more structure and bringing the story stuff more to the front. I think that was the big change that occurred."

Before this, the game had a similar structure to the Elder Scrolls games – albeit one with no overarching plot. Imagine an Elder Scrolls game where, to understand the story, the player has to read every book on every bookcase and you won't be far off grasping Oceanhorn's original approach.

Initially, the story played out in the background - on signs, gravestones and other readable materials. The player had to piece it together themselves and read between the lines – a method that draws obvious parallels with Dark Souls' own approach to storytelling.

"It didn't feel fun and it wasn't really encouraging the player to continue with the story or learn about the history," says Jukka Viljamaa.

"We gave the game to our friends and they didn't bother reading the story, they just kind of wandered around and then put the game down. That's when we decided to bring the story closer to the player, we need to force them a little bit, to see the background story so it gets more engaging. So we ended up with a more traditional RPG structure, where you have these cutscenes that take the story further."

"We haven't played it yet, but we hear the new Zelda plays with the structure of traditional Zelda games and it's been broken down a little bit," adds Antti Viljamaa.

"You can choose the order in which you visit the dungeons and all that, and we did try to do something similar with our game, but we couldn't make it work, really. So it's going to be interesting to see how it works in the real Zelda."

Oceanhorn isn't without its critics, however. Many reviewers have cited what they consider to be a prominent fault: the fact the attack button is the same one used to interact with objects.

"We wanted to keep it simple," says Jukka Viljamaa. "We started with the idea of just having one action button, which would be used for all things. But we were forced to add another one, so we had another button for shooting arrows and throwing bombs.

"But it was a conscious decision to try and keep the number of buttons as few as possible and obviously it means you have to prioritise something [contextually] and if you happen to fight next to a sign or an NPC - which very rarely happens - then the prioritisation can get confused, but we felt like it was better to stick with a simple scheme. Even if there are some problematic areas in the levels."

Not that the team would cite control creation as Oceanhorn's biggest challenge, however. No, far more tricky was managing the studio's ambitions.

For a team of three, Oceanhorn was massive undertaking – more than ten hours of gameplay is packed into the game, and Cornfox & Bros. had to make sure it plugged as many exploits as it could in the title's large open-world. The amount of content wrapped up in the game by the time it hit iOS even surprised the three men behind it.

The size of the game, however, meant there was no way Cornfox could handle the QA in-house. For that, the team turned to the game's publishers.

Thomas Kern, the producer, was working in the same room as the QA and relaying the reports back to them rather than writing technical reports. It felt like having in-house QA, with Kern acting as the middle man.

The publisher wasn't the only help that Cornfox got, either. Sharing an office with Mountain Sheep has its advantages, too, as the two studios often share assets between each other.

"Technically we have our own rendering engine," says Jukka Viljamaa. "We share an office with Mountain Sheep and we also share technology, so we have a proprietary rendering engine in-house.

"A lot of time and money was invested at the beginning of the project into this 3D tiled engine, which allows us to quite easily develop these blocky 3D worlds, a little bit in a similar way - I mean, back in 2010, Minecraft was a new thing and we thought we could do something similar, but a little more beautiful.

"So we devised this editor that allows us to edit the levels and maps on an iPad and actually all the maps and levels on Oceanhorn are made by Hekki [Repo] on iPad."

Oceanhorn's level editor

At first, Cornfox wanted to leave the editor in the game for the benefit of players, but storywise, there was no real justification. There was no way to seamlessly integrate it, so the studio left it out. The possibility of making the editor public in the future still exists, however, if the team can find a way.

The tools are simple enough for players to get their heads around, the developer attests, though the UI would obviously be tweaked for ease of use, with some features left out so players don't accidentally break anything.

"What is challenging is in adding the story elements - those aren't so easy to develop," says Antti Valjimaa. "Simple puzzles, and scripts relating to puzzles, you can add in the editor, but the story and textual elements - the high-level quest structure - that's still something that's done by coding."

The story itself, handeld by Hekki Repo, is where the game departs from the Zelda template the most. Instead of a young boy's quest to rescue a princess, Oceanhorn tells the tragic story of a boy who has lost both of his parents and his journey to find the truth.

"Hekki took inspiration from many sources, other than Zelda, and the story itself isn't that similar to Zelda's," says Jukka Viljamaa. "We like to think that our story has a little more depth. There's the struggle between good and evil, as there always is, but there's an underlying theme about machines and how they might get out of hand."

There's a similar theme running through Final Fantasy X, and it's hard not to see the parallels between the stories behind the two games. Indeed, another area where the two series come together is in their respective acquisitions of two of the industry's most acclaimed composers, Nobou Uematsu and Kenji Ito.

Sound the horn

"It's been a dream come true for us and we didn't even believe it until we saw it happen," says Antti Viljamaa.

"In the end of 2012 we were already thinking we could release the game that we had. We had quite a lot of the content ready and had a playable version of the game, but we decided we needed to add something.

"Our producer contacted us with a number of possibilities, but luckily who we ended up with had the connection to the composers. Our executive producer had this idea that we could try and get these famous composers to make some music for us - and this was when we were negotiating the deal. We were laughing together back here in the office and just said to him, okay you try it.

"We didn't really believe it would happen, but then, after some weeks - we had already decided to go with the production company - we got a message from them saying we have Kenji Ito and he's really interested in the game. It was already great, but we wanted to try get Nobuo Uematsu also.

"I don't think anybody knows what actually happened. We asked our producer how he got Nobuo Uematsu and he just laughed and said he had sent him the game and he just liked the concept and wanted to participate. Of course we are very happy with the result - the music fits brilliantly in the game."

Nobuo Uematsu was especially pleased with the main theme he had composed, and has shown interest in recording it with a live orchestra for release. There are some complications and red tape – it may never happen as a result - but Cornfox is hopeful that an OST might be released one day.

As well as the music, the sound design was outsourced to a man called Tapio Liukkonen, who also does the sound design for Mountain Sheep's games.
"Tapio is really a successful guy because he does all the sounds by himself," says Antti Viljamaa. "Yeah, he's like a foley artist also, not just using samples and computers, but really recording the smashing of different kinds of vegetables and objects," laughs Jukka Viljamaa.

"He's a real old school foley artist. If you look for him on the web there are some crazy videos he has done whilst he's recording his stuff."

Cornfox is, understandably, happy with how all the elements came together – despite the fact that the studio initially believed the game was ready to go at the start of 2012. The firm was unaware, but there was still a lot of work ahead.

"When we submitted the final build to the App Store, when it was all finished, I honestly thought to myself that this is a game I would like to play," says Antti Viljamaa.

"But of course there are many things that we are going to do differently in the future projects and we are definitely going to work with this Oceanhorn world, be it a sequel or extension pack - we haven't decided exactly.

"Quite possibly, the future versions or sequels will give us room to experiment a little bit more or maybe step out of the traditional RPG template. We can't go into details but we have some cool ideas cooking for the sequel.

"The next thing for us will be something to do with Oceanhorn, we are thinking of porting this version of the game to other platforms, but we haven't decided if we're going to do it and we haven't announced any particular platforms, but we would love to do a sequel and I'm 99 percent sure we're going to make one."

Contributing Writer

Kirk is a writer of many words and grower of many hairs. He manages to juggle family life with his passion for video games and writing. From the mobile indie scene to triple-A blockbusters, his life ambition is to play ALL the games. Yes, all of them.