Born of stars: The making of Supernauts

Grand Cru talks grand visions

Born of stars: The making of Supernauts

When you think about freedom, there's nothing quite like the infinite vastness of space.

Supernauts, the debut game from free-to-play developer Grand Cru, attempts to offer its players such a sense of freedom. You could call it a creative space.

On surface level, it might seem especially bold for a studio formed just three years ago to attempt such a bold vision, but Grand Cru is not without considering experience, having formed out of the ashes of Mr. Goodliving - a RealNetworks mobile game studio the previously resided in the Finnish captial, Helsinki.

"The guys from there had loads of experience in making fun, casual mobile games and they managed to lure me in from Sulake, where I was working as the Lead Software Architect of Habbo Hotel," remembers Mikko Wilkman, CTO and Co-Founder of Grand Cru.

"Mixing my experience with running a large scale free-to-play MMO with their mobile, casual experience seemed like a perfect combination to start building something new to the growing free-to-play market."

Time after time

Supernauts might be the studio's debut, but it's been three years in the making. Although - because of a complete overhaul in mechanics - for the developers at Grand Cru, Supernauts feels like their second title.

After spending the first year working on the game, it soon dawned on the team that things weren't exactly going to plan.

"The first iteration was much closer to a platformer with user generated levels," recalls Wilkman. "If you think of a mix between Little Big Planet and Minecraft you should have a pretty good picture.

"At that time, our focus wasn't on mobile alone and the project got quite complex and we couldn't balance out how to make it properly work as free-to-play on the long term. So we scrapped most of the gameplay and just kept the building mechanics, and rebuilt everything else from scratch, focusing on creativity and social aspects instead of single-player progression."

Mikko Wilkman

That first concept wasn't set in space, either. It was more of a straight up superheroes and villains setup. It even had jumping at one point, but it just never felt right, so the final game - now set in space - keeps its player's feet planted firmly on the ground. Indeed, Supernauts' stellar setting came from wanting to afford players that aforementioned freedom. 

We thought a lot how to give the game infinite room for expansion so space was a logical choice.
Mikko Wilkman

"We thought a lot how to give the game infinite room for expansion so space was a logical choice, and it also opened all kinds of cool possibilities from flooding the earth to Zappers and Space Fish," says Wilkman.

Origin story

The game's name, Supernauts, came from a long and drawn out brainstorming session, interestingly mixed with a portion of community crowdsourcing.

"After someone said 'Supernauts' out loud there really wasn't any question on whether we needed more ideas or not," Wilkman says.

Once settled on a concept, after a year of working on something only to scrap it, the game took two more years to finish – but Wilkman's previous experiences with Habbo Hotel gave him ideal footing for this project.

"My personal experience with Habbo Hotel, all the social interaction and the strength of the community has always been something very close to the core of the game, starting from the first concepts," admits Wilkman.

"To me, community is everything and being able to reach out to as many players as possible is my main drive to make games. I can't wait to get to chat with players from around the world, even if I need to use Google Translate for that."

Supernauts' Earth concept

Grand Cru has always had solid ideals, with the community at its forefront and free-to-play dominance firmly in its sights.

"We've always been fully free-to-play, as that really is the best way to be able to reach as many people as possible with the game," says Wilkman. "We wanted to make it possible to play the game without ever paying, or at least avoid the feeling of being forced to pay. It's a tricky balance when we also need to make enough money to ship more games in the future.

"The progression needs to be well balanced, all the timings must make sense in the end. More advanced materials naturally take longer to research and we do our best at providing users choices on what to invest into next. In the end a lot of this stuff comes down to intuition - personally I've played the game way above 1500 hours by now.

"Soft launch metrics are of course important and we also have this automatic bot that can play the game up to the latest level in a few seconds to double check everything is as it should be."

Outside of that fair free-to-play mantra, one game has always acted as a huge inspiration for creating Supernauts: Minecraft. But Habbo Hotel's user-created rooms also formed the building blocks for Supernauts own creative tools. Supernauts gives players creative freedom, not only in where to place the land grids of their space cities, but the building blocks of the constructions that sit within it can also be manually placed.

Personalise your space

"We also saw a lot of users getting creative, doing pixel art on their Farmville farms and figured creativity is something built into each and everyone of us if just given the right tools," says Wilkman. "Creativity combined with social interaction and collaborative gameplay is really the main goal we hope to have reached with this."

To create this toolset, Grand Cru used Unity, with individuals using other tools on top, depending on the job, like Photoshop, Visual Studio and Maya. Wilkman says that the team's hosting tools on Amazon and Omniata, which they're using for analytics, were just as important.

"We simply saw what was going on with Minecraft already three years ago and thought that might work very well with casual controls on mobile," admits Wilkman. "We had the first prototype with block building running on the first day the company existed."

Giving players this freedom in creativity was key to making Supernauts stand out from the thousands of other building games on the App Store. After all, that's what makes Minecraft so popular - allowing players to make the world their own.

"This is the absolute key, yes, together with the building contests where you can set up a team of up to 15 players and compete worldwide for best creations," says Wilkman. "For me, it was quite emotional to be part of the first contest and to build a wonderful castle together with totally unknown players from all over the world - or at least Finland and Canada - in perfect harmony."
Avengers assemble

Building something with other people is something Wilkman is used to. Supernauts wasn't a one-person job like many mobile projects. Grand Cru is a relatively large studio for one so young and on mobile.

"We understood early on that this is a technically highly demanding project and luckily most of the founders were very hardcore on high performance mobile game and graphics technology," says Wilkman.

"Along the way, we've managed to expand the team with incredibly talented artists - 2D, 3D & animation - and designers, build a marketing and support team second to none and have the best people possible looking after the game quality and product management.

We've been very fortunate to be able to build a team with wide skills and experience.
Mikko Wilkman

"Currently we have roughly 20 people working on the game in various roles. We've been very fortunate to be able to build a team with wide skills and experience ranging from industry veterans to enthusiastic interns straight out of school."

Sounding off

Teamwork was key to overcoming some of the challenges thrown up by taking on such an ambitious project as the studio's debut project, solely for mobile.

One of the hurdles created by that platform choice was in getting the audio right. Mobile gamers' preference for playing with headphones on – especially when commuting – makes audio a tricky beast to master.

"All sounds must fit the game theme and look and feel perfectly while not getting in the way; for example background music needs to be something you can listen to for hours as a lot of players play the game for months, multiple sessions per day," says Wilkman.

"We actually ran a crowdsourced competition on Audiodraft for the main theme and all the ‘voice acting' in the game is done in-house by the development team."

You can read more about the game's sound developement on the company's blog.

Grand Cru is already working on multiple prototypes for its next project, but what this is will likely depend on the level of success Supernauts amasses. Just what constitutes 'success' in this case, however, is up for debate.

The game's strong focus on a community of creative players means Supernauts' impact could be sizeable even if, in the long run, the numbers aren't quite as big as the games press is expecting.

The hype that has steadily built throughout Supernauts' years in development, however, suggests the sky's quite literally the limit.

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.