Game Features

The Making of a Masterful Puzzle Game: DroidGamers Interviews Ultrateam about Ultraflow 2

Puzzle games have a huge following in the Play Store. Everyone likes a good challenging game that they can play that doesn’t take a lot of time. You can hop right in, play a game or two and move on. Or, you can spend more time perfecting your skills if the game is long enough. The Ultrateam knows how to make a good puzzle game. Their first game ULTRAFLOW was downloaded over three million times in the Play Store and the iOS App Store. As anyone would consider that hugely successful, DroidGamers had an opportunity to interview the team, to find out what makes a good puzzle game, and why they decided to pursue a sequel, with the recently released ULTRAFLOW 2.

Jaymes Carter:  Ultrateam,  thank you for taking the time to speak with DroidGamers. We appreciate you giving our readers an opportunity to learn more about ULTRAFLOW and your recently released game, ULTRAFLOW 2. Can you give us a little bit of background about the studio? What brought your team together and how long have you been making games?

Ultrateam:  Hello. First of all, thank you for giving us the opportunity to express ourselves on your website! Ultrateam is a very young studio. We created the company after the success of our first game and in order to publish ULTRAFLOW 2.

Ultrateam is composed of four students in their final year of Supinfogame Rubika’s master degree in game design & management (it’s a French leading school dedicated to video game careers). As for the first ULTRAFLOW, we worked with two sound designers from our school.

To sum up things, we are students by day and indie mobile game developers by night! We have known each other for several years now and we already worked together somehow. On ULTRAFLOW 2, it was a good pick because with experiences at Ubisoft, Paladin studios, Neko Entertainment, and Eden Games, we mixed different methodologies and workflows.

JC:  The fact that you are students in a Master’s Degree program, and you are creating games at the same time is mind-boggling. Though to be honest, this is the second time that I have heard of someone doing that in the past couple of weeks. It doesn’t lessen what an amazing a feat that is! Congratulations to you all on your dedication to your education and your passion. Based on what you are studying, it looks like you have melded both together quite well.

Your first game ULTRAFLOW was a huge hit. It was downloaded over 3 million times. Why did you want to make a puzzle game? Are you fans of that genre, or was it something in particular in your backgrounds, that drove you in this direction?

Ultrateam:  Thank you. The thing is, we didn’t expected that much success at all! We’ve been amazingly surprised by this popularity and all the positive feedback from our players and the dev community. It was unbelievable.

The first ULTRAFLOW was born with the very simple idea to create something new & minimalist, a game with a simple geometrical shape. The bouncing ball idea came out and there was a game. So we didn’t specifically want to create a puzzle game. At the beginning, it was more of an arcade game like pin-ball or breakout. That’s why we keep talking about it as an arcade-puzzle game. It took the puzzle path while we were working on levels. But we tried to keep the balance between puzzle and arcade. And as you can see in the game, the reflection required to solve the levels is not really comparable to Tetrobot or God of Light in any way. It’s way more direct and simple. The challenge is more on how you find and execute your move, to solve the level, rather than thinking intensely on a solution. It’s about dexterity.

JC: Are there any particular puzzle games that you revere? And, are there one or two games that ULTRAFLOW pays homage to in its concept and execution?

Ultrateam: Not particularly. Strangely, we are not hardcore players of this genre, apart from ULTRAFLOW of course! We’ve played a lot to games like Cut The Rope, Monument Valley, World of Goo and The Door. They are all very special in the puzzle genre. They also have common points, like the very polished aesthetics and gameplay, quick replay, with immediate fun in the puzzle. This last point is probably one of the most difficult feelings to create with a puzzle game, and that’s where we tried to go too.

ULTRAFLOW is also inspired by old arcade games like air hockey, breakout, or even the flipper. But the whole gameplay idea only came from the endless fling movement you’d do while playing. That’s also why it’s superfast to retry in this game.

JC:  You named some of the most popular puzzle games to be released on mobile devices. I am sure it feels good to be in the same company with so many downloads and a large fan base for your game. When I came across ULTRAFLOW, I was impressed with the minimalistic design/art direction, and the wonderful pulsating music that seemed to be perfectly interwoven into the game. Can you tell us more about the art direction? It is stark in some ways, but has an elegance about it that I appreciate as a designer myself.

Ultrateam:  Well, it came naturally from both the platform constraint and because we wanted to keep it simple & easy to do. We didn’t wanted 3D or “non-minimalist” art style because it’s hard to optimize on mobile in the first place. The main constraints were “two colors only” and “geometrical shapes”. These are not particularly special ones, but as for everything, the difference resides in the execution, on how we took these constraints and made something unique.

Also, in a time where visual quality and “photorealism” can sell a game, can we still propose one with very simple shapes as well, more focused on pure gameplay? By using squares, circles, hexagons and triangles, we were able to compose levels that were fun and quite pretty.

But today we can admit that we sometimes made too complex levels, visually I mean.

That’s why one of our guidelines for ULTRAFLOW 2’s level creation was to keep it even more simple, pure and elegant. We mainly tried to avoid figurative levels. That doesn’t mean the graphics of ULTRAFLOW 2 didn’t evolve in some ways. It’s more refined. You’ll see that we added different effects and animations to empower our visual identity. Just as a little example: now when the ball hits a shape, the particles are not just triangles, they take the shape’s aspect. I know, it sounds like it’s nothing! But it adds something to the game. Piece by piece, we tried to renew our visual identity, by getting to the essence of what makes the ULTRAFLOW brand. 

JC: Details make all the difference in games. It often shows the level of commitment from game designers. As I am sure you all know, gamers can be a bit picky. You can be praised for game play and at the same time, be hounded about having a horrible menu or tutorial. As game designers, what do you think makes a successful puzzle game? What I liked about ULTRAFLOW and hoping it appears in ULTRAFLOW 2, is the level of difficulty in the game. In the first game, once you hit level 25 and beyond, there was a bit of head-scratching there. Yet, I never felt the puzzles were too hard, if you kept trying. Also, the hint indicator was a wonderful addition. Thank you for that by the way.

Ultrateam: For us, a good puzzle game is a right balance between the complexity of the puzzles and the pleasure of the resolutions. The most important thing is to give the right clues to the players to help them resolve the thing. You try to get them from something like “What the hell? [Few seconds later] Ooooh that’s it.” It’s mostly about visual signs and image composition and how you can drive the look. In ULTRAFLOW 2, it’s about telling where to go to get to the exit, but to let you guess, try and retry the execution.

I’m not talking about the hint indicator which is just here to whisper you a direction to throw the ball at. Don’t forget that you can deactivate it. 

Our goal with ULTRAFLOW 2 was to make puzzles even easier to read but challenging on the resolution, of course.

JC: I think ULTRAFLOW has a perfect balance of those elements. That is one of the reasons I enjoy it so much. The game kind of reveals itself to you if you keep trying. I didn’t know you could turn the hint indicator off… and, I would never think of doing that! Well… maybe. Why did you choose to create a sequel to ULTRAFLOW as opposed to going in a different direction, with a different game? Was it primarily because of the success of the first game?

Ultrateam:  The success of the first game was part of the decision. But one of the most recurrent requests we received from our players was to get more levels. But the way we created ULTRAFLOW’s levels was so anarchical we didn’t even want to continue to make them at first!

We waited a bit, read almost all the feedback/comments left by players, to know what they really liked and what they wanted. Because you know, players often know your game better than you do. After that, we thought about how we could improve ULTRAFLOW and started designing and prototyping new features. There were also things we weren’t satisfied with in the first game, mainly about levels and features we killed like the portals! We didn’t succeed in creating good levels with them, but their potential of fun was so important we put them in ULTRAFLOW 2. 

So yeah, ULTRAFLOW 2 is a great iteration of the game, but it allowed us to learn from our mistakes and our players, in order to create a new game we are really proud of.

JC: I am sure many of our readers will be glad to hear that you took their input to make the sequel. So often games can be better if game designers are active in the forums. You quickly are able to find out what they like and what they don’t like. This is something that I always find interesting. Your team is considered as an independent game developer. Can you tell us about some of the pros and cons of that? Is there more creative freedom, and how do you balance that, with trying to run a business at the same time?

Ultrateam: We are probably a very specific type of developer. As I said earlier, we are students by day and game developers by night. So in the first place, it makes a lot of work to do every day.

Plus, we are self-published right now, so we can do absolutely what we want. “Innovation” is the key word!  It’s a bit risky to go for full independent development. You are all alone and it can get very stressful sometimes. You have to find your own way to validate what you do and get feedback. Of course, it is pretty cool on the creative side. Nevertheless, when it comes to business, you need a strong network to try to communicate on your game and sell it. Once again, we had the chance to build this network thanks to ULTRAFLOW, but we were unknown when we first released the game. I wouldn’t say going all alone is hopeless, because that’s what we did for our first game, but obviously, chances are slightly different without anyone behind you. You mostly need a good game, some support and a lot of luck.

JC:  I hope some of our readers that want to be developers caught that. It almost sounds like the recipe for a great cake! You have to have all the right ingredients to make it taste right. It is important to educate yourself on some of the most important steps for sure. Learn the craft, learn the business, create a good game and that dash of luck, hopefully will find you and your game. What can you tell us about ULTRAFLOW 2. The game was recently released on Android. The iOS version is coming later. Thanks for releasing on Android first by the way. We are always excited when we see an Android release first, or at least a simultaneous release. What makes ULTRAFLOW 2 better than its predecessor?

Ultrateam: When your game is played by over three million people, you get a lot of comments. There, you understand what your game is really about, how it works, what makes it fun. With all of this, we started over to think about how we could improve the game’s experience. We learned from that, so I’d say that Ultraflow 2 is better than the first one, because we mastered its creation.

There are three new gameplay features in this game: portals, which teleport the ball from a point to another, keeping its direction and velocity; the new control zone in which you can re-take the control of the ball to change its direction during a slow-motion effect and the multi-ball which is basically several small balls coming out a single ball when it collides.

From a refined gameplay, enhanced visual effects and three new features bringing new puzzle possibilities, we tried to take the ULTRAFLOW brand to the next level.

JC: Awesome! I have played through a few levels of ULTRAFLOW 2, and when I saw that you could take control of the ball in slow motion, I was mesmerized. Again, it is something that you have to kind of figure out on your own. I thought that was a totally sleek addition. Now, will the game be free-to-play with ads, or will you be able to unlock the game with one fee? Also, while you are at it, can you give us your thoughts on free-to-play games? Why do you think they dominate the market? Unfortunately, some games won’t even be looked at by some gamers, because of the free-to-play label. How do you try and manage so many different expectations from gamers?

Ultrateam: Both! ULTRAFLOW 2 is indeed a free game with ads. Players have access to the 180 levels we created. It’s already twice the content that was in the first game! If they want to get more involved in the game, they can get access to the HARD version of these levels for 1.50 USD (think about Super Meat Boy’s format.) That brings us to 360 levels!

But we have our own specific approach regarding that aspect of the game. You have access to 180 free levels, but almost all of them are “locked” by an ad in a bunch of 12 (the first bunch is not). So when you watch an ad, you get access to 12 levels. You can watch every ad to unlock all the levels at once, so that you don’t have to while you play. All in all, there’s 14 ads in the whole game, and you’ll never have to watch a single one.

Then the HARDCORE IAP, as we call it, grants you access to the hard version of those 180 levels and also remove any ads left. You can switch from “classic” to “hard” whenever you want. These levels are not just a “more difficult” version of the classic levels, they keep the layout but are hand crafted to extrapolate the challenge. We didn’t just modified some values.

Free-to-play games are great when they are well done. They brought the gaming world to people that didn’t play before, just because they had to pay for games. Mobile gaming was obviously the best market to grow this business model, as lots of people own a smartphone. Now, it’s common to play a free-to-play game as a bunch of them are released every day. It is completely understandable that some people get enough of this model: ads and micro-transactions can be evil in some people’s mind. But they are great ways for developers to spread their games freely, get noticed and make money (because let’s be honest, even if making games is a passion, as a dev you need to be payed for your work, basically in order to live). Watching ads is basically how the player pays for a free game. If you want to get more content you can also pay a bit for it and if you don’t want to, that’s ok too! Developers are still happy people.

As the model has been well spread, the real challenge is to integrate the economic design at the beginning of the game’s design process. Take a look at Supercells’ productions: Clash of Clans, Hay Day, Boom Beach… All of these games are genius. Their systems and business models are in love with each other. Everything is fluid. It seems logical and legit. Watching an ad gives you a reward. It’s as simple as this. We have to make the player feel like it’s a part of the game and they can get something from it. That’s how we designed ULTRAFLOW 2’s economic system. As we don’t have a huge meta-game system like the free-to-play tycoons and others, we tried to keep it simple and fair for our players. 

JC:  THANK YOU Ultrateam. That was very well articulated. I know for a lot of people, free-to-play is an evil monster that has come from the depths to destroy mobile gaming in general. I think you are right though, a balanced approach makes all the difference. I can understand some of the comments from our readers. They have encountered games that are straight up money grabs. We do understand that developers need to make money. Everyone should be paid for their craft. Unfortunately, some developers really try to take advantage of the gamer. It is good to see that Ultrateam is taking a balanced, and may I even say, innovative approach in making your game available to everyone. By the way, I can’t imagine how difficult those hard levels are to play. Oh, and before I forget, thank you for adding achievements. Yes, I am an achievement hunter. You can thank Microsoft and the XBox for that.

I mentioned music a bit before in our conversation. With ULTRAFLOW you had a link to Soundcloud, so everyone could experience the music in the game. Obviously, this is an important piece in the overall design of the game. How did you decide on the genre of music? Why did you choose to go with that style? How would you describe it?

Ultrateam: Maxime and Théophile were the two external sound designers who worked for us on our two games. We gave them a playable version and they decided what to do. Of course we had some ideas in mind, but they are mostly responsible for the sound atmosphere of the game.

To stay in a minimalist atmosphere, we kept the music overall very simple. If you pay attention to it, there are no real melodies, there are only different beats. In fact, we created shorts samples that we assembled, to generate different music, so a lot of it is managed directly from the code.

JC:  At one point while playing your first game (Level 41 in particular) , I kind of felt like I was mix between Kevin Flynn of the movie Tron and David  Beckham. I was hurling a disc, and at the same time, I had to have the skill to bend it like Beckham. What I enjoyed about your game is that the puzzles have a certain nuance to them. They slowly reveal themselves to you over time. How do you keep that balance in the game play. I know I played Level 41 at least twenty times before I got it. Some of the puzzles you are faced with are hard to decipher at the beginning of them.

Ultrateam: We always try to play with our own rules to find some innovative ways to interact with our features. To create diversity with a limited number of features, we had to spend a lot of time scratching our heads to create new interactions between elements. But sometimes it leads to just one cool idea, that you can use with one specific setup. Moreover, the more you dig to find new ways to use your features, the less you find some. This way, we keep this balance between puzzle and arcade, between getting a headache while trying to find the solution and the immediate fun.

JC: Ultimately ULTRAFLOW and ULTRAFLOW 2 are physics based games. Do you care to dive into the math and science of it all? Don’t blow our minds by the way… just the basics to help us out a bit.

Ultrateam: We used this knowledge to build either some feature or some levels. As an example we used some refractions principles to design our multi-ball feature.

As you will discover in the game, there are also a lot of levels with complex animations that needed some precise calculations. There is one specific level involving multiple rotating and scaled objects, which is so mathematically complex that we had to tweak the animations delays with a precision of 0.01 second.

JC: ? ? ? ? ?  Got it! Did you hear the glass shattering in the background? Okay, I will say this in response. Absolutely! I am so glad that works. Maybe I should sit in a class with you guys so I can learn what you are learning. Obviously math and science can equal great game play, when you know what you are doing. What would you say is the best thing about ULTRAFLOW 2?

Ultrateam: The obvious answer would be the number of levels and the new features. So we can sum up that in a word: the content. That was the main reproach on ULTRAFLOW. We’re happy to answer to our player’s main request. In Ultraflow 2, you’ve got 180 free levels and a Hardcore version of these level!

As we said earlier, working on a sequel allowed us to understand what made ULTRAFLOW successful. We were able to iterate on our creation and take time to find ways to empower it.

A refined gameplay, enhanced visual effects, new features: everything for us way better. We like Ultraflow 2 so much, it is sometimes hard for us to play to the first Ultraflow!

JC: How long did it take you to create ULTRAFLOW 2? What is your design process? With over one hundred puzzles this time in the game, it has to be a challenging process to come up with different puzzles. So many games offer more of the same. ULTRAFLOW didn’t feel that way, and I imagine ULTRAFLOW 2 would follow the same path in some ways?

Ultrateam: For ULTRAFLOW, our workflow was simply catastrophic: we dived into prototyping features and level creation without any pre-production or real validation. If only you would have seen us at the end of the production! We wanted to finish it and release it so it would be over as we didn’t think it would meet that much success.

For ULTRAFLOW 2, it went differently. We learned from our mistakes and our bad way to do things. So we started doing them right. It took us almost 8 months to make the game. We had a quick pre-production phase from the end of May to the third week of June where we designed and prototyped our new features. In the meantime, we designed our difficulty curve and the game’s progression. We also established level creation rules to avoid the anarchy we encountered previously. We were three level designers working all night on levels, aside from our day jobs, in other game companies at different locations, so we set up a very strict validation process to get rid of problems and lateness. 

First, our programmer was coding the features accordingly to the priorities set during the pre-production phase. Like this we had the right gameplay features at the right time to create levels. He basically followed the game’s progression.

Second, we divided the game in chapters, packs and levels to create our own milestones. We had three chapters, each composed of five packs, and each pack composed of twelve levels. Almost every week we had to finish a pack. To do so, the three level designers were each in charge of four levels and the modifications requested on the previous pack, per week. We met on Skype once a week to play the others’ levels and ask for modifications. That way we were able to go on, design together, know and handle our game and most importantly, to produce content. We did almost the same thing to create the Hardcore version of the levels. Starting in October-November, we started a polish phase where we nonstop played to the game in order to find ways to improve it. We also used closed alpha and beta testing to get data from other players to spot problems and smooth out the experience, whether it be on pure gameplay, bugs and level design issues. 

JC: So, some of you weren’t even in the same room while doing this? I guess once you have worked together for a while, you get to know how each person works best. It is still tough to imagine in some ways working another full time job while creating a game, but a lot of people I know do that. Again, it shows your level of commitment to your craft. What is next for Ultrateam following the release of ULTRAFLOW 2?

Ultrateam: Well, first of all, we need to keep working on ULTRAFLOW 2 to release it on iOS, Windows Phone Store and Amazon Store. We’ll also keep an eye on the analytics to spot issues, especially with levels.

We may take a small break after that and step back to think about what we created. We also need to finish our master’s degree! Depending on ULTRAFLOW 2’s success in the first few weeks after its last release, we’ll draw the picture of our company’s future. 

JC: Where is your studio based and how big is the team?

Ultrateam: The team is based in Valenciennes, it’s a medium city in north of France. The core team is composed of four people: one programmer and three level designers (Thibaud Troalen, Franck Fitrzyk, Gautier Tintillier and Hugues Barlet) . There are also two external sound designers (Maxime Bondoux and Theophile Loaec) working with us. We’re all in the same school. We may include all our friends and families who helped us a lot to improve the game but that would make a lot more people to quote.

JC: Does the software you use to make your games make it easier to release on multiple platforms? Do you think you are more dedicated to the Android OS than most game companies?

Ultrateam: We are using the Unity technology. It is a great game engine that allows us to build the game very easily on different platforms.

We love all our players, whatever platform they play on of course! Google Play is a great place to be a developer, whether it be for the audience or the Google Editorial team. That’s where the first ULTRAFLOW got noticed, played and rated. Also, it’s much easier to build and publish on that platform using Unity, furthermore, we mostly have Android devices in the team, so it kinda played in that way. We have an intimate link with Android players and we are happy to bring ULTRAFLOW 2 first on Android platforms.

JC: Did you hear that thunder of applause from Android gamers everywhere? Okay, let’s switch gears a bit here and get into some stuff some other things our readers may be curious about. What game designer do you admire and why?

(Responses from the whole Ultrateam):

Franck: I’d say that Cliff Bleszinski, Jim Brown and Lee Perry have a very inspirational way of explaining their work and their design methods. They are both free in their design and oriented toward the players’ expectations and needs at the same time.

Gautier: It’s hard to pick one Game Designer, but I would say Warren Spector. The game he designed and the articles he wrote really influenced the way I see games. It helped me to realize that there is still plenty of wonderful things to design.

Hugues: Aurélien Regard for his huge work on The Next Penelope. He decided to make a game all alone, and it was a great success! (Unfortunately not with the sales). I respect a lot these guys with high motivation in game development!

Thibaud: I’d say Toby Fox because of his dedication in his work, humbleness and because he made a wonderful game recently (Undertale) that I enjoyed way too much.

JC: What is one thing that you want gamers to know about your studio, that they probably don’t?

Ultrateam: Well, if they went through the whole article, they probably already understood our main difference with other developers: we are students… soon to graduate, but still. It’s not easy to work on AAA titles in big companies, but neither to manage both class, school projects and a small game company at the same time. So we are proud of what we’ve done because we put our souls into it and we hope players will feel that too.

JC: If you had to live your life in a game… what game would that be?

Everyone gave his own preferences to this question.

(Responses from the whole Ultrateam):

Franck: I’d like to be in the Bubble Dreamer’s world of Rayman, eating fruits and listen to music all day long!

Gautier: It’s a tough question, I would say Elite Dangerous universe would be entertaining, or maybe Arcanum. 

Hugues: Maybe Rayman! Or Minesweeper because I like to live dangerously!

Thibaud: I guess… No, I’ve no idea.

I want to thank the Ultrateam for talking with us, and going in-depth about their games ULTRAFLOW and ULTRAFLOW 2, and the game design process, as well as the business of making games. If you haven’t had the opportunity to check out their games, they are free to play and available to download in the Google Play Store. ULTRAFLOW 2 was just released last week, and it is so much more than a sequel.

We hope you, our readers enjoyed the interview. There are more interviews coming. Keep the Interviews section bookmarked, because DroidGamers has quite a few interviews lined up with some of the best game developers that will be releasing games this year. As always, thank you for reading and visiting DroidGamers.

 




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