Behind the Release of Axis Descending: Introduction & Origin

Axis development in a nutshell.

About seven years ago I was fresh out of a BFA program in Game Production, teaching Game Design courses, and reeling from a failed student project I had taken on. I was beginning a new stage in my professional life not only as a game developer, but as an educator teaching college courses and developing my skills as an instructor and presenter. While the education career would allow me to continue learning as a designer and satisfy my need to pay the bills, my extracurricular activities began taking form as development practice and applied research. One of the first projects I decided to work on, Axis, was a self-directed solo-developed two week venture that has transformed into a seven year development cycle filled with year-long hiatuses, adaptation to industry trends, and a fair amount of stubbornness in avoiding certain trends. In the next year Axis will be released as Axis Descending on Steam Greenlight. This post, and others to follow it, are a documentation of this journey's iterative process, ups, downs, and outcome.

The primary intent behind this series is to help my peers, my students, my friends and family, and my social media following understand:
  • How the project has changed throughout the last seven years and why
  • The personal importance of the project's vision
  • Individual metaphors related to the game mechanics and character/world design
  • Design choices related to the limitations primarily imposed upon myself by myself
  • An in-depth analysis of the project's journey while it commences
  • Do's and Don't's for independent game development

We'll begin with an introduction to the game, how it came to be, and why it has gone through 3 phases and rehashes.

Like all of my projects, Axis began with a character design. After working so heavily in Flash throughout my BFA experience and beyond, I had a strong understanding of the software tools and what they could produce. I also had a particular look to my work that I wanted to evolve and extend derived from a failed course project, a capstone project and mentorship via Floyd Bishop, and a failed indie development project post-graduation. The look was easy and natural for me to produce but still needed the time it takes to refine and define an art style.

Aegis Steelfleece's base design was used to define the tall and slender proportions used throughout Axis Descending's character designs. On the right you can see the evolution of the forward-facing sprite and the current one.
Aegis Steelfleece's base design was used to define the tall and slender proportions used throughout Axis Descending's character designs. On the right you can see the evolution of the forward-facing sprite and the current one.

My love of desaturated tones and a deep desire to have blue hair (totally owned it during high school for a short period of time) resulted in the core scheme of "Axis Kailash", but the majority of the design was influenced by other characters, Ko, Aegis Steelfleece, and one of the first 3D modeled characters I created, also named Axis, who defined the new character's history. The original design was influenced by these characters in a number of ways.

Ko's blue hair, energy, and stoicism are a large part of Axis' look and personality. His glamour rock haircut, similar color scheme, and movement have sparked many discussions about whether or not Axis was "Ko's Dad", or "Ko all grown up". Similarly, the weapons and mobility mechanics in the game reflect the mechanics in the Aegis game. The evolution here is intentional for a few reasons. Axis' mechanics were an extension of the mechanics within the Ko game, but due to the project's failure and involvement of peers within an educational setting, it was inappropriate to continue building upon that original world. This new character would be a muse for a new universe, a new beginning, and a new adventure. The design mirrored my own experience with these projects and my intent moving forward.

The original concept for Axis 1.0 included puzzle platforming through shifting between a light and dark version of the world. The dark world would be broken and in ruins, whereas the light world was intact, vital, and colorful (not depicted in the example whatsoever).
Axis 1.0 prototype screen grab. Photoshop backgrounds, primitive vector objects and animations.
An evolutionary prototype between 1.0 and 2.0, showing progression of environment designs and the exodus from using bitmap background art.
Axis 2.0 beta prototype. An explicit set of directions were provided for the beta.
Axis 3.0. Not much has changed in the interface, though scrolling and improved art passes have evolved the art style in subtle ways.

The 3D model Axis was influential mainly from a story standpoint. Axis' background as a swordsman who has a war-torn history, coupled with experiences with the world's afterlife or "dark world", framed the new character's history. This history has been manipulated, scrapped, written and verbally communicated in a number of ways. Currently, Axis' relationship with spirituality on a physical and intellectual level are at the core of his past and present. Originally, this manifested as the primary game mechanic within the first prototype in the player's ability to shift between light and dark worlds, causing new pathways or items to appear depending on the current world. This mechanic was by no means new, and has been used many, many times.

Axis Kailash. The character's name is heavy with metaphors related to the 2.0 version of the game's concept. The Axis Mundi is the center of the world, often depicted by a tree, spire, or staircase in numerous mythologies. This verticality is represented by the levels in Axis Descending as the player freefalls from level to level, descending further and further down to the lowest point of the world. This lowest point is also the most challenging and may represent the world's version of Hell. Axis is the central focus, whereas Kailash comes from Mount Kailash, which represents the meditative home and seat of power for certain Eastern deities. This represents Axis' rank as a leader within the world and how he is acknowledged by its inhabitants, but also the player's relationship and ownership of their home base. The airship Rinpoche (Tibetan for "precious one", "gem" or "jewel") is this home base. It rests high above the world's shifting floating islands at a "peak" in the metaphysical gamespace, serving as your respawn point and access point for fast travel, crafting, and swapping weapon loadouts.

A chart depicting the level flow within 2.0, albeit horizontal. The final 2.0 prototype featured 30 drops. Each drop put the player in one of a handful of potential levels, randomizing the experience and incorporating rogue-like elements.

The origin of this type of level structure comes from discussions and feedback related to the game while it was treated as my graduate thesis project. After 1.0's lack of progress due to lack of interest, lifestyle changes, and meeting my wife, I was afforded the opportunity to earn my Masters in Experiential Design. Through the program's Thesis course, my interest in the project was reignited. The second version of the project was born and the result of 16 weeks worth of research and studio time can be played here. An emphasis was placed on my research topic, Narrative in Games, and how I could benefit both of my chosen career paths as an Educator and as a Game Developer. Development-wise, I would be able to secure a prototype of a project I had been working on and off with for years. It would lead to the eventual release of a game and profit, of course, but more than that it meant the end of almost a decade's worth of time and effort. My graduate paper Defining Narrative Devices in Digital Gamespaces resulted in a guide for students and developers alike to follow to make informed design decisions when communicating with the player and helped define my identity as an Educator.

A collection of characters used within 2.0's prototype.

Completing my Masters left me in a situation not unlike what prompted that two week concept that has grown, evolved, and transformed into what is becoming Axis Descending. My progress on the project is unstructured by any institution and is entirely self-directed again. After the birth of my son and a brief hiatus over the summer, progress is remaining consistent and the plan to campaign and inevitably release the game on the PC platform is moving along. While this post was merely informational and divulged the history behind the project, future posts in the 12-post series will highlight key methodologies, like playtesting, my creative process in Flash, designing the levels for the game, marketing it, and more.

If you have any questions, you can contact me most easily via Skype under the username: nujakjata.

By The Light Development

Play the game here.

 Spatial instructions help define the "what" and "where" when it comes to direction.

 Custom particles.

Interactive panels that light up when activated, triggering doors to open.

Orange indicator near character's right shoulder (your left) directs the player to the Lantern when it is set down.

Subtle hints regarding a fateful encounter.

New look for the enemy Seeker shadows.

Working on feedback particles and effects to make hits feel good.

Some enemies come from below!

Some encounters are triggered by entering specific areas.

Darker ambience, updated textures/shaders during the first major pass.

The sword and shield are illuminated similarly to the lantern to create an association of light.

Initial stab at a swinging trail, courtesy of Melee Weapon Trail.

The player also has a light, colored blue contrasting the lantern's orange, that represents his health.

Just getting the lantern mechanic down, well before updating the character model and environment assets.

Narrow path near the entry point.

Bridges throughout the level represent pathways that have collapsed due to some event.

Establishing a sense of direction within the environment's context. Follow the tracks to success!

Comp of the final model used in-game.

Wireframe comp.

Mid-Spin Attack

Idle poses.

Quick rendering showing symmetrical/asymmetrical discrepancies.

A quick mood sketch, Mordigaine's color palette, and the reference used for the 3D model.

Pre-production sketches in Flash, utilizing symbol graphics to duplicate and easily modify individual shots. A great way to quickly provide some visualization for a project.

Axis Descending Beta Art Dump + Development Commentary

Breakdown for each armor upgrade that can be crafted. This helped demonstrate the player's potential rewards and capabilities to my audience.

Collectibles and an outdated set of upgrades for the original sword design, which grew in strength instead of merely being replaced by another sword.

UI Element breakdown, showcasing the HUD design and various other spatial feedback methods, including conversation bubbles and button prompts.

A banner fades in and out showcasing each area's name. Egret features a subtle 'warp zone' touch by encouraging players to question whether or not they can leap over the edge, pictured above. Spoilers: you can, and it will skip the stage completely.

Chambers like this one are dead ends, but provide the player with rewards so their time was not wasted.

Sleeping turrets in this room awaken after defeating the level's boss, The Captain. They should have done their job right before their boss was beat down.

Portal Room. This becomes an iconic representation of the "exit room" in levels that allows you to continue on with the next level in the game.

Axis' room, early stages, with empty shelves that would be lined with collectibles found throughout the adventure.

Gilgamesh smashes through the entire stage in Airship Le'Roya, referencing Leeroy Jenkins.

The clouds part as Axis descends from one area to another. Many of the ships and islands were going to have original art, but the time constraints pushed the task onto the low priority backlog and never made it into the beta.

One of the earliest rooms built, the hut was going to be the start of the adventure after Axis crashes through the ceiling.

The Forsaken was a fun boss to design and implement. 5 components had to be moved around individually and in a set pattern, which tasks the player with dodging and countering in a timely manner. The swords caused most players some serious trouble earlier on in testing since they damaged the player regardless of their state.

The final boss, Grimnir, and his gateway room. The adventure leading Axis downward further and further into the abyss of the Nexus was a large part of the intended narrative well before this iteration of the game. Axis falls into this surreal area, fighting a mirrored version of himself, bombarded with comments and questions from an unknown source. My intent was for players to question who Grimnir is, who was speaking to Axis, and what it means in relation to the vertical narrative inherent in the game's mechanics. The name Axis, and his last name Kailash which is referenced in a dialogue with NPCs, say much about the nature of the game's mechanics and their representations.