Indie game designer Adriaan de Jongh is known for his unusual collaborations, including Bounden, an cooperative dancing game for mobile devices produced in cooperation with the Dutch National Ballet. De Jongh's next game is a take on the hidden-object genre, and he's partnered with a pen-and-ink artist to elevate his unique, hand-drawn style for mobile and Steam devices.
"I first met Sylvain at his graduation expo," de Jongh said at this year's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. "He made some sort of installation with globes that showed his vision on product design; glass globes, with objects in them.
"But in the background of those globes he had these little drawings. And these little drawings, they kind of intrigued me way more than the actual globes. It really had this effect on me. I was looking at them and I was like, "Whoa what is happening in here!" I brought my face close to it and I was staring at it for 10 minutes."
Two weeks later, de Jongh says he had a working prototype for the game. Tegroeg was in, and for the last two years the pair have been working on fleshing the title out.
De Jongh says that critics have called Hidden Folks many things. Some see it as a kind of modern-day Where's Waldo? or compare it to the fad of adult coloring books. Whatever players see in the game, de Jongh says that people are entranced by Tegroeg's pictures and are eager to spend hours hunting through them for the "targets" to unlock the next level.
The challenge for de Jongh has been to create tools fast enough, and stable enough, to handle the detail of Tegroeg's work on a mobile device. The largest level yet completed — a detailed factory scene filled with tiny little workers toiling away along an assembly line — is much, much larger than even the screen of a PC can display all at once.
I saw what de Jongh meant, when I played an early build of Hidden Folks on his iPad Pro, sliding the page around through the keyhole of its screen to see the details in it. There's a mermaid, a birthday party, an interactive button, a man with a thought bubble.
In all, de Jongh says, this one scene has 1,300 characters in it.
"We've already spent probably a year and a half of our time trying to figure out how to make this game," de Jongh says. "Tegroeg doesn’t draw on computers. He draws on paper with FineLiners. So everything that you see here was hand-drawn at some point. Eventually, I taught him how to make sprite sheets. … I helped him digitize his work in a way we could easily use in the game. After that, he could just pick all those small images that we put in on the computer and he could literally drag and drop everything into the game."
The process is painstaking. Once a physical drawing is finished, Tegroeg goes back using digital tools to create each individual part of it. Those parts are broken down into layers, and those layers sorted one atop the other inside Unity using custom tools de Jongh built especially for the game.
"He's been drawing characters digitally with individual body parts — their little heads are separate, their legs are separate, arms separate — so that we can animate it. He’s been drawing the buildings separately, and he’s been drawing the windows separately. And then we put it all together in the game."
It harkens back to the kind of animation work that made Walt Disney famous — layering transparent sheets on top of one another and moving the camera relative to the stack — but at in a much more complex way. All this work, de Jongh says, is worth it to make a premium, for-pay title that will stand out on the crowded Apple and Steam marketplaces.
With luck, he says, the game will be ready to play in around six months.