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Q& A: Making an outer space roadtrip with Night School’s Next Stop Nowhere

Next Stop Nowhere, the new game from Night School Studio and Well Made Entertainment, dropped last week on the Apple Arcade store, continuing the platform’s habit of announcing an array interesting titles a few days before their release. 

The adventure game, which jumps beyond the 2D-storytelling of Night School Studios’ Oxenfree and Afterparty puts players in the boots of an outer space transport pilot named Beckett. Instead of walking side-to-side across otherworldly environments, players now explore a 3D environment in top-down view, with brief excursions through asteroid belts and while piloting an AI-powered ship. 

It’s a neat jump for the small indie developer, pushing the boundaries of what the studio’s known for and trying to expand what can be done with narrative games in the world of Apple Arcade.

For a look at some of the thinking behind Next Stop Nowhere, we chatted with lead writer Adam Hines and creative director Sean Krankel, both co-founders of Night School Studio, about what it was like making a space roadtrip story people can play on their phones.

Next Stop Nowhere kind of sprung up out of the blue, to be announced and launched on Apple Arcade within minutes of each other. How long has Night School Studio been working on this, and what were the origins for what seems to be a new kind of game for the company?

Krankel: Nobody knew we were working on it except for us. It was a very tight-lipped project. We wanted to build this project since even before Oxenfree was finished. We started working on this concept back in 2016, and ended up shelving it briefly at sort of a very high-level story phase because we didn’t know exactly how to bring it to life. We didn’t know exactly how to merge some of the mechanics that we wanted to do. 

The idea for Afterparty bubbled up at the same time, and that just seemed like a funnier, easier thing to jump into right now. So we had cool concept art and some basic story, ideas floating around and back then the idea truly was “how can we do a playable roadtrip adventure? How can we do one that that feels like an Odd Couple sort of pairing between two characters that might not necessarily want to be spending a bunch of time together?” 

[It was] this kind of Americana roadtrip, Route 66-type of a thing that evolved over the next few months before we ended up going “alright, this team is getting bigger than we think we can handle right now.” In the middle of making Afterparty, we were able to bring it back to life because we pitched it to the folks at Apple.

The idea was really to make not just a roadtrip, but one in space–if you think of most space games, usually they’re epic in scope…ours is much more like, “what if it was a comedic sort of Mad Max version of space? And what if seeing other people was very few and far between, something that feels much more grounded? How can we recreate the feeling of Han and Chewie arguing with each other throwing a wrench at each other and being in the cockpit and make it feel really small as opposed to a big sort of space opera?” 

To do that, we just wanted to focus on a small cast. So you play as this character Beckett, who is a courier who has a pretty boring life other than the fact that he’s flying around space. But he is in his ship named Cody and Cody is kind of like if you took the Millennium Falcon, but put Siri in it. Cody is like [Beckett’s] best friend, like a puppy for him. And he gets embroiled in this much-larger-than-him story where this woman Serra that he meets at a a truckstop bar is trying to find and save her son who has double-crossed some organized crime dudes.

Over the course of this game, it’s almost like you’re the sidekick or the helper for Serra. Serra is the one with the larger than life story. You’re just a standard courier and it’s really this relationship between you, Cody, Serra, and all the kind of misadventures along the way.

The last time Night School Studio made a game for phones. It was text message Mr. Robot game where function and form overlapped with story. What did you learn about making games for phones with Next Stop Nowhere

Hines: Sean has a lot more experience working with games tailored for the phone experience. It was great having that insight. One big change in our thinking is that in our past games Oxenfree and Afterparty, you could get really comfy on the couch, sink in and you’re gonna play for a while and the conversations can flow and mingle and it’s meant to be kind of a very easygoing experience. 

But of course, on the phone, it’s people playing on the bus, people playing on the couch…or [waiting for] what they’re cooking to get done. It was really important for us to make these very nicely consumable bite-sized chunks of content, where you could dip your toes in and out of plots with the characters and the gameplay mechanics that can all feed into that. 

It was fun trying to come up with these little 10-minute, 15-minute chapter chunks and try to always have a bit of a carrot dangling on the stick to try to…either [drive you] to keep playing the game if you like, but also feel very comfortable to put it away. The game is always telling you, “it’s okay to stop now and take a break if you want.” For me, from the writing angle, that was the biggest, most fun challenge to apply to this new type of game.

Krankel: I think the constraints of touch controls and mobile helped us make this game more unique than what our initial concept was for it. Initially, we thought…this is going to be a console-first thing but what ended up happening was that the sort of sheer focus of the size of the screen and the play session length and the [mobile controls] just helped us make a cleaner better game I think like it impacted our art style in a big way. 

Initially our art style was probably veering toward what most people would think a stereotypical space game–rusty ships in black space with white stars, etc. We went “no, let’s do something extremely bold. Let’s make sure it’s got crazy screenshot appeal.” Now the color palettes change on a per-scene basis for the characters so the characters are constantly color swapping. We looked at some of the best-in-class stuff from games like Monument Valley, to other games that really own that screen real estate well. 

It was the same thing with the [game controls]. I think it made us really think “let’s not assume that we can have some big inventory and that the player is going to see all this various stuff all over the screen to be able to grok it. Let’s boil it down and make sure that dialogue choices, interactions, puzzles are all really juicy and fun to interact with,” which is not a thing that we’ve really leaned into in the past. 

Your last two games featured young characters figuring out who they are both in Oxenfree and Afterparty. This game features a jobber, a working-class kind of person, like someone who got past the “figuring out who they are stages” of life and are now in the “just trying to get by” stage. 

They’re both actually pretty atypical fantasies for games. Did that lead anywhere interesting in the design and in your vision for the game? 

Hines:  It was definitely fun to play in this headspace as opposed to always kind of doing a coming-of-age thing. I think two things definitely led us here: One was the reality that we 100 percent wanted a character that had a kid, and that kid to be adult enough to have gone on his own adventure, stole this thing and gotten into trouble. 

That by itself aged up all the characters. They just couldn’t be 18 and 16. So putting that kind of stake in the ground forced us to consider actual adults who have past lives. Just like you said, their priorities are very different. Then you’re kind of just coming out of high school or life is all ahead of you.

Second, the game is set after Earth has failed, so no one has a ton of hope. It makes a lot of sense that the characters here would be adults that are just trying to get by and trying to find inspiration and love and fun in a very kind of hopeless situation. That became a big theme of the game.

Krankel: The other piece of it is, pretty early on when we talked about making this Odd Couple type of dynamic. We wanted to let the player play an adventure that they can turn into a romantic comedy, or one they can turn into just, “alright I guess we’re stuck in this together,” or to not even be remotely friendly with each other. 

That dynamic of making the player character be somebody who has lived enough of a life, and like Adam mentioned, Serra already having a kid, meant that we just needed to build out a history for Beckett, that afforded a little bit more mature opportunity to fall in love with somebody, as opposed to “this is my first love.” I think that it was kind of fun to get into a character that frankly, is probably more relatable to those of us in the studio than our other characters. 

But the funny thing is, we talk about our other games being coming-of-age games, but I think the further we go through life, it’s always coming-of-age! I don’t know if you’re like 70 and you feel like you’re coming-of-age. So even this one I think still feels like [it’s] a coming-of-age game. It just so happens to be with some early 30-somethings.

There’s an arcade component in this game with flight challenges. It’s a little bit Star Fox and a little bit Rogue Squadron to my millennial eyes. Whenever a studio makes a new gameplay introduction, it means like a pretty significant technology leap somewhere. Do you have any insight on how a small studio was able to add those to its repertoire without breaking itself?

Krankel: One of the biggest leaps for us for this was the fact that this game has full 3D navigation and the flight sequences. We actually partnered with this incredible studio, Well Told Entertainment, and they are folks who we’ve worked with for years to supplement some of the stuff we’ve done in the past. For Next Stop Nowhere, they took on a much more robust role in building the game. 

I think what was really helpful was that they really, instead of being afraid of that wanted to push even harder into that territory. So we’ve got full 3D-navigation, which allows our level designs to be a lot more interesting or dynamic-feeling than they have in the past. You get more interesting spatial puzzles that we didn’t do much of in our last two games because we were really restricted to just the X-Y axis. 

But on the flight front, it’s funny–we tested it forever and it’s just so difficult to find this balance of like, “how do you make a game that’s challenging enough that feels good and exciting and seat-of-your-pants but also doesn’t betray the rest of the story components?”

A lot of people that play our games are not looking to play the twitchiest, skill-based thing ever. It’s not like we’re going to throw a Dark Souls boss into the middle of Oxenfree, as much as Adam probably wants that.

Hines: *laughs*

Krankel: It was a combination of…not necessarily a ton of technical challenges, but certainly design challenges and finding a balancing act that felt good for that. We had versions of this that were far more complex and more difficult and they just didn’t feel good. So we whittled it down, and our ethos was, “if you are getting dumped into one of these sequences, it should never anger you, it should be a fun version of stress.” And so the gameplay really in those flight sequences is primarily obstacle avoidance and story content at the same time. 

I think the other piece for us that that we never want to turn away from is letting stories still sit inside of other mechanics. When you’re flying, you can still have conversations when you’re flying…I feel really good about where we landed, but you know, Well Told really helped push those flying sequences to be what they are. 

Another thing just to add to that, is that we want players to make choices not just in dialogue. Choice also should be about spatial choice and where you are going and when. Our flight sequences aren’t just like, “welcome to the arcade crazy sequence. We’ll go back to the story in a minute and a half.” 

Those are real roadtrip moments where it’s like, “if my two friends over here are going to investigate something on the southern path, we’re going to go on the northern path, and we are going to completely miss the story content that existed on that other path.” It’s funny you mentioned Star Fox, because obviously there’s some inspiration there. But the branching map of Star Fox was hanging in our office for a while.

I low-key forgot Star Fox had that.

Krankel: Right?! Which is crazy that that had branching levels. It was so unnecessary!

Every interview we do these days has an element of “how are you dealing with COVID-19” in it. Because you can’t not talk about a global pandemic, right? Normally what I’ve been asking developers is “how are you adapting to remote work,” but especially with a mobile game, it’s worth asking if you’ve learned anything about how peoples’ play habits are changing?

Krankel: In terms of like, making Next Stop Nowhere, the interesting thing was because we’ve partnered so closely with Well Told, who were not on site with us. [They] actually primed us in many ways for this. It made our communication as a studio already get better via Zoom and all the tools that and now everybody’s kind of forced to be using. I think we sort of lucked out on that front because we went through our growing pains on that a little bit earlier.

I think there was a very serendipitous thing and that the themes of our game really are things that feel like to me, something I want right now just you know, subjectively like the fact that it is a game about connection and a roadtrip and seeing people when you rarely get to see them and it’s got you know, awesome music, and the story has a lot of heart and warmth. To me it feels like it’s ready for this moment. But that was just luck, just good timing that, “let’s go on a roadtrip, that sounds fun right now” [being relevant]. 

In terms of the launch that feels super weird just because I imagine every developer launching a game right now feels kind of odd, but it’s just a bummer that we don’t get to see [reporters] in-person, or talk to other people…all the natural stuff that feels like how you launch a game we just haven’t done. I think across the whole team, we’re still like, “oh, is it out? Is it really out?”

It doesn’t feel like we put it out yet because nothing seems different anymore. Everything is the same day over and over again.

Hines: To Sean’s point, it’s definitely been a slow process…of just learning how to work with another team off-site, and thankfully, [the pandemic] hasn’t really changed to too much of that. It’s just kind of our own internal team. We’re really learning and relearning, again, how to make sure that we’re always in communication and making sure that things are getting done.

There’s also the awkwardness of trying to schedule in “happy fun time” because it’s just impossible to naturally bubble up those moments where you go “hey, let’s get a coffee and talk and just hang out for 15 minutes before getting back to work.” To me, it’s still important that those things happen. So remember that we’re humans on the other side of the monitor, but just trying to make that a thing that we still do. 

But yeah, and then there’s just the brutal every day bad-news, bummer cycle. It probably would have affected the story and led us to tweak some tonal things and things might have been a bit bleaker and might have been a bit more cynical. But I’m glad in a way that we made a game where the tone of it…because it was written right before the pandemic, and because we’re still so focused on being an ultimately lighthearted roadtrip game…

I like Sean’s point it is the thing that is hopefully a bit of a nightlight in all of this where it’s kind of nice and comforting. Ultimately, there are themes that I don’t think should go completely away and should be [ignored] right now, even if we all might feel like things aren’t looking too great.