PHOGS!, a new multiplayer game releasing tomorrow for about every platform under the sun, defies description. Is it a platformer? Is it a puzzle game? It certainly is not what one thinks of when one hears the term “puzzle platformer”.
In PHOGS!, two players control the titular character(s), a two-headed dog creature attached in the middle by a worm-like body. (It is possible to play PHOGS! solo, but what’s the fun in that?) Through communication and coordinated efforts, players must overcome a series of obstacles in over twenty levels that take place in three themed worlds. The Phogs themselves are somewhat controllable – this is not quite a Human Fall Flat situation, but the fact that they are attached does lead to a delicious mix of hilarity, good-hearted frustration, and a shared sense of triumph when things go as planned.
Gaming Nexus had the opportunity to speak with Bit Loom Games, the three man team behind PHOGS!. Douglas Flinders, Henry Pullan, and James Morwood are a tight-knot group that have been working together for three years to bring their first game to market, and though they may have defined roles in the game’s development (Henry did the music, for example), when they are speaking it becomes clear that the lines get a little blurry as to who did what. PHOGS! seems as though it was true team effort, from a group of men that have somehow made it to the finish line with a fair amount of good humor.
In our free-roaming conversation, we discussed the history and development of PHOGS!, the game’s initial concept as a golf game(!), Bit Loom’s partnership with publisher Coatsink Games, and the idea behind a shared controller control layout. We also uncover the the meaning of the word “PHOGS”, and what the future may hold for Bit Loom Games.
Could you please tell me a bit of the history of Bit Loom Games?
Henry Pullan: We all came together at the end of university [in 2017]. We all knew that we wanted to make games together, so we just set out to do it. We started prototyping PHOGS! towards the end of our last year there, and then just after that we entered a competition that the university ran. We prototyped further, and created our first demo that people saw. We took it to EGX - which is a game expo here in the UK. And that's where we met Coatsink. The rest is the rest is history. We've just been working hard on a PHOGS! for the past couple of years now.
How far removed is the current release from your early prototypes?
Henry Pullan: That's hard to say. The Phog [character] hasn't changed a huge amount, but the world around it has gone on a really long journey of prototyping and art work and just generally figuring out what PHOGS! is and trying to find the charm of the world. I think towards the end, we really hit a stride and just filled it with all these amazing moments that we're so happy with.
Douglas Flinders: The development process was definitely very experimental. We just threw out any nonsense idea until we got some good, happy accidents and fun moments. I think the first couple of months of proper prototyping - after we signed with Coatsink and moved on to developing this full game beyond just a demo to showcase - some of those mechanics, and pretty much all of those level ideas were just completely overhauled. Because it was just so messy and different from what we later found to be like the fun and charm of the game. So, [the process] was a lot of experimenting and messing around with all kinds of different ideas until the good stuff came up.
Henry Pullan: Some of the original ideas in our first demo that we showed around have managed to make it all the way to the final game, which is kind of cool to think about.
Were the Phogs themselves always wormy legless dogs? What sort of iteration has the character(s) gone through?
Henry Pullan: The original idea that we had when we were trying to come up with PHOGS! was this idea called dog golf, where you were half golfer, half dog, and then you would hit the ball and the dog half of you would run off after the ball. But then when we realized that the idea wasn't much beyond that joke, we stuck another dog on the end, and that’s how we got to PHOGS!.
Douglas Flinders: As far as actual prototyping, there has been no other version of the dog. The first model was a graybox version of what there is now, and then it got art, and that’s about it. A few tweaks to physics and stuff in there.
Is there meaning behind the word “Phogs”? Is there an origin story behind the name?
James Morwood: Yes, it's deceptively simple. It's physics/dogs. We had this original name “Dog Sports”, and it wasn't really the right vibe. When we focused more on the puzzle stuff and the kind of physics nature of your body being all wobbly, we went for the physics dogs / Phogs angle, but nobody really knows that.
Henry Pullan: It’s definitely way catchier than “Dog Sports” though.
Bit Loom has developed PHOGS! for simultaneous release on like 70 different platforms. What was that experience like, especially with PHOGS! being your first published game?
Henry Pullan: We only really handled the PC version, and some parts of the Switch version since that was our lowest performing platform. But for the most part, it was Coatsink that took care of that stuff. We only really had to focus on making the game. We didn't have to worry a huge amount about doing the different platform stuff.
James Morwood: Really early on, we did make a PS4 version ourselves. And the Switch build as Henry says, but other than that, it's been a lot of back and forth with Coatsink. Anytime there's been a big problem that we can't make work, on PC, we have communicated with them. And, they've always been really good at providing us builds when they've done any new platform support.
Locally, there are a few different control schemes. You can do single player with one controller, multiplayer with two controllers, and multiplayer with a single, shared controller. What was the inspiration behind that last control scheme?
Henry Pullan: When we came up with the idea, we knew that we wanted to push cooperation as the key aspect of the game. We decided that it would just be kind of silly to tie the players together in the game and in real life. So. when we were initially prototyping, we had made it exclusively one controller, but thankfully Coatsink moved us off that path fairly quickly.
The original “Dog Sports” idea came from these sorts of local multiplayer games where you could split the controller, like Sports Friends and similar games. These games had simple control schemes that could be used on one half of a controller. So, I think we just wanted to take that idea, which had only really been used in these kinds of competitive, team-based games and use that as a co-operative element in a game.
What is your preferred way to play?
Henry Pullan: With the situation in the world, it’s been a while since we played with just one controller. But that was always the way we would test the game when we were prototyping.
While you are playing though the levels in PHOGS!, the camera is not player controlled, but it swings around, zips up, pulls out, and zooms in to specific moments to show the players exactly what they need. How much work went into getting those camera movements correct?
Douglas Flinders: Most of development. (Laughs) A lot of work.
James Morwood: It was always a goal to make the game simple to pick up. And I think a big part of that was taking camera control away from the players. We wanted it to feel really intuitive and to always guide you. That definitely took the most amount of polish of all of the control mechanics. Because at the end of the day, every tiny puzzle, every corner of every room needs to be hand placed. We did experiment with some other control schemes that would make the camera follow behind you, but it just never felt intuitive.
It definitely took a while. We took PHOGS! to events and we would put it in front of people, and any time people would be like, “Oh, what do I need to do next?”, it was almost always because the camera was looking in the wrong direction. So we’ve used it in a lot of ways to help guide the players.
Douglas Flinders: Having Coatsink review all of our early builds was definitely a big help on that. They would play through and point out things where maybe we had used our developers knowledge like, "Oh, I know that this part of the puzzle is hidden here." We would be blind to the fact that it's never shown on camera.
So, I think having fresh eyes test the builds regularly was super valuable in pointing out bits when the camera that wasn't clear. Also, I was probably wrestling with [the rest of the team] a fair bit to try and frame the nice art visuals, while they were like, "No, we need to show the puzzle." There was a bit of back and forth, but I think we've kind of found like a good middle ground for it.
Once we had the system, we realized that we could use it for puzzles, which was really a fun way to play with it.
Was there ever a time you considered giving the Phogs legs? Why or why not?
James Morwood: Oh my God. Have you seen the art book? (holds up the art book). So. you can see, up at the top, that’s the Phog, and underneath there, that’s the hideous being that arose from our concept art.
Douglas Finders: After that sketch, it was like, “Yeah, we don’t need legs.”. That was about all the experimentation we needed on that [issue]. Also, Henry and I, as programmers, were like “We don’t want to deal with legs.”
The "hideous being", second from the bottom on the left-hand side.
Henry Pullan: That’s also what contributed to them being dogs. We didn’t want to do legs, and dogs do a lot of interactions with stuff with their mouths. It just made sense for the characters to be dogs and not have legs.
Did you initially set out to create a game that was family friendly?
Henry Pullan: Yeah, I think we did. I think we knew that we didn't want to make a game for kids, but yeah, family friendly is always what we called what we were aiming for. Just that the idea that adults can enjoy it, but it is suitable for kids. I think we just wanted to create something nice. I think that was what we were really aiming for. We just wanted to create a fun and welcoming world that people can play around with.
James Morwood: The whole idea of bringing people together who maybe wouldn't play things usually was so exciting. And we really wanted to keep the game simple. Anytime we questioned, “Oh, should we add another button?” It was always like, no, we can use just grab and stretch. That's all we need.
Henry Pullan: That that was always the best parts of these events. When a kid and a parent would turn up to the booth and the kid would sit down and we'd say, "Oh, it's a two-player game. You can both play." And just trying to convince the parent to play. Like they would usually be like, "Oh, I don't really play games. I'm just here for them." And if we could convince them to play, they almost always had a great time together. That was the experience that we were going for.
How difficult was it to adjust the game’s difficulty to keep it appropriate for both audiences?
Douglas Flinders: The [hidden dog] bones were pretty helpful in that sense. For all the worlds we added a couple of bones to collect. Quite early on decided that anytime there was a slightly hard version of a puzzle or a slightly harder little mechanical thing, instead of putting it as a puzzle that blocked core progression and would stop someone from continuing the game, we said, "If you do this harder thing, you get a bone instead." So it was always this optional thing, but hopefully any younger kids, or people that are less versed in games in general, will be able to make it through the whole game and see all the content. But for anyone who does want that extra challenge, there are harder puzzles and harder interactions there to keep them engaged as well.
Henry Pullan: A lot of the way that we designed the puzzles - we weren't trying to be like a hardcore puzzle game. We weren't trying to make this “Double-Ended Dog Witness”. That was never the goal.
Douglas Flinders: That is the next game, though. (laughs)
Henry Pullan: We tried to try to make the puzzles more about just poking at the mechanics of this world and figuring out how they work together rather than “Here is a logical solution that you have to puzzle your way through.”
Douglas Flinders: And then producing ridiculous mechanics in every level.
James Morwood: Yeah, keeping it fresh. We always said that we wanted to surprise and delight the players, and that really rang true. I remember there were times that we churned out 20 puzzles that were all iterations of each other. It felt like a mobile game that has a hundred levels in it. And that just didn’t fit the world. It felt like you had entered a test chamber. So we cut that stuff down. Now, every time that you go into a new bit of a level, you feel like you’re still in the world, and you’re not just in a puzzle, which was really important.
Did you save the cut puzzles for the eventual sequel? Did you set them aside someplace safe?
James Morwood: We recycled a lot of them. They ended up being bone puzzles, or being introduced in the bosses, or later in the game. I do think there are a few levels we would love to do something with, but we’ll see what happens post launch.
Douglas Flinders: Post launch, we’ll have to load up all the alpha builds, and see what the hell we’ve got. (laughs)
Are the plans for DLC? Have you started plotting out PHOGS! 2?
Henry Pullan: We don’t have anything planned yet. We have just been focusing recently on getting this PHOGS! wrapped up. I think we’re going to see how it does, and see what people want. If it’s a possibility, then we can explore that in the future.
There is a large online community support built up around PHOGS!. What has it been like watching people react positively to the game and getting excited for its release?
James Morwood: Every time I see a fan art pop up, I can’t believe it. For us, it's just a labor of love, and we've never really considered the fact that other people are going to enjoy it as much as we do.
Henry Pullan: This has been such a crazy experience. Whenever anyone is like, "Oh, this is a great game." It's still like hard to get our brains around, I think. But yeah, it's so nice seeing any nice comments about the game.
Speaking of fan art, I saw that you are running a contest for fans to win custom Phogs controllers. Who created these controllers, because they are amazing.
Jack Sanderson (Coatsink PR): We’re using Controller Chaos for these. They are American, and they do custom controllers, so they have taken upon the task. They did some Cake Bash controllers for us, and various other joy cons for other projects. It is an extremely limited run.
You guys are going to get one, right?
Douglas Flinders: I hope so! They look gorgeous.
Henry, could you please speak to the musical aesthetic you are going for in Phogs? What mood were you going for while composing?
Henry Pullan: It's hard to say. I think I was just going for something that felt lighthearted and silly and that fit each of the worlds. There's like quite a lot crammed into the soundtrack. I've been listening to it all again recently. The tonal shifts between Food World, Play World and Sleep World are so weird, but I was always trying to come back to core elements that almost represent the Phogs that would make it hopefully sound cohesive. Like with Food World, I wanted it to be a bit more acoustic and a little bit more bouncy because there's a lot of bouncing in Food World.
Then with Sleep World, I wanted it to be quite dreamy, and synth-y, almost “send you to sleep” music. And then Play World is just generally an absolute mess. I wanted it to be all over the place. I got told off a couple of times for making the music a bit too crazy in Play World. So I’ve had to tone it back a couple of times.
But having the core themes of Food, Play, and Sleep was quite helpful. It gave me something to aim for, a vibe for each of the worlds to try to achieve.
Douglas Flinders: Even the differences between the tracks are so amazing. I think there were definitely levels and bits of worlds that you did songs for early on that helped define the tone of those levels for when the visual parts came around and totally vice versa.
Henry Pullan: It was just a big feedback loop, really. (laughs) The way we designed the game collaboratively between us – there wasn’t’ one designer. The whole effort was just the three of us, pouring bits into it and bouncing off those ideas. It was a really great process, doing all the different parts.
James Morwood: I also want to point out, there are some really nice little touches with the music [combining with] different puzzle elements. The simplest one for me is in Sleep World, which has some clocks later on. Some subtle ticking comes into the music, and just feels really good. There are a lot of nice little polished bits. Henry did an amazing job.
Douglas Flinders: I can’t imagine how dead the game would feel without the music.
What are the future plans for Bit Loom Games? Are there any other projects in the works?
Henry Pullan: We’re starting to think about new things. But a lot of our energy is obviously on getting PHOGS! finished at the moment. We’re just slowly spinning up a couple of new ideas and seeing where they go.
Douglas Flinders: I guess we’re trying to focus on maybe something smaller and easier after a full, three-year project that we definitely didn’t think would go that long. Some more experimental, silly stuff.
James Morwood: I think we realized now with PHOGS! how much we just struck gold. There’s this amazing kind of magic to the character. And I think it might take a while to get another idea that is as big and has so much potential.
Gaming Nexus would like to sincerely thank the teams at Bit Loom Games and Coatsink Games for their participation in this interview.
PHOGS! releases on December 3, 2020, on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Stadia, PC, and Nintendo Switch, and is playable on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S via backwards compatibility.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Howdy. My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids. During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.
My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then. I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep. Currently, I play on PS4, PSVR, PS Vita, 3DS, Wii U and a janky PC. While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.
When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect.View Profile