Finding the Lightness of Stonefly
Published by MWM Interactive, Stonefly introduces players to Annika as they set off on an adventure while piloting a miniature mech around its naturalistic world, contending with bugs on a search for her main goal, as well as resources and upgrades. Though much of her story obviously remains hidden for players to explore on their own, Sayre noted how foundational it is to the entire game.”We wanted to go story first, and it was a pillar that we started with. We want more characters that are more developed and more character animation,” Sayre said.
The story also allowed the developers to get a sense of the world they were building, both from a macro level and literally in how it allowed them to map out the flow of Stonefly’s adventure.
“The thesis of this game is going and searching for something that has been lost, and you don’t know where you’re going to go. That laid the foundation for what is the framework of the game. We’re traveling to different biomes,” Sayre explained. “Some of the levels in the game are shorter and linear, and you just have a brief story moment where something specific happens. Some of them are inspired more by Monster Hunter, where you’re just returning to a biome that’s kind of open-world and you don’t have any objectives. You can go there if you need more of a specific resource or just hang out.”
Stonefly Announcement Screenshots
And central to that entire journey is the fact that Stonefly, fundamentally, is built around wind as an elemental force.
That’s easy to see from the gameplay, which features Annika’s mech gliding frequently through the air or using wind-based attacks to nonlethally fend off enemies. Yet while it’s obviously so fundamental to the world, wind and its ideas of uplifting and lightness weren’t necessarily in line with the original plans for Stonefly’s story. But that all changed thanks to, surprisingly, Naughty Dog.
“The story was originally, before we changed it entirely, about vengeance and letting go, which ended up being the story of The Last of Us Part II anyway,” Sayre said. “So, we thought, ‘Hey, good, we didn’t need to do that.’ But that [idea of] letting go of things, letting go of the past, moving forward, transitioning from heaviness to lightness was super on theme with wind and the motivations there,” he continued, explaining how Stonefly transitioned into this coming-of-age story for Annika players will experience.
And that lightness of wind will apply to gameplay as well, not just thematic story beats. Players will be able to customize their mech – not just with aesthetic customization, but also pick and choose the skills and abilities you’ll bring with you on your journey. Whether those skills let you focus in on individual attacks, like shooting bursts of wind at enemies in front of your mech, or more crowd-control abilities like the pocket of wind that knocks bugs back as seen in the above gameplay, Flight School is aiming to give players plenty of options for how they approach each scenario.
“I was playing a ton of Overwatch,” Sayre said of early development. “[Creative Director Adam Volker] loves Overwatch. If you look at my Overwatch stats, it’s like 80 hours on Mei, and then 30 minutes on the next character. I really like the versatility of just a couple of abilities, how her [ice] wall can be used in a hundred different ways.
“So I wanted [Stonefly’s mech to have] abilities you can cast, [including a] crowd control aspect, managing where bugs are and where they can get to. That led to some tower defense elements, a little bit of the King of the Hill that started to come through.”Plenty of abilities will offer crowd control options, but Sayre explained how the team worked to encourage players to use a variety of the tools at Annika’s disposal, even if they end up favoring a few. The results came from plenty of testing and player feedback, leading to some changes to how the team approached combat overall that also helped maintain a better combat flow throughout the experience.
“Some people [testing Stonefly] would lock into one ability and be like, ‘This is the one, I only need this one.’ And other people would use a completely different ability. So, we thought, ‘Okay, both of them are good, we just need to get players to try to diversify their palette by trying out to use different ones,’” Sayre explained.
“We integrated more rock-paper-scissors mechanics for a lot of the abilities. Certain bugs have very specific weaknesses to certain abilities, which makes it a fun late game flow where you’re like, ‘Okay, there’s that bug, which ability do I need to use to make them vulnerable? Or there’s this bug, there’s another counter for them.’ There’s some hard counters specifically built into the bugs, and that was a huge add, because I think before that it was a little inspecific, and there was a lot of biasing, just the one tool that did it the best.”
Bug Repellent, But Not Destruction
In keeping with its overarching themes, though, Stonefly never sees players actually hurting the bugs in Annika’s way. She loves them, after all. By making that a foundational tenet of Stonefly, it also allowed Flight School to find a balance to the lightness wind offers as a mechanic – namely, infusing bugs with a bit of gooiness.
“Annika loves bugs, she’s a huge fan of them, which also mimics the team. We freaking love bugs, and we would never do anything to hurt them,” Sayre said. “And the counterpart to [Annika’s wind powers], the heaviness and lightness, was goo and stickiness. We decided the bugs could be a good counterpart by making them gooey, and that’s where the first status effect [players can encounter] came from, of having these bugs that would slow you down.”As for what those bugs are players will be encountering, you can see several examples in the gameplay and screenshots above, but Sayre explained a bit of the process on how a bunch of bug lovers actually went about picking the best bugs for battle. Sayre pointed to a “throw spaghetti at the wall” approach the team took initially, with various team members, from Volker to game designer Mel Ramsden, coming up with ideas, many of which would end up in Stonefly. And the process largely came down to choosing bugs that would complement Stonefly’s dual focus on both the ground and air as arenas for combat.
“We started designing bugs around those two layers, [thinking] ‘We need a couple of bugs that hit you while you’re airborne, and a couple of bugs that hit you while you’re grounded,” sayre said, noting that once they found a few options that worked, they filled out the bug bestiary from there.
“We wanted to make sure that we’re doling out new bugs over the course of the game so that there were still some creatures you hadn’t seen even until the last chapter,” Sayre noted.
Players will get to experience that combat variety, Flight School’s unique world, and Annika’s story at the heart of it all in just a few days, when Stonefly launches on June 1 for PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X and S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC via Steam and the Epic Games Store.
Jonathon Dornbush is IGN’s Senior News Editor, host of Podcast Beyond!, and PlayStation lead. Talk to him on Twitter @jmdornbush.
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