After making a dungeon crawler with pinball-inspired combat, Flight School Studio is making a bug-sized mech game.
After I ask him what Flight School Studio is all about, creative director Adam Volker laughs and says that the studio's brand is that of "peculiarity." Which, given the studio's track record, makes perfect sense. "We like to make interesting things, and we find interest in oddity, interest in weirdness, and interest in differentness," he said. "I think we love art, and we love storytelling, and we think there are all sorts of ways to do that that haven't been done. And so we're just trying stuff, seeing if it sticks."
Ahead of the release of a new trailer for Stonefly, developer Flight School and publisher MWM Interactive's latest project, I sat down with Volker to talk about the game, as well as Flight School's history and identity as a developer. Stonefly is just the most recent game in Flight School's attempts to make something that's a bit out there--it's an intriguingly difficult game to define.
Stonefly is also the second time that Flight School has gone for a more traditional console and PC game than the virtual reality games that defined the studio's origins. When I asked why Flight School decided to move away from VR games, Volker said, "Well, there's a boring answer and then an interesting answer. The boring answer is that money dried up in VR."
Beyond the boring financial reasons, the team also just really wanted to take a stab at a game that would be available on more mainstream platforms. That game turned out to be 2019's Creature in the Well, a game that the team affectionately refers to as a "pinbrawler."
"Pinbrawler was a word that somebody at PAX said to us after playing [Creature in the Well], a term we had not ever heard of," Volker said. "And we're like, 'That's perfect,' and started marketing it as a pinbrawler." Flight School counts the experience as a blessing. The team's games have always been a bit difficult to define in that they take inspiration from many sources but don't easily compare to other games out there. But describing Creature in the Well as a pinbrawler--shorthand for a game that adds pinball and brawler mechanics to a Legend of Zelda-inspired dungeon crawler--is catchy and easy to market.
It's magic that Flight School has unfortunately not been able to capture a second time for Stonefly. With the COVID-19 pandemic cancelling all the major gaming events in the latter half of 2020 and the former half of 2021, there hasn't been a chance for large groups of people to try Stonefly and let Flight School know what specifically about the game is the most enjoyable. "We get a ton of how we market our games from people playing," Volker said.
On top of that, COVID-19 has changed how Flight School works on games. Flight School has a centralized office location in Dallas with a few folks going to an office space in Montreal. So unlike many indie studios that were already remote working from home operations, Flight School did have to go through the transition of changing where and how people work. Volker said that the team had experienced positive and negative changes since the start of the pandemic--the most noticeable difference is the unfortunate loss of the option for teammates to just call each other over to their desks for quick and easy feedback.
"We started the production [on Stonefly] before [COVID-19], but only by maybe six months or so," Volker said. "I feel so horrible for [game designer Mel Ramsden] because she came to interview at the studio and we were like, 'Check out our space, we've got this cool coffee machine and lounge area on the sixth floor of this beautiful building in Montreal,' and then she's never worked in the studio. We hired her, and then I think it was either the week or like the week after that we went into quarantine in Canada. I feel like she hasn't even gotten the full experience."
Part of that full experience is how Flight School pulls from so many sources for its games. Volker said that rather than try to craft unique game mechanics, he and Flight School Studio's Bohdon Sayre talk about aspects of play. "Play is a much larger space than video games," Volker said. "And so we'll look at things like tag or board games--that's why we talked about sumo wrestling for Stonefly." During our conversation, Volker threw a lot of other brainstorms at me that he and the team have had for their games, including sports like soccer and baseball and activities like archery, axe throwing, and beer pong.
"Why do people keep doing this--what is beer pong?" he asked me. "Why do people keep playing it all the time? Is it just the social aspect--pretending you're cooler than everyone in the room--is that the only reason people play? Do people play because they get to drink?" Flight School believes that if you can get at the heart of why someone finds a kind of "play" fun, then you can try and capture that kind of experience in a video game--like making pinball into a combat mechanic.
In terms of more traditional inspirations, Volker mentioned that Stonefly pulls from Super Smash Bros., Dynasty Warriors, and anime, among other sources. For anime, he specifically mentioned Studio Ghibli--which makes a lot of sense, given that when I first laid eyes on the game and saw it in action, I felt like I was seeing Studio Ghibli's The Secret World of Arrietty taking place in the same universe as Neon Genesis Evangelion or Gundam. "It's funny that you mentioned mecha, because I've got a Gundam right above my desk," Volker said.
That sci-fi-inspired setting and story is the only easily apparent connection that Stonefly has to Creature in the Well (when I asked if the team had any sci-fi fans, Volker said, "Oh yeah, totally," without any hesitation). In practically every other way, Stonefly is a completely different game, which fits Flight School's pattern of creating games that are very different from what the team has done before.
"It's kind of our self-preservation," Volker said. "We would never feel confident going toe-to-toe with BioWare or Bethesda or whatever, and make a giant, traditional third-person action RPG. Because there's only a few of us, and those other studios employ like hundreds of super talented, brilliant artists. I feel like Bo and I--I don't know that we've ever said this out loud--we have to make something different out there, because otherwise it would just get buried."
Here's hoping that Stonefly won't get buried. I enjoyed the hell out of Creature in the Well and it's unique implementation of pinball mechanics, so I'm looking forward to seeing how Flight School Studio manages to capture its brand of peculiarity this time around. Stonefly is scheduled to launch for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, PC, and Switch in 2021.