When we reviewed Timelie, the isometric stealth-puzzler from Thailand-based Urnique Studio about a week ago, we at Gameffine expected an adequate puzzler to pass a few hours with. Little did we know that it’d blow us away, thanks to its innovative time bar mechanic and moving narrative about the nature of time and the importance of companionship (the 9.5 we gave it should be indicative of how much we loved it).
We got a chance to interview Parimeth Wongsatayanon, the creative director at Urnique, and got to know the story behind the making of this gem, their inspirations, as well as what they have in store for us next. Please enjoy.
Q. First of all, congrats! Timelie has a 99% positive score on Steam with 142 reviews. How do you feel about the great reception? Was it something you expected?
Not at all! It’s been so emotional for us. We thought the game would be too weird for some people and its mechanics might be too complicated to be enjoyable. But, we’re grateful to have been wrong. We want to say thank you to everybody who gave it a chance and loves the game. Player reception has really inspired us to work even harder on our next game.
Q. Tell us a little bit about how Timelie came together. How did the team come together, what inspired you to make this game and how has it evolved over the years to what it is now?
This is a long story. Back in 2015, we were all computer engineering students. We created the first concept of Timelie as a senior project at our university. Our professor gave us the goal of creating a game with a complicated gameplay system indicative of the size of our team. We talked a lot about what kind of game we could make and ultimately decided we wanted to make a puzzle game like Monument Valley but with a plan and execute mechanic
The time controlling part was actually just added by a programmer who wanted to try out his coding skills for fun. But, it blew our minds how much potential it could have. We gradually expanded on a lot of the content and thematic elements of the game as we all started to see how well the idea of time manipulation could work with the game’s puzzles. I’m a huge stealth game fan, so I was really eager to see how that would all fit together.
Then time passed. We got a lot of opportunities to show those earlier versions off, we won some awards, and we also graduated. So, in that span of time, we remade the game a couple of times and changed the game’s direction, too. There’s a version out there that’s Metal Gear Solid-like and even a version that’s kind of like The Last of Us.
We’re just a small team though, so we changed our direction a bit to keep things realistic in terms of what we could accomplish. That shift was to give the game’s art a more abstract, calm, and peaceful aesthetic, kind of like ICO or Journey. We found this was the best way to portray the game and we could focus on maximizing it’s potential. And that brings us to where we are today.
Q. The media-player type time bar mechanic is definitely the standout innovative feature of Timelie. The way it eliminates the typical frustration associated with stealth games without compromising on the challenge. It’s so well-suited and effective I’m sure it’ll be copied in other games going forward.
How challenging was it to nail the time bar mechanic?
I could say that we spent 4 years of R&D on this! Every version of the game has had the precognition mechanic, but the media player style slider is a new addition. At first, it was a big carousel slider. We called it “Timeline” and we loved it but found that it took a lot of time for people to get the hang of using it. It was a great game, but with the worst UX design possible. So we removed and replaced it with a spin wheel. It was simpler, but it ended up losing a lot of functionality.
We needed to solve this UX problem by finding a way to let players control time but make it easy to understand and operate. I stumbled around the Internet and just happened to find the answer on YouTube, of all places. I suggested the idea to my team, but they were skeptical at first. But, we implemented it and tested it out and it immediately became our favorite option.
I love how you said that the “Timeline” feature will be copied because when we play other games, we often think and hope that they have this feature. We’ve gotten spoilt having it.
Q. I know you outsource d the character design to another Thai studio, Dinsai studio, and they’ve done a great job! How did it feel to hand over a part of your baby to someone else? Was it a burden off your shoulders or were you scared to delegate such an important responsibility to someone outside your core team?
We actually weren’t worried at all because when we started this project, we didn’t have our own concept artist. So, by giving it to Dinsai we were actually doing more justice to our “baby” than we could. Moreover, Dinsai was really our main inspiration in terms of the art style we wanted to have in the game from the moment we started developing it. We were looking for an artist that could do a similar style to them, but someone on our team just asked, “Why don’t we just go to Dinsai and have them do it?” So, we contacted them and they agreed. It’s been a real pleasure working with them.
Q. Timelie is your debut game as Urnique Studio. What was the most challenging aspect of full-time game development and founding a studio? And how has that affected the relationship between you guys, from being classmates to colleagues and artistic collaborators?
I’d say the most difficult thing would be actually operating a company because none of us have any background or experience that is business-related. We don’t know what we should do, what we can do, or what we shouldn’t do. It’s all new to us! So, the past few years have been a bit of a struggle. But, now that we’ve released and published the game, maybe just getting to this finish line has been the most challenging thing!
As far as relationships, I don’t think much has changed in terms of how we work together. We were already pretty well organized as students. And, since we’re friends, it makes it easy for us to adapt. If we find something is off between us, we can fix it right away. We’re also always looking to adopt new ways to work together to improve our team.
Q. Without spoiling anything, the ending kind of leaves the player with questions and a possible tease for a sequel. Timelie 2: Next Horizons was a hilarious April Fools joke that definitely brought a smile to my face, but is a sequel already in the works or do you plan to shift to a completely fresh project for your next game?
I’m sorry to say that there’s no sequel in the works right now. Our focus is still to maintain Timelie‘s momentum and keep it updated. Nevertheless, if the game is successful we’d love to keep it going in some kind. In the past five years, we’ve had a ton of great and crazy ideas we couldn’t use. So, I think it would be worth it if we could go back and make a sequel or another game featuring this time-manipulation system. As a developer, though, we’re also eager to explore new ideas and other game types in order to challenge ourselves and show we can do more than puzzle games. Also, it’d be good to freshen ourselves up a bit since we’ve spent the past 5 years on this kind of game.
Q. Though I’m primarily a PC user, I did notice the lack of controller support for Timelie. Are there any plans to bring Timelie to other consoles and/or mobile devices?
Yes and no. We aim to bring Timelie to more platforms. Mac OS is already in the works and we’re considering mobile platforms, too. However, right now we don’t have any official plans for consoles. We’d love to bring it to consoles but are still looking for the right partner to help us with that (hint, hint).
Q. You’ve previously described Timelie as being inspired by Transistor, Metal Gear Solid, and Square Enix’s Go series in terms of gameplay, and by The Last Guardian and Journey in terms of the story. But what were some of the earliest games you remember playing and loving, that fueled your passion for games and made you want to make them yourself?
Maybe this will sound really random, but even though I’m a fan of those games you mentioned, what really inspired me to be a game developer was the South Korean MMORPG Ragnarok Online. It blew my mind that there was this fully open fantasy world where I could meet and play with real-life people. It was like I was living in another world. So, at the time, I wanted to have a chance to create my own world, too. As a second grade student, I drew an RPG game on paper to play with my classmates during school breaks…with a subscription mode! It was a great time and I was pretty popular until some bullies tore up all my games!
Q. Timelie is now out the gate and has been receiving rave reviews, I’m sure it’s going to be a huge commercial success as well. If you do get more financial freedom from this, do you plan to expand the dev team for future projects or keep it small and intimate?
If we are successful, I think we’ll expand our team some more. A good amount of assets in Timelie were outsourced, so it would be really nice to bring that work back in-house.
Q. I’m sorry to say Timelie is the first game from Thailand that I’ve had the privilege of playing. Are there any other Thai games you’d like to highlight or recommend? Or any upcoming ones to keep an eye on?
Don’t be sorry! Thailand is still a place carving out its reputation for game development. If you like puzzle games I’d recommend So Many Me and also A.R.E.S., both from the same development team. Both games are really unique and should appeal to you if you love Mega Man style experiences. They’re also my idols and really inspired me to be a game developer.
You should also try Mist Survival, a survival FPS from Dimension 32 Entertainment. It’s a really fun game made by a single developer in Thailand that has been really successful so far.
Q. In the past five years, you’ve gone from that senior project to winning multiple prestigious awards, to now releasing the game to amazing reception by critics and audience alike. Needless to say, you’ve had a great, inspiring journey.
Is there any advice you’d like to give to aspiring game devs hesitant and small-scale indie teams who don’t think they can make it in this saturated market?
First, even though we’re creating games in a saturated market, there’s a silver lining – tools, and knowledge. Today, it’s actually pretty easy to make a game, which I suppose is why there are so many games out there. I’d advise aspiring developers to be brave and creative and really try to make something special that stands out from the crowd. There’s a wealth of information online to help you, so really take time to do your research. There are lots of online tutorials and classes, as well as case studies. Learn from other developers’ failures and successes and adapt their learnings to your project. It’s going to be hard, but you need to believe in yourself and your game.
Thank you so much for the interview, and more importantly, for the beautiful game itself. We at Gameffine wish you the best for your future projects and can’t wait to see what you come up with. We’ll be sure to keep an eye out!
The pleasure was mine. Thank you for your interest and thanks to your readers for taking the time to learn more about us and the game.