Meet Helico

Joi Sigurdss
7 min readAug 12, 2018

Helico is a prototype game that I, Marco & Brice worked on. It was a game about flying helicopters, exploring tropical islands, building up services and solving problems that the islanders would request help with.

We abandoned it after working on it for a few months. But I finally got around digging through some old screens and videos, and recently did a twitter thread going through the development history. I figured I should store the contents of the thread somewhere, and here we are.

Oh, and before we begin, please take note that this is a very image and animated gif heavy read. It might take a bite at your data plan if you’re on mobile. Consider yourself advised.

And so let’s start at the beginning!

So me and Marco (of indie game Kingdom fame) have been working on various projects together for a few years. Majority of them not really going anywhere but all of them really good learning experiences. Then late summer 2016 Marco sends me a link to an old ZX Spectrum game: Cyclone

Marco proposed we make a game based on Cyclone, a helicopter game where you fly around rescuing stranded tourists on various islands while avoiding a cyclone. Slowly our game shifted directions, but the main focus was to make it a fun and non-violent helicopter game.

We had a strict stand on it being peaceful. Being fed up with the boring mechanics of killing and destroying, we wanted something more constructive and creative, more challenging for us to design.

Marco set up the Unity project and started working on the helicopter controls. I put together a low poly makeshift Super Puma to represent our helicopter. Then I started putting tiles together, experimenting with different shapes and sizes, starting with the bare basics.

We realized we needed a better direction with the look and feel so me and Brice (fx magician) sat down and did a reference board on Pinterest. I don’t think I can recommend this enough! See something that inspires you? Add it to the board! Looking for new inspirations? Look at the suggestions from the entries already in the board!

With some content in the reference board, the terrain tiles started to evolve into more detailed shapes with overhangs and sloped walls. I was taking my baby steps in making shaders in Shader Forge, so I made a very simple shader that allowed me to control the colors of the top and sides of the terrain pieces without doing UV maps.

We had the idea that all terrain had to be flat in order for the player to land anywhere. This provided an interesting look for the game but also presented us with various issues including a longer development time.

We eventually decided to go with a smooth terrain and ditched all the tiles, in favour of cutting corners. Cliff faces were instead made by putting a bunch of big rocks together. We really didn’t care for the soft transition between colours when painting the island though, but Brice stepped in and worked his shader magic to deliver a much more interesting sharp transition instead.

But that’s me getting ahead of myself…

Let’s go back to the tiled islands and have a look at the props. We had thought of the islands being a bit of a mix between colonized tropical islands. But originally we started off with a single version of a pine tree, which created a weird mixture of Madagascar huts and Norwegian pine forests.

We were in a bit of a rush doing these so I preferred not to spend any time doing UV’s and textures. Instead I quickly painted all the props with vertex colours and used a shader to show the vertex colours in Unity.

Eventually I started experimenting with more thematic trees. Experimenting being a bit of a understatement… And I soon discovered that I hadn’t the first clue on how to make trees to begin with. A dark period emerged, which I refer to as “The Walk through the Forest of Shitty Trees”.

And to be really honest, the deeper I went through the Forest of Shitty Trees, I became more and more depressed!

At this point Brice came to the rescue with some solid ideas on how to make the trees look nice, and later on he delivered a proper tool in unity to make the trees just the way we wanted them.

Then he hooked the leaves to respond to forces like the downwash of the chopper. Just look at those leaves rustling in the wind! Also notice the cool rotor shader, also Brice magic.

Meanwhile, Marco was working on a neat PID controller for the chopper controls. It was really important to us that it was fun flying around, and I think we got pretty close to it in the end.

Landing the damn thing was tricky business however! -_-

That grass wind effect though!

But so cool when you got it right!

We went through a lot of iterations of UI. From minimalistic mostly diegetic to somewhat authentic helicopter gauges and panels. We ended with a mix of the authentic UI gauges and some diegetic UI.

But finding the spot for it wasn’t easy, there’s just no good space to spend at gauges and UI. We ended up sacrificing the upper corners for a clearer view on the ground, as that’s where majority of your focus would go to, especially during landings.

Marco did a really cool animation during the startup sequence for the choppers. All the gauge needles max out and go back again, and warning lights would all turn on and off, much like on actual choppers. Look at the dials on this.

And here’s a better look at the diegetic UI. Note the text with instructions on the ground. The bottom of the helicopter projects a circle on the ground to aim with the hook, and the hook itself shows a progress bar when it locks on.

Yes, that’s a hooking mechanic. Marco did a system that allowed us to pick up certain items. With the intention that you needed to transport building materials to certain location in order to build up new services.

As an example; you would explore nearby islands and find an unbuilt helipad. You would move materials to it and once built, you would be able to refuel there. Thus extending your overall reach further, naturally unlocking new areas to explore.

Anyway, we did a big push before GDC, building a short little vertical slice of the game, allowing you to test out a couple of missions and fly around. We wanted to bring this prototype to GDC and show it off to a few of our friends, to get feedback and check interests.

During that push Brice and Marco added sounds and music, composed by Amos Roddy, the amazing music composer for Kingdom. Here’s a video of the GDC build as an example of sounds and music. Also take note of the gorgeous water that Brice set up!

Marco and Brice went out to GDC and even though we almost got a contract with a very good publisher, we decided to put the project on hold because of several reasons. The lessons learned from this project are countless and invaluable!

I could go on about this forever but I think it’s time to stop and move on. Thanks for reading and if you’ve got any questions or comments, don’t hesitate to throw them my way!

The link to the original twitter thread is here, and you should absolutely follow us on Twitter!