• Genre: game
  • Year: 2016
  • Duration: 2 years
  • Team: 10

NIVA was released in Winter 2016, you can download it on! - official homepage
NIVA on facebook

NIVA is a singleplayer exploration-art game for PC. In the game you take the role of a mighty forestgod that can grow or wither plants at will. The game is set inside a colorful forest inhabited with all kinds of unique creatures. The more you explore the more you will realize that some areas are out of balance - and it's in your power to restore them. By identifying and solving conflicts the forestgod is able to sustainably change the environment. The painterly art style and relaxing atmosphere invite to investigate even the remotest parts of the forest, where some secrets might await.

As with our first game project YoKaisho I was part of the game design team and responsible for various 3D-tasks, including modelling, rigging, animation, texturing and integration into Unity. Furthermore I was responsible for the leveldesign and also did some scripting - especially during the prototyping phase, which I enjoyed a lot.

student project

NIVA was our master-degree project, so one of the challenges was to get as much time as possible into developing the game while also successfully graduating. Another aspect was team size: because we were around 10 people in the team we had a lot of overhead, and even smaller meetings would at least cost us 3 hours plus. Here you can see a team picture:

our little NIVA-band

A really cool thing we did was to take walks in the nearby forest to gather reference material and inspiration for our digital forest:

exploring the nearby forest


We also showcased NIVA at a lot of events and got valuable feedback from unbiased players. The response was very positive and really encouraged us to go the extra mile at the end of the project, to polish it even move.

NIVA at the amaze festival in Berlin

Release party in Japan

Around the time of the official release in November 2016 I was studying in Japan as an exchange student, and even got a scholarship to attend the Tokyo Game Show. This gave us the unique opportunity to exhibit our game at a very big & international event. Well, to be honest we did not have a booth or anything, so it was more like me wandering around and pitching our game to lots of people and developers :)

At November 1st I organized a release party at our dorm in Kyushu, as you can guess the download numbers went through the roof! Here is what the invitation looked like:

It was such an overwhelming feeling to see others finally play the game that we put so much effort into:

the release event


This section showcases some of the highlights creating NIVA. As this was a really big project there would be much more to show, so maybe in the future I will add even more to this section.

puzzle design

A big part of the game would be solving "simple" puzzles. Simple is the key word here, because arriving at such a solution requires an exhaustive amount of effort. One of the main reasons for this is that we wanted to have a mostly "text-free" experience, but this meant that we could not explain what was happening using words. Instead we had to rely on environmental storytelling and other tricks to do that. Environmental storytelling is not a simple task, especially if you have an open-world without a fixed camera angle, so a lot of our testers just wandered around aimlessly without ever looking at the clues that were deliberately placed.

Aside from that, our workflow started with pen & paper and we worked our way towards the finished puzzle by iterating and prototyping various ideas:

possible puzzle solutions
puzzle prototype
top view of puzzle overpaint

level design

For the most part it was Dominik Uhl and I who were responsible for creating all the levels. It was a time consuming but also really satisfying job, with a good deal of ownership and creative freedom. We constantly tried to improve the levels to help player navigation and guide them to interesting spots. Here you can see one of our worldmap sketches:

Another thing we did regularly was to test out new things in our environment-test scene. This was a place where you could go crazy and for example use upside-down trees flying in mid-air to create a canopy of leaves. Sadly, a lot of these experiments didn't make it into the final game. Here are some of them:

ideas for our general, brighter forest
some "polygon heavy" ideas for the dark forest

I also created a small tool that would randomly scale and rotate selected objects inside Unity. This came in really handy to add variety and speed up our leveldesign workflow:

tool to randomly rotate & scale selection

rigging and animation

Rigging & animating has also been my job on our last projects. For NIVA I created almost all animations except for the forest god, which was animated by our talented Gabriel Wallinger. Here you can see the rig of the squirrel like "squicoo":

It also has a special sleep- and wake-up-animation, that only few players will notice if they open the nest and look closely:

squicoo's wake-up animation

For the final scene in the game we had a special requirement (spoiler ahead!): the old forest god and the final tree would fuse together to form a new ringtree. For this animation we tried out a lot of different approaches before actually animating it in 3D:

The left most animation became the final one, because it retained the overall shape of roots & the tree itself best.

We also used the unity plugin final IK for the feet and tail of our main character, so he could stand on uneven ground like this:

The dynamic tail was more tricky - I finally went for a variant that blends between an animated and a calculated dynamic version as you can see on the following pictures. Constraints are applied to prevent the tail from flipping and behaving in weird ways:

dynamic tail, you can see the colliders in white
the final tail that blends between animation & collision

funny (and scary) bugs

Here are some of the most dazzling bugs we encountered during development. Two of them included wrong animator settings, and while the first one looks kind of funny, the second one gave me nightmares:

Another bug unfortunately is still in the game, and it's probably caused by the scaling character collider we use. It occurs if you repeatedly jump against the ledge of a rock, and it can shoot you up quite high into the air. Players could use this to escape the intended play area:

We managed to significantly decrease the height of this jump, but were unable to completely solve the problem. We also didn't want to take the ability to jump away from the player, so our quick-fix was to build massive, additional walls around all areas that would prevent crossing the boundaries:

additional invisible walls surrounding the levels

The last thing I want to share is not really a bug, but more of a nice side story. We have so called "grifferrets" in our game - they are a combination of gryphons and ferrets. Normally they are quite shy and hide inside bushes, but if you nurture a nearby food plant they come out and eat. We thought it would feel good if they look at the player if close enough, and I think it went quite well:

Ok, to be honest normal players won't ever see them this close and from this angle, but I think it's so funny that for us developers they are this creepy little gremlins that fixate you with their crazy eyes!

I hope you enjoyed this little forest tour, and if you haven't already you should really play NIVA - it's free and there are still a few unsolved secrets that nobody outside our dev team has discovered yet...