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Klei Entertainment takes pride in the way it works with its communities. Its grassroots approach to collecting feedback and engaging with players is a big reason why the Vancouver-based studio has been so successful with games like Don’t Starve and Don’t Starve Together. And Klei’s latest release, the nostalgia-filled Hot Lava, is no different.
Now available on PC and iOS devices (via Apple Arcade), Hot Lava is a first-person parkour game where you have to get from one end of the level to the next as fast as you can. A variety of obstacles hinder your path on each course, but you can run, jump, and slide to overcome them. And once you master the more intricate mechanics, you can also use them to your advantage for a short speed boost.
The idea for Hot Lava came from Klei software engineer Mark Laprairie, who’d been working on the game in his spare time. Once snippets of Hot Lava went viral on Reddit, however, Klei bought the rights to the game and gave Laprairie the resources to turn it into a full release — the first 3D game Klei has ever worked on.
Laprairie wanted to make something that blended the classic childhood game the floor is lava (where you avoid touching the ground as much as possible) with the competitiveness of Kreedz Climbing, a popular parkour mod for multiplayer shooter Counter-Strike. But unlike Counter-Strike, Hot Lava is all about racing to the finish line.
“When you take away all the shooting mechanics, you can just concentrate on the movement and making that really exciting and a fun part of the game. Competition is a part of that. It’s a multiplayer game because of the social status. How fast you can run an obstacle course comes into play and rewarding players through cosmetics,” said Laprairie.
Hot Lava is a game you can play for hundreds of hours and still keep finding new ways to shave precious seconds off the clock. But designing a game with that kind of depth takes a lot of refinement and iteration, and Klei couldn’t have done it without the help of a dedicated community of players. An ongoing partnership with Intel also helps ensure that games like Hot Lava will run well on PCs.
More than just playtesters
The Kreedz Climbing (or KZ for short) and speedrunning communities have been around for more than a decade, with people actively trading tips and creating new obstacle courses for others to try and beat. Laprairie knew that if he wanted Hot Lava to succeed, he’d need their help.
So during development, Klei reached out to some of those players and gave them early versions of the game to test and provide feedback.
“They are very particular about what good movement feels like. And probably one of the harder challenges for this project was making controls that didn’t just replicate what they did, but also elevate it in some way. To actually iterate on top of what these people have done for so long is a daunting task,” said Laprairie.
Laprairie and the Hot Lava team worked closely with these communities for over two years. Some players put as much as 700 hours into the game, providing feedback as detailed as how high your character should be able to jump and how fast your speed should be — opinions that Laprairie said they backed up “with a lot of factual evidence.”
They work so closely that Klei considers the community as an extension of the team.
“They knew every mechanic inside and out. They could argue and discuss the issues at the most nuanced level. So, in a lot of ways, they felt more like collaborators on this project as opposed to players that are just giving experiential feedback,” said Laprairie.
One of the biggest features they helped shape was the structure of the game. Originally, Klei designed it so you’d select the courses you’d want to try from a menu screen. But given the high stakes of each playthrough — with the ever-present danger of falling into the lava and dying — the team found that this didn’t give players enough room to relax or breathe.
Instead, Klei replaced it with an overworld structure, with a play space that separates the different levels. In the first part of the game, you’re running around a high school gym and its adjoining hallways, and scattered throughout this area are portals that lead to the courses. The gym has objects you can interact with, which give you a chance to practice your moves or to just feel silly with other players if you’re online.
Going where they want to go
For a studio like Klei, which tends to make games in different styles and genres, having that trust with the community is important. It means that the developers can openly experiment with new or unusual concepts and mechanics, and that players are willing to offer constructive feedback to help improve them.
“That feedback loop has become such a big part of our DNA,” said Corey Rollins, who’s in charge of licensing and marketing at Klei.
But the team knows that it can never take that trust for granted and that they have to keep earning it with every project. Klei is always looking for ways to improve its processes and how it talks with its players. And that communication doesn’t stop once a game is out.
While the studio has its own plans for updating Hot Lava — like highlighting user-made courses and making more cartoon shorts based on the game’s characters — it will continue to work with the community to figure out what they want to see in the game.
“I think the evolution of Hot Lava is going to be very community driven. We have all sorts of plans for content, for characters, for move sets. But what we’re really looking at right now is the mobile feedback, the Steam feedback, and what the community is actually asking for. We planned everything out. But really, we’re going to go where the community wants us to go,” said Laprairie.
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