the development of Time on Frog Island

Getting really lost can be surprisingly difficult these days. In our modern world, there is always a satellite tracking your position. Or, at the very least, a useful sign pointing you in the right direction. This also applies to video games. And perhaps to an even greater extent, what with interactive maps, glowing paths or flying arrows showing you the exact path to your next goal.

Time on Frog Island, on the other hand, offers no such help. Playing as a sailor shipwrecked on a mysterious island, you must find spare parts for your small boat, with no help from maps or quest logs of any kind. And while the locals are friendly enough, they are also frogs, which means they can’t really communicate much in terms of help or descriptions.

The developers of Half Past Yellow describe Time on Frog Island as a combination of free exploration, light platforming and puzzles. But most importantly, the game is not just about getting lost on the island, but getting lost in the gameplay from moment to moment.

“Our artist Casper has crazily always said it’s a point-and-click adventure for people with ADHD.” explains game director Max Wrighton. “You can pick up anything, you can throw anything. You just move from place to place, and it’s kind of rewarding in itself to do that.”

Time on Frog Island

I visit Half Past Yellow on a snowy day in mid-December. Despite having a small second floor, their office space feels a little cramped today because almost everyone is inside. Even the sound designers who usually work remotely from their native North Macedonia. However, it is an improvement over when they first started out and from apartments and cafes worked, “trying to figure out how much coffee we had to buy to keep from getting kicked out.” as tech lead and studio co-founder Remy Stuurworld puts it.

The studio was founded in 2017, but despite being based in Copenhagen, none of the founders are Danish with Max Wrighton being Scottish, Remy Stuurwold Dutch and Gianfranco Dbeis Italian. The trio met while attending the short-lived EUCROMA exchange program facilitated by The Danish Film School and immediately bonded over a common interest in doing Game Jams.

This idea, of rapidly prototyping concepts, throwing ideas in the air and seeing where they land, helped shape the identity of Half Past Yellow, and it was also an essential part of the initial development of what became Time on Frog Island.

“Monday we would start working on a concept. It was almost like an extended Game Jam, where we developed Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and maybe even Friday. And Friday we would evaluate. We’d sit down, have a beer and see if the game was fun and a good business decision.” recounts Wrighthon.

“I think we took a lot from what a Game Jam is. In terms of structure and almost self-imposed hard deadlines. To maximize our effort and the result in the end”, adds Stuurwold.

After releasing the mobile game Tiny Tomb in collaboration with another indie developer and later abandoning a project known as Komako, Half Past Yellow wanted to make a new game from scratch in 2020. The team spent six weeks prototyping and testing concepts in hopes that a full-fledged game could emerge from one of these seeds. Ideas included a multiplayer experience and an Indiana Jones-inspired heist game set in a maze. But what really captured their imagination was a much simpler concept.

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“We started with the sailor,” Wrighton recalls. “It was almost not a platformer, but just a place where you could run around. There were no frogs. We were thinking about commerce, but more in terms of static characters like in a point-and-click adventure. A very simple memory game, almost. And it’s very much what Time on Frog Island became, but we put a lot of expansions on top of that.”

Time on Frog IslandTime on Frog Island

Despite playing a prominent role in the final release, frogs were not part of the original concept and were only added later. The island could possibly have had all kinds of inhabitants – as long as they did not speak the same language as the player.

“We wanted to remove the communication barrier between your character and the native inhabitants of the island. We wanted these images of the items you need to be the main communication.” says Stuurwold. “As for frogs, it’s kind of random. Maybe it’s just the mood at the time because we happened to release at the same time as five other indie games with frogs. So maybe there was something in the air?”

Wrighton adds that there were also practical reasons for the team to finally settle on the green amphibians: “Originally there was the thought of going the Animal Crossing route with birds, cats, dogs and so on. But that also becomes more expensive in terms of asset creation. And while our frogs all look very different, our artist Casper could start with the same model and then modify them.”

When they finally became a reality, the frogs helped bring the developer’s vision to life in more ways than one. In terms of atmosphere, they helped make the feeling of the island simultaneously strange and familiar, with the frogs wearing human clothing and working as artists, plumbers and so on.

More importantly, the frogs also reinforced the core gameplay of being constantly in motion. With no hint other than a picture in a speech bubble, players will gain little by standing still and thinking about their situation. Instead, they are encouraged to run around blindly and try to stumble across needed items, emphasizing the sheer joy of exploration that had captivated the team during prototyping.

“It was super important that when a frog asked for an item, you immediately recognized exactly what they were asking for. Because as soon as you see it in the game, you know exactly what it is. And you have that little eureka moment through exploration. You explore until you find the next breadcrumb you need to fix your boat,” explains Wrighton.

Time on Frog Island

Besides unleashing a small-scale frog plague on their fictional island, Half Past Yellow polished existing concepts and added many new ones during development, such as a day and night cycle, a charming Zelda-inspired artstyle and an expanded story.

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With Merge Games as publisher, Time on Frog Island was finally released on PC and all major consoles in the summer of 2022. The game was generally well received, but some reviewers and players complained about the lack of an in-game map or quest log to keep track of the many items and tasks the player is expected to juggle.

When asked about this, Wrighton acknowledged the criticism, but says it was a conscious decision: “One of the things I like most about games – and I kind of force that on the players of this game – is that you can play bigger games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and turn off the map. It’s about learning the layout of the land and having these reference points. Like when you see the farm, you know the town is north of here and the fisherman is to the west. That’s the kind of experience we wanted to instill in the player.”

Time on Frog IslandTime on Frog Island

In short, most of the design decisions behind Time on Frog Island are all about helping the immersion, even if sometimes at the expense of helping the player. In this way, the game is the opposite of most modern titles. While it doesn’t make the game difficult per se, since there are no enemies or time constraints, it does make it “more niche than it looks in screenshots”, as Wrighton puts it.

Despite this Time on Frog Island is still very much, “what you see is what you get,” whether on digital storefronts or the actual shelf, because Half Past Yellow did not release DLC or add new features after its release. However, this does not necessarily mean they will not return to the universe.

“If we wanted to do the sequel or more content in the universe, that’s very open to that. That’s something we intentionally left open so we could revisit it whenever we wanted. Say a bear island, a cat island or a mole island. That’s all we did in the world because we didn’t close it off”, says Stuurwold.

But for now, the focus is on the following “Top Secret” -game -a project that is going in “a very different direction.” And that’s ultimately what the team, coming from a Game Jam background, wants to do. Develop games and release them. So they can fund the next project, and get the creative juices flowing again.

“You often see this quote from Miyamoto or the Zelda director about Ocarina of Time: ‘A released game may be bad, but a delayed game will eventually be good.’ Or something like that”, says Wrigthon. “And I think that’s true for a studio like Nintendo that doesn’t run out of money. But for an indie team, it’s better that your game is out and you don’t go out of business. It’s better for you to keep making games, have fun as a team and build the next game, whether it’s a sequel or a totally new thing.”

Time on Frog Island

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