Canadian Game Awards Spotlight – interview with A Fold Apart’s Steven Smith

In 2020, Toronto-based studio Lightning Rod Games launched its first game A Fold Apart. The game was met with positive reception from both critics and the larger gaming community. During the 2021 Canadian Game Awards, the studio took home the award for Best Mobile Game.

The aspiring team at Lightning Rod Games took on the daunting task of releasing A Fold Apart on multiple platforms. The goal was to make their wholesome game as accessible as possible on a wide array of devices. This posed multiple challenges to the studio.

We sat down with Steven Smith, studio co-founder to talk about overcoming those hurdles, and to take a retrospective look at the success of the studio’s debut title.

[This interview has been paraphrased for brevity and clarity.]

Image source: Lightning Rod Games

Steve: As the studio set off to first create what would become A Fold Apart, how did the concept of the game come to be?

Steven Smith: We were at GDC and the conference closes with our favourite session: Experimental Gameplay Workshop. It’s a great session where designers put out these wild ideas. The next day we were having breakfast, and my business partner Mark half-jokingly said, “What’s a game mechanic no one has used before?” I tried to answer the question and said, “What about folding the world like it was a Mad Magazine?” I asked him what game he wanted to make. He wanted to talk about the long-distance relationship he was in when he was working at Disney in California and his wife was teaching in Ontario. We thought about it for a second and said, “Well, it’s too bad those ideas don’t work out!” and we forgot about it.

One day Mark calls me up and says, “I got it!” It’s been so long since we had that conversation that I had forgotten about it. He takes a piece of paper and sticks it up to the webcam. He draws a stickman on one side and says, “Okay he’s on this side. But when you fold the piece of paper over, he can go on this side and walk up.” We spun that into a great analogy of the long-distance relationship. You’re on two sides of a piece of paper, sort of close together but essentially in two separate worlds. You can get together by folding the worlds together. He did figure out how to put the two ideas together and it worked out very well!

A Fold Apart has released on virtually every device you could think of. Was that the plan from the get-go? Or was that decision more reactive once the team fully understood how the game could be played?

It was a decision from the get-go because we knew from the bat that this game would be very niche. It’s a story about long-distance relationships and there aren’t many stories [on the subject] in any media. None have really hit big. There’s not much of that stuff in video games, that’s for sure. [The game] needed to be everywhere in order to even be worthwhile. It needed to get out to the biggest audience possible.

We didn’t expect it to be on mobile at all. It’s funny because we won Best Mobile Game, and the technology that’s required to make the folding effect work is something that phones do really badly. It required a lot of work to get it functional on mobile devices. It was fortuitous because we talked to a partner mid-way through development, saying this was a console and PC game. I did a technical test with our partner and technically it seemed possible, but it would have beeen a lot of work [to port it to mobile]. We didn’t end up pursuing that.

Later on, closer to launch, we ended up partnering with Apple. That partnership made it possible to invest time and make it work. That was also fortuitous because the work that went into making it work for Apple devices was work we had to do earlier to make it work on Unity. One of the things people wouldn’t realize is that Unity wasn’t built for that kind of system. We showed it to a Unity graphics engineer and they weren’t even sure how we did it.

I’m assuming Apple played a part in getting A Fold Apart running on mobile?

Yes! Actually, one of Apple’s engineers was especially useful. We had pretty much all of it working on our own, but the performance wasn’t there. One of their engineers had a meeting with me and answered questions via email. He showed me how I should be analyzing how the game runs on the device, and how to run the game on their new chips. It was incredibly valuable. 

It’s our first game on Unity and our first game as a team. Plus, we were doing all the consoles at the same time. When it came out on Apple Arcade, it included iOS, macOS, and tvOS, which are all different in their own way. At the same time, we had the Switch release. Within a month from that, we had it on Xbox and PlayStation. It was really crazy. I look back on it and understand why teams break up their launches. 

Looking back at April 2020, what was it like launching A Fold Apart in what was essentially the first throws of the pandemic?

The first priority for the team was making sure everyone was okay. We have always been a remote studio so it didn’t interrupt the way we worked. We didn’t have that awkward transition to working from home, but the pandemic was worrying everyone and messed everyone up a bit. 

Before, you’d work in your home office or whatever, and you could get up and leave. You had that separation from work. Now, everyone was stuck in their office. Even though it was always work from home, everyone felt stuck. One of the things we did was create a budget to improve everyone’s office ergonomics, and that helped a little bit. Our company has been really good with time off, so everyone has the freedom to do what they need to do. The team always comes first.

We weren’t sure what effect the pandemic would have on the launch of the game. A lot of people were joking that the pandemic would be great for video games. Everyone is home. We thought about it, but weren’t sure. It also cut off our ability to market through events and meeting people and getting interviews. We were never great at social media marketing, but we were good at drawing a crowd at places like PAX.

Image source: Lightning Rod Games

What was the initial reaction from the team when you found out A Fold Apart had won Best Mobile Game?

We knew a little bit beforehand so we could prepare the speech. I was super proud of the team. For me, I felt a tremendous sense of pride because of the work everyone put into it. We’re such a small team that everyone got to put something of themselves into the game. 

The game that’s here today cannot be separated from the individual creators that contributed to it. That goes for our partner studios. I made sure to shout out UXR Lab in Oshawa. The biggest shout out went out to Power Up Audio and Riley Koenig for doing the soundtrack. It was just incredible. So much of the mood was sound.

Also, one of the nice things about it all is being able to validate Mark’s personal story. A win for a game based on someone’s personal experience is really something.

What advantages do you believe your team has for being a grassroots Canadian indie development studio?

There are definitely advantages to being a studio in Canada. One of the hardest things is getting started. The loan programs that happen through the CMF happen through Canada and telefilm. The grant program through Ontario Creates, and the tax incentives – they are good. Ontario is well set up to help businesses start.

The system isn’t perfect, but there are channels for feedback and they are trying to be nimble with their funding programs. That’s something that doesn’t exist in other countries. I know developers from around the world that are very envious. There’s a joke among the game press about the Canada game money. You hear that a lot from the States.

With A Fold Apart now released and in the hands of players, what’s next for the studio? 

Not ready to talk about any of the new projects yet. Two of them I can say are similar to A Fold Apart in that they are sentimental, and one of them will probably surprise people.

We would like to thank Steven Smith for taking the time to chat with us, and once again congratulate Lightning Rod Games for their win.