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SHIRO - Puzzle Game on a Lacquer Box

03-13-2017, 10:44 AM
Joined: Mar 2017
Location: Germany
Posts: 2
SHIRO - Puzzle Game on a Lacquer Box

We are the Topicbird, a small indie studio from Germany, working on our first game SHIRO to be released on the iOS Appstore in mid 2018.
It consists of three connected, but independent parts. The game is running stable, the art is mostly done, now we are working on the interface, tutorials and puzzles.

This is the second devlog entry. If you want to read the first one (it's quite long), follow this link to our website.


SHIRO is a puzzle game set in early Japan, transforming your smart device into a lacquer box full of stories and enigmas: You reconcile past and present with empress Gemmei, travel through dark forests to invite spirits to the shrine of old Yoshida, and climb Mount Inari in southern Kyoto with an outcast fox.
Puzzle by puzzle, word by word you will dive deeper into language, culture and contemplation.

SHIRO is a game in the making

While developing SHIRO we’re learning so much about making games, but are sometimes so into it that we forget how important it is to look at things from a certain distance. To do this we’d like to share some decisions we made or are about to make regarding design and gameplay. If you’ve never heard about our game, you can check it out on the game’s website.


In November we decided to focus on the Black World of SHIRO for the upcoming month. SHIRO has three worlds that each tell different stories and therefore have very different puzzle mechanics. Always switching between these worlds and their code snippets was quite dizzying and when Jasper coded the Black World and I worked out the basic code structure for the Red World we could not really help each other as we were too focused on our specific tasks. This was really annoying, since we usually make decisions as a team and often have to interrupt the other person’s workflow to clarify some things before putting on headphones and diving into hours of coding.

When you can’t write code and talk at the same time

So working on the Black World together was great! Also, we could see more progress happen, which motivated us even more.


Also in November, we had a few people test our game. It turned out that they could understand the puzzles easily but had difficulties understanding the controls at first. Because they are intelligent people they figured it out by themselves, but we learned that these obstacles can take the fun out of playing or make people feel stupid and say things like that they don’t play games often and it’s their fault (which it is of couse not). Especially our non-gamer-friends gave us valuable feedback and we’ve managed to make the game mechanics communicate their usability better since.


We’ve been completely allergic to reward systems in mobile games and dislike the obligatory three stars after successfully finishing a level in puzzle games, even though it works for a lot of people. To us, it feels a bit cheap, like putting precious time into playing a game and all you get out of it is yellow stars. Still, they keep you playing while feeling weird about it.

Nevertheless we have something to offer in our game and that is the display of more information: After solving a puzzle in SHIRO players can learn a word in Japanese. Engaging with another language should feel special in a way that it makes you curious about learning more. If this wasn’t a core aspect of SHIRO we could have just released a list with vocabulary on it and everyone could have learned it without connecting to Japanese design, culture and stories. We put a lot of thought into not using words as rewards only, but still display them as something special, something you can take with you even after closing the game.

All in all we’ve tried to improve the UI in ways that make the game mechanics and controls understandable more easily and to display aspects of the game that are important to us more clearly.


We’ve simplified the design of SHIRO in some ways, because we want our graphics to communicate consistently. For example, every element within SHIRO that is golden is now touchable and turns to silver when activated but not activatable again. To give an example, a navigational element in a star system you can use all the time to be redirected to a certain puzzle will always be golden, but a touchfield in a story element will turn silver so players can see that they already activated it.

Also, we’ve managed to connect the gold reflections to the iPad’s gyroscope to make the materials feel more connected to the player’s device.

What’s most difficult in designing for SHIRO is that thinking more about the design or making more complex sketches does not necessairily make it better - often it’s quite the opposite. It becomes about finding that one image which transports a message or feeling on point. One can’t really compel that, but one can set the conditions for coming up with it. Reading, scribbling and researching historical images precedes the moment of finally making the design.


We’re really excited to bring out the story withing SHIRO’s Black World. It’s based on the Kojiki, one of the first writings on Japanese mythology from the year 712. Within it you can find love, burning genitals and the underworld as much as spirituality and the capabilty of moving on, no matter what.

It’s a challenge to keep sentences short but accurate, as we don’t expect players to read endlessly in a mobile game.


Leonard Bahro, a dear friend and great sound artist, is currently working on sounds for SHIRO. We’re very happy to have him around.

What’s next

First of all, thank you for reading our article. Soon, our trailer will come out, so stay connected. Also, we’ve started a mailing list, so if you’d like to get updates from time to time, please subscribe below.

Last edited by Topicbird; 04-13-2018 at 10:08 AM.
04-13-2018, 10:40 AM
Joined: Mar 2017
Location: Germany
Posts: 2
SHIRO — Making the lacquer box turn

Hey there!

In this devlog, we focus on the development of SHIRO’s materiality, UI and sound, and there’ll be another devlog out soon in which we dive into the small-business-side of things like how we’ve become a company in order to release a game on the Appstore.

Material — The resemblance of smart devices and lacquerware

The core idea for SHIRO’s design is that the aesthetics of modern smart devices and Japanese lacquerware are astonishingly alike: Both are glossy, both are useful and of high quality, both have the potential to be used for story telling. When living in Kyoto, we did not have the money to buy expensive lacquerware, but we went to stores often and looked at these beautiful objects. What if we made a game which would allow players to carry a small lacquer box in their pockets?

If you’re interested in how lacquerware is traditionally made, this video by Shoko Aono shows the work of Jihei Murase: https://vimeo.com/186449805

We used PBR materials in Unity (the Standard Shader) to create a realistic looking gold material. We experimented with scratches to make SHIRO’s subsurfaces look like used lacquer but eventually we simply used an unlit color as most smart devices have scratches anyway.

UI: turning the box

Even though SHIRO is inspired by Japanese lacquer boxes, it wasn’t possible to navigate the game in a manner that felt boxlike until very recently. Why did we hesitate to implement 3D-ish behaviour? Well, we’ve been super afraid of touching the corresponding code, because we knew the game wouldn’t work properly for a few days, plus there was a high risk of not succeeding at all. An important feature of SHIRO is that the material gold reflects dependent on the player’s movements (by using their devices’ gyroscope), so inserting 90° rotations on the y- and x-axis to turn a box could lead to unwanted behaviour easily. Another objection on our end was conceptual: We wanted our player’s devices to look and feel like a lacquer box and not put a 3D-box inside the device. We questioned our doubts by touching many objects, haha. What does using one’s hands to rotate and look at objects like boxes, bottles, mugs etc. from different angles feel like? What kind of behaviour do we expect from digital objects and surfaces, like browser interfaces? We developed a clearer idea on how to implement box mechanics into SHIRO without making the game look like a trapped 3D-box in a smartphone.

So finally, and with a good friend kicking our asses to do it, we did it! It took us three long days to figure out the basic code and a few more days to playtest and fix bugs. And it’s really been worth it, since we did not only learn a lot, but also made playing SHIRO a more intuitive experience. Here’s a little preview: https://twitter.com/thetopicbird/sta...70261098446850

playtests & Testflight

Testflight is a program with which one can distribute not yet released iOS games among test players. Since players use their own device it’s a great way to find bugs and receive feedback after people dealt with a game on their own terms and without the makers of the game anxiously sitting next to them. The builds automatically deactivate after 90 days, so testplayers won’t have a not-great-version of the game forever and friends won’t tease you about funny bugs in a few years from now (or at least they won’t have proof then).

Working with Testflight helped us improve SHIRO a lot. It can be quite time consuming to upload new versions, which Apple will test for a few days each time, but it’s way easier to handle for testplayers than lengthy explanations on how to download an .apk and install it manually.

Aaand: fixing bugs

While we’ve been able to identify bugs very easily in the first few months of development it is more difficult to find them now as they are less obvious and sometimes appear irregularly or on some devices only. So we’ve been running around asking people what kind of devices they were using and if they wanted to test our game, or even let us spend some time with their device and SHIRO.

Sound: Unexpected Darkness

We’re working with sound artist Leonard Bahro, who developed far darker soundscapes for SHIRO than we had planned for initially, but — they really strengthen the emotional range of our story and add depth to the puzzles. Now the deep mumbling of the waves within KURO’s puzzles is interrupted by Japanese drums whenever players interconnect moons and drops. In the narrative parts of KURO, players activate Koto sounds that join into melodies when they find story parts.

Another exciting experience was to work with a Japanese friend whose voice reveals one word in Japanese each time a player solves a puzzle. SHIRO’s levels are ordered in star constellations and players can now hear the words they’ve already unlocked by tapping on the associated stars.

Thank you for reading

We also post about SHIRO on https://thetopicbird.com/blog and http://twitter.com/thetopicbird.