The Secret to Game Development – ShellJump’s Inpulse

Kelsy Medeiros

Published on 25/06/2024

We’re now starting a series of interviews with our community members on Discord! We recently met with Nathan Sievers, a dev from ShellJump studio behind Inpulse. Nathan Sievers’ game development career was destined to happen from a very young age. The developer knew precisely what he wanted to do with his life before he reached 13.

Unlike developers who commonly choose to create games because they love their favourite home game console, Nate did not own anything video game-related. His skills were tested through his newly found passion while on annual summer vacation trips, staying in the same motel with his family.

From Super Nintendo Aficionado to Game Developer

A Super Nintendo Entertainment System was available to play for 30 minutes before the game would reset. The console held the most popular game of its era: Super Mario World. It was a 2D platformer that was easy to pick up and play but challenging to master. It wasn’t the pressure of beating the game before the console reset that Nate fell in love with; it was just the opposite.

Having the system reset made the win and losing conditions disappear, making the experience cater to bring about self-improvement. The game brought a sense of wonder to him. Due to his limited time per demo before the game reset, Nate had to practice beating the game in under 30 minutes without help. With every session, Nate would advance further in the game. Little did Nate know then that this yearly event with his family was quietly developing the mindset of how this young mind would set out to create his very own game someday.

Pursuing a Passion for Game Development

Super Mario World, Released in 1991 by Nintendo – sold over 20 Million Copies, making it the best-selling SNES game of all time.

Fast-forward into the future. Nate is in awe of Super Mario World. He pursued his curiosity by graduating with a degree in Computer Science at University while advancing his math skills and taking topology courses to better visualize and understand the concept of shapes. With all of his gathered resources, he developed a passion project intended only for himself and a few of his peers.

The Birth of Hackers Dreams

The game was a ROM hack on Kaizo, which means “Modification.” Nate’s influence in this community was to focus on “troll” design and to be more about the flow of design, exploring what Kaizo could be without the feeling of punishment. In 2011-2023, the young game developer created his levels of Super Mario World called Hackers Dreams, which unintentionally made the hack widely known as the “hardest fan-made Super Mario Bros. levels of all time.”

Over time, this helped influence the modern Kaizo landscape. The lead designer would upload videos of Hackers Dreams as it would influence the modern Kaizo landscape. It was like a diary of his philosophy as he grew into a designer and developer. Only the most advanced players worldwide would dare to attempt to complete the challenge. The community, filled with speedrunners and esports, will attempt to complete the outstanding level design that Nate produced. To this very day, only three have ever succeeded in achieving Hackers’ Dreams. The mod took ten years to develop, all while Nate was still a student.

Crafting Awe-Inspiring Challenges for Gamers

The Super Mario community showed Nate much support instead of expressing frustration with his difficult challenge. The community endorsed his design techniques for maximizing spectacle without losing the flow state. This is a technique designers use to draw in the minds of gamers and have them feel in “awe” to look at a challenge while not overstimulating the player into retreating from the game’s experience. With much feedback in mind from an overly supportive community, Nate founded Shelljump Studios and finally began his original game for the world to enjoy.

The development of Inpulse began about one year ago. Nate already knew the mission for his game. Still, the most challenging part of this game’s design has been figuring out how to make newcomers feel the flow of Kaizo without the tech overhead. He had to have a reason for every decision. The results always had to match the core value of his project, which they have been constantly using to target the right audience.

Community Manager of GameRebellion: Kelsy Medeiros (right) meeting with Lead Game Designer: Nathan Sievers (left) st PAX WEST 2023 | 📸: Adele Cabral

I met with the talented leader at this year’s PAX WEST while he was showcasing Inpulse. I was mesmerized. This game intrigued me as a professional gamer, musician, and longtime fan of the similar art style “Celeste” by Maddy Makes Games.

The Unique Gameplay of Inpulse

You play as an ordinary square who transforms into a flute, which is also his name… get it? (haha) Using Flute’s seven consequential types of notes, you must navigate challenging rooms filled with platforming tests.

Each of Flute’s notes affects the character and his progress. The note’s timing matched the rhythm and tempo of the level’s design. I noticed I died at least 20 times on my first challenge alone, but I smiled at the seamless respawn time and its encouragement to try again

There was no loading screen or “game over” pop-up. There was only you, yourself in the moment, and the skills you must develop while understanding the task.

 I got through 5 challenges before my time at the booth was up, as I spent over 45 minutes there, but I promised myself that I would be back to complete this title upon its release.

This experience was unlike anything that I have ever played. Later on, Shelljump’s Inpulse achieved multiple awards at Pax West, including a “Best in Show” by a critic. The booth was crowded and had many supporters during its showcase.

Finding Your Game’s Unique Value Proposition

When I recently sat down with Nate for an interview, I asked how Inpulse became such a unique title that stands out in the industry among thousands of games already done. He wanted people to learn, truly understand how to play, and be rewarded for that experience.

When you learn guitar, you learn the chord fingerings, picking techniques, etc. It’s an awkward, mealy sort of process. Completely different when you know guitar and are learning to play a song. It’s an intuitive, exploratory experience where you learn about the pieces and flow. It’s a feeling of going from not understanding to understanding very rapidly, and you feel good about yourself as you do it. Kaizo is the same thing, but most people see the chord fingerings. I want to fastrack people past that stage and experience the joy we feel when playing at a high level. I want people to be able to flow for themselves.”
Nathan Sievers

It’s not just about the encouragement but redefining the win condition: you don’t lose when you die because death is not about losing. the winning is you learning and getting better.

Beating the level is just part of that process. Nate and his team, which includes two individuals who joined him only in the past few months, want to create a microcosmic feeling of understanding, not memorizing.

Personal Experience and Unique Challenges

The game isn’t just a game; it’s a story that presents all of Nate’s most significant moments from his life, which are represented in levels and challenges within the game. Personal experience is something that no one else can replicate in any industry.

“It’s hard to find that special part that defines your game’s core. I always ask myself, what do people lack in gaming, and how can my game give them that missing factor?” – Nathan Sievers

Encouraging Players and Providing a Sense of Competency

By today’s standards, complex games make you feel like you, as the player, are bad at video games. Dark Souls is an example of what many believe to be the most brutal genre of the decade, where players are brutally punished for making mistakes.

Shelljump’s main uniqueness is that it always encourages the players along the way, and every decision reflects this idea to ensure a good reason for making a decision in the game.

Inpulse is categorized as a rhythmic platformer that gives you a sense of competency. The better you are at the game, the higher your score and the feeling of achievement you will earn. This is similar to classic 90s platformers like Sonic the Hedgehog, who reward the player with speed if you learn to understand and memorize the level’s design. The game has found an excellent balance of not holding the player’s hand through the level’s challenges while providing the right amount of knowledge that you will use to figure out each level.

The title has no deadline, as Shelljump wants to give the best product through its quality. One of the things that caught my attention is that the devs behind the game aim for its success, and because of that, they put their time and passion into its development. So, if you are on the same path as them and your goal is to create a great game, then you can be sure this is the right recipe for success.

Inpulse is the Dream Game

When I asked what Nate’s “dream game to create someday” was, he quickly answered, “Inpulse is the dream.” Inpulse is a game that makes people feel what Nate felt when he played Super Mario World on a timer. This ASMR finds satisfaction in repeatedly improving that skill until you’ve mastered it. Shelljump is creating something special, a game that expands your soul as you harmonize through each level.

The game’s design has targeted the already very supportive Mario community and other fan-made projects, as well as many speedrunners and professional gamers who have volunteered to help the studio complete their project. Nate cannot wait to deliver people the sense of “wonder” he first had when he readied himself back in childhood. In the early Internet days, there was a wonder about what came next in the game world, what was over the mountain, etc., and with streaming and internet communities, we gained a lot, but we sometimes lost the sense of mystery.

His game is hand-drawn because he is trying to introduce a world to people without explaining it, and he wants them to discover it for themselves. As the player, you are dropped in a world and must learn more about it. Nate views this perspective as another world or an old point and clicks for aesthetic direction on this. Since the win condition is you learning, he dreams of having players participate in finding a new level to feel exploratory and interesting, not just checking a goal off a list.

Nate (second from the left) and his supporters help prepare the booth for “Inpulse” at PAX WEST 2023.