Posted on April 8, 2012 AT 08:02pm
Among the games on display at PAX East 2012 was Super Time Force—a crazy, challenging, all-out side-scrolling action shooter from indie developer Capybara Games. After getting my hands on the game, I had a chance to speak with two of the men helping to bring the game to life: Lead programmer Ken Yeung, and Co-founder & audio director Sean Lohrisch.
EGM: So, I remember when Super Time Force was first revealed, and it was this big tease at first—almost like, “what the heck is this game?” What you showed at first seemed like this insane, chaotic game. What was it that you were wanting to express to fans during that first reveal?
Yeung: I guess the most important thing was that we wanted to show that the game is old-school, and that it’s crazy. Those were the two key things, and I think that it came out really well in that trailer. There’s details about what’s really going on that weren’t revealed, but I think those sorts of questions get people curious, and gets them wondering what Super Time Force is about. That was the goal of our teaser—not to give everything away at once, but to let people come, sit down, play it, and then see their reaction.
EGM: When I myself was playing the game a bit ago, one of the comments you made was, “Okay, this game’s hard, so don’t feel bad if you die.” That’s an interesting conversation to me, because games used to be hard, and you never had to explain that concept.
Yeung: Yeah, exactly.
EGM: Not that I want to say that Super Time Force is emulating that era—maybe more honoring it in a way—but I think the question is if it’s actually hard, or if its difficulties is normal compared to how games used to be. Have we gotten a bit soft as gamers?
Yeung: I think so, sure. Back then, for example, you didn’t even have a tutorial. Anything you did, you had to learn it on your own, or you had to hear it from word of mouth. And for the longest time, there weren’t even save games. If you died, that was it, and you started all of the way back at the beginning. To me, I like that—but that may not be for everybody. For those people who do enjoy that though—and games that are like that with that sort of difficulty—they’ll really appreciate what we’re doing here.
EGM: When everybody at Capybara was considering what would inspire what you’d be doing in Super Time Force, did you ever go back and play games from the 8- and 16-bit eras?
Yeung: Yeah, sure. A lot of the design choices we do, and a lot of the concepts that we wanted to bring to this project, they’re straight out of other games. We’d look at something like Contra, find things that we love about it, and figure out how to bring those elements out. Play Gunstar Heroes, Ninja Gaiden, Bionic Commando—they’re all classics that people know and love, and they had this certain something about them. We wanted to capture that same sort of thing, and bring it back.
EGM: So when you did that, were there any games that you replayed, and were like, “How in the hell did I ever get through this game as a kid? I can’t even beat the first stage now!”
Yeung: Pretty much every game! I watch YouTube videos, and wonder, how in the world did I play this? How did I play Contra: Hard Corps, or Gunstar Heroes, you know? You watch, and it’s ridiculous. But back then, we didn’t know anything else, right? That was all we knew. Games were hard. You had to earn it to win it, and I think that’s what we want to bring to the table.
Lohrisch: Or at least the happy medium, somewhere in between. Maybe as an industry we’ve over-shot in trying to eliminate frustration, so maybe that’s what a game like Dark Souls brought back a bit. Put some rules in place that make you actually feel threatened. I guess when you feel that you know you can just go back 30 seconds ago and not have any risk, it kills any sort of tension you might want to create. It makes games less engaging. So, maybe find somewhere in between. It doesn’t have to be that make-you-want-to-break-your-controller-in-half kind of frustration, but maybe we’ve also made things too casual friendly as an industry. But to be fair, it’s also been beneficial in getting more people into games I think.
EGM: It’s interesting that you say that, because I almost feel like that desire for hard games never went away, even as a lot of the more mainstream games got easier. What a game like Dark Souls proved is that—
Yeung: That there’s still a market for those types of games.
EGM: Right. When its not cheap difficulty—but actual, real difficulty—fans love that, and love that sense of accomplishing something in the game.
Yeung: Exactly. You’re not dying because of some cheap element or something that you didn’t know, but because you lack the skills, or you need to solve this problem. Those are the things that really get the gamers going, I think.
Lohrisch: Nick Suttner—I think he used to be with EGM and 1up, and is now at Sony—he pointed out to me that when you’re going through Dark Souls, you’re failing, but you’re also gaining information. I hadn’t thought about that, but I guess it was implicit that okay, I tried this guy, and I’m not powerful enough, or I need a different weapon, or something’s got to change. Around our office, the game really created a lot of discussion. I think it creates community as well. It’s engaging to try to figure out what you’re supposed to do, and draws you in a bit more.
EGM: In my time playing Super Time Force, I felt some of that—that sense where every death was a learning experience, versus just a random event happening. All of that is of course tied to the respawn system that’s in the game, as it almost gave me encouragement to play the game, learn what I may have done wrong, and then give it another try.
Yeung: Yeah, so, when you die, the game sort of rewinds itself, and you play again alongside your previous play through. You die once, and now there’s two of you running around shooting things. So not only do you know about what killed you to avoid it next time, but you can actively try to prevent it. There’s this extra layer on top, where I know this guy’s gonna shoot here and kill me, so I’m going to go and kill that guy first. By doing that, you change the future. Not only does killing that guy help you progress through the level, but now you can recover that life that you lost. So, it’s sort of a two-fold thing going on—something that I don’t think I’ve seen going on in a game before. Sure, you get information to progress, but you also get the opportunity to recover a life back.
Lohrisch: And theoretically, yeah, it acts as a bit of a self-created checkpoint. You could potentially leapfrog your current character with a previous character back and forth—you save a previous guy, then you make a little further progress, you get killed, and the guy you previously saved comes in and saves your life. We’ve yet to see a long run of that, but it could happen; we’re going to try to explore that a bit more. Overall, though, all of this gives a lot more importance to the saving in the game. I’m sure, after a while, if you’ve had to run through the level too many times, it’ll be welcome that you don’t always have to go return to the beginning.
EGM: You’ve got three characters playable here—I’m not sure if that’s the full amount the game will feature or not
Yeung: Actually, in the demo, you can unlock a fourth secret character. You have to save him. You’ll see him, and he’ll be stuck in a situation where he dies—but now that you know that, you can go there and try to save him by killing a robot that’s about to shoot him. So, we have that fourth character who plays different than all of the other characters, but the plan is definitely for us to have lots and lots of other unlockable characters, and each of them would offer their own strategy or take on dealing with situations.
EGM: That’s the thing I noticed. Often you’ll have, say, the big strong guy who’s more powerful, and then you’ll have the smaller faster female character, and then the third random stereotypical character. Playing all three of the currently unlocked characters here, though, there’s such a different mentality in how you progress through the level with each. That’s one of the things I find really interesting about Super Time Force, because it’s not an arbitrary choice—it’s a legitimate choice of play style.
Yeung: Exactly. For example, in some games, you’ll be able to carry ten weapons, and each weapon does all of these different things. For us, each character does one thing and one thing really well. So, you’ve got to utilize their strengths, and work together to get all of those strengths in concert—that’s sort of how we encourage teamwork. Instead of one character who can do everything, we have a bunch of characters who are good at their own thing, and by working together you can get through almost any situation.
Lohrisch: In the original teaser, there was actually two characters who aren’t currently in the game. There was an engineer, and the other, I guess we call him the ninja. The ninja would deflect bullets with his melee attack, and I think he could kill guys when he dashed through them. Then we had the engineer, who could build turrets. I guess we still haven’t finalized those guys—the dev team decided it was best to take them out for now, and we’ll keep working on them.
EGM: To switch to the question of aesthetics, there’s been a lot of games recently that have had this sort of retro style to them, and I’ve wondered—and worried—if we’re getting to a point where that whole style is being overdone. How do you make a game of this type of style without it coming off as just another retro throwback, or whatever else some might assume when seeing it?
Yeung: I don’t know. I guess, for us, we’re not trying to be retro for the sake of being retro. The game started out as a Game Jam game, and in order to have a quick turn-around time—which you need for Game Jam entries—everything has to be really streamlined. So, one of the decisions we made was to go with pixel art, for the benefit of our artist being able to pump out assets really quickly. That was the starting point. But I think, as a company, we believe that pixel art is not just nostalgic—it’s an actual, valid, artistic style and aesthetic that’s unique. That’s still valid—even today among, you know, the crazy, high-end, 3D graphics. So, for this game, we were trying to show that. It’s retro, but it’s not retro for the sake of being retro. We can do things that you couldn’t do before in pixel art—and make it look awesome and modern. That’s my take on it.
Lohrisch: Also, our plans are to include some modern features, like particle effects. The game looks like an old-school platforming shooter, like a Contra, but with the modern twist of rewinding time. I think the artists—generally always late in a project—start adding effects and give the project this kind of eye candy, making it look distinct. But I can understand that some may say, “Oh, another pixel art game. What’s so special about this one?” Or they’ll just discount it, because they’ve seen ten pixel art games today.
EGM: So, final question, and this is the hardest of them all: A lot of gamers out there love you guys. Why do those people love Capybara so much?
Yeung: I don’t know. [laughs]
Lohrisch: Oh man. I attribute a lot of it to our artists. I think they seem to come up with something unique—and to be clear, I’m not an artist, so I’m not praising myself. I also think our designers have been able to come up with some neat twists. We’re not inventing new genres or anything, but I think we’ve come up with some subtle twists that make our games feel fresh. I’d then attribute some of it to our key guys that go out to all of the trade shows, like Nathan [Vella] and Kris [Piotrowski].
Yeung: Yeah, I think that’s a big part of it.
Lohrisch: They seem to make a lot of friends with a lot of people, and I guess if people like them, then it’s hard to hate them, right?
Yeung: I think the indie scene itself is a very small—but loud—community. The thing about indie development is there’s always a face behind the game, which is not always something you see in the triple-A side of game development. So that, in concert with the fact that the guys make so many friends; they all hang out together, they all have beers, it sort of creates this positive community that then also spills out to the fans as well. It comes back, and feeds back to us, and that’s why it’s a really positive environment. I think that’s the thing that makes the indie scene a lot different from the bigger game development scene.
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