Interview: retroFuture On The Exciting South African-Made Indie Game, zX
A week ago I wrote a hands-on preview of the indie game zX, created by South African developer retroFuture. After loving what I played, I got in touch with the developers for an interview, and the duo Julian Pritchard and Michael (it is unknown whether he has a surname or is even human) were kind enough to answer my questions. Not like they had much choice…with a gun pointed to their heads. But that’s just a minor technicality. Nothing you need to worry about. Honestly, it’s chilled.
Right then, before I end up saying too many things that I’ll end up regretting, let’s get into this full interview about zX, a bullet hell game that will make your eyeballs explode.
eGamer: Thank you, retroFuture, for taking the time to do this interview with us. We love getting to know our indie developers, especially if they’re South African! So to start off with, tell us a little about yourselves and retroFuture.
Michael: I’m pretty much a noob game designer and developer. In 2010, I was studying interactive media at Wits and one of the assignments was to create a simple Flash game. I wound up making something closer to an interactive illustration, but that was it for me, the game design bug had bit me, and I decided to pursue a career as a game developer. I founded retroFuture so that I could create games that invoke a the sense of wonder that people felt when they first encountered video games. My earliest video game memory was standing in the arcade at Sun City in the early 80’s and being hypnotized by the dazzling sights and sounds of Defender. I often think back to that time and hope instill those emotions I felt into all of my games.
Julian: I’ve been making games since I was in highschool, I won’t claim that they were anything other than horrid back then but I’ve come along, and progressed through various stages of being a student, worked on a number of games at a local (not Indie) studio, and going into the dark side of researching and coming up with theory about game design itself. I joined up with Michael in late 2011 when he showed zX at our local community meet. He had shown Gunjustu some month earlier, and the game were just really great and seemed like fun to play. It was something I thought that should really be made, so I started helping out with the development.
eGamer: What is zX all about?
Michael: zX Is my way of expressing my love for all my favorite elements of action arcade games. I’ve included all the major gameplay ingredients that I feel have not been sufficiently used or have not seen their full potential. Basically, it’s a free-roaming bullet-hell shmup where the player is encouraged to play recklessly and to use enemy projectiles to their advantage.
eGamer: You’re the first South Africans to be asked my trademark question. Cool hey? So, tell us, what is the biggest reason to play zX?
Michael: I always wanted to create a game that encompasses everything I loved about old-school arcade games. I think I’ve managed to capture some of this essence. If you’ve had any love for arcade games of the late 80’s / early 90’s, then you really should play zX. It’s not all old-school though, many of the old staples are dropped in favor of more progressive gameplay elements. Whilst it does feature punishing difficulty, there are no lives, and once unlocked, each level can be replayed via central hub access, you don’t need to start at stage 1 with 3 lives as one had to with the ancestors of zX.
Julian: In short: it’s fun, it’s challenging, and it’s well made.
eGamer: Tell us, how did this project come to life? What was your vision for zX?
Michael: I was busy developing another prototype Gunjutsu, an arena platformer in a similar vein to Tumblepop. Unfortunately, whilst the prototype proved to be good, I lacked the coding skills to really get it to where I wanted it to be. Nicholas Williams, my music composer and sfx engineer, suggested that I try building something smaller and simpler. Originally, zX was meant to be a rapidly developed game so that I’d have at least one game under my belt in a reasonable short space of time. A year and a bit later, it is still in production (although the end is in sight), but the extended dev time has proven to be worth it, as the game is far grander in scope and style than what I had originally foreseen.
eGamer: Can you give us an overview of the gameplay?
Michael: The world of zX is a network of platforms and caves spread across 6 zones, each zone containing 10 levels and one boss level. There are six hubs, or worlds, the player must travel to. The hubs limit access to the later levels so the player develops the necissary skills to take on the later levels and finally the boss.
Once inside a level, the player needs to collect 3 power gems in order to activate the levels exit portal. The gems are stored inside inert, floating Jellyfish monsters, which need to be destroyed in order to collect the gems. When collected, each gem also acts as an enhancement to the players weapon system. There are 3 selectable weapons, Thumper (green colored, rapid-fire shot with knockback effect), Spread (blue colored 3-way bouncing shot) and Homing (putrple colored fast homing shot.). The power gems randomly select 1 of these 3 attributes and stack it to the currently selected weapon. The player has the freedom to select between any of the 3 primary weapons, whilst collecting the power gem randomly adds a secondary ability across the 3 primaries. For example, Thumper and homing creates Thumper/Homing (rapid-fire homing with knockback), Homing/Spread (homing and bouncing spread shot) or Spread/Spread(3-way spread becomes 5 way spread).
The most important weapon in the players arsenal is the deflector blade. This is used to clear a safe passage through the bullet swarms and is a powerful melee attack. Mastering the blade is the core gameplay feature of zX. It is virtually impossible to dodge the enemy bullets, they have to be cleared with the blade. Enemy bullets can be used offensively if correctly deflected. If they hit an enemy, not only to they cause damage, they convert into a hyper gem which the player automatically hoovers up. This charges up a hyper meter which, when full, activates hyper shot mode, the most powerful weapon available to the player. Hyper shots cause ‘massive damage’ and neutralize enemy bullets. When activated, the hyper shot also activates one of 2 upgrades, Shot Upgrade (+50% shot damage) or Blade Upgrade (+50% blade damage).
Effectively using the blade and thus charging the hyper can only be done if the player actively dives into enemy bullet salvos, and not if they are cautious and hang back. Deflecting entire salvos is more easily accomplished if the player is close to the enemy source. Thus the player can turn seemingly impossible odds to their advantage.
eGamer: In the demo there are three firing modes, namely purple, blue and green. Will the final game have more? Or additional attacks?
Michael: I’m currently adding 3 flavors of R-Type style charge attack that are triggered by holding down the blade attack. The type of attack is determined by which primary weapon the player has selected.
eGamer: What are some of the more exciting features we can expect from the full game with regards to gameplay, enemies and level design?
The demo should give you a good idea of what to expect in the final version. The final version is of course much bigger, with more enemy types, intimidating boss monsters, level designs and scene settings and new environmental hazards (working on an indestructible ‘creeping darkness’). Importantly, whilst it will be pretty hard, the difficulty curve will be significantly more forgiving than what is currently featured in the demo. I will tentatively state that I want to have a randomly generated ‘infinite mode’ that features more traditional gameplay elements like ‘lives’. Scoring would be measured by how many levels can be cleared with 3 lives. I cannot guarantee that this feature will be ready on release, but it will be included at some point as an update… and NOT, I repeat NOT as an IAP! All retroFuture games will be complete premium packages, not fragmented F2P gougers.
eGamer: You’ve said that there will be 66 levels in total in zX. How long will it take to finish the game?
Michael: if a player is hyper-skilled and does not die once, the game could be completed in anything from 1 and a half to 2 hours. However, this is probably not the case for almost anybody. Considering the astronomical number of times the game will murder you, it could take anything from 6, 8 or 10 hours. Players may even be stuck on individual levels for an hour or more. I’m pretty good at the game and some of the levels still mop the floor with me. In a nutshell, I can’t guarantee the play time (nor have I accurately measured it) but I’m confident that the average player will get many hours of gameplay from zX.
Julian: And if anyone breezes through the game, the game they can always try it on insane difficulty. But we don’t like to talk about insane too much it has been known to make grown men cry.
eGamer: Tell us, what were your sources of inspiration for zX?
Michael: Treasure is one of the biggest influences on my games, if any of your readers don’t know who they are, then I suggest they read up on them without delay. They have created such satisfyingly maniacal and epic games that I cannot help but be influenced by them. Several gameplay elements and principles of their games have found their way into zX, namely the hybrid weapon system of Gunstar Heroes and the blade of Radiant Silvergun, although in RSG, the blade was only used to absorb enemy bullets. zX’s blade system bears closer resemblance to a less well known, but still excellent shmup, RefleX (2008 Siter Skain) which used deflected enemy bullets as an attack. Treasures’ Bangai-O was also a massive influence due to its free-roaming structure which is unusual for shmups, and it’s encouragement of suicidal play styles. Kudos also needs to go out to Daniel Remar’s Hero Core for it’s elegant, minimalist, exploratory shmup style.
Julian: Michael is a far more avid SHMUP player than me. But Jamestown (by Final Form Games) is one of the contemporary SHMUPS that has quite an influence on me. I would say that Metroid Fusion and Dustforce have also had quite a lot of influence in my approach to the systems that are in zX.
eGamer: What are you most proud of with zX? Which aspect of the game are you most excited for gamers to experience?
Michael: No one specific thing, I do hope however that people will experience zX as a satisfying, hardcore experience that blends what was good about old-school action games whilst pruning off the elements that sucked or are obsolete, and hopefully find the audio-visual packaging encasing it to be elegant and engaging.
Julian: For me it has to be the blades. Most SHUMPS require players to dodge, some the player has to dodge with the central part and graze with another part of the ship, this would charge the hyper shot. It leads to a sort of passive play. With zX you charge your hyper shot by reflecting bullets. So when you see a lot of enemy bullets you are actually in a really advantageous situation since you can do way more damage by getting in there: attacking with the blades, which does damage, reflect bullets with the blades, which does damage and charges your hyper-shot. So you really want to be in the enemies face as much as you can.
Can you tell us what’s happening in development right now?
Michael: Eliminating some bugs, implementing new level objectives and integrating story elements into the final package.
Julian: Bug fixes, doing the PR, and trying to get through Greenlight.
When will the game be released? And how much will it cost?
Michael: We have already constructed and populated all 66 levels, and are currently looking at modifying existing levels with more environmental hazards. I can’t give an exact release date, but it will be early 2013 and will cost between $5 and $10, we haven’t decided on a price yet. Hoping that Steam can advise us on a realistic price range.
Julian: With the game being mostly done it shouldn’t be that much longer, but you have the Pareto principle: the last 20% is 80% of the work. We have already been polishing the game for quite some time, so I would say not much longer. But it would be foolish to give a definite date. We would much rather have a better product that takes longer, than having to release something unplayable just to abide by some date.
As South African developers, what are some of the challenges you face on a daily basis when creating your game? Would you say it’s more difficult here than it would be overseas, or is there no difference?
Julian: In general there is no difference between an Indie in South Africa, Canada, or Australia. Except the internet. I haven’t had a phone line since it was stolen in 2009, and 3G data tends to be a bit pricey so tossing around a lot of data isn’t exactly easy.
eGamer: What would you say are the essential things that potential South African game developers need, and must do, if they wish to make games?
Michael: Whilst every developer needs to follow their passions, the best advice I can give, at least what seems to be working for me, is to keep your idea simple and polish your execution. Too many people have great, grand concepts that, whilst good on paper, wind up looking ugly or mediocre and playing clunkily. If you don’t apply polish into your game, even the greatest ideas will give off an amateurish stench.
eGamer: And finally, what advice would you give to other South African would-be indie developers? Or simply to those who dream of making games?
Julian: Same thing they need to do anywhere else just start making games, and games you can finish is rather essential. You can’t think you can make an MMO those take hundreds of people. zX isn’t a large game and it has a couple thousand hours in it. So you just need to work at it, and if at first you don’t succeed reduce scale and try again. Also joining a game development community is a rather big plus. There are really cool places like TIGsource.com but we do have a local community at MakeGamesSA.com which is specifically focused, and we have meets in Jo’burg and Cape Town every month.
eGamer: I voted up zX on Steam Greenlight. But I’m curious, what comes next for retroFuture after zX? Where do you hope to go in the future?
Michael: I hope to be able to earn enough money from zX to be able to continue making games for a living. I already have a shelved but viable prototype called Gunjitsu that I would like to finish and release commercially. Whilst I would like to stick to the arcade-action style of games I would like to try my hand at games in a similar vein to Contra, Bubble Bobble, Smash TV etc. I will still be working in Game Maker, it’s a really fantastic framework for rapidly building these types of games. I would however like to be able to shorten my development time to under a year… maybe even 6 months, although I may need to expand my team with an artist or two.
Julian: I suppose that depends on how things go with zX. It would be cool if we had enough money that we can just focus on making games, and maybe even bring other people on. It is kind of hard to see exactly what the future hold. But like Mike said we have other games that we can get working on without really having to depend on some external factor.
eGamer: For interest sake, what made you decide to call the game, zX?
Michael: zX is actually a working title that stuck. I had forced myself to start with a limited color palette when I prototyped the game and I decided that the ZX Spectrum has a great, electronically vibrant palette, so much better than the abominable C64 palette that soiled my childhood and adolescence, although the SID chips audio capabilities kinda made up for it. I liked the sound of ZX, and after ‘camel casing’ the letters to zX, it looked conducive to creating a stylish logo, thus the name stuck. It is also somewhat reminiscent of titles like R-Type, X-Out and Z-Out.
eGamer: As gamers, what is your take on cults? Good or bad? And by any chance, are you guys part of a cult?
Julian: I have been a lifelong member of the make your player cry with diffi-cult-y cult, which Terry Cavanagh founded back in 1888: we basically gain immortality due to the player’s frustrations, in the 80’s we also gained quarters, so we are really excited about this ‘IAP’ thing since it gives us lifeforce and money.
Michael: …I deny everything.
That concludes our interview. Effectively, we’ve got two South African developers who support cults and may even be part of one, and who want to make grown men cry. I gotta say, they sound like great guys. On a more serious note, I’d like to wish them all the best for the final stretch of development and of course the launch of the game. I look forward to playing and reviewing the completed version. Also, I’d like to say thanks to them for taking the time to answer our questions in detail. It was a long interview, but I hope you all enjoyed reading it. I’ll see you in the next interview or indie review!