...Between Gauntlet & The Dishwasher
Indie development is fast becoming one of the most important sources of innovation and inspiration within our industry, and a veritable font of excellent games for negligible prices. The Hearts Of Men was a perfect example of this phenomenon when it released on the Xbox Live Indie earlier this year, and after securing our Indie Game Of The Week accolade, COLTRAN Studios has been hard at work completing a remastered, extended and definitive version. Known as Throne Of Deceit, this new version will offer a massive amount of new content when it launches next week.
Studio director Jason Zielinski is a art department veteran of both Midway and Day 1 Studios with titles like Mortal Kombat, Stranghehold and F.E.A.R. 3 on his resume - one of an increasing number of experienced AAA developers who have decided to jump into the exciting Indie arena. Eager to discuss the new project... as well as learning why developers choose to to go from Triple-A to indie development... I sat down with with him for a chat.
Jonathan Lester (Dealspwn): Many thanks for talking to us. First of all, could you introduce yourselves to our readers - and tell us about your triple-A background?
Jason Zielinski (COLTRAN Studios): First off, thank you for this opportunity! It's always great to speak about all of our efforts and share with the community.My background started out at Midway Chicago, back in 2005 working on such titles as Stranglehold, Ballers, and the Mortal Kombat series to name a few titles, where I worked as a cinematic character artist. After Midway, I went to work at Day 1 Studios, another Chicago based studio, where I was an environmental and concept artist on "Fracture" and "F.E.A.R. 3", as well as many conceptual pitches for games like Tron and Batman. My next step actually went in 2 directions--I was laid off from Day 1 Studios, and it was here I knew COLTRAN was what I wanted to be doing, so as I started to build our (COLTRAN) team, I took the title of Lead Artist at Toy Studio, a social game company in Chicago. While there, I worked on Pet Rescue and Candy Dream for Facebook, and eventually found our way to the mobile market, with over 15 titles on the Nook Color. And, currently, I work as the Lead Artist for a new social startup in Chicago, laying the groundwork within the new studio for our first Facebook game.
Simon, our development master, is currently enrolled in a technical program with a computer engineering profile in Stockholm, Sweden. Starting at age 12, Simon began creating computer software, and particularly, games. Now, his goal is to take COLTRAN Studios far enough to work full time, and devote his hours each day to creating the highest calibre of gaming experiences. Although Simon has not tasted the blood of the AAA battlefield yet, I think we are working in a way that is teaching him valuable lessons from all of my takeaways in the industry, and he is already at a high level status that grows each day.
Dealspwn: Why the switch to Indie development?
Zielinski: There's a few reasons the indie development scene was our calling, but nothing stands above the ability to create your own experiences and share them with gamers. There is such a huge audience out there of hungry gamers, looking for original experiences, and it's a place we want to be in. Our ideas manifest alot as we create, and it's a fun part of making games--"FREEDOM" (as William Wallace would say)! Another nice thing about indie development is the community, watching an idea take hold and then explode when it's released. That has to be such a feeling, I mean, one day, you're making a game, the next day, everybody takes notice. That seems like a dream come true, and it's still our white whale, is to wake up one day, and have a full inbox with supporters and gamers telling us they can't wait to see more from us. And, let's be realistic, big games are big money. When you get business people involved in building games, things can get a bit political, and that's not why you create games. This is about creating entertainment, the less struggle you have getting there, the more valuable the idea will remain in the end.
Dealspwn: What new opportunities - and challenges - does independent development offer compared to the AAA arena?
Jason Zielinski: The opportunities and challenges are plenty, in both direction. When we do finally make that breakout game, we will get over our biggest hurdle which is funding. The ability to see profits come in and know you can continue must be a breath of fresh air, but we'll let you know how that feels when we get there! We're also our own bosses, and create the games we want to create. Anything that isn't working, there is no hierarchy to climb to get something resolved, we make the decision right then and there, and then implement it. This goes for all parts of the game designs, and creates a great agile method that suits us well.
The challenges, of course, are the double edged sword - as we have no funds, no time, barely the equipment we need to develop, and a huge time difference (Chicago is 7 hours behind Stockholm). The funding is the largest hurdle, because that adds to not having equipment and the time to continuously work. When you sign up with a AAA studio, and you need something, it's there with usually little debate. Equipment, like iphones, androids, Windows Phones, Xbox 360's, and PS3's add up very quickly, and they cost much more in Sweden. This isn't even mentioning the extra stuff like PC's or Macbooks, and if you use engine technologies and software, you must purchase that as well. The time we are able to spend is also at a premium, because I work a full time job and have a wife, 2 year old son, and dog. Simon is a full time student as well, so every second we work on a game is a battle, but we know we can make it worth it. Right now, the challenges are pretty equal to the opportunities, but we're hoping we can start to make the opportunity side weigh more;)
Dealspwn: Right, down to brass tacks. We rated the original The Hearts Of Men when it released back in March - in fact, it was our Indie game of the week. Why did you decide to go back to the drawing board and develop a definitive edition?
Zielinski: Yes, and thank you for that! We still hold our prestigious Indie Game of the Week award as a great mark of what we can do, and it's a reminder to us that hard work can pay off. When we originally released The Hearts of Men, we felt this was a great game, but, it wasn't done, and the reviews we received helped us to realize this. The game was lacking some things, and these were things we had actually intended to put into the game at the beginning of development. As time went by, we found different challenges, and had to make cuts for size restrictions and other limitations. The updated art content, music, player attributes and advanced AI were missing from (what we are calling) the alpha release of the game from March 2011. It also happened that Dream.Build.Play 2011, and the Xbox Live Summer Indie Uprising was coming along, so we decided why not give it everything and see what's returned. So, it really came down to finishing our original idea and making something we are truly proud of, we didn't want to feel like this was a lackluster attempt on our part. That's something we are very focused on at COLTRAN Studios, the quality of our products and ensuring gamers are happy with their purchase. If that's not the case, we didn't do as much as we could.
Dealspwn: What's new - and what are you most proud of in the Throne Of Deceit?
Zielinski: Ahh, so much is new! Overall, I'm most proud of the game as it is now, and how it has changed in the last few months. The new stuff is all about refinement, and most noticeable will probably be the control scheme. I was dead set on creating a very classic game style when we started, and because of that we made Throne of Deceit a button masher--I have to believe this was a critical error on my part for not listening to early testers. Well, we scrapped that and brought the game into this era of games, and now the controls are silky smooth, creating a completely different experience.
Simon went back and really tweaked a lot, if not all of the code as well. Enemies used to just see you, and then try to run straight at you, usually getting caught on walls and making easy fodder for gamers (not to mention a boring play experience). Now, enemies will hunt you down from across the map, using advanced pathfinding and intelligence, they actually make decisions, navigate walls, and create some very wicked scenarios that leave your heart racing. There's nowhere to hide anymore!
Besides giving the enemies more smarts, we implemented our upgrade and currency system into the game, which allows players to upgrade skills such as Health, Attack, and Mana. My favorite is the attack upgrades, it takes your decent projectile, and turns it into a hot knife for your buttery enemies, especially in the later upgrades. Don't be confused tho, the game is still no walk through, you need to upgrade your weapons to really work through some of the later levels. Health and Mana each increase your max attributes, as well as create faster regeneration times and upping the health supplied by pickups in the levels. And, the mana is attached to a great new game mechanic, the teleport. If you find yourself in trouble, and can spare it, you can zip out of the area and around the map (something we'll thank "The Dishwasher" for).
For the final release, we really wanted to open it up and give Xbox gamers more. We also knew we had to launch at the 240msp price point because of the content restrictions of XBLIG, so we wanted to ensure supporters had different stuff to do. We now have 3 modes for the game, the Story mode, Arcade mode, and Multiplayer with 4 different game types. The Story and Arcade mode are still 4 player local co-op, and allow you to play the full story with friends, or jump into a frenzied arcade game where players battle for the Hi-Score. Multiplayer is something we always wanted desperately, so we figured out the restrictions and worked around that, coming to a suitable conclusion of 8 players online, in game modes like Deathmatch, Onslaught, and Bomb Run (a new and unique multiplayer type).
And, last but not least, we...well I, just couldn't leave the story alone, so the comics were a must!
Dealspwn: Yeah, the comic book artwork is an impressive new addition to the package, as well as a feast for the eyes. What experience do you have in this field - and will this become a Coltran staple in future titles?
Zielinski: Thank you, we're delighted that you like the comics and can't wait for everybody to experience the story that drives our game. The title, the characters, the setting--it all relates, but it doesn't make perfect sense without the comics in there. The story was something we had always intended to add to the game, but space and time restrictions just didn't allow this for the alpha build. Luckily, we got our second shot, and I knew these had to go in. My experiences with comics are from reading Marvel as a youngster (and some Batman), and my background in storytelling and character developments. Throughout my career, I've always been interested in "Why?"--what is it that motivates this movie, or game, or scene. A good story will tell you why, and it's something I love doing is creating this character depth, and how it works in the universe of your entertainment. I have been working on my own full graphic novel over the years as well, along with some freelance for motion comics here and there. This is a constant development, so anywhere I can add comics or other story to the mix, I will gladly do.
And will this become a staple of COLTRAN? Absolutely. Of all the mediums you can work in, games can be the most enigmatic about how to tell your stories. Some people say they don't want it, and that's fine, but I believe for those that do, it makes a game into an experience, and we will continue to push our creative limits. Of what gamers will see, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Our next Xbox game is really going to redefine our storytelling capabilities, so we're looking to take this to a whole new level and keep the comics and stories coming.
Dealspwn: What were your major influences when developing THOM, both in terms of gameplay and the fantasy universe?
Zielinski: It should be no secret by now, I was quite inspired by the very classic game, Gauntlet. Simon was really quite inspired by The Dishwasher, and I think we met somewhere in the middle, creating a bridge between very different time periods. As for Gauntlet, my initial idea was "I want to play this game, with others online". That was it! I felt the formula was simple enough to approach without getting lost in new technologies, the art would be easier as it was top down, and the gameplay would be appealing to all ages. I still recall the feeling I had when in the arcade...in the 80's...standing with 3 other people playing. There was nothing like that, the social aspect of it, and I wanted to recapture that experience. The game type was the vehicle for the idea really. Where Simon really got rolling was right around the time of our alpha release. He had been working on Misery's Playhouse (the arcade game you can find in The Hearts of Men), which was a tribute to one of his favorite developers, Ska Studios. Once we started playtesting this game, we started to "feel" our way through the game a bit more, and realized how a few ideas really worked well within our game. The puzzle and maze aspect was more a Gauntlet tribute--not the same as the classic, but still had players wandering around with a goal and things to collect.
The fantasy style of the game was another tribute to Gauntlet, it just worked out really well. I didn't want to go into a sci fi or modern warfare direction. I knew the attacks would be somewhat basic, and i wanted magic, so this older setting lent itself very well to all of that. Plus, the characters stories worked well within this time period and gave them this appearance I was after--there is actually a method to my madness here, they look the way they do for an actual purpose (you'll have to finish the game to know that purpose tho;).
Dealspwn: The state of the Xbox Live Indie service is a major source of controversy and contention, with a healthy supply of new games tempered by plenty of veteran developers slamming the or even jumping ship. What's your take on XBLIG? And what could Microsoft - and us journalists - do to improve matters?
Zielinski: This is a bittersweet area for us, we've been both fortunate to even have such a service, and a bit scourned by some of the things that go on within it. Overall, the service is great for any indie developer, and with a very low cost of entry, there's no reason everybody can't make games. While you don't have the full accessibility and power of the Xbox 360, you still get some great tools to start building with, and then deploy out into the market. I do understand why people leave. When you want to make games for a living, you have to be able to monetize on your product, especially one that took you over a year. That's a lot of time to have a product that doesn't sell. So, I do understand why some developers would head for different services, with more visibility.
A few hopes I would have for XBLIG is better visibility for our games, and a much better submission process. I'll speak to the submission process first, because it is possibly my biggest issue with the service. Coming from AAA, you have a very cut and dry method; You get the game to MS, and they review it, approve it, or decline it. If declined, you take the specific issues which are provided, fix them, and resubmit. If you fail review in XBLIG, you have to wait 7 days before you can even resubmit, even if the bug takes 5 minutes to fix. As a developer, time is always against us, so to wait that long is just unsatisfactory from a production standpoint. They should change that to something like, you can submit 3 times in 7 days, I'd even take that as a medium. Another part of the submission which is completely broken (from my background perspective) is the fact that you are expected to pay for your membership, and also dedicate your time to get your game reviewed. Reviews come from community members, not a board or set of testers, and this is just backwards. Developers should be spending time working on their games, not playtesting others games to get theirs approved. I completely understand the community aspect of course, and we help out when we can, but time is practically impossible to find these days, so it's unfair to pay for a service and not have it fully provided (as it is with other services).
The visibility aspect is something that reared it's head recently with the debacle that was the ratings and ranking of games on the service. Some games slipped into obscurity, while a select few rose to the top with no particular clarity on why. MS finally had to jump in to calm things, and it was refreshing to finally see them get involved and try and fix this problem. Basically, the games that sell are visible on the Xbox Dashboard, the rest are like searching endlessly. I would love to see a true ratings system of spotlight that was moderated. MS makes money off games that sell, so it's interesting they do nothing to really push the good games on XBLIG. Anybody that makes games for a living knows how important it is to be seen, but we just don't get that chance for great exposure at this time.
As journalists, you do us a great service by providing an outlet for us to share. The majority of indie game sites I read are fair and generally unbiased, and I think this community will continue to grow. One thing I would like to see is the indie game journalism scene grow together a bit. Right now, it seems like there are Games, then there are Indie Games. I would like indie games to be mentioned in the same areas as the larger games where possible. Also, we need more events, but based on Indie Developers, with a fair price point to get involved. It would be great to have the funding to go to E3, but that's generally not realistic as the prices can quickly reach $10k for a single outing. One other thing that could be cool is your sites gaining more exposure, which would in turn create more exposure for the game devs you present.
Dealspwn: Finally, what can we expect from Coltran in the future? I hear that you've got some "amazing" new projects in the pipeline...
Zielinski: The future is bright for us. With the imminent release of The Hearts of Men: Throne of Deceit, we have our sails set straight ahead. We have a few exciting game developments in the works, which include robots, zombies, and a vacuum cleaner, all of them we expect to take us to that next step. Our first title we're working on is going to be on Xbox as well as mobile, and will be more for a broader audience and be touch based where possible. We're looking to have a working prototype for this within the next month, and the art is already getting great feedback. The other games will see our first foray into the 3d world, something I'm really pumped to get back into after spending the last 2 years working in 2d. Without giving away too much, I can say that if you like brawler and puzzler games, these will blow you away in visuals and gameplay. As we develop, we're going to drop what content we can, so keep your eyes on our Twitter and Facebook pages to get sneak peaks at what's in store... we really cannot wait to share our visions, it's getting hard to hold back on showing off what we have so far. Well, what the heck...here is one concept piece for the robot game.
And, that's where we are now, so stay tuned for much more content and game information to come.