Last Monday's Click To Play saw us take a look at top-down shooter Mechanical Commando 2. We caught up with the guys behind the fiercely addictive bullet fest over at Berzerk Studio and grilled them on how they got into the business of making games a little over a year ago, took a look at their gaming catalogue and quizzed them on plans for the future. We ended up talking for so long that we had to split the interview in two! Today we take a look over the past year and discuss Berzerk's successes in the field. Let the games begin!
Matt Gardner(Dealspwn): Hi guys and welcome to Dealspwn! Would you mind taking a moment to introduce yourselves, and say hi?
Marc-Antoine Jean: Hey I'm Marc-Antoine Jean and I usually take care of the artistic side of a given project, including directing, art, animations, and game design.
Simon Lachance: Hey! I'm Simon Lachance. I'm the programmer behind the Lachhh engine which is used for all our games so far. I also take care of dealing with sponsors and partners.
Etienne Jean: I'm Etienne Jean and, like Marc, I'm usually the director of the game and take care of the art, animation and game design of a project.
MG: Berzerk is a fairly new development studio is that right? What was it that made you guys realise you wanted to start an independent development company and how did it all begin?
MAJ: We're actually a little over one year old, so yeah, the studio's still pretty young! I think what made us decide to go ahead with the idea of going indie was the fact that we all wanted to create our own, personal stuff. Also, being our own boss is very rewarding and gives a sense of freedom very few employees might experience working for someone else.
SL: Yeah, we didn't decided all of a sudden "Let's go indie ! That's sound awesome !", it all started with a game we wanted to make on our own, as a hobby. A while back I showed a prototype of a Contra-like game to Marc and Etienne, with obviously poor graphics (an heroic arrow shooting circles at deadly triangles!). Marc and Etienne told me that they had made graphics on their own that would be great to use in my prototype. So we just did it, and started to work more frequently on that project together, still as a hobby.
EJ: We were all working in the video game industry when I met Simon. I guess we were tired of doing someone else’s idea and want to do our own.
MG: Now, I believe you guys started off with the frankly excellent Mechanical Commando? What was it that led you to launch your new site and introduce yourselves to the world with a top shooter? Were there any particular influences you drew on to begin with?
MAJ: The funny thing about the original Mechanical Commando is that it was supposed to be much smaller, like only one level, and we wanted to release like one two smaller games like this in a rapid succession. When we first showed the game to a sponsor, we've been told that they could offer us a much better deal if we added some more levels, and that's what we did. So no, there wasn't any particular influence or strategy in introducing the studio with a top shooter, it just happened!
EJ: My main inspiration for this game was an old NES game made by SNK called Guerrilla War. In fact at the beginning of the project, the main character wasn't supposed to be a giant robot but some kind of Rambo like commando. We changed it, though, because the robot fit better with the type of gameplay we had in mind.
MG: How did it feel the first time you crossed the 1 million hits mark for one of your games?
SL: We didn't know that it would go that far! I also remember that 5-6 hours after the release of Mechanical Commando, a fan post a video on Youtube on how to beat the last boss. For me, I think that was the moment when I realised that BerzerkStudio was officially public. It was a huge reward after all of the paperwork we’d had to wade through to create the company!
MAJ: Yeah, then we crossed 1 million hits on one site with Hero's Arms. We were very excited about it, since we had put much efforts and hopes into these games. It was a great feeling.
EJ: It was great! But I think what bring the most intense feeling is when I see people who spend time making huge review, fan video, fan arts or even fan poetry (true story).
MG: Your second game, Hero’s Arms, comes across as a little bit Zelda: Link’s Awakening meets Final Fantasy Adventure, were you specifically looking to recreate some of the retro magic of 2D action-adventuring classics? Mechanical Commando was simple blow everything up fun, what was the creative process behind this like?
MAJ: I'm an old-school fan, harks back to my childhood, so yeah, we were definitely looking to recreate the magic of the retro NES games. I wanted to make people feel a little like I felt back then, with those good old classic games mechanics, visual and sounds (I really enjoyed writing the texts and designing the interfaces with the old fashioned font which they used to use everywhere in the early NES games!). It was tough I admit, but looking back at it now, I would do some things differently if we were ever to make Hero's Arms again.
MG: In turn, I find Swordless Ninja to be highly reminiscent of classic platformers like Super Mario Land, along with some lovely background game music. Music seems to be a big feature of your games from metal riffage to epic fanfares and Eastern-themed tunes, but it’s something that is sometimes overlooked in flash gaming. Was it a conscious concern during development, or did it just arise naturally?
MAJ: I think it's always been a big concern to us. Sound FX and music are as important as visual graphics and animations, since the whole package is part of what makes a game fun. If you boil this to the core, video gaming is about visual/additive feedback someone experiences in response to his/her action, so if one of those components lacks, the whole experience is diminished.
SL: Totally agree. Music certainly makes a good game better. I know we never decreased the music's quality to reduce the size and loading time of our game. We browsed a lot of music libraries to pick our game's music, or simply hired a music composer for the game. Music is also a great tool to explain things to the players, you can create a lot of feeling simply by cutting the music before a suspense scene or change for a strong and hard music before a boss, just like in a movie.
MG: I love Trap Master, I think it’s a brilliant little game and it seems to me like a blend of tower defence, platforming and a backwards version of Lemmings where you aim to kill them all rather than save them! More than anything else I suppose, when I think Berserk Studio, this is the game I think of. Do you guys have favourites of your own, what are they and why?
MAJ: Personally speaking, I do have a preference for Trap Master. The game rocks!! It's probably the one I've put the most energy, tears and sweat (if not blood!) working on. The good thing about directing a game with a small team (just Simon and myself most of the time) is that the result is very close to what I originally had in mind. We gave it our very best according to the resources we had and I am very proud of the results and everyone who worked on it.
SL: I would say that it's hard for me to choose a favourite so far. I feel like I’m choosing between my children! I just can't. I only really play our games 1-2 months after their release, because before that I'm running around chasing bugs. I remember being sick of playing Hero's Arms, because I wasn't playing, I was just hoping that I wouldn't find another bug, haha ! But in the end, I’m proud of every game we’ve made.
EJ: I worked only a little bit on Trap Master. Marc was directing it and we usually never work on the same project. I love it, I think it's a great game and I'm proud of it but it's not one of my children like Simon says. Personally I have a soft spot for the Mechanical Commando series especially the second one.
MG: You recently released Mechanical Commando 2 (we recently featured it as part of our new Click to Play weekly post), what made you want to revisit the first game and create a sequel rather than continuing with original titles?
MAJ: We were really looking forward to make a sequel of one of our past titles! We wanted to see how people would react to it and see how far we could improve it.
SL: Thanks for the Click To Play feature! It's really appreciated. We are still looking to continue original titles among some sequels of our past games, but since Mechanical Commando was a success, we decided to take the game and add the features that most people were asking for. We’ll definitely try that with our other past titles as well.
MG: With the exception of the above, all of your games seem to have explored the best bits of various different genres. Can we expect a puzzle game next?
MAJ: At some point of course! A puzzle game would be a great addition to our existing catalogue. No doubt we'll be releasing a puzzle game in the future.
EJ: There so many genres I want to explore! One thing is certain, we don't want to just be known for one style of gameplay or artwork; we want all our games to be different!
Matt Gardner(Dealspwn): The trials and tribulations of being an indie developer are often overlooked, but how hard has it been to get up and running? Your games speak for themselves but with the indie sector arguably healthier than ever has it been difficult getting your voice heard at times?
MAJ: Not that bad, I'd say! The hardest part was the stuff that wasn’t games-related, like everything to do with business management and dealing with the paperwork! With this out of the way, it's been quite a smooth ride. The indie sector is definitely healthier than ever.
SL: I must say we were lucky to meet the guys at FGL (Flash Games License). They helped us a lot to get in touch with sponsors, and they continue to do so. Once you deal with a sponsor, you'll have a better chance to be heard because you work as a team to showcase your games around the world. It’s in both parties’ best interests to get as many people interested as possible.
EJ: It was not always easy but it's totally worth it! I couldn’t see myself doing anything else right now.
MG: How useful have hosting sites such as Kongregate and Newgrounds been with regard the above?
SL: Simply put, those sites are the windows to the public.; posting your games on those portals gives you a lot of visibility. Additionally, Newgrounds and Kongregate have a good reviews system where players can give reviews about the games. That way, you get a better idea of what your games are lacking in, and how you can improve your next games that way. So yeah, we’ve found them to be really useful!
MG: Being based in Canada, is there much support for the indie games sector out there and how much community spirit is there amongst small development teams like yourselves? Is there a sense of camaraderie, or is it pretty much everyone for themselves almost?
MAJ: Up to now, we've been in contact with two other companies pretty much like ourselves that are located around here. It’s very friendly between all of us, everyone’s in the same boat and we wish the best for them.
MG: Do you have any recommendations for budding indie game developers out there? Are there any development tools you’ve found particularly effective or user-friendly?
MAJ: Once the team is formed, I'd say one of the first things to do would be to register on flashgamelicense.com. It will help them sell their game better and benefit from the online bidding system, and they’ll be able to get in contact with some serious sponsors. After that, it's all about improving their products by following the market, perhaps researching what sells better and what to avoid doing.
SL: Something that a new developer has to keep in mind is to keep your first games short and simple. A lot of developers start with "Let's make a 3d multiplayer AI robot control RPG playable on a DDR Mat with your cellphone" type of game, and then abandon the project after the first month. You first have to learn how to make a game, how to sell it, how to release it, and how to distribute it. We made the error ourselves; the very first prototype I was talking about was put on ice since Mechanical Commando 1. Starting a new project is nice and easy, finishing it is always hard, and so you’d do better to start with small project.
On a more technical programmer side, I must say that FDT is "ze big cheese" tool for programming in AS3. It's a little bit expensive, but totally worth it.
EJ: Choose your team wisely, lots of peoples want to start a project but only a few stay through the end.
MG: Along the same lines, with Apple, Microsoft , Nintendo and Sony opening up their online marketplaces to community development and providing a competitive platform for indie organisations and individuals to showcase their talents, could we maybe see a Berzerk game come to the consoles or iPhone soon? Is it something you’ve considered? I’d love to see Mechanical Commando 2 on XBLA!
MAJ: Hell yeah we considered it! Some of us are big console gamers and really dig the idea of making console games. We'll probably see this happen once we've reached the stability required to go forward on such a new way of development.
SL: I second that! In fact, we even made a prototype on XNA a long time ago. A lot of players told us that they would buy our games if it was on a shelf or on an indie network like PSN, WiiWare or XBLA. It's totally something we would like to discuss and try, so if a sponsor or a publisher reads this, please contact us! :)
MG: What can we expect to see from Berzerk in 2010?
MAJ: Many new games, that's for sure, and hopefully a big update on our website that should help us moving "to the next step"...
SL: Yup, we want to try to release more games on a regular base, without decreasing the quality of our games, of course. Right now, our target is a game per month, which would be great for a small team!
MG: A couple of classics to round things off with: What are you playing at the moment?
MAJ: I've been beating up Borderlands since December, but I'll probably let it alone for a while now, as I've just bought Bioshock 2, so that's probably what I'll be playing for the upcoming days.
SL: As for myself, I have less time to play with video games because I'm a new dad since a year and a half. The little baby is now a little tornado that takes a lot of energies hehe !
EJ: I've been playing Borderlands in cooperation with Marc in the last month. I also play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and I also like to play some retro games. Recently, I've finished an old NES game call "Guardian Legend" which is a great game that I recommend to all retro gamers out there!
MG: And, of course no interview would be complete without....What are your favourite games of all time?
MAJ: Ahh, that's a tough one...well, I'll try to keep it short: Rock'n'Roll Racing, Metroid 3, Gears of War (both), Bioshock, Guitar Hero (the first), Warcraft 3, The Lost Vikings, Mega Man 2, Battletoads in Battlemaniacs, Zelda II... That's all I can think of right now.
SL: I've been through different phases of gaming during my life so far. I remember first loving Forbidden Forest on C64 because it was scary at that time (I was 3-4 years old hehe !). Then I discovered the Final Fantasy and Diablo series which I devoured during my geek-teenager phase. Then I remember had my 10 minutes of glory with Guitar Hero in a bar. It was my first play and I was drunk, but I managed somehow to beat the waitress on expert and won 100$. The event got me addicted to Guitar Hero series during my university year hehehe. Finally, I discovered some indie game like Castle Crashers or Braid, in which the story behind the game inspired me a lot.
So yeah, to put that on a list : The Final Fantasy & Diablo series, Guitar Hero, Zelda 3 on SNES, Contra 3, Braid and the list could go on and on and on....
EJ: I think I’m going to have to pass on this one - the list will be 10 pages long:). I really like adventure games, shooters, survival horror, and some RPGs.
MG: Haha, I know just how you feel. There are so many great games out there! Well, thanks again for taking a moment or two to chat to us guys. Are there any final words you’d like to share with our readers?
SL: Yeah I'd like to add that even if everybody say sthat you can't go indie, or that you'll have to eat peanut butter, or work 27h per day or whatever, you can go and follow your dreams. I won't say it's an easy path, you'll have to work hard, but it is feasible. Even one week ago I read an article about the Flash market saying that living from making flash games is impossible, but we are simply the living proof that you can. I have a wife and a daughter, and we all live from my Berzerk Studio's employee salary, and I work 40h a week like a normal job so I have time to spend with my family.
You can do it!
Thanks for the interview! Hope we'll meet again!
MG: Thanks guys!
You can find more out about Berzerk Studio and their games by checking out their site. Hit the logo link for more.