By Terry Randolph and Marshall Garvey
In our latest LTG interview, site founder Terry Randolph and lead editor Marshall Garvey got the chance to interview William Tan, whose Sacramento indie dev studio Rocktastic Games is producing a sci-fi, rogue-like game called Space Sluggers. Space Sluggers is set for early access release on Steam at the end of 2015. In our interview over Skype, we discussed the challenges of making the game, what sci-fi franchises influenced it, what unique features set Space Sluggers apart, the intricacies of programming, and more. Official links for Rocktastic Games and Space Sluggers are included after the transcript.
Terry: Real quick, thank you to everyone who is currently following us, this is Terry Randolph, with lead editor Marshall Garvey, for another interview for Last Token Gaming. We are joined by William from Rocksteady Gam–
Marshall: Rocktastic Games
Terry: Rocktastic. I am so sorry! (laughs) Too much Batman. (laughs)
William: No worries. (laughs)
Marshall: Joined by William Tan of Rocktastic Games. They’re the independent studio behind the upcoming game Space Sluggers. Once again, thank you for joining us, William!
William: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Terry: The first question we have for you is: We’d like you to tell us a little about yourself. What got you into game design, and were there any games in particular that really cemented you into wanting to be a video game developer?
William: Well, I know that, for us, I’ve been a gamer for as long as I can remember. Even in college when I would play StarCraft and few other games. I’m a fan of games and, y’know, I understood that going from playing games to making games was actually quite a big leap. There’s a lot of stuff to do, but it’s always kind of been a thing me and others on the team wanted to do. There’s another guy on our team, our art lead Trip, he loves Road Bike, and plays a lot of it.
So a couple years ago, a few of us got together and said, “If we really want to make games, we should learn the tools of trade and learn more about making games, making fun games.” So that’s how it kind of started. We were fortunate enough to be in a position where we could kind of strike up and do this full time. I know there are pros and cons between bootstrapping and doing it full time. Full time you have more time to do it, but there’s also the financial factor of having the ability to go on and pursue it. We’re doing this full time, we love it, and it’s one of the most rewarding things that we’ve been doing so far.
Terry: It’s funny, because we have a couple of game developers on our staff. One of them, Jake Rushing, works for an android app developer [Dice] and another is working on 8-bit and 16-bit sprite art work. His name is Sean Willis…actually him and Jake worked together in a Game Jam, and it was really cool to see how they were working on their game, what their process was. Even as gamers, we’ve talked about wanting to develop a game. We’re actually working on a series with those two and another staff member [Isaac Smith], who’s a composer, that’s titled Anatomy of a Game Developer. It’s kind of cool to understand the technical aspects and the detail it takes to make a game. Sometimes, I think some people may take for granted how much work goes into a game. It’s really cool to talk to developers to see how much goes into making a game.
William: Yeah! I’m very passionate not only about playing games, but making games too! What you say is correct; there’s a lot of stuff that goes into making games. It’s not only the implementation part, the, there’s a lot in terms of art…even the concept coming up with the art. What would the characters look like? What are their attitudes going to be? The game itself is going to encompass all of that. The fun thing about making a game…you can do whatever you want!
That’s the beauty of it, it’s a game, it’s interactive, and people are going to play. If you think “Hey it will be a great idea if we do this, and this, and this,” then let’s do it! I think that’s what makes making games fun. Of course there’s a lot of work behind it. I was always telling people that when I look at other games, all the way from Indies to AAA’s…I know that’s work. If I see a blade of grass moving, that’s work.
Marshall and Terry: Oh yeah.
William: If I see a brick falling from a building while you run by it, that’s work. Everything is work. I know it’s painful sometimes and you’re doing all these things. But that’s the good part about the technology we have today. You build a platform, and when you add content in…it’s work but you get to see the results. Even all those little touches that you make in the game. You get to appreciate it. Sometimes we appreciate longer than we should have. We’ll replay it over and over again and think it’s good.
Terry: Totally understand, it’s the same thing when I’m writing an article or even doing a quick let’s play to see if we can do something. It’s cool to go back and see the work that goes through it. I don’t know about you, or maybe it’s similar, but when I’m writing something and I can visualize it and reread it and see the visuals….it’s rewarding to see the work as you’re doing it, and that’s what I enjoy about writing or any creative project. Just being able to see the reward while you’re doing it. Like you said, it’s maybe tedious, but in the end it’s so cool to see that performing in front of your eyes.
William: Great to see it all coming together. It’s also great to get validation from people, even if they like it or hate parts of it. I actually like it when people play the game and say “Oh, this part is frustrating.” OK, that’s good. In some games, that’s actually a good thing (laughs). That’s part of the game, to make it “as frustrating as possible”…but yeah, you’re right in that in all creative projects it’s a lot of…sometimes it’s a lot of sitting there staring at blank and then once you know what it is, then once you know what it is it’s a lot of work to happen to make it a reality. Then there’s tweaking to make it just the way you want. Y’know, that’s probably a reason why a lot of video game development schedules are…I very rarely hear about video game schedules finishing ahead of time. They normally go beyond the allocated time but…if it’s for a good reason, then I know companies like Blizzard are known for not rushing things out and for getting things right rather than something halfway through.
Terry and Marshall: Exactly.
Terry: Jumping back into talking about finding Rocktastic Games…how did you settle on the name? How did you settle into going into full game development? Give us a background on Rocktastic Games.
William: Ok, when we started Rocktastic Games, there are a few people on our team, there’s me, Trip who is our artist, Kasey (K.C.) our programmer, David, another programmer, and Yi-Hsuan who came in later and is our game designer. Some of them have been there since the start, others we brought in after, just the whole notion of Rocktastic is…at some point in our previous careers we decided we wanted to make something of our own. For us, because we were gamers at the time, the logical thing to make on our own is a game. I totally understand that the game development industry is an extremely competitive industry.
So why games? If you wanted to do a start-up, you could do anything. Why games? A little bit of it is personal, I like games. I think that…I know that we work and we learn. We did do a lot of learning in the past couple years. For me, and others on the team, that’s where the personal satisfaction comes in. We understand that it’s a competitive industry because making games, there’s no other way to put it, making games is fun. Because of that, that’s why a lot of people make games. A lot of people want to make games and that makes the industry more competitive. That’s what makes it better to be a gamer today because there are so many companies trying their best to make games. But if we can, or if we do succeed in making games, I think it’s as close as it can be to be living the game to be making fun and exciting games and be able to support ourselves…..I think if we get there, it’s the closest it can be to living a dream.
Marshall: Well said. Next question: What’s been your approach and process for developing Space Sluggers?
William: Well, Space Sluggers was a new concept to us. We went into it with only high level concept that we had was, “Hey we’d seen all these movies like Starship Troopers, played all these games like Mass Effect:” we kind of like them and we said, “Hey what if all these movies like Aliens, or Starship Troopers, or AvP…what if we could have an action packed, arcade-y top-down, rogue-like (RPG) hack-n-slash shooter (RPG) with the heroes insinuated being in those types of sci-fi movies.” That’s all we had when we started off. The game concept changed a lot…like this is a fully game concept that is slightly less than a year in development. We’ve changed the main game concept so many times…but that’s how it started. We watched too many sci-fi movies. (laughs) One of the things is we watched too many sci-fi movies, then we looked at the roguelike/ action, RPG genre out there. It was actually a little lacking in terms of sci-fi. There’s a lot of dynasty, roguelike like Diablo in terms of hack-n-slash, or like Spelunky which is a roguelike game. Even the game Sacred that is also kind of like a hack-n-slash. There are a few out there, like Nuclear Throne, that is sci-fi, but that is kind of more like Badlands kind of sci-fi, post-nuclear sci-fi, and not space age sci-fi. When we tried to duck down and truly find a game that’s futuristic sci-fi, kind of still action packed and arcade-y and was still roguelike, there wasn’t a lot. That’s why we thought it’d be a lot of fun to make a game like that that we’d like to play.
Terry: That’s really cool, and I especially like the fact you reference Starship Troopers. I don’t know about Marshall, but Starship Troopers was one of my favorite movies as a kid that I would watch with my dad all the time. With the over the top action, ridiculous personalities, it was such a great movie and it went over a lot of peoples’ heads in terms of how fun of a movie it was. Going back to that I can see the influence from the movie because when I was watching that YouTube let’s play [of Space Sluggers], I noticed it had that brass humor to it…even in the trailer you have on the website. I even love the isometric viewpoint you put into the design of the game…and so…now that you’ve told us a little about the influence…I’m having a hard time forming a question here…what are some other 2-D games that influenced your game. I know you mentioned Diablo…but in terms of weaponry, design of the game —
Marshall: Like the cartoonish look of the game, what were some of the visual influences. — what other games provided a visual influence for Space Sluggers?
William: If you look at Space Sluggers, if you look at the graphics now…it’s pixels now. It’s kind of stylized by lighting and all that. I would say the genre that influenced the art style, the visual style the most, is the coin-op game of the late 90s. You know, the coin op games like Aliens vs. Predator or all those top-down shooters. If you look at the art, it looks pretty similar, if you look at a lot of pixel games today, they’re very retro; they’re 8-bit or 16-bit and have some blocky bits and it’s still a great style. We’re a little bit different, if you look at our style, it’s very reminiscent of coin-op games of the 90s. Visual wise, it’s those type of games like Final Fight and Raiden, those games back in 90s.
In terms of weapons, that’s a different story; for the weapons, what type of weapons we have in there, like I said we’re sci-fi fans. We play a lot of sci-fi games like Mass Effect, or StarCraft, if you look you’ll notice some influences of StarCraft in there also. More arcade games like Nuclear Throne, it’s a mix and match from all the different games and genres out there. You notice that when you have as sci-fi game, you need a gun toting-carrier, like a machine gun type. So we have that. And who does a sci-fi game without a giant, rampaging robot, so we have a Destructobot in our trailer that you see in action. Also, we have a guy that uses chainsaws to kill alien bugs, that’s also one of the sci-fi clichés. Some people have told us that we’re trying to fit as many sci-fi clichés as possible and that may be what we’re trying to do.
Thinking of those weapons was fun; we liked throwing out ideas like “Let’s give that guy a lightsaber!” for example. These things that are still going on.
Marshall: I noticed there’s experience and leveling up, how will the upgrade system in the game work?
William: How it works is, at the heart of it it’s a roguelike, and some people’s definition of roguelike is different, so it won’t be in the strictest sense of being rogue, but at least roguelike. So when you go through a run, you pick up power ups along the way and get stronger, you can buy them in the store and get stronger. Then when you die, you start from zero…well not exactly zero, but close to zero…because in-between runs you’ll be able to level up characters. Increase strength, which increases damage or increase dexterity which increase rate of fire, or hp, and so on. Those base traits are what you take into your next run.
So after each run, you get a little strong. However, the major factor deciding whether or not you survive or get to the end is, to a large extent, your twitch skills. Because most roguelikes it’s about the arcade action, [which] is the main part of the game. We’re not planning it to where if you upgrade enough you’re able to get through the level…it’s more of giving you an advantage to get through the game.
Terry: Expanding on the leveling system, another thing I noticed was that you also have other classes. How many classes are you bringing to Space Sluggers? I know I saw a ranged one, and others, but can’t think of them off the top of my head.
William: Right now, there are four character classes that we are bringing out. Our target is early access this year…so for early access release we’re planning four character classes. One of the classes is Smackdown Sam, he’s the marine gunner and he uses machine guns and shotguns and grenade launchers. There’s a sniper, she’s called Ownage Olga, (laughing) and we came up with all these funky names, she uses snipers, crossbows and lasers. She’s the more technical, surgical destroyer of the group. There’s also Rampage Rufus, he has a mustache and monocle. His starting weapon are chainsaws, but later on you can find swords (big swinging swords) and flamethrowers. He’s the melee guy, I guess the flamethrowers are the closest to range he has, but he’s the one that goes up close and personal. The fourth one is Destructobot, which is the giant robot that has mini guns and missile pods.
Every single one of these characters have 2-3 different categories that they can use and only use that are upgradeable. You’ll find blueprints as you play more and more, and those blueprints will unlock new weapons. You’ll also find upgrade kits, which will upgrade your current weapons and those are done in a persistent manner. Those will stay from run to run.
Marshall: Excellent, so dovetailing off of that, are there going to be any cool unlockables throughout the course of the game that can be used throughout the game like rare weapons, or are we just going to have to wait and see?
William: One of the fun things about roguelikes, in our opinion, are the different combinations you can get when going through your run…oh you got this, or this, we are planning a lot of those. For example, we have one of the powerups you can either get or buy from the shop or find and create, is an attack orb. It rotates around you and shoots everything nearby you. Of course, there are the upgrades like cryo bullets or cryo rounds or explosive rounds. Cryo rounds freeze your enemies when you shoot them, explosive rounds will make your bullets detonate. All of this, to the most part, can be mixed and matched with all different types of weapons and characters.
In our current, latest build, we have Rufus running around with swords and whenever his sword hits someone, if you have enough of the explosive bullet upgrade, his sword explodes (laughs) when it actually hits someone you get an explosive sword sweep. So to answer your question, we’re going to have all these wacky combinations of power ups that you can use with all the different weapons that you’ll have. Some are more powerful and rare than other power ups, some of them the shopkeeper will have to upgrade to a certain extent, sometime they only drop off certain enemies, etc. etc.
Terry: I’m getting more and more excited to it.
Marshall: I’m getting more excited bit by bit too!
Terry: So the thing I wanted to bring up is — games kind of similar to Space Sluggers – there’s not that many I can think of that ARE similar to Space Sluggers – but I know that a lot of shooters like to throw some insane challenge difficulty. For example, not to use too many AAA titles, Halo has its scaled difficulty to where it has a legendary difficulty. Will we see that happening with Space Sluggers? Will there be an easy, normal, hard and then insane difficulty? Or is it going to have one difficulty — basically, how will you be approaching the difficulty curve?
William: I think our plan is to have two difficulty modes…which are hard and insane (laughs). So you either play one of those two difficulty modes. Yes, we are planning an insane mode — so even with a fully upgraded character it’s still going to be super hard –enemies are going to be coming at you hard and fast, more enemies and a lot of bosses. To answer your questions, we are planning for two modes – one is the standard roguelike bordering on the hard/frustrating mode (laughs) and the other is the insane mode where you’ll be lucky to last 30 seconds.
Terry: I know what I’ll be playing for Rage Quit Let’s Plays that’s for sure. (laughs)
Marshall: I think it’s a rite of passage for any bullet hell or any shoot ‘em up game like Contra or Metal Slug. There has to be one point that is just pulling your hair out, anger-inducing difficult. I’m looking forward to how you do it in Space Sluggers.
William: The kind of throw your controller and smash your screen type of game.
Marshall: On the more fun side, what’s been your favorite part of developing Space Sluggers?
William: I think the most fun part of developing Space Sluggers has been tinkering with the different kind of enemies and setups that we have. The way the levels are laid out and enemies come after you are procedural, all the weapon unlockables are randomized and all that. I think that the main fun was designing the levels and having all the different kind of enemies in the levels. I’ll send you a dev build of the game next week and you’ll see that — for example we have a cave level that is an underground cave has these bug-like creatures like the ones you see in Starship Troopers. The whole level shakes and surges when these bugs come out once every 30 seconds or so and swarm you.
In this cave level, you have to use the abandoned turrets that you can fix up for resources. If you fix them up, and when the bugs come get you, you have some place for shelter. Just the fact of daydreaming about that and seeing it come to fruition is a lot of fun. We have a lot of scenes that you shoot a slug and a dozen smaller slugs come out to surprise you. Then we thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if a boss was a super huge slug, you shoot at it, and all these medium slugs come out when you shoot its belly, then when you shoot at them smaller ones come out?” So, I think the fun part in designing this game, and in my opinion my fun of game development in general, you can almost envision rubbing your hands together with the evil, evil laugh (laughs) like, “We’re really messing with the player! Ha ha!”
Terry: Dovetailing off the fact that you’ve mentioned Starship Troopers twice now, are we going to be able to look forward to any Easter eggs nodding to the influences, like in the underground cave level are we going to have someone saying, “C’mon you apes, you want to live forever?” type of thing? Just kind of cool little throwbacks to your influences?
William: Yes, little things that pay homage to the sci-fi movies we all love. For example, I’ll just reveal one, whenever you die you get a, “Game over man! Game over!”
Marshall: Yes, Hudson [from Aliens]! Oh, awesome man!
William: Totally, we are fans of the genre and we want to add a lot of this stuff in there from the sci-fi genre.
Marshall: What are the biggest challenges you’ve had to face while developing this game?
William: I’ll say going back to the one I mentioned just now, when we came up with the idea for this game, we really didn’t have a complete lockdown on what the game would be. I think that was the biggest challenge for us. Now we know – it’s going to be a roguelike, there’s going to be upgrades between runs and the difficulty is going to be so and so, and the player is going to have to dodge bullets, hack n’ slash mechanics – so today we know exactly what we want the game to be and we’re working towards completing that.
But we iterated over and over again, we made it –just the feel of the game — it was something we’d never done before. The challenge was just locking down that game design to make a game that was fun. I know this is kind of cliché of what’s fun, what’s not fun, but that to us was the main thing — how to make it fun. Now, countless iterations, now I can say it’s actually fun. What I guess is that over the first six months just iteration after iterations it was “Not fun, not fun, not fun”. That I think was the biggest challenge of the game.
Terry: In terms of figuring out your build for fun, I know the Q&A process is really extensive. I mean, quality assurance and having testers come in to play the game can be a lot of work, especially when they’re trying to write down every detail and bug they find. How is that process? Did you hire testers to come in and play your builds? Do you have a Q&A team that works on it, what was your approach to this aspect?
William: So right now, we have for this game we have 3.5 people (half because we have other people working on other projects). The way we manage with the testing and Q&A, a lot of it is managed in house so we do spend a lot of time playing and testing – we do have a test lab whenever we have a new build – we at least go through the levels to make sure we haven’t broken anything — which happens quite a bit more often than we want (laughs). We put something there and then something completely unrelated breaks. Anyway, we have this regression test plan that we go through every time and I’m involved, Trip our artist is involved, everyone’s involved. We actually get some friends to test, once we get a build that passes more of our criteria, we get a lot of people that we know who are gamers. Trip, our artist, has a bunch of friends who are really, really into games. They test it out, give us feedback with things like “Hey it would be more fun with this,” or “I couldn’t find this and it could be frustrating,” so that’s kind of our inner core.
One thing like the Sacramento IGDA, the good thing about that, every weekend — well, not every weekend – but whenever there’s a game jam, I’m there and let others play our game. I observe them while they play to see what’s working and what’s not and to expand further on this we’re working with a publisher on this. The publisher is Surprise Attack, they’re based in Australia, and they have a group of testers who’ll play it over and over again that give us feedback. They even have people who are alpha testers. As you can see, the responsibility of testing the game, and get feedback expands through a lot of groups. Which I think is important because you want to get it out to different people and listen to the different feedback. Of course they’re not going to be able implement every change that’s requested, but we do see patterns of what’s working and what’s not and that helps us change the game for the better.
I’ll give one example: the zoom camera. We clicked it one time, in single player and multiplayer how much you have to zoom out or what the camera center point when there’s two/three players on the screen. That was actually a great thing for feedback from our alpha testers.
Terry: Feeding off of the fact that you mention IGDA, you mentioned you go there any chance you get, do you know the next game jam you’ll be at?
William: I can’t say I go to every game jam, especially during the crunch of the game. I think the last meetup I went to was last Saturday. Go to Meetup.com and check out the IGDA Sacramento, they have one in a couple weeks (usually). If not, there are other regular, social meetups but there are game jams where people work on games or bring your own game to work one to get feedback from others. I think one of things that can be an issue of being an indie game dev is isolation, or just thinking “I need to get it done,” to just hunker down and finish it. I think it’s always important to validate at every step and get people that are not from the team to play it — get another set of eyes to see and another voice to get what’s wrong, what’s working and so on.
Marshall: Totally, it’s interesting you mentioned that because the last interview we did for Last Token Gaming was with another local indie dev called Arclight Worlds, and Collin Sullivan is an IGDA board member and he was saying the same thing. The indie devs here in Sacramento formed a family, everyone looks out for each other, everyone makes sure everyone is doing well and gets input. Yeah, IGDA is awesome; we went to the Indie Arcade Expo at the Colonial Cafe in April. We’ll definitely keep our eye out for the next Game Jam. Onto the last couple questions, Terry?
Terry: You mention you’re doing early access…is that going to be through Steam?
William: Yes, the early access will be on Steam later this year. Next year, we’re planning for a full launch for PC and console.
Terry: Oh nice!
William: Yeah, it’s a twin stick shooter, so it plays really well with the GamePad. We’re really looking forward to having it on console.
Terry: Referencing back to the YouTube video I’ve been constantly watching, it did look reminiscent of a twin stick shooter. Definitely will work for a console. Now when you do early access, is it going to be Mac and PC compatible or just PC?
William: Mac and PC. We’re both Mac and PC users, so we will be able to play the game no problem.
Marshall: I’m a Mac user so I’m very glad to hear it.
Terry: We have one more question for you before you go. The question is: When can we look forward to the game? Early Access? Full Access?
William: All I can say today is…early access will be this year, close to Q4 (Quarter 4) this year. As for full access next year…not sure for next year, but next year is the target we’re aiming for full launch. Full launch it impacts not only PC, but also console build, and we just want to give enough time to make sure it all works. Make sure all the console platforms work. I mean this year there isn’t that many months left, but I’ll send you a demo build before that. I could send it to you next week…the interesting thing with demo builds is that you always think “oh if I just put all these things inside it would be so much more fun” but at some point you have to say, “Ok, no, this is a demo build, no more adding, just set it up.” Looking forward to sending you the demo build next week. It’ll be a download through Steam. I’m looking forward to what you have to say about it.
Terry: Yeah, we’ll definitely have an impressions piece on it. If you send it to me, or Marshall — If you don’t mind, I’ll share it with some of our team here –
Marshall: Our colleagues from Last Token Gaming.
Terry: That way we can do multiple impressions — our staff…a lot of us prefer different genres and playstyles. It’d be cool to see – for example, we have a League of Legends heavy group of people — it’d be cool to see their perspective from playing a game out of their preference–
Marshall: We also have some people who are major indie game specialists…so yeah, if you don’t mind, we’ll circulate it among our staff. From what you’re saying, this game sounds like it’s going to kick ass.
Terry: I’ll make sure to chew bubblegum while playing.
William: Got to chew like Clint [Eastwood] while you’re playing. (laughs)
Marshall: Another great quote.
Terry: Y’know, William, I want to say I’m really glad we got to meet up at Temple Coffee, and I do appreciate you taking the time to interview with us. We love interviewing game devs – especially devs in the Sacramento scene – because our goal when we started Last Token Gaming was to approach this from a community aspect, especially the local area scene because I feel like Sacramento is really building into a prominent game dev area, especially among indie devs. It’s really cool that we’re getting this advantage because we live here to talk to game devs and get extensive details into their process and world. We’re very fortunate to have you come in and tell us about Space Sluggers and give us insight into how you guys are working on it. All I can say is thank you again.
William: Likewise, thank you for giving us the opportunity to be on Last Token Gaming, and we really appreciate this discussion we had. It’s fun to talk about making games, it’s always something fun to talk about. I appreciate you giving me the chance to talk about this.
Marshall: Appreciate all the insight and stories you’ve told, it’s been a blast. Yet again, this is another Last Token Gaming interview with William Tan from Rocktastic Games. They’re the indie dev behind the forthcoming game Space Sluggers. We’ll have pertinent links to the game below like the official Facebook and Twitter page, and as the game gets closer to release we’ll have plenty of coverage on it. We’ll have plenty of coverage again. This is lead editor Marshall.
Terry: And Terry and William Tan from Rocktastic Games. See you in the next Last Token Gaming interview!
Space Sluggers Official Announcement Trailer: