April 11, 2011 5:00 AM | timw
[After moving from Bungie into indie development, Moonshot Games' managing director Michel Bastien talks about the concept of Fallen Frontier, the formation of the indie studio, and the team members' new lives as indies.]
Moonshot Games' Fallen Frontier is a bit like a window to an alternate universe where the world rejected all that was 3D, and instead gave us all the gameplay innovations of the last ten years in a 2D, side scrolling perspective.
The title plays very much like a first-person shooter, while its presentation mimics titles like Metroid or Castlevania. It is a bit like Halo in 2D, which is fitting, considering a number of the team previously worked on Bungie's flagship shooter franchise.
The team behind the game includes Michel Bastien, lead producer on Halo 3 and producer on Halo 2 and Halo for PC, Damian Isla, AI and gameplay engineering lead on Halo 2 and 3, and Rob Stokes, writer and designer on Halo 2 and 3.
Their team is rounded out by artist Mike McCain, who provides the noir-like visuals for Fallen Frontier's rainy sci-fi landscape. Co-op, physics, AI, and story are the four pillars of the game, says Michel Bastien. Fallen Frontier was playable at PAX East as part of the strong showing of indies, a number of whom used to work at big-budget studios.
Here, managing director Michel Bastien talks about the concept of Fallen Frontier, the formation of Moonshot Games, and the team members' new lives as indies.
First, tell me about the grappling hook.
The grappling hook is a feature that we put in from a design standpoint to open up vertical movement. Because we're trying to create this tactical approach to combat, we realized really early on that you had to be able to move vertically as seamlessly as you can move horizontally. We then made it so you could use it on enemies and on your co-op buddy as well and people really had a good time with that.
Did you come into the game thinking about physics?
It's all about our technical director [Damian Isla]'s specialty. Right from the get-go we created our sandbox, so to speak, to be physically simulated so when you had either cover objects or enemies or objects, they would move according to a physical simulation and that really ties into the AI as well and what the AI does and the emergent behaviors of the AI.
So it's really those three things working together. For us it's what we're doing goes hand in hand with the AI and animation system.
Can you tell me how the AI feeds into the physics?
At a central level, the whole idea is to create encounters and create enemies that make the player think a little bit more before they engage them. When the player takes action, the AI reacts to that and has to adapt to however they're approaching the encounter.
One of the ways that the physics come into play here is whether it's the explosion of a grenade that pushes an enemy back but doesn't kill them right away or the soldiers at the end of the demo that could actually follow through the geometry so they can travel to the player much faster.
How did the game concept come about?
When we started Moonshot we came up with a list of around ten gameplay ideas that we were interested in prototyping and exploring. As we were going through it, Rob, Damian and myself taking the work and design principles from our work on Halo and applying that to a 2D shooter, that was really the idea that resonated the most with us.
We thought it would play to our strengths both in the tech side of things but also in terms of the design and storytelling and our passion for creating a big universe. So we basically narrowed down our list to this, started working on a prototype and even the early prototype -- which is very different from what we showed at PAX East -- it showed the promise we were looking for, we think, in terms of creating a 2D shooting experience unlike anything before.
Can you tell me a little about the setting of this game?
Rob is very passionate about telling stories and creating big universes. It's not necessarily something that we're trying to do like bigger games. I'd say it's because it's what gets us motivated and that's what we're excited to do as a team. Mike, our artist, who did all the visual development and look of the game and production design if you will, he is a huge sci-fi fan, so it was a natural fit for us to do something like that.
Tell me about the background of your team, and why you decided to go indie.
Platforms like XBLA and PSN and Steam have definitely created an opportunity that didn't exist for independent developers even a few years ago. So we're lucky, so to speak, other developers have already proven you can do that very successfully now with a small team.
That's one thing that makes it possible to start something like Moonshot, but then if you look at us, the founders, we're very good friends, we share a vision for what kind of studio we want to build and what kind of games we're excited about working on together. When you have all these elements that align well, you make the jump and you go for it.
Can you talk about why you wanted to leave AAA development? Were you looking for something that you weren't get there, creatively or otherwise?
Not really. We all left at different times for different reasons. I'd even go as far as to say that we all did something else between our previous experience and starting Moonshot. I don't think any one of us would be opposed to working on a AAA big game again. It's certainly not that we made a choice to do Moonshot and the kind of game we're making because somehow we didn't think making AAA games was fun anymore.
So it's not a disagreement with that way of doing things?
Oh no, not at all. I mean, when you look at games like Call of Duty or Halo or Starcraft, you need studios with the size and expertise and talent of hundreds of individuals to make those kinds of games. And those games are fun, and I play those games all the time, like everyone else. But I think that like Fallen Frontier, like Bastion, like Fez, like Warp, like Skulls of the Shogun, many of the games you saw at PAX, I think there's clearly a place for games smaller in scope and a little bit more focused in terms of their ambitions than if you have the manpower of 150 people.
I think there's absolutely a place for those sorts of games to thrive, and they're really fun to work on. Working on a small team poses completely different challenges than working on a big team. This is my personal opinion, but it's not any easier or necessarily any harder, it's just completely different.
Can you talk a bit more about what makes it different?
First of all, the small number of people you have has to take care of everything. Sometimes when you're on a bigger team or a bigger company, things happen and you don't necessarily quite know why they're happening, but they're happening because you're a part of this bigger thing.
On a smaller team there's none of that. For every idea you have, every thing you want to try out, one of four people has to spend time doing it. But on the other hand, the iteration, the time to go from idea to decision to try it is extremely quick. On bigger teams it's natural to build consensus along the way, and the bigger the team the longer it takes. It's a necessary step in any big team, so that is completely different.
The other thing too is that for games of the size and scope of what we're doing, you really have to pick the three or four things you're going to do and really focus on that. If you pick more than that it's unlikely that it's going to work out, just because you're not going to have the resources. Some people give themselves the time by working on it for like five years, but more likely than not you won't find the time to do more than three or four things very well.
Is there a reason you all felt that now was the time to go indie, even though you're all perfectly fine with AAA development?
We're all good friends, Rob, Damian and myself, and we all realized we shared a lot in the kind of studio we wanted to build and the kind of games we wanted to work on at this time, so we decided to form Moonshot.
Can you tell me why you wanted co-op to be a big part of this game?
We knew that we wanted to do a kick-ass co-op mode from the beginning. One thing we learned from our time at Bungie is that co-op can't be an afterthought. You have to think about it from the beginning or otherwise it's going to seem like an afterthought.
For us, it means that we want to reward players for playing with a friend, and it also means that we want to challenge players with a friend. If you will, playing Halo's co-op mode on legendary requires working with your friend to figure out your tactics and how you're going to engage the AI. These encounters get very hard, but it's a lot of fun when you're playing co-op.
The other aspect of that for is the idea of exploration. Exploration is very important for games like Metroid and Shadow Complex. We want to reward players that experiment with a friend in the name of exploration. What I mean by that is in the final game, we're going to have places where it's really hard to get there and you can only get there with a friend, but if you do manage to get there we're going to reward you for that. We never want to screw the people who are playing by themselves, so they're not going to be rewarded in a way that gives them a fuller experience.
What has your experience been like with the indie scene?
I think it's awesome. It's a very supportive community. We met a bunch of indies at PAX East that we knew existed but we never had the chance to meet in person. I think it's cool, I think you find a lot of passionate people who are really into the games that they're making, they're very excited about their product, they want to help if you need help, and if you want to share experiences, whether it's with the publisher aspect of the business or development or design or whatever, I really can't say enough good things about the community.
I have yet to be in any kind of argument about who's indie or who's not. I will never let myself get dragged into that because I just think it's a useless argument. But on the other hand, the people that I've met and the people I've had a chance to interact with, it's never even come up in any way.