April 12, 2012 3:00 AM | John Polson
Chris Park, Jamie Cheng, Raul Rubio, Miguel Sternberg, Dean Dodrill, and Shawn McGrath: six PAX-exhibiting indie developers were asked how and what they thought their newest game imitated or innovated. Admittedly inspired by Hempuli's candidness, I wondered where other developers felt their newest games sat on the sliding scale.
The results were refreshingly varied. One was proud to share the game was a "lover letter" of sorts to older games. While a few games shared standard, AAA game sources from which they imitate or innovate, one cited other forms of media such as books and movies. Two developers even cited other indie games as sources of inspiration.
Interestingly, one developer had to overcome people's perception that its newest game is _not_ imitating its previous indie titles or other Ninja-themed games. Another developer, on the other hand, proudly admitted to somewhat imitating itself.
The inquisition begins with that proud developer, Chris Park of Arcen Games, who spoke about his team's upcoming procedurally generated 2D action/adventure: A Valley Without Wind. Arcen is very focused only on Wind and expansions to AI War right now, and these are all his team plans to work on for the next few years.
Park shares, "I think with any game, you're always standing on the shoulders of giants. With this one, we're somewhat imitating ourselves with AI War. We took a lot of the lessons we learned from the strategy genre and applied that over here. We wanted players to be making interesting choices. It's obviously got a lot of influences from the metroidvania genre. It imitates that, for sure.
"But the metroidvania game is a lock-and-key game in general. In this game, we don't have any of that. Instead, there are various obstacles, but there are four or five different ways to overcome each one. You have to wind up choosing which way you're going to overcome different obstacles, and there are pros and cons to that: how you build out your character, what choices do you make in terms of what missions you choose.
"It's a totally non-linear experience. And that's something that I think has never been seen before in this type of games. We're combining these seemingly disparate elements: the open world elements, the metroidvania elements, we've even got some kind of shmup elements. You got some bullets to dodge."
XBLA title Deadlight aims to be different than most survival horror games. Tequila Works's Raul Rubio shares that media such as books and movies can also be strong sources of influence. "For the story, the biggest influences are depressive kind of novels like I am Legend, The Road, or even Cell by Steven King or the coming book series The Walking Dead. For the visual style, the biggest influences are First Blood and The Goonies. These are examples of survival experiences in the 80s.
"Our main inspirations, talking about games, are Prince of Persia, Flashback, Out of this World, games from the 80s or early 90s." The biggest innovation in Deadlight is that us as players took so many things for granted in these zombie games and survival horror experiences. I mean, why does the player kill the zombies? Why are you alone? For some reason, all survival horror games the main characters are heroes, soldiers, scientists, whatever, or even an everyday man that becomes a hero.
"[Deadlight's] Randall Wayne is just a normal person suffering in a very stressful situation. In that sense, you are going to question yourself when you are playing as Randall (he's the one telling the story), why he does the things he does, and that you won't kill without a reason. It's not a zombie shooter. I mean if you have to survive an apocalypse, the first thing you would do is run away, not take a rocket launcher."
Former XBLIG-bound action platformer They Bleed Pixels has some exciting platform, publisher, and release date information coming soon. Spooky Squid Games's Miguel Sternberg speaks of combining mechanics from two popular indie games and a journalist-suggested innovation on saving. "Nidhogg was a big inspiration, although our combat system is different. Its control scheme is very similar. I don't think enough games use that sort of one button with a lot of variety. Kyntt Stories was a big inspirational for how the platforming works. I really like how that game handles it. There are very few platformers that are about that wide and amount of movement, being able to double jump, and jump high and fast and fall and very precisely land.
"There aren't enough games in that vein, and mixing the two together opened up a whole space of possibilities. So it's definitely an evolution game, rather than a revolution. But I think that we've brought a lot of interesting takes to some fairly tried-and-true genres." Of particular note, he discussed the save point system that can be activated anywhere, as long as the player's meter is filled from succeeding in combat. The developer says, "I don't know of any other game that's done that. That's actually thanks to journalist Matthew Kumar who suggested the idea when we were talking about a design problem."
Dean Dodrill/Humble Hearts' action-platforming RPG "love-letter" Dust: An Elysian Tail will be exclusive to XBLA for quite some time. Dodrill says a PC release most likely won't happen; it was at least "way too early to think about other platforms." On topic, Dodrill shared, "There's definitely a lot of imitation because this game is a bit like my love-letter to a lot of older games, a lot of two dimensional games and some of the combat in 3D action games. Ninja Gaiden is a big influence, the Xbox one. As for 2D ones, Castelvania is a big influence.
"And then with innovation, [I'm] making sure the combat, while it's very technical, it can be very flashy without having much skill. If you have the skill, you can do quite a bit more. But the most important thing was making sure it was empowering. Because with most games that have these crazy combo systems are a little too intimidating for the average player, and so my goal is to make sure that, you know, anyone can get into it and feel like they are empowered and having fun."
Klei Entertainment's Jamie Cheng spoke frankly about upcoming XBLA title Mark of the Ninja, which stealthily surprised me as sounding quite innovative, although dressed in what I thought were Shank-like visuals. "We had to make up a whole ton of shit for this game. There wasn't any game that we could say, 'hey, this is what it was.' Because it's 2D stealth, and there really isn't much out there.
"I'd say that from an imitation standpoint, it's like the feel, that's the kind of thing we're looking at. We took a look at the old Splinter Cells and Thief, the kinds of emotions that players have when they're playing those.
"Pretty much, all the other mechanics, though, we had to do a whole bunch of stuff and just keep trying it. We threw out so much crap; it was amazing. We tried so many different mechanics... We went through three iterations of the combat system. People would go in and play the game and try to beat everybody up, as opposed to stealth around."
"Because they were Shank-ing?" I asked. "Because they were Shank-ing. Exactly!" he confirmed. Cheng blames almost all the popular ninja games except possibly Tenchu for this almost Pavlovian behavior. He mocked playfully, "What do I do when I'm a ninja? I slash everyone, apparently. And you know, that's not the kind of game we want to make." Instead, the game is about stealing, going out and getting information for his clan. "After he's gone, no one even knows he was there."
][ Games's Shawn McGrath also represents the other end of the spectrum, speaking about how his upcoming PSN title Dyad wound up being almost exclusively a game of innovation. "It started off as imitation, for sure, because that what's I tried to do. I tried to imitate what I wanted or what I had liked: [Kenta Cho's] Torus Trooper, WipEout, Rez, and Tetris Attack.
"I started with that and I went to see where that would go. And then it became, I don't know if it's innovation; I think so. I don't think there's anything like it." McGrath reiterates, "Started off as imitation and became innovation, which I think is how everything starts."
I had to ask if he thought only the great games end up innovating and the other ones just get stuck. He replied, "Yeah, I think so. I think so."