June 21, 2013 10:20 AM | James Monkman
After releasing a preview a couple of months ago as an entry in a game development competition run by GameProg.it, the much anticipated final version of Mixed Bag's Futuridium EP in now available for free download for PC with a Mac version coming after App Store approval.
Being a life-long fan of Andrew Braybrook's Commodore 64 classic Uridium and its 16-bit sequel, the promise of a remake using a fresh 3D perspective, backed up by a bassbin-rocking glitch-hop, breakbeat and drum and bass soundtrack had me hyped, to say the least. Thankfully it was a promise that Mixed Bad successfully delivered - piloting a nimble one-man fighter craft and taking on a fleet of epic armed-to-the-teeth alien dreadnoughts has never been so much fun.
Being a 3D re-imagining of a 2D game, there are so many areas in which this game could have fallen short, but Mixed Bag has expertly handled the design and execution of Futuridium. When played with an analogue joypad (keys are also supported as a secondary option), the controls are super-tight and responsive - and much like its parentage, your ship can perform 180-degree u-turns on the spot without any annoying real-life physics getting in the way of your enjoyment.
The balancing and difficulty curve are both really fair - Futuridium is undeniably a challenging game (again, much like the original Uridium) but progress is assured with a little perseverance, as additional credits are automatically unlocked by racking up the total number of cubes destroyed. Similarly, the way in which the game slowly introduces new hazards and features level by level is really well done, motivating players to continue pushing forward to see what the next battlecruiser will throw at them.
Visually the game is incredibly striking; by dropping the accepted-standard of textures in favour of flat-shaded polygons combined with nifty faux-stereoscopic visual effects, Mixed Bag have crafted a game that has a timeless appearance and maintains a solid fps count even on modest hardware. The dreadnought designs are both fearsome and inspired, with features like gun turrets, complex surface structures (with gameplay taking place above, below and within the battleships), rocket batteries, mine launchers and rotating walls being slowly introduced as you progress through the enemy fleet. Above all else though, one of my favourite features has to be the continuous vapour trail your fighter craft leaves in its wake, allowing you to follow or avoid previous attack paths.
As suggested by the 'Extended Play' suffix, Futuridium is all about the soundtrack - an epic 11-track, 45-minute journey through a soundscape of heavy breaks, beats, chopped up samples and bass by AllDegrees/Qubit and le dégout, perfectly suited to the frenetic gameplay. Interestingly, in contrast to standard game design, there are no set 'title/level one/level two/level three' tunes; instead the soundtrack begins when you load the game and continues, one track after another, during play. The addition of integrated forward and rewind buttons almost give the impression that Futuridium was designed as an interactive music disk or jukebox - and for this feature (intended or otherwise) having a proper sound system connected to your PC is essential for the full experience.
However, fancy visuals and heavy weight beats aside, at its core Futuridium is a classic arcade game all about scoring points. To survive through multiple dreadnought encounters on a single life (thus building up your multiplier) you'll need to be fast and precise, taking out chains of cubes in quick succession in order to maintain your energy bar. Dying resets the score multiplier - and using a credit resets your score altogether - but that said, practice makes perfect and even unsuccessful sorties assist the player by slowly racking up the all-important cubes counter.
In conclusion, Futuridium is an amazing debut from an exciting new indie studio, and as a free download it is completely essential. The fact that it was developed in Unity 3D is particularly interesting, as it suggests that further ports of the game may be possible (and there are rumours of forthcoming console versions following their presentation of the game at Etoo in London). Mixed Bag are a team to watch out for.
Futuridium for PC can be downloaded here (from the Futuridium website). iOS and Mac versions will be available from the App Store soon.
Whilst assisting with beta testing, I was lucky enough to catch super-busy Mixed Bag project leader Mauro Fanelli for a quick Q&A interview to discuss the studio's past and future activites.
Could you please give a brief introduction to your team members, and their background in the game industry? What brought the team members together to form Mixed Bag?
Mixed Bag is a two person team with a lot of external collaboration. I am Mauro Fanelli, an ex-videogame journalist who founded one of the first internet Italian portal about video games, Alternative-Reality.com, and then sold it in 2002 to what is now the biggest Italian video game and entertainment website, Multiplayer.it. I'm the programmer of the team. Andrea Gellato, the second half of Mixed Bag, is an experienced graphic designer with over 20 years of experience working on digital graphic content. He started working when an Amiga with Deluxe Paint was science fiction stuff!
We knew each other because we are from the same city (Turin) and we had some chat on various internet forums about video games in the past. We started working together after I (Mauro) pitched to Andrea a demo of forma.8, our other project for iOS. He liked it and we started working together in the spare time. Andrea then, at the end of 2012, decided to leave his daytime job and I quitted doing some database programming as a freelance to form Mixed Bag, a proper little indie studio, self founding the company with our own money and working full time on our games.
Working with the company as an external collaboration is also Simone "funi" Fougnier, he's working on the sound effects of Futuridium and all the sound design of forma.8, while for the soundtrack of Futuridium EP we worked with two awesome musicians, Omar Ferrero, as Qubit/AllDegrees and Luca Gasperoni, as lè degout. Since Futuridium EP relies a lot on the soundtrack, their work was extremely important to give the game the proper feeling.
What inspired you to create a 3D version of Uridium, and what were the biggest challenges in development?
We always loved Uridium on C64, we played it a lot back in the days and around October of the last year we chatted a bit about doing a 3D space shooter, with a flat shaded look reminiscent of Silpheed, Virtua Racing, the pre-rendered View Point for Neo-Geo. So we started working on the idea of mixing and mashing the two concepts together, with the core of Uridium gameplay, the fast paced action, the turn-by-180-degrees mechanic and huge capital ships as an ideal base for a Star Fox like third person shoot 'em up with a gameplay twist.
Since we were already working on forma.8 we initially planned to develop Futuridium after releasing it but then, in November, the Italian website for games developers GameProg.it came up with a contest, which theme was to make a game inspired by one or more classic games of choice in Unity. The deadline for the project was one month, and we felt our ideas about a Uridium homage with flat shaded graphics and a strong '80s aesthetics were perfect for the contest, so we decided to take a break from forma.8 and try to put the game together as fast as possible.
We had a basic prototype of the game ready in a couple of days, Unity is a great tool for quick prototyping. The game immediately clicked with us, it was basic but really fun to play, but getting the controls and the speed right was tricky, as was getting the right difficulty balance. We were not entirely satisfied with the competition build, the game was a bit too hard and the keyboard controls just suck. We tried to make them work but with an analogue stick the game is a lot more enjoyable.
The biggest challenge was to finish a full playable and fun build that was as polished as possible in time for the end of the contest: we had to cut some cool ideas, like an entire level with fast moving trains and a time based mode.
One of the core differences between Uridium and Futuridium is the lack of any enemy fighters. Is this something that will appear in a later build, or a design decision?
A bit of both. We planned to have some enemy ships initially, and we prototyped them in game, but then we focused a lot more on a score based approach, trying to make the core of the game as strong as possible: fly low, take higher and higher risks to blow out the cubes in long sequences, try out different approaches to the levels. There are some static enemies in the game, like the laser turrets, the force fields, the missile launchers (with the annoying homing missiles), but they are part of the various levels and you can blow them up during a cube chain to have a nice score boost.
In the end for this version it's more about the player versus himself: the game becomes faster and faster, and the stakes rise with your score multiplier. You can play safe, and make a lot less points, or try to play hard to get one more cube down and make a longer chain. In theory it's possible to finish all the levels chaining all the cube sequences but good luck with that!
With Kickstarter and crowd funded projects now being considered 'the norm', was it the IP issues that have prevented you from selling the game? Or was Futuridium always indended to be free (perhaps as an example of your work for Mixed Bag's portfolio)?
There are no IP issues that we are aware of, but since we've made the game mainly for the GameProg.it contest we always planned this version to be free. We have a lot of ideas on how to expand the gameplay, as I said lots of stuff we already prototyped and then left out since we didn't have the time to give everything the right amount of polish, but if the free Futuridium EP gains traction we plan to work on a more complex sequel, with more levels, different visual styles, enhanced graphics and new gameplay mechanics.
A couple of weeks ago we decided to do a paid version for iOS: it was not planned, but the game runs extremely well and it plays fine with touch control too. Futuridium EP in your pocket!
What development tools and hardware set-up were used to create the game and could you briefly describe the development process?
We are using Unity 4 as a game engine and all modelling is done in Modo. We use Mac as our developer platform, and we are currently using an iMac 27" and a Mac mini in our studio. For testing the game we used DualShock 3s and Xbox 360 controllers, on PC and Mac.
We usually start prototyping the game as soon as possible after a bit of brainstorming, and with Futuridium we started with a simple cube flying back and forward on a plane with a camera attached, shooting at other cubes and avoiding obstacles. Then our roles are pretty different: Mauro worked on the code while Andrea came up with the visual style and the 3D models, working together on the game design and the various levels. Then we iterate like crazy.
Unity is an amazing tool for that: you can have something on screen really fast and try out what works and what not. Playing the game is essential to understand what is fun, and then you need to focus on it: if you don't play your own game there's something wrong, and we played and are playing Futuridium a lot and having tons of fun.
We changed a lot of things from the first prototype to the final version of Futuridium EP, for example we swapped the classic lives system for an energy/time based approach, but the core mechanics about flying and shooting cubes is just the same one of the very first version.
Also, we don't use a design document, just some rough draft but nothing too detailed. Sounds crazy, but it works for us, also on our other project forma.8, but that's a lot more complex than Futuridium.
Do you follow the indie gaming scene, and are there any recent releases that have piqued your interest? What would be your current top five?
Yes, we follow it, there's really a lot of vitality and freshness in the scene that is somehow lacking in the "big" market. We think that indie games are going to be more and more relevant in the next few years (and the news coming from the major console producers and publishers seem to prove this).
It's quite evident that a lot of players are now following the indie scene with more interest than before, but it's difficult to understand the motivations behind that, surely the great success of games like Minecraft and business models like Steam and the App Store helped the scene to gain more attention, maybe people are just tired of playing annual reiterations of the same success story.
It's hard to choose only five interesting titles, there is so much richness of ideas and games (and a lot less time to play them!)
Actually we are really enjoying Monaco, it's this century's pacman, and could become the base for all the maze games for the next years. We also liked Fez a lot, despite all the controversy it's a great game. Don't Starve is a really good twist to the survival (again a genre that is gaining new lifeblood after Minecraft release). We are enjoying Year Walk on the iPad, it's a strange but really interesting game.
We are following the development and Greenlighting of some other games, like Hammerwatch (we always loved Gauntlet, and we are thinking to try something similar someday), Project Rain World is really cool and original and the author is putting a lot of effort in it. Also, Environmental Station Alpha, because metroidvanias are always great (and this particular one seems to be one of the greatest). Papers, Please is another great game that we are playing in the spare time - the concept makes you think "how did these guys manage to make a bureaucrat life fun to play?".
Also, we really love Velocity Ultra from FuturLab, it's an awesome shoot 'em up with very fresh ideas and great level design and, we don't know if we can consider them indie, but all the stuff by Q-Games is simply amazing.
Thank you for participating in this interview. Is there anything else you'd like to add before signing off?
Just a couple of things. Unity3D is an awesome tool to work with, without Unity there'll be no Mixed Bag. It's that important for us. And music is an integral part of the Futuridium EP experience, the soundtrack is amazing, and the two guys that worked on it are awesome.