May 29, 2014 5:45 PM | Staff
The low-polygon count, blaring neon colors and silky Doom-like movement of Terri Vellmann's Heavy Bullets is reminiscent of an older-school of video games. But the way it's being made has the markings of the new school of indie game development.
For one, this is Vellmann's first commercial game - he taught himself how to use Unity by watching video tutorials online. The game has also adopted the mechanics of the "roguelike-like," or as some might call it, a "procedural death labyrinth," a genre gaining popularity lately with game developers, and with players. And the way the game is being sold is also notably modern - it's currently in beta, for sale under Steam Early Access.
"A couple years ago, I just decided to work on games," says Vellmann, who's based in Sao Paulo, Brazil. "I work from home, doing drawings, illustrations. I always played games, but it's weird - making games wasn't something I'd previously thought I could do on my own."
Heavy Bullets came about when Vellmann was readying for the 7 Day FPS challenge - a weeklong game jam that has small teams making games meant to reinvigorate the first-person shooter genre. But after working on the game for a few days prior to the jam, he decided to skip 7DFPS and continue work on what would become Heavy Bullets.
In Heavy Bullets, players are dropped into a procedurally-generated level, shooting enemies to get to the next stage. Players have limited health, and limited bullets - bullets that must be retrieved after they're shot. Various items and powerups help players get through the levels, but once you're dead, you're dead. The game rewards a balance of speed, accuracy and environmental awareness.
"It's something I really like," says Vellmann of Rogue-inspired game mechanics. "I've been playing these games a lot. They're appealing because instead of just sitting down and playing a linear story for 12 hours and making that commitment, you can just play for half an hour or an hour."
Vellmann says, "In the Heavy Bullets, if you have just half a heart [of health] and you made progress that you're excited about -- there's something about knowing you can die and lose everything that is kind of special. You can't have that feeling if you know you'd just lose two minutes of play."
Like so many other game developers, Derek Yu's Spelunky is a game that Vellmann has been playing on and off, and it's been influencing his own game. "I like how those mechanics work, and the randomized level generation is something I'm interested in not only in playing, but also from the development point of view," he says. "It's something I want to do."
There have still been challenges in the ongoing development of the game. Vellmann says he was expecting the big hurdle would be the enemy AI, but that turned out to be the most fun aspect of development. As someone who just launched his first commercial game, he learned quickly the difficulties of the fragmented desktop market.
"There's something about knowing you can die and lose everything that is kind of special."
"In the end, the biggest challenge was just technical issues, by far," he says. "You get this user from somewhere who has a Linux system with whatever graphics card, and it doesn't work for him, and you have no idea why. Then you have to talk to him and narrow it down to something you can fix."
Vellman says the fact that he uses the well-supported Unity engine helps with squashing technical issues across multiple platforms. "But I had to figure stuff out on my own. Everyone should have to do that for their first time, to make those mistakes [and fix them]...It was scary and complicated," he adds.
At the start of development, Vellmann decided to make Heavy Bullets for three platforms at once -- Windows, Mac and Linux, as opposed to starting with Windows then bringing to other OSes, as many developers do. Next time, he says, he'll be focusing on only one OS at a time. "Yeah, that's been really hard," he concedes.
Now, Heavy Bullets is out in the wild, published by Devolver Digital, which has a knack for working with interesting indie developers such as Dennaton, Vlambeer, Free Lives and others. Music and sound for the game comes from Oakland's doseone. Vellmann expects the game to be out of beta and Early Access in a couple months.
Heavy Bullets is Vellmann's first game, but he expects to stick with game development for the foreseeable future. "I think I'm going to be doing it for a long time," he says.
[Kris Graft wrote this article for sister site Gamasutra]