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Interview with Mike Hanson of Psychotic Psoftware About Retro Space Side-Scroller: PowerUp
Mike Hanson is a one-man indie games developer and an ardent fan of video games who, in some downtime between jobs, decided to make a side-scrolling space shooter. Faced with the lack of commercial licenses for the software required and necessary funds, he resorted to Kickstarter. Through that magical site he managed to raise the funds needed to continue and ultimately we get this:
I reached out to Mike to find out how a humble games artist put together PowerUp, which is days away from release on Xbox Live (Friday 13th!). There’s a bio on his Kickstarter, so I tried to avoid asking questions he’d already answered there.
Your bio mentions that being given a Spectrum +2 was a defining moment in your childhood. Was there a specific game that kickstarted (sorry!) the dream of making video games?
Well I regularly sing the praises of my favourite Spectrum games, though when I was playing them at 9 years old, little was further from my mind than giving serious thought to my future career. I had it in my head that I wanted to draw, and I loved kids cartoons. So I vaguely recall having my heart set on doing something like that when I grew up, but then didn’t all kids of the 80s?
What I do remember of that time in my life was just how deeply the games of the ZX Spectrum era ingrained their ideas and mechanics on my impressionable little psyche. There was little to fear in the violence of video games back then. Don’t get me wrong, while there was no GTA, 8-bit computer games had their fair share of atrocity. It just didn’t seem to matter. The quality of the games mattered, and I loved nothing more than feeling my way around as many games of the day as I could get my little hands on.
The Spectrum also boasted loads of top non-violent games, like a great version of Chase HQ (ok, maybe with a bit of violence if you include deliberate car-to-car smashing), showing other driving game developers just how a heart-pumping race against the clock should be done. While some of the older, slightly more abstract offerings of the format were particularly innovative: the long forgotten Kings Keep kept me, my brother and our friends glued to the screen for nights on end, working together to solve the item-based puzzles and get the hapless prince out of his mad father’s castle. Sceptre of Bhagdad offered up a similar wonderful treatment in an eastern setting. While the likes of Jet-Pac, Blind Panic, and Exolon all took their own angles on the space-suited platform based adventuring shooter. Each with its own unique style, supplementary mechanics and well conceptualised feel to play.
These are just the tip of the iceberg really. There were so many more Speccy experiences bouncing around my head as a child, and when I moved onto the Amiga, what with all the talk of Deluxe Paint III, AMOS, The Shoot-Em-Up-Construction-Kit, Reality and a healthy Public Domain market doing the rounds in the playground, I was getting a definite hint that I could even think about making games myself…
How did you get your break into the video games industry?
Well there was a lot of hard work and dedication involved, but I have to own that there was also an element of luck to it. I grew up in Liverpool, a big place for games in the 80’s. My story starts when an old colleague of my mum’s left her place to start a games company in town. Cut to my final year at school, where myself and all of my peers were placed on a work experience initiative. Basically, for two weeks, the school turfed us out into the real world to do a job that they thought would suit our interests. I’d brought up my key interest in art. Comics, films, TV, games, animation, maybe something in the entertainment industries. In a nutshell, the school made a bit of a mess of my work experience time, which prompted my mum to have a great idea.
She suggested that I ask her old colleague about spending two weeks with their games company and that’s how I found myself in the middle of Liverpool town centre, a young, prospective employee of the games industry. It didn’t end there though. See, this was a good insight into the industry, but I was 15 and had never worked. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to work in games. I’d mainly been building backgrounds from other people’s tile maps, or testing other people’s code, but I wasn’t getting particularly creative, and was deriving little pleasure from it when compared to playing games for fun. It all seemed like hard work to me at the time. Besides, I hadn’t settled on what I wanted to do. I was still up for trying out comics, films, TV, animation, etc. In short, I was resistant to making a commitment based on two weeks of work experience, and so I did my A-Levels and enrolled at university to study Media Technology and Production. There were no games related courses for me to hone my skills on back in 97, but there was still the possibility that I’d pick up loads of useful knowledge and get a grip on what I wanted to do at uni, and I did. Not only did I learn how to write, storyboard, direct and edit film, but I also learned to produce sound and music, along with the very basics of 3D modelling. I even took my first steps in the black art of games programming, through the use of the wonderful Macromedia Director, and once I’d started making my own little games, I was totally addicted to it. My games grew in complexity and as a developer, I grew in confidence and independence, applying my other skills to the production of art, cinematics and music. I wasn’t making games for money though. I was making games simply because I loved it! When I left university, despite all my training, my overriding ability was still that I could draw, and that quickly got me a job, though the library of little self-coded games helped, as did my references and the skills I’d learned during my degree to some extent.
I officially arrived in the games industry back in 2002 and cut my teeth on a series of Cartoon Network games for GBA, then briefly, GameCube. For a while after, my professional career was basically a struggle to get from 2D games to 3D. As I was taught little about 3D I became mostly self taught, but a shortage in previous titles made it difficult for a prospective employer to hitch me up to more advanced games, and it’s fair to say that I fell into 2D mobile games. Over the late 00s, those games became more and more casual and puzzle based. Freemium models sprouted up and games fragmented again. Soon I was making the sort of games that I didn’t play, I needed an outlet. And that led me to start work on PowerUp for Xbox in my free time.
You’ve been a games artist for over ten years. The games industry has evolved in many ways; but are there any aspects of the industry that haven’t changed, that have remained static and unbending, and that you wish would?
To be honest, I’m always watching for the next step in the hopes that doors might open for someone with my generalised artistic skill-set. While the casual games market has been a decent source of income, I don’t have that much of an interest in playing them. I’d love to see a good strategic, non-RPG, isometric game come out. Theme Hospital, for example, was one of my all time favourites back in the day, but it seems that the freemium model has all but killed that genre, turning everything isometric into pay-to-progress boredom. But then maybe that particular genre’s gone forever and I should just look forward in that regard. As opposed to wanting to hurry things on, I sometimes find myself looking back. I get the sense that there’s a bit of a void in modern gaming: on one side you’ve got the casual markets that dominate mobile devices, and on the other there’s a more hardcore gamer, sometimes they seep into one another, but generally there seems to be something unnervingly off about the motives behind making these games, and the cost-to-value ratio just seems, well, disappointing. On top of that, I don’t see retro gaming done the justice it deserves.
I suppose I’d like to see those faux-retro pixel-popped games shake things up a bit. It seems they’re remembering the wrong aspects of the old games. Often the pixel art motif is there, but generally as a cheap façade over a weak game-mechanic. Not all the time. There’s a lot of awesome retro-styled stuff out there, but if I’m totally honest, I find I’m too regularly disappointed. I think that’s why I made PowerUp, to see if I could find an angle on retro games that I hadn’t seen done. Something to fill the void. To try to use my art and music skills in making it excite the modern player, while working hard at the code to make it feel like an old game in its UI and playability. In a few days time the game will be hitting Xbox Live and I’m going to find out if I’ve succeeded, but even if I haven’t, I’ve got plenty more ideas for playing with my skill-sets and making a few more unique retro-fueled experiences. Maybe a few more up and coming game devs will recognise a similar void and follow suite. I’d love to see what they come up with.
So let’s talk about PowerUp. Side-scrolling space shooters are popular, why did you decide to add to the pile, and what angle did you take to ensure yours stood out from the crowd?
Well, Space SHMUPs aren’t exactly my forte. In fact, of all the early Director games I made when I was learning the ropes of creating convincing game mechanics, the one I could never get along with was the SHMUP. The genre is all about weaving, dodging and making lots of close calls. If your collision detection or playability is even slightly out, the SHMUP genre shows you up as a weak coder. (Oh, and I am a weak coder… but I’m getting better). When I started exploring my XNA options back in 2011, I stumbled across a shooter tutorial. I was really hoping to make a brawler, a platformer or something with characters in it, but upon investigating the shooter tutorial, I recalled what a mess I’d made of previous attempts to create this kind of game in Director. That’s when it occurred to me that perhaps starting with a shooter wouldn’t be such a bad idea. I’d really not paid any attention whatsoever to what was popular, what was overdone, etc.
At this point I had a following of precisely zero people, and put bluntly, I wanted to learn to code an Xbox game! My logic was that if I could crack this genre, I could set a good foundation for solid controls and collision detection. The other retro genres would be easy by comparison. I always favoured the less abstract, somehow slightly more immersive side-scrolling variant of the genre, so I took it from there. Initially just hand-drawing my art in Photoshop. However, soon I realised that to create all the swivelling and barrel-rolling that I wanted the ships to do, in 2D was just going to take time and look unconvincing. I needed to make the art production process manageable. I decided to up my 3D skills and create the ships with 3DS Max, rendering them into the paralax, 2D world of the game, and I’m glad I did. Not only did this meet the practical needs of the project in terms of time and believable animations, but with the application of a little post production, I’d somehow evolved a visual style that was completely unique to the genre, causing my inherently European-styled PowerUp to stand out from the beautiful, but widely Japanese-influenced top-down shooters on the console already. The music followed suite, discarding the option of chip-style music for that of a Choral-Orchestral-Techno Hybrid score which fitted the feel of the game perfectly.
PowerUp’s final, and most striking stand-out point comes in its game mechanics, mainly those of weapon selection. I drew on a number of influences with PowerUp, and for the weapon selection system, I called greatly upon the ideas put forward by a game I loved on the Mega Drive called Hellfire. There was a sense of freedom about the selection of the player’s weapons. You were able to swap and change depending on the circumstances. Enemies coming from behind? Switch to the rear-guns. Enemies from the top? Switch to the up-guns, etc. While I loved the potential of this idea, I’d never seen it well implemented anywhere else. It was like a lost mechanic., and I wanted it!
Refusing to play Hellfire again, which would have refreshed my memories of exactly how it worked, I decided instead to utilise my garbled memory of it as a starting point. Trusting my own sensibilities in balancing the player’s weapons with the onslaught of enemies for a fun, well rounded game. Basically, I handed the player five types of gun, each with ten levels of power-up and said “off you go”. When the player picks up a power-up, it affects whatever gun the player currently has active. This way, the player can swap and change between weapons and power the arsenal up their own way. If you want a monster full frontal laser, you can have it. Just be ready to get evasive when something comes from behind!! And something WILL come from behind!
You are truly a one man band, having to tackle the art, programming, music, all of it. Do you feel like a control freak buzzing on complete power, or does the task feel overwhelming? How have you got through this project?
A little of section A, a little of section B, I think. Don’t forget, I’ve spent my professional career as an artist. That basically means I draw the pictures. Not only do I not get to come up with the concepts, but I don’t even get to do any of the code for other people’s games. I just draw! Again, this was part of what spurred me on to attempt PowerUp. I was fine with doing other people’s stuff. It paid the bills, but I on the other hand, wanted, no, needed, something that was mine. Making PowerUp was, at first at least, a hobby. Like I say, I paid no regard to the fads and fashions of the industry, and at first, nobody paid much attention to me. A little person in a back bedroom, working away on his little project. PowerUp was just a little zero-profile thing, and it was mine. Sure, twelve months down the line, when I was running the Kickstarter, entering competitions and putting my blog on Gamasutra, people were asking if I needed any help. I was honoured really. It was something of a sign that the profile of the project had been raised through my tireless efforts to get it out there, but one thing was for sure, these were my efforts, and I wanted to see where they’d lead me. Not because I’m a control freak, but because at last, here was an opportunity, not only to create something from beginning to end on my own terms, but also to find out what I was truly capable of alone, with no assistance on the production side.
With the XBLIG release on September 13th, every day is another step toward finding out. Who wouldn’t want to know how far they can go, unassisted, doing the thing they love? That said, without the help of the friends I’ve made in the press, and especially of the people who took a chance on me and backed my Kickstarter campaign, no, I wouldn’t have a chance. I’d be on the dole, scrounging desperately trying to find a way to get the £5000 together that I’d need for software licences. Not prepping for the first release of the finished product!
Xbox is not the end for PowerUp. You plan on tackling other formats such as iOS, PSN, even Ouya and merchandise. Do you expect to expand your operation in terms of manpower in the near future?
Actually, not in the immediate. Not particularly. Once the Xbox version hits this Friday, my immediate plan is to meet my Kickstarter commitments. I’ll basically spend the rest of September getting my hand drawn concept art and prints sorted for the backers who backed those tiers of my Kickstarter. Then I plan to spend most of October and November getting the PC version of PowerUp up to scratch myself. Following that, I’ll be mass producing artwork for the multi-resolution iOS and Android (including Ouya) versions, which I’ve already outsourced to a good friend, who happens to be a game developer too. This was all paid for through my Kickstarter stretch goals. Once that’s in order, I’ll be looking into the options with regards to bringing PowerUp to PlayStation, Nintendo, etc., but I’ll only be doing that if it looks to be worthwhile.
I should probably point out that at the time of writing, I’ve just spent nine months on the dole, having been made redundant on January 1st of this year, and having been unable to get another job until recently. The savings are gone and I haven’t seen my first pay-check from my new part time job. With a mortgage to pay, it’s fair to say that things are pretty nail-biting at the moment, and I’ll be payrolling myself before I payroll anybody else. That said, I’m considering a move into Unity next, which to my understanding, should really open up my deployment options when it comes to different devices, and I’ve got loads of ideas for my next batch of games. Even if my financial limitations mean I’m destined to do it by myself, my increasing experience should mean that I’m able to keep producing my games that little bit faster and at a higher threshold of quality.
What’s next after PowerUp? What other genres are you interested in contributing to?
Your first game is retro in nature, why were you drawn to that idea, rather than something more modern?
Do you think there’s something in those games that’s missing in this era, that players subconsciously yearn for?
What’s your advice to fellow video game enthusiasts who are thinking of doing the same thing as you?
Well if you want to do things the way I did, it probably goes something like this…
1. Figure out what device you want to make your game for. PC is a good place to start. Lots of people have PCs.
2. Then find a good how-to or a tutorial in a genre you like the look of and see it through. Make something happen on a screen. Don’t hold back. Don’t talk about what you’re going to do before you do it, and don’t procrastinate.
3. Make sure this first game is doable. You’re going to finish it! Set a realistic date, say, by the end of a month, and stick to it! Later, you’ll find that in order to hit that deadline you’re going to have to compromise and simplify some of those big ideas. Accept it. Meet that deadline. Deadlines are a reality of making games and this is only a first shot. If there’s the demand, you can always use those big ideas in a sequel.
4. Start a Twitter account and start looking for like-minded people. If you’re proud of what you’ve achieved, start posting about it: Thoughts, pictures, links. Stuff like that. Always be respectful. Always be polite.
5. Pick the thing you personally love about games the most. Draw on your favourite memories. Maybe Sonic’s Starlight Zone gave you a tingle. Maybe Doom’s shotgun always brought a smile to your face. Perhaps it was the way WoW’s music occasionally crescendoed at just the right moment when the trees parted and the entire world was presented to you in all it’s beauty (all right so that last one might be a bit hard to reproduce on your first game, but you get my point, right?). Use those little shards of magic to make your game better than just a spaceship shooting or a guy jumping on platforms. If you have a real passion for games, these gaming experiences will be easy to bring to the forefront of your memory. Then, when you’re getting into your first little game, maybe some gravity-tank tutorial you found, you’ll start to develop ways to use those memories to infuse your project with some honest-to-goodness charm.
6. You’ll find that other, possibly better ideas are starting to surface. Let them surface, but don’t let them get made yet! Have a notebook on hand all the time and when you can’t be developing your game, be throwing around notes and sketches, and setting up your next few games for when you’re ready to make them, but don’t let them interfere. Keep your head in the project.
7. Disregard the nay-sayers and the haters (we all have em’). Rather than getting dragged into negative or aggressive dialogue. Prove those people wrong and get that game done!
8. Keep reasonable hours. Don’t get into the habit of all nighters and don’t overwork yourself. Overwork leads to burnout. Burnout means you’ll be no use to anybody for months, including yourself! Including your game!!
At least, that’s the gist of the rules I’ve been living by, and they’ve worked for me this far. And there we have it. Hopefully there’s a bit of sense in all that.