The Making Of…
How Thomas Happ’s Axiom
Verge went from hobbyist project to critical and commercial darling
A five-year journey from leisure-time hobby to big-time success
Thomas Happ had been busy making Axiom Verge for the best part of three years when he noticed something had changed. As a coder at RTS developer Petroglyph Games, Happ found his workday more frequently interrupted by his colleagues, who would enthusiastically express their desire to assist him with the project he’d been developing in his spare time. He was pleasantly baffled by the influx of offers. “I just thought, ‘Why would I want to have someone else do my hobby for me? That makes no sense’,” Happ tells us. “Like, some people collect stamps. It doesn’t just suddenly occur to them that they should get a team of stamp collectors to help them with it.” It would, he adds, “be like paying somebody to eat my dessert”.
Happ certainly hadn’t expected such attention when he first decided to spend his evenings and weekends working on a game; it was just supposed to be something fun to do with his leisure time. He was making this for himself, assuming “that no one would play it, and it would never be heard of”, since that’s typically what happens to hobbyist game developers. “I figured I’d just put it on [my] website and nobody would ever see it, so I was shocked when the first time I put up a video it was being reported on major websites. My past experience suggested I’d put up a game and no one would care, and that was the end of it.”
Axiom Verge’s unlikely rise to prominence was, Happ modestly suggests, a confluence of good fortune and good timing. When he posted the first YouTube video of his work-in-progress, his Twitter account had just three followers – one of whom was fellow indie developer Ben McGraw, who had 1,000. “He was following me because we went to college together,” Happ recalls. “People knew who he was, and [wondered] about this YouTube link he was tweeting out. And it started to spread from there.”
Released in April 2012, that expertly cut teaser showcased highlights of the game’s first area, up to and including the first boss fight, with a closing caption revealing it would be coming to Xbox 360 and PC in 2013. While it gave away very little, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, though Happ was amused to note a few misunderstandings among the comments that followed. “I guess people filled in the blanks with their imaginations, and they thought it was a whole game where you run around a red-coloured planet, [just] because this first area was red,” he laughs. “They were like, ‘Everything is red in this game, like the Virtual Boy! And you use a drill – it’s a Drillervania!’”
He had, however, kept one key element hidden from view. Happ had been working on the game for a year before he decided that the ability to glitch through walls and floors would be a major mechanic. He didn’t want the ability to be the first players would discover – and since he was developing the game sequentially, it was in the design document but not in that early footage. Ironically, it was inspired by an instance of sequence breaking: Happ’s all-time favourite glitch, Metroid’s secret world, which can be accessed by a technique that allows Samus Aran to jump inside doors and walls. “You enter this part of the game that’s basically an area of memory you’re not supposed to be in,” Happ explains. “It gets interpreted by the game as an unintentional jumble of rooms that you can walk around in. As a kid, that seemed very special to me, and so I researched ways of how I could build that into a mechanic.”
The Metroid influence can be seen in the game’s aesthetic, too, though Happ was aware that precisely recreating an 8bit look might not be well received; players, he says, want games to look how they remember them, not how they actually were. ”The background [in Metroid] was always pure black and the world is just four colours for the backgrounds and four colours for the sprites,” he explains. “Whereas this has more colours for different objects in the environments, it has backgrounds, parallax scrolling layers, and other effects on top of that that are actually polygonal. So it couldn’t be done [with 8bit tech].” Still, many responses delightedly focused on its apparently authentic vintage look. “The thing is, they don’t remember [games] in such great detail, so you definitely want to have some degree of enhancement,” Happ says. “Even Shovel Knight added extra colours and parallax-scrolling backgrounds.”
For the soundtrack, Happ cooked up a similar combination of old and new, borrowing again from Metroid, while combining chiptune sounds with sampling of square and triangle waves. Yuzo Koshiro’s work on Streets Of Rage and The Revenge Of Shinobi were key influences, but Happ’s fondness for modern electronica means you may also detect hints of Goldfrapp and Ladytron. “Mass Effect left a big impression on me, so there’s a certain amount of that classic ’80s synth in there, too,” he says.
Meanwhile, ideas for boss encounters began to take shape during Happ’s working hours. As a programmer, he’d often face a long wait for a new build to compile, and in that spare 15 minutes he’d grab a notepad and sketch out rough concepts. “Most of it was just free-flowing, whatever was in my head at the time,” he says. ”Though I was trying to create a general biomechanical aesthetic to fit with the plot, which is a kind of discussion of the interface between living beings and machines.”
All the individual elements were coming into place, then, but Happ’s determination to not only go it alone, but to do justice to his vision – in part, no doubt, to the raised expectations from that debut trailer – meant that development extended well beyond its planned release date. The Xbox 360 version was canned, and Axiom
Verge was set to come to PC alone. Happ soon realised that while he could handle the entire development on his own, ensuring that the game got its time in the spotlight was something he didn’t have enough experience in.
Enter Dan Adelman. As Nintendo Of America’s former head of digital content and
PLAYERS, HAPP SAYS, WANT GAMES TO LOOK HOW THEY REMEMBER THEM, NOT HOW THEY ACTUALLY WERE
development, he’d accrued a reputation as a friendly, approachable figure, fostering strong relationships with small studios during a nine-year tenure that saw him oversee work on four digital distribution platforms. Naturally, he was made redundant, an announcement that was widely reported, and led to him striking out alone (his self-effacing job description on LinkedIn simply says ‘helping indies with the business stuff’). As an indie needing help with the business stuff, Happ was quick to get in touch. “It was maybe a month or two after I left Nintendo,” Adelman says. “He said he was six months to a year away from launching this game, and while he was confident in every other aspect of game development, the business side was another matter.” Over lunch with Happ and his wife Chloe, the two men realised this was a good fit for both of them: Happ had never previously had to deal with marketing, or dealing with press, while Adelman had a game he could easily get behind. “He sent me a build and I absolutely loved it,” Adelman says. “It was the kind of thing I really hoped might come across my desk someday – a game I could feel really passionate about.”
News that Adelman was working with Happ spread quickly, with Nintendo fans in particular jumping to the obvious conclusion that it was headed to Wii U. So the announcement that it would be a timed exclusive on PlayStation 4 was interpreted by some as a deliberate snub on Adelman’s part towards his former employer. The initial reason was much simpler: the MonoGame engine Happ was using to develop the game was only supported on PlayStation 4 at the time. Still, Adelman could easily understand the confusion. “On the one hand it looked like a Nintendo game, but [on the other] it was coming to PS4, so that was a little bit surprising.”
Adelman had already forged a strong relationship with Sony during his time with Nintendo. “We would see each other at the same trade shows,” he says. “In the very beginning there was a bit of cautiousness and territoriality, but that broke down pretty quickly when we found that we all had the same interests at heart. We wanted to see this segment of the industry grow and develop, and so we recognised that all of our different platforms had different strengths, and we were all trying to do right by the developers.” He contacted Sony’s team to discuss how the game might benefit from some investment via the company’s Pub Fund program, and before long Happ found himself enthusiastically signing a contract to bring the game to PlayStation 4.
Now he had official confirmation of a guaranteed return, by April 2014 Happ’s hobby had finally become his job. Nonetheless, while he knew he could afford to live, a guarantee wasn’t the same as an advance. Soon, Happ had maxed out his credit cards and was relying on his mother-in-law to pay for groceries. “I was working on the game full-time and started
working [at Petroglyph Games] part-time, which I did for about six months. Then Dan was eventually able to secure me an actual advance, and once that happened, I was able to work on the game full-time for the final six months of development.”
After five years, Axiom Verge was finally finished, and launched worldwide on PS4 in March 2015, arriving on Steam two months later. Yet such is the developer’s curse that, even having spent half a decade of his life on the game, and garnered widespread praise, Happ has been unable to stop himself from continuing to scrutinise the game for weaknesses. Despite a keenness to reward players with more meaningful upgrades than a simple capacity increase for ammo clips or a few bombs, he now says he’s concerned that he may have added just a few too many bonuses. “I wanted the things you find to change how you decide to play the game, but not in ways that break it,” he says. “The challenge was to make every weapon be different from another, but in a way it ended up kind of backfiring, because even though my goal was to provide more variety than, say, Super Metroid, what people picked up on was not that this [gave them] more variety, but that they kept on finding weapons, therefore weapons must be less valuable.”
For the time being, Happ has had to put any future plans on hold. After all, there’s the small matter of other console owners clamouring to play his game. Which isn’t to say he’s handling the ports without help; after careful consideration, he’s chosen to hand his baby over to BlitWorks, a studio that has worked to bring the likes of Fez,
Spelunky, Bastion and OlliOlli to various formats. The demand, Happ says, has been there from the start. “I made it for PC and with the knowledge that it wasn’t going to be the final platform, and it was just a case of which of the different fish will bite, and Sony by far showed the most interest. I said, ‘OK, PS4 and Vita it is’, and once the word got out, other people started asking why it wasn’t on other formats.” Though Vita players were the most vocal, one Wii U owner took to YouTube to voice his complaints. “This one guy said he no longer believed in God because it wasn’t coming out on a Nintendo console,” Happ grins.
The fans’ faith – and patience – is slowly being repaid. By the time you read this, Axiom
Verge will be in the hands of Vita owners, while Wii U and Xbox One players won’t have much longer to wait. Six years on, this long chapter in Thomas Happ’s life will finally have come to an end. Time, then, to consider a sequel? “I’m going to have to inject some variety into whatever’s next,” he says. “Just because doing the same thing over and over would be monotonous.”
Indeed, if there is a follow-up in the offing, it may draw closer inspiration from another NES favourite. “It seems like every Metroid game is basically the same game,” Happ says. “There’s only so many times you can have the same [structure] and arrange levels differently. What I’d rather do is make games that have different mechanics but fit into similar themes. When you look at the Castlevania games, they go more in that direction: in some games there are whips, in others you use a sword; in some games you absorb souls, and in others you collect them. I like that approach a little better.” Whether or not Happ ends up paying someone to eat his dessert for him next time, the undeniable success of Axiom Verge should at least mean he has enough spare for his own groceries.
The bosses are imposing and distinctive in their design. Most foes are a hybrid of cybernetic and organic parts