The Mak­ing Of…

AX­IOM VERGE

EDGE - - SECTIONS -

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

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