After riffing on Defender, the Resogun team joins forces with Eugene Jarvis to take on Robotron
The team behind the Resogun joins forces with Eugene Jarvis to take on Robotron in Nex Machina
Resogun’s popularity caught Housemarque on the hop. The team had run a brief press tour in the US, but the game – a side-scrolling shooter in which you must juggle hundreds of enemies with the need to rescue humans from their alien oppressors – had received little publicity prior to its release alongside the PlayStation 4 launch. “We came downstairs the first morning the Metacritic scores were out, and realised
Resogun was on top of that list,” head of publishing Mikael Haveri tells us. “That’s when it hit us that, OK, a Defender clone can still be a relevant game.”
The game’s success led to a nomination for the 2014 DICE awards, which, fortuitously, happened to be the same year Defender creator Eugene Jarvis was in attendance to receive his Academy Of Interactive Arts & Sciences Pioneer Award. In the celebrations that followed, the Housemarque developers found themselves in the Hard Rock Cafe with Jarvis in the early hours of the morning. “We started chatting, and said, ‘What if we did something together?’” Haveri recalls. “He was sort of aware of us, but wasn’t really a hardcore fan or anything. Anyway, he [went home], got Resogun, and called us the same week to say, ‘I’ve never really followed up on anybody’s enquiries about making a game together before, but I want to do something with you guys.’ So that was how it started.”
“The team was just so passionate,” Jarvis tells us. “A lot of games are more about execution than the actual idea: you can have the greatest idea in the world, but if it’s executed poorly, it’s horrendous. So if you have a passionate team that can execute at a really high level, then the odds are much higher that something really fun can happen.”
Given that the
Resogun team was now in cahoots with Jarvis, and had already tackled Defender, the coalition’s thoughts naturally
turned to another of Jarvis’s classics: Robotron:
2084. In fact, that game had played an important role in Resogun’s development, too. “I’ve always been a fan of Robotron,” says game director Harry Krueger. “It’s the epitome of pure arcade action and gameplay. When when we were making Resogun, I remember we used to go back to Robotron every now and then, just to get in touch with the basics. Because it’s easy to lose perspective during development sometimes, so it was really refreshing to go back to this distilled arcade experience and see what kind of intensity it brought to the table, and how we could replicate that.” With Nex
Machina, Krueger and his team are aiming to recreate the claustrophobic, twin-stick intensity of Robotron. But, like Resogun, it’s far from a simple homage. The controls are beautifully simple, however: left stick to move, right stick to fire, L1 to dash and R1 to fire your secondary weapon. That’s it. Levels take place on giant floating platforms, and you move between each tightly enclosed arena when you clear the space of enemies (if you can rescue some or all of the humans in the process, all the better). Sometimes that transition sees you topple over onto a different side of the cuboid structure you’re standing on, gravity be damned. Enemies are relentless, running with alarming speed straight towards you from the off; laser beams must be dashed through; and boxes containing temporary powerups – a shotgun with finite ammo, for example, or a rocket launcher – are squirrelled away in strategically foolhardy corners.
Housemarque has experimented
with a number of setups, but in the current version your main gun can be upgraded from single shot to double, triple and so on, while secondary weapons provide greater firing power and wider areas of effect. “Nothing is final,” Haveri stresses. “The launch version might be very different. I think right now we have a fairly good core formula, because it means the player has choice in terms of strategy throughout the levels, while there’s still some kind of a stacking element in play. We wanted to go minimalistic – pretty much the opposite of Alienation. We didn’t want to have character development or levels or so on – we needed to have something that’s much more pick-up-and-play. What’s a key differentiating factor here is that we wanted to have two active buttons, because in our minds we’re making an arcade-cabinet game.”
That sentiment isn’t simply an analogy: there’s a very real prospect that the game will also exist as a coin-op via Jarvis’s company Raw Thrills. At this stage, the viability of that plan isn’t fully worked out, but the foundations for it are already being laid. New joysticks will have to be developed (or, at least, adapted), and funding will have to be found. Housemarque is considering crowdfunding
“IT’S EASY TO LOSE PERSPECTIVE, SO IT WAS REALLY REFRESHING TO GO BACK TO THIS DISTILLED ARCADE EXPERIENCE”
“ALL YEARS OF OF THOSE ITERATING OVER ARCADE GAMES HAVE CULMINATED IN THIS ONE MOMENT”
the project to get it off the ground, but manufacturing to scale would require the production of at least 100 units, which is a tall order in such a volatile market.
“I just really feel that there’s an opportunity there for us to make a bit of a statement,” Krueger muses. “It’s the physical manifestation of all our cumulative design philosophy, in a way – all of those years of iterating over arcade games, both for Eugene and us, have culminated in this one moment, and a Nex
Machina arcade cabinet would be the ultimate result of that, somehow. And, of course, I’m looking forward to having one in my living room. I don’t know where I’m going to put it – we might need to get rid of a couch or something – but who cares!”
Irrespective of whether the cabinet eventually emerges, Nex
Machina’s arcade spirit isn’t in question. “The cool thing about Nex
Machina is that we’ve really got the dynamic down with the confinement, but you still have this greater world that you can explore,” Jarvis says. “I think that’s a really important thing in design sometimes – to try the minimal thing and then stop once the game is cool and fun. Nex Machina is a bottom-up design – it’s about getting something playable, seeing how it feels, and then moving forward from there. As opposed to some incredible 400-page script that completely defines a game before anyone plays anything, [where] you work for four years before the thing is playable, and then you finally power it up and it’s like, ‘OK, is it fun?’
“To make a great game, you have to keep playing it. It’s all about tweaking it, the speed of everything, and getting it to a human scale that just feels right to the player. There has to be some sweaty palms, y’know? ‘Oh my god, look at what’s going on! I should have been dead five minutes ago!’ You get that overload and just can’t believe what’s happening.”
Although Nex Machina still has a good stretch of development and iteration ahead of it, it already feels confidently polished, and exudes Resogun’s heady cocktail of ostensibly insurmountable odds, simple controls that are responsive enough to let you glaze over slightly and get into the zone, and a bombardment of colours, particles and visual effects that seem to spill from the screen. “You could say that Nex Machina shares the same design philosophy as Resogun,” Krueger explains. “You’ll see a lot of the same strands of DNA in the two games. The over-the-top audio visual feedback, lots of explosions per second, bright colours, clear, vivid feedback, and overall a really satisfying, quite simple and immediate experience for the player.”
Nex Machina is
powered by a significantly reworked version of the engine behind Resogun, however, and while the game also places cascading voxels front and centre, the development team now has far greater flexibility in terms of how those objects appear onscreen thanks to a volumetric rendering technique known as Signed Distance Fields (SDF). Whereas Resogun’s levels and ships were built from thousands of cubes, SDF allows Housemarque to smoothly transition between complex 3D meshes and voxel particles – which can, in turn, be distorted into new shapes.
“It’s basically raytracing the scene, and it allows you to transform the scene in realtime,” producer Jari Kantomaa explains. “We can add holes or new geometry, or new elements into the scene. Imagine a mole tunnelling
underground: it will distort the ground. We can just explode parts of the level and create holes wherever we want. And we can morph a lot of things. You see these cubes that become a little more rounded, and when explosions happen there are ripple effects, which come from the morphing tech.”
“When you’re watching those explosions it’s almost like watching waves crashing onto rocks, or a turbulent waterfall,” Jarvis notes. “These wave effects within all these particles – it’s really quite soothing! If you can stay alive long enough…”
Like Nex Machina’s
players, Housemarque is also hurling itself into a vulnerable position. For the past nine years the majority of the studio’s projects have been published and funded by Sony Interactive Entertainment, and those that weren’t were supported by other major publishers. Nex Machina will be the studio’s first self-published game.
“That actually stems from the fact that we had an opportunity to work with Eugene and weren’t willing to go through the process of making that OK with any of our current partners,” Haveri explains. “So we felt it might be easier just to take the risk on our own. We do now have support from large partners, and Sony’s very integrated into it, but not in the same way that they have been with other projects. So we’re travelling down a bit of a different path because there’s more of our personal money at stake, and we’re hedging our bets to make this happen.”
Given the hype currently surrounding the project, and the enduring appetite for Housemarque’s high-calibre twin-stick shooters, it’s difficult to imagine Nex Machina being anything other than a success. Indeed, the team feels like it couldn’t be in a better position than it is right now.
“This is the first project on which I’ve been assigned the role of game director, so no pressure,” Krueger laughs. “I have been given this key role in the project, so it does feel like, you know, my baby in many ways. We have a fantastic team working on it, we have the creator of the original Robotron on our side, it’s self-published – it just feels like we have everything aligned in the best possible way to make this another great addition to the Housemarque portfolio.”
The game went down well at December’s PSX, with long queues snaking out of the game’s booth on both days of the event. There’s still some distance left to go, but Nex Machina is now on track to become a vivid successor to the astonishing, enduring Resogun.
“After a couple of years of struggling, we really had a breakthrough at PSX,” Jarvis says. “You can have 900 good ideas and the result is still bad. But you have 903 good ideas and all of sudden it’s a game. So I really feel like we’re at a good point now. We need to [work on] multiplayer as it’s a more social world today – we’re less isolated than 40 years ago with our pixels. As developers we can get all excited, but after a while we can get so convinced that we’re so brilliant that we might get excited about almost anything. So you have to get a game out there with the players and then see their reactions as they play. And that’s just magic.”
Game NexMachina Developer/publisher Housemarque Format PS4 Release 2017
Housemarque’s head of publishing, Mikael Haveri NexMachina game director Harry Krueger Co-creator of Defender and
Robotron – and Raw Thrills co-founder – Eugene Jarvis NexMachina producer Jari Kantomaa
NexMachina’s arenas quickly become crowded as wave after wave of enemies teleport in and immediately give chase
Giant bosses feature, of course, including Beamtron, an imposing sphere that spits out laser beams and bullets
The arcade cabinet only exists as a mockup right now, but the team hopes to make it a reality