Voxel Per­fect

Af­ter riff­ing on De­fender, the Re­so­gun team joins forces with Eu­gene Jarvis to take on Robotron

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY BEN MAXWELL

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

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