Post Script

Harry Krueger, game di­rec­tor, House­mar­que

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Af­ter head­ing up the pro­gram­ming team on the much-loved PS4 launch ti­tle Re­so­gun, Harry Krueger moved into the di­rec­tor’s chair on Nex Machina. Two years of hard work later, he’s now tak­ing a short break. Here, he dis­cusses his chem­istry with Eu­gene Jarvis, bal­anc­ing spec­ta­cle with read­abil­ity, and the art of de­sign­ing with scis­sors.

How did Eu­gene Jarvis get in­volved in Nex Machina?

House­mar­que’s co-founders, Harri [Tikka­nen] and Ilari [Kuit­ti­nen] were at DICE, and they ba­si­cally thought, ‘Why not ap­proach Eu­gene and ask the guy to work with us?’ I mean, it’s clear we’ve been in­spired by his work, and we’re pretty like-minded when it comes to game de­sign. One thing led to an­other and Eu­gene jumped on board – es­pe­cially once he got a chance to play Re­so­gun. I couldn’t be­lieve it was hap­pen­ing. We started with some calls, and then went and met Eu­gene in Chicago. The two of us had this in­stant chem­istry – we hit it off and started talk­ing about what re­ally made those great old ar­cade games tick, and [dis­cussing] how to take that for­mula and ap­ply it to a mod­ern game.

Did you have an idea of what Nex Machina was be­fore you ap­proached him?

Ob­vi­ously we worked on Re­so­gun be­fore this, and that was in­spired by De­fender. And even though I re­ally like De­fender, I’ve al­ways thought Robotron is the gold stan­dard when it comes to ar­cade games. I’ve al­ways wanted to make a mod­ern rein­car­na­tion of that game, and this seemed like the per­fect op­por­tu­nity to do it. Get­ting Eu­gene on board was just an­other planet that hap­pened to align at that mo­ment, and so­lid­i­fied that this was ab­so­lutely what we needed to do for our next project. To be hon­est, we didn’t start out with any grand ideas: as a first step, we wanted to recre­ate the magic of the orig­i­nal, which is no sim­ple feat in it­self. We took the Re­so­gun en­gine, and started build­ing some pro­to­types. Within a few weeks we had some­thing that re­sem­bled the feel­ing of con­fine­ment and in­ten­sity that the orig­i­nal Robotron of­fered. Af­ter that, it was just a mat­ter of it­er­a­tion to get to where we are now.

The hu­man combo makes a huge dif­fer­ence to score-chas­ing. At what stage was that in­tro­duced?

Over more or less two years of de­vel­op­ment, we it­er­ated a lot. Some­times you try some ideas and you see po­ten­tial in them but you don’t take them that far, and they’re just left in the code­base wait­ing to be re­fined at some point. The hu­man combo was one of those things – I re­mem­ber hack­ing it in as a test early on, but at the time we were also try­ing out a lot of other [ideas] for the scor­ing sys­tem and we weren’t cer­tain what we wanted to go with. Some­times hav­ing a prim­i­tive ver­sion of a fea­ture isn’t enough to fully eval­u­ate it – so it didn’t feel like much, but af­ter we added the proper tim­ing, the progress bar, the par­ti­cle ef­fects, the ring clos­ing around the hu­mans, then it started feel­ing like a part of the game. And then it started af­fect­ing the way that you played the game, which com­pletely trans­formed the ex­pe­ri­ence of a high-skill run.

Even by House­mar­que stan­dards, this isn’t an easy game. Were you con­sciously try­ing to repli­cate the chal­lenge of those clas­sic ar­cade games?

I per­son­ally think you can’t re­ally have a sense of ac­com­plish­ment with­out a chal­lenge to over­come. If some­thing is just handed to you, it doesn’t have the same value as when you have to earn it. It wasn’t the driv­ing force – we didn’t have this endgame of, ‘OK, let’s make this game re­ally hard and ship it and let’s see what hap­pens’. The dif­fi­culty needed to be nu­anced and bal­anced; the pri­mary goal wasn’t to make the game hard, it was to make the game in­tense, even from the get-go. So my in­struc­tions to the level de­signer were to treat World 1 as if it’s World 2: don’t try to ease the player into any­thing, don’t have any tu­to­ri­als or long cin­e­matic se­quences, and just fo­cus 100 per cent on re­playa­bil­ity. We wanted peo­ple play­ing the game to in­stantly feel that sense of con­fine­ment; that you can run, but you can’t hide.

To us, the game feels very lean and fo­cused; others would say that it’s short. Does that con­cern you?

A com­mon trend I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced is that you al­ways have this ‘am­bi­tion’ phase of a project, when you start dream­ing big and think­ing about mas­sive worlds and RPG el­e­ments and ve­hi­cles you can drive around. You’re just brain­storm­ing, but be­fore you know it you have a pile of po­ten­tial ideas for the game. And then it’s a process of tak­ing all that and dis­till­ing it down to the things that are ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary for the game to be good. I knew from the very first week of de­vel­op­ment that we would have six worlds. But at first we tried to make the game ba­si­cally three times as big as it is now. At a cer­tain point we even had man­ual tran­si­tions, so you’d have to walk to the exit to pro­ceed to the next stage. Of course, that in­tro­duced many sec­onds of down­time, which was un­ac­cept­able (laughs). We wanted to de­liver an ex­pe­ri­ence that was in­tense and en­gag­ing from the start, and it sim­ply felt ex­haust­ing to have a game that long. More is not al­ways bet­ter, so we started cut­ting away and re­fin­ing – de­sign with scis­sors, so to speak. And that’s what we ended up with, and I’m happy with the length of the game, be­cause once again we’ve de­signed ev­ery­thing for re­playa­bil­ity.

“The pri­mary goal wasn’t to make the game hard, it was to make the game in­tense”

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