Harry Krueger, game director, Housemarque
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”