Conducted By Adam Ames
TPG was delighted to get an interview with Hitbox Team, developers of the soon-to-be released 2D arcade platformer, Dustforce. You will learn about the development process of Dustforce, their motivation for creating the game, thoughts on the PC gaming industry, and much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Dustforce.
We are a team of four people – Woodley does the art and design, Matt does engine code, Lexie does game code, and Terence is from Ohio does audio and cooking. We all work together on making the levels and polishing the game design.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Matt: I think my first game development experience was making custom levels and texture mods in a game called Elasto Mania. I learned to program by making games in Flash with the help of friends I met on an animation forum. After that I went to a game development college, but it felt like a waste of time so I quit and eventually found myself working on Dustforce.
Lexie: I started making little games with Woodley in high school using GameMaker. Although the scripting language was simple, it taught me the basics of programing. I went on to study at the same college as Matt. A year passed of not learning anything substantial (considering the costs involved), so I dropped out, got a full time job and started paying off my student loans. A few years later, Woodley and I started making games again, from that Dustforce was born.
Woodley: I used to make stuff in Games Factory, and little projects with Lexie in Game Maker. I studied animation after high school and worked on a game project with a small team, but it didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t want to work at a big studio either, so after a year or two of not knowing what to do with myself, I contacted Lexie about trying to make a game. So we moved into the shed and started prototyping.
Terence: When I was in college, I became more interested in creating media rather than just consuming it. I started to teach myself how to make games and music instead of going to class. I’ve been doing that ever since, although I’m pretty sure I graduated. One of the games I made won an indiePub contest, which is where I met Woodley, Lexie, and Matt. Since then, I joined them to create the audio for Dustforce.
Where did the idea for Dustforce come from?
Woodley: I had always wanted to make a really acrobatic platformer with lots of walljumping and such, since playing tons of N and a little game called Nikujin. I was sweeping leaves at my uncle’s house and the idea came to me, so I went and started writing stuff down and drawing sketches.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Dustforce?
An important lesson we learned through both success and failure was the importance of prototyping. We learned through a successful experience that prototyping an entire game concept was a great benefit. Dustforce started out as a prototype: that is, it was an imperfect approximation of an idea, created in a relatively short period of time (4 months). It was very well received and gave us the confidence to begin work on a complete version of the game. Had we jumped straight into the full concept, a much bigger project than the prototype, we would be taking a big risk by not knowing if we were even creating something that anyone would like. It also allowed us to get some insight into some ideas that didn’t work so well and some that did better than expected.
On the other hand, we learned a harder lesson that prototyping is important not just for complete games, but also for features. We had planned a large campaign mode for Dustforce, where you would explore a seamlessly streamed in world through a story-driven adventure. We built special features into the engine to allow this, without first prototyping the campaign idea (we had just been working with single, small levels at the time). Once we started to implement the campaign, we realized it did not fit the style of the game: it felt very empty, lacked direction, and was ultimately less interesting to play than the smaller levels. We ended up reworking the campaign concept into a more fun mix of short levels and exploration, but we could have done this much earlier had we prototyped the campaign concept before we started building the tools for it. It would have saved us a few weeks of time and effort.
Creating a game from start to finish is an intensely long and arduous process. It’s not enough to say that it takes a long time, because it’s not just an issue of time availability. It’s a real test of your ability to learn, to look at your own work critically, to work as a team, and to learn to stay focused, motivated, and disciplined. Game development is generally very fun and rewarding, but some parts of it can be boring and draining, and often those parts are the most important things to get done. Being able to push through these difficult segments is what makes the difference between a game that gets done and a game that disappears into development hell.
In its current form, how close is Dustforce to your initial vision?
Currently, Dustforce is very different from the initial vision. It started out with the idea that the gameplay would take place in a single, tiny room, which you would have to clean by finding the optimal path, almost like a puzzle game. Then we found that it the mechanics of moving around was too fun to constrict to a small space, so it turned into a larger, more open environment that allowed for faster movement and larger leaps. Then we got a bit ambitious and tried to turn it into an unrestricted adventure campaign, but that turned out to not fit the game very well, so we scaled it back to a more balanced mix of exploration and tight action sequences.
Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Dustforce and if you are facing a similar challenge.
Dustforce has always been intended to be a challenging game, but since we’ve played our own game so many times, it’s easy for us to forget that something that is easy to us may be frustratingly hard for a beginner. We are aware that we can be somewhat blinded by experience, so it’s always been enlightening for us to watch new players play the game for the first time. To make the game more accessible, we are putting a lot of effort into making the controls intuitive, the tutorial informative, and the difficulty curve gradual. We’ve also organized the game so that hardcore players have access to some extremely difficult levels, while still letting more casual players play through the whole game on a more accessible path. This way, there are different aspects of the game that everyone can enjoy, whether it’s the aesthetics and flow of the game, or the advanced movement possibilities.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Dustforce would run on the various PC system configurations?
We built the prototype of Dustforce in Game Maker. This was sufficient for approximating the concept, but there were a lot of limitations that made performance issues a concern. Since then, we’ve built our own custom engine entirely from scratch.
Matt: My main concern when I started on the new engine was video memory. There’s now more than 7000 high resolution sprites for character animations, props, tiles, effects, etc. that might need to be drawn in any frame and this number is constantly increasing. Loading all the sprites would require unreasonable amounts of video memory, but I didn’t want to impose restrictions on the number of different sprites a level could use or the number of different animations a character could have. Since only a handful of sprites are needed at a time, I decided on a virtual texturing technique (similar, but much less complex than what RAGE uses) that packs all the sprites in to a 65k virtual texture and loads in 128×128 pages as they’re needed. Fortunately the art style has a lot of solid colours, which gives us good enough compression ratios to just keep all the compressed pages in ram so we don’t have to deal with hard drive latency.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Dustforce.
One important focus of the game was conveying a sense of elegant, fluid motion, without the player feeling like they are losing control. We designed a lot of the levels to make the optimal path and actions seem intuitive, which makes for some really fun experiences where you feel awesome as you fly off of walls, roofs, and ramps. We also designed some very challenging levels that test the players’ mastery of the controls. The movement system is very deep, and allows for a lot of advanced techniques, so we wanted to give hardcore players many opportunities to shine. Lastly, we designed a lot of levels to give a sense of precariousness, so that it’s all the more tense and rewarding when the player executes a series of difficult jumps.
Woodley: Regarding the art style – I have always liked hard-edged shadows, probably from watching a lot of animated films. I tried to stick to a style that would let me do lots of unique frames quickly. So the style is simple so that the animation can be more fluid. I actually much prefer to work in 3D, but this was an excellent project to hone my animation skills and teach me what it means to create a large volume of assets by myself.
Terence: With the music, we wanted to evoke some feelings of older games, but without going full chiptune. We have some retro sounds encased in a modern shell. For the sound effects, I bought a portable recorder and started to record everything that sounded interesting to me. I’m then able to warp and edit them into the sounds you hear in the game. It’s really important that the game is immersive, so I’ve tried extra hard to put a lot of details into the ambient noises and soundscapes.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Indie developers have three resources: time, money, and motivation. Time and money are essentially the same thing: if you have money, you can buy time. Getting more money is not the hardest part of development: the hardest part is preserving motivation, the most valuable resource. Motivation is what fuels those 20 hour work sessions and those short bursts of extreme productivity and focus that are critical to the progress of the project. As you spend time and money, you also expend motivation; once you are low on motivation, no amount of time or money will get you working at the same efficiency as when you first started.
That’s why it’s important to work together with a group of highly motivated people. For the first half of development, we made Dustforce remotely: we were spread out over Australia, New York, Cincinnati, and Japan. We were able to make progress but it was becoming increasingly difficult to be as productive as we were when we started. Finally, we all gathered together in one place, and our output has been consistently high, since we are able to motivate each other. We can bounce off ideas, inspire each other with new art, music, or game features, and generally just socialize like normal humans.
How did you create funding for the development of Dustforce and did you receive emotional support from your family and friends during this time?
Lexie: During development of the prototype, I was working at a computer repair shop during the day and working on Dustforce at night. It was fairly difficult, since our “office” was a shed, and I didn’t get much time to sleep. We couldn’t have done it if Woodley’s mum hadn’t let us stay there for free. I made just enough money to pay all my bills and fund Hitbox Team (food and business costs). After we finished the prototype, my family saw I was at the end of my limits and gave us a small loan. We submitted the prototype to a competition from indiePub, and it won the $100,000 grand prize, which is now the only source of funding. We received a lot of encouragement from friends and family, who supported us in our decisions to quit our jobs and work on what we are really passionate about. We would be in a different situation if we didn’t get the encouragement that we did.
Tell us about the process of submitting Dustforce to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
We didn’t think too much about the business aspect of the game when we started. We worked on the ideal that quality should market itself. If something is cool and deserves to be known, it will happen on its own. Whether this is a realistic approach or not, we were able to apply it successfully to Dustforce. We did not contact any distributors about the game; instead, they came to us about distributing Dustforce.
Do you have an idea of how much Dustforce will cost?
We haven’t really decided yet, but it seems like $10 to $15 would be reasonable.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Dustforce from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Feedback is always good but the medium isn’t too important. Game development is a long, iterative process, so the quantity and speed of the feedback isn’t critical, as we’re working on one thing at a time. Feedback is great for making sure the game is intuitive and that we’re adding challenge without frustration. Having said that, it’s important not to overly cater to the audience’s tastes and lose track of the original vision of the project. A creative project should deliver what the author wants to say, not what the audience wants to hear. We’re making the game that we want to make, and we love that we’re able to share it with others.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
The Humble Indie Bundle is an awesome deal for both developers and consumers. It’s always a fun event, and everyone leaves happy. It helps out the more obscure games in the bundle, and gives older games a chance to reach a new audience.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Terence: I think the problems that arise from piracy are on both ends of the spectrum. It’s totally reasonable for developers to want to protect the products they spend so much time and money on, and it’s totally reasonable for consumers to want to be able to play their games without having to worry about too much third-party software or installation restrictions. Unfortunately, parties on both sides often go to extremes and adopt unreasonable attitudes. Ultimately, the goal for developers should be to give customers the best experience they can, and the goal for customers should be to support great developers as much as they can.
Piracy’s financial impact on the game industry is a well-worn debate. What’s more interesting to me is its impact on our expectations of games. When I was a kid, I had a small handful of Super Nintendo games that I would play religiously. It didn’t matter if the game was good or bad: it was all I had, so I played it until I knew every aspect of the game, which gave me a greater appreciation of what made games interesting. Nowadays, anyone can download any game, but many people rarely finish the majority of their games. They want immediate gratification in their gameplay, and will download a game and play it for a few minutes before becoming bored and moving to the next one. This attitude makes it harder for slower, deeper designs to survive.
Bill S.978 was introduced to the United States Senate earlier this year which could make it illegal to post unauthorized copyrighted content on YouTube and other video sharing sites. How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Dustforce?
We love when people post videos of them playing Dustforce. It’s designed to be a game that’s fun to watch, and we hope that speedruns and challenge maps will generate a lot of videos. It’s a good way to get more people interested in the game, so we don’t see any harm in it.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
Paid DLC makes sense as a business model but it’s often detrimental to the overall game experience. DLC should be a significant addition that expands on the original game, like a new single player campaign. Anything else can make the player feel like they are missing out on some of the complete experience. DLC also really shouldn’t be a part of multiplayer games. Everyone should be on the same playing field, and even things like cosmetic DLC can make other players feel left out, and also erase any sense of elegance and consistency to the game world.
We’re not going do paid DLC: instead we’d love to do free updates with more levels, and possibly other game modes. We feel that it’s a good way to keep the game fresh and to thank the players for their support.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk about modding of PC games and the relationship developers have with modders. How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Dustforce?
Modding games is where a lot of people get started with game development (and can be a full-scale game project in itself), so it’s always good to encourage learning. For Dustforce, we are planning on releasing our level editor to the community, because we’re excited to see what they’ll come up with.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Work with people at least as passionate as you. Be realistic with your goals. Overestimate scope. Be critical of your own work, but don’t let that slow your productivity. Prototype. Iterate. Set deadlines. Adapt and change your design to new experiences. Finish the game. Make the game you want to make, and learn how to make it as high quality as possible. If you can do that, then you have succeeded. The business part should be secondary. If business is your primary goal (which it can be), it will show. – End
We would like to thank everyone at Hitbox Team for taking the time to offer such detailed answers. You can learn more about Dustforce by visiting the official site.
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