Nex Machina Interview - Housemarque on Finding What Lies at the Heart of Old-School Arcade Shooters
We recently sat down and talked to one of the developers at Housemarque about what it's like to create a game that is so suited in the stylings of the past.
Finland-based developer Housemarque is leading the charge in 2017 to create games that are focused on simple but skill-based gameplay. Past titles like Resogun and Super Stardust HD have proven that games with easy barriers of entry but high skill ceilings can be addicting for long periods of time. Now, with the help of famed game creator Eugene Jarvis — previously of Robotron: 2084, Defender, and Smash TV — Housemarque is developing Nex Machina, a new twin-stick shooter that once again relies on skill and quick reflexes to help you dominate the leaderboards.
Recently, I was able to sit down with Mikael Haveri, Housemarque’s head of publishing, to talk about developing Nex Machina and the process of trying to discover what lies at the core of all old-school arcade shooters.
Thanks for speaking to me today, Mikael. I guess the first thing I wanted to talk to you about is that Housemarque is known by a lot of gamers as “the twin-stick shooter studio.” Those games seem to be your bread-and-butter at this point in time. I’m curious though, did you as a studio always set out to create games focused around that mechanic, or was it something that just happened naturally?
Mikael Haveri: Well, I think if you look back at 1995 when the studio was formed there were a few guys in the Finnish demo scene who used to make visual demos for Amiga, Commodore, and early PCs. They had this idea of getting the most out of hardware and trying to trick the system to then create a game around it. So early on, trying out the visual extents that we could push and then creating tech that really allows for stuff that shouldn’t be available at that time was one of the company’s forerunning ideas.
The first game that we did publish in 1996 was Super Stardust that was for PC. If you look at Super Stardust HD and Ultra, variations of that franchise now, they’re all twin-stick. Of course, back in the PC era, the controls were a bit different.
Currently, gameplay is a huge thing for us and we pride ourselves on making tight gameplay. So I guess there’s a long history of us developing games with that focus, but our current history really stems from our cooperation with Sony. Roughly ten or eleven years now, we have been mainly focusing on twin-stick gameplay centric or arcade-like titles.
With Nex Machina, what would you say sets it apart from the other games you’ve made over the past few years? Again, many of them do fall into that twin-stick shooting genre but what’s different about this game compared to past projects?
MH: Well, let’s look at Resogun and Alienation as counterpoints first. Resogun was simple; you get a ship, you fly, you shoot, and that’s about it. While there’s simplicity, you can kind of see the complexity designed in the background. People have different strategies while playing and can become better at the game as they play.
Alienation is more like Diablo where you shoot and get random loot. That gameplay has some complexity to it, but it’s a lot more about optimizing your gear and things like that. So with Nex Machina we really wanted to cater to that simplistic “grab-a-controller-and-play” mindset that we thought we reached with Resogun.
Nex Machina has twin-sticks and it has two buttons. Currently, the only usable buttons in-game are L1 and L2. So with that simplistic control design, you can start adding a lot of other variations that are not due to the complexity of the game itself.
Other than that, it’s our ode to arcade games of the past. Working on Nex Machina with Eugene Jarvis – who we are huge fans of – we wanted to set some ground rules for what we were getting into. We wanted to draw upon that Robotron: 2084 and Smash TV formula that we fell in love with when we were younger. It’s not a sequel to those games or anything like that, but we wanted to distill the formula that we felt like those games had.
You brought up both Alienation and Resogun and I’m curious about what you picked up on when working on those games. What are the little things that you discovered when creating those titles that you kept in mind as you began developing Nex Machina?
MH: A lot of the team on Nex Machina comes from the Resogun side of Housemarque. The level designers, the lead — those guys are all coming from Resogun. Some of the Alienation team helped out, but I’d say a lot more of the influence comes from the Resogun side of things.
As for what specific learnings we took with us, it’s hard to say. I think the team really looks at Nex Machina being 95% — or more – focused on purely the gameplay. Everything else could potentially be cut out entirely.
We made a trailer that had some animations in it and I wanted to see if we could put some of those in between levels or something along those lines. The team essentially said, “No.” Any kind of break in the pacing of the game will mess your mind up. The team is very focused on not taking you out of your state of zen while playing. They don’t want anything to interrupt that flow.
We wanted to draw upon that Robotron: 2084 and Smash TV formula that we fell in love with when we were younger.
We’ve seen a few different trailers at this point with the animations that you’re mentioning. The reveal trailer contained some of them, and then another one briefly was shown in a gameplay video before the start of a level. Is that basically the only capacity in which the animations work in the game?
MH: Honestly, I don’t think any of that is going to make the game at this point. A lot of other games are doing this, as well. If you look at a game like Overwatch, a lot of their animations are just used as marketing. Those videos help flesh out the backstory, but you never necessarily see them in-game. I think that’s going to be my excuse with Nex Machina, too. [laughs]
In reality, those animations might be available within the game so you could be able to watch them at some point. The team though – especially our lead Harry Krueger – is very concerned about breaking your concentration. When you get into the gameplay of Nex Machina, you can make a conscience decision for yourself on when you’re going to end. We shouldn’t be making that decision on your behalf. It should never feel like you have been interrupted. Most likely, no cutscenes will appear in between the start or the end of any given session as you play.
I want to shift and talk about Eugene Jarvis’ role with Nex Machina. Fans should be familiar with him as he is the creator of Defender, Robotron: 2084, Smash TV, and so many others. Nex Machina was even code-named the ‘Jarvis Project’ for quite awhile until you guys formally revealed it at PlayStation Experience in 2016. I guess what I’m interested in though is how active was Eugene in the development of the game? Could you talk about the extent to which he helped bring the game to life?
MH: During PSX we started talking about Eugene’s involvement a bit more. I think he’s credited as a Creative Consultant within the credits of the game — but that may not be final.
Essentially, we just went to Eugene and said, “You make these games that we love, would you like to make this new one with us?” He agreed and we of course paid him for his time, but to us it was more of a “developer-to-god” sort of relationship. [laughs]
Overall what that ended up being like was we went to him in the early stages and would just ask all sorts of questions. We’d say, “Okay, so we did Resogun inside of a cylinder, should we do this game in a cube?” or, “What specifically do you think we should do here?” We did a lot of early prototypes and would play them with him. In each of these phases, he had the central role of being the primary feedback-giver. Early on, we didn’t open the game up to alphas or betas or anything like that. Instead, we went to Eugene and started breaking down the elements of the game with him.
So, in trying to figure out what this game was, he was very central. Once we had that figured out, it was more about taking those paths into figuring out if we should include this, or add that. Eugene was always there and we would continue going to him saying, “Okay Eugene, what are we going to do here?”
The further we got from the initial idea, it started to become more about retuning or refining that idea. Right now, Eugene just continues to give us these small ideas like a movie producer. Overall though, it has been a weird and wonderful relationship that I don’t think any of us could have planned.
I imagine it has to be cool for you guys to bring him aboard and help create a game that is so similar to his old projects. Having him alongside you to help bring a game of that nature back into 2017 has to be awesome.
MH: If you take it just at face-value, we started off thinking that this could just be a cool marketing gimmick. The Housemarque name being so associated with the genre that Eugene created to some extent — it just made sense to put those two together. That’s just the starting point though.
We’re not trying to re-create Smash TV, or Total Carnage, or Robotron. We want to figure out what defines the soul of those games. It goes into a very deep philosophical conversation, but it’s about the magic that we’re trying to capture.
When you get into the gameplay of Nex Machina you can make a conscience decision for yourself on when you’re going to end. We shouldn’t be making that decision on your behalf.
Well as you try to find what’s at the core of those games, I’m sure it’s incredibly helpful to have the father of that genre with you as you build this new game.
MH: Honestly, I think we were a bit naïve going to Eugene and thinking he would have the answer to all of our questions about these things. Of course, that’s not the case. What you do get from him is that unfiltered experience and feedback formed through his experience – which is one-of-a-kind. If people see Robotron or Smash TV in Nex Machina, or even if they don’t see it, I think that we experienced that on our end. Maybe people watch our movie and maybe they realize that we didn’t fulfill what we were going for. That’s kind of the mystery for us that we’ll have to wait and see. Nonetheless, it was fun to try.
You just mentioned the documentary and I was going to ask you about that. For some who don’t know, a documentary crew has been filming the journey as your team creates Nex Machina. What’s the status of the movie right now? I know it’s slated to come out later this year but can you give me any more specific info?
MH: [New Dawn Productions] have been filming for basically three years now and they have about 80% of the movie. We’re looking at releasing a sort of featurette – maybe 15 to 20 minutes – at the launch of Nex Machina. That’s either going to be for everybody, or it may only be for those who purchase a special edition of the game that would also come with the soundtrack. After that, it’s up to the team itself who is doing the movie to come out with a release date for it.
What I hear is that they’d like to have footage of us actually releasing the game as part of the movie. Most likely, they want to film a release party or some early impressions of how the game actually went. But it’s an outside company who is doing that, so that’s about all I know right now.
We’re not trying to re-create Smash TV, or Total Carnage, or Robotron. We want to figure out what defines the soul of those games.
One of the things you have been talking about a lot within the last few weeks are some new leaderboard and challenge-related components that will be coming to Nex Machina. Have you guys made a conscience effort to try and lengthen the amount of time that a player may put into the game by adding these features?
MH: Short answer: yes.
Long answer: Resogun had 2 pieces of DLC that came out six months and twelve months after release and by the time the game was done, we felt like there was a lot of replayability and a lot of content. However, the train had kind of already passed and the few core players left were really enjoying it and loving it, but we missed everyone else at launch.
This time, we’d like to have some of those things that help retain players and keep them coming back on a weekly level or more. If we have those elements from the get-go, then players can get used to them and we can then do more with them down the line. But yeah, we wanted to have something where once you got through the campaign, you wouldn’t just throw the game in the corner and call it quits. We wanted to have a reason for you to come back to the leaderboards, whether it be battling your friends or trying to be the best in a certain area: maybe we can have a friends list at launch and then add some more regional activities down the line. That’s purely speculation but we will have a part of that at launch.
I’ll also add that this is the first time we get to own our IP, so there’s much more of an incentive for us to keep it alive. We don’t know what we will do with it, because this whole “live iteration” of a game is fairly new to us. I can’t promise what anything will be, but hopefully we at least have a good base line to then continue on to cooler things in the future.
So for those who don’t know, you released a new trailer for Nex Machina today that shows off some new features. Could you tell me a bit more about that?
MH: Today’s trailer showed off one new level, which we haven’t shown off before outside of our PC beta. In total, you get a look at three levels in total in this trailer. We’re also announcing co-op will be coming to Nex Machina, which is our biggest reveal of the day. And of course, we’ve also announced the release date for the game, which is June 20.
We wanted to have something where once you got through the campaign, you wouldn’t just throw the game in the corner and call it quits.
Okay so we get a look at three levels in total in this trailer. One of them looks like an ice level and another looks to be fire themed. Can you tell me how many there will be in total?
MH: I don’t want to give out any numbers yet, but the three you see in today’s trailer might be towards the beginning of the game. The ice level hasn’t actually been shown in a trailer yet. It was in our beta and some footage came out of that that people have used. Today’s trailer gives us the first official look, however.
I wanted to know a bit more about PS4 Pro and how you guys may be supporting Nex Machina for that device. Is there anything specific you can say about the game running on that hardware?
MH: I will put it into terms that we can talk about right now. Bascially, we will have PS4 Pro support. Currently, it’s pretty straightforward. We’re just trying to figure out what the optimal resolution is that we can tie in with the 60 frames per second because that is a must for this title. We can’t promise any specific resolutions right now, but that’s currently what we’re trying to polish and figure out.
We will be releasing a short tech video at some point to talk about the sort of weird technology in Nex Machina. The game doesn’t have a normal engine where you can add different graphical features depending on the platform’s specs that you’re working with: every aspect of the engine is very much tied to the resolution. So yeah, on PS4 Pro it’ll look better, but mostly geared towards the resolution scale.
With this game, there’s a level of difficulty that I think a lot of hardcore gamers can appreciate. On the other side of that, it’s a game that’s very easy to approach.
Sticking with the hardware questions for a moment, you guys mostly end up bringing your titles to Sony platforms as console exclusives but you aren’t a Sony-owned developer by any means. With that said, has Housemarque taken a look at Project Scorpio or the Nintendo Switch as potential platforms you’d like to bring games to in the future?
MH: Yeah, so like you said, we have a fantastic relationship with Sony. We’re very active as players and on the business side of things, we’re very aware of what these platforms are and what they mean. That being said, for Nex Machina at least, we’re primarily focused on PC and PlayStation 4.
To double-check, the game is console exclusive to PS4, correct?
MH: Yes, it is. Those two platforms are what you’re getting.
There are always weird costs and time things involved if you want to go on more platforms. We’re very familiar with PlayStation 4 and our engine runs on PC. Those both seem to be big viable markets as well, so when you put one and one together, you get the two platforms we’re at right now.
I will add, however, that I love my Switch and I’ve been playing it more than my PS4. Again though, the question is whether or not Nex Machina would be able to run on that device. Very likely, the answer is “no.” On the Scorpio however, I think it would run because that’s a pretty kick ass system. But again, for Nex Machina, these are the business deals we have now. Maybe twenty years down the line, we will have special collector’s editions for other platforms.
I wouldn’t call it the Dark Souls of top-down-shooters or anything like that, but I would say that it’s another modern arcade classic – or that’s what we’re aiming for, anyway.
Alright Mikael, I guess my last question for you would be is there anything I haven’t touched on or anything that you’d like our readers to know about Nex Machina more specifically?
MH: I would say that Nex Machina has a very good flow. That’s something that is hard to put into words; the feeling that you have when you play one of these games. As a PR and marketing guy, I’m always trying to figure out how I tell people what the essence of this game is. With Resogun, I didn’t. I just told them to play it and then tell me what they think. That’s how it goes here with Nex Machina as well.
If you want to look at similarities, we love Dark Souls and we love that it brought balls back to mainstream games. With this game, there’s a level of difficulty that I think a lot of hardcore gamers can appreciate. On the other side of that, it’s a game that’s very easy to approach: anybody can play Nex Machina and it comes very intuitively. You can give the controller to a five-year-old and they can maneuver with the twin-sticks and get used to the two buttons. That’s all there is to it.
I wouldn’t call it the Dark Souls of top-down-shooters or anything like that, but I would say that it’s another modern arcade classic – or that’s what we’re aiming for, anyway.
Nex Machina will be arriving on the PS4 and PC next month on June 20.