And on the 7th day...
Hands up here those of who do not like crafting or making things? What about people who don't like things like 'Loot' Drops or acts of randomness in games?
For those people we say....Get out! Because you obviously don't like Lego and that makes you the enemy of both life and the concept of winning, you in fact just lost the game!
For everyone else who is pure and holy and cool and awesome this journey into the PORTAL is going to probe the mind of the creator of an Xbox Live Indie title that if you don't already own you need to go out and buy right now, because.... Yes! At this point Olly023 is going to get to know the man behind one of the best and largest games released in 2013, take it away...
RGG: Why, hello there good sir! Fancy letting the RGG-based retrobates just who is Neuron Vexx?
Zac: Neuron Vexx is a one man indie game studio based in Cardiff, UK. Before setting up Neuron Vexx I had no prior experience of programming or the game industry in general beyond that of being an avid consumer. I actually studied Cognitive Neuroscience most recently at University which helps explain in part the genesis of the “Neuron” part of my namesake, the latter part stemming from my gamertag.
RGG: Is there a single video game and/or system that got the ball rollin' in your gaming life? What console was your first?
Zac: I don’t know how retro you want to get but my gaming life actually started with the good old days of the spectrum. Some of my earliest gaming memories include games like Jungle Trouble, Trashman and Skool Daze. I was so young I can’t even remember the first game I played, all I know is I was hooked the moment I started playing. I have fond memories of me and my brother or friend huddling around a tiny keyboard playing games like Gauntlet and Target Renegade, it was great.
RGG: At what point in life was it where you first kicked back and thought: you know what? I wanna make a game!?
Zac: I’ve always liked the concept of creating a game, spurred on by vague memories of my brothers programming simple text adventures on the spectrum. However I don’t think I really considered it an option until Microsoft announced what was to become XBLIG. Even then I didn’t really have the time to invest due to work and studies. However in 2011 I was accepted on to a Cognitive Neuroscience Masters course at Swansea University. One of the modules on the course was a basic programming course for creating experiments so in preparation I decided to learn how to program. I thought the best way to do that would be to tie it in with something I love, so I used games creation as a means to learn programming.
RGG: When did you complete your first tech demo and/or finished game, for what system base and what was it?
Zac: While I produced a number of small projects by literally working through examples in a game programming textbook, the first real game I created was Dinora for XBLIG. I had actually created what I thought was a fully functional version of Dinora in time for the 2012 dream build competition. However I had been working exclusively on PC and when I came to test it on Xbox it ran at an amazing 1 frame every 10 seconds or so. I couldn’t believe it, especially considering it was running fine on my PC and that’s ancient. So after a bit of research to establish the Xbox’s little idiosyncrasies that were causing the problems I had to change a lot of code. Finally I was able to release Dinora in May 2013
Physics and fighting and internet trolls not liking
RGG: Tell me more about Ultimate Drunken Warrior - mainly as I find the concept fascinating!
Zac: UDW was really just an experiment. Having seen the success of games like Mount Your Friends on XBLIG I thought it would be interesting to use similar rag doll mechanics for a different genre and see what people thought. My main goal was to produce a small project in terms of time and scope, and to try and produce something that was entertaining. The idea to make the fighter’s drunk was actually my partner’s as she thought my original idea was too controversial and told me to never repeat the idea to anyone again.
RGG: It appears on indie blogs that UDW seems to have amassed some negative press, care to take the time to respond via RGG?
Zac: To be honest I think a lot of the comments make some valid points. When you’re developing a game you can all too easily get caught up in it and lose sight as to whether it is actually any good. You see big developers do it all the time so I don’t see why it would be any different for indie developers. I think where UDW falls down is in depth, fighting games as a whole can be very deep and technical which UDW is not, and it was never supposed to be. I guess there’s only so many times watching your drunken character fall over that you’ll find it funny, for many it seems that number is 0! But in producing games like UDW I am still learning and experimenting, the experience will make me a better developer and in the future it will help me avoid making the same kind of mistakes again.
RGG: Dinora is by far what you are best known for. A Terraria-style 2D world creator available through XBLIG, fancy giving us the low down on it right here? How long did it take to complete and how much inspiration did you take from Terraria that it's compared to so often?
Zac: I first started to plan Dinora in October 2011 with two main objectives in mind. Firstly I wanted to create something that was challenging, from a programming perspective, in order to help me learn. Second, being a console gamer at heart and having seen Terraria on PC I really wanted to play something like it on Xbox. When I found out there was nothing like it in the pipeline I decided to work on something to try and bring that Terraria like experience to console. So in planning to bring a similar game to console you are inherently going to draw a lot of inspiration from it. However, to try and avoid falling in to the trap of producing a carbon copy I never actually played Terraria and looked to a variety of games for inspiration.
Dinora is quite a deep game and I don’t think the influence of other games really begins to emerge until you are some way in. For example I drew a lot of inspiration from The Sims as I wanted to create depth to the non player characters. So you can develop relationships with NPCs, train them up in different jobs and even have children with them. Leave them to their own resources and they can even get married and start a family with others. Other influences include Harvest Moon, as you can grow crops and raise farm animals, and I created a levelling system based around that used in Demon’s Souls. So I think there is a diverse collection of influences in Dinora, you just need to invest a bit of time to see them all emerge.
The first iteration of Dinora finally got released in May 2013, so from initial planning to first release took over a year and a half. However much of that time was spent actually learning how to program and I was also studying for an MSc. On several occasions I would learn a new way to do something, or found out that a particular path I had chosen didn’t work, which meant going back and completely altering the underlying structure of the game. Even now this sort of thing is still happening; I’m exploring the possibility of creating an online version of Dinora which will only be possible by making big changes to the underlying code.
What makes the creator of worlds tick?
RGG: Shifting gears, a unicorn firing bomb just went off outside your house. You flee the area as quick as possible to a remote area with various retro game systems set up about the place. You had the opportunity to grab five retro titles of your choosing before you fled. Now what on Earth did you take with you?
Zac: I think I’d mix it up and select games from a variety of systems. So first off Back To Skool for the Spectrum, Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon’s Trap on the Master System, SimCity on the SNES, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins for the Playstation, and lastly Ascendency on the PC. All games I think that have strong replay value.
RGG: We've talked about your first console and your five desert island-esque game choices, but what would you say is your all time favourite console?
Zac: I think I would have to say the SNES, it felt like the first console that was bringing almost arcade quality games into the home. Back when I first got one I had a black and white TV and when I finally got myself a shiny new colour TV it turned out to give me really bad migraines. Even so I played Street Fighter 2 nonstop, needless to say I was ill pretty much all of the time. That’s dedication for you!
RGG: Is there any developers, past or present (ideally retro-orientated) that inspire you the most? Who are your overall influences to do what you do?
Zac: I would definitely have to say Rare, simply because I’ve grown up with their games and in their early years, when they were at their best, they were producing some awesome games. Sabre Wulf and Atic Atac were rock hard, for me at least, but it didn’t stop me playing. The fact that they were pretty much there at the beginning of gaming and, although not necessarily what they once were, are still here today is very inspiring.
RGG: What are you thoughts on the indie game community? Good, bad or ugly? Spill the beans for us!
Zac: I would love to say it’s all been good but the fact of the matter is there was a lot of venom when I announced the upcoming release of Dinora. I’ve got no issue with someone bad mouthing a game I’ve created if they’ve actually given it a proper chance but most of the negativity came before it was even released. Thankfully since its release the majority of feedback from both reviewers and gamers has been positive but it’s still irritating when someone seems to actively try to campaign against you. As for other developers in the community I can only say good things. For example when I was first trying to get Dinora released on XBLIG I had made a ton of mistakes which meant it was getting held up in the peer review process, however one developer took the time to actually guide me in the right direction which was something I am really thankful for.
RGG: Would you encourage other gamers to attempt going the flipside and developing alongside playing? If so, how do you feel they should go about it?
Zac: Definitely, if you think you have the time and dedication it can be very rewarding creating your own game. In my case I taught myself so all I did was buy a couple of cheap programming books which I used to learn the basics. I think the most important part of that process is running through the examples and experimenting yourself, it’s very much a case of learn by doing. Then when you think you’re ready try developing your own game. If you ever get stuck you can be pretty sure that someone else has experienced the same problem and the answer is often just a little research on the internet away.
There are so many resources available that you should never run into any major issues that can’t be resolved. The only real issue I have by taking this route is that my knowledge is limited to what I have used in creating games. That means that sometimes when I’m reading an article or discussion that targets something I haven’t had direct experience with I can get completely lost, but then that’s just a matter of reading around the subject to get back on track.
I have read in many articles people saying you should start with a small project but I think that really does come down to your perseverance. If you’re easily scared off then by all means start with a small project, but I think there is far more to be learnt by taking on a bigger project if you can maintain your motivation long enough to see it through. Of course that doesn’t mean start out by trying to create the next Assassins Creed, just something big enough to challenge you and continue your path along the learning process.
Showing, growing, sharing and caring...
RGG: Do you feel there could be more that sites like RetroGameGeeks could be doing to help shine light on the smaller, lesser known indie developers of the world? And on the opposite end, how do you feel the supposed big guns, ie: the likes of IGN; go to do the very same?
Zac: I think RetroGameGeeks is a shining example of what other similar sites could be doing. Any coverage small Indies can get is a godsend, at the very least it makes you feel important but more than that it keeps motivation up to keep working hard. I’m sure there are hundreds of awesome indie games out there that just don’t see any success because they don’t get coverage so it really helps to shed a little limelight on the little guys and gals making them.
Based on my experience as an XBLIG developer I think bigger sites could start by at least acknowledging its existence. It’s no secret that many of the games on the service aren’t exactly great but that’s not really justification for ignoring everything on it. It seems bizarre to me that many of these sites will only review an XBLIG game if it has a PC port, if a game warrants a review surely it doesn’t matter what platform it is released on.
RGG: What are your plans for the future? Are you working on anything new at the moment you want people to know about?
Zac: I’ve got a few projects on the go at the moment. First is a small and simple title, Hacky Sack Trials, that uses the ragdoll like movement of UDW and places it in a skill based game. It’s close to completion and will be released on XBLIG. Following that I’m working on an online version of Dinora, also on XBLIG, but it’s very much a learning process as I have no experience with networking so it’s a tricky one to predict the outcome. My next biggish project that I’m excited about is an 8bit rogue like twin stick shooter which I have planned primarily for PC. No one can really predict how much life XBLIG has left so I want to make sure I keep moving forward by looking to other platforms for development. It’s very early days yet but I’m hoping to get my teeth into it soon.
RGG: How do you go about promoting your work? Twitter, YouTube, etc? Or more than just that? What do you think works best?
Zac: When I started up Neuron Vexx I created a Twitter, YouTube and Facebook account to help promote my games. Twitter has turned into more of a networking tool for me and most of the time it’s just a way of finding other developers to help play test or peer review games. So while it’s great for these things I’ve never found it particularly useful for promotion. On a similar note Facebook hasn’t really helped spread the word, it’s more a place for people who are already aware of me to keep up to date. YouTube has probably been the best because it gives gamers the chance to stumble on your videos when browsing. But when it comes to promoting a game I just try to contact as many people as possible and see if they will cover it. I think one of the best tools for doing this is Games Press, you just upload your press release and potentially reach a bunch of journalists.
Time to pack up the spades, shovels and axes...
RGG: I've asked this question in some form or other more and more recently due to its relevance, so I've gotta ask: are you going to continue developing for the likes of the PS4 and XB1? Which console, or company is appealing to you most right now? Or shall you wait it out and see where time takes you..?
Zac: I would love to develop for both of these platforms at some time in the future but at the moment, as I plan to move beyond XBLIG, I’m looking to the PC. But if I was to choose between the two platforms right now I think it’s safe to say I’m swaying towards the PS4. I like Sony’s whole focus on a gaming system, as opposed to a multimedia box. However I’m also drawn to the potential of the Vita, having bought one recently I think it’s got great potential if it ever takes off properly!
RGG: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us here today, hopefully the readers here at RGG have learned everything they need to know about the man behind the studio. Is there anything you'd care to add at this time?
Zac: Yep, to all your readers out there – if you like an indie game you’ve been playing even just a little bit help spread the word about it. Without big budgets for marketing etc. the success of a lot of indie games depends on word of mouth so every little can help us out a lot.
RGG: Oh, and if you've read any of my interviews, you know this is coming - the final question: Mario or Sonic?
Zac: Even though my early gamer life was dominated by Sega consoles I’d have to say Mario, anyone who can pull off the whole moustached plumber combo without looking like a porn star deserves respect.
Well there you have it retro lovers, a lovely in-depth chat with a really awesome down to earth indie developer.
For people who have yet to experience the delights of Dinora we here at RetroGameGeeks.co.uk quite frankly insist you get your butts onto Xbox Live right now, hit up the indie section and hand over the 69p to get you this amazing game.
All that amount of hard work paid off in spades (pardon the pun) and the sheer amount of hours of fun you will get from this is simply astounding so don't think about it just get it done, support the people who are making the indie scene so vibrant right now because by doing so you ensure more retro inspired gaming continues.
Very soon we shall be reviewing Dinora however unless you failed to read the above paragraph it's obvious it's going to get a great score. The future looks very bright indeed for this developer and we intend to keep a very close eye on him, not too close mind you cause looking through windows got us all in trouble recently....