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The Science of Making a Bad-Ass Indie Brawler: An Interview with XMPT Games

What can you do when you find yourself with a powerful compulsion to murder your best friends? This was the conundrum that consumed the minds of Ed Moffatt, Richard Pilot, Brad Roeger and Luke Staddon about two years ago from today. Their solution (whilst ingeniously serving to keep them out of prison) was to make a video game. Flying under the banner of XMPT Games, these four intrepid folk set out to make an arena brawler that would satiate their homicidal tendencies, whilst at the same time deciding just who the true alpha male of the pack is. Turns out it’s Brad.

Two years later, and fresh out of the oven, we have DiscStorm. Packed with as many deadly flying discs as you could hope for, DiscStorm is the stuff drunken nights in amongst friends were made for. Like the Greek Gods of old, you’ll find yourself tossing, juggling and careering hefty frisbees straight into the nonplussed mugs of your enemies. It’s quick, clever and funny to boot. Not to mention its gorgeous ascetics tickled me right in my pixel-art soft spot. Have a peek for yourself:

DiscStorm has been spinning around the Steam storefront for some months now, so I thought it was about time I had a chat with Ed, Richard, Brad and Luke. Wrestling between full time jobs, developing DiscStorm in their spare time and living hours away from each other, XMPT Games had little time to juggle a nagging interviewer like me, so our correspondence was held completely over email. The answers you will see are the collective thoughts of the team lovingly knitted together by, director and programmer, Luke Staddon.

Harry Bowers: XMPT Games! First, I have to say congrats, we love DiscStorm. And second, because it boggles my mind; you all have day jobs – where do you find the time? This must be a game years and years in the making – just how long has it taken to get to this point?

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XMPT Games: Like many who are passionate about making video games, we simply gave up sleep and having lives! Seriously though, it never really felt like hard work making DiscStorm because we all love playing around with this stuff anyway: having a project just keeps us focussed. The game has taken around a year and a half to come together and one of our artists (Brad) even managed to have his first child whilst we worked on it!

HB: We could really see this game being a sleeper hit for a lot of people. If a community takes to DiscStorm, what do you think the future holds for XMPT Games?

XMPT: Thanks for the vote of confidence – we really hope people will enjoy DiscStorm. Our future definitely has more game development in store for us – in fact, Ed and Rich joined a Ludum Dare team the day after DiscStorm got released, and we’re also entering Indie Speed Run 2015 soon, too.

HB: Does that mean you’d all like to take up game design full time, or is it just a hobby?

XMPT: We would certainly jump at the chance to become full-time game developers, it really depends on how well DiscStorm goes though. Our approach to game development has always been very pragmatic, so we don’t plan on taking the leap in to becoming a full-time studio until we’re sure it’s sustainable.

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HB: So would that mean you’re going to try and spread DiscStorm to other platforms first? Or create something new entirely?

XMPT: We’re definitely planning to bring DiscStorm to other platforms: the PlayStation Vita was always our main priority in terms of consoles, as DiscStorm started its life as a Vita-exclusive project. We’re also in the process of gaining approval for several other consoles, but can’t confirm anything just yet. That being said, we are starting to look at what our next project will be too – developing prototypes and designing art styles have been fitted in around our ongoing support and work on DiscStorm.

HB: How did circumstances change to lead you to publishing on Steam first?

XMPT: Originally, DiscStorm was going to be a Vita-only release. However, once we signed up with our publisher, they offered us the chance to publish on other platforms. At this point, the intention had always been to release on Steam and Vita at the same time. From the beginning, we had known that the certification process for Vita was over a month longer than that of Steam, so we were aiming to have the game finished at least two months ahead of the release date.

As the deadline grew nearer, it became increasingly obvious that we weren’t going to be able to get online finished to a standard we were happy with in time for release. For us, online multiplayer was essential for the Vita version, and pushing the release date back would have meant releasing right in the middle of the AAA Christmas release rush. It was this, in combination with the extra certification time on Vita, which led to us postponing the Vita version until after Christmas. This also gives us time to ensure it’s well optimised too.

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HB: Is there any word on when the Vita version will be released?

XMPT: We’re currently looking at early 2016 for the Vita release date, once we’re clear of the AAA releases in December and the Steam sales in the New Year.

HB: And what other platforms did you have in mind?

XMPT: We are in the process of trying to release on other platforms, but that’s still in the works, so we can’t anything confirm as of yet.

HB: I see so many different influences when it comes to DiscStorm. Everything from classics of old to newer stuff like Tower Fall: Ascension and Hotline Miami. Which games played a big role in inspiring DiscStorm’s art and play style? Is it fair to say it’s quite an eclectic title?

XMPT: It’s fair to say that we’ve played a lot of Towerfall as a team! There’s nothing better when we’re on the road being big-shot game developers at conferences (by which we mean staying in a Travelodge and living off of coffee and burgers) than an evening of local multiplayer gaming carnage! Towerfall has become somewhat of a tradition for us. We wanted DiscStorm to be the sort of game you can play in a similar way: friends crowded around a screen, shouting and laughing at each other as someone pulls off a fluky shot and ruins your winning streak.

The original idea was inspired by a PlayStation Mobile game called ‘Super Crate Box’, by Vlambeer. DiscStorm owes its frantic gameplay and switching game modes to it. We also drew on classics like Bomberman and Pokémon when it came to the artistic style, as well as some fighting games like Street Fighter.

HB: DiscStorm’s art in particular is something I’m really taken by. Those particle effects just look so great in motion. Did Brad and Ed have backgrounds in pixel art beforehand?

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XMPT: Brad’s predominantly a vector artist and Ed has a background in digital painting/art; it just so happened that when we first prototyped the idea of DiscStorm we were playing around with pixel art, and so that stuck! You’ll still see a lot of non-pixel art in DiscStorm in the menu screens, character portraits and dialogue sections: we wanted to fuse styles together into something a bit unusual.

HB: How did you go about etching that line between honouring more retro art styles and using modern tech to boost DiscStorm into being a distinctly modern game?

XMPT: The particle effects, boss animations and lighting are a great example of trying to incorporate modern tech. We actually have our developer Luke to thank for those touches – he’s always been passionate about the parts that fall somewhere between art and code, like particle effects, animation and shaders.

We like to find new artistic styles with each project, so it’s likely that the next game we make will look completely different. It’s something that helps keep us on our toes!

HB: Do you think it’s important to always challenge yourselves with new art styles or approaches?

XMPT: We’re definitely keen to try out new things when we move on to our next big project. Our artists love being creative and trying out new styles, and our developers love a good challenge to get their teeth stuck into. I guess like most indies, we make games because we love the experience of creating new things: even if we found a great formula that was very successful, we’d probably still be itching to try something new and mix it up next time round!

Not only does experimentation make sense for us as individuals, but it also makes sense for us as a studio. If the four of us tried to compete with games like Grand Theft Auto – games which took hundreds of people years to make – we’d always come off worse. Instead, it makes sense to us to try new ideas or art styles so that we can provide something completely different to the public, something that isn’t competing with the bigger studios.

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HB: Do you think this is why indie games have become so much more popular in the last few years?

XMPT: This tends to be a pattern that you often see in successful indie titles. They’re usually a success because they provide an experience that you just can’t get anywhere else. Largely, the rise of indie games seems to be linked to the accessibility of tools and distribution platforms. There were people out there making low-budget, interesting games, but it was often much harder for them to distribute what they had made. As the AAA games cost much more to make, they’re implicitly forced to target the mass market to some extent. Indie games fill in all of the little niches that are left behind, because they can be made for much less.

It’s also worth mentioning though that our next project hasn’t started yet: there’s still a lot more we want to give DiscStorm players in terms of updates to the Steam version and new console experiences, and we’re totally focused on that right now.

HB: DiscStorm’s music is another thing which we found really interesting. I don’t think I’ve really heard that kind of retro/base clash in a game soundtrack before. It’s kind of surprising because it feels like a weirdly natural fit. Was this part of the vision from the beginning, or did it just begin to feel right as you progressed?

XMPT: The music in DiscStorm drew heavily from its artwork in terms of approach – the aim was to create something that used modern techniques, but was clearly influenced by the ’80s and ’90s. Luke actually spent several months prior to writing the music listening to nothing but chiptunes and classic game soundtracks.

The majority of DiscStorm’s tracks are written as though they are modern dance songs. However, at any given point in the music, at least one of the synths used is designed to sound as though it belongs in a chiptunes song. Each piece is also strongly themed around the arena it appears on: the Haunted Mansion is spooky and unhinged; the Space Platform is lonely and cavernous; the Enchanted Forest is bouncy and whimsical. Hopefully that serves to give each track its own unique flavour.

HB: Finally, if you guys had to pick one element of DiscStorm that you’re most excited for the world to see, what would it be?

XMPT: Unequivocally, the multiplayer. It’s where the game started and it’s most certainly the bit that we enjoy the most. Whilst we are proud of the epic boss fights in single player, it’s the deathmatches that define DiscStorm. For us, there’s nothing more fun than meeting up with friends, grabbing a few beers, and stomping each other in a deathmatch. That being said, Brad always wins. Don’t play with Brad!

We extend our thanks to Ed, Richard, Brad and Luke for their budding participation. You’ll be able to find DiscStorm on Steam right now, with a PS Vita version arriving after Christmas. If you want to point your own questions to the team, you can hunt them down on Twitter.

Have you been playing DiscStorm? Or have we piqued your interest? We want to know your thoughts in the comments. We beg of you, aerate your beautiful minds.

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