Developer Interview: Aeternum

Aeternum.  I didn’t love it.  Couldn’t even beat the first stage.  So why am I talking to the developers?  Well, because they’re my friends.  And, let’s face it, in this crazy modern world, cronyism is the glue that holds everything together.  Besides, it was late Friday night and after having a nuclear-level seizure, I figured games would be semi-off limits for the weekend.  I needed something to post, and my friends were in to lend me a hand.  It’s enough to make you cry tears of blood, is it not?

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Cathy: Let’s face it, I’m interviewing you guys because you’re my friends and, I totally love you guys.  And, at the risk of soiling my reputation as the anti-cheerleader, I’m so proud of you.  Do you know how awkward it is to review your friends’ game?

Brooks: I imagine pretty rough. I never had to do that myself.

Nate: First off, thanks.  That means a lot.  The awkward factor exists, but I’ve been asked to do plenty of writing critiques in the past and I have lots of more artistically talented friends who want feedback.  It’s hard, but it gets easier the more you have to do it, I think.  So, yeah I guess in a sense I do.

Cathy: Our sites all launched at roughly the same time, I think.  I know Gear-Fish started the day before Indie Gamer Chick, and I think Two Fedoras was a little before that. How long did it take you guys before you decided “screw covering games, I want to make games?”

Nate: Man, I have always wanted to make games, but other than screwing around with map editors and RPG Maker back in the day, I never really put much into it.  That was always pipe dream material while I worked on something real.  When I got to appear in Dead Pixels, I figured that was just about the coolest friggin’ thing that had ever happened to me.  Then Brooks dropped me a line and I’m pretty convinced nothing is off the table.  By this time next year, I’m thinking Back to the Future II hoverboard.

Cathy: You know Nate, Mattel has guys on standby to bust a cap in anyone who attempts one before them.

Brooks: For me, making games was the goal long before Two Fedoras was a thing. When 2F started, it wasn’t even really about games per se. It was more of a “fun stuff” aggregator for me and Geoff. It just so happened that we both liked video games and we both had Xboxes and indie games was the thing we gravitated toward.  So I didn’t start as a reviewer and move to games. I started as a programmer and developer, kinda fell into reviewing, and then moved back to what I wanted to do from the start when Geoff had to take a hiatus.

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Cathy: Had you made any games before this?

Brooks: I think I’m like a lot of indie developers before they get their first release. I have a ton of smaller projects and half-developed ideas hanging around that I’ve built up over the years. Some are closer to being an actual game than others. But Aeternum is the first thing I’ve seen through to completion.

Cathy: So where did the idea for Aeternum come from?

Brooks: Okay, so here’s the exclusive scoop on what Aeternum actually is.  Aeternum is basically a tech demo and console development test bed that got way out of hand.  I think you can trace it back to February 2010, when I started getting an idea for a game in my head. But like most people trying to get into game development, it was WAY too big of a project.  At the time, Ted Lauterbach’s Vatn Squid had just come out, and I started watching a lot of recorded footage of Touhou Project and other bullet hell games. There’s something very aesthetically pleasing about them for me. The intersection of game design, visual beauty, and mathematics.  So I decided that building my own bullet engine for this grand project would be a fun thing to do.  At some point, I realized that rather than jumping straight to the big project, I should do a smaller game with what I was working on. And that’s where Aeternum came from.

Nate: I’m just going to choose to interpret that as “where did the ideas for all the stuff you put into Aeternum come from?” Because I remember playing some early builds and while I wasn’t the first person to point this out: the game needed a story.  Brooks had put some stuff together and we mostly just hashed that out into a magical school-girl equivalent of the plot from Bad Dudes.  I really, really wanted to make a cheesy Final Fight style intro to it.  I still do.

Cathy: So how did you bring Nate, along with Geoff and Jesse, into this?

Brooks: I don’t know if I ever really “brought Geoff into it.”  He and I have known each other for a good while now, and he’s always just sort of been my sounding board. As far as Aeternum, he helped shape a few of the early ideas and he’s done a bunch of testing.  Geoff is responsible for the popcorn enemies being cats in teacups, and for the Bad Dudes plot like Nate says. That’s the point where I started trying to rope Nate in, when I figured out I couldn’t write dialogue and that trying would have made the game take an extra year of development.  Jesse and I went to the same high school, but we never really met until a few years ago when a mutual friend invited us both to the same party.  Jesse had been involved in the vg remix and chiptune music scenes for a good while before that, and from talking and hanging out after that, we just kind of started working together.  So Jesse was pretty much in for music from before Aeternum’s inception.

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Cathy: A lot of guys who put out their first commercial game, it’s usually riddled with problems and low-quality audio-visuals.  Aeternum.. quite frankly looks and sounds really good.  How did you guys go about creating the art?

Nate: I mostly just looked at it and said “Nice job, dude!”

Cathy: Well, bravo.

Nate: I do what I can.  Although I like to think of the last boss as the one I had the most active participation in.

Cathy: Yea.  I think the odds of me ever making it to that last boss are on par with me being the first human to colonize Mars.

Brooks: I really think making something look good is mostly a function of just trying hard for a long time. I’m kind of lucky in that I’ve been studying art since high school as well as learning to program. Then I got into graphic web design which helped hone both, so it’s just where I’ve been putting my time in practicing. Besides that, I’ve just spent a lot of time polishing individual aspects of Aeternum. It’s really amazing what tiny iterative tweaks will do over time if you keep at it.  But I think it’s also really important that I had the help of Nate and Jesse. Trying to do too many things yourself just cuts into the quality of everything else.  So having Nate focused on story and dialogue, and Jesse in for the music really let me focus on my part.

Nate: Yeah, the tinkering side of the visuals is something I can speak to because I’ve watched the game evolve over early builds and it’s seriously crazy how many miniscule things that go into a final, polished product most people don’t think of.  Sprites that shrink a bit when they’re getting hit, the power ups glowing, the little squeak sound the menu makes, etc.  I mean, saying the power ups glow doesn’t really sell the idea.  First they were just there.  Then they expanded and shrank, then they were tweaked again, and again.  I mean, that’s like building a model ship levels of attention to detail.

Cathy: The story is.. how shall I say it.. raving lunacy.  Was the goal to be a loving tribute to badly translated Japanese or was that just a happy accident?

Nate: In all honesty, yes.  I spent a lot of time with the dialogue and it sounds goofy and cheesy mostly because that’s exactly what fits the game.  There’s actually a lot of thought that went into picking some of the really groan-inducing stuff, and I loved doing it.  The story actually picks up a bit more in the latter stages, and there are hints toward the larger universe that Aeternum actually takes place in, but it stays pretty light throughout.  Other than some of the things I mentioned already: one of my biggest inspirations was probably Bangai-O.

Cathy: And on Brooks side of things, obviously you’re a huge fan of shmups.  Was there any particular game you were trying to emulate?

Brooks: I think the Touhou Project influence is probably the most obvious. I have a huge amount of respect for what Team Shanghai Alice (aka the lone man called Zun) has been able to accomplish for himself.  Aeternum is a horizontal (rather than Touhou’s vertical) because of Deathsmiles though. And there was originally an Ikaruga style swap/absorb mechanic that I cut pretty quick to further cut down on dev time.

Cathy: Nate, why did Brooks reply to me in Greek?

Nate: Huh?

Cathy: I have no idea what Touhou or Team Shanghai Alice or Zun is.  They sound like an off-brand soy food, a Chinese Lewis Carroll improv troupe, and an Iranian village to me, in that order.

Nate: I’d never heard of Touhou before I started on this project either, but anyone who digs on shmups should get that Google magic on.  It’s a heartwarming tale for lone devs.

Cathy: So few guys get the art direction right the first time around.  Do you have any advice for guys who are struggling with it?

Brooks: My advice is to get to know your strengths, and to try to play to them as much as possible.  Aeternum is a weird mash-up of pixel art gameplay and HD hand drawn art, mostly because of this. I know that I’m pretty good at drawing and painting. But at the same time, I’m fairly inexperienced with hand drawn animation. Luckily, pixel art is something that I find pretty easy to make good-looking animations with. So I just did what I could to meld the two together convincingly.

Nate: That’s good advice for almost any project, even outside of games: build to your strengths, find people to do the things you *don’t* do well.  Better to build a solid team than to try to do everything half-assed.  The More You Know~

themoreyouknow

Cathy: How did you do that?

Nate: Magic.

Cathy: ..

Nate: ..

Cathy: Can you teach me to do that?

Nate: Hmmmmm.. no.

Cathy: Awwwwwww.  Why not?

Nate: Well, I mean, you kind of slammed our game in your review.  You could take it back, give us your Seal of Approval.

Cathy: .. no.

Nate: Fine, no magic for you.

Cathy: Admittedly, I’m horrible at shmups and not a fan of them, but I still know what players of them want, and spot-on control is part of that.  It’s another thing a lot of first-time developers get wrong.  I’ve played a few on Indie Gamer Chick that were either too loose or too heavy (Dragons & Spaceships).  Aeternum controls really well.  Was that difficult to implement?

Brooks: Controls are just another one of those things you have to polish iteratively. They’re never going to be right the first time. You just have to start somewhere and tweak and fiddle with them. And do that a LOT. And eventually you settle into something that just feels good.

Cathy: How much testing outside of your team was done?

Nate: I tried to pull as many people as I could to play it to get different perspectives, particularly from non-gamers or those who didn’t play  shmups.  My 12-year old sister did a few runs (and not to rub it in, but she beat the first stage).

Cathy: Not to rub it in, but I’ve poisoned one item in your fridge.  Try to guess which one.

Nate: NO!  MY SRIRACHA SAUCE!!

Cathy: I think that was poison already.

Brooks: Geoff did a fair amount, but mostly at the start. I had a good sitdown with my friend Jake for some in person testing and discussion. But I have to hand it to my friend Steve who did the lion’s share of outside testing and really helped get the game down to its final point of balance. Without him, the game would probably be about three times harder.

Cathy: How much time did Aeternum spend in development?  Once you put it into full gear, I mean.

Brooks: The big kick to get it done started when the last Indie Games Uprising started. I really wanted to try to hit that deadline and see if Aeternum could make the cut.  Unfortunately, Jesse ran into some real life issues that called him away so I lost him for a bit. And there was that whole thing with how it got decided who made it in. So instead, I figured it would be better just to work on it as much as possible and get it out when it was ready. I think the extra time to polish really paid off.

Nate: I’m honestly glad we missed the Uprising.  If you think the dialogue was bad now, it was worse when it was more serious.

Brooks: Especially since once Jesse was back in music production mode, he was able to kick out a pretty amazing album in a short amount of time.

Cathy: How mindful were you of the extremely vocal, highly passionate shmup community and appeasing them with Aeternum?

Brooks: I tried not to think about it. Opting for just making something that felt really good to me to play, and was really cool for other people to watch, and hoping that the effort would show through, and people would respond to that.

Nate: Millie’s dialogue has several shmup references in it.  That’s for you, fans!

Cathy: I had no idea how big “God Runs” at shmups are.  I polled my Twitter followers on bullet hells and many people said they don’t like playing them but like watching videos of them.

Brooks: Yeah, like I said earlier. One of my motivating factors for making a bullet hell to begin with was how much I just liked watching them.

Nate: I’m with the watching God Runs crew, it’s kind of like rhythm game maxing, there’s actually some pretty strong parallels in the two genres.

Cathy: You guys will both be happy to know that the very first Google search I got for Aeternum was “is there nudity in Aeternum.”  Have you not paid attention to what trends at Indie Gamer Chick?  You should have had Millie show a little more skin!

Nate: I’m kinda surprised we’re already getting people looking for nudity.  Maybe next patch we can add a cleavage hole for Millie’s jumpsuit.

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Cathy: So are you guys going to stick together and do another project?

Brooks: We’re not quite done with Aeternum just yet. There’s a bit of a teaser in the ending we’re going to pay off on. After that, who knows.

Cathy: Sigh, more bullet hells coming?

Nate: More of an extra stage/playable character.

Brooks: EX bosses are always the hardest.

Nate: When it comes to future projects, I don’t think any of us are at risk of running out of ideas.  We almost got sidetracked early on talking about a few of them.  It’s just a question of what to work on next rather than if.

Cathy: I’ve got five words for you: Indie Gamer Chick: The Game.

Brooks: Which you would promptly disown at review for being a punisher.

Aeternum is on the marketplace right nowI hated it, but bullet-hell fans love it.  Are you a bullet hell fan?  Go get it.

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About Indie Gamer Chick
Indie game reviews and editorials.

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