At one time, the run-and-gun was abundant, with beloved titles like Contra, Metal Slug, and Gunstar Heroes tasking players with clearing an enemy-filled path by using an unrelenting barrage of bullets. But until the recent successes of games such as Broforce and Mercenary Kings, the genre seemed fated for obscurity. Eager to rekindle our appreciation for this type of gameplay, the upcoming release of Rogue Stormers appears to be another adept reminder of the power of plentiful projectiles. We recently spoke with developer Black Forest Games about the forthcoming title as well as their breakout hit, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams.
Tech-Gaming: Before talking about Rogue Stormers, we have to talk about the folding of Spellbound and the subsequent reincarnation of Black Forest Games. What was the impetus in reinvigorating The Great Giana Sisters for Nintendo DS owners?
Black Forest Games: That’s fairly easy. Spellbound’s studio founder, Armin Gessert, was the programmer of The Great Giana Sisters back in the day, together with Chris Hülsbeck (music) and Manfred Trenz (graphics). He always thought about a way to revive the game. In 2005 Spellbound took the first step and released a Giana mobile game. Its success eventually led to the 2009 remake for the Nintendo DS. We figured, given the history of the game, that if we could release the game on a Nintendo platform, it would be possible everywhere. It was a test, so to say.
T-G: After Giana Sisters DS and Spellbound Entertainment’s collapse, you decided to give the Giana Sisters a thoroughly modern makeover. Can you describe the process of making a modern Maria?
BFG: For Twisted Dreams we knew that we wanted to do something new and fresh to differentiate the sisters from other platformers around. In our quest to find a way to keep the spirit of the original game while delivering a fresh twist we tested a lot of design ideas. The initial idea of the world twist was focused on smaller puzzles – but the more we played around with it, the more it convinced us that the twist would, literally, have to be a twist. So instead of keeping it small, we took up the challenge and expanded this feature to encompass the whole game. It proved to be a real challenge, because we had to develop every asset twice – and keep them synced at all time to allow for a smooth transition between the two dream worlds. But it payed off. People really liked this feature.
T-G: Crowdsourced games, especially one’s with budgets as meager as Twisted Dreams don’t always meet the expectations of their backers. How were you able to produce such a quality title on a limited amount of time and money?
BFG: When our campaign started we already had more than a year’s worth of work put into the game – a big part of the game was already done. Without it, for example the high quality artwork work and development of the game engine, our target would have had to be much higher. So the Kickstarter was actually not to kickstart the project, but to be able to finish it in time in 2012 – which marked the 25th anniversary for the original The Great Giana Sisters. Thanks to our backers, we were able to do that.
T-G: Giana Sisters: Dream Runners wasn’t received as well as say, Twisted Dreams. What do you think was the cause of that?
BFG: I think the core of the problem was that we weren’t able to communicate the fact well enough that Dream Runners is a pure multi-player game. It featured different controls, tweaked towards multiplayer fun, deliberately missing the precision that players liked with Twisted Dreams. When we showcased the game at conventions, people had a lot of fun racing, bantering and bragging at each other. The experience isn’t quite the same if you play online. Also it turned out that the learning curve wasn’t optimal for beginners and we didn’t provide a proper tutorial. That will change for the Wii U version, however. For this version, we added a single player challenge, which teaches you some valuable tricks for a better racing performance overall.
T-G: Moving onto Rogue Stormers– Contra and Metal Slug are obviously part of the title’s cultural DNA. What other games inspired the title?
BFG: We have several avid rogue-like fans in our team. Some of the games that we drew inspiration from are Rogue Legacy, Risk of Rain, Binding of Isaac and Nuclear Throne.
T-G: Despite a comeback in recent years, there was a long period when run-and-gun games were only intermittently developed. Why do you think there were a number of lean years?
BFG: Every genre will experience a point when its popularity will decline, maybe even be considered dead. In case of run and guns I’d dare to say that they were supplanted by FPS and Action Adventures. But even with a niche audience it could be worthwhile to develop these games. And it’s not at all uncommon that it only takes one game to found a new genre, or revive one that has been thought obsolete.
T-G: What are some of your design philosophies when it comes to the genre? Are there any mechanics you deliberately avoided?
BFG: One important core value in all our game designs is to treat our players fairly. That mustn’t be confused with handholding. It’s rather offering a fair challenge that can be overcome by mastering the game, rather than relying on sheer luck. In Rogue Stormers, for example, we deliberately avoid to take control from the player, which could lead to unfair deaths. You may still get slowed down briefly by stepping into Goop, but these puddles are clearly visible, and ultimately up to the player to avoid, adding to the challenge.
T-G: One of Rogue Stormers’ innovations is the use of 360-degree firing with the right thumbstick. How did they design decision come about?
BFG: The twin-stick-controls are actually an old mechanism that has proven itself in many games. It made perfect sense to include that into Rogue Stormers, as it is an intuitive control configuration and gives you the most freedom in moving and firing independently. In addition the right stick allows for a much more precise aim, almost on-par with mouse aim. This allows us to offer on-the-fly switching between mouse and controller.
T-G: Procedurally-generated stages offer variety, but they can often feel like collections of randomly placed build blocks that lack personality. How do you plan on making Rogue Stormers’ levels feel remarkable?
BFG: We built a pool of chunks that are randomly placed with each new game. These chunks are designed to give a sense of an actual place – pieces that fit together. Adding to that are map layout, map size and which chunks are used define what the map looks like and where the players need to go. Add to that the detailed backgrounds, five different environments and some easter eggs and references, then you’ll know why no run will look like the other.
T-G: One of the most unusual elements in the development of Rogue Stormers occurred when you were coerced into changing the title’s name. Can you tell us about that incident?
BFG: That was indeed an unfortunate incident. We requested a trademark for DieselStörmers when we first released it on Steam. Shortly after, Diesel contested our request, claiming it could confuse customers to think that our game would be related to the fashion brand. Unfortunately the relevant European office in such disputes sided with Diesel and rejected our trademark. Now we could have gone to court and continue to fight there – but that would have meant to waste a lot of money, time and energy for a legal dispute. We thought it would be better spent on the game. That’s why we changed the name to Rogue Stormers.
T-G: Stormers supports up to four players in local and online co-op. Talk to us about design decisions when it comes to difficulty scaling and encouraging a cooperative vibe?
BFG: From early on, we aimed for the fun party feeling that only couch co-op games bring. Almost all game elements are designed to encourage cooperation: How you loot, earn money and spend it, each individual character’s weapon and abilities. You’ll have the most fun when you engage in a local co-op game and interact with your friends directly.
The balancing was tricky. It still is. When you add a second player, you effectively double the potential damage output. So doubling the monster toughness seemed reasonable, at first. But it turned out that it can feel just wrong, when players attack different monsters, and need twice as long to take them down. We ultimately ended up with scaling the monsters toughness at a lower degree, while exploring additional measures to increase difficulty, like scaling the spawn numbers instead.
T-G: The game is being billed as having Rogue-like elements. What kinds of mechanics support the meta-game?
BFG: In its core, Rogue Stormers is a sidescrolling run’n’gun – we added rogue-like elements that fit the core gameplay – like permadeath that gives you an arcade like experience. If you’re into exploring, our maps contain tons of places to revisit and stuff to find, even after you defeated the level boss. You can unlock new characters, upgrades and perks. For the release, we plan to add unlockable story snippets to flesh out the back story of the city and to give some context to the gameplay.
T-G: Character design is a crucial component for games like this. Where did you come up with Rogue Stormers’ cast of eccentrics?
BFG: Take two parts pop culture, blend it with love for mashups of movies, comics and games. Add a little personal geekiness and insanity…
Wait! You can’t say that!
Why not? It’s the truth.
I AM NOT INSANE! You hear me?
Sorry for that. Where were we? …and you’ll get a team of anti-heroes that would burn down the town they love in order to save it.
T-G: Finally, let’s talk about the final build. What can players expect in terms of number of environments, bosses, and general scope of the game?
BFG: There will be five more bosses to fight, and they will feature new and individual attack patterns. The environments already in the game are final (The City, Underground Factories, Stone Sewers, Ancient Ruins and Natural Caverns). To enhance mood and the feeling of variety, our artists are playing around with color and light settings.
Our main focus right now is to fix bugs, balance and flesh out the characters and add new content like level chunks, upgrades and story snippets to add context. To give you a broad sense of the play time: Our most experienced testers needed a maxed out character and several hours of playing to reach the final boss and beat him. Needless to say, that won’t happen in the first run when you start fresh.
Tech-Gaming would like to thank Black Forest Games,
Karrie Shirou, and Gail Salamanca for their participation in this interview.