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Though it's quickly proving to be one of the biggest buzz games of 2009, Shadow Complex was not a sure bet for Chair Entertainment when the project began. Born of a love of Super Metroid and G.I. Joe, the exploratory side-scroller meshes classic '90s 2D game design with contemporary technology, visuals, and combat.
Chair Entertainment was founded out of the ashes of the Advent Rising project, an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful Majesco-published attempt to build a triple-A epic fantasy adventure series around the writings of sci-fi author Orson Scott Card. Chair's mission is now decidedly different: to create high-quality download-only games.
The company's debut release was 2007's Undertow, a shooter that gained positive notice and also showed that Unreal Engine 3 could be squished down into 49 megs -- just under Microsoft's cap for download game size at the time. Technical feats like this were likely one of the reasons the company was acquired by Epic Games in 2008.
Here, the company's creative director Donald Mustard, along with his wife, Laura, who handles PR and biz duties, discuss the inspiration for Shadow Complex, including getting a 2D game to work with contemporary technology; how to design a classic-style title but remain relevant to contemporary audiences; how paper design trumps mucking about in Unreal for prototyping; and how to find the right talent to collaborate with -- and much more.
I know you're a big Super Metroid fan; you probably feel similarly as I do -- that we're losing as much as we're gaining, by moving forward into huge 3D games and worlds. I think people felt that way, and we're kind of getting it back now, with downloadable games.
Donald Mustard: Yeah. I certainly feel that way. I'm ecstatic about games like Castle Crashers and Braid and Splosion Man, just these really original unique games that are on downloadable services. Look at games like, I don't know, like Pixeljunk Shooter coming out in a little bit; it looks awesome. Flower is amazing.
I think it's provided an avenue for these kind of games that I've certainly been missing. That's why we made Shadow Complex. Because no one else was making a game like that. I've been dying for a Shadow Complex. My only regret with Shadow Complex is I know where everything is, so I don't get to play it. I want someone else to make a game like that, so I can play my favorite kind of game.
It's really strange, because for years -- since the generation started -- everyone had this expectation that Konami would make a Castlevania game for a download service. It never materialized. It's sort of a surprise. Whereas Capcom sort of went the other way with Mega Man 9 and Bionic Commando Rearmed. They actually recognized what they had.
DM: You know, Cliff Bleszinski is famous for saying that genre is camera, right? It's just where you place the camera to find the genre you are. In many ways, I think that's really true. For so many years, we've gone away from the idea that a camera placed at a more side-scroller perspective isn't as valid or as fun of a game type or genre as any other one.
I hope that some of these successful games that are doing that will kind of start to blur the line between the idea that a game can't just be the best game that it is. For Shadow Complex to be its optimal design -- it's a side-scroller. Then sweet, be a side-scroller and embrace what that genre has to offer and just kind of move it forward. Super Metroid, to me, is the pinnacle of 2D game design, and there's no reason we shouldn't be pushing that pinnacle forward and see what else we can do with it.
You seem to have married this Super Metroid-derived meta-design of the complex and the color-coded doors, with the cover shooter mechanics that are much more of a recent development in game design. The fact that it works is even more surprising. Right stick aim in a side-scroller... I don't want to say in the history of games it's never happened, but I can't think of an example.
DM: We couldn't find any examples. It doesn't mean they don't exist.
The only games that I can think of were more like Robotron or Smash TV... which is more Robotron.
DM: Right, exactly. That was one thing we really wanted to do. We wanted to take the exploration elements of Metroid, but we wanted to fuse it with as much modern sensibility as we could find. We really thought a good pairing would be the more tactical combat, this idea that you do have to use cover, you do have to aim, you want to get headshots, you want to...
That made me laugh, honestly. Not in a bad way. I don't think "headshot" when I'm playing a 2D game. [laughs]
DM: Right. [laughs] Again, most of our development time was spent working on the controls. And that's the other thing, going from 2D to 3D. Shadow Complex is a fully 3D game. It's using real physics and real gravity. We really still wanted it to have the tightness of a 2D game but still be a real 3D game. It's blending animations and doing other stuff that modern games do. That was a lot of work to get that to feel good.
As soon as polygons became dominant, people have been making 2D games in 3D... But they've frequently lacked the pixel precision of games like Super Metroid or Contra or any game that had that pinpoint precision that you could rely on. The feel just got lost. It just didn't translate. What kind of process did you have? Was it prototyping?
DM: A whole lot of prototyping. I don't know that I'd say that we absolutely got it perfect because I don't know if you can. Mario 64 and Galaxy are probably the closest I've ever felt in 3D to matching that precision. Even that has some issues with 3D. It's a lot more challenging with 3D. But yeah, we prototyped like crazy. Most of our development time went to the controls.
I'd say well over 50 percent of our efforts... It wasn't the story. It wasn't the music. It was the controls. A lot of it was music and level design, and we spent a lot of time there, but our main emphasis was we've got to nail the controls. If the controls don't feel sweet, then our game sucks, period. It doesn't matter.