In the last of my 4 part interview, Rami Ismail talks at length about Vlambeer’s upcoming game Nuclear Throne. He explains as to why the game is made using the GameMaker engine, what the software means for the indie development scene, and also goes on to explain as to why he went for Nuclear Throne‘s choice aesthetic. Enjoy!
The game that you’ve got in development at this time, Nuclear Throne, when is that due out?
Nuclear Throne is available right now on Early Access, PC, Mac and Linux. We live-stream development every Tuesday and Thursday from 1pm CET to 5pm CET, then at the end of each week during each weekend, we upload a new version of the game on Steam. It’s also available as a DRM-free version on Humble.
When the game reaches version 1.0… when the game is done, and that is probably four to six months out from now, we’ll also release it on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita. Those platforms currently do not have an Early Access program, so we can’t really do the weekly update thing there. So instead of dealing with all that every week, we decided to release it when it’s done, which will be…it’s still awhile out, but we’ll work on it. We’re having fun.
Is Nuclear Throne also being made in GameMaker?
How easy is it for a developer (such as yourself) to be able to prototype and take to final realization a game in GameMaker?
I think what YoYo Games is doing with GameMaker is really, really impressive. They’ve taken a tool that is very much a way for kids to learn how to program, to learn how to make games, and made it span from that level of expertise all the way up to releasing commercial games like Hotline Miami.
So it’s scalable then?
It’s scalable. GameMaker can be the one tool you use for your whole life. In the case of Vlambeer’s JW (my colleague), that’s actually the case. He has never made a game outside of GameMaker.
GameMaker doesn’t get a lot of respect from AAA developers…
Increasingly so, actually. I was talking to a bunch of AAA developers recently and they said that at this point they recommend their designers to prototype in Unity or GameMaker because it’s fast. JW has been using GameMaker all of his life. He can make a game idea in two hours that would take any proficient programmer at least a day or two to make. He sits down, he does it in two hours flat. That’s how efficient GameMaker can be.
At Radius, I hosted an impromptu fifteen minute Mike Bithell game jam. And a bunch of people used GameMaker and ended up making games in fifteen minutes. It can do that, but it can also make a full-fledged commercial game. I think that GameMaker supporting and giving developers access to new platforms like the PlayStation 3, the PlayStation Vita, the PlayStation 4, and also iOS and Android, and Linux and Mac is very, very impressive. And I’m not a big fan of saying it just works, but in many ways it terms of programming code, it just works. You hit play, it works. You need to optimize a bit for certain platforms. Vita obviously doesn’t have the same amount of memory that a PlayStation 4 has, so you need to optimize a little bit and figure out where you’re doing what and then you have to keep to the rules of those platforms, but in terms of code, it runs. It just runs. That’s impressive.
Judging by what I’ve seen of Nuclear Throne, it’s a bit like Binding of Isaac and Smash TV. How much of an adventure element is in there?
Nuclear Throne is a strange one alright, because it’s very much as action game first. It’s more Hotline Miami than it is Binding of Isaac. It’s about reacting fast to various situations and then there’s also a bit of Binding of Isaac in there, but for us, Nuclear Throne is really its own thing. It’s a top down action game. It’s fast. It doesn’t give you a lot of time to think. It’s a lot about experience, about being able to judge and access a situation really, really quickly and then coming up with a plan to deal with it. And the random and procedural generation just builds on that. You can never get good at a level, you always have to get good at recognizing situations and figure out how to deal with those. But for us, it’s very much a story game. Nuclear Throne for us is the story of Fish who is the main character in the game.
Not Phil Fish?
No, Fish. Our main character is Fish. It’s a story of Fish who is a mutant and there is a lot of story to the world, but what we’ve been focusing on in the last eight months or so is creating the game, and creating the best dual stick shooter that we can possibly make and that’s a tall order for us because we have high standards when it comes to action games and Nuclear Throne is exactly that. It is the very best effort we can do at making something like that. But, it has a very rich lore, a very rich fiction to it and the way we’re integrating it is very similar to how we did it in Ridiculous Fishing, which is it’s there, but it’s in the world. It’s not something that we tell people explicitly. But Nuclear Throne allows for a large variety of expression for the player. It allows for finding secrets that support the narrative. It allows for making choices early on that will affect the game later on and we’re working right now on actually one of the more important moments in the game, the final boss and the Nuclear Throne, so there is a story arc to it, which is a bit more complex than I have time to completely explain because it’s huge. But we’re working it in there and we’re slowly starting to do that. We’re slowly moving our focus from getting the game to feel right to getting the game to tell our story and that is going to be a lot of work, but it’s very exciting. There’s a lot of world to Nuclear Throne, a lot to explore and in that sense it’s also a bit of an adventure game.
The art aesthetic of Nuclear Throne differs somewhat to your previous games. For example, Ridiculous Fishing had like that polygon style look, whilst Luftrausers had those muted palettes, but they’re only about three colors I think…
Nuclear Throne looks a lot more like an early NES game, which I guess some people would argue makes it look really rough. Is that a conscious choice?
Yes, very much so. Nuclear Throne is a game that had to be honest.
Because some people can argue that just makes it look cheap…
Yes, and that’s fine. But that’s not true. Our artist has never done as much work on a game as they have done on Nuclear Throne. The thing with Nuclear Throne is we wanted to make an honest game and we’ve used this style once before in Super Crate Box which was our debut title. The thing with pixels is that pixels don’t really lie, and if you make a game with slow projectiles with bullets that are visible… The pixel art… It’s the most honest style you have because pixels either overlap, in which case you’re hit, or they don’t, in which case it’s a miss. Pixels can’t lie about that.
We wanted to make a game that is about player responsibility. About dodging, about slow projectiles, about figuring out how to move through a field of bullets. We wanted to make a game that is about skill and the best way we could find to communicate that was pixels because they offer the affordability that we need to make this game. It was a very conscious choice and whether people think it makes it look cheap or not, we don’t really care. We want to make the best game possible and this style allowed us to do that.
Do you think sprite-based games are coming back? Like coming back in “en vogue”, or is it just that GameMaker is better with sprites?
I think a large part of that is the tools that we have available, but I also think that a lot of the games that are being made with sprites are games that ask a lot of player. Something like Hotline Miami is a game that asks a lot of you as a player, but it also asks you to add a certain part of your imagination to what you’re seeing, which is why Hotline Miami could be as gruesome as it was because you could make a Hotline Miami scene in extreme realism, but it would have to be extreme realism before it becomes as gruesome as Hotline Miami was. In Hotline Miami, when your character cuts somebodies throat, you have to imagine that. You have to turn these little blocky things into that scene and it allows for the player to put a lot more of themselves into what you’re seeing.
So I think the resurgence of pixel art is based on a variety of things. For some people it’s just cheaper to produce than 3D art. For others, it’s a really conscientious choice that allows for a variety of affordances that [we] do not have. I mean, pixel art is also not just a style. It’s a method. Pixel art can be Sword and Sorcery which was really rich… Very, very stood out for it’s aesthetic, but also because it allowed players to project on it a lot. Something like Nuclear Throne has pixels because they’re honest. Hotline Miami used it because it was the best way to communicate the sort of feeling they wanted. So there are all these reasons to use pixel art. And as the amount of diversity in games increases, the amount of types of games that are created increases, and that amount of games that will use pixel art will grow along with it because it affords certain things. And those affordances are relevant to certain types of games and in this case that happens to be one of our games.
In the past, you’ve had a number of games in development and I remember going to Eurogamer Expo and seeing you there with a copy of Luftrausers as well as Ridiculous Fishing running at the same time, so that obviously implies that you had two games in development. Apart from Nuclear Throne, is there anything else you’ve got in the pipeline?
Nuclear Throne is quite work intensive since we live stream every Tuesday and Thursday and then update every Saturday, so we haven’t had time to work on different stuff, but we definitely have new projects that we want to work on and one of them is in the prototyping stage, but it’s very early. We don’t even know if we’re going to continue with it. We’re playing around. We’re trying to find something else to focus on at some point, but for now, it’s purely Nuclear Throne.
How long does a game normally take you to develop? Especially considering your hectic schedule where you’re generally jetting across the world?
Six to eight months in general. Six to eight months tends to be the average, but that’s mostly because some of our games take two days to make and then others take two and a half years, so it’s somewhere between six to eight months that a good Vlambeer game would take to release.
Nuclear Throne, as you’ve mentioned is a game that you have high hopes for and you’re hoping that it’s one of the best twin stick shooters out there. But what kind of games do you want to develop in the future that are on your to-do list before you die?
My to-do list is weirdly devoid of game ideas. It’s mostly things for the industry that I would like to achieve. In terms of Vlambeer though, the thing with Vlambeer is that we always have a to-do list of stuff we want to make. The only thing that’s in there that we never manage to do is we want make a space game.
Yeah, somewhat like that. A bit more action based probably because that’s what…
You mean like a Cave shoot em up?
We don’t know, but every time we try to make a space game, we fail and we give up on it and it’s the one project that we really, really want to tackle at some point. So if you ask what the to-do list of Vlambeer is, we want to make a space game. What it is or how, we don’t know, but every game that we’ve started with the word space in the title has failed. And we’ve made four of them. So many things we can do and we always fail. It’s our Achilles heel. That’s the one we still want to do, but we’ll see when we ever do it. For now it doesn’t work.