Touted as a 6-degree-of-freedom (6DoF) shooter that aims to rekindle feelings of playing Descent in the 90’s, SubLevel Zero is a modern day spiritual love-letter to the 1994 classic. Aiming to distill modern gameplay elements as part of its retro inspired design brief, SIGTRAP sought influence from rogue-like games (such as Teleglitch) by infusing procedurally-generated levels so as to ensure the game stays fresh after repeated play-throughs. Add to this the notion of incorporating gameplay features such as perma-death and weapons crafting, then one could really begin to understand as to how determined the developers were in making SubLevel Zero stand out from all the other Descent clones and have its own identity. Releasing tomorrow on PC and Mac, I spoke to Stuart Morton (Mastertronic, Producer) and got to ask him as to what inspired his parent company to publish the game.
SubLevel Zero is a Descent clone essentially. Even though Descent happens to be about 20 years old, what do you think distinguishes SubLevel Zero from Descent as a game?
I think it’s been brought up to modern game times now, over things we’re used to in various rogue-like games of the crafting system… random loot drops… that kind of thing. It is bringing it up to the mechanics that people expect these days and the procedural generation [stuff] is obviously something that’s come on quite a lot in the last few years. Procedurally-generated levels are generally a good thing as they keep the content fresh.
Some modern features basically…
Yes. It has a lot more replayability because the levels are different every time and your experience will be different. That one life you have each time, you’d experience different things every time because of randomness and everything.
Descent 3 was essentially one of the last games of its ilk, and there haven’t been that many Descent clones since…
Now, obviously that implies a lack of commercial viability or lack of interest…
Why did you and SIGTRAP decide to make a Descent clone?
Because the developers made a Game Jam version of it over a weekend and they really wanted to turn it into a full game, so they pitched it to us at Mastertronic. I played it for about 5 minutes and said “we have to sign this”, so we funded them to make the game. I was a big Descent fan so it was an easy sell for me because I love that game. You don’t really get them anymore and the response so far has been fantastic. People are excited.
The “prototype” was done over a weekend [which secured] the deal with Mastertronic. How long has the game been in development for?
It’s probably since September last year, so about a year. It’s had about a one year turnaround.
One of the that things I really like about SubLevel Zero is that it has this 8-bit lo-fi ‘Tron’ style aesthetic, but still looks really smooth and runs at… 60 frames per second?
A lot more probably. My work PC was showing 200 frames a second. So yeah, it’s because of its lo-fi nature that it’s super smooth.
What platforms will SubLevel Zero come out on?
You’ll be seeing it initially on PC, Mac and Linux with Oculus Rift support as well…
Is this out the gate?
Yes. It’s being designed with Oculus Rift in mind from the start.
So would you say that in order to get the most out of the game, one needs to have Oculus Rift?
No. It’s just an added experience. You don’t need it to enjoy the game. It’s not the best way to experience the game. If you have an Oculus Rift then it is an alternative experience.
Would you say that Oculus Rift is a defining, or even the key feature for SubLevel Zero?
It’s a key feature, yes. I think that any game that fully supports VR… it’s undeniable that it’s a key feature. There’s no doubt about that.
How much support have Mastertronic and SIGTRAP received from Oculus Rift with regards to implementing the VR features?
It’s so easy to do that we haven’t needed any help from Oculus to do it. With Unity, it’s essentially Plug And Play. It’s all about design work and making sure it all works in the VR environment and stands to focus.
Unity… You mention PC, Mac and Linux. Will the game be coming out on consoles?
Yes, there will be console versions next year. The PS4 version will support Morpheus as well.
What about Kinect with XBox One?
I can’t see how any Kinect features would benefit the game. The plan would be to release on XBox One. I wouldn’t have thought of any Kinect features. It seems like a lot of resources that would need to be put into something that a lot of owners don’t need or want. There isn’t anything that I can think of what might benefit from voice-control.
Is there a multiplayer aspect in the game?
Not currently planned. It has been requested from a few fans already. It’s something that the developers want to look into once the game is released, just to see if it could be a content update of some time. It’s a lot of work and it’s a big deal. If it doesn’t really work then there’s no point.
Sure, but if you look at games like G-Police… I know that G-Police came out on PS1. That had a multiplayer, death match, arena, sort of mode. I know that corridors aren’t exactly the best way of experiencing multiplayer death match, but you could possibly have one of those big massive arenas?
You can design levels and maybe it could work. You don’t know how much fun these things are until you actually start prototyping them, but that isn’t something that can fit into our current schedule for the release. It’s a single player game. Multiplayer would be nice but we would have to wait and see.
Given that SubLevel Zero is emphasizing its single player campaign, is there much of a story?
Not hugely. There’s a very loose story which I can’t really go into because it’s still being done at the moment…
So it’s just a functional storyline?
Yes. It kind of explains why you are, who you are, where you are. But it’s more about the experience of what you experience in each level, but it’s no big narrative-driven thing.
You’ve talked as to how one of the distinguishing features of SubLevel Zero is that it brings the Descent game up to date with modern features. Now one of the features that have been emphasized in recent times is the importance of narrative. I understand that back in the days of Doom etc, people thought of storyline as being a throw-away concept and developers like John Carmack said that storyline didn’t matter in games. Since then, and if you look at the new Wolfenstein game by Machine Games… I know that the old iD developed Wolfenstein game was extremely lacking in storyline, but the new games, whilst they maintain the old-school fun, have a strong interest in the narrative. Do you not think that having a “throw-away” plot would ultimately limit the appeal of SubLevel Zero for those people who are essentially more used to the norms of modern games?
I don’t think so. I think the beauty of rogue-like games in particular is that the stories come from the experiences you have in the game. So when you talk to your friends or other people who play, you can say “I got to this part of the level and I found these guns”; “this happened me”; “oh, never turn this corner, there was a room full of 400 enemies and I lost, all that progress is gone”. I think those stories come from the experiences that you have when you play the game. I think if you’re going to do a narrative-driven game, it has to be really really good, otherwise there’s no point. If you spend lots of time, months and months coming up with a story, but if the story’s still terrible, then people will be equally upset because they will feel it’s just being tacked on. Even if you’ve done a load of work and you think it’s really good, but it doesn’t hold up, or there’s no reason for it to be there… in SubLevel Zero there really isn’t any reason for a strong narrative to be there. It’s more about the gameplay itself.
Given the fact that the levels will be procedurally-generated, what sort of safeguards have you put in place to ensure that there is a certain logical consistency with how the levels operate and where enemy placements are etc?
There are certain rules put in place. Throughout the level there’s 3 key cards which block off certain coloured doors. So certain rules are in the levels generated that ensure that the right keys are before the right doors, but those 3 coloured doors are kind of your critical path to the reactor essentially, so there will be lots of rooms and corridors to explore and get lost in, but that critical path keeps the procedural-generation and experience intact, so you will always be able to finish the level. That gameplay loop will always be there. You won’t just stop and not be able to get anywhere.
Now back in the day, like 20 years ago, a lot of games ran at terrible frame rates. You’ve obviously mentioned as to how SubLevel Zero can run at 200 frames per second depending on spec, and also taking into account various graphical effects settings. Although I don’t think that this is necessarily a criticism, even though SubLevel Zero benefits from the extra frame rates which people almost demand in modern games… the 8-bit blocky graphic style, whilst it looks beautiful with that ‘Tron’ inspired aesthetic, probably could be argued as being retro and not living up to modern gaming conventions. People expect something that’s a little bit more photo-realistic…
Different people expect different things. It’s almost impossible to make a game that would graphically please everyone. It just doesn’t happen. Certain people like certain things. If you’re an indie studio and you’re making an indie game, you have to balance your resources and what you can do engine-wise and to ensure that these fit the art style of the game you’re making. We intentionally went for this sort of retro look as it harks back to the time of Descent. But with all the flashy lights that you expect on modern games… I think it blends them both quite nicely, and there’s still some work to be done of course.
You’ve mentioned as to how multiplayer features might be implemented in future, which implies that post-release, there will be work done on the game. Will the game be supported in terms of DLC?
Yeah. The team certainly plan on keeping support going after release with content updates and having new things.
What about level editors?
Levels are randomly generated, so without making fixed levels, it’s not something we’ve really thought about because there’s no shortage of levels in the first place. Modding? Maybe. If there’s a lot of demand for things, then the team are listening. If they could do it, they will. So if there’s a lot of demand for multiplayer then they will find a way for it to work.
How big is the team?
It’s kind of a mixture of full and part-time people. There are 2 full time members of staff and then there’s 3 part-time members of staff. Someone does music, someone handles the procedural-generation and coding side of things… it’s a mixture of full and part-time staff.
Once SubLevel Zero is finished, where do you see SIGTRAP going from here?
SubLevel Zero on console is going to keep them busy for the next part of next year. From there, who knows? It depends on SubLevel Zero‘s success I guess. This is their first game, so its success will depend on whether they make any more games I guess. I’m sure they would like to continue to make more and more games, as everyone would.