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Astral Spheres and Salty Tears: The Journey to Liftoff for Astral Breakers

Two people. Twelve Constellations. One Incredibly “Hype” Star. How one simple problem (a desire to play games together) drove a gamer couple to build their own solution...

Michael Migliacio

August 28, 2015

6 Min Read

Two people. Twelve Constellations. One Incredibly “Hype” Star.

My wife, Lisa, and I are both gamers.  We’ve been gamers for as long as we can remember.

While she was building cities and civilizations as a kid in St. Paul, I was navigating grotesque mazes packed with monsters and battling real-world opponents in arcades as a kid in Chicago.

It was that love of gaming that drove us both into careers in technology. Before even meeting each other, both of us dove into computer science in our college studies in order to get a peek behind the curtain of how the interactive fantasy worlds that fascinated us since childhood were brought to life. More importantly, however, it was that love of gaming that brought us together -- culminating in a small wedding ceremony kicked off by a violin rendition of Final Fantasy IX’s “Melodies of Life” seven years later.

One thing that was always difficult for us, however, is that despite our shared love of gaming, we never spent a lot of time playing games together as a couple. While I consider it a personal accomplishment as a fighting game aficionado that I successfully convinced Lisa to learn the basics of playing Rachel Alucard in BlazBlue (including the infamous Hadoken and Shoryuken joystick motions), we were not going to be spending a lot of time playing those games together; the result was always the same. Despite my best attempts at evading detection, she could always tell when I let her win.  

That result of certain victory was far from absolute, however, being completely turned on its head during gaming sessions featuring puzzle or strategy-centric titles. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how hard I practiced, I could never successfully overcome her strategy, speed and accuracy in a game of Dr. Mario’s versus mode.  We were at a complete stalemate.

All of this led to a very interesting conversation I had with Lisa while we were both boarded up inside our home during a typical arctic Minneapolis blizzard last year: how could we combine our knowledge to create something that resonates with casual and hardcore; puzzle fans and fighting fans; creators and destroyers alike?

It turns out that the answer to that question was not a simple one.

After many heated discussions, we decided to craft a new twist on the action puzzle genre -- one with solid, familiar-but-unique gameplay coupled with a slew of unique features and modes that would be designed to resonate with gamers of all ages, backgrounds, and skill levels.

For us, this idea manifested itself in three distinct attributes:

Cute: Having great gameplay is a start, but being memorable is equally important. Tackling this problem provided a unique set of challenges: how will people react to our game?  How can we relate to such a diverse userbase?  The answer was in the choice of theme: the signs of the Zodiac. With individual personality traits supposedly determined by the sign under which a person is born, the concept of the various Zodiac signs battling each other led to a lot of playful banter among early playtesters rooting for their own sign. Adding to this was the introduction of Kira the Star, a cute-yet-fierce astral entity that would gently (or not-so-gently) remind players that the universe is at stake throughout the various modes of Astral Breakers.

Casual: Yes, it’s a “dirty word” among hardcore gamers, but when we talk about ‘casual’ gameplay, we’re talking about something that’s easy to learn but difficult to master. We wanted to create gameplay that could be explained to someone in 30 seconds or less, but with enough complexity that keeps players coming back. We created an action puzzle engine focusing around the concept of the strategic deployment of special “breaker” spheres that could be used to simultaneously clear the playfield and make life a little more difficult for an opponent. We then tweaked this gameplay to enable support for both cooperative (in the form of a survival mode where two players team up against a computer-controlled supernova) and creative (in the form of a mode where players can create and name their own zodiac signs, complete with uniquely-generated attack patterns) as well.

Console: While many people call mobile gaming a “bubble”, it’s clear that the movement itself isn’t going away anytime soon. Still, with over 600 games launching per day on the app store, many of which surviving on free-to-play mechanics, it’s extremely difficult to get noticed. We found that a console focus was the answer for a couch-centric puzzle game like Astral Breakers that can be played with (or against) a friend.  “With” is an important distinction here -- most action puzzle games are focused on competition.  There are very few cooperative modes, and even fewer have creation elements. Because of this, console release made the most sense, beginning with the Nintendo Wii U eShop.

For us, feedback after creation was just as important, as well. If you want to know just how resilient your gameplay designs are, there’s no group of people more helpful for testing purposes than the fighting game community. Dedicated and focused, these players will rip apart and analyze engines completely, poking and prodding them for weaknesses that could be exploited to gain competitive advantage. Exposing them to a preview version of Astral Breakers at Combo Breaker in Chicago gave us unique insight into how players could (and would) exploit the game in unique and interesting ways -- and the ability to remove any issues found before they could manifest in the final build of the game.

All of this preparation, hard work, and analysis culminated in a successful launch on the Wii U eShop this month -- but we aren’t finished yet.  Astral Breakers is heading to Japan later this fall as part of Tokyo Game Show’s Indie Game Corner, and we’ve got several other exciting prospects currently being prepared for liftoff concerning our unique take on the puzzle genre. For now, Lisa and I are happy that we finally have a game that we can play together (even though I still can’t defeat her in versus mode), and we hope others are finding Astral Breakers as out-of-this-world as we do.


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