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.
Nintendo is famous for long prototyping. Iwata did his GDC keynote on it. You hear about with Mario 64, they spent a long time just building a sandbox and running Mario around in this environment to get the controls right. Until recently, it hasn't been successfully prioritized enough.
DM: I agree. It's hard when there's so much baseline expectation, right? You must have great graphics. You must have great dialogue. You must have great music. You must have all these things that take a lot of time and resources to make, especially if you have a small team. Nine people made Shadow Complex. Because you have to have those or else no one will even look at what you're doing.
I think it's easy for a lot of games to be consumed with the must-haves, that they lose sight of the real must-haves, like tight, innovative gameplay. At the end of the day, that's all we're concerned about.
And I think maybe we're freed up a little bit on the downloadable service... While I think Shadow Complex certainly looks good, it's not going to compare to your $60 retail titles. But our strength is going to be more the game and the gameplay, and we were able to focus that there.
If we were ever lucky enough to make like a sequel or something... We now have got the core. The foundation is strong. And we can build off that and make something really, really special. Focus. You've got to focus on your core elements.
The knowledge base is there, too, now. That's absolutely crucial.
DM: I know so much more now about how to make a non-linear open world side-scroller than when I did when we started this. I'd never done that before. That's the problem with game design. By the time you're done with the game, that's when you really know how to make the game that you were trying to make. If you have unlimited resources and you're like a Blizzard or Valve, and you can just say, "Okay, we've made the game. We now know how to make it. Let's scrap it and make it again," that's great, but not everyone has that luxury.
You can't really run a business that way unless you've already reached the Blizzard or Valve or Capcom -- with Resident Evil 4 -- level.
DM: So, how you really make games, then -- because that's the exception and not the rule -- is you have to place the right bets early. And so what we said was for us, our game lives and dies on the control first, and the level design second. And so that was our focus, and everything else was tertiary to those two design mantras. So far, it seems like that has paid off for us.
Did you just do a lot of mocking up and prototyping in Unreal before you even had art?
DM: So, how we first started the game, before we even turned on a computer, we built the entire game on paper first.
Laura Mustard: Which was scary on the business development side -- because you need to be seeing... (laughs)
DM: I felt like we had to do it. If we were going to tackle something like Metroid, we needed to know the entire flow of the game before we did anything. We made like these little stick figures. And we said, "This is how high you can jump, this many units. This is how high you can double jump. Here's how many units it would take for you to build up a speed run."
That's funny, because in the old tile-based games, you were always working in a mentality of tiles. Obviously, with 3D games, you still have to do height units and stuff -- but it takes you back to that tile mentality.
DM: So, we designed the game as if it was tile-based, and then we built the levels to be that. So, we said, "Okay. One room is 15 tiles long, 10 tiles high." And granted, you could have as many rooms as you wanted in one actual visual room, but we did it in those kinds of units.
And we built out the entire game on this massive sheet of graph paper, and then we'd take it, and we'd play the game. I'd run through it with my little guy... "Oh yeah, that jump is too high. This is too low." That was the best thing we ever did, because it allowed us to find so many errors in our design so quickly. Because in just a week or two, I could play through the entire game from start to finish. I can be like, "Yup, that was fun there. That sucks." It really was amazing. I've never done that before in a game.
And then we went and quickly went in BSP, which is just this quick building brush stuff in Unreal, built out the entire game really fast and just started playing through the entire game with a cylinder that could do those same heights and stuff. And then we started prototyping from there.
We created these little gray box rooms that had all our jump heights. And then we started to maybe add on a character and add on animations, but we really spent the bulk of those first few months just focused on "Did the cylinder feel fun?" The cylinder was the character. "Does that feel fun when it jumps? Does that feel fun when it grabs on a ledge and pops up?" Once the cylinder was fun to play, then we were like, "Okay, we've got it. Now we can add a character." But the cylinder is fun. That's how we did it.
Do you think paper design is a real, valuable technique that could apply to a wider array of genres? Did it mesh really well?
DM: I think it depends on the game, or it depends on the genre probably even more so. For a game like Shadow Complex, where to me the core gameplay loop is exploration and discovery, where we had 120 power-ups, that if you got any one in the wrong place or in the wrong time would completely break the experience, we had to know where everything was before we did anything.
We just knew we were attempting to make an extremely complex, totally non-linear, totally streaming world. So, I was scared to death with that prospect, and just winging it. I have to know that if you get the speed boots that it won't break the rest of the game.
Not only that, but to the best of our guessing, the pacing will still feel decent. "How long do you think we've played at this point...?" Because there's just a lot more you can do when you can visualize the entire world. "Oh, I've seen the entire world. Oh, I can see they went here and they did this. It feels like right here, they'll probably need something." We were able to answer the bulk of those questions early on.
And as I'm saying that, I'm thinking, "I don't know. Why wouldn't you apply that same philosophy to like a first person shooter or to a traditionally more linear game?" That's a good question. I'm going to have to think about that more for our future game designs, because we really got a lot out of that experience. I don't see why that wouldn't be pretty valuable in a lot of designs. So, ask me again in a year, but I'm going to think about that more. That's a good question.
I find that a lot of times that when I play 2D games that are made now, they fail to learn the design lessons that should be elementary, because I think the people who are working on them are probably not as versed in classic games as they should be.
DM: No, I agree. We had so much of the work... I mean, we're standing on the shoulders of giants, right? So much of that fundamental design work has been done. I agree, if you're going to attempt to be a game designer, you need to be a student of all the work that's gong on before you -- one, just so you don't have to make the same mistakes.
Why make the same mistakes? Learn not only from what people have done correctly, but more importantly learn what people have tried and failed, and see where you can extrapolate knowledge. Why not? It's just smart.
That's how all the knowledge of the human population works, right? We don't expect our children to just... "Good luck figuring it all out!" We let them go to school, and we let them read. We teach them how to learn from the collective knowledge of the universe. If you're a game designer, become knowledgeable about the collective knowledge and build off of it.
A lot of game designers are so busy. Like you said when we were talking before the interview, you haven't really played Gears of War 2 yet, even though you technically work for Epic, because you were too busy making Shadow Complex.
DM: Sure. It's true, I don't have a ton of time to play games. But certainly, when we said we're going to make a game that builds off the open world adventure side-scroller design, we made every single person on the team -- because a lot of guys, they maybe played Metroid or Super Metroid, but they hadn't played Metroid Fusion or they hadn't played Zero Mission or they hadn't played Symphony of the Night -- we made every single person on the team play through each of those games multiple times.
The first month of development on the game was no development. It was just playing those games to get the language of those games just solid in everyone's head. I think that was critical to the knowledge base of the company. That's what I mean. I don't think you have to be running out to the store every time a new game is coming out to digest it, but just like any kind of learning, you've got to focus you're learning where you need it.
You have to identify what your target is and what you need to know.
It seems obvious, but I guess it's tough to actually get...
DM: And of course, there are always different kinds of constraints. Who knows with whatever game, what constraints the people are under, what budgets they're constrained by, or budgets or team size, or... who knows?
Something in a game like Super Metroid -- not to harp on it -- is the identifiability of 2D objects in a game that has that precision. Black-bounded outlines -- they pop. You have the flashlight in Shadow Complex that keeps the world looking good, but it lets you identify the colors of the interactive objects. How did you handle the fact that the camera, in the game, more generally won't let you get too close to objects, and make them as easily visually identifiable?
DM: That was tough. There are lots of tricks, but probably the core techniques that we used were... We decreased the depth of field of the camera just across the board for the game or actually the kind of lens ratio. A lot of first-person shooters use a pretty wide field of view for their camera. We narrowed it so a lot of the perspective is squished a little bit. So, even though you have a lot of depth in the game, it's not as drawn out perspective.
Kind of like when you're popping into the roadie run in Gears.
DM: Yes. How it comes in low -- exactly. And so the whole game, we brought in a little bit so that even though there's a lot of perspective, it still flattens out some of the edges. It's a lot easier to see, especially when you're making one jump to another, you're not getting such a wide perspective, which helps with the jumps.
The other big thing was lighting. We tried very, very hard to light the areas that are the main gameplay areas in the game. And then, yeah, using the flashlight was a huge thing. Because it wasn't tile-based, where it's not like Metroid where you could literally bomb every square of the game to find out what's going on. We had to just like abandon that language.
You're talking about things you have to abandon not just because of the visuals but because that's the kind of thing that I think people who grew up on more contemporary games are not going to want to do -- bomb every square of the game to find missiles hidden in every nook and cranny. This seemed fun to us at the time, but is going to seem like padding, I think, to more contemporary gamers. That's my instinct, anyway.
DM: Yeah. That was exactly our instinct as well. We thought not only are people not going to want to do it, but also it's not going to translate to 3D. And so that's where the idea of the flashlight was born. We think it provided the solution that we were looking for. There are those techniques, and there are a few other things that we did as well.
And a lot of it is just trial and error, like, "Oh, you know what? That ledge isn't reading for some reason, so we need to remodel it or retexture it or relight it." That was probably the main thing. Shadow Complex, every pixel of that game has been combed over and massaged and noodled to hopefully be balanced and fun and readable.
Did you get external testers or anything to look at the game to tell you about the readability and the mechanics and stuff?
DM: We did. I think probably one of the greatest advantages we had with the game is... So, Shadow Complex was published by Microsoft Game Studios. Because we were part of MGS, we got access to those labs. As early as we were allowed in there, we were putting the game in there to get as many people as we could playing the game.
That feedback was crazy. We'd get like basically our 2D map back with all these dots saying, "Here's where someone got lost. Here's where someone turned around. Here's where everyone got stuck at this spot." I think that without that data, we would have been up a creek because that just gave us such a broader perspective on things that we thought were so painfully obvious that nobody thought was obvious at all. We were definitely able to smooth out the huge bumps.
That being said, we're starting to see lots of posts on message boards about, "Stuck here. Need help here," but a lot of that is little stuff.
LM: A lot of them are gamers, too. We're getting emails from gamers who are like a minute and a half in. They're like, "I can't..." And it's just like, "Alright, you're going to have to try a little harder than that."
DM: This is actually a good and a bad. I don't know if you saw it when you were playing, but there's something Metroid never had. There's an objective line, a blue line that will trace the next objective. We put that in there for the modern gamer, not for us.
The benefit of the blue line is it tells you where to go. The problem with the blue line is it tells you where to go. And people start to get dependent on the blue line. And then when all of a sudden they have to maybe go off the blue line a little bit, they get scared. So, our hope is that we made the blue line loose enough in a way that by the end of the game, you're trained and you're comfortable exploring the world so that those new gamers will say, "Oh, I don't need a blue line. Screw the blue line."
Thinking in three dimensions is so hard that games got more linear, in all genres. But there's a balance that has got to be really tough for you guys, because the hallmark of the genre is explorability.
DM: [laughs] Yeah, man, it was way hard. I don't know. That's the one thing that I don't know how successful we were at. And we'll have to see. That's where I need like the feedback of all the people actually playing the game and looking at how they did it. But we tried...
Just an early example, when you got the grenades for the first time, so the blue line goes across and through the grenade door and keeps going, but you have to drop down, walk back, find the grenades, walk back out, fight the boss, walk up the boss, and then go through the grenade door. So, even though the blue line is saying go here, there's a blockage in the way that forces you to backtrack.
We tried to do stuff like that early on especially to say, "Oh, the blue line isn't going to say go here, then go here, then go here, then go here. It's going to give me a general direction, and then force me to think of ways to get to that goal." I don't know how successful that is, but it was my attempt -- or our attempt -- at getting people to think, "Oh, this is a game where I just don't go forward. I go forward, I go backwards, I go up, I go down," and start to rekindle that.
Do you think that when working in a genre like this, it seeds with the hardcore and they help spread the word because they're so excited to play a game like this?
DM: It's certainly our hope. Our hope was that if we made a game that fundamentally was a fun, compelling game to play, we would be successful. But then on top of that, our goal was to...
I don't know how we would achieve this, but our goal was to create a game that felt both nostalgic and new at that time, it had hints of what you remember being awesome playing before, but it still offered you something fresh and unique that you hadn't experienced before. We thought if we could get that, then we could get us. You know, the people who grew up playing Metroid.
Our hope was that if we get the hardcore, they would start talking enough about it that we'd get... Because there are a lot of gamers out there that grew up playing Halo. They've never ever experienced a game like this, and so we tried to design it in a way that maybe could appeal to them as well and hopefully get new people.
We, who are steeped in classic games, often think in that language. So much about games is actually based around the player expectations...
DM: Exactly. We knew if we made it too hardcore -- when I say "hardcore", I mean anyone that's over the age of 25, who had that opportunity -- that we wouldn't be making the right game because so many people that are 15 right now, or 20, that think classic game design is Halo.
No, I'm serious. Not that that's bad. That's great. It just your age of exposure, right? So, we're trying to get both.
LM: We have kids, and they're total gamers. Donald and I have two boys, 10 and 8, and it's like our job to make sure they embrace all the new stuff, but we make sure they know what the original Metroid is. They play it and they love it still, at least in tune enough where they want to play it on their Game Boy.
DM: Yeah, a lot of it is exposure. To me, the best thing ever for Shadow Complex to do is if someone played Shadow Complex and said, "I really like that game, and that made me go back and play Super Metroid, which I've never even heard of before."
LM: More games in the genre. We talk about it all the time even in the office. It's like, "Imagine for the next 15 years, no one made a first person shooter." It would be like this whole group of fans that were like, "Come on, man! Remember these games?"
DM: "Yeah, remember. They were awesome!" And people would be like, "What? Okay, whatever, old dudes that played these first-person shooters!" And then someone would make one, and people would be like, "Oh my gosh! These are awesome!"
Castle Crashers is a great example. Obviously, Double Dragon and Final Fight were huge. But then The Behemoth identified that. "There's nothing wrong with this idea. We just have to update it and make it." And now Castle Crashers is a huge success.
DM: Yup. Exactly. I think they're a great example of taking a classic genre and updating it and just proving, "Oh wait, that genre was always awesome."
The irony was that Bionic Commando Rearmed was better than Bionic Commando.
DM: It was. It's true. That game was sweet. My only criticism of that game was man, that end boss was so hard. I couldn't beat that end boss. But apparently now they have a patch that makes the end boss a little easier.
No, I'm serious. Now that Shadow Complex is done, I can go and play it. I agree. Rearmed... I thought that game was awesome. But I'm pretty hard... Because again, that was a hard game. I can see how most gamers nowadays would just be like...
Mega Man 9 was pretty hard, too.
DM: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
So, you do have to be careful, because that's an audience thing.
DM: Yup. You have to know your audience, especially if you want a change to break out. I think that's what Castle Crashers did so brilliantly. It was an amazing game with a great genre, and it wasn't overly difficult. And so that allowed modern gamers who aren't into being punished to embrace the game and have fun with it.
In the contemporary landscape, even though the basis of its design, essentially the foundations, are laid in like the Super Nintendo era, right? Still, it costs a lot more to make this than a Super Nintendo game, even with nine people, and it costs more to generate assets obviously and stuff. And the business world of games is so much more complicated. How do you control that stuff?
LM: Plus, we're growing our team.
DM: Yeah, that's one of our main goals now moving forward. A lot of our emphasis now is to grow our team. We've got this great kind of foundation. Right now, we're looking for the best talent in the industry to come and help us make even better stuff.
I don't know, it's a balance. Shadow Complex is definitely an experiment to push the bounds of what a downloadable game can be right now. I don't know the budgets of other games, but I imagine we're on the higher end of the budgets that have ever been considered for a game like this. It will be interesting to see if the market validates that... Because we're giving people a lot of game for $15. They're getting just a lot of content.
I would love to see more games like that made. So, we'll see. We'll see if the market place justifies the existence of a Shadow Complex. If it does, then we'll see more games like that, not just from us, but from other people as well. If it doesn't, then... I think there are a lot of people right now looking at Shadow Complex to see how we've moved another step in this direction. So, we'll see.
The things Shadow Complex got from Super Metroid are mostly pretty obvious. But some may not be. Super Metroid doesn't actually stop you for story, but it does tell you a lot of story, cleverly, through its visuals. I think it was more sophisticated than most games in that generation. Was that also an influence?
DM: Yeah. Even long ago when we were doing Advent, a lot of times I'd say to people that I thought the best story ever in games was Super Metroid. And people would be like, "What? What are you talking about? There is no story in Super Metroid." I'm like, "No, you have to understand."
To me, it's almost like the ultimate form of storytelling. It did so much through just the mood, the pacing, and visually what they were telling you that it didn't have to rely on the traditional forms of narrative like dialogue. It had a great story to it. And so we certainly looked to Super Metroid, and we also looked at Fusion a lot -- Metroid Fusion, which had a more traditional narrative -- to see what the evolution of their thinking way and incorporate some of that.
I actually thought they overdid it in Metroid Fusion.
DM: I did, too. That's kind of the