FF4K = FASCISM FIGHTERS 4000 = CHANGE
As I cover a little bit in the Milky Q&A this month, the short answer is that the project was started out of anger.
Earlier this year, with the murder of George Floyd in America, equality, racism, and many other topics were brought into sharp focus. It rocked the world, to be honest, and made the team here really question some things. Mix in the Covid-19 lockdown and the political landscape here in the UK, and we couldn’t help but really question what we wanted to do to help - and what we could do.
First came the anger and frustration. How could the world be so callous and cold, and how could donating money be the only thing that happens? Why are people not stepping up and forcing change? If we’re to admit that the system is broken, then why aren’t the people inside the system changing it?
And then came the realisation, that we’re inside the system. We might be tiny, we certainly have a tiny bank balance, but we felt like it was our duty to make a change. You can’t argue back from that. And if we could do something, then imagine what someone with real power and influence could achieve. Maybe we’ll have a huge impact directly from FF4K, or maybe it’s just the first pebble.
To be clear, all of the amazing efforts from the likes of Humble Bundle and Itch and the donations and efforts from companies ranging from Rockstar to Yachtclub games are amazing and to be celebrated and encouraged. We joined in too. But those things do not change the fabric of the world we live in, so they do not have as meaningful an impact as there needs to be.
How to break the cycle? How to create something that makes an indelible, inarguable, and hopefully un-ignorable (surely there’s a word for that... oh it's 'unignorable'...) mark on the bullshit system that sees inequality - specifically inequality towards Black people - sustained both intentionally and unintentionally.
HOW WE BEGAN
So what could we do? We’re dreaming big, but the reality is that we don’t have the contacts, the reach, or the money to just do whatever we wanted. We were engaged on work for hire, we were trying to pitch games, and develop our own. We had interns to manage (Project Mercenary yay) and even in the spare time between these important demands, there were all kinds of other peripheral things to distract us as well.
Problem 1 - no money:
We decided to donate our time, and that of any other non-Black developer working on the project. We called in favours all over the shop and were met with a wonderful range of help and support.
We couldn’t hire a team to build assets, so we would have to make do with what we have up our sleeves, and that means art, animation, sound design, music, the lot... all of it has to come from something that already exists.
If we were going to spend any money, it would only make sense to spend it on Black talent. We didn’t have a lot, we had to scope carefully and pick the right people, but as you will see I think we managed that fairly and effectively.
Problem 2 - no time:
We had to find scraps of time where we could to work on the game. We also couldn’t justify building a game from scratch. It’d take too long. Our initial goal was to be done within a month because we knew time was important for the game to have as big an impact as possible. It’s a sad fact that the focus of the world has moved on from those events, and that’s some of the bullshit we’re trying to fix. But it definitely has a huge effect on us launching in October as opposed to June or July.
Problem 3 - selling on steam, donating, etc:
We had to sell on Steam. That’s where the market is, and it has a lot of functionality that would allow us to make a better game (leaderboards etc) and also to better support it (discussion forums) and promote it (streaming to the store page) compared to any other platform. But releasing the game on Steam brings the nightmare of the platform taking a cut from every sale before we could donate, and we’d be stuck with the whole ‘how much is going to charity?’ thing hanging over what should be a simple, clear message. You buy the game, that money goes to charity. Also, it costs money (see #1) to launch a brand new game on Steam.
Our solution - or actually our only real option considering all of the challenges was to make the game a DLC for the one game we have that could support it. Tango Fiesta.
We’re fully aware it does not have a following on steam. But;
- We had a ton of unused assets
- Loads of assets that could be remixed/repurposed
- Thematically had some shared intent (humour but also social commentary)
- We have 100% control over the IP
- We have expertise in the genre (more on the design below)
- We had recently updated it significantly, so were familiar with the project
- A small (ok, tiny) audience built-in
Black devs & White helpers
To start on a negative here, when canvassing for people to help with this effort, there was a (very sad, depressing, repeated) vein of ‘I’m not going to touch anything political’, especially from the pr/marketing side of things.
On the positive side regardless of that, we found some absolute champions who said ‘fuck that noise’ and totally delivered.
I want to be clear that we’re not dismissing those other concerns here, either - I totally understand how ‘political content’ can be toxic and damaging. But it is a real shame, and it is absolutely a symptom and at the same time a contributing cause of the very problem we’re trying to help fix.
So how did we approach getting Black developers on board? Well, we treated it like any other job. That’s kinda the point of equality. We defined the roles we needed, and then we put out a job post, and reached out to some of the people we’ve worked with to try and fill the roles.
We knew the game would need a strong identity, and whilst we’d scoped the design to make sure we didn’t need new ingame assets, a brand new logo would be a huge win, and of course, helps to define the whole game. We had to take cues from the original Tango Fiesta logo of course, but we knew just the man for the job - Jason St Paul, who we’d worked with before on an unreleased prototype, is a brilliant talent and he absolutely SMASHED it out of the park.
Early pencil concepts, with a punching fist, and three bullet variations, playing with the T shape a lot.
Playing with colours, and the first blush of the rainbow element. The positivity to combat the darkness of the ‘fascism’ element.
More bold colour ideas, this time going with gold fill to really sell the upbeat vibes. We had focused around the fist here, but in the end it came too close to the Black Power symbol, and so we did not pursue this route any farther.
Specific noodling around the construction of the bullet and damage, making sure to keep the logo readable. We felt this was the most dynamic of the ideas so far.
The finished piece. Love it! Stepped a touch closer to the existing Tango Fiesta logo with the stars on either side, and stands on its own as a legit piece of work!
And of course, as sensible and responsible adults, we scoped the need for a Cultural Sensitivity Consultant to ensure that we hit some of our creative goals, without being dickheads. It’s all well and good using our white privilege to make this project happen, but it would all be for naught if we did so disrespectfully or disingenuously.
We also knew we’d need a ton of help with writing and tone, as we know the Tango Fiesta universe is one full of humour, which gives us plenty of ways to put our foot in our mouth - but there was a need for Black cultural references to be front and centre, as well as the political element being a core element whilst not being brow-beating.
We ended up with more than 10 applicants for the two roles but, due to the overlap in skills we considered combining the roles and ended up hiring Lillian Martin to handle both jobs. She wrote and edited all of the text in the game, was a brilliant sounding board for ideas from the get-go, steering us towards tasteful and respectful content that still hit home thematically - both in terms of the Black experience and also the political message. This extended to the Steam store page, and checking the press release. She even roped her mum in when it came to sourcing some good quotes for the Slams, which is amazing!
First, a stream of thematic and topical musings…
We were angry (still are!). That anger cannot possibly compare to what the Black community must feel. Social unrest is often par for the course when it comes to society taking change into its own hands. We had to be somewhat sensitive to a very complex and incendiary topic. We wanted to give Black gamers some cathartic fun. We wanted it to be relevant though, not dismissive. It wouldn’t be one of our games if it didn’t have a sense of humour, or a sense of mischief. It had to be fast to make, but feature a rewarding amount of depth and play. It couldn’t be ‘cheap’ or come across as some opportunistic ploy. It would have to be markedly different and separate from the main Tango Fiesta game modes.
Of course a huge element of the game is limiting the playable characters to Black and Latina - Macmillan, Dr Henk and Conchita. Doing otherwise would undermine a lot of the work we’re trying to do.
I’m sure there’s more, but that gives an idea of the design space we were in. So, we settled on a single-level game focused on fighting Fascist fuckwads as the main hook, and set in a future where the Alt-Right and Fascists (the same thing, really) had taken over, and it was down to you, playing as one of the Heroes of Colour from the base game, to fight back!
We really wanted protest and social/political activism to be at the heart of it too, so we came up with the Squad Up mechanic. The idea of building a ‘protest’ or crowd of revolutionaries as your fight carries on to increase the power of your fight, and to really give the player something to work towards in the midgame sat really well with us.
We wanted Waves to form the structure of the game too, so that we could really hand balance the start of the game, and give players a sense of progression on a more granular scale. Once we implemented them, we realised there was a lot going on and no tutorial (nor room for one!) so we introduced an element we had half-built for the main game but never released. The Slam Badges are the very arcade-y text announcements of various key moments in the game - getting a new squad member, a squad member dying, hitting a new high score, etc.
The quotes that accompany every Slam are a personal favourite element! We agonised over getting them right, and Lillian’s recommendations and steering as completely invaluable here.
We also differentiated from the core TF experience by changing the amount of HP you get from Health Packs, which makes the game a little tougher, and also forcing the player into swapping weapons randomly rather than picking up ammo. This keeps them on their toes, and different weapons obviously have different positives and negatives. Adapting to the challenges and opportunities, and combining that with surprise, really leads to some fun moments. It even changes as the game mode goes on, the clearest example being the Rocket Launcher. Essentially useless in the early game as the player has to be pin-point accurate to use it and the reload time can easily scupper your combo… but later on, if you’ve got huge crowds of enemies and a high combo, taking out 5-10 enemies in one shot can really make the difference to your score.
We also have a ton of ideas that never made the cut! Things like a powerup that temporarily doubles your Squad size, or having enemies that die in the toxic goo splashed around the level turn into horrid zombies. Who knows, we might get the chance to keep updating it!
The score chasing was always there - there’s a pretty natty combo system in Tango Fiesta, and leaderboards are as close to ‘free’ as you can get thanks to Steam - but we refocused towards it late in development, adding the HUD elements and associated Slams. This was crucial, in that it gave the longer-term players a goal that was ultimately missing, and hopefully contributes to a healthy community.
END OF PART 1
And there we end!
Keep an eye out soon for part 2, where we go into the post mortem - what went Right and what went Wrong - plus the launch, reception, and plans for the future!
THANKS FOR READING!