Interview: Loren Schmidt On Star Guard's Retro Charm

We talk to Loren Schmidt about his beautifully-constructed, pixel-heavy PC/Mac freeware action game Star Guard, finding out just how its 1982-era lookalike retro charm was birthed.
[In this interview, writer Andrew Vanden Bossche talks to Loren Schmidt about his beautifully-constructed, pixel-heavy PC/Mac freeware action game Star Guard, finding out just how its 1982-era lookalike retro charm was birthed.] Loren Schmidt (Sparky) is the creator of Star Guard, an indie retro-style platformer for PC and Mac. It was released for freeware download in October 2009, and was a finalist for the 2010 Independent Games Festival in the category of Excellence In Design. He is currently working on a turn based dungeon crawler called Tiny Crawl, and a lighthearted side project called Tin Can Knight. In this interview, we caught up with Schmidt and quizzed him about the design and story of Star Guard, his future projects, and his childhood doodling monsters. Tell us a little about your background and how you got into game design. Let's see... I never had any consoles as a child, and my family didn't get a computer until I was 9 or so. Even then, my exposure to video games was limited. I spent much of my childhood making up board games. I also loved mazes. I remember that once in first grade my friends and I made a giant maze together. We taped together big sheets of butcher paper, and spent days' worth of recess in the library, filling them with little squiggly lines and drawing monsters in the dead ends. You aren't allowed to back out of a dead end once you get there, you have to let the monster eat you. How did the idea for Star Guard come about? Oh, actually, that's rather embarrassing. You see, when I had the idea I was in the middle of another project that wasn't going well, so I told myself I'd make a tiny side project. It wouldn't distract me from my main project at all. It would only take a couple of days at most... I started by writing out a little thumbnail description of the game. I had this feeling that the game already existed somewhere. I also simultaneously knew that it didn't exist. It was a strange dual feeling--I spent several days searching for the game, looking everywhere I could think of. But I couldn't find it anywhere. Star Guard has a Eugene Jarvis vibe to it, both in its visual design and story. Is that era of video games a big influence on your own design? Personally, I like to think that a game's quality is how well it does within its constraints, not how high-fidelity it is. I get a lot of enjoyment out of older games as well as new games. The games that most strongly influenced this one were Another World, The Pit, Flywrench, Lode Runner, and Shotgun Ninja. The story in Star Guard is very striking in the way it's almost seamlessly integrated with gameplay. Can you tell us how you came upon that method of storytelling, and why you decided to put in the story at all? From the beginning, it seemed like a good fit for the story's delivery to be non-interruptive. The story is there for people who want to read it, and if people are replaying the game or are simply not interested, then they aren't forced to wade through it. It seemed, in this particular game, that there was nothing to be gained by having cut scenes or other heavy-handed forms of storytelling. Originally the bits of dialog were printed right on the screen, and they stayed there for a while then disappeared of their own accord. There were a few problems with that. Later in development the dialog was placed on the walls, largely because this allows people to read it at their own pace. Tell us more about the friendly soldiers that populate the early levels, and why you put them in the game. They have other roles too, but this is probably their most important contribution: they help make it feel like there's a whole world out there, and that it doesn't revolve around the player's actions. There are other things in the game that are intended to help reinforce this feeling, such as the incoming messages and the corpses strewn throughout the levels. On a side note, originally the game was going to be set in a space station under attack by hostile forces, and there were going to be other allied units as well, such as turrets. The allied soldiers are the only remnant of that. There is quite a leap in challenge from normal to hard in this game. Can you tell us a bit about the relationship between these two difficulties? Personally, I like the tension of having limited lives. I always play on hard mode. During development, I periodically debated removing normal mode altogether- but that would have made the game unplayable for a lot of people. Originally unlimited life mode was the only way to play. The idea is that it's scalable- people can die and not get penalized for it, so it works for players with a variety of skill levels. Respawning is instant and the level doesn't reset. I wanted to keep the pace up and reduce the frustration of attempting to complete the same part over and over. The hope was that people would gradually get better at the game, and they'd rely on the free respawns less and less. This system seems to have worked for most people, but it broke the game for some. A couple of people have told me that they cleared the entire game through brute force- blindly charging and mashing the fire button while dying over and over. I don't know that this is true of everyone, but the people I've talked to who had this experience told me that they really didn't enjoy playing this way, but that the game seemed to be rewarding it. I regret that the game encouraged this style of play in some cases. What were some of the challenges you encountered while designing this game? I have a lot to learn about how to plan and structure my time well. My game development habits were really inconsistent while making Star Guard -- sometimes I'd get a great deal done, and other times I'd just barely be plodding along. During development, I had some trouble with depression and some of the other classic morale issues that people run into when doing this sort of project. It's discouraging not to see progress! I'm really trying to improve my habits in this area right now. I love making games, and I'm trying to tailor my habits so that I can avoid the kind of vicious cycle that happens when things aren't going smoothly. Do you have a favorite part? I think level 5 appeals to me the most. Some of my favorite challenges are there, such as the trap rooms involving exploding platforms over lava. I also feel that the delivery of dialog is best in level 5. Another part I like is the final room in level 7, which has drop mines and two large charging aliens in it. Is there anything you wish you could have put in but couldn't? There are some things that I implemented and removed because they didn't fit the game. Oh, I'm also sorry that the boss doesn't have fun animations for transitioning between the phases. That would make me happy. Could you tell us a bit about your general design philosophy, and maybe sum it up for us in a sentence? I don't really think there's any one correct way to make games, but I'll try to describe what I'm trying to do with Star Guard. One of the central goals is for the game be playable on a number of different levels. It's intended to work well during an initial playthrough when we're still learning. It's also intended to work well once we've already learned the ropes. Getting through the levels with limited loss of life or maximum score should be a different, equally interesting experience. Another thing I'm trying to do here is offer a variety of different kinds of gameplay. The game is divided roughly into two halves- traps and combat. Over the course of a level, the game alternates between the two. I tended to reorder areas and change the way they flow into each other quite a bit in order to improve the pacing and get them to work well with one another. I gradually introduce new aliens and hazards throughout the game, but keep the total number of elements in each level fairly constant so it doesn't feel too cluttered. What games are you playing right now? Flywrench, the Doom Roguelike, and Captain Successor. Have you found anything that you found particularly striking in those games that made you reflect on your own design? The rapid respawning in Flywrench definitely affected Star Guard. I really like the way death doesn't interrupt play at all. I'd always wanted to see that in a game, and seeing it work so well in Flywrench was encouraging. What can you tell us about Tin Can Knight? Tin Can Knight is a smaller game than Star Guard. It's a lighthearted, medieval-themed obstacle course game that plays similarly to Moon Patrol. Do you have an idea of when it will be ready? It's really close to done... but I'm putting off completing it. Honestly, this is my first sponsored Flash release and I'm pretty nervous. Are there any other projects you're working on right now? I'm making a stripped-down RPG called Tiny Crawl. It's a fast paced, room-based game with generated dungeons. I'm using a very small list of ingredients, so in some ways it feels a bit like a board game or a card game. I made an early playable version for the Assemblee Competition over at TIGSource. It's not very complete feeling yet, but should give some idea of how the finished game will play. The finished game will have better tuning, a lot more content, and entirely new art and sound. Also, instead of saying "Ominous message 9" there will be actual bits and pieces of story.

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