Austin-based Renegade Kid has created an unusual niche for itself in the game industry: developing system-pushing 3D first-person shooter experiences for the Nintendo DS.
Impressively, the studio has coaxed quite a bit of power out of Nintendo's blockbuster handheld. In 2007 it released the horror-themed Dementium: The Ward
This month it followed up with Moon
, a sci-fi first-person DS shooter set on (and within) its namesake and published by Mastiff, which has been garnering decent reviews
Gamasutra spoke with studio co-owners Jools Watsham and Gregg Hargrove -- game director and art director, respectively -- about Moon
, as well as the company's unique portfolio, the ins and outs of high-end portable development, and how counting polygons on the DS makes you better prepared to count polygons on current-gen home consoles.
Did you roll into this before completing Dementium?
Jools Watsham: No. We completely finished Dementium
and then we got in contact with Mastiff. In December 2007 we started the developing of Moon
What led you to change publishers to Mastiff, having gone with Gamecock -- now SouthPeak -- for your previous project?
JW: There's no particular reason. We were already talking to Gamecock about other games and we'd been talking to Mastiff for awhile. As we had just finished Dementium
, we thought, "Cool."
It was a good time to check with Mastiff and with this concept do a sci-fi FPS on the DS and they said, "Yeah, great." They were on board straightaway. So we started development immediately.
How did you get yourself in the position of pushing 3D engine technology on the DS for your games? It seems like a difficult segment to be in, because you wouldn't ordinarily associate the hardware with that type of thing.
Gregg Hargrove: A big chunk of our career was doing Nintendo 64 games, which is pretty similar technology-wise, and when we decided we wanted to do our own company, we wanted to ease into it a little bit. Besides, jumping straight into doing next gen games would have [required] at least 20 or 30 people on the team and millions of dollars and three years to do it.
We liked the DS anyway and knew the basic level its [hardware] reached, and knew we could do it. We saw that there was a hole for 3D stuff, especially first person shooters, and mature content. That's what really got us going in the DS direction -- we thought we could do it with a very small team, and we thought we could do it well.
What influenced the concept of this game and its setting? It's more of the solitary type of sci-fi as opposed to the space opera sort.
JW: We've been fans of sci-fi. This is more of a space adventure. It's a concept we've been working on for a long time. We wanted to build upon the Renegade engine that we built for Dementium
and we were kicking around the space concept anyway.
Coupling that with what we had achieved with Dementium
and Mastiff being interested in working with us, it was just good timing for everyone. Everyone was immediately aboard and jumping into it. Having the opportunity to build upon a technology and make it happen was just perfect.
It's interesting that this game is set on the moon itself, rather than in another galaxy or a more extravagant sci-fi setting. Can you speak on that choice at all? People actually wear real space helmets, which you don't see often in video games.
JW: We wanted to do that. We found it's nice to cement you somewhat in reality rather than a completely fictional, way-off, super-future kind of land -- which is kind of fun because we knew inside the moon we were going to get futuristic and crazy. It's alien technology, and that's always futuristically crazy.
So, I think coupling that with the contrast of reality, we have this relatively minimalistic alpha base on the moon, set in the year 2058. We wanted it to be somewhat believable that this base could exist at that time. You cement the player in that reality and then present them with really super futuristic stuff; there's a nice balance there. I think that the player then gets to appreciate both
What was in your head from an artistic standpoint?
GH: Artistically, it was all over the place. As far as games, you look at the Metroid
games and BioShock
, and we looked at a lot of other next-gen-style titles as well.
JW: There was a lot of NASA stuff -- the actual space station. You get to see how really cool that is.
GH: Yeah, the actual NASA stuff. I've always been into space and astronautics, so I've got all these old kids' books with the "This is the future!" kind of thing. You see some of those futuristic concept sketches that never really made it, and you let those influence the direction you're going.
Plus, I've been a sci-fi fan my whole life, all the way back to the original Star Trek episodes. You'll see a lot of those influences in there. There is so much that really kind of emulates the whole Star Wars and even the Aliens kind of thing, we tried to stay a little bit away from that, but not disallow them to influence us. There were a couple of level sets that had all the twisty...
JW: Too Giger
GH: Yeah, too Giger-like. And so, we tried to stay away from anything too iconic that way. Hopefully, the big mish-mash of all of it put together will create its own style.
JW: Once you get into the story, it unfolds what's really going on inside the moon. There are a lot of props and iconic pieces made to support that. There are actually objects and machinery that explain what's really going on. It's very functional, as well as just fun building alien-looking stuff.
Is there some aspect of developing games to this spec that's particularly interesting in terms of what it does to the design process? I would imagine that designing a level for this game would require a much different mindset than doing something on a home console where you are less constrained.
GH: We did design a lot of the level stuff, especially the alien stuff, as almost a block set -- a really big puzzle piece set. That allowed us to create different areas and spaces. There was a lot of going back and forth with the design, especially the first portion of the game in particular, trying to ramp it up.
We'd come out with a cool design, and we really were able to design in 2D pretty quickly using these basic puzzles pieces, and say, "This is where the enemies are going to pop out." Iteration was pretty quick.
JW: Very quick. It worked very well -- an old-school approach for sure. It was all designed from an overhead plan and view. The length of the corridor -- whether there's a turn in there, where the enemy is placed -- is all very important. It's not just a throwaway: "Oh, I'd like this to be this long, just for the hell of it." It's very specific: "I'd like him to walk this distance" or "He should jump out at them very quickly."
All of those things definitely played into it. And the jigsaw approach helped that. We could build a level, jump in there, play it, and go, "Ah, this is a bit too long," or "Let's add this over there," or "Let's stick a level in between these things."
It's so quick and easy to do that, and that was probably the reason we wanted to construct the game that way. We had a lot of flexibility to ramp the gateway how we wanted it to go.
Having now done two DS games, can you speak about some development lessons you might have learned about creating portable games in genres that are traditionally developed for home consoles or PC?
JW: It's a big technical challenge, even from a simple point of view of how many polygons you can throw onscreen, how far you can see, how many enemies you can throw onscreen.
, we definitely improved upon that from an art point of view -- just pushing the DS further to display more. The enemies are a bit more sophisticated to the eye. You've got to be more efficient there to make that work on the DS.
But also, from Dementium
, we added a lot of save points and stuff like that, to support mobile gaming. Dementium
is very much lacking in saving points. [laughs] With this game that was a high priority for us. There are a bunch of auto-saves around bosses and around the driving sections, for example -- that's some of the stuff we learned.
GH: The key is boiling it down to the essence of what's fun about those games. In the next gen market, there's not a whole lot of difference between the game you play on the Xbox or on the N64. There's more of it, and it looks nicer, and there are more bells and whistles. But really, the game mechanics themselves are not that different.
There's definitely a lot of nice nuance, and those are the things that we try to pull back into the DS to make it feel next-gen, but we know that we can't get away with 20 unique environments and tons of AI. You've got to build a little smarter. You're not going to have tons of shaders all over your characters and all over your world.
So we have to find a way to make that work and look good. There are all sorts of little art tricks to make it as cool as it can look. I love the fact that it takes the art and shrinks it down to just this big [gestures]. And a lot less can look a lot cooler when it's only this big. If that was on the big screen, it would look pretty assy. [laughs] You don't want that.
JW: You play to the strength of what it is.
Do you find that affects the art design generally -- bolder patterns or affecting the color design, things like that?
GH: You definitely make sure you can reuse your textures as much as possible, as opposed to having every single polygon in the world being mapped to a separate part of the map. You try to repeat without looking like it's repeated, and try to get a lot of use out of three or four dimensions.
had four blood textures. We used those all over the place, but we used them in different ways. Moon
is kind of similar. With a lot of the major machine models, we're able to get a completely different looking machine by utilizing the maps differently and by using the polygons differently.
We also wanted to make the world seem a lot more alive than Dementium
did. It was what it was, but there wasn't much moving in the world; there wasn't much animating in the world besides you and the enemies. There were a couple little spots here and there where there's rain on a window or a fan would oscillate, but that's about all you had.
We really wanted to make this place feel alive. We really wanted to make this feel like a functioning facility, both on the human side and the alien side.
So we explored a lot more with animating props, whether that's straight animation or rigged animation. We also tried to throw a lot more variety into the enemy animation -- animated eyes and weapons.
We didn't have a lot of that in Dementium
. We're trying to throw a lot more into this, and just that small additional detail makes it jump up a level. We're not really doing all that much, we just rotated it a bit. [laughs]
Do any of those design or art lessons -- making the most out of a small amount -- translate over proportionally to doing things on a larger console, perhaps in terms of being able to identify what makes the most difference to the end user?
JW: Yes, definitely. It makes you very efficient -- even from the NES, taking that to the N64, taking that to the Xbox, and now back to the DS, and then back to 360, and so on. A lot of artists, designers, and creative people making games now haven't got that foundation. You'll see 10,000 polygons to make an enemy, and they've got a meg's worth of textures. They use the whole lot whether they need to or not. It's very inefficient. Sure, it may be possible, but does it really need it?
It's nice to have those tricks. Not that you have to always use the bare minimum, but you really learn to respect all the polygons. You really get engrossed in that. I think that's key in game art.
The 360, for example, still has limitations. There's still a cap on how many polys you can throw around. The difference is if you approached it from old-school perspective, you may be able to then get double the amount of enemies on the screen because of that approach. It's a big deal.
Look at Gears of War 2
, the Horde mode -- it took some tricky planning to have that big a horde of enemies on the screen, or in Dead Rising
, having all the zombies in that game. Those are prime examples. Definitely some old-school trickery went into that for sure, to make that happen.
John Carmack talks about that a lot -- writing the DS engine for Orcs & Elves himself, and reminding himself of those limitations, then extrapolating out from it to larger-scale development.
JW: That's what I love about doing DS games right now. It's very similar to doing NES. If you make anything that's decent, you're like, "Yes! That's awesome!" Because the limitations are so low. Or high, however you want to word it.
It's very rewarding. It's very challenging. It's like a game in itself, really, making the game.
How big is your team?
JW: It's eight people and me.
That in itself has to be almost refreshing in a way, being able to make a game with eight people.
JW: It's wonderful. We wear a lot of hats; probably more than we should, so we're very, very busy. But it's good -- it's a very tight scene. If we need to make a change as far as game direction or a game design, getting input in the game and still making the schedule isn't too hard. You can make dramatic changes very quickly and very effectively.
On a 360 game, that'd be different. If someone's done a concept or modeled a character, done an animation or built the environment, you could throw away weeks or months of work because of a change. With DS you can do that, and maybe you lose some work, but it's only a week or two.
If it's important for the greater good of the game, then let's do it. Let's not just put it in there just because it exists and we've done it. That's not a good enough reason to put it in the game. So we're a lot more flexible, which is exciting. It allows us to focus on the game content rather than the process as much. It's great!
How long was the production cycle?
JW: It was a 10 month production cycle. It was pretty tight. We were very focused, very busy.
Working with Mastiff, though, was great. Tom [Gaubatz], the producer, got his hands very dirty and got very involved with the game, which is great. It was definitely a team effort and a hell of a lot of work for everyone on the team. Everyone really pulled their weight, and not because we demanded it and not because we messed up. It was just for the love of the game.
We wanted to do a great job and make it the greatest game we could. And it may sound cheesy, but we're really proud of the game. It turned out great and we're really happy with it. It speaks for itself, hopefully.