Q&A: Krome's Steve Stamatiadis On Following His Retro Dreams

Krome Studios co-founder Steve Stamatiadis talks to Gamasutra about his classic-influenced, Atari-published 2D XBLA and PSN title Blade Kitten, and shares thoughts on the state of the current generation.
Steve Stamatiadis, creative director and co-founder of Australia's biggest game developer Krome Studios, is finally once again getting to make an original IP after years of working on licensed IP -- and it's based on his love of classic 2D games. The new title from the Brisbane-headquartered Ty The Tasmanian Tiger and Xbox Live Arcade Game Room developers, named Blade Kitten, is to be published by Atari this September for the PlayStation 3's PlayStation Network, the Xbox 360's Live Arcade, and the PC. The game hearkens back to old games, but Stamatiadis sees it as his chance to create a game that's as good as his memories of classic games: "Let's take it the way I remembered it, and make that the way it should be." With a lot of attention paid to gameplay details and responsiveness, Stamatiadis speaks here about not just the game's long gestation, but also the thinking and influences that have gone into this classic-tinged title. He also charts his hopes and expectations for the current console generation, as co-founder of a large independent studio. People often associate downloadable games with something smaller or simpler, but this feels larger-scale to me -- can you talk about that? Steve Stamatiadis: That's sort of us going over the top because we could. I mean, one of the things we've done to Krome, [CEO] Rob Walsh and myself, we always put a bit of our own money into the games we do. Yeah, we try and make them better because you've always got a limited time with publishers. You've got a certain amount of time to do stuff, so it's like, "Oh, well you know, let's put a few extra guys on it so we can try and make it better." And sometimes that's worked for the game. But we thought, "Look, we've done that outsource stuff long enough; let's do our own IP, and let's put the sort of money into it that we usually shove into doing other stuff. I'm assuming that this came from a creative impetus. SS: More from a credit point of view, because what I did after we finished Force Unleashed, I called a few guys I really liked working with. And we thought, "Look, I'm in this to make games. I don't really care about going off and doing other big titles." We did a big Star Wars game. It was pretty successful, the versions we did. And everyone did pretty well, too. So, it's like, 'Okay, we've done that. Do I want to do that again in a hurry with 140 people?" Because we had guys from three studios working on it. It's a lot of stress, and you don't actually get your hands dirty making a game -- as dirty as you can get your hands making a game. So, it's like, okay, look, I want to make stuff. I want to do the stuff that I've been trying to do for the last ten years." I had tried making this game like two or three times. What happened was the first time, we had just finished [EA title] Ty [The Tasmanian Tiger] 1. I said, "Let's chuck a prototype together." And, yeah. Ty did so well, it's like, "Hey, you're doing a Ty sequel." Hey, I guess that's okay. [laughs] I said, "Yeah, not a problem." I think just after we were done with the third Ty game, I was like, "Let's try again. We have this engine. We have this team, and that's what they're doing." And then so we started chucking together a demo. We were going to do a PSP sidescroller platformer at that point. And yeah, then Star Wars came up, so, "Oh, okay. We'll do Star Wars." [laughs] You talked about having approached the idea for this game a couple times, different ways, and between projects. How has the idea changed or matured over the years? Or is it still basically the same core inspiration that you had? SS: Originally, it was more about the characters and the worlds... I think the first version I tried was going to be a [Capcom's 1999 Dreamcast release] Power Stone kind of game. It was like two player combat. Oh, that dates it. SS: Yeah. Well, Power Stone was like the most awesome fighting game ever and still is. But yeah, I think it was that second time where I was like, "Oh, I want to do more exploration." It was like having done at that point three Ty games, you get that feeling of "Oh, I love exploring the combat stuff." So, it was like, "Let's do more of that." And when we started this third version, it actually did start out as a 3D adventuring thing. We were looking at the game, "Look, we're going to have stuff where you run around, and there's going to be some vehicle stuff, and then you go into dungeons, and the dungeons are going to be side-scrolling" like the game is now. "You know, the side-scrolling is actually the really cool, different bit. Why don't we focus on making that really good, because that's the key differentiator. Yes, we probably should do that." That was like that first six months. You can actually run around the current game and run around in 3D and check out levels, but we locked everything up. And once we did that and had that focus, I think everything really crystallized. You get that kind of "Oh, I like to do this and that" when we went to 2D. I wanted to keep the controls really simple, right? Once you're doing 2D stuff, you don't have to worry about "Oh, how do I do a crouch?" Because in 3D, you're gonna have "I need a crouch button." With 2D, it's like, "down is crouch." I've been saying all games are basically 2D; it's just which angle are you looking at with the plane. You know. The normal run around in a third-person game... Basically, it's a flat game. It might as well be a top-down game. But when you do a side-on, you got your whole vertical stuff, and that changes the way you’re playing it. And that was fun, and we're going, "Okay. Well, we're doing that and experimenting with jumping around." You have those issues with camera, which is a bane of any developer's experience with a 3D action game. Every review of every game I've ever seen says, "The camera is bad" because the cameras aren't psychic. It can never do what you want it do to. Developers can try their best, and they can put in locked on cameras, but as soon you put in rail cameras and half cameras like God of War... "But I want to look around." So, you gotta deal with them looking around and thinking... Well, different people have different tate. I got into a big discussion about this because Final Fantasy XIII has a floating camera, and then someone was like, "It should be like God of War." So... SS: You can't win. We found that out with Force Unleashed. I wanted to put like a rail camera like God of War. It was like, "Look, I want to fighting and in control of combat, not worrying about directing the camera because you're supposed to be the hero, not the camera man. You're not the director of photography." But, yeah, there were guys who wanted to have it. "I want to be able to work everywhere during combat." "But why has the targeting gone funny?" "Because you want to look around everywhere. Do you want to do that or you don't want to do that?" So this one was like... 2D game is you've got, like, the old push to look around if you want to look around stuff. We have cameras that zoom out more. And we're trying to do stuff where if you're on the edge of a ledge, "Okay, well, we'll pull back to show you some more area." Right. Context sensitive. SS: Yeah. For the most part so you don't have to think about it. Occasionally we'll hide stuff by making you have to go to the area and "Oh look, there's something over there" so you use it more to find secrets. It's good that the download space is allowing 2D to come back because I think a lot of the people felt some sense of regret that the 2D side-on view was going away, but there seemed to be this market pressure in prior generations... SS: I can see the logic. It was that, well, here's a cool feature on, say, PlayStation was 3D. "You can do 3D games now!" So, there's that push to go down that path, and it was all new and fun. But at the same time, we lost a lot of stuff by not doing 2D games. I think if you look at games, even some of the biggest games now, they're still 2D. StarCraft may be done in 3D, but it's a 2D game. StarCraft II. Do you think that audiences are less concerned with "angle" and specs and just more concerned with experience now? SS: I think we had that initially with next gen -- current stuff or HD gen -- where everyone's like worrying about, "Ah, it's going to have this detail on that." And we got hit by that on Hellboy. It was like people wanted to have this sort of technology in there. They weren't worried about the game; they were just worried about hitting tech. I think we heard enough this generation now that it's shown that it can do this stuff, and unfortunately a lot of people are all doing that sort of that stuff. So, anything that comes out slightly different, for us, it's like, "Well, let's try and use this tech to do a really good cartoon show that's not just two shades of the color. Let's get the outline, let's get something that looks like the comic." For us, it's like "Well, let's use the tech that way." Gameplay-wise, actually, out of all the games we've done, I think Blade Kitten's pushing the most polygons because of the way we've done the levels and stuff. So, actually, it's throwing lots of polys at the screen, but it's just we did it in a way that's smarter. So, yeah, this generation, it's not about the tech anymore. It's about making it get a game experience where, "Yeah, let's have some old school stuff. There's no reason why that had to die off." There was starting to be some really awesome 2D stuff toward the end of the Saturn era. You were just starting to get some good stuff with guys who were learning, they had high resolutions to play with, they had more memory. Like, "Ah, I can do... Ah, no, we can't now!" And I think it's sad to see that in the last couple of years with... The Wii has brought back a lot of it. You've got Muramasa: The Demon Blade. But I love that Saturn game, Princess Crown. I loved that game. I played it on a Japanese Saturn way, way back, and the PSP version was brought out. So, stuff like that, it's great to see. Just a lot of the focus in games that look different. You know, there's some old school arcade-y stuff. There's tons of stuff on PlayStation and Live. It's cool. They are the kind of games that I'd like to play. And not every game is a 40-hour experience when you sit down. You sometimes just want to get there and play a bit of an action game and have some fun. And I think that's what people are responding to as well. They've got their big games. They've gotten Modern Warfare 2. They've got their Final Fantasy. Uncharted. That market is catered for, I think, on current gen. It's the smaller games that we just do not see enough. Well, we weren't, because [but] it's actually now... I'm excited. Seriously, it's good for us. I sometimes feel that there's an approach to 2D that misses the point of why the classics were actually good. Is authenticity a challenge? SS: Yeah, we didn't do the whole "go play this game over and over" with, say, Strider. I said, "Look, guys, check this out. There are the elements from this we like. That's it. We're not trying to recreate another style of game. We're trying to take the elements from games we liked." So, for me, there's like elements of Strider. Ninja Warriors was one of my favorites. Just the way they handle controls in Ninja Warriors, where your attack button is the block. I always loved that. I thought it made sense. It's like, "Hey, I'm using my knives to attack and block. They're shields." I love the logic of that. You see some of that in Blade Kitten. What else? Ah, Shinobi. You know, that whole, just the jumping around your environment. I had this really cool list where I got a bunch of "Oh yeah, use that one." Legend of Kage -- that whole jumping around, attack in any direction, lots of aerial maneuvers. There's been a lot of talk about Japanese developers struggling to cater to current audiences, but at the same time, I feel like Western developers are actually learning the lessons of Japanese games during this generation. Agree? SS: I think we're looking back at all that stuff that we remember and taking the good elements of the nostalgia. You have this whole nostalgia thing, right? I remember that being really good. And sometimes you go back and look at them, and it wasn't really good. I remember that thing doing it this way, and it was really cool. And when you look at it, it's like, does it do it? Let's take it the way I remembered it, and make that the way it should be. [laughs] Yeah. SS: Right? So, yeah, "Ah! Remember when I did this and that? It felt really cool." And then you play it. "Nah. That's shit. So, let's do it the way it felt cool in my memories." I think Western developers, we're looking at stuff. We remember these games fondly. "I like this stuff. I want to do that." We've done the other stuff as well. And we try stuff. The way we designed Blade Kitten, it's like, "Okay, these are the key features I want. We had a very iterative process. Design docs were [not substantial]. They're all electronic anyway. It had this "Okay, we want to do this. That doesn't work. Let's change it." So, we did this for our fodder, which are basically one-hit kills. The idea is you feel super powerful. We put them in, and guys would make them like three-hit kills, and then I'm playing it. "No, you've made it too tough. Let's just pare it back to the key elements." So, we try stuff. And I've talked with some Japanese developers. Much more "Here's our design document. We're making that." And they follow it, and if the characters control nice, and you run around feeling good, they leave it at that. If you take Miyamoto, he'll like... "No. Running around has to feel good. No, change it. I'll take as long as I need to until it feels right." Obviously, they're successful Japanese developers, and I think they're the ones that aren't struggling because they get the idea. But other guys who are sitting there just trying to remake stuff, I think it's catering too much to the niche audiences. That's a way of doing stuff, I guess, as well. It's like "Here's my audience. They want this kind of game from us. We'll keep doing that over and over again, and refining the process." I think, they need to take a little jump... "Alright, we're going to refine the process. We're going to take this element from this game." And they don't do enough of that. But, yeah, I think Western developers are willing to try that because we had that experience of "We've played the Japanese games and the Western games." One thing that really is a concern with 2D gaming is response time, obviously. 3D games get away with a lot of bigger animations, slower hits, more telegraphing, because you can see the whole character's body. 2D, you have to have very precise hits. You have to have to have very precise hit boxes and all that. SS: The first thing we do is gameplay controls animation, not animation controls gameplay. So, with all 3D games, it's all about guys playing through animations. Mark of Kri, for example, a game designed by animators. Beautiful game. It's good fun except if you walk into a wall, sit there and watch the animation back. And that's fun in some games. We didn't want that. It's all about responsiveness. So, you press the button, you jump. She reacts to you jumping... You just get your jumping, and you stop. Also, there's a bit of inertia, so it's not like you're controlling this magical super floaty thing, but stuff happens when you press a button. The sword is... I think it's less than three frames for the sword's swing because the swing is actually put in as an object. But the sword will do the animation, but the actual thing that attacks is an object, so it's like you've gotten a hit that's going straight away and you can target it. So, it's never any of that "Oh, I'm watching an animation. I'm watching stuff play back." I think some people who've seen it don't quite understand what the controls are. You do stuff, and there's one sort of particular... As fast as you can hit the button, it's going to attack. Well, that's how it's got to be in a 2D game. [laughs] SS: It's just... So, people are coming up to me going, "Oh, it looks funny." It's just like, "No, it's because you can move and stop and do stuff. You've got more control over it." Did you look at Street Fighter IV at all? I mean, I know they specifically talked about, with us, they went through a period of worrying about the animation and having to carry through in 3D. They just ended up dropping parts of the animation to make it more responsive. SS: That's just always something we've done. If you look at even back to Ty, when Ty throws his boomerang. You don't watch him do the wind up and stuff. You just go [throwing noise], and the boomerangs will fly out. The bigger moves, you know, would have their playback and stuff [but not] the normal attack stuff. You just get there quick... I think the magic number is three frames. You don't want to have anything longer than that because it just feels too slow for your response time. If you can actually get it so that stuff happens straight away, that's great. I said there's also stuff that you don't do instantaneously. You want some things to have a... you know, it's the payoff. They deal more damage, but it's like a charge-up. One move we've got is like an impale move. You hold the button down to do this impale. One of the designers is like, "[sigh] It's not instantaneous." I'm like, "I know. It's like doing Guile's Sonic Boom attack. It's like 'You've got to do the charge-up, and the price you pay for having to hold that button down is you're defenseless for that moment, but you get to impale the guy.'"
So, everything should always be a trade-off design-wise, like "This is more powerful, but you lose that doing this." But generally, everything else with movement and basic combat is [snaps fingers] pow, pow pow. Yeah, I like it. [laughs] It's a fun game to design because you're not waiting for animations to play back or watching lumbering animations. It's quick, jumping around is fast. Everything is trying to be as snappy as possible. But at the same time, flowing. So, the trick's been like "Okay, well, she's going to animate every three frames to do stuff, but it won't take that long to do it code-wise, but she needs to still look like she's still moving into it." So we're trying to do stuff with the animation reacts to the movement. So, it's sort of backwards from the way you do normal stuff. I think that one thing we lost, particularly with prior generation like PS2 era, was as games moved to 3D, they got slower. I feel like we're finally getting back to the pace that games used to be at. SS: I think that we are. It's just that with 3D, you've got so much more input to take in. You're not just looking at here's this screen. Here's what's going on. There's guys behind you, and you look up and look down. Okay, with 2D, you've got two dimensions, and you've got a nice little room... We'll take you to the Matrix. It's just there's a lot more space. [This generation] gives people more time to do stuff with the consoles. Like development teams learning how to use stuff, for starters. Once they learn that... You learn a console, it's like you've done two games, and bam you have to make this console. With the PS2, we did... Well, my team did three Ty games, so they pretty much knew all that stuff. When it came time to doing Force Unleashed on PS2, which was our lead SKU at the time, it was like, "Oh, well , we know how much we can push with this machine. We can get this out of it, this out of it, this out of it." Sure, the next gen ones look tons better. They're always going to look better than that, but at the time, it was like, "We got a PS2 doing some pretty cool shit." It took us that long to learn it. Then you go on to the next gen... With Blade Kitten, Krome's got our own Mercury Engine, which has done two next-gen titles. We still have to learn it. The whole team is like, "Well, how do we learn how to use the new shaders." So, there's a whole big move there. We lost, like I said, six to eight months on that just getting up to speed on that. But yeah, now the team knows how to use this stuff, so we're going to do more. The last thing I want to see is a PlayStation 4 or the next Xbox next year. That would be bad. I can't speak for everybody, but I certainly... You know, in the first part of this year, playing Heavy Rain, Final Fantasy XIII, Bayonetta, God of War. I don't feel like I'm looking at these games and going, "Geez. I want something that looks twice as good as this right now." SS: Yeah. They're not looking dated. And like I said, people are learning how to make these look better. The more time you have, the better they're going to look. Sure, when the next-gen hardware comes along, it's going to look awesome... Initially. And then you'll have a lot of expectations of what it can actually do, and five years into the cycle, they'll get to there. But I don't think we need to rush it. It's like every time a new generation comes out, [nobody's happy] in a developer's office. It's always like "Oh, great." It's always doom and gloom because publishers don't know what they're spending money on, they're cutting back on last-gen development because apparently as soon as a next-gen console comes up, all previous generations stop. People stop playing games for them. It just stops dead. They're all going to want next-gen games. I know that's not the way it works. There's going to be early adopters and it grows. So, it's not that whole "Let's grow this market while we keep this one going." It's like "That stops dead. We'll just work on that one because it's pretty and shiny." Yeah, if we do get 10 years, maybe the publishers will learn this time. And they'll go, "Okay, we'll spend some more money and make a good next-gen title. Keep the current gens going. We already have stuff there." PlayStation was like... [laughs] When LucasArts asked us, "Well, you know, are you happy just doing the PlayStation 2 version of Force Unleashed?", we were like, "Why wouldn't you do that?" It's like, "Uh, 11 million PlayStation 2s. You have a big audience out there to get at." So, yeah, I think I'd like to see them stay longer of have a really smart move to the next generation.

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