It’s Friday already folks, and that means it’s time to chat with another indie studio about an upcoming project. This week, we’re highlighting an amazing team called Witch Beam. Based in Brisbane Australia, these men decided to leave the world of “AAA” console titles behind in favor of the more intimate setting of indie development. Witch Beam is comprised of 3D animator Tim Dawson, Designer Sanatana Mishra, and BAFTA award-winning composer Jeff Van Dyck (I’m sure you all can figure out his role on the team.)
Their premiere game is a twin-stick shooter titled Assault Android Cactus. Now before anyone does a double take or has a brain aneurysm trying to make sense of those three words that don’t seemingly belong together, allow me to explain: AAC, or Cactus for short, is about a girl named Cactus, and she is an assault android. See? Makes perfect sense. To find out more about Witch Beam and their game, I spoke to the team after their recent trip to PAX Australia. Our conversation ranged from discussing the team’s motivations to indie development in general, including the culture that permeates the rapidly-growing indie community. Take a look:
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IGX Pro: How did you guys wind up forming your own studio and collaborating on Cactus? Walk me through your first conversation about the process.
Sanatana Mishra: I think the conversation dates back to 2011 when Tim and I started to feel uneasy about the future of Sega Studios Australia. We began working on prototypes together in our spare time and bringing them in to work as pitches for new projects. We must have worked well together because they ended up awarding us the Castle of Illusion HD project and keeping the studio open!
But it wasn’t until around the end of last year that we started to talk about quitting our jobs and going full-time indie with our life savings. We really wanted to make focused games that offered a best-in-class experience for their niche; the opposite of the approach we were forced to take at major studios. You only have so many chances to go after the things you really want in life and we were at a cross-roads: We could either pursue our dream projects with no safety net but people we trust, or get new jobs at another big studio and hope for the best. In the end we decided to risk it all and give independent development a real shot.
Cactus is actually a character Tim came up with some years ago and then prototyped in Unity to teach himself how to program, but it was quite a large project that he wasn’t confident tackling on his own so it wasn’t until we started working together that things really clicked and it became the game you see today. One of the first things we realized after starting development was that neither of us had a clue about audio and so we asked our friend and former colleague Jeff for help in finding a composer. To our delight, he asked to join instead and we formed the three person team Witch Beam!
Tim Dawson: I’m an animator by profession but dabbled in modeling, illustration and programming, so I cover a lot of roles on Cactus. I met Sanatana at Sega Australia and was impressed by his skills at Street Fighter and his passion for game design. I felt like people weren’t taking him seriously and we collaborated on a few different projects, including some internal prototypes and later a small free game called Antibody. We worked well together and pursuing indie development seemed like a logical step.
IGX: How long have you been developing Cactus for? Was it a more recent idea, or something that’s been on your minds for a while now?
Tim: We have been developing Cactus full time since February this year, but the original prototype started as something to keep me occupied after the games studio I was at shut down in early 2009.
Cactus bubbled away as my side project and helped me learn more about 3D programming and even got put on hold when I accepted a permanent position, but everyone I had shown it to was adamant I should do something with it so it was always in the back of my mind.
The character itself is even older, from 2003; she was an energetic, somewhat weapon-crazed android with a strong sense of justice, and I always thought she would make a fun game character.
IGX: Twin stick shooters have grown to encapsulate an entire genre that’s seemingly timeless. Why do you think these types of games are so appealing?
Tim: I think they’re a very pure type of action game. Twin stick lets enemies approach you from every side, or move through an environment in an arbitrary non-linear way. First-person shooters also have this trait, but their perspective makes them more claustrophobic with an emphasis on which way you’re facing rather than what you’re doing.
A top-down camera, and the ability to aim in all directions is a strong foundation to build on top of; which is probably why it gets revisited so often.
IGX: Let’s be honest, it’s easier to find a twin stick shooter to play than spare change in the couch cushions. What does Cactus bring to the table to separate itself from the pack?
Tim: I think it’s easy to find twin stick shooters, but not so easy to find ones that have the kind of arcade style focus and flow that Cactus has. I’m proud of the intensity we’ve managed to achieve, and that careening aggressively through a stage isn’t just viable, it’s the optimal way to play. Our mechanics are structured around making the game accessible, but with a satisfyingly high skill ceiling. This isn’t something I see a lot of these days.
In terms of what we’re bringing to the table, the most visible aspects are the way the game starts resembling a manic shooter as the intensity climbs, and the dynamic arenas. The stage that builds itself out of blocks is a crowd favorite, but every level have something that gives it an identity and theme; be it reconfiguring geometry, new enemy variants, environmental hazards, or all of the above. And the soundtrack is awesome.
IGX: Jeff, you’re no stranger to putting together a video game soundtrack. Given the frenetic nature of the genre though, how does composing music for AAC differ from something like the Total War franchise, if at all?
Jeff Van Dyck: Composing for the Total War franchise is obviously quite different to AAC. Within the TW series, the musical rules of the relevant culture and time period need to be historically accurate. There’s also an expectation of a live orchestral, cinematic and ‘Hollywood’ production style. In the campaign mode it’s about writing ‘thinking’ music. In the battle mode the battles tend to have a long tense build up period. It’s only during the frenetic battles would these two games cross paths, but only in the sense that it’s a moment of mayhem.
Composing for AAC has it’s own rules in the sense that we’ve decided on an electronic musical style. The songs can’t be too long, otherwise we only hear half of it before the level finishes. We’re also using a custom interactive music system where we change the intensity of the music based on how the player is performing. If you’re kicking ass, so will the music. If you’re playing safely, the music will calm down. So when I’m writing I have to consider this and write multiple versions of each part of the song at different dynamic levels.
For me, composing on AAC is a blast cause it’s been a long time since I’ve written electronic music. I started my career years ago doing electronic and industrial music for games like EA Sports NHL and Need for Speed. It feels familiar and fun. With the positive feedback we’ve received on the music so far, we’ll be releasing a soundtrack along with the game as well.
IGX: You guys showed off Cactus for the first time at PAX Australia. How was that experience?
Sanatana: At first it was nerve racking, but having gamers of all types come up and play Cactus turned out to be one of the most incredible and memorable experiences of my life. We had 5 year old’s playing with their parents, and when they finished they rushed to grab a flyer so they could remember the game! We even had one group like Cactus so much they came back three times in one day, bringing new friends each time to show them ‘The best game at the show.’
I love that PAX is a melting pot of gamers, press, and all kinds of developers; it has certainly helped us with a ton of exposure and increased our drive to finish the game and get it in people’s hands. I’d also like to say thanks to Horize & Frag Labs laptops who put us up at their booth for free to support Cactus!
Tim: Sanatana did most of PAX, although for me it was the second time showing Cactus in public, as I had flown down to Adelaide the weekend before to show it at the Indie Games Room at AVCon.
Both conventions were amazing in different ways: I had a cosy set up at AVCon, four chairs arranged in front of a big TV, and a ton of people coming by or drawn from across the room by the visuals. Like Sanatana’s PAX experience, this was pretty nerve wracking but also very rewarding. It was amazing to see people really connect with the game and want to return for another go, or bring their friends over to see it. I had game devs coming up and trading stories, students asking for advice, and gamers wanting to know what the later levels were going to be like.
And PAX was just huge. So many people, and the reaction was so positive. Like Sanatana mentioned, our flyers just evaporated and we ended the show handing out business cards just so people had a web address to look up. It really gave me the feeling that we’re doing something right with this game.
IGX: On the game’s website, you guys do a tremendous job of detailing the behind-the-scenes design process. Is there a particular reason behind providing such a comprehensive breakdown?
Tim: I like to be open about what I’m working on! When I ran a webcomic, I used to love sharing work-in-progress material and talking with my readers about what I was up to. But in the games industry, everything is very hush hush. I have spent years working on unannounced projects that NDA’s prevented me from even naming, and if they got cancelled they vanished without a trace.
Making games is my passion, I don’t want to be locked away in a room keeping things secret because I don’t think it results in better games. I think the more people see of Cactus, the more they’ll like it.
IGX: Assuming the best case scenario, once you’re Greenlit on Steam, what other platforms could AAC potentially release for? What’s next on the priority list?
Sanatana: I think it would be great to see Cactus on home consoles; we know it plays great on control pads and it’s a very social game, so they just make sense. In terms of specific platforms, I think Nintendo and Sony are doing great things for the indie scene so the Wii U, PS4, and Vita all very appealing. Since we’re a tiny team, we’re looking into the logistics of each platform before we commit to anything, and we’re focused on making a great PC game right now.
We actually looked into Microsoft’s platforms in the past but at the time they had a very strict policy about self publishing and no interest in publishing Cactus themselves. Things are changing now but I think you can understand why I’m not prioritizing the platform holder who turned us down and only changed their policies after a worldwide backlash.
IGX: Speaking of the Steam Greenlight program, do you have any thoughts about the way it works? In terms of indie development, is having community-backed support preferable over traditional methods of publishing?
Tim: Greenlight is a fantastic concept, but has its flaws. In theory, it pulls down barriers to entry and gives anyone a chance to be on Steam based on the merits of their game. In practice, the sheer number of votes currently required to reach the top 100 demands a savvy media campaign, or making use of some kind of brand recognition.
Old methods typically involved convincing industry folk that your game had worth. This is tough for indies when their titles are unconventional, don’t fit pre-established molds, or are serving new demographics. Letting the public decide is a great way for the community to filter the games they want to play, but there’s a tendency for large groups to act surprisingly conservatively by jumping on bandwagons and supporting things that seem similar to the things they already like. It can be a bit like expecting American Idol to discover all the good musicians.
I don’t know what the solution is, though, but Valve seem aware of the issues and I have a lot of faith in those guys to keep making improvements.
IGX: Cactus currently supports local co-op. What other potential multiplayer plans are being discussed at this point?
Tim: Network play is the elephant in the room, and has been discussed a lot. It’s really a technical issue; our game has so many moving parts and wasn’t built to work across multiple clients, so there’s a lot of data to keep synchronized. It is something I’ve thought about, and have some plans for, but our team is so small and so stretched as it is that there’s no way it could fit into the schedule. It’s something I’ve been pretty up front about, and I think it cost us a bunch of votes on Greenlight!
Earlier in development we experimented with a Deathmatch mode, but it lacked the spark that made Cactus fun, so it was abandoned. I’m keen to explore some hot-seat gameplay modes – we have one we play when we have friends over where we split into teams of two, pick characters and a stage, and see which team gets the highest score. Loser gets to pick the next stage and characters. It’s really fun and I’d love to add it as a proper game mode, but it’s a bit up in the air at the moment.
IGX: Speaking as a gamer who grew up with Sega consoles at home, and considering both Tim and Sanatana have worked for Sega at one time or another, I have to ask: Given the resurgence of the console’s popularity in regards to shoot ‘em ups and twin stick shooters, why the heck haven’t you announced a version of AAC for the Dreamcast yet?
Sanatana: Haha, oh boy this is a good question. Yes I am a huge Sega fan, yes we all worked at Sega (Jeff too!), and yes I would love to see Assault Android Cactus on the Dreamcast. Unfortunately, Unity doesn’t run on the Dreamcast and it would be a ton of work to get the game performing the way we want on that system; because obviously a Dreamcast game should run at 60fps!
A good friend of mine named Manu Evans, who was a lead programmer at Krome Studios and an engine programmer at Remedy, actually wrote his own engine and it runs on the Dreamcast. One of our more ludicrous dreams is that Cactus becomes immensely successful and we can take time off to port it to his engine, tweak it, and release it as one of the last ever Dreamcast games.
IGX: Self publishing is becoming a big deal in the console world, and indie gaming is often stealing the show at popular conventions such as PAX. Why do you think the indie scene has become so popular in recent years?
Sanatana: A big part if it has to do with ‘AAA’ (and now Microsoft’s ‘AAAA’) game development costs spiraling out of control, which causes the big publishers to take less and less risks and make more of the same style of games. This leaves a big opening for new and unique games, or games that excel in their niche like Cactus. I don’t think every game needs to cost $100 million or have 3 sequels and companion apps planned out!
I really think we’re just at the start of indie gaming’s popularity curve. With the major platforms all becoming more open and great engines like Unity opening up game development to people of all walks of life, we’re very close to a sort of indie game golden age. Creativity is the key to success in this industry and it seems like the big publishers have forgotten that.
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To get the latest updates on the status of Assault Android Cactus, be sure to check out the game’s official website. Additionally, more information can be found on Witch Beam’s IndieDB page. If you like what Cactus is all about, you can show your support for the game by voting for it on Steam Greenlight, liking it on Facebook, and following along on Twitter.
I got to spend some time with an early build of Cactus and I’ve got to admit, there’s a lot to be excited about. The action is frantically fun, the music adapts to your playstyle, always managing to suit the mood, and the four characters that were playable all had a unique flavor to them. Each android(ess?) has her own unique primary and secondary weapon, and the variety of enemy types and boss encounters ensure that, while each girl could hold her own at any given point, there are certain advantages to playing certain stages with certain androids… most certainly. Bottom line: I highly recommend checking out what Witch Beam’s got brewing.
Are you folks planning on checking out Assault Android Cactus? Do you enjoy getting a behind-the-scenes look at game development and the industry itself? With self-publishing becoming a major factor for next-gen consoles, what upcoming indie game projects are you most looking forward to? Let us know in the comments section, and don’t forget to like IGXPro on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or give us the ‘ol +1 on Google+. If you can’t get enough of my shenanigans, (who could blame you?) you can check me out @GamingsNirvana, or add +VinnyParisi to your circles.