After spending some time with Super TIME Force at PAX, I talked to two of the creators of the game. Kenneth Yeung, Tech Director at Capybara Games, and Sean Lohrisch, Co-Founder and Audio Director at Capybara Games, talked with me about the origin of Super TIME Force, how to balance difficulties, and how they want Super TIME Force to be remembered in the video game record books.
Piki Geek (PG): Ken, what is your role in Super TIME Force?
Kenneth Yeung (K): I guess I’m the programmer on this game. Coder, designer. It’s a small team. There’s me, the designer, and two artists that work on the game.
PG: Basic mechanic in this game is time. To progress, you end up dying and going through the same part six or seven times with dead allies. What’s the inspiration for this?
K: It’s an interesting story on how this game came about. Every year in Toronto there’s a game jam, the T.O. Jam. They give you a theme a week before the game starts. Last year’s was “What just happened?” The way I interpreted that was that it meant to go back in time and see exactly what happened. We wanted the gameplay to be straightforward, but the time element thing to be complex. So we picked a basic game like Contra to apply this time element to since everyone knows the Contra fundamentals. Then from there we tried to build on top we saw what else we could do crazy with time manipulation sort of built up from that idea.
PG: Was there ever a point where you wanted the user to be able to rewind time any time they could? Similar to Braid.
K: I guess we experimented with something like that, but the more we did the more it became a strategy and tactical game. It kind of got away from the action part. So there’s two ways we could have taken the game, either really strategy or really actioney. So I think what we’re trying to do is find some place in the middle where players can do all this time stuff, but not really manage things.
PG: Capybara Games has a puzzle background. So, will there be times a fallen hero has to stand on a button to allow a comrade to pass through an area?
Sean Lohrisch (S): It’s still pretty early on so we’re doing a lot of experimenting. The save feature where you can save a guy from dying and create a quasi-checkpoint just went in three days ago. Before that, when you saved someone you got a life back. Gaining a life seemed worthwhile enough, but not as effective as knowing that if you die you can resume from the point that person’s life was saved, a kind of backup in a previous timeline. So you can hopefully get some scenarios where players are leapfrogging over one another and you have two timelines working together. The levels are pretty intense and one shot kills you.
PG: I’m guessing that was on purpose?
K: Yeah, classic platformer mechanics is something we’re implementing to keep the game familiar. We don’t want to overwhelm players with too many features. We designed the game to be a two button game, so the fact that people can pick it up and instantly play is something we want.
PG: Are you worried that the time mechanic can be too complicated? Because when I was playing you want to keep going and at first it’s frustrating until you realize it’s all about teamwork.
K: I guess that’s the balance between making it challenging and frustrating. We have to make the design so it’s not overwhelmingly difficult and we also want to make sure that every situation can be completed with one character. If you’re crazy. So that’s our goal is to have this concept of single-player teamwork, but also let players complete the game with one character. Which will be tough because usually that’s mutually exclusive.
S: Level design will be key. Once we get the basic fundamentals down we want to work on employing some cool interesting things. I’m very curious to see the level design once more designers get involved.
PG: I’ve seen this mechanic in a few flash games. Have you seen the one where you control the mouse and click on stairs?
K: Yes! Curosr 10! I didn’t hear about it until after Super TIME Force was revealed. I checked it out last night and it’s awesome.
PG: It’s the same concept where you can’t progress anymore unless you have a team member.
K: So I guess what we want to do is make sure you’re never in a situation where you can’t progress. In Cursor 10, you get to a spot where you have to stop, click on a thing, and wait until someone can click on this other thing. We want to do that same coolness of working together, but we don’t want our players to have to wait. More action.
PG: What have you learned from Critter Crunch, Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes, and Sword and Sworcery that you can apply to this?
K: I guess coming from a puzzle background you get a good sense about how to introduce concepts to the player at a steady pace. Those things are important to this game to keep people engaged. Let the player use what they already know in a different way at one spot, introduce another guy here, I think that’s important to this game.
S: I think it’s important to not be afraid to take things away from players. To put up some invisible walls, so to speak, of limitation. If we give you access to a certain character during a certain segment you’ll breeze through this section. So we’ll restrict that character to try and steer the fun. Sometimes, if it’s too free flowing it can become too much of a player brute forcing their way through the game.
PG: That’s something I noticed in Critter Crunch. I played a lot, but I got to the same point where you’re introducing all these concepts, but it got too overwhelming for me. This is too much to look at at once.
S: We were trying to make sure it didn’t get stale too quickly. I was the producer on that one and Ken worked as a programmer on the very original version when it was on Java Phones. We were trying to give little reward, new power-ups, new enemies, to keep it fresh, but there’s always that risk that you give too much to people, or make people sit through one too many tutorials. On the PSN version we actually stripped away some of the tutorials because we felt that it was too overbearing. I think people actually like just figuring things out. In Sword & Sworcery there’s a that sense of “let’s just let the player play for a bit.” Hopefully that frustration never builds, and they’ll say, “Oh okay, this is how it works,” and they’ll move along.
PG: In Sword & Sworcery I got to the point where I had no idea where to go next. Kind of the opposite approach to Critter Crunch. I could explore the world and Tweet anything I wanted, which was kind of brilliant in a way.
S: That tweeting actually got out of hand. We had to encourage people to moderate their amount of tweeting. Around the time it launched there was a bit of a Twitter storm that upset some people. It was great for getting people aware of the product, but hopefully never to be repeated at that level. It was good for us and we learned a little lesson there. Back to difficulty, when we started out we were doing Java cellphone games and we really had to handhold. We started off feeling the need that we really had to teach everything because of causal players who may not be willing to explore as much.
K: I think that’s a trend in gaming that I don’t really like. I like the days back in Nintendo where you’re just thrown in the game, you’re not told anything. I think that there’s something about figuring a game out that is part of the experience. Minimal tutorials where the player figures out the mechanics, that’s where the excitement is.
PG: So, are you a Dark Souls fan?
K: I haven’t played it myself and everyone else in the office plays it. I think it’s awesome.
S: That’s the kind of thing where they could just give you checkpoints, but they say no, we’re going to put some limitations in to force you to feel the fear of dying in this area. For fear that you’ll lose your 10,000 souls and I like that. I guess not everyone is willing to struggle through that. The way one person described it to me is when you play through you gain knowledge. And when you die you get a little more knowledge and you know you’re not powerful enough to go down there yet and you’re constantly learning. I guess people that really love it don’t feel like they’re in a grind or tracing through the same area over and over again. Every time they’re learning a little more and by the end they’re super powerful and able to mow through the guys.
PG: I guess there’s this idea that you have all these casual gamers, so you want your game to be accessible on all levels what do you do then? Do you make everyone sit through a tutorial?
K: You can’t do that to everyone because they’re on different ends of a spectrum, it’s tough.
S: Especially if you do a sequel. If we did Critter Crunch 2 then that’s the concern, do we have to retrain everyone. For someone that hasn’t played Critter Crunch 1, how do you train them? It’s going to be boring for someone who’s already played it and has to sit through those tutorials again.
PG: As far as Super TIME Force, how do you want this game to be remembered? After launch, three years from now you want people to look back and say…?
K: I want people to see this as a throwback for crazy platformers and shooters. That’s one thing. And also, the concept of this time manipulation stuff is the other. Two vastly different things that were mashed together and made to work.
S: I see the old-school mixed with modern ideas.
K: You can even see that in the art style. It’s kind of pixel art, but it doesn’t look like Nintendo. It’s kind of modern-retro-art.
PG: About that art style, Capybara Games always seems to have incredible art. I really love the look of Super TIME Force. Is that a decision made at the beginning?
K: It actually has a lot to do with where we came from. We started with Java Cell Phone games, so a lot of the artist are doing pixel arts because of limitations. There was no other option. So, we got use to working in that way. For Critter Crunch we upped it a little bit to hand drawn animations instead. We didn’t make a big jump from pixels to 3D, it didn’t make sense. In doing that we found our niche. Really high-fidelity 2D art that can be done with pixels, or hand animated stuff.
S: Lush, Disney-Esque, saturday morning cartoon. I don’t know how to describe it, exactly. We love Pixel art, all our guys do. Metal Slug is probably the pinnacles of pixel art. One of the artist is always doing pixel art. Our whole studio generally loves pixel art. We stepped away from pixel art for a while and I guess it made sense to return to it for the game jam.
K: In a game jam you want to do things that allow you to finish the game as fast as possible so when these sprites are two pixels tall it gives artist the ability to pump out enough stuff to put in the game. So we just kind of ran with it.
S: Down the line we’ll probably look at additional effects, maybe some particle work, try and merge that in with pixel art in a nice way.
K: Yeah! See how we can merge modern day graphical techniques with pixel art because that’s kind of another way we’re meshing the two eras.
PG: This game seems like your bridging the modern era and old-school at every corner?
K: Yeah. I guess that’s what it kind of boils down to.