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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Interview: The Kickstarter stretch run on MechRunner

Interview by Nick H. 

MechRunner is nearing the end of its Kickstarter campaign, and while the early returns look promising so far, they still have a small ways to go. This is a science fiction title that tries to blend genre types, with plenty of endless running, power-ups and yes, even boss fights.

Digitally Downloaded had a chance to chat with a trio of team members:

John O’Neill (JO) - President of Spark Plug Games
Ben Lichius (BL) - VP and Art Director of Spark Plug Games
Josh Nizzi (JN) - Entertainment Designer

With time winding down on the Kickstarter, we asked the team about their inspirations, goals and more.

Digitally Downloaded (DD): What are your priorities for the next year?
JO: If you mean 2015, we’ll be hard at work doing any number of things; a follow-up to MechRunner, launching and supporting Firefly Online, building a 20 foot version of the XP-41 model from MechRunner (maybe) and planning for more fun games that we want to work on and play.

DD: Looking back at the library of titles at Spark Plug Games, there is a lot of variety – including a personal favorite of mine, Puzzle Quest 2. What was the inspiration behind a giant robot in an endless runner? 

JO: We’ve definitely had a great time exploring a number of game genres and target audiences, and with MechRunner we wanted to get back to our ‘gamer roots’ and explore just a good ‘ol arcade style game.  Ben and I worked on the original console version of Robotech many years ago, so there’s a great deal of inspiration that we pulled from the fun we had in building that game.  The idea of being able to jump right in, blow some stuff up, upgrade your mech, blow some more stuff up, lather-rinse-repeat, was very appealing.  We really wanted to explore the idea of a more agile mech than we usually see in games as well.

BL: The XP-41 is closer to piloting a stylised mech from Zone of the Enders than what you see more traditional Western mech games. It’s partly the Macross/Robotech influence that John mentioned, but we wanted something that was fast and fun to play, not something slow and plodding.

DD: Some of the unlockable content teased on the Kickstarter included skins, upgrades and achievements. What kind of upgrades are we looking at here?
BL: Upgrades are mostly weapons but you can also upgrade the number of inventory slots you have for powerups and the number of slots you have for carrying civilians (at the start of the game you can only carry two at a time). As for weapons, you have cannons and missiles in tank mode and swords and guns in robot mode and all of those are upgradeable. And you can either upgrade your current weapons or wait and purchase newer models and upgrade those as well. So there are a lot of options.

DD: There are lots of talk on the page about weapons such as heat seeking missiles, lasers and bombs – any personal favourites out of those tools so far?
JO: Who doesn’t like having heat seeking missiles on a laser bomb? But my personal favourite is the heavy missiles, EMP pulse cannon, and plasma axe. It just feels mighty.

BL: I think I like the splash missiles, heavy cannons, arm mounted laser cannons, and plasma scythes. Like a big, metal grim reaper!

JN: Arm lasers are definitely my favourite.  They are crazy powerful - probably something we should tone down actually...

DD: The game is coming to Steam, PlayStation 4 and Vita – what about Xbox One or Wii U? Any chance you will be looking to bring the title over to those other platforms?
JO: We made a very conscious decision, both on this title and everything else we build as a studio, to leverage the strength of a middleware solution to allow us to target multiple platforms.  In this case, we chose Unity as the team had a great deal of experience with it on previous projects, and it allows us to target pretty much everything Unity supports. However, when we want to target a new platform, we want to make sure it’s not just a straight port, but a tailored experience that takes advantage of the features on that platform. So long story short, yes we’d love to support Xbox One and Wii U at some point in the future. And of course, helping us with the Kickstarter will push those things sooner!

DD: Obviously there has been some excitement over your collaboration with Josh Nizzi, who has some substantial credits to his name such as Transformers, Wolverine, Thor and Iron Man. How did that partnership come to pass? Did you approach him, he find out about the game and reach out to your team?
JO: Josh is a good friend and we’ve known each other for a couple of years. He has a funny story to tell about that one, and I’ll let him give his version. But as far as working together, it’s really what got Ben and I excited about doing a focused, action-oriented game because we knew Josh would bring so much amazing experience and talent to the brand. We’re really proud of the end result, and I think the quality comes from not only the talent that Josh has artistically, but also the passion for creating something new.

JN: Ha, John is too nice. He and I met years ago and talked about about working on something together but the timing wasn’t right for either of us. About a year and a half ago I ran into him at the gym and he told me about the idea for MechRunner. I loved the concept, and everything seemed to come together perfectly to make it happen. I’m certainly glad it did.

DD: What would you say has been the biggest challenge in getting MechRunner off of the ground so far?
JO: The biggest challenge I think I’ve had personally is the massive amount of juggling that you have to do as a small developer.  I love doing game development and coding, but when you’re working with a small team you have to wear so many hats in the process and there’s always something else that needs to be done. When you care so much about a new brand and game like MechRunner, you want everything to be perfect and you find that there’s never enough time in the day to do everything on the list. 

From a technical perspective, we started the project focusing on building the best possible visual experience and treatment for the incredible looking art that Josh was creating. We got it looking gorgeous first, and then focused on making it load with the billion+ polygons on screen (just kidding.)

BL: A game like MechRunner comes with so much potential that it can be hard to stay focused on the scope of the game that’s in front of you. Almost every feature that goes in could easily have multiple more layers added to it and there’s no end to the number of cool things you can think to put in the game. So we really had to make a conscious effort to pick and choose where that layering happened and when to let those “aha” moments in through the gates. I think the game is ultimately better for it, but it makes you itch for a sequel and a chance to see all that stuff on the screen someday.

JN: I agree with John that the juggling of work has been the biggest challenge. I have no idea what Ben is talking about, that stuff is easy...

DD: Let’s turn that around and ask what has been the most rewarding experience to the process so far?
JO: Being able to create a completely new brand around an idea that we came up with, inspired by games we like to play and art that we like to see has been the real reward for me.  Oh, and having the cinematic “YES!” moments when you slice up an enemy tank with your giant plasma axes, that’s a really win as well.
BL: Seeing all the parts work together and how each one really adds to the total experience of the game. It’s rewarding when you get that in a game. Nothing feels superfluous or throw-away. Also, getting to work with Josh has been fantastic. His passion and talent are pretty inspiring.
JN: I know it sounds like a lame Ms. America answer, but I think the process has been one of the most rewarding things for me.  Making this game has been fun.  It’s pretty great to see what we’ve been able to make with such a small team.  It’s a game I would buy in a heartbeat.

DD: Are there any development teams or specific games out there that have been inspiring the team as they have worked on MechRunner?
JO: Oh wow...the list is long and I know I don’t have enough room to shout-out to all of them. I will say that the local North Carolina Triangle area development teams are very supportive and good friends of ours; groups like Insomniac, Imangi, Mighty Rabbits, Empty Flask, Katsu Entertainment, Red Storm, Epic, Vicious Cycle, Relevant Games, and many more.  And of course our friends over at Unity Technologies and Unity Games have been instrumental in helping us get MechRunner to become a reality. Tracy Alan from Unity is one person who has believed in us from the beginning, and he helped us get this whole thing going.

BL: For the game, specifically, I think we drew the most influence from the old Robotech games that John and I worked on while at Vicious Cycle. I had a lot of fun making those games, and we really wanted the spirit of those games to be there for MechRunner.

JN: I have a number of friends at some big studios like Blizzard, Bungie and Epic that have given some great feedback.  I’m pretty much inspired by everything those guys do.

DD: Spark Plug Games has the Firefly MMO coming soon as well. These are a pair of pretty substantial science fiction offerings. Has it been tough to balance the two projects or not? Any points of inspiration being shared or lessons learned from one that you can apply to the other in development?
JO: Fortunately, we have two different teams working on each of these games, as many development studios do have more than one active project at time. There’s definitely a shared knowledge pool in how to make games efficiently using a middleware platform like Unity, and hopefully both communities between the Firefly and MechRunner audience see the passion and value we add to the other game. These are both the types of games we love to build and love to play, so the biggest lesson to be pulled in this case is that you always get a better game when you love what you do.  And we certainly do!

BL: Also, Firefly has a pretty well established canon of material that’s inspiring, but also comes with boundaries. MechRunner is our own thing, so we get to make it up as we go. It makes balancing projects easier when they each live in their own worlds.

JN: What? They told me this was their only game! What else have you guys been hiding?

DD: Finally, what games are you playing currently?
JO: You mean aside from playing MechRunner? Currently I’m playing Guacamelee! on Vita and Banished on Steam. And maybe a little bit of Titanfall on Xbox One, purely for “research” purposes.

BL: I spend most of my game time playing games that other developers I know are working on. Right now I’m stuck on ‘Scrap Squad’ for mobile by the chaps at Relevant Games. I also spend a lot of time offline trying not to let my six year old beat me at checkers.

JN: I’m kind of bouncing around a lot right now - The Last of Us, Titanfall, Far Cry Blood Dragon, XCOM: Enemy Within, Killzone Shadow Fall, and a tonne of mobile games.

- Nick H.
US Editor
Interview: The Kickstarter stretch run on MechRunner
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