Interview: Beatnik Games on Plain Sight and Dealing With XNA
With the recent announcement of Plain Sight, a new game being created using Microsoft's XNA programming structure, Gamasutra sister site GamerBytes got in contact with Robin Lacey over at Beatnik Games to ask get to know more about this game, how it all works, and how they've been working with XNA - the ups and the downs.
First of all, thank you for doing this interview. Straight up - who are you and what is Beatnik Games?
Robin Lacey: My name is Robin Lacey. We don’t really have job titles at Beatnik Games, but I suppose the closest match for my role would be ‘producer.’ The way I see it, my job is to make certain that this game is finished on time, on budget and is fun to play. Everyone here has a heavy hand in the game creation process. For this reason no one has taken the title of ‘designer’.
Beatnik Games was set up by me and an old friend, Damien Cerri, about a year ago; we moved into our office in January and started working on Plain Sight a few weeks later. Additionally there are four others guys currently working with us full time: two programmers (Lawrence Bishop and Alex Ashby), and two artists (Hin Nim and Sam Jacobs).
What’s unusual about Beatnik Games is that we’re not hardened industry veterans (the age range in the office is between 24 and 26). The way I see it, everyone here knows how to do their job and do it to a very high standard – as long as people can do that, age and experience is immaterial.
You've just announced your first title, Plain Sight. Give us a rundown of what we can expect once the game is released?
RL: When telling people about Plain Sight, the first thing we do is explain the rules:
1) You’re a small glowing robot. You’re small because you have one point.
2) You can get more points by killing other robots with your sword and stealing their points.
3) The more points you get, the bigger, faster and brighter you get.
4) However, these points don’t count towards your final score until you bank them. To get your points into your bank you have to blow yourself up.
5) The bigger you are, the bigger the bomb. The more players you take out, the higher the multiplier.
6) Respawn and repeat.
7) At the end of the round the player with the highest banked score wins.
The idea is to present a game with as clear a ‘risk and reward’ mechanic as possible: You get more powerful with every player you take out, but likewise you become a bigger and brighter target for someone to swoop in and kill, thus stealing all your hard earned points. If the competition gets too close, you can detonate at any time but then have to start again from scratch, but if you hold out for just a few more kills, you can access bonuses to give you the edge.
How many players are able to fight against each other online?
RL: Currently we’ve had up to ten people playing. However by that point we ran out of computers – so, we’re hoping to get a lot more than that...
How does the combat work in the game? How do you balance out the sword combat with the ability to blow yourself up?
RL: Melee combat in the game is very simple: ‘attack’, ‘block’ and ‘one hit kills’. It was originally going to be a more complex kind of ‘dueling’ system, but there were a couple of problems with that. One was that online melee combat is hard to do well at the best of times, let alone with a skeleton crew dev team, the other was that we wanted Plain Sight to have a feeling of continual momentum; that every second wasted was a second lost, but long drawn out sword battles tend to disrupt this flow and encourage other players to loiter until they can mop up the eventual winner. So, we decided to nip both of these potential problems in the bud and opt for a more immediate and arcade-y style.
At first we were worried that stripping the combat this aggressively would take away from the depth of the game, but from our test sessions I’m glad to say that it isn’t proving to be an issue. It seems that, although we’ve dramatically reduced the player’s actions, we force them to explore as many possible uses for those actions as they can in order to gain an advantage. It’s great seeing the strategies that emerge from that one simple necessity.
Because the combat is as simple to tackle as the detonations themselves, both tactics get brought closer together in terms of risks and rewards. With a complex combat system, players would detonate themselves after only a couple of kills rather than risk losing it all in a long winded and highly volatile fight. Now that the outcome of each fight is more easily assessable and quickly resolved, there’s less hesitation over risking your points for the benefits you’ll gain if you win. Even so, I particularly like that the lowliest player can still take on a giant fiery robot and steal its points with a single stroke; it’s harder to pull off than against a low-scoring player, but completely do-able and satisfying as hell.
How do you get new weapons in the game? When does a game "end"?
With the current fighting system the only difference between killing a player with a sword or, let’s say, a golf club is aesthetic. Although you essentially ‘power-up’ by killing other players, we’re also throwing in a bunch of pickups dotted around the levels to give you a boost when you’re in a tight spot.
The game can end based on a time limit or a maximum number of points. We’re currently mucking around with a few game mode ideas. One of the most popular ones is what we call ‘King Kong’ mode – it’s basically a re-enactment of the final scene of the movie. Honestly, we don’t know if that’s going to make the final cut, but the game clearly has a lot of potential for innovative gameplay types and we’re always open to new ideas.
Is there a single player mode at all, or strictly multiplayer?
RL: At the moment it’s multiplayer only. This is mostly due to time constraints. We’d love to implement AI but at the moment our primary focus is getting a solid multiplayer game out.
The game seems to have some crazy physics - using entire "planets" as the level like Ratchet & Clank 2 or Super Mario Galaxy. Has this been a difficult challenge for you?
RL: Simply put, yes. We’ve implemented a few styles of gravity at the moment: In one you are drawn towards a planet in pretty much the way you would expect – you can run and jump around its surface quite freely even if it’s an unintuitive shape like the cube city level from the trailer. Another always draws you down towards and surface below your feet – essentially this allows you to run up curved walls and makes for some pretty bizarre interior levels. Lastly there is gravity which we simply set to be one particular direction for different parts of a level.
All of these gravity styles have opened up many level ideas for us, it’s crazy. Your mind is constantly being bent as you try to comprehend how different players are interacting with the world in seemingly impossible ways. It is not uncommon for you to be running along a corridor only to be overtaken by another player rocketing past you in mid-air, because from his perspective he just jumped down a vertical hole, not the horizontal passageway that you see.
Players can make the buildings and roads light up when they jump on them. What does this do?
RL: One of the fundamental ideas behind Plain Sight was that you are always in ‘plain sight’. When making a multiplayer game I believe there always has to be an incentive to keep moving. Counterstrike is a great example of this. Yes, you can camp in the corner, but certain game mechanics (such as bomb defusing, etc.) keep most players on the move.
With Plain Sight everyone can always see you. Not only that, but they can also see from the colour of your body, your light trail, and the building you’re standing on how many unbanked points you have and, therefore, how many they can steal from you. Naturally, you want to kill these high-scoring players because it will allow you, with a single blow, to get bigger and better without having to slowly work your way up the ladder of other low-scoring players. Of course, you’re not the only player to have that idea; everyone else will be after the grand prize, and it’s entirely possible that the guy they’re chasing is luring them in to a cunning and exploding trap.
The game is being made using Microsoft's XNA platform. What is your opinion of it so far, in terms of the ups and downs on developing for it?
RL: The programmers both agree it’s fantastic that Microsoft have put these tools out there for people to develop simultaneously on PC and Xbox, for free. There’s a great community around it trying things out and building various different libraries to share and use in each other’s games. Even without any kind of endorsement from Microsoft, we have received fantastic support from the team behind XNA. There only a couple of negatives from our point of view: one is that the requirements to play XNA games (the XNA framework, .NET, DirectX) have still not been assembled into a single easily distributable package and makes it harder for us to send the game out for people to take a quick look at (even the most recent release of Vista lacks these requirements out of the box), the other is that developing for XNA does mean a port to PS3 or Wii for example would be very difficult.
You're planning to release the title on Xbox Live Arcade, but you haven't made any arrangements for it. Would you consider releasing this through their XNA "Community Games" initiative? Are there any limitations to that format you've found?
RL: We’d certainly think about it. I think what Microsoft are doing is pretty brave: they’re essentially opening the floodgates. But I think most developers will agree that there is a concern that a game like ours could be drowned in a sea of Arkanoid clones despite the differences between us.
Have you been following other independent developers on community games?
RL :Unfortunately, the beta for the community games initiative has been US only. Personally, I can’t wait to see what’s on there.
What are your thoughts on other independent projects using XNA - any favorites?
RL: With XNA still in its infancy it’s great to see the community making more ‘concept’ games. When looking at (or playing) a lot of new XNA games it’s refreshing to see people taking gaming concepts and stripping them down to what is essentially ‘fun.’ Some may look pretty simple but I think we’re going to see some really impressive games emerge in the next year or so.
As for a personal favorite, it’s got to be Dishwasher Samurai. Not only does the game look fantastic, but it’s also a poster-child for what XNA, and a strong fan-base, can achieve.
What kind of games do you think are more suited for XNA?
RL: I think with enough time you can make pretty much anything with XNA. So far, we haven’t hit any major obstacles that couldn’t be overcome with creative thinking.
Unfortunately, XNA has a stigma because many believe that it’s only good for ‘hobbyist’ games. To be honest, when I first started looking into XNA I thought it was only good for 2D platformers and side-scrolling shooters. I soon realized that, because it was a new development platform, the projects using it were also new – of course they were going to be basic.
I like to think that Plain Sight is a great example of what a team of people can do with XNA and what it’s capable of.
Do you have any advice for other budding developers out there?
RL: I think humility is the most important thing really. Welcome criticism, you can use it to improve upon your work, you’re never going to know it all. If you accept this you’ll not only be more adaptable but also more approachable. Also, keep making things, even if you’re not sure that you will be making the next epic narrative trilogy (or Portal, if you prefer), it can only help to prove your enthusiasm and abilities to any prospective employers.
Are you currently playing any downloadable games on the XBLA, PSN or WiiWare?
RL: I think XBLA has some fantastic titles. But, as I’m developing an XNA title, I’m bound to say that! Our favorites at the moment are Castle Crashers (The Behemoth are awesome) and Braid, which was stunning.
On the PSN the top trumps are Echochrome, Eden, and The Last Guy. We are also looking forward to the quite superbly named Fat Princess.
What games would you love to see some day on these downloadable platforms?
RL: I can’t wait until you can get all your games though download. I honestly believe that when that day comes we’ll see a serious slump in piracy. I have a lot of respect for Cliff Harris for actually going out and asking why people pirate games. From what I gathered it came down to two key things: accessibility and awful DRM precautions
Steam, XBLA, PSN etc are great example of how these things can be overcome.