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Road to the IGF: Matt Thorson's Towerfall: Ascension Exclusive

February 24, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

February 24, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Programming, Art, Design, Exclusive, Video, IGF

Independent Game Festival Excellence in Design nominee TowerFall: Ascension has a nostalgic look, but all the sharp, fast-paced feel of a modern multiplayer brawler -- bows, arrows and all.

It's local multiplayer only, designed for the kind of intimate and frenetic experience you can only have when clustered close around the screen together with friends. The design feat there is instant readability coupled with hooky depth, and fans are already excited.

Project director Matt Thorson handled the game's design and code, joined by Pedro Medeiros' pixel art. Amora Bettany worked on TowerFall: Ascension's pixel art, and the music was contributed by Alec Holowka (Aquaria) with sounds by Kevin Regamey and Jeff Tangsoc of Power-Up Audio.

As part of our ongoing Road to the IGF series of interviews with finalists, we chat with Thorson about Towerfall: Ascension's background, inspirations and more.

What's your background in making games?.

I got started using Game Maker when I was 14 . I eventually moved on to Flash, but never felt like it suited me as well as downloadable games.

What development tools did you use to make TowerFall: Ascension?

I used Visual Studio, C#, and XNA for code. For level design I used an open source, generic level editor that I made a few years ago called Ogmo Editor. MonoGame is a cross-platform XNA port that I used to get the game to Ouya, and later Sickhead also used it for the PS4 port.

I know Alec uses Reason for music, Pedro uses Graphics Gale for pixel art, and Amora likes Manga Studio and Photoshop for her art.

How much time did you spend working on the game?

It'll be about a year and nine months total.

How did you come up with the concept?

TowerFall started out as a single-player Flash game at a 48-hour game jam. I was working with Alec Holowka, who ended up making the music for the final game. Basically the idea was a Zelda clone in platformer form.

We prototyped the bow first, and had so much fun fleshing that out that we cut all the other weapons. Not much else from that original prototype survived the transition to multiplayer, but the arrow mechanics are almost identical.

I think it's super interesting that so many more independent game developers are trying to work in the local multiplayer space. What made you want to make a game like this?

I had been thinking about local multiplayer design a lot. I've always loved it, but playing Beau Blyth's 0Space at a different game jam earlier that year got those ideas turning around in my head again.

I made a two-player versus game for Ludum Dare called Ra Ra, but finishing that just made me curious to explore further. I decided to try multiplayer with TowerFall because I couldn't stop thinking about it, and it quickly overshadowed the old single player so fully that I had to keep going.

What design considerations do you find important when designing a game you hope people will gather on their living room floor to squabble over?

For me, it should be really easy to pick up and play with very little prior knowledge. People should be able to encounter it for the first time at a party and have a blast playing it immediately.

But even more importantly, there has to be enough depth to make players want to show up for another session. TowerFall is designed to be played by a group of players who meet periodically, on weekends or lunch breaks or whatever. I wanted the play to be deep and expressive enough that an overarching narrative can form between sessions, where players can have things like signature play-styles and rivalries.

The art style is interesting in conjunction with the gameplay. It's clearly nostalgic and recalls earlier games, and yet I don't remember any four-player games that looked quite like it. What were you aiming to capture?

The original intention with the art was simply to allow me to make it myself. I'm not a very skilled visual artist, so I chose constraints that would let me pull off a consistent, readable style: originally the game was 320x240 resolution with the NES palette.

When Pedro took the reins on pixel art and reworked everything, we ditched the retro palette but kept the small resolution. Pedro's style is very gothic and dark - the game world and music ended up taking a lot of cues from that. I love pixel art as an aesthetic, I love how it abstracts things and lets players fill in the blanks. It has a nostalgic aspect to it for a lot of people but our intention was never to maximize for that.

Did you have any particular influences in making the game?

Smash Bros Melee is the big one. I learned so much from it, studying everything from the combat, feel, and level design, all the way down to the menus.

But there's a lot of local multiplayer classics I took inspiration from -- Goldeneye, Bushido Blade, Bomberman, and Mario Kart come to mind. I know Team Fortress 2 has influenced me a lot as well.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've especially enjoyed?

It took me a while, but I'm starting to really like Don't Starve. Seeing what Ryan has done with Crypt of the Necrodancer, watching it develop so quickly from a simple idea, has been awe-inspiring and I can't wait to play the latest build. And I'm really looking forward to playing 868-HACK.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

I don't feel qualified to answer this. The scene feels so broad now that I can't keep up with it, which is a great thing. I know that indie games are constantly surprising and challenging me, and seeing the passion of the developers I meet really inspires me.

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