DEV DIARY #4: SHOOTER GAMES: LEGACY & EVOLUTION
In Dev Diary #4 we look back at the legacy of shooter games to uncover how they shaped CYGNI’s inception, and what innovative elements the team is hoping to bring forth in CYGNI!
KeelWork’s founder and CEO Meher Kalenderian exchange stories with Game Director Nareg Kalenderian; Richard Jones, Development Strategy Manager and veteran at Konami Digital Entertainment Europe, joins the discussion. Are there any shooter games that made a mark on the way you are choosing to narrate the story and build the world of CYGNI?
Meher: Perhaps not shooter games per say, but more so space strategy games and adventure games in general. We love “Master of Orion”, “Homeworld”, and “Starcraft”. But of course, these games are very large and have deep narratives. CYGNI’s narrative is more confined and wrapped up in a much smaller package. But certainly, these games have made an impact on us and on storytelling in sci-fi games in general.
Are there any themes or aspects of traditional shooters that you looked forward to seeing in CYGNI?
Richard: The mix of air-to-air and air-to-ground combat is one that we love whether in Xevious or RayForce. The chance to tackle that feature using modern methods was really exciting. Player-managed power-ups are always cool, they give players the opportunity to develop their own loadouts and techniques, so we wanted to come up with a fun way to incorporate those into CYGNI.
What are unexpected or lesser-known shooter games that you got inspiration from?
Meher: We have played lots of shmups and arcade shooters, we enjoyed them a lot, from raptor to Metal Slug. Even a few titles on systems like Amiga. Those all made an impact on us. Funnily enough, it's always more about these old classic games than any new releases. Must be a subconscious thing we experience growing up, as well as the fact that they are genuinely good games with a lot of heart put into them. The interesting thing about this is that if you play some of these games today, maybe you won't experience them as you once did long ago. Maybe as a kid your mind interprets the images and experience differently, and as you grow up, that interpretation grows into a larger-than-life image, and that could get influential in all sorts of ways later.
Are there any games whose legacy impacted CYGNI’s design choices on weapons, power-up and battle mechanics?
Meher: CYGNI has been inspired by many games, shmups or otherwise, which we played over our lifetimes, and we became inspired to create something that carries elements of a shmup at its core, but it’s a hybrid of a few different genres.
[h3][b]The same applies to games whose legacy impacted CYGNI’s design choice. There wasn’t any specific game or genre as such, but if we must look back at the classics, Rayforce springs to mind. We love the feel of the original game. The homing missile comes to mind, as well as how depth is used in the levels. Were you familiar with any KONAMI shooter games before working together on CYGNI?[/b[/h3]
Meher: Yes we were, it's hard not to be or not to notice those games. The Gradius/Nemesis franchise, and Contra games were very popular over the last few decades and we got to really play them again when we started the project.
Richard: Some of the early KONAMI shooters were really influential on the genre. Scramble pretty much invented the scrolling shooter, and Gradius took it a step further with its varied environments and innovative power-up bar. Contra’s genre blending of platforming and shooting invented what we now think of as the run-and-gun.
How do you feel about enabling KONAMI to publish a new shooter game with CYGNI?
Meher: It was because of KONAMI’s experience with shmups and their understanding of what we were trying to do with CYGNI that encouraged us to partner with them. We feel they are very well placed to help bring CYGNI to life.
Richard: CYGNI is still 100% a Keelworks game, but it’s really cool to think that it now sits next to classics like Gradius and Contra in the Konami catalogue.
Who would hold the high score on Nemesis/Gradius in your team?
Meher: Even our attempt to answer this question will stir things up in the team and we will eventually agree to disagree on possible names of who would score the highest. However, regardless of who makes it to hold the higher score, we will always be vastly overshadowed by some of the guys over at KONAMI.
Richard: One of them has been putting a lot of time into trying to beat the arcade version of Gradius!
What were the difficulties the team considered when moving away from traditional shooters features for CYGNI?
Nareg: Technical and gameplay are intertwined in this case. One of the immediate difficulties is dealing with true 3D space and depth vs 2D or a variant of it, from a gameplay and design perspective. We also wanted to go with the wide screen vertical approach for the game. These two areas presented enormous challenges for us.
In contrast to the more horizontal shooters coming up these days, which make use of the typical aspect ratios of today’s monitors, having a vertical setup provides you with the challenge of overcoming lack of screen space (especially for shmups). We had a design solution to this well before we made this choice. We implemented a camera system that pans and rotates in accordance with player movement on screen. Whilst it is not novel on its own, we discovered it worked very well for us in the context of a shmup of this kind, overcoming the screen space issue while also giving the player some new perspective shift during gameplay.
In addition to the above, the camera can zoom in or out and change FOV’s (Field of Views) on the go. While this also may sound trivial, one must take into account the play area in a shmup that has a dynamically changing FOV, this means the play area itself has to warp and morph matching the perspective of the camera, which in itself was another challenge to overcome.
Cygni makes use of true 3D depth in its environments. This presented one of the most challenging aspects early on, which was figuring out how to accurately shoot ground units within various depths (kilometers below you) whilst at the same time shooting air units just meters ahead of you, all the while making sure the projectiles and missiles reach those targets in an effective and fast paced manner. It took a lot of work to figure out a mechanic as well as the math to make it possible.
How do you plan on evolving and innovating in CYGNI to make the game feel modern?
Meher: With CYGNI, we are building on already existing game mechanics, some of the oldest in the industry. We’re adding a shiny sheen on top, using a new engine, and putting a lot of heart into it. We aren’t trying to reinvent the genre – just adding our own twist to create innovative visuals with the old-school nostalgia of shmups which we know and love. For us, we are doing what works for CYGNI - creating a good game is more important than categorising it. It won’t fall into a specific rigid shmup format, it has a creative flare too. It’s not really made for a like-for-like comparison to other shmups. Our mission is fun and captivating gameplay, and creating an immersive experience with intense action and detailed visuals – there’s definitely lots going on around you!
Nareg: Our enemies and landscapes have developed from the idea of merging human and alien civilisation. Whilst flying through the levels, you’ll see hybrid architecture and futuristic designs of both recognisable and unique structures. Friendly units look relatively familiar, but enemies are inspired by nature and bio-mechanical origins. NPCs can be seen on the ground fighting underneath you, and you can also use your weaponry to help with ground combat. Some levels have more than one boss - some are foreshadowed, and some are hidden in plain sight. The important thing for us is to keep the player engaged, and for the first time playthrough to surprise the player as they progress through the levels.
Another mechanic we’ve added is a shield system. It’s interchangeable in real time, so players can choose to play offensively or defensively, based on what’s happening and their playstyle. Players can level up, as well as unlock new weapons with points which are gathered as you play. All this helps to bring replay ability too as we’re implementing high scores.
While we pay special attention to the presentation, it is important to us that the gameplay goes hand in hand with the visual mayhem on screen, it's not always an easy balance and that is what we are working hard every day to get right through development.
Are there aspects of CYGNI’s narrative or visuals that you think are unexpected in the shooter genre?
Meher: We believe at least some of the things we are doing in this game, and aim to do in its development lifetime, will bring something very new to the category of games CYGNI is viewed to be in. At least in terms of how it's been approached.
Nareg: If we look back at Japanese Shmups, notably those with great artwork and lots of action on screen, part of that action and grand scope is thanks to the medium they are built in. The 2D art is much more manageable to layout and the pixel art on screen can look grand and detailed, it's that sense of big fast paced action that makes some of these games interesting and distinguishes them from other titles in the same genre.
Translating the same feel and scope into a 3D game of this type is what we believe to be a tremendously challenging task to tackle, especially if you want to do it right.
Similarly, for the narrative aspect of the game, sure, we can go down the quick and easy road, put a few still images of avatars in game and a load of text and call it a day.
We just couldn’t live with ourselves doing that after all the other hard work we go out of our way to try and put into the game itself. So against our best judgment when it comes to time and effort in a development process of a game like this, we still went on to tackle a few CG cinematics and cutscenes, coupled with good voice acting to push things forward. We hope it will add that extra value to the game overall and that extra time spent creating them will be worthwhile for players after each battle and as a small reward.
How are you experimenting with integrating new technology and features for CYGNI?
Nareg: Other than the challenges we already spoke of, we are certainly dealing with large numbers of units when it comes to shmups. How to get those large numbers on screen has been one of our Achilles heels. A constant battle between frame rates and what is required. While we are still hard at work on managing this, we can safely say at least we managed to get those numbers on screen through lots of RnD and research and ongoing testing.
When it comes to any top-down game as such you have 3D strategy games to compare yourself to from a tech standpoint. It's much more difficult to play around with LOD’s (Level of Detail) and cheat your way out of it by hiding something behind a wall like they do in first person shooters. In a top down game, there is no place to “hide” anything to gain some performance back. That is why most strategy games out there are built with specific custom engines carefully tailored to run those numbers on screen. In our case we have to work with what we have available to us and what we can build with a small team.
Would CYGNI be relevant for people that haven’t played traditional shooter games?
Meher: Yes! We think it’s great for anyone – experienced or not. There are varying difficulties
too so it’s very welcoming for casual or avid players alike.
Richard: We wanted to help make a game that could be played for progress or high score. The reward of discovering the next level and seeing where the story goes should be as compelling as getting a high score. We hope that even novice players will enjoy the challenge and still manage to see the cinematic climax. And if they enjoy that, hopefully they’ll go back to experiment with new weapons, try new tactics, and smash their high score.