Friday, November 20, 2009

Interview: Tozai Games' Brett Ballow and Sheila Boughten

New downloadable gaming platforms have allowed small publishers and classic properties to flourish once again. We spoke recently with Producer/Designer Brett Ballow and President Sheila Boughten of Tozai Games about their upcoming PS3, iPhone and PSP releases.  We were also able to chat at length about the company's 2009 XBLA releases, R-Type Dimensions and Lode Runner, and the return of the 80's small team vibe.

Without further ado...

Upcoming Games (PSN, iPhone)

GA40:  What news can you talk about in the pipeline?

Sheila Boughten:  We're co-publishing Spelunker for PSN together with Irem -- they released it last spring in Japan.  It's coming to the North American and European markets, co-published with us, targeted for a Q1 2010 release.

GA40:  Tozai published the original NES Spelunker on the Wii Virtual Console in 2008.

Sheila:  That's correct.  Lode Runner for iPhone and iPod Touch is also targeted for a Q1 2010 release.  We have another iPhone product coming out called Sync-Ball, a design from Brett -- probably a late Q4 or very early Q1 release.

Brett Ballow:  It's a very simple game mechanic, something I've been kicking around for a decade or so.  We finally have the platform and the timing's right.

Sheila:  We have another co-publishing title with MTO USA, a subsidiary of MTO Japan.  They have a downloadable title coming out for PSP via PSN called Kurulin Fusion.  The direct translation of kurulin from the Japanese is "something spinning".

Brett:  It's a well-based puzzle game.

Sheila:  So we're excited about that -- it's planned for late Q4, just around the corner.

Lode Runner (XBLA, iPhone)

Brett:  The version of Lode Runner we're doing for the iPhone right now is not the XBLA version; it's much more in line with the classic version, because of the screen size.  [The XBLA version] was a work of passion for everyone involved.  With the complexity of the textures and the variation -- how much that differed from the original -- by the time I started making 28 x 16 levels, in the original aspect ratio, the game was very small on the screen.  I had to do a complete re-design.  We were trying to mimic the original AI.  That was a critical part of trying to work through those levels and we spent quite a while on AI, tweaking it.

GA40:  I'm glad you went back to having the entire level visible onscreen.

Brett:  I'm a puzzle guy, so I put my foot down there.  Since Hudson had been doing most of the releases over the past ten or fifteen years, a lot of people thought we should keep it zoomed in to show off the characters and do better animation.  But I grew up on the original -- that was about my favorite game on the Commodore 64.  There was no way I was going to step away from the full screen.  That to me was just a basic part of the game.

GA40:  Is the iPhone version going to be full-screen as well?

Brett:  Yes, it is!

GA40:  Tozai Games actually owns the Lode Runner property now, correct?

Brett:  Scott and Sheila worked with [Lode Runner creator] Doug Smith for years, and acquired the rights about five years ago.

Sheila:  We all [at Tozai] independently had a passion for this game, so it was kind of a natural that it ended up here.  Each person had their own history with the game, so it was fun to come together and build the XBLA version.

R-Type Dimensions (XBLA)

GA40:  When and where did you first encounter R-Type?

Brett:  It was on the Santa Monica Pier in 1990.  I was in college, missing the States, spending a semester in England.  And when I got home that was the first thing I bumped into.  And it was kind of a big wake up.  I pretty much flunked out that semester, playing R-Type!

GA40:  There have been sequels, like R-Type Leo, and remakes, but it seems like everyone always goes back to the originals, R-Type I and II.  Is that because Irem just got it right the first time?

Brett:  They sure did.  We have a very close relationship with Irem, and Scott Tsumura of Tozai worked with Irem on the original releases.  We had the opportunity to include Leo with the R-Type Dimensions project, and I decided to just do I & II.  The first two games felt more cohesive, from the original team.  The blend of graphics and gameplay made it stand out from other shooters of the time.

GA40:  It's certainly been an enduring and influential shooter.

Brett:  I worked with Nintendo for some years -- they sell off some items from time to time.  I was able to purchase a pristine R-Type machine that had been in a warehouse for twenty years.

GA40:  Oh, right!  Nintendo distributed R-Type to US arcades in 1987.  What's your favorite level of the original R-Type?

Brett:  I remember being completely enamored when I got to stage three, just because it was a single ship.  At the time, spending the complete stage beating one enemy was kind of unheard of -- it was a long fight with that battleship.  I remember really liking that, and then being overwhelmed when level four came.  The first stage really hooked me, with the variety of enemies and weapons, and I fell in love with stage three.  And of course it gets more difficult past that point.

GA40:   Which reminds me to thank you for the Infinite Mode in R-Type Dimensions!  I know I've seen parts of the game I was never able to reach before.

Brett:  I hate to admit this, but I was never able to pass the garbage dump at the end of Stage 7!  I could get there on my first life, but I couldn't beat that until I started getting on YouTube and seeing a few clues.

GA40:  R-Type definitely rewards practice and study, as players become more acquainted with the threats.

Brett:  Everyone eventually comes up with the same patterns; you learn to memorize them.  And there's a lot of trial and error in figuring out the best path through each stage.

GA40:  Was including the Infinite Mode a difficult or controversial decision?

Brett:  We were working on Lode Runner, and we had decided to widen the game by adding all these extra game modes.  It didn't seem fair that we should release R-Type just as it was originally, with all the work we were putting into the graphics.  Irem is pretty strict -- it's their best-known title -- so they didn't really want to allow anyone to mess with it too much.  Even trying to put in the multiplayer -- they were pretty wary at first, but ultimately they were very pleased.

GA40:  You added quite a few display options, even in the 2-D mode.

Brett:  The original arcade game, I think, actually looks better on the old 4:3, NTSC television than it does on an HDTV.  We were experimenting.  There are some rules within XBLA about not [giving players] an advantage with widescreen, so we had to move things around a little bit.

GA40:  Whose idea was the "Crazy" camera in 3-D?

Brett:  SouthEnd actually had it in a build, I recall.  Irem has loosened up a little with us now, but at the time, we were under pretty strict orders to retain the original functionality.  We thought, we're doing it in 3-D -- it's a shame we can't show off more of the worlds.  I was hoping that at the end of the stages the camera could swing around and peer back into the stage as you were leaving.  So we started doing a little experimentation, but there are no back faces [to the 3-D models].  A lot of the enemies don't have back sides and the geometry background is missing a lot of faces.  So we went as far as we could with the Crazy camera... and there are a few issues.  But it was fun, and it makes it more difficult!  We thought we'd have to change the balance of the game a little when we added multiplayer.  But it's actually more difficult to play when you're sharing weapons and fighting a little bit with the other player.

GA40:  A technical question -- is R-Type Dimensions running the original coin-op code, with a new rendering system, or is it more complicated than it looks?

Brett:  It was complicated, but yes, we went and got the original code and started in backwards from there.

GA40:  The music and sound effects haven't been updated, correct?

Brett:  That is correct.  We definitely wanted to keep the original sound in, at least for the 2-D game.  There have been comments made by fans who love the 3-D graphic upgrade we've done and wish there had been some new audio put in the game as well.

Sheila:  We've been toying with the thought of maybe doing an upgrade to the music and offering it as a download option.  We didn't have any DLC planned -- during development we were under a pretty tight schedule to get what we already had planned done.  It's not a decision that we've made at this point.  But people think it would be a really cool thing to do.

Brett:  If it is done, it will be done by a pretty high-profile industry composer.

GA40:  What's your philosophy for defining XBox 360 Achievements?

Brett:  Actually, Microsoft gives very good guidelines -- there are novelty achievements, marathon achievements, and skill achievements.  I would have loved to put twelve novelty achievements in, just because it's so fun to play the game... not necessarily the way it's meant to be played.  Microsoft in their white papers gives a good basis for establishing a good mix, and at that point we took over.  I had a pretty good time creating the achievements for XBLA.  We wanted to mix in the multiplayer and some funky firing.

Old School Meets New

GA40:  And now you're bringing these games to a new audience.

Sheila:  It's a little bit of a dilemma, because the classics are exactly that, they're classics.  But there's a whole new audience today, that has different expectations about how the gameplay experience is delivered.

Brett:  They have a little less patience than we had.

Sheila:  So we had to really think about staying true to the original classic look and feel and gameplay, but also do things to make the games a little more inclusive to get a new audience into them.  Which was one of the reasons we determined we should add the Infinite Mode in R-Type, just to make it more inclusive for new players.

GA40:  The downloadable market has really provided a new home for these kinds of classic properties, games that don't have to be a $50 retail product.  Was that a factor in Tozai's move into publishing?

Sheila:  The online downloadable market definitely opens up doors for smaller developers and smaller publishers.  It's sort of catapulted us back to the early and mid-80's, when packaged products were being built and delivered by small companies.

Thanks very much to Brett Ballow and Sheila Boughten of Tozai Games -- I really enjoyed our chat, and only wish this published version could better capture their passion and enthusiasm for great gaming.

No comments:

Post a Comment