April 5, 2011 12:00 AM | John Polson
[Correspondent John Polson spoke with Final Form Games about upcoming shoot 'em up 'Jamestown'. The developers shared their backgrounds and influences briefly and explained the game's inner workings and their design decisions during an exclusive, live demo on the GDC floor.]
Philadelphia based Final Form Games recently released its first gameplay trailer of Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony, a neo-classical multiplayer shoot'em up. The game is set for a summer 2011 release initially on the PC, and Final Form is interested in Mac and Linux markets. The team is talking with digital distributors, as well.
Jamestown is the culmination of over eighteen months of dedicated work from three individuals. The team has taken seemingly simple genre-defining mechanics and expanded on several key components to make the game a progressively thrilling single- and multiplayer experience. Jamestown includes several levels of difficulty to allow the uninitiated to learn how to play and to challenge shoot 'em up veterans.
The team discusses here the mechanics of Jamestown, including the Vaunt shield mechanic that lends to high score play that many fans of the genre crave. They also discuss the mechanics and their rationale behind Jamestown's innovative cooperative mode, which incentivizes team play in ways such as everyone contributing to the same score and revitalizing downed teammates.
Two out of the three Final Form developers have an extensive background in military game development, while the third man has a strong educational games background. Jamestown is largely unlike anything they have worked on, but appears to be a vivid, strongly shared idea that the team is cohesively drawing to life. While Final Form Games' members shared a bit about themselves directly in this interview, they revealed in even more depth how they care for the genre through the effort they've invested in the extensive mechanics of Jamestown.
Please introduce yourselves.
Tim Ambrogi: I work on gameplay programming, core engineering, level design, and audio direction on Jamestown. My first job was America’s Army Project, working on an FPS for the Army, which was a great learning experience. I wanted something more creative, so I went to work for Planet Moon. After working at their central technology department for a while, I moved onto working on gameplay and then became programmer. Planet Moon said I was great at various aspects of making games, so they had me work with an artist to make an iPhone game. The project was called Booty Blocks. After that, I felt pretty empowered to go do my own thing... This is part of a family dream to make our own studio.
Hal Larsson: I handle the gameplay coding, UI coding, and enemy and level design. Usually when an enemy kills you, it's my fault. I worked at Leap Frog, out of their kid’s educational department. I went to grad school for education and technology. I've been talking to Tim about making games since college.
(Hal and Tim met through a fondness of Soul Caliber and are huge cooperative board game fans.)
Mike Ambrogi: I work on the animation, pixel art, concept art, level design, and scripting in Jamestown. My first job at America’s Army was working on motion capture. I wanted to get into Disney performative-type animation, so I worked at a startup called Super-Ego Games. I learned from that experience that I didn't want to do just animation, So I returned to America’s Army to work on level design. Eventually, we all got together to work on Jamestown.
Why a shoot 'em up/STG/shmup/danmaku/bullet hell game?
Tim: The genre means something different to every person. We chose the genre for a few reasons: one of which is that we really like them. I have been very into them for about eight years now and used to play them as a kid. It’s a really beautiful genre. It has all these simple, elegant rules. It’s not simple as in simplistic, but they are very easy to describe, basic mechanics. You have a ship, there are bullets, dodge the bullets, shoot the enemies, and don’t die. That’s the entirety of most of the core games.
From that comes all these complex systems and patterns that require puzzle solving sometimes and really fast responses. It just overloads your senses to the point that you can’t pay attention to it all consciously. There comes a point when you cross over to where you realize you don’t have to think about it consciously anymore. You can get into this zone and just begin almost playing subconsciously. It’s this really beautiful, elegant experience that’s very exhilarating. For me, it’s sort of cathartic.
I wanted to see if I could create that kind of experience, because the elegance in designing a shmup game is so subtle. You are beholden to basic systems, but you are trying to create very complex experiences. So there’s this vast space of design - in terms of bullet hell, level and pattern design, enemy and boss design, and even auxiliary gameplay systems used to extend the core experience.
Where did the name "Jamestown" come from?
Mike: We have a pretty formal ideation process: brainstorming in a very structured way with no judgment on the front, and then calling and expanding on what survives after the "anything you can think of" phase. We found, when we were in “blue sky” mode, one thing I painted was a Victorian London with a lot of steam-punk equipment everywhere. That really resonated with the guys.
Then we asked, “What does steam-punk really mean?” Historical figures in your game are pretty cool. The milieu is interesting; you have this period and a lot of rich visuals. There’s a certain amount of marriage of the different technologies: the look of the old and the functionality of the new. That’s just neat looking, frankly. We stirred all this up in a pot. Then Tim just said out loud, “It’s the new world… Mars… Jamestown.”
Hal: We had a vested interest in making our setting really unique. Ironically, this was going to be a tiny project where its selling point was going to be its setting.
Tim: The original idea of a game is such a hilarious thing when you look back on it, because you don’t know what it’s going to be. It’s this thing that has not yet been made. So in your mind, you see this very cloudy space of little flashes of this and that. And so this was that initial flash.
Tim: We originally went for a vertical perspective. We found 4-player was incredibly exciting but was a bit crowded. When you have more space, you can fit more targets and more threat. Also, there’s more movement required of players to get from point A to point B. This let us use slower bullets and leave it to the player to navigate through those patterns.
Who created the sound?
Tim: The sound effects were done by friend Justin Mullins, and Francisco Cerda from Chile did the music.
What was your thesis behind the various difficulty levels?
Tim: We did a survey of all the games we liked. The first you’ll notice is that difficulty is selected per level. We saw it in Deathsmiles and thought that that makes things very accessible to people who haven’t played a lot of shmups. Since this is coming out on PC, we wanted to try to convert non-shooter players into shooter-players. We want to help people appreciate what’s beautiful, satisfying, and fun about shooters by giving them an experience they could warm up to. If we give them the most intense experience right away, it would overwhelm them.
Normal and difficult are there for first time players. They are engaging but much easier than standard shooter fare. We didn’t focus as much on the number of bullets as speed of bullets. The speed of bullet and the distance from the player is a reaction time issue, so bullets are slower on the normal level. By the end of beating both normal and difficult, you’ve graduated and should be able to play the average shmup game and enjoy it.
Legendary is the light-weight "hard mode"; you don’t have to be playing as well as a team. The hardest difficulty, "divine" involves a lot more of screaming across the room. The name itself is a reference to "bullet heaven". The difficulty spike from legendary to divine is similar to what you see in Left 4 Dead’s advanced to expert modes.
Tell me about the control options.
Tim: We really wanted to create an experience where players could play with joysticks on a PC and not have it be a huge technical hassle. Getting in with a joystick is as simple as holding down a button on it, and you become bound into that play slot. Up to four people can play with any combination of joystick, keyboard, or mouse. The game will automatically pause if any controller dies, and players can rebind in-game. We tried to make technology not be the barrier for multiplayer.
Mike: The mouse accommodates the three buttons in the game (shoot, special, and vaunt). The mouse doesn’t have any movement advantage. There is a reticle on screen, though. We've found through our play tests that even hardcore shmup fans love the mouse play.
Tim: Even my wife will play our game if it's with the mouse, though she finds the joystick too daunting.
Will the multiplayer be local, on-line, or both?
The multiplayer is all local for now, but we'd love to add online multiplayer in the future. With only two programmers, tackling online multiplayer for launch would have been biting off more than we could chew. Once we release, we’ll see how strong the demand is from our fans and take it from there.
What’s special about each ship?
Tim: There are four ships. The beam ship is an all-around ship with spread shot and a focus beam. The beam special will slow you down. Tapping versus holding a shot button doesn’t make a speed difference. The next ship is the gunner, which has a direction shot. It is good for crowd control, since it can point anywhere.
The other two are more powerful. With the charge ball ship, we considered the damage per second (DPS). While all ships are balanced fairly closely, the curve for DPS on the charge ball peeks very high because it shoots out a ball that does a massive amount of damage very infrequently. It’s great for taking out big enemies. The final ship is the bomber. It is our exciting melee ship, where you have to get close to enemies to do significant damage. It’s a good risk/reward experience.
Will all of these ships be available at once?
Tim: In the actual game, the ships will unlock one at a time.
What is the unlocking system?
Tim: There’s currency called “ducats” you gain in the game that lets you buy new ships and challenge levels from the game's shop. There’s a hardcore mode where the game’s respawn counter goes away and you can only revive with a “Revive Token". Another notable unlockable is the Gauntlet mode. You play through all the levels back to back for a traditional arcade experience.
Could you explain the game and level design behind Jamestown?
Tim: The backgrounds are rich and varied. In the first chapter/stage, the redcoats in the background participate in the fight. We kept mixing up the level design so there are a lot of targets, some harder or softer than others. There’s always something to do. A lot of games try to create “the ideal path” by which you blow everything up with a much more narrow screen. We went for a wider shot with much more decision making. Enemy count and health varies based on how many players, how well you play, and difficulty.
One of the most interesting new mechanics in the game is the revive system. When a player dies, they have to wait a number of seconds before they come back into the game. If you are the last player still alive, you enter "caution mode". If the last player dies, the team loses a continue.
There are "Revive Tokens" throughout the level that bring back one or more fallen teammates without having to wait for them to respawn. This turned out to be our playtesters' favorite feature. The last player will often kamikaze through terrifying bullet patterns to reach the Revive Token and save the team.
Other co-op mechanics include enemy count and health that varies based on the number of players, and shared team scores, creating a very fun atmosphere that is more about teamwork than other games.
Is there a visible hitbox?
Tim: When you are in caution mode, the hitbox becomes visible.
How many stages are there, and is there a level select?
Tim: There are 5 stages. Gamers have to play the game in order the first time, but it will open up for level selection.
So what’s this Vaunt mode?
Tim: For deep-game score players, the big scoring opportunity in the game is going into Vaunt mode, which is activated by collecting items on the stage. It creates a temporary shield that absorbs bullets, and players get special bullets that do 1.5x normal damage. You also get a 2x multiplier on everything you do while in vaunt mode.
The number of players who vaunt at the same time increases the multiplier exponentially. Over time each player earns combo points passively while in vaunt, collecting more items to keep the combo going. However, you only get the points if you survive the duration of the Vaunt. You can bail out of vaunt mode at any time, but this results in earning only half the combo points.