[Featurama] An Interview with Firebase Industries on Crafting Nostalgia

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There was a time where playing a video game was something you left the house to do.  Inside a dark building illuminated only by neon lights lay some of the best video games of the time.  Games that would funnel your hard earned cash in to giant machines called plastered with game art.  It is a time long forgotten, but two developers at Firebase Industries are looking to recreate the feeling of the arcade in the hot new indie game Arcadecraft.

With the game releasing tomorrow on XBLIG, I reached out to interview studio founder Matthew Leigh. Read on as we get a bit nostalgic about video games.

How would you describe a game like Arcadecraft?

Arcadecraft is a economics sim, meets RTS, meets Puzzle game. The Money is the Economics, the Machines the Units, and how you move, rotate and place them together is the Puzzle. The cumulative overall goal is to make as much money as possible from the machines you buy and keep your financial head above water.

I really am curious how you came to the decision to jump from a shmup, to a management sim?

The decision to change it up mostly had to do with the lukewarm sales reception to Orbitron. For our second game we were going to create a new shmup with more 3d gameplay space, interactivity and control. We even had a good deal of the art in place to start but we thought that we were going to have the same sales problem again.

Looking at what was actually popular on XBLIG made us start thinking differently. It seemed that at the time, many of the games there were unique and you couldn’t find direct replacements for them on XBLA or via retail. Fortresscraft and CastleMiner seemed to do well because Minecraft just wasn’t available yet and it scratched that itch. Avatar Legends had lots of customizables and featured Avatars prominently.

Orbitron was a game where you were a spaceship shooting other spaceships, there was no unique value in that concept. As nice as it looked and as great as we think it played, there are about 100 other games out there that have the same core idea. We wanted to create something unique to us where we were the only ones providing that experience on Xbox. In searching for that I thought about how much I and others loved Game Dev Story by Kairosoft. The fun management experience in that game made me want to develop something with the same charm but without any intention of copying it. At the same time, Avatars were a must and some kind of environment customization/manipulation via moving objects around was key.

With those goalposts set up I designed Arcadecraft in my head in about 20 minutes while walking to drop off a rented DVD. I furiously texted my business partner and programmer, Sam, the mechanics of the idea and much of the game as it stands is what was initially conceived.

What unique development issues have you come across in creating a simulation game that you didn’t have with Orbitron?

The gameplay style, art pipeline, visual style, user interface, approach to audio, the economics system, basically near everything was done differently. Still, it was a straightforward game to make but the hardest part was designing the core economics system. That took about 3 times to do properly and the changes created knock on effects to every other important system in the game. You pull one string and the whole game can unravel.

The worst thing we encountered overall was that we were running out of memory for no discernible reason. This lasted for months on end and our attempts to fix the issue didn’t help and resulted in the original release date of the game slipping significantly and having to cut scope. In the end it was down to the number of materials we were using, 2 per machine plus what is used by the environment. Each material took up a lot of memory and was restricting the amount of content we could add. It was a silly issue and we fixed it in about 18 hours of crazy work.

The good news is that we are now free to add in more content via free updates.

Are we going to see pinball machines in Arcadecraft?

Pinball is not in version 1.0 of Arcadecraft. It may appear in a future update. We did find memory to add more to the game so we can probably comfortably get them in now.

The bigger problem is the art requirements. Pinball machines have a good deal of illustration and unique painted graphics on their boards while the video game machines are mostly typography, iconography, and pixel art. We will see how well Arcadecraft does and what the demand for Pinball is before we add them.

Now you have been working on an update for Arcadecraft that you actually wanted to replace the peer review version. How much more awesome is that update going to make the game when it goes live?

We actually did kill the Peer Review version in time and replaced it with a much better version of the core game. That said we REALLY want to do an update. I think the first free content update we want to do will give you a whole extra year of simulation with at least 12 new games and another new manufacturer. We also want to add in another 6 or so games back into the calendar and shake up the machine release dates a couple months so it is a semi random drop each play through. We also have plans to heat map the floor of the arcade where certain locations pay off bigger than others so the player has to keep adjusting their layout for maximum return.

The big change we are in the process of adding is a whole new and larger location to play in! It is expected that you will have to pay to move out of the initial space and into an all new one that has its own layout challenges and customization opportunities.

Arcadecraft was designed to be expandable and carry forward as long as it becomes and remains popular with players.

Orbitron: Revolution was obviously a tribute to Defender and Arcadecraft is a tribute to the magic that was 1980s gaming. How nostalgic are you people at Firebase?

I’m personally pretty nostalgic about the color and excitement of the time period. Though, you know the saying on game forums that “Nostalgia is a hell of a drug.”

I like to add, “Just don’t inhale.”

What I mean by that is that it is fun to think about all those games you loved back then but playing them now after 30 years of gameplay evolution and innovation just reveals how rough even the best of the period is now. I’m far more happy to look at screenshots, flyers, cabinet design and marquee art to take me back. I prefer to keep the joy of the gameplay in my memory where it belongs and be under no illusions that things were better then.

With a game like this, I have to ask, what were your favorite arcade games growing up?

As a kid I was big into motorbikes and the first game I can remember playing was Atari’s Stunt Cycle. My favourite period was from 1986-1990 where games like Rygar, Black Tiger, Twin Cobra, Speed Rumbler, Ikari Warriors, Rush n’ Attack, Double Dragon, and Warder came out. Sam would probably tell you that Defender, Stargate, Sinistar, and Robotron were his top games.

Doing research on something like Arcadecraft had to be a blast. What was your favorite bit of new knowledge gained on the industry?

You don’t really realize the hows and whys of the arcade industry until you are forced to comb through it and historically represent a version of it. For example, companies like Atari had very few traditional joystick and buttons games. Also, as soon as the mid 80s hit a lot of games started to become 2 player simultaneous. The idea I guess was that a single machine could make double the revenue in the same time span that a single player game could. Protip: We simulate these economics where appropriate in Arcadecraft!

More obviously, Continues were also added in to get more money out of you, the way “Free to Play” games now treat consumables, the more things change and all.

As well, today there is this strange belief that Japan was never into making or playing military games. However for companies like Konami, SNK, and Data East, that was pretty well all they made with mid 80s titles like Ikari Warriors, Contra, Heavy Barrel, Devastators, P.O.W., Jackal, and Guerrilla War.

Tragically, some of our younger gamers don’t really know what a proper Arcade is. What great memories do Arcades bring out for you and what have these youngins missed out on?

The small town I grew up in had a real dedicated arcade for about one year only! Probably opened in 82 and maybe lived into 83. Though arcade games were strangely everywhere. Our Bus Depot had 6 or so machines. There was a Chinese restaurant that had up to 3 in there. A meat packing place with 8 machines and beef jerky! The largest continual place was the town Pool Hall that had about a dozen. Every year we would have the Fair come to town and one of the tents was full of arcade machines.

I can still remember what places had what machines and where each machine was placed. That clear memory is what kicked the initial seed of the concept of Arcadecraft off!

Do you own any cabinets in real life? More importantly however, which ones would you most like to get a hold of?

Fittingly, Sam bought a Defender machine a while back and put it in the office! I would personally love a standup MVS NeoGeo or a Japanese Candy cab with Raiden Fighters Jet.

I asked our resident Canadian to bring out a few questions and I can only assume you both have some experience with this: How realistic is Arcadecraft in relation to realistic Canadian arcades from the 80s? (i.e. – is there part of the game where you have drug dealers operating there?).

I was probably a little too young to really grasp the sorts of things that went down in my local Arcade. I was brought up in a small town of 4000 people and was only 6 years old in 1980. I mostly remember a lot of kids I knew in elementary school and junior high smoking a lot. Like, a whole lot which is somewhat shocking when you are a sheltered kid. We used to leave our bikes outside the local Pool Hall and surprisingly they never got stolen, however I remember one jerky kid who would take them for joyrides but would actually return them!

Avatars and content restrictions are a little limiting when it comes to being able to go gritty with some of the content. However we could add small youth gangs which would mirror my real life experience a bit.

Arcadecraft is going to take place during the 1980s which is arguably the high time of the Arcade. How are you replicating this time period in the game other than looks?

Looks are a big part of it, but it comes down more to the types of machines that we release to the player and when. They are meant to be loosely historically accurate to the types of games, features, and control schemes that were available during the years that we simulate. We tried to put music in that sounds like the rock you would hear from the period, more squeely and less bassy. The games all sound really 8-bit and a handful of them have really distorted voice samples!

We have a good deal of 8-bit music jingles per game genre that we weren’t able to get into version 1.0 and would like to put back in the game now that we have the memory for it.

I know you have hopes to update and expand to the 90s and maybe even 00s. What expectations can we get from the Street Fighter era of Arcades?

Originally Arcadecraft was supposed to have 100 games in it and simulate up to 1990. Unfortunately we had to abandon that due to the memory issue. We only properly sim to the end of 1985 now and then give another year of grace to the end of 1986. There are now around 80 machines in the game for the era we do sim.

With our original plan of 100 games, what we found is that releasing games at a rate of less than 1 per month allowed the player to buy everything and never be forced to skip a machine. Now, with at least one game coming out per month for most of the sim time players will often miss machines on the first go round. The 120 games plus that simming to 1990 would have required was simply out of scope for our first crack.

The fighting game craze was something we were looking forward to doing and may still eventually get into.

What’s it like developing in Vancouver? Is the gaming community strong there?

The game development landscape has been shaken up here pretty good. We have lost a good deal of development studios recently such as Propoganda, Rockstar Vancouver, and Radical Entertainment. I think most of these were casualties of the AAA game market where the product returns didn’t justify the investment. We have been seeing this everywhere over the last 18 months so I don’t think it is territorial.

Still, there are lots of studios here that seem to be doing well from EA, Capcom, Next Level, and United Front Games that are all busy and our indie scene is pretty vibrant. We are neighbors with casual developers Silicon Sisters and across the street is A Thinking Ape (looks into their windows).

You are on Project Greenlight right now with Arcadecraft and Orbitron: Revolution. How are you liking the odd little Valve experiment so far?

I like to say that we paid $100 to get daily abuse from Greenlight comments. That is looking at it far too negatively though. We have received a lot of nice feedback from people there and overall it would be a different story if we were on the top 100 games list. Valve should really be prioritizing completed games or allow devs to sell their games on Greenlight and let real world sales numbers speak to whether a game gets elevated to Steam proper or not. At least that way there isn’t a grey area.

The reality seems to be that while a big publisher isn’t required if you want to make a game anymore it is still in your best interests to have one so they can put you on a storefront and get you a high level of visibility.

Now there are hopes that this will be put on PC obviously from your Greenlight page. Have you begun thinking of what the PC avatars might look like?

Yeah we have character artists that we are good friends with and would love to hire to get the job done. Visually I don’t think they would be too far off from the Xbox Live Avatars. Maybe less exaggerated proportions, but don’t expect Playstation Home looking people.

What are the odds of getting a tablet/mobile version?

Arcadecraft was originally designed to take advantage of tablets. Now that the Sunburn Engine we use can be ported over to Windows RT devices like phones and tablets we would love to bring it over. Best case scenario for us is that Microsoft sees the value in the game and wants it for Windows 8 devices and allows us Avatar privileges. Porting over would probably be a pretty simple job.

Our other thought would be to do a nice high res isometric 2d version of the game and get it up on iOS.

I know you did have a period where you were featured on the indie games channel, but the channel still has very mixed views from developers. How has XBLIG been treating you so far?

For all the flak developers give Xbox Live Indie Games, a game still sells better there than on PC if you are not on Steam. As a development platform it is good and interestingly far better than what we understand XBLA is like. The sorts of tools and control a dev gets on XBLIG exceeds that of XBLA by a wide margin from release date control, pricing changing, free updates, and daily sales data XBLIG developers have a huge advantage.

Do you have any advice for people that want to develop games, but don’t have an idea of where to start?

Flesh out your idea first, feel as though you can play it start to finish in your head, and when you start development don’t stop until that original concept is complete.

Arcadecraft releases January 31 on XBLIG for 240 MS Points
Vote for Arcadecraft and Orbitron: Revolution on Steam Greenlight
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About Author

(Senior Writer)

I have been gaming for 20 years and have seen this industry go from one geared towards children, to one that has grown to accept all demographics. I've grown up side by side with video games and I've seen it turn into this phenomenon. Of course I also enjoy entertainment in all mediums whether it be film, book or sports. I'm just a huge nerd that loves writing about his hobbies.