Welcome to Ninterview Ep:1
In early August, two-man indie outfit, Pill Bug Interactive released their first game on the Nintendo Switch eShop; a momentum-based space shooter by the name of Cycle 28. As part of their efforts to raise awareness about themselves, and to promote the game, they agreed to an interview with Nintendo South Wales.
NSW: Hi, I’m here with Sean Welton-Walton and David Towsey from Cardiff-based developer Pill Bug Interactive. I’ve got eight questions for you today before we move on to questions from other group members.
Q1. Please introduce yourselves and give a brief overview of what Cycle 28 is.
Sean: I'm Sean one half of Pill Bug and a computer science lecturer at Swansea University. Cycle 28 is a groundhog day-ish bullet hell space shooter which is all about beating your high score and figuring out what on earth is going on.
David: I'm Dave, the other half of Pill Bug. I handle most of the narrative side of our games as well as other aspects of development. Like Sean, I'm a lecturer at a University - I'm in the English & Creative Writing department at USW. As well as computer games, I'm a big board game fan. I also have too many cats
NSW: No disrespect intended but when most people see a trailer for the game, they could be forgiven for thinking it's an Asteroids-inspired or Commodore 64 homage shooter, but given Pill Bug's motto is to develop simple games with hidden depth, then it'd be fair to say that looks can be deceiving.
Could you summarise the gameplay loop and expand a little more on what makes this different from other shmups?
Sean: The trailer is totally meant to make you think that. Both Dave and I will have different answers to this, but for me in a word, its tension. When we started designing this we realised the way the game moves is almost more like a rally game than a shooter - you power-slide around the bullets like your trying to hit the perfect apex. We started leaning into the rally game concept more - in a rally game you are focused on beating your time - you want that perfect, optimal run.
In most arena based shmups you have unlimited time to get a score, so you could just play it safe, bide your time. In Cycle 28 you are limited to 6 minutes. You need to be on top of things right from the off to beat your high-score. Throughout the run we tell you if you are on track to beat your high score which builds tension. Also, the music ramps up which ups the tension further still. Beating your high-score means you get another upgrade. It's like the first time you beat a boss in dark souls.
David: For me, what makes this game different from some of the others in the genre is exactly those hidden depths you mentioned. We wanted players to be able to decide their own levels of involvement with what could be a very simple game experience. We have players who just come for the high-scores, some who come only for the story, and some for a mix of both.
Q2. I've read that Sean describes Cycle 28 as a "love letter 22 years in the making". Can you delve in to what is meant by that and games origins?
Sean: When I was at school I couldn't do PE. I was born with pretty bad club feet, so instead I would do homework in the library, or rather, I would pretend to. What I actually did was draw doodles in the back of my log book, doodles of massive space battles. The kind I imagined were going on at the battle of Endor.
Just pure chaos. Ships and lasers flying everywhere, people not knowing if they were hitting the good guys or bad guys. It is what space combat has always meant to me, and ever since then I wanted to make a game based on that feeling. That is where Cycle 28 was born.
NSW: Is this what also inspired you to include the countless number of protective drones the player can spawn in Cycle 28, as an extra form of attack and shielding, but also, as a realisation of that aforementioned chaotic space battle scene?
Sean: Exactly. The game started out in 3D, which can be seen in a super early prototype on our YouTube page. I envisioned it as the World War 1 of space combat, in that everyone had the technology but no-one knew how to use it effectively.
NSW: This is a bit of tangent but seeing as how we are exploring creative origins here, without giving too much away, what were your influences in crafting the games story?
David: The story really started when Sean came to me with a very simple prototype and saying: help! He had a blue ship shooting yellow ships, but no real reason why. From there, what struck me was that there was no intention to ever show the player the pilot of the ship. That way, I could imagine whoever I wanted as that pilot. Creatively, that was hugely freeing. So many space pilots fall into certain stereotypes, so I wanted to play around within that. Olivia has some tropes of the genre, but she's pretty different too.
(Note: In the game, players play as Flight Lieutenant Olivia Bergen, a low ranking officer who due to circumstances unknown has been separated from her fleet and is now stuck in an endless time loop 'Cycle 27' from which she must escape.)
Q3. Cycle 28 features a "community-driven" puzzle that has yet to be solved despite the game being out on Steam since March. What does this puzzle refer to and what is the Pill Bug Golden Ticket Award?
David: That's right. The community-driven puzzle is a big part of Cycle 28 - though like my previous answer suggests, it is something players can decide how much they want to engage with. So far, no one has managed to break Olivia out of Cycle 27 and into the eponymous Cycle 28. Players have already put a great deal of work into the puzzle, and strides have been made.
When someone does manage to find the solution, they have to email us here at Pill Bug and explain how they did it. Then, they'll receive the Pill Bug Golden Ticket - which entitles them to every game we’ve ever made, and every game we’ll make in the future. But, because this is a community puzzle, that person also gets to nominate up to 5 members of the game's community that helped them the most. They'll all get Pill Bug swag, such as t-shirts, stickers, coasters, and signed artwork!
Q4. Was the process of porting the game to Nintendo Switch and securing an eShop release a smooth one?
David: It has been relatively smooth for sure. Any bumps have really been from us learning how a large company like Nintendo works. The first lesson for us was actually not to think of Nintendo as one company - sounds obvious, but Nintendo Europe and Nintendo America sometimes have very different ways of doing things. That meant we were learning lots of new systems, sometimes twice over. At every step, all forms of Nintendo have been hugely supportive, helpful and patient, even when Sean and I made some pretty silly mistakes.
Sean: Technically it was the most challenging software engineering thing I've ever done - which says more about my skill level than anything. Nintendo are amazingly supportive with that sort of thing, it surprised me actually. Anyone who codes will probably understand me when I say it felt impossible until it was easy.
There are a few idiosyncrasies with Nintendo Switch that seem obvious when I say them, but you forget to account for them until you sit down to port. The console is also a handheld system, and you can just take off controllers and add them willy-nilly. Those are things you need to think about with a modular system that you don't on PC.
NSW: Would you say that Nintendo is acutely aware that 'all' developers that port to the Switch are going to be faced with the challenge of ensuring a game needs to run in two separate modes - handheld and docked and have adapted their development toolsets and correspondence to match? Now that you've successfully ported Cycle 28 to Switch, would you encourage other small Welsh Developers to put their games on the system?
Sean: Yeah, they are really clear in their documentation. It's really important to them. Would we encourage other small developers? Yes we would! If any small Welsh developers are reading, drop us an email, or come to a Games Wales meet-up and we can give you some advice on pitching games to Nintendo.
(Notes: Games Wales is a voluntary organisation made up of people from within the games industry in Wales. Their mission is to champion and promote games-making in Wales, to support the industry there, and to make sure everyone keeps talking to each other.)
Q5. Next let’s touch on the game's soundtrack, which was composed by Jordon Rees, who's behind the trailer music for ‘Mother’, ‘The Defenders’ and ‘The Mummy' I hear. How would you describe it, what was the reasoning behind opting for the music of this sort and did you audition multiple composers during development before you landed on Jordon?
David: We talked a lot in the development process about the soundtrack - it was a hugely important part of the game for us. We wanted it to be more than just background music, but part of the gameplay and the story. That's why we wanted to find something composed rather than say chiptune or techno or dubstep, etc. That way we could ensure it had a lot of depth and room for development as the player proceeded through a run.
As for Jordan, we were amazingly lucky that he found us. He contacted Sean after seeing Intelligent Design and because Jordan's local to Cardiff, he wanted to grab a beer and talk about music for games. I think it's an area he's keen to expand into, as well as all the cool film and TV stuff he does. And then, when Jordan delivered the soundtrack, we were just totally blown away. It was everything we wanted and so much more!
NSW: That's so fortuitous, almost like the stars aligned. I've read in reviews that the soundtrack is situational; employed as a dynamic companion to the gameplay itself, akin to how music is used in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for example.
David: Yeah, I think it's sometimes an under-appreciated aspect of the whole gaming experience. For us as developers we want to use every tool available to us - and that's all the more important when you're a small team with a limited budget.
Sean: It's so important to the whole game. The track doesn't loop at all, which means at any point you know how long you've got left just based on the music. We actually balanced the entire game to fit Jordan's track.
(Notes: If you sign up to the mailing list on the games official site, you can gain access to the Cycle 28 Soundtrack for free. https://www.pillbug.zone/cycle-28/. )
Q6. Have early sales on Nintendo Switch matched your expectations? How do they compare to Steam over the same period of time?
Sean: In 24 hours we sold more copies on the Nintendo Switch eShop than we did in the first month on Steam. To be honest, the numbers are still not big, but are within expectations for a studio our size in the current market place.
David: I think it's fair to say Sean and I had to keep our expectations low. We are extremely proud of Cycle 28, but we know it's not a game for everyone. We know we don't have a lot of the things AAA games have, or even the games from the bigger indie studios. It's been amazing to have positive reviews and lets plays, and we've had our fair share of press coverage. But that doesn't always equate to sales.
NSW: I can imagine it's even harder for games like Cycle 28 where the real wow factor, the hook comes from actually playing the game and experiencing the emerging mystery. The frequency and volume of game releases on Steam and even the Switch eShop also makes it more difficult to stand out.
David: That's a great point. We made a game that (we think) *feels* great. That's actually a hard thing to get across to someone who has never seen your game before. It's no secret that so many of the successful indie games have had really distinct art styles. In some ways, it's even more important for Indies to *look* good than it is AAAs.
Sean: Yeah, the number of games coming out makes it challenging. Today/Yesterday turned out to be a hard day for us competing against some AAA games on the Nintendo Switch. This is why it's so important that if you like something you tell people about it - it really helps.
Q7. Do you have any plans to bring another of your games, 'Intelligent Design: An Evolutionary Sandbox', to Nintendo Switch eShop, and would such a venture be contingent on the performance of Cycle 28?
Sean: In short no, ID is a PC game through and through. It's kind of a monster actually, left to its own devices it will destroy even the most epic of CPUs. We are actually working on an update right now to remove controller support and really nail a mouse and keyboard UI. ...our next game however we will certainly have Nintendo Switch at the front of our minds.
(Note: Intelligent Design is self-described as "an abstract god game with fully simulated genetics and evolution. Get creative, playing at your own pace, as you experiment with this simulation of an ecosystem.")
Q8.What pre-existing videogame[s] do you wish you'd developed and why?
Sean: The Witness by Jonathon Blow - that game got into my head so profoundly - I actually ended up regularly meditating because of it. I've still got pages of notes and pictures of puzzles on my phone, so many moments in that game, I wish I could erase my memory of it and play it again.
David: I wish I'd been part of the team that developed FF7. That was the first time I'd experienced a game's story really grabbing me. So many aspects of that game just chimed. I listen to the soundtrack all the time. I hope one day I will create something as cool as Shinra Inc. Knowing that I bred a Golden Chocobo, beat both Emerald and Ruby weapon, these are still things I think about (probably more than I should). To impact on a young video game player that way would be just the best.
NSW: We’ll now open up the floor to questions from other members of NSW.
Q9. Matthew: What developer tools do you use?
Sean: We used Unity3D for pretty much everything
David: I'd say Discord is pretty essential too! We do a lot of remote working together over the video chat and screen share... not traditionally a dev tool, but boy is it useful!
Q10. Thomas: Are there any games that either of you wanted to get into, but just didn't feel you could click with? This could be in a situation where trailers look great, or everyone you know loves it, but you don't really enjoy the way the game plays.
Sean: I'm currently struggling with 'The Last of Us' - but I think that was mainly because of the head space I was in. It's a game that punishes you all the time and wasn't really what I was looking for at the time. Cuphead has also been hard for me.
David: I really could never gel with EVE. People joke about it being a second job, and I definitely get that, but it was more of the ship-as-avatar that made me struggle.
Q11. Lindsey: Would you like to make a game based on your respective professions, and if so what aspects would you put into such a game? In keeping with your desire to mesh minimalist style with hidden depth, how about a sci-fi text adventure?
Sean: I actually used to be a teacher, and I've been toying with a game design which revolves around playing a teacher trying to control a class of less than well behaving students. (Also it's in VR)
David: Sean often talks about leaning-in to my writing profession more in our games. For my part, I actually love how Pill Bug games draw on that side of what I do but don't entirely rely on it. Writing for games gives me an awesome set of new constraints that are so different from novel writing. Sean's idea is WAY too close to life for comfort :]
Q12. Benjamin: On the topic of you both being lecturers at Welsh Universities, have any of your students got involved with any of the games you’ve developed?
David: Our pleasure! Thanks for giving us such a great welcome. I'm pretty sure Sean's students have worked with him on stuff, but for me I know a lot of my students are super keen to write for games. At the moment, our course just isn't set up to teach and assess video game writing, but there are courses out there (and at USW) that do.
Sean: It was one of my students who convinced me to release Intelligent Design on Steam actually. Other than that none have really got involved. I try to share my experiences with them to help them out. Some of my students have asked advice on starting businesses. I have a bunch of project students making games who I hope I can use my experience to help. The funniest example was one student who asked me if they could use Intelligent Design as a CPU benchmark for his 3rd year project - not sure if he was trying to back-handedly insult programming skills with that one
Q13. Thomas: Have you found yourselves thinking about the work that goes into other games you play, now that you've made games of your own?
Sean: Yeah totally. I think the games industry needs to do a lot more to pull back the curtain on how games are made, No Clip, who make crowdfunded video game documentaries, are doing a great job of this by the way. I can't play a game now without thinking about the underlying mechanics and systems and how they work... I can almost immediately tell if a game was made in unity based on the menu! More recently releasing a game on a console has made me realise why games don't always come out in the same region at the same time.
Q14. Benjamin: What is the biggest hurdle you’ve faced in terms of coding and did it affect how you imagined the game to be? Whether it’s from coding the game for Steam or porting it to the Nintendo Switch.
Sean: At one stage we wanted to have multi-element bosses. These would be made up like LEGO, and as you break things off then their behaviour might change. That was incredibly difficult, so hard we actually ended up scraping the idea and the boss we like to call 'big train' was born.
Q15. Thomas: One final question regarding the name of Cycle 28. I know that when Douglas Adams made his decision for 42. To me, it does seem like 28 could potentially be related to moon phases and it being approximately a month, what with the game being set in space, but was there actually a specific reason you chose 28 out of all the numbers available to you?
David: That's come up quite a bit following the release. The honest answer is a lot like Adams' - it just sounded good to both of us, it just sounded right. Later on, we realised that it raised some search engine optimisation issues. In the end, we decided that was ok.
That concludes our Ninterview, we wanna thank the kind folks at Pill Bug Interactive for taking the time out to talk with our community. If you’d like to learn more about Cycle 28, please check out the following links, and if you have a question for Pill Bug Interactive, please contact them via their Discord channel, which can also be found below.
Pill Bug Interactive Official Site
Pill Bug Interactive Twitter
Pill Bug Interactive Facebook
Pill Bug Interactive Discord