While retro style games have come back into popularity, few developers are really evolving the art style alongside the game play. One independent developer, Zanrai, has been honing their talents on both fronts for the past few years, and their upcoming release, Westgunne, looks to marry both pleasing retro inspired graphics, with addictive mecha action. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Jason Koohi, half of the two man team, about where Zanrai has been, and what is coming up soon.
So Jason, how did you get into game development?
Jason Koohi: I got into gamedev as a kid playing with old game making software they had back in the day. I’ve always been interested in art and it was fascinating being able to make little snippets of gameplay as a kid, and that’s stuck with me ever since. I also became steeped in music production and remixing as a teenager and I started doing contract work for audio stuff, music, and voicework. That was certainly the entry point into the indie scene and eventually I started a small company to get into full-fledged development.
What software did you start out with for game making and audio production? Care to share any of the projects you did contract work for?
JK: Oh, well, I initially started when I was 12 with a very old program called Klik N Play. I found my way across a number of editors along the way, like GameMaker, Construct, and a few others. With regard to audio production, I dabbled with MIDI editors, but I really started trying to make some admittedly terrible remixes of video game music using a demo of FL-Studio that didn’t let you save. I still use FL-Studio to this day for all of my music production and a lot of sound design.
What’s it like developing in Dallas?
JK: I imagine it’s about like any other metro area. Dallas is one of those towns that’s really spread out, but there’s a thriving community out here. There are a number of studios that have taken root in the area, I think the most recognizable are id Software and Gearbox, but there are a lot of developers around, and we’re also fortunate enough to have a ton of indie events, conventions, and meetups all around town. It’s a short drive to Austin, too, which attracts its own events, so there’s a lot of opportunities floating around Texas fortunately. Dallas has had a surge of growth and is bursting at the seams right now, so I’m optimistic the area will continue to attract more talent. As far as Texas goes, it’s one of the few states in the United States that doesn’t have a state income tax, which is nice to have.
Have you participated in any game jams?
JK: Unfortunately, no. I wish I could though, it seems like a really fun idea.
Do you work directly with Simon or remotely?
JK: Well, we’re a skeleton crew. We started working remotely and doing regular meet ups in coffee shops, and we’ve since transitioned to completely working remotely.
How did that relationship start?
JK: Simon’s a cool dude! We met in a game development competition our university held back in probably back in 2010. All the students were forming into groups and I bumbled around looking for a team until a professor pushed me into a group and I met Simon while on that team. Simon was the team’s captain, programmer, and designer. I was just a little musician and audio guy, but I did do some silly voiceovers for the main character. Our team built a little adventure game and we won a little money from the contest too, though unfortunately I think we only placed second at the time. After I graduated, I decided to start a company and I asked Simon if he was interested in working with me, and eventually we had released our first game Stardust Vanguards on PC and PlayStation 4.
Is development full time for you, or is it an after-hours passionate pursuit?
JK: Development for me is a full-time job in addition to an after-hours passion pursuit. I’ve put everything on the line, and I basically work all day and night solely on our new game, Westgunne. We’re a skeleton crew, just two guys working remotely. Simon works on all of our programming part-time when he can, since he’s working at a larger game studio in L.A., and this arrangement seems to be working for us. Anything else related to development is my responsibility, so art, music, design, sound, business stuff, marketing, and everything else. So the crazy hours are somewhat of a necessity for me just to keep up with everything. Making a game is rough. Back when we were working on Stardust Vanguards, the game had a much smaller, focused scope, so work was much more relaxed and easier. For our new game, Westgunne, it has a much larger scope which understandably increases our workload, but I think it’s worth it!
Heaven Variant- (not released)
Where did that idea/name come from?
JK: Heaven Variant was the name of our player vehicle from our old game. The name is derived from kind of a spiritual motif the game had. A lot of these elements we’re redirecting into our next game, Westgunne. In fact, our player’s robot model is still referred to as “Heaven Variant”.
What finally made you stop production?
JK: Yeah, we really bit off more than we could chew, and that’s totally my fault. I think it’s a rookie mistake a lot of indie developers make. We tried to produce a 3D game and the amount of work 3D requires is significantly larger than a 2D game, and we were a three man team back then with a dedicated 3D artist. And we coasted for a good time during development, and made some really cool systems and learned a lot, but what I hadn’t taken into account was when you’re a small lean team and you have all these asset overhead requirements, any hiccups can easily snowball into larger issues since you have to devote resources away from asset creation. So it was just an issue of scope. When we started Stardust Vanguards, me and Simon focused on a kind of surgical strike development, where we had a prototype and expanded on it as quickly as possible with the resources at hand with a very focused scope. Stardust Vanguards is not a large game, but finishing it taught us a lot about development and we were able to make some money, learn how to properly market and budget.
The soundtrack you released for Heaven Variant has 67 tracks! How long did it take to produce?
JK: I’m really proud of HV’s soundtrack. It took about a year or a year and half to produce them, but again, at the time I was wearing a lot of hats working on 2D art, managerial, and game design stuff. I’m not really sure how I produced that many tracks so quickly, but looking back, there quality compared to what I can do today is not nearly up my current standard. In fact, in addition to making new tracks, I’m remixing and rearranging a few choice tracks from that soundtrack for our new game, Westgunne, since it seems a shame not to use those tracks for something. It’s nice to have a back catalog of unused music to pick and choose from. Haha.
So many tracks have names that implied cool set pieces, were they named after specific sequences, or named after the fact?
JK: Yeah, a lot of those tracks are named with the setting they were designated for. Many of those ideas are being used for our next game, Westgunne. Westgunne is the culmination of all those ideas from HV and the lessons we learned, so a lot of ideas are carrying over since we had, in my opinion, some really cool unused designs and ideas we were very attached to. So some of those sequences will in fact be in Westgunne, and those tracks could very well finally find themselves in those environments, too. And much more conceptually realized, as well.
Stardust Vanguards– (PC&Linux 2015 – PS4-2016)
How did that game come together?
JK: Well, when Heaven Variant came to an end, I took a few months off and just prototyped stuff. I eventually prototyped a very rudimentary little game that was the basis of Stardust Vanguards. I approached Simon about it, showed him the prototype, and told him that I wanted to make a game as quickly as possible and just get it out there. We went with local multiplayer because it allowed us to build quickly, but it also let us use more resources. So we rapidly built the game, I had never used Unity and learned it in that project. In about 3-4 months we had the bulk of the game in a completed form that we showed a convention here in Dallas. And the response was really great. I think all in all we actively spent about 6-8 months on the game’s development.
Did you plan on a console release from the start, how did you reach that decision?
JK: We didn’t really think about console in the beginning to be honest. We just wanted to release a game on Steam and Humble at the time. We were fortunate enough to meet some great guys that do an indie meetup group calling themselves the Dallas Society of Play. They had built an awesome arcade cabinet and asked for a custom build they could use. It sounded really cool to us and they were taking the arcade around conventions and stuff, so we thought it’d be a good way to kind of show people our game without us really there. As it so happens, they took the arcade cabinet to PAX South where I think they had a booth there, and from what I can tell they put me in contact with some nice guys over at Sony who saw the game at PAX. We were really lucky to have met the people we did, and once Sony reached out to us, we started taking steps toward moving in that direction.
What was the experience like launching/maintaining a console title?
JK: Sony put us in contact with a porting team, so we didn’t actively develop for the PlayStation 4. Although, we did consult with them and do some testing. It was a smooth process. This was my first foray into handling the administrative side of a console release and it was a pleasant experience all in all. The guys at Sony were really great and helpful.
Did you always intend for it to be local focused (co-operative or VS)?
JK: Yes. It was mainly to make sure we could produce a game quickly without coming across any stumbling blocks. We didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew. We focused on making sure the gameplay was tight and responsive, and to make sure we could do whatever we wanted to, we kept it local so we wouldn’t have to consider internet lag. The game was really fast paced and any kind of lag would really diminish the experience.
The Support call in action, where did that idea come from?
JK: So this function came a little late in development. So for people that don’t know, Stardust Vanguards is a 4-player local deathmatch game and as you kill off your friends your earn reinforcement points, and you can spend those on support units to help you. In my original prototype the game didn’t include this. We originally had little NPCs showing up to fight, which would later in development become our faction of NPC pirates that harass the players, but they were too powerful in many cases. I had an idea suddenly that it would be cool if the player could summon their own troops to help, and we began developing that. And the game became really cool once we did that. We had already developed a pretty solid battle game, but then it had a new feature that really became the premise of the game. Conceptually, I’ve also been a fan of Gundam and Macross, and the idea of leading troops into battle always sounded like a cool idea, so I was probably influenced by shows like that.
How do you feel about how it functions in a match?
JK: I’m really proud of how our reinforcement system works. It’s balanced really carefully and the reinforcement points awarded scale with the progression of the match so there’s a natural climax by the end of the round. Troops numbers inflate to large groups by the end, but players on the defensive end of things without many troops get an added bonus from their being more enemies on the field which increases their chance of earning more reinforcement points for themselves. It had a way of balancing itself out, and I’m really proud of how we were able to get that system working. I remember spending a lot of nights crunching numbers and point values to make sure that balance would stay intact, and sometimes battles can get one-sided if one player is particularly good, but for the most part, battles remain close and have plenty of opportunities to use reinforcements to mount a comeback. I really feel like we contributed something innovative with the system and I think it could be expanded or used in other genres, too.
WESTGUNNE!- (PC TBD 2018)
I had a few questions about where the idea for Westgunne came from, but it seems like it’s the culmination of your lessons learned from your previous two projects. Did you go into it with a list of ideas/features that you wanted to include/explore?
JK: Westgunne is definitely the product of what we learned with our previous projects. We basically were at the point where we finished Stardust Vanguards and the PS4 version was finally out, and we had to make a decision to continue on. We eventually decided to try and make a 2D version of our previous Heaven Variant project, so it’s applying a lot of ideas that were well developed from back then. With a focus on 2D, we’re really able to churn out assets in a few days as opposed to what would have previously taken us a few weeks. With regard to ideas, we knew the game needed to be fast-paced with a cinematic vibe to it, but we also want to make sure gameplay remains accessible to a generation of gamers that may never have experienced shoot ’em ups beyond really difficult bullet-hell titles. Our aim isn’t to make the game easy, but to make it accessible (and even approachable) for new players, but keep depth for people that really want to pursue higher level player and score hunting.
You keep sticking with mecha themed games, is that a childhood fascination?
JK: It’s a personal love I have for robots and machines. When I was a kid there was this weird niche shop that would sell really cool import robot toys and I was hooked there. Then once I discovered Gundam as a kid it opened the door to a lot of amazing ideas and worlds.
How do you find the balance between stylistic effects and screen clutter?
JK: Fair question! I love working on FX, but if you can’t tell what’s going on, then you need to dial it back. I’ve been forced to do this nearly on a daily basis because my first instinct is to make the biggest, most bombastic effect I can. There’s always room for cool effects but as long as the average player can see what’s going on then you’re good. A careful use of color is also a really good way to pop elements out of the background (or set them deeper into the background) so you can play with depth and what should take focus. I’ve taken really great lengths to make sure our enemy bullets are super visible and overt. We have a few different colors that will contrast with any background, and just to make sure they’re obvious, they have flashing effects. So in that way, we’re using the FX to be stylistic but also convey information. That’s the best of both worlds.
Were there any games that were particularly influential on you when starting Westgunne?
JK: Very much so! I really looked closely at game’s like Einhander and Thunder Force as examples we wanted to expand on. They’re both shoot ’em ups but they feel a little different from a bullethell game. In fact, Einhander feels almost more like an action game than a shoot ’em up in some cases. One of my favorite developers is Treasure, and back in the day they had a way of hiding scoring puzzles into fun action gameplay and that’s something also on my mind while I develop stages. In more stylistic ways, I also really love the way the earlier Star Fox were quickly able to insert context into a rail shooter and make it more compelling. Our characters are heavily influenced by that standard, and our NPC allies will pop in and out of the frame and shoot alongside the player in some instances, so there’s a lot of influence there as well.
From one of your works in progress it looks like there is a bounty hunting element to the missions, anything you’d like to share about that at this point?
JK: We’re still figuring all that out, but the player takes the role of a mercenary and each stage is a contract he’s signed up for. We’re generally using the idea of people being wanted as a way to push the gameplay forward, though its more of a story element I’d imagine than an actual gameplay element.
You also show off an NPC unit that can steal your kills, are you choosing to call in reinforcements like in Stardust Vanguards (at a profit cost?), or is their assistance forced?
JK: Right now those moments are very scripted based on what’s going on in the level. We’re building a pretty traditional shoot ’em up with Westgunne.
Will it be co-operative?
JK: Right now we’re aiming for single player.
How is development on it coming along?
JK: It’s going well! All of our core systems are in and the vast majority of assets are completed. There’s still quite a bit of work left to do, but we’re moving at a good clip!
I hate to ask, but do you think it might make its way to the Switch one day?
JK: We don’t have any plans yet, but we would love release on as many platforms as possible. The more people let us know their preferred platforms the easier it is for us to make decisions. Right now though, the only thing I can confirm for certain is that the game is planned to be released on Steam.
That’s all I’ve got this time. Hope you learned a few things, enjoyed the tunes, and enjoyed some tasty work in progress gifs from Westgunne. If you enjoyed the soundtrack snippets, please dig into the full albums at their respective links above, and if you have the means, and friends, tryout Stardust Vanguards on your next game night. For more news follow Jason on Twitter (@zanrai_int) or keep an eye on the Zanrai homepage.