Review Fix chats with Simon Graveline (Creative Director, Grave Danger Games) who discusses the awesome indie runner and why it’s a must-play.
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Review Fix: How was this game born?
Simon Graveline: I teach game prototyping in GameMaker Studio. Every year, I ask my students to experiment with various types of games and mechanics. Two years ago, I asked them to prototype gameplay for a 2D platformer. Since I am a bit sadistic as a teacher, one week before the deadline, I threw a curveball: I asked the teams to completely remove the jump mechanics. Remember … it’s a platformer! Their reactions were pure gold (at least for me). They all ended up with great ideas to work around the curveball, but one team gave me Hyper Shift – a game that was so fun to play, that I forgot I was supposed to grade the project.
That little game was haunting me. It was hitting all the right chords; I’m 40 years old, so it’s easy to imagine what types of games I grew up with: Hyper Shift felt like a modern version of games like Battletoads, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and the like. Rob and Raf – the guys who did the prototype – went far beyond what I expected. So I asked them if they wanted to turn it into a full-fledged game and publish it. My promises to them were to bring this game to Steam and coach them in the process of game production. Here we are, and the game is now on Steam. As for the coaching, I’ll leave it up to them if it was any good.
Review Fix: What was development like?
Graveline: Development was rather smooth, but we had to make it in our spare time. I’m a full-time teacher, and they are full-time students. They had to do it on top of their other homework. I consider myself lucky to have worked with these guys. They’ve put a lot of effort into the game, and they’ve learned so much. We teach them game design – but Rob did the code and sound design, while Raf acted as an artistic director. Later in development, Jonathan – my partner at GDG – joined us to ship more levels. He’s the guy to blame for the entire World 3 – by far the hardest in the game!
Other than the development itself: Within a year, we attended every single gaming event in Montreal. We brought the game everywhere. The reactions were always really good, which made it even much more motivating to put in the extra effort.
I’m almost twice their age, but there was never a gap between us. All three of us had the exact same vision, so making decisions together was surprisingly easy.
Review Fix: What makes this game special?
Graveline: AFTERGRINDER is like Thor’s Hammer (Mjölnir) or Excalibur. Everybody thinks they can handle it, but only the chosen ones can.
Review Fix: What games influenced this one the most?
Graveline: The way the game was originally conceived didn’t really have any “influence” to speak of. However, I can’t deny that we were highly inspired by the work of Vlambeer (Nuclear Throne, LUFTRAUSERS, etc.). It’s easier now that the game is done to compare it to existing games, of course – but we never told ourselves that AFTERGRINDER had to be one way or another because of other games. I believe the fairest and most accurate comparison would be to say it’s a mix of the gameplay from Bit.Trip Runner 2 with the difficulty level of Super Meat Boy.
Review Fix: As an indie studio, what do you think you guys do differently than the big studios?
Graveline: That’s a delicate question to answer. See, I’ve worked in games since 1999, and I’ve done everything in this business – believe me, everything … from game designer on Hannah Montana: The Movie (Nintendo DS) and Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood to tester on Rayman 2 (Nintendo 64) and lead game designer on Rainbow Six Patriots (not Siege). It’s easy to fall into comparisons between indie and AAA, but the truth is that both are so different that it’s mostly a matter of personal preference at this point.
To answer your question, we were four guys trying to develop the game on top of taking care of early marketing, event organization, etc. The big difference is that you have to wear many hats. You have to go out of your comfort zone and often face your lack of expertise in certain areas. But it’s really rewarding. The game you sell is the game you made. You can see your fingerprints all over it. And it’s a much more intimate dynamic to work with a really small team. You have to be able to look past some personal problems and stay focused on your project. If one guy is down, 25% of your workforce goes down with him.
Review Fix: Any fun stories or wild moments during development?
Graveline: Is this site rated “M”?! When I was wearing the “producer” hat, I was pretty generous with beer. So you can imagine the kinds of wild stories that usually accompany alcohol. Let’s go for funny instead, shall we? Every event that we attended was a blast; Montreal Independent Game Festival, International Game Summit, Comic-Con, etc. There were lines to play our game. The usual scenario was this: Someone was playing and getting beat down by the game, and everybody around was looking at the screen thinking that they could do better – only to get their asses kicked when their turn came … and leaving with their tail between their legs. This was always satisfying because it validated that we were achieving what we were aiming for: a crazy ass game.
Review Fix: How does this game disrupt the video game landscape?
Graveline: Three words; Story, Handholding, and Rewards.
About the Story: we have next to no story. Whenever we were at events, people would ask about the story – but AFTERGRINDER is gameplay-centric. It’s what we call bottom-up design. Story was not important for us. But in this landscape, there’s some pressure to have one – so we made something up just for fun, and the game even acknowledged that it doesn’t care about it. Basically, we took the synopsis of a skateboard movie from the ‘80s and slapped it into the game. Can you guess which one?
About the Handholding: At first, we wanted a game with no tutorial or easy mode. We assumed that with only so few buttons and easy mechanics to figure out that the players would easily be able to learn how to play. But the many years of handholding in games spoiled us a bit, and we came to expect a certain learning phase built-into the game. We didn’t mind some compromises on this, so we added an optional tutorial and an easier (i.e., slower) character. We even reduced the speed of the entire game a little. Yes, the game was even harder before release. Believe me, this was a heartbreaking decision … but looking at how much people still struggle with beating certain levels, I’m relieved.
About the Rewards: This is something else that we because accustomed to … trinkets. Even our smallest successes in games have to be rewarded with bells and whistles. We were hoping that the pure satisfaction of completing a level and the bragging rights that come with it would be enough of a reward. Apparently not – and that’s okay. It’s fun to have a little recognition that we’re doing well so far. That’s why we added the gold characters for getting all stars (hardest path) – so that you’re reminded that YOU. ARE. AWESOME!
Review Fix: Who will enjoy this game the most?
Graveline: Hardcore and old-school gamers (the ones who played games when there was only one difficulty level … HARD). According Richard Bartle’s player types: killers and achievers.
Review Fix: How do you want this game to be remembered?
Graveline: That game that cost players a couple of controllers and computer monitors.
Review Fix: What are your goals for the game?
Graveline: To find its audience. The game isn’t meant to appeal to a broad audience, but we would be really disappointed it the target players skip it.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Graveline: A week or two off! After that, it’s a bit early to tell. We will continue to support AFTERGRINDER for a while. We’re thinking of porting it to Mac, localizing it, and maybe even coming up with some DLC. As for the next game: It’ll either be another arcade game or maybe something horror related. It’s still up for debate within the team One thing’s for sure: I dream of seeing the sky ripped by silver and chrome angels!
Review Fix: Anything else you’d like to add to AFTERGRINDER?
Graveline: Pink drinks. Unicorns. Hobos. Poodles.