“Indieviews” is a series of weekly interview with independent developers that serve to highlight standout projects that have immense potential. Join us each Wednesday as we delve into a specific indie game to get behind its design philosophy and the unique vision of its creator(s).
You’ve probably played a Metroid game before. And you’ve probably also played a top-down shooter before. But have you ever played a game that was a seamless mix of the two? That’s exactly what Curt Stern, the creator of the fangame Metroid: Coven has wanted to do ever since he was a teenager.
It’s been a bumpy road in terms of development, which has been on-and-off and plagued by issues for years now, but the project seem to have finally gotten back on track recently. It’s definitely hard to please fans of such an excellent series, but Stern has the benefit of a lifetime of Metroid knowledge and experience with game design under his gravity suit belt.
We were very impressed with the work he’s done so far. The effort that he’s brought to the table in terms of fusing these very different genres together is commendable to say the least, especially when various real-life issues do their best to intrude on development. Here’s what he had to say regarding his ambitious project.
Q: For our readers who are unaware of the project, would you be able to briefly summarize what Metroid: Coven is? How long has it been in development?
A: Metroid: Coven is a fangame based directly off of the popular Metroid franchise by Nintendo with a little twist – it is in the top-down perspective. The most notable games of the series in my mind were always 2D sidescrollers, later on moving into first- and third-person perspectives; all of which were generally very successful. I decided to take the series in a new direction by going into top-down with it.
The game has been in real development on and off since I was probably 16 or 17 years old, so around 5 or 6 years total but with a lot of downtime in between. It started when I first created a hideously basic engine many years ago, using only keyboard movement/aiming and my own graphics either ripped from Super Metroid or drawn in MS paint. It consisted of very basic coding and nothing but the Power and Wave beams. Needless to say, it was shelved for a long time until I found it again 4 or 5 years later and saw great potential in it with my more rounded game developing experience.
Q: It’s clear that a lot of passion is going into Coven. What ultimately inspired you to start this project?
A: The Metroid series has been a favorite of mine since I was VERY young. I had an uncle who worked for Nintendo as a tester (Coolest job ever, right?) and was always hooked up with the new NES, SNES and N64 games that came out. One of those games that I was highly attached to was Super Metroid, given to me when I was 4 or 5 years old. I played all the way through it so many times that I memorized the entire game and it left such an impression in my mind that I still play it today. When I was introduced to the Game Maker program, I thought it would be a really cool idea to make my own Metroid game, but my only experience was with creating games in top-down (Which is pretty basic) and could not make one of the traditional sidescrollers yet. Once the engine was found in one of my old project folders many years later, I saw that I could use it for something amazing and elaborate – a huge culmination of all of my favorite aspects of the Metroid series in a different perspective. My lack of experience and knowledge with other perspectives still holds mostly true today, so I ended up rolling with the already-existing top-down idea and applied my skills to make what you see as Metroid: Coven today.
Q: Since Metroid is such a beloved series, do you think fans will have certain expectations going into Coven, even though it’s a fan project? Do you think Coven would also appeal to someone who has never touched a Metroid title in their life?
A: There is no question that fans of Metroid have high expectations about any Metroid fangame. If you follow the fangame community surrounding this series, you would see that roughly 80-90% of the projects fail, so that already makes people doubt you, your commitment and the integrity of your project. Not only that, but the fact that it isn’t a side-scrolling re-hash of the Zero Mission engine like everyone else’s projects tends to throw people off too. Not bashing AM2R or FSMR, of course. They are (Or were, in FSMR’s case) the most incredible fangame undertakings in the community.
I think the project would be appealing to someone who is new to the Metroid series because of the simplicity of the top-down environment, the enthralling exploration factor and the shooter and RPG aspects that the Metroid series offers. In general, I feel that top-down games are popular for 2 reasons: They are usually easy to play and easy to create. I have those 2 advantages going for me.
Q: We imagine you’re probably a dedicated Metroid fan, but were there any other titles, such as certain top-down shooters, that served as a major influence on Coven?
A: To be honest, I took almost all of my inspiration from Metroid games alone. When I look for new ideas, I play through the Prime series, ZM, SM or Fusion and draw concepts from little else. I took a little inspiration from other popular top-down games made by fans on the Game Maker Community forums as well, but more from looking at screenshots and reading descriptions than actually playing them. In terms of influence, I would say that Coven falls closest with the Prime series due to the art and level design styles applied, as well as the integration of the Scan Visor into the gameplay.
Q: Top-down shooters and ‘Metroidvania’ sidescrollers are two very different genres. Did you find any difficulty in combining the two? Were there any elements of Metroid that had to be downplayed, changed or removed in order for it to gel with the top-down formula?
A: Yes, I found extreme difficulty in making this game a viable alternative or extension to the originals. The biggest challenge and biggest downplayed element was obviously the platforming. Metroid games are legendary for their platforming… jumping, grappling, being blasted out of cannons, wall-jumping, Spring Ball-ing, shinesparking, and so on. With the removal of platforming and all manner of platforming-related items, the “art” of getting places you are not supposed to has also been lost – or at least somewhat convoluted – in Coven… or so I believed.
Sequence breaking has been one of my favorite things to do when it comes to the Metroid series and I have become quite proficient at manipulating the mechanics of many games to get places I am not supposed to. Most prominently would be sequence-breaking in Metroid games, of course. I have become something of an expert at getting items earlier in the games than you are supposed to and its really fun to do so. Taking platforming out of the game presented a lot of hardships in trying to find newer, better ways for the player to gain access to new areas without making it boring or repetitive and while thinking of how players can sequence-break along the way. Taking out things like the High-jump boots, the Grapple Beam, Space Jump and other platforming-related items makes it really hard to put new ideas for accessing new areas to practice. It is coming down to clever level design, in which I am all self-taught.
Q: On the other side of the coin, will there be any exciting additions to the game that have never been seen before in a Metroid title, such as certain weapons, enemies and bosses?
A: Yes, I always thought the games were missing some really neat items. For example, when it comes to me and FPS games, I love burst-fire weapons, so I came up with the Pulse Beam. It fires in a 3-round burst for moderate damage and high accuracy but a moderate delay between bursts to balance it a bit. I also added a new suit – in light of the fact that I planned on putting Coven somewhere in the Prime series chronologically – called the Corruption suit which turned out awesome visually. However, my favorite new item is the Lightsear shield. It is used to reflect enemy projectiles back at them as long as you time it very carefully. It creates a quick burst of light when you activate it and reflects most ranged attacks back at enemies, dealing extra damage and making the projectile move at a much greater speed to keep enemies from avoiding it as easily. It added a really cool element to the combat for the game and it is one of VERY few features that I have not gone back and changed somehow throughout development.
Q: The Metroid series is famous for, among many other things, its excellent level design. What’s your approach to designing the levels in Coven?
A: Great question. Since I am pretty much self-taught in almost every aspect of game design, Coven presented a great challenge in trying to find a good middle ground between how difficult it was to navigate in the original Metroid, to the highly-guided Prime series. I wanted a game that would be satisfying for series fans and veterans as well as appealing to people who have never seen a Metroid game before. To compromise, I make a lot of forks in the road in my level design, giving the player a good reason to branch off and explore by making it a rewarding experience. I plan to reward players who go off the beaten path to really explore the game and find expansions to make the experience easier along with not making the way towards actual progression too difficult to figure out. I know a few places in Super Metroid where I say, “Why am I here? Its just a dead end with no items” and I want to avoid that. At the same time, I generally leave a few hints as to where the right path is and don’t make it as cryptic as the first few games in the series. Not to mention, people who remember to use the Scan Visor will find a lot of help progressing, too.
Q: How challenging will Coven be? Also, how prevalent will puzzles and exploration be compared to the combat?
A: Well, as I briefly mentioned before, I wanted to make the game satisfying to loyal fans and total newbies, so I plan on having it be an easy game at the start, and very challenging by the end. I might add difficulty choices but I am not a huge believer in a single variable changing the overall difficulty of the game. I think it should be like Super Meat Boy in a way – You first see previews of the game and think “good lord, that looks impossible!” But, at the start of the game it is stupidly easy, slowly ramping up and later on you have gradually gained the skills to tackle some insanely hard levels. I don’t see it being THAT difficult though, nor following that particular flow and making it look “scary” to play. I was thinking along the lines of Super Metroid’s difficulty range. It starts out fairly easy and ramps up as you go. Tourian is a hellhole of projectiles and you get hit a LOT. But going back to rewarding the explorers, if you get a lot of tanks and expansions it gets a lot easier.
Puzzles and combat should be fairly balanced, with the gameplay possibly leaning a little more towards combat. For me, there are a few times where puzzles and boss encounters in Metroid games (Well, a lot of games, really) just seem to consume time and create filler rather than make a compelling experience. There are some game series that create puzzles that rely on slow or clunky character mechanics to complete, and you end up solving the puzzle in your mind long before you solve it in the actual game. I want to avoid that and make puzzles that are fun to solve and/or navigate without making the player bored or annoyed with how long it goes on or the lack of reward in choosing different paths and methods. The Spider Guardian in Metroid Prime 2 is my prime example (Ha! Prime example… get it? …*serious face*) of how I do NOT want to make puzzles and bosses in the game. It is despicably annoying in my opinion.
Q: Will Coven have a full-blown narrative? If so, can it potentially be considered canon, taking into account Nintendo’s notorious chronological ordering?
A: Oh, that I have not decided yet. I find that writing a lot of story and background can really bog down the game design process. Taking another look at the Metroid fangame community, you will find that most of the failed projects involve someone who is just trying to write a good story rather than make an actual engine and a game. I am saving story until somewhere relatively late in development (Which could be soon, if I get back to work) so I can spend more time focusing on the engine and making it fun. Chronologically, I planned on sticking it somewhere in the Prime series. I did not want to fall in line with 90% of the failed Metroid fangames that follow the events of Fusion. I wanted it to be different. As far as narratives go, that would be something for well after the project is actually completed. That is, unless I get totally engrossed in a store that I/we come up with.
Q: Will we see appearances from the likes of Ridley, Kraid or any other iconic villains?
A: Certainly! What fangame would be complete without loving homages to our most loved (And hated) characters! The most prominent boss I want to bring back is Crocomire. He is hideous, scary, awesome and severely underrated in my eyes. I also thought of bringing back Kraid or other bosses that could work in a top-down environment. With that said, I am almost definitely not bringing Ridley back. In my opinion (Feel like I am saying that a lot here), he is highly overrated and exploited. He is cool, no doubt – but he is used in almost every single fangame/Nintendo game and I am personally just tired of seeing him come back. Without overwhelming fan feedback that opposes this, it is pretty much set in stone. No Ridley.
I also plan on bringing back Botwoon. Another cool, yet underrated mini-boss. Easy to integrate into top-down, too. Oh, Arachnus too.
Q: What was the toughest period of development for you? Were there any points where you felt like giving up?
A: The toughest period was having my top programmer leave the project, and that was pretty early on. He did not leave in the best way, either. He was responsible for writing code for many of the more difficult-to-write features of the engine. Code I have a hard time reading and understanding even today because the coding style is really convoluted. I will not name names, but it did make it really difficult to fix/change some of the features he made later on. The only other thing that comes close to this was the loss of my main hard drive that I store the game on. I lost months of work and it set me back terribly. I lost a ton of my resources. Now I have it all recovered and backed up in 4 or 5 places now. It won’t happen again.
Other than that, the only time I considered scrapping the project was when I lost the main hard drive. It only crossed my mind only that one time. I won’t give up on Coven completely and I made that extremely clear to a lot of my fans through my news posts, in particular.
Q: We understand that you’re incorporating a lot of fan feedback for this project. In what ways have they supported the project? Was there any game-changing advice given to you so far?
A: The fangame community is small – as is my own personal fan base – but I have received a generally decent amount of support from my fans over the years, particularly the ones who push me to continue on the website’s Shoutbox even though I have temporarily halted development several times. They really make me feel accomplished and I appreciate everyone who takes the time to tell me what I should change. The most prominent change was having me change the size of the Morph Ball. It sounds silly, but it made a MASSIVE difference when I made it bigger, both visually and mechanically. Other than that, there hasn’t been anything too severe that made me drastically rewrite an entire feature; not anything that was based on fan feedback anyway.
Q: When do you expect Coven to come out, keeping in mind the current rate of progress? Also, we heard you were seeking some additional talent to help work on the game; any positions still open that some readers may potentially want to volunteer for? 😀
A: It is hard to say. Fangames can stay in “development” for years. Coven is close to the point where I will be satisfied enough with the engine to just start making the actual game and no more demos. It all depends on my personal motivation (Which can be directly proportional to the amount of feedback and interest shown in the project!) as well as my time. Right now it is tough because my motivation and availability are down because of my new job and because we just moved and are trying to settle in and get ahead of bills.
As far as the open positions, I ALWAYS take new applicants. I URGE you to email me if you have skills with programming GML or spriting in particular. I also take applications for writers, texture artists, level designers, audio engineers and all manner of other positions. Feel free and comfortable to email me about a position at any time because I like to think I am fairly humble and easy to talk to. Just attach some samples of your work! At this time, I need an AI programmer the most. The current development phase is the AI demo and I need just that: AI. The code written by my original lead programmer is tough to manipulate and understand, so I would like some fresh AI for many enemies.
Q: Thank you so much for your time! Before we close off, are there any other details you’d like to share?
A: It was my pleasure to be interviewed here, believe me. I never imagined that this would happen, and I am very thankful for it. Please feel free to send applications, comments, questions, feedback, support, hate mail, concerns and conspiracy theories to my email at email@example.com and visit my website at www.metroidcoven.com! Thank you so much for this opportunity!
There you have it, folks. The words of a dedicated Metroid fan who will one day be able to successfully leave his mark on the gigantic legacy that this series has spawned. Stay tuned for further news and updates on this project here at OnlySP as it draws closer to completion, and tune in next week for another in-depth indieview.
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The Long Return Creates a Beautiful Aesthetic in Each Level — An Interview With Max Nielsen
The Long Return is a beautiful third-person puzzle adventure game, following the story of an orphaned cub. The player explores hand crafted levels as the cub retraces the steps it once took with his mother. The Long Return’s level design is familiar yet still distinct and refreshing, taking inspiration from both new and old games to create this muted low poly feel.
This gorgeous, debut project is the work of solo developer Max Nielsen. Although he is currently finalising the game ahead of its release later this year, he took the time to talk to OnlySP to reflect and tell us more.
OnlySP: What inspired you to bring The Long Return to life? Was it an idea you were sitting on for a while or did it come on quite suddenly?
Nielsen: Actually, I never planned on releasing this game, or even finishing it. I had just quit my job at Microsoft and wanted to create a quick demo for my portfolio, so that I could apply for jobs in the industry. At the time I was working on a 2D RPG mostly for fun, and I knew I would need to make something in 3D for the bigger studios to give me a chance. So I decided to make a fairly simple demo with around 10 minutes of gameplay. However, while working on it, I got offered a job as an application consultant at a great company, and they said they would let me work on my own games and run my own company on the side, so I accepted the job and since then I have been working on this game as a hobby on my free time.
OnlySP: Each zone in The Long Return has such a pleasing aesthetic, how did you go about level design in a mostly natural world?
Nielsen: I am a huge Nintendo fan, Zelda OoT is still my favorite single player game ever, and I had just played through Zelda BotW, and wanted to create a world with a similar color palette and feel. After trying out a few different things I decided to use the low poly style because that would mean I could actually model some stuff by myself. I think I’ve gone through the level design of each zone in my game at least 10 times since I started, it’s crazy how much you learn just by trial and error (although time-consuming).
OnlySP: Will the game have a stronger focus on gameplay and location or story. Is The Long Return is a mix of the two?
Nielsen: Since the start I really wanted to tell a story without any words or text, and I have kept true to that. Instead I tell the story using memories and visuals. This does set certain limits to how gripping and detailed the story can be, especially when working with animals, but I think the message comes across quite well. The game is, at its core, a puzzle/adventure game, and you spend most of your time solving different puzzles and finding your way past obstacles, accompanied by an amazing original soundtrack that I still cannot believe is for my game.
OnlySP: Being your first big project game, what have you learned during development?
Nielsen: That list is incredibly long, and hopefully I can create a post-mortem detailing most of it. But I would say the main things I will take away from this project is:
– Plan, research and test; When starting out I kind of just created features for the game by trial and error, this leads to some really messy code. Nowadays I always make sure to properly plan, take notes, research best practices and test everything in a dev-environment before putting it in my game.
– Marketing is a necessary evil, even as a hobby developer with very limited time, I still don’t do enough of it, shame!
– It’s okay to take a day off, don’t burn out, it’s supposed to be fun!
OnlySP: Overall, how long has it taken for you to develop The Long Return?
Nielsen: Roughly a year. But I’ve been working on games for 4-5 years before that as a hobby.
OnlySP: Do you have any plans after The Long Return is released?
Nielsen: Big, BIG plans, haha. While I love this game and all I’ve learned, I am so excited to start my next project. It is much more “my type of game” and I have very high hopes for it. I won’t say too much yet, but it will combine my two favorite genres of single player games; RPG and city management.
The Long Return is set to release in August 2019.
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