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Interview: Alistair Aitcheson on Slamjet Stadium

Interview

Alistair Aitcheson is the developer behind indie hit Greedy Bankers vs. The World, an iPad puzzle game which took on an added dimension when played with somebody else. He pushes this concept further, both figuratively and temporally, in his latest game Slamjet Stadium, a futuristic sports title in which chaos reigns, and rules are made only to be mocked.

Aitcheson has written for Gamasutra and Pocketgamer (amongst others) on the potential of local multiplayer and making it as an indie developer, topics which come up during the interview. He also talks about his development process, reviving old genres, and why the Jetsons are the natural enemies of Space Marines.

Slamjet Stadium seems to be quite a departure from your previous game, Greedy Bankers. Was there a conscious decision on your part to try something different, or did the idea just come to you?

A bit of both. As an indie I’m under no obligation to do the same thing over and over again, and that’s kind of liberating in a way. I don’t feel like I have to follow suit because I’ve done a puzzle game. It’s nice to be able to change what you’re doing, do something different and explore something new every time you make a game.

What really inspired this came from Greedy Bankers. When I put multiplayer into the iPad version, people could reach over the screen and steal gems from each other. I realised “oh, this is really fun, people latch onto it”, so I ended up adding a bonus for everything you steal. So people got really into stealing and getting in each other’s way. Afterwards, I spent a lot of time prototyping games where getting in each other’s way on an iPad and sharing the space were important.

The gameplay was built around this idea that you’re sharing the game with another person. Getting in each other’s way, cheating and stealing from each other. So in Greedy Bankers, you’re stealing gems. In Slamjet Stadium, you’re stealing characters. I want that to be okay, I want that to be encouraged. I want that sense that you’re pushing each other out of the way, you’re being cheeky, you’re being sneaky. All of that is really, really fun, and I could see it when I took Greedy Bankers to expos. People really got into that.

The problem with Greedy Bankers in that respect was the game was a puzzle game first and foremost. There was this whole gem matching puzzle that you had to get used to before you could get into the cheating, stealing and the playing dirty. So I thought this prototype was quite a nice way to build a game because it doesn’t take a lot to pick up the mechanics. You get into the dirty play right away. As soon as you notice you can play dirty, then you can make the most of it.

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Were there any deeper influences on that anarchic, lawless design?

It really came from how much fun I saw people having with it at the expos. I’ve also played games like J.S. Joust. Michael Brough, who did VESPER.5. and Glitch Tank, has a great game on the iPad called O, where you have to steal floating coloured circles from the centre of the iPad board. I played that at an event during development.

There is this subset of local multiplayer games at the moment, which I find really inspiring and wanted to contribute towards, where the physicality of the player is part of the game. So in [J.S. Joust], there are an infinite number of strategies you can take. You can sneak around, you can hide your joystick, you can throw a shoe at someone. All of these are brilliant strategies to play that you can come up with on the fly based on what’s around you. I think that games with this real world physical element have that.

So for me that was something really exciting to explore. I think the iPad is quite a nice environment. It’s nice and big, so there’s plenty of screen to fight over, but you are still in this localised area. It forces you to physically interact. Fingle is a game that really makes the most of the player’s hands as physical objects, because you do have to touch each other’s hands to win the game.

I find it fascinating, because it’s completely different to the way I used to view games. I used to be fascinated by interacting systems. If you’ve ever played Puyo Pop Fever or Puzzle Fighter, where there are all kinds of interlocking, interweaving mechanics and you’re trying to negotiate the optimal way to beat an opponent using them. I used to find that fascinating, and I still do, but I think there’s something else that is there when you get two people physically interacting in a game. It’s this social aspect, this sense that you’re bonding over a game, creating funny stories and anecdotes. I’ve had people playing Greedy Bankers who ended up wrestling on the floor over the game. When that happens, you’ve got a story, you’ve got a great memory to go and tell your friends. That’s wonderful, and it wouldn’t have happened, if you couldn’t do something crazy like wrestle your opponent on the floor, or push their hands out the way, or throw a shoe at them. The fact that you have that level of imagination from the real world, it gives it something extra. I can’t quite find the words to explain what it is…

I understand what you’re saying. Going back to the days of local multiplayer on the consoles, even in games that seemed to have quite strict rules like Goldeneye and Timesplitters, it was always as though they had provided the game for you, but the real game was going on in the room. It was what you were bringing to the table.

I know exactly what you mean, and it’s something that’s changed over time as local multiplayer has given way to online multiplayer. In a way, that’s good. I’m a big fan of Street Fighter 4 and I can go online and play someone of the same standard as me. I don’t have to wait around for it.

So I think online multiplayer is really good in that. But it does take away that social element of shared screen gaming, and replaces it with an emphasis on the skill element. Which is quite good in a way, but it means that people making local multiplayer have had to ask themselves “what is it about the local experience that makes it special, and what I can do to bring the most out that?” Be it by using elements that are only available in the room, or making it a spectacle, making it funny. I played a demo of a game called Awesomenauts. There’s a lot of humour in that, and you can tell that this going to be more fun when you’re with friends. You can laugh about it. Laughing down a headset just isn’t the same.

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I find this idea of going back to local multiplayer interesting because a lot of the indie scene has been focused on resurrecting genres and styles that were previously consigned to history, such as 2D graphics and point and click adventures. Do you have any thoughts on why indie developers find revisiting these old, seemingly abandoned elements so appealing?

There are two things I can think of. When photography was invented, all the painters who had been really good at doing realistic paintings went “oh, so people can just do what we’re doing at the click of a button, and when this technology advances we’re going to be completely pointless. What’s the point of painting?” And then you had painters come along like the impressionists, the post-impressionists, the cubists. Later on you had Duchamp, you had the pop artists. And from then on, what they were doing was “okay, we’d previously been getting away with photorealistic stuff, but now we need to show the point of visual art.” From then on, painting and other visual art forms were experimenting, saying “what is it that makes this special?” Look at paintings like Jackson Pollack, for example, which are all about the brush strokes, and the paint drops. They’re physical objects made from paint, and they wouldn’t work if it was just a photo.

That’s what we’re seeing now with all these old genres coming back. Point and click adventures are making a bit of a resurgence at the moment. At the time when they were really big, in the 90s, they were one of the best ways to tell a story in a video game. You could get the most visual elements in there, you could get the most dialogue in there. It made sense. But over time, as technology has gotten better, we can do great realistic graphics, we can put FMV sequences in, we can have voiceovers. So, the people who love point and click adventures say “what is it about them that we love? Let’s explore that.” Now they’re looking into the elements that really make that genre tick.

Another thing is that we have this genre system that exists at the moment because a lot of larger publishers take a low risk attitude. There’s a lot of first person shooters because a lot of publishers would be a bit worried about trying anything else. They know they have a formula and a method of selling that formula. They can say “if we make this game that costs this much, we can spend this much on marketing, and we should be able to guarantee this much return to our investors.” That holds up until it all starts to fall apart and they find a new genre to latch onto. I’m sure that same reasoning was why there were so many animal mascot platformers in the 90s.

Indies have no sense of guarantee. We don’t know how we’re going to do, we can’t guarantee any players or income or feedback. But what we do have is freedom. We’re not beholden to investors. We don’t say “could we do a safer version of that?”, or “do it as a genre that’s popular at the moment.” We’re well-placed to just follow our instincts and our interests, and a lot of our instincts and our interests are things that we’ve grown up with. We’ve said “that thing used to be really cool, I bet there’s somewhere new we could take it. I bet there’s something we could do to push that idea that Monkey Island created, or Ikaruga created.” Those, I’d say, are the reasons you get a lot of genre resurgences, and a lot of looking back and taking that forward.

So what do you see as the future of multiplayer in the coming generation? Do you think there will be a rift between indie and mainstream developers, or do you think that mainstream developers will also start to see the potential of more interesting forms of multiplayer?

That’s interesting. I’ve not really thought about it. I guess from the mainstream, there is the sense of going with the tried and tested, and what you know works. These physical, shared games are quite appealing as these weird experiences that you discover by accident and get absolutely pumped for. Almost by necessity, they come out of left-field and I think a lot of the larger publishers would be reluctant to make anything that was out of left-field.

The way that making these kind of games is approached is a lot more toy-like. They’re there for social events, be it down the pub or at a party. There are these events like Wild Rumpus where they get people to play multiplayer together. I feel like this is something that’s growing at the moment, and I think that a lot of people are getting more interested in and excited about exploring it. It does offer this wide ocean of possibilities, and a new way of seeing games as a past-time. They’re not just something that you play alone, or play in your house, they’re something that you play at a party or an event. If you’ve ever seen Renga which is a hundred player game played using laser pointers – it’s absolutely fascinating. That’s something where you would set time aside to go to the event so that you could play it. They’re game as a spectacle, games as an event, games not just to be played in the house.

I think what we have is this big expansion of what games are, why they’re supposed to be appealing, who they’re supposed to appeal to, and where and when you’re supposed to play them. Are we going to see mainstream developers pick it up? Possibly. At the moment, we’re like quirky indie bands. Eventually, one of these quirky indie bands is going to make some great big success and become The Beatles. That would be cool, because it would mean more people playing games in new ways. But I don’t know where that’s going to come from.

As long as there’s lots of awesome, exciting games being made, and people are finding out about them and pushing the medium forward, I think that’s all that matters, really.

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Related to that indie sensibility, what is the specific appeal of publishing on the App Store? What does it give you that other platforms don’t?

There’s an ease of access to market. That’s what originally attracted me to it. Now it’s different because there are competing services, on Android, Blackberry and Windows Phones. If you want to make a game on PC, unless you can get into Steam or similar service, you’re going to have to set up your own payment systems. It’s a big logistical undertaking. With the App Store, I can make a game, I can put it up and all of that hosting and processing will be managed by someone else. It’s just up to me to do my marketing, press and everything. There’s that simplicity to it. We have reached a point now where it’s such a busy marketplace, and it so hard to find interesting games outside the featured list and the top 25 list, that I don’t think the appeal of it is the same as it was when it started out.

For me, the simple reason I chose to go with the App Store for Slamjet Stadium was that it was always going to be a tablet game. As a tablet game, it made most sense for me to develop it for iOS because that was the skillset I had at the time. I’d been doing a lot of Objective-C with Greedy Bankers. I thought, “I know I want this to be a tablet game, I don’t know a lot other kinds of tablets. I can make this for iPad using a bunch of skills that I already have, in an environment I know really well.” So that’s what led me to the App Store this time around, was that I knew it was going to be an iPad game.

You’ve previously cited artists such as Robert Crumb as influences on your visual style, something that can be seen in both Greedy Bankers and this game. Were there any stylistic infleunces that were particular to Slamjet Stadium? Death sports have quite a long history in sci-fi.

A long history in the distant future! The death sport theme came from a prototype for a football game. Someone asked me if I could make a game that was a bit like Subbuteo. I thought “I’ve got quite a good idea for that”, although I’d never played Subbuteo in my life. So I made a game based on what I thought Subbuteo was, which turned out to be completely inaccurate.

So I was fiddling around with it, and I thought “you’ve got these characters who are viewed from above. If they were Subbuteo figures, they wouldn’t be look very interesting from above. But if I put them in vehicles and they were leaning forwards or backwards, then you get to see more of the character.” So that turned into hover-bikes, and monsters, and robots, and jetpacks. That’s how it became futuristic. It was always going to be a game with cheating and playing dirty. What kind of futuristic games are there where cheating and playing dirty are important? Death sports!

I wanted that griefing [deliberately obstructive behaviour] and foul play to be on the side of the players. They’re not watching all the crazy stuff happen on the board, they’re making all that stuff happen for themselves, outside the board. I started going online and printing off pictures of futuristic things that I thought would be interesting. I ended up with this wall covered in pictures of stuff from the future. So I had Akira, the Jetsons. I had bikers, jetpacks, rocketeers, oil rigs, sports arenas. Just anything to do with the future, with sports, with industrial type ideas.

A lot of the style of the characters became an amalgamation of all of that. I wanted to have each of the teams be a variant on a sci-fi trope. So you’ve got the burly astro-marines that you get in a lot of video games. You’ve got the Star Trek fanboys, you’ve got robots, obviously. You’ve got little brains in jars, which are rocket-powered.

So it came out of picking and choosing different elements. A lot of the design behind the fanboys was that they were kids in the year 2000 who flew up into space to start a utopian society based on their favourite TV show. One hundred years later, people in space discovered that they’d managed to do that, but they’d never grown up because of the low gravity. So they’re these little children with stubble, because they’ve grown up but not grown up. The design of what they’re wearing is part Jetsons and part the space episodes of Ren & Stimpy.

That’s how the visual style emerged. It was an amalgamation of anything sci-fi that I found that I thought would look interesting. It didn’t matter if they didn’t traditionally fit together. There is a sense that burly space marines and the Jetsons type characters don’t usually fit in the same universe, which gives them an excuse to be competing against each other.

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Finally, do you have any idea of what you’re going to be doing next?

I don’t really know at the moment. I want to keep on supporting and updating Slamjet Stadium, so I’m looking at the possibility of adding extra characters and arenas. For me, every game starts with a period of prototyping. You play around with a bunch of stuff, you try it out, you show your friends, take it down the pub. You get a feel for what works, what’s interesting, what you’d like to pursue next. Sooner or later, there’ll be something that takes hold. So I’m at that stage, where I’m looking for new ideas. Last weekend, I worked on a prototype for a game about time travel. It didn’t work, but I’m going to continue playing around with new stuff until I find something where I think “there’s a complete game in this somewhere, I just need to find it.”

I am interested in doing something a bit different. Greedy Bankers was very much about the systems and score optimisation. Slamjet Stadium is a very social experience, where it’s all about interacting with your friends. I wouldn’t like to stay focused on the same elements all the time. I wouldn’t want to be the developer who always does this, or the developer who always does that, so I am looking for a new puzzle to explore. I’m sure elements from Greedy Bankers and Slamjet Stadium will come into it, but I suspect the core of what I want to explore as a designer is going to be completely different. But I don’t know what that is yet.

Slamjet Stadium is available now for iPad.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2013.

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