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Axiom Verge: One Guy’s Four-Year Effort To Create His Own Metroidvania

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Tom Happ has been working on Axiom Verge for the past four years by himself. It’s a big undertaking, and one that he’s had only himself to rely on for motivation, geeing himself up after working a full day at game studio Petroglyph. We’re talking about a game with over 40 weapons and tools, over 60 upgrades, about 70 creatures, and about 700 rooms.

 

Considering how much work this much be (especially for one guy), it’s not too surprising that he’s recently brought on former Nintendo business development manager Dan Adelman to help him out with the marketing side of things as he gears up for a release in early 2015 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and PC.

 

Siliconera wondered what would drive someone to do this to themself – why would you work on a long-term project by yourself, letting it eat up all your free time? To find out, we threw some questions at Happ, who had somehow found a spare hour or so to kindly answer them for us.

 

Happ tells us what aspects of Metroid, Contra, and Blaster Master – which he lists as the game’s biggest influences – he has taken and reworked for Axiom Verge. He also tells us how he came up with the idea of deliberately using glitches as a way to find a unique source of fun in the game. Happ also dives into how he’s designing a game that he hopes will encourage people to speedrun it, just as so many people speedrun Super Metroid.

 

What specific aspects of Metroid, Contra, and Blaster Master are you trying to re-capture in Axiom Verge? All of the gross biological alien environments in the demo have brought back some memories for me.

 

Tom Happ, solo developer: With regards to Metroid, it’s mostly about level design and to some extent creature design. The design of individual rooms (composed of discrete blocks) hearkens to the original NES Metroid and Kid Icarus.  The overall world map layout is more inspired by Super Metroid, as are much of the creature behaviors, which have something of a rudimentary ecology built in.

 

The controls and weapons borrow more from Contra; you move and turn instantly, and jumping is faster.  Each weapon is supposed to feel like a new toy which you can play with and experiment, each being useful in certain situations with none being strictly superior or inferior.  The difference is that once you find a weapon, you keep it forever, rather than losing it on death or on collecting a new weapon.

 

Blaster Master, like Metroid, informs the level design (sprawling underground world) and an ability you get (much later than seen in the demo) that gives you an alternate method of exploration.  There aren’t overhead scrolling sections, though … sorry that I can’t say more than that!

 

There are a lot of tools to unlock in Axiom Verge but, out of them all, the one that’s been given its own button is the drill. Does that mean it has a particularly important role in the game? What are the different ways in which it can be used?

 

Actually most of the tools get their own button; just that for the sake of the demo, only the drill is shown on the controller screen.  You’d be overwhelmed if introduced to all the items at once and expected to remember their buttons from the outset.  Once you begin collecting items a brief popup explains which button to use.  The final version will allow you to map all the buttons as you see fit.

 

However, the drill is important in that it’s the first tool you get and it’s useful from start to end (e.g. isn’t like Zelda where you only use it in one dungeon and then never again). It’s mapped to the right trigger so that you can have the feeling of using a hand-held power drill.

 

Being a game with so many upgrades and weapons / tools, it seems necessary to ask why? Presumably they don’t need to all be found to get through the game, so are they there to encourage exploration? Do they allow for customization? Maybe they also suit different play styles?

 

The answer is basically yes to all three, though the primary focus is to incentivize exploration.  In general I always try to offer the possibility of finding something new and useful and entertaining in and of itself rather than just incrementing a counter (though I have health/power/range/size upgrades that do just that).

 

You use cutscenes and dialogue to tell parts of the story, but there seem to be more subtle techniques too – a skeleton I saw provoked some questions. Are you making players piece together the story through implication? And if so, how have you designed the game around this idea?

 

There are certain things that you are told directly via dialogue and certain things (like the skeleton) which are there for you to piece together.  I’m suspecting that most people will just accept what’s told in the cutscenes, but if you read into certain other clues you might pick up on something entirely different.

 

You’ve said long ago that you don’t feel bosses are a necessary component of video games. Why is that? And why did you decide to include them in Axiom Verge?

 

Bosses (and to some extent, combat in general) are effectively a MacGuffin to provide a peak in the conflict and challenge that demarcates a certain threshold, maybe a bit like the climax of a single TV episode in a larger series. You beat the boss and it’s time to either take a break or load up the next episode.  But it’s mostly just a tradition rather than a necessity.

 

Similarly, exploration-based games like Fez or Hohokum do just fine without bosses.  In the case of Axiom Verge, the bosses exist for the same purpose of providing climax thresholds, but they might also serve an additional function…

 

A unique aspect of Axiom Verge is its deliberate use of glitches. Where did this idea come from? And what different ways will players interact with glitches – both as a mechanic and as a theme?

 

The glitch idea originates from classic game glitches (like the secret worlds in Metroid) as well as from the Game Genie/Action Replay and their effects.  They have always been great fun but always in that “you’re not supposed to do this” kind of way.  Axiom Verge tries to capitalize on this fun a bit.

 

Some of the glitches are a necessary element in puzzle solving, while others are just a bonus.  Thematically they tie more into the backstory than the present day, where they are basically a mystery even to the characters experiencing them.

 

You’ve been hoping that people playing the demo would speedrun it. And the full game has a dedicated Speedrun Mode. What is it about Axiom Verge that makes it ideal for speedrunning? And how does the Speedrun Mode alter the game?

 

“Metroidvania” games in general are well suited to speedrunning owing to their potential for sequence breaking and their variety of options in tackling obstacles. Hence why you see so many Super Metroid speedruns.

 

The Speedrun Mode basically strips out cutscenes and dialogue and puts in an on-screen timer and percentage count. Random elements are given a static seed so that all players experience the same exact game and luck is largely eliminated as a factor.

 

Video recording comes hand-in-hand with speedruns these days. Will Axiom Verge have any in-built features that allow for people to record their runs?

 

The PS4 already has streaming as a feature, so that’s the likeliest way to record runs (from the stream on your PC). I believe YouTube Sharing is limited to 15 minutes so you need to use Twitch or the like as an intermediary.

 

I really want to add the ability to record your run as a ghost and then share that ghost for others to race against. But this might be a bit much for me to swallow for the initial release (I’m still just one guy here coding every last feature).

 

As a solo developer, how much do you have riding on the success of Axiom Verge?

 

I’m not that much of a gambler; I waited until I had the pub fund deal locked in before even contemplating leaving my day job at Petroglyph (and even then, I continued working there part-time for 6 months or so).

 

So, in the meantime I’ve got enough to last me through release and then a bit more after that. If the sales make enough for me to survive while making the next game, I’ll just keep making more. Otherwise I’ll go back to working full-time and developing indie games as a hobby, just like I did for the first 4 years.

Chris Priestman