Mutant Mudds And Moon Chronicles Developer On What It’s Like To Go Indie

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Renegade Kid, the developers of Mutant Mudds and Moon Chronicles, have had a busy couple of years. They’ve transitioned from a developer that worked with external publishers to a more independent developer that self-publishes its games via digital platforms such as the Nintendo eShop, Steam, PlayStation Network and iTunes.


At present, the company has a number of games in development for the Nintendo 3DS, and also recently ported Mutant Mudds to the PlayStation 3 and Vita, all while juggling their other projects. Siliconera caught up with Renegade Kid co-founder Jools Watsham to talk about how he views the studio’s new-found independence.


I asked four years ago if you ever felt threatened that Renegade Kid was in danger of going South, due to the challenges of being an indie developer that was reliant on picking up publishing deals. At the time, you said it happened fairly frequently and that things were tough. This isn’t the case any more. You’ve been self-publishing games for three years now. How has that affected the studio and your work habits?


The financial threat is still very much the same as before, when we were making games with/for publishers. But, the big difference now is that we are more in control and responsible for where money comes from and how much money arrives each month/quarter. Our income is now the revenue generated from the sales of our self-published games. That is a very exciting and scary change!


One of my old habits was to frequently call publishers on the phone, and set up meetings with them at shows, to keep relationships going in the hope we would secure deals with them to either fund the development of original games or licensed titles. Even though my contacts at the publishers were all very nice people, I do not miss the chase in that regard. It adds a whole tier of stress that I am happy to say goodbye to.


Do you find quality-of-life has improved since 2010 as a result of the change?


The stress level remains quite high, but axing the publisher element from my daily routine has very much improved my quality-of-life. We aren’t any richer and we aren’t any poorer, so financially speaking our quality-of-life has remained the same, which I see as a good thing. Obviously, I would like to say that we make more money now, but I appreciate and celebrate the fact that we have not reduced our quality-of-life, which is certainly a risk and still a possibility with self-publishing.


As a smaller developer, I’m curious as to how you view your own projects. Typically, developers have the major projects that people associate with them and smaller projects that they do in between. Do you look at your own projects that way? “Low-key projects” and “bigger projects”? Is there any kind of quota you try to fill out, to keep yourselves productive?


We always try to have at least one project that we feel has a chance of being successful at all times, which doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a large or expensive project. We don’t really have a set way of approaching each year or how we maximize on our resources.


We are very flexible when it comes to how we approach development; always making big efforts towards making high quality games that we think players will enjoy in the market they are intended for. Right now we are developing Moon Chronicles and Treasurenauts, which both have the potential of being received very well. I would love to chat with you again before the end of 2014 and reflect on whether they were successful or not.


Let’s talk about Moon. This game was inspired by Metroid Prime. You said Metroid Prime: Hunters disappointed you, and that you wanted to create something to help fill that void on the Nintendo DS. What aspects of Metroid Prime did you hope to replicate?


My inspiration for the gameplay of Moon Chronicles—specifically in terms to the game flow and level design—was more from Super Metroid than the FPS Metroid games. However, the stylus control method was absolutely inspired by Metroid Prime Hunters on the DS. One of the main ‘Metroid’ aspects that we incorporated into Moon Chronicles is the ‘gates’ or progression blockers that must be returned to once the solution has been acquired.


In Super Metroid this is usually accomplished by collecting a new power-up, whereas with Moon Chronicles it is largely story-driven or involves accomplishing a task or collecting a special item to gain access to the new area and progress through the game.


Another key element that I love about the Metroid series is the sense of many secret hidden pick-ups scattered all about, requiring the player explore beyond the main path of the game, which improve the player’s attributes in some way. This is where we utilize the Remote Access Droid (RAD) in Moon Chronicles, enabling the player to navigate the RAD unit into small ducts that Major Kane cannot enter in order to disable force-fields to allow Major Kane access and collect special items or progress into new areas. The RAD also provides a great sense of puzzle solving, which is another key aspect of the Metroid series.


One of the more basic elements that is also very much inspired by Metroid is the health/ammo drops. There is a chance that each enemy destroyed will drop a pick-up that helps your current situation. You’ll find that you will typically get what you need at that moment, whether that is ammo for your Muon Pistol or a health pick-up. This serves as a great way for the player to feel the need and satisfaction from destroying enemies.


How do you go about creating a first-person shooter for a unique portable like the 3DS? You aren’t doing twin-sticks and you have a much smaller screen to work with. What do you do differently from console shooters and how do you keep people engaged?


Although we can’t rely on players having a Circle Pad Pro, we are supporting the “twin-stick” control setup for those who want it. The way the player controls the game is a very important aspect of the game. We have added many new control configurations to Moon Chronicles over the original DS release.


There is the default stylus to aim setup, which is my personal favorite. We also support all-buttons mode, which enables you to use the face buttons to aim while you use the Circle Pad to move. You can also swap this, if you want to aim with the Circle Pad and move with the face buttons. There will be about 6 control configurations to choose from in total.


The size of the screen is not something I worry about. Players who use handheld devices for the majority of their gaming time are used to the device and their perspective of the screen size is no different than players who sit six feet away from a 40-inch TV. The amount of space each screen takes up in front of your face is very similar when you take into account the 3DS screen is held about one foot away from you.


In updating Moon for Nintendo 3DS, do you look at the game and notice things that you wish you’d done differently?


We’re making big changes to enhance the visual presentation, as well as improving the enemy AI and user interface. We don’t want to pick and choose what we think might work and what might not, in terms of main game elements. We want to stay true to the original game in that sense because it is a game we are very proud of and many players enjoyed their original outing with the game on the DS.


Lots of games have trouble maintaining a consistent framerate on 3DS, especially with 3D enabled. How did you manage to achieve 60fps? Where did you find that you had to hold yourself back in order to achieve that result?


The decision to maintain 60 frames-per-second was a big and difficult decision to make. Without going into too much detail and breaking my NDA, let’s say that achieving 60 frames-per-second with 3D on is not an easy task. We had to rebuild our 3D engine from scratch to make this happen. Our original first-person efforts, in the form of Cult County on the 3DS, did not run in 60 frames-per-second because it was using our old engine.


No matter what framerate you are targeting, it is always a balancing act to maintain it. We have always approached our games this way. Throughout development we typically find ourselves putting too much into the game and have to pull back to maintain the framerate. This hasn’t been as much of an issue with Moon Chronicles because we already had great knowledge of the game content and the hardware before we ventured into the task.


The question was, how much better can we make it look on the 3DS? I am happy to say that the final results exceeded my original expectations. The combination of specular lighting, shadow maps, higher color textures, mipmapping, texture filtering, and such have produced a vastly improved result. And, the game supports full-screen anti-aliasing in 2D mode to boot—so even 2DS players get a little extra goodness to enjoy.


Cult County is a horror game, judging by the few screenshots you’ve released of it. How is that game going to differ from Moon?


Cult County is a full-on survival horror experience. It doesn’t hold back in terms of mature content, and very much aims to disturb and scare the players whereas Moon Chronicles is more of a dark Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica.


When you say Cult County is a “survival horror experience,” do you mean it’s going to be a game along the same lines as Dementium, or are you aiming for a different style of game this time around?


Yes, more along the lines of Dementium but with a stronger emphasis on story and characters.


Developing first-person games for the Nintendo 3DS is helping you stand out. Do you feel the need to branch out into more genres as more and more developers put platformers out on 3DS, or are you going to continue making those as well? Treasurenauts is expected this year, but I know Mutant Mudds 2 is on hold.


We branch out into genres that excite us. It is definitely a very pleasant fact that Moon Chronicles will be the first true FPS for the 3DS, which is certainly a big coup for us. But, we will continue to develop platformers because we enjoy making them and feel that there is much more to explore in that genre.


The difference between Mutant Mudds and Treasurenauts is relatively large in terms of gameplay experience. Mutant Mudds 2 is on hold only because we want to finish developing Treasurenauts before we focus 100% on it. Mutant Mudds 2 is still coming and will have a lot of new and exciting content to offer the genre.


Since you were inspired by the Metroid series while making Moon, have you considered a 2D platformer that’s inspired by Metroid, or do you think something with an interconnected world like that is a little too large in scope for the time being?


Yes, I have always found the Metroid approach to 2D platformers very interesting and would love to develop something in that vein someday. Maybe even something in the Moon Chronicles story-line!?

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Ishaan Sahdev
Ishaan specializes in game design/sales analysis. He's the former managing editor of Siliconera and wrote the book "The Legend of Zelda - A Complete Development History". He also used to moonlight as a professional manga editor. These days, his day job has nothing to do with games, but the two inform each other nonetheless.