Indie developers are the starving artists of the video-game world, often brilliant and innovative, but also misunderstood, underfunded and more prone to writing free-form poetry on their LiveJournals. This week, former GSC developer and co-founder of Sumom Games, Eugeny Yatsuk, talks space chickens and shmups with Humans Must Answer. The babies are Yatsuk, co-founder Denis Matveenko and artist Olexa, by Olexa.
What's your game called and what's it about?
Humans Must Answer. It's a shmup, and one most will recognize as having an old-school vibe about it. You play as the pilot of a scout ship called The Golden Eagle, which is manned by chickens – they like to think they're a higher species of bird than they are.
They're on the lookout for something (we're not saying quite yet) and discover it within the solar system that us humans inhabit. As it is set far into the future, humans have expanded to the other planets and set up a number of industries upon them. They also have a huge legion of robots operating for them around space. So the enemies you'll come across consist of robots and humans. Yes, humans are enemies – there are far too many plots about evil aliens when, in fact, humans are most likely more evil than anything we could fictionalize.
The chickens attempt to contact them in a friendly manner but the humans respond by firing at them, which isn't particularly nice. They live to regret it though because we let you, the player, go on an explosive rampage against the aggressors. There is a purpose behind it other than mere carnage though, but that doesn't appear until later in the game's narrative.
How does working on your own indie project compare to working on a larger series such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R.?
Very different. Faster decisions and far fewer constraints. It's a very good feeling to be the author and be responsible for all aspects of the game, and not just some cogs as part of a big company.
I know some guys who work on bigger projects and ownership of their creations boils down to things like, "I made that table and chair on Level 25." You start to fear for yourself when hearing this and want to avoid ever being in that situation. When I am 40 years old I'll look at what I have created in my life. I hope to be proud of it.
Last year, when Denis and I were working at GSC, we decided to play around with XNA. One day, after the weekend, Denis brought a prototype of a platformer-like game where a little girl dodges watermelons flying at her from all sides, and I brought in a prototype of a simple scrolling shooter. Denis looked up and suddenly said, "Let's do it!" To which I responded with something like "OK, why not? No really, why not? We love scrolling shooters!"
Unfortunately for us, the majority of modern scrolling shooters are vertical bullet hells, but we love horizontal shooters from the 80s and 90s, like R-Type and Gradius. So we decided to make the kind of game that we want to play. As Denis enjoys games like Diablo and the tower defense genre, we've focused on the replay value, the ability to play different builds and add temporary turrets.
As I enjoy puzzles, we also added puzzle elements and different weapon combinations. This has led to a quiet, more thoughtful pace to the game than most shmups. It's a little risky to combine two different interests but we hope to find an interesting middle ground.
Do you see yourself as part of a larger indie movement?
Not for now. We know some indie companies we're friends with who have also split from GSC, but that's all. It seems that the Ukrainian and Russian indie communities are somewhat detached from rest of the world. It's partly a language problem and partly border and money problems. We cannot so simply head off to an indie festival in America or the rest of Europe, so relationships become hard to establish.
We're quite close to the others here in Ukraine though. Our former colleagues mostly. As to the movement in general, I suppose we fit into that recent surge of indie developers from bigger companies, but we don't have any real connection beyond that.
Why develop independently, rather than work for an established company?
Firstly, in Ukraine we don't have a big selection of game companies. Unlike the US or Japan, over here there are several major companies that predominantly make either FPS games or are involved in outsourcing and mobile and social games.
Working independently has given us an opportunity to do what we want, how we want, where we want and with whom we want. So now we work at home and talk on Skype. The biggest disadvantage – not enough direct communication. The biggest plus – the absence of the trip to and from work every day.
How do you feel about your chances in the IGF? Greenlight?
I think, for us, to get to the finalists would be a huge victory. We're not making a breakthrough project. To draw an analogy with the movie industry, our game is more of a genre movie that pushes the limits a little, but mostly plays within the established rules of the genre. It probably doesn't help that our game does not slot into the most popular genres out there at the moment too.
We are somewhat caught between two audiences. On the one hand, many believe that the scrolling shooter died in the 90s. So they see primitive mechanics and a simple game in which you shoot and dodge and that's it. It's hard to break this preconception. On the other hand, true fans of the shmup genre are skeptical of shooters from Europe. We jokingly say that we are not making a Euroshmup, nor one of the Japanese style; instead we are making an East-West shmup. Geographically, we match!
Interest has been pretty good so far though, so we hope for success.
What's the coolest aspect of Humans Must Answer?
I think the replay value and variability. Different weapons and combinations, turrets, non-linear levels all push the player to experiment. We're a year into development and we are still finding new ways to get through our own levels, not to mention what the testers are doing.
Sell Humans Must Answer in one sentence:
Explosions in space – I mean, Humans Must Answer is a shmup with plenty of variety and replay value, a wacky plot, shiny graphics and, unlike other shmups, requires you to use your brain and explore on occasion... plus there's explosions... and chickens.
If we have enough funding – a turn-based space RPG. You know, like King's Bounty but set in space! Humans Must Answer has been submitted to the IGF and is up for voting on Steam Greenlight. Regardless of the outcomes of these two popularity contests, Humans Must Answer is set to launch in 2013 for PC.
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