EGX Rezzed: Interview with Johnny Marshall and Liz Henwood (Mighty Tactical Shooter)
I get the impression that Johnny Marshall is happy to try things just to see if they work. Sometimes they don’t – and he is surprisingly frank on mistakes he’s made. But sometimes they do, and the development of Mighty Tactical Shooter is thanks to that spirit.
It strikes immediately as an oddity – a side scrolling shooter that looks descended from classics like R-Type or Gradius, except turned into something closer to a turn-based experience. And Johnny is aware of this juxtaposition. “I don’t want to use the word ‘mash-up’, because… I just don’t use that word! But I like making two mechanics that shouldn’t go together go together. And really this is a style and a mechanic that don’t go together. That interests me.”
Development began as a means of learning something by doing it – a theme that comes up a few times in conversation. “It was an interesting challenge for me when making the original prototype – which was quite a long time ago now. Originally I made just a little Android version, because I wanted to play around with Android programming, and it wasn’t until a couple of years later when I was playing around with Unity I thought “well, what project shall I do? I know, the turn-based shoot-em-up.””
Development has taken this test game and fleshed it into a more complete experience. An early version was available to play in the Leftfield Collection at Rezzed in 2014, since when it has been through successful Kickstarter and Greenlight campaigns, and was showing a new tutorial mode in the indie room at Rezzed this year.
Flying the first – and given the destructive intro sequence, probably last – fighter ship to come off of the production line, you travel through numerous levels (an estimate of twenty is planned for the final release) shooting down enemies, avoiding the scenery and firing off special weapons as circumstances require. However, you do this by planning the next few seconds ahead during pauses, marking where the ship needs to go, and seeing enemy movement and shots predicted with time lines.
“Amazingly it’s not an original genre, but there are still very few games in it. And I’ve done it in a way which is much closer to a shmup [shoot em up] than the other games that have done it,” Johnny explains. “[The game mechanics] underneath, if you took out the pausing, is an arcade side-scrolling shoot-em-up. All I’ve done is make it stop and let you know where things are going to go so you can plan it out.”
This ability to plan ahead is most useful with some of the more exotic weapons you have available. One of the most popular is the ship’s ability to deploy small gravity pockets, either repelling or attracting, opening up several moments more akin to a puzzle game. Attack waves can be pulled off route into each other, or their shots arced back at them (“my personal favourite way of killing things is by using their own bullets on them,” Johnny says), obstacles can be dragged out of the ship’s way, and it is due to even have a role in some boss fights.
“They’ve all got a different ratio of how much damage they take from particular weapons and how much they are effected by gravity, which isn’t necessarily to do with their size, it’s to do with their mass.” We’re all familiar with the small-but-tough enemies in these games, which seem to be disproportionately strong, and this can be a factor. “If they’re presented as a really heavy baddie, even if it’s quite a small one, [creating the assumption] “it’s moving slowly so it must be quite heavy”, it’s got less effect on him. [But] some of the huge bosses can be quite heavily effected by gravity.”
It is more than a novelty weapon. Once the game’s core concept has settled in, the power to manipulate the environment like this does feel extremely gratifying, but stops short of being game-breaking. Instead, it is one of many weapons that should get use if you upgrade the ship to allow them. Or, if you’re feeling really cocky, Johnny mentions potential achievements for taking down bosses using only the ship’s regular gun – extra fire power may be needed for occasional puzzles, but in combat special weapons make your progress easier rather than possible.
The game’s aesthetic is very much that of the late 80s shooters, and a lot of credit for that has to go to Liz Henwood’s work. Also at Rezzed, she explained the thinking behind that design. “It’s meant to look like a 1980s Amiga shoot em up. So I deliberately picked a limited palette for in game [...] It’s an Amiga palette basically, as close as I can get it.”
This also extended to other visual effects. “There’s even parallax scrolling!” It’s a simple visual technique that added a lot of magic to many games three decades ago.
“It had to be there,” Liz says, before turning the conversation briefly to Johnny. “You weren’t going to, and I said “no, you’ve got to. If it’s being 80s it’s got to parallax scrolling.” And it has, it’s made it look much better.”
When seen running, it does capture that older game feel; Liz clearly takes satisfaction in it. “If we’re going to do this thing, we’re going to do it properly.” Johnny does mention the irony of how much computing power is needed now to recreate something that was run without much computing power in the past though.
It also highlights how much the pair of them drive each other to improve what they can do. Johnny mentions posting examples of his coder art for the game, driving artist Liz to step in and redo it in the current style; in turn, she says how she could sometimes lament the things she wishes the game engine would allow the bosses to do but can’t, hitting Johnny in the same way that causes any programmer to find the ‘impossible’ solution.
But that drive isn’t unique to this coding; speaking to Johnny gave me the impression that the creation of Mighty Tactical Shooter is more like a philosophy put into action. He is extremely frank on the mistakes that have been made in the game’s creation, but almost seems to relish them for the things they’ve taught him. The process of getting onto Greenlight is a prominent one, something he has described elsewhere as being “too early”.
“When you don’t know what you’re doing and you don’t know what the right thing to do is, and every article you read contradicts the last article you just read, you just have to do something. So I just did something. And [I] put the Greenlight up [to] see what happens. It turns out what happens is quite a lot of people can see past the early stuff and go “yeah, this could work”. But a lot of people can’t, and we got about 60% no, 40% yes.”
Johnny says that he explained the game badly, and the original video just showed him playing the start of the game; afterward he edited together a video showing the concept better (“it forced me to learn how to edit a video”), by which time the initial wave of attention had been lost. Lessons were learned in how to present the game, what sort of content players were after, what had and hadn’t worked… and at the time he was writing an article explaining where it had all gone wrong, there had been an unexpected spike in interest and the game was successfully Greenlit.
Compare this to the Kickstarter campaign, which ran last July successfully. “I didn’t expect that. I’ve learned less from the Kickstarter succeeding than I did from the Greenlight failing, because I have no idea really why the Kickstarter worked. But if it had failed I’d have had a pretty concrete idea of which bits were bad.”
Johnny feels that the good and the bad are so mixed up in something immediately successful it is hard to spot which is which. “I look forward to doing a failed Kickstarter in the future!” he quips, and I’m not sure if he is completely joking.
At every stage in development it seems there has been a degree of learning things by doing them – not least putting an early version of the game in front of players at Rezzed and The Gadget Show last year. Even the game’s release is following this approach, with Sock Thuggery remaining publisher as well as developer. “I want to do this alone just to find out whether next time I want to do it alone. I guess it’s that ‘making mistakes’ thing – I’m going to find out if it’s a really silly thing to do by doing it.”
But this is in contrast to the main games industry, which Johnny describes with respect but not as something for him. The sense of control he has with Mighty Tactical Shooter means he is making the game he wants to make, words we hear often especially with indies, but here mentioning tightly knit teams working on triple-A titles who end up making other people’s games. (“I would rather be the person that has the desire to get a game made, than the person working on someone else’s desire to get a game made,” he puts it).
Now we have indie games becoming a larger force in the market, and opening the door for those smaller teams to be the driving force. It seems almost a redundant observation standing around at Rezzed, an entire expo for them, but looking back over the last decade of development it has been sudden growth.
Johnny feels that starting development is easy, whereas pushing through the less interesting bits later is hard, and admits this will be the first game he finishes. And this can be applied to the indie scene as a whole. “It’s a lot easier to start making a game now. It’s just as difficult as it always was to finish a game. That has not changed. We’re just getting more people doing it, which means we might get more finishers. But still you need to be able to finish.”
And with people able to contribute to development costs using things like Kickstarter and Early Access, the things that aren’t finished can leave players upset. Johnny has sympathy for both sides, explaining the pressure on a developer. “There’s a fair amount of pressure that comes with people getting behind your dream. And then if you feel like you’re behind or you’re failing, you’ve got their weight of expectations on your shoulders, and I’m not surprised some people get crushed by it.”
But when it has happened – and there have been some relatively high profile instances of projects failing – Johnny feels that while we focus on the loudest voices shouting, those voices are a sign of something positive. “I know it’s a sideways compliment, [but] they were upset enough that the project’s not going the way they wanted that they spoke out about it. They actually, genuinely felt something about your project. If they feel something about it, you can probably turn that around.”
There is a moment of realisation at this point that we’ve taken a long tangent into discussing parts of the industry at large. Johnny indicates the Mighty Tactical Shooter display.
“Oh yeah,” he adds. “And there’s a game as well.”
Mighty Tactical Shooter is due for release later this year.