Developer Dialogue: 30XX Interview @ PAX Online
Time after time, indie developers have struck gold modernizing the retro archetypes that AAA studios won’t touch. It’s not just a shrewd way to maximize limited resources; it’s also a way to revitalize your influences. With 2017’s 20XX, Batterystaple Games have already had a fair amount of luck pairing the lively action platforming of Mega Man X with a roguelite focus. Nonetheless, the upcoming 30XX embarks on offering major visual improvements and a more nuanced gameplay experience. After spending some time with the eminently replayable pre-alpha demo, I got to talk to Batterystaple’s founder Chris King about the future of 30XX and what makes the indie game market special.
Zach: “Hey Chris! Thank you for scheduling this opportunity with me. How has the PAX Online experience been for you?”
Chris: “Oh, it’s been good for us so far. You know, one thing that seems to be constant between physical PAX and digital PAX is how busy the dang thing has been! It’s been a pretty packed week for us here. We very much miss the physical experience of getting to be on the showfloor, getting to see our fans interact with the game for the first time, and see their reactions to what we’ve been working on. It’s always invigorating and helps keep a high morale amongst the team. That said, the digital show certainly has its perks: we’re able to take appointments like this with a really broad array of folks. We don’t have to all be physically in the same place, so we’re open to meeting with people who aren’t normally in Seattle. It’s going pretty well for us so far, but we certainly miss the physical show.”
Zach: “I see headlines left and right about video games being one of the few industries benefiting from the pandemic, but that is of course a very reductive claim, fixating on the final product. How has the development and marketing of 30XX morphed as a result of recent conditions?”
Chris: “Honestly, our development is relatively untouched for the most part. We’re super fortunate at Batterystaple to be relatively unaffected by COVID from a purely professional standpoint. Obviously, from a personal standpoint, nobody is exactly happy with the way things are going in 2020. It’s a pretty rough year all around, but from a professional standpoint, we were already a fully remote studio, so this sort of change, everybody needing to be home all the time, is really more about grappling with the inability to see our friends and loved ones as much as we’d like to than it is about any sort of individual process disruption at work. So we’re pretty comfortable there overall.
The biggest change for us this year has really just been the conversion to digital showcases. A lot of our marketing efforts are based around finding the right moments, finding the right time to talk about some of the major stuff that we’re working on with 30XX. We’d normally be timing those kinds of beats around big shows like PAX anyway, so there’s a pretty good chance that those announcements aren’t really all that affected by the change in format.
Zach: “It’s great that you’re not a studio who’s prone to setting release dates far in advance. I imagine that takes off the pressure to sacrifice employee health for the final product.”
Chris: “Exactly. Philosophically, as a team, we very much believe in planning for as much flexibility as possible, making sure we have the time we need to make the thing we want to make and make it right, as opposed to saying, ‘Here’s a hard deadline and we’re going to do whatever it takes to hit it.’ We’re much more in the camp of, ‘Let’s wait until we’re really comfortable with release timing. Let’s wait until we’re very confident about what’s going into this stage. And then let’s just go ahead and set a date, a month or six weeks in advance and figure it out from there. So you’re exactly right. For us, you know, crunch is not a concern.”
Zach: “Great, so going into that development process, you released 20XX, reception is positive, replay value extensive (and further self sustained by multiplayer); going into 30XX, what part of the player experience do you think needed to evolve?”
Chris: “That is an awesome question, and very timely, given that last week we just introduced a new way to enjoy the game, which we’re calling Mega Mode. Mega Mode is basically the core 30XX experience, except minus permadeath, and the levels will stay the same until you actually finish them. So it’s much more of a classic action platformer campaign playthrough where death will cost you your progress through an individual level but not cost you the entire run. We think that one of the things we can really improve upon from the first game is with regards to two core audiences.
The first one is the new player experience. We know there are a lot of people who are coming to us from the pure action platform or the Megaman X inspiration side of things, as opposed to ‘Oh, I love action roguelikes, so 20XX is probably my jam.’ And for those players, we know that the whole permadeath experience can certainly be pretty rough. There are a lot of players that are alienated by it. There are people who love the look and feel of the game, but then they realize that they can play for 20 minutes, die, and spend in-game currency on some upgrades for the next run, but they’ve sort of lost their end run progress.
We know that for those players, having Mega Mode is going to make the game much more approachable for them. At the same time, there are people who are very experienced, and love these kinds of games, and enjoy them to death but still don’t really want permadeath in their experience and would still prefer to have slightly lower stakes. Death-to-death gameplay that they can turn the difficulty way up on to be able to grind against a set of very, very difficult levels to push through. So we really just want people to be able to enjoy 30XX however they want to enjoy it, and we’re sort of really focused on giving people the tools they need to do that.”
Zach: “There’s also a pretty major evolution in character design.”
Chris: “That’s one major spot we’re looking to improve in the sequel. There’s a ton of stuff we’re doing differently. Obviously, the art style is wildly different. We think it fits the game a little bit better. Protagonists Ace and Nina have their own unique power and techniques this time around. So basically the improvement there is that we’re having both of our main characters control very, very differently. They’re much more unique in terms of play style relative to one another than they are in the first game. We’ve got eight full level themes this time around instead of the four 20XX has, so there’s a lot more variety of game mechanics and content that we’ve got going on. I could go on all day about that, but we’re really kind of taking 20XX as a skeleton and then saying, ‘Here are all the ways we want to drive that formula further.’ It’s really almost everything across the board except for basic movement and game field, which we feel we pretty much got right the first time.”
Zach: “I also noticed a certain Rogue Legacy tie-in to the game beyond the shared roguelite tendencies which is that Glauber Kotaki is serving as 30XX’s art director. Was integrating the new graphic style into your gameplay engine a challenge?”
Chris: “No, not at all. It was honestly totally effortless. We basically built a new renderer for this sort of heavily sprite-based animation we’ve got now. It was just a matter of developing a new sprite format and then writing a renderer for the format that fit into the way the old engine worked. It was a couple days of work tops. I was actually kind of surprised at how painless it was. 20XX and 30XX are written in a custom C++ engine that I initially designed so I could use it as a portfolio piece for Bethesda Softworks. Instead, we did well enough over time that we decided to make a career out of it, instead of it being a one-and-done thing.”
Zach: “The upgrade is immediately visible, it looks on par with Mega Man 8 for PS1.”
Chris: “That’s beautiful to hear!”
Zach: “Referring back to Mega Mode and the difficulty curve in general, in designing a reflex-driven game like 30XX, how do you define the line between too difficult and just challenging enough?”
Chris: “This is a great question, and it’s almost impossible for me to do this objectively. If a level feels of adequate difficulty to me, it is almost certainly multiple orders of magnitude too hard just because I’ve played the inspiring games for thousands of hours, and just in testing, I’ve played 30XX for lord knows how many hours. So for us, you sort of develop an internal barometer for how a level should feel at a certain point of difficulty. From there, this is something we kind of lean on the community for a little bit. As we enter our closed alpha and early access, we take our best stab at where we think each of these level pieces falls, difficulty curve wise, and then we just keep an eye out, and we notice as we playtest which ones seem to be a little bit out of their element in terms of difficulty, you know; pieces that are marked as hard that nobody’s actually taking damage in or that feel too effortless; pieces that are marked as easy that we have an inordinate number of players dying in. So it’s almost like cooking for somebody with slightly different taste buds than you. You can’t just do the thing that feels right to you personally because, while I’m making the game I very much want to make, and I am certainly in part making it because it’s what I want to be playing, I know that most of the audience playing the game has a very different taste for the sort of difficulty involved.”
Zach: “And with how welcoming you’ve been to the early access model, it makes sense that improving the game would be a democratic process. How much has the speedrunning and general livestream community helped 20XX gain momentum (and subsequently 30XX)?”
Chris: “That’s a good question. We’d certainly love to see as much speedrun community support as we can for the new game. We know we had a small but dedicated group of folks with 20XX that sort of latched on and would speedrun a couple of different categories, which we’re always really happy to see and support, but we’d love to sort of take that a step further the next time around. We noticed with 20XX, we didn’t have a whole lot of streaming support. We succeeded in getting a whole bunch of folks to give the game a shot, play it for a day, a couple of days tops. We didn’t really see any kind of staying power with the game amongst the streaming community. I have a couple of theories as to why that might be, but we’re going to do whatever we can to make that a bit more appealing this time around. You know, it could be a number of things,and I’m not 100 percent sure which one, but that’s a discussion for another time.”
Zach: “I’m sure creating a more accessible product this go around will help.”
Chris: “That’s part of our intent. We think the combination of the more accessible product and the more appealing art style together will help quite a bit. If you happen to be reading this at any point and your stream or other kind of Internet casting personality, please tell us what would make the game streamable for you because we want to know.”
Zach: “I think the visuals will really help out, as otherwise, the game seems very receptive to Let’s-Play content. You would be the first to say that 30XX (not to mention its predecessor) spawned out of a love for Mega Man X. Have there been any other influences on the game’s design that we perhaps wouldn’t expect?”
Chris: “You know, it’s kind of hard to nail down individual contributing influences, as little pieces of design inspiration come from just absolutely everywhere in the world around me. You know, you never really know. Sometimes it’s games, sometimes it’s books, sometimes you’ll have a piece of inspiration that you’ll get from a movie for some reason, it can really come from just about everywhere. So while it’s probably a bit of a cop out answer, I don’t think there’s sort of any one individual thing to kind of peg as being another source for inspiration.”
Zach: “I mean, a big part of the creative process is living life a little bit because otherwise, you just create stuff in a vacuum. When you developed 20XX, we were in the midst of an eight-year gap between substantial Mega Man titles. Did the release of Mega Man 11 influence your creative process at all?”
Chris: “If anything, it was just kind of reassuring that that kind of product was still resonating with players … As far as I can tell, Mega Man 11 did quite well, which continues to show that there is a hunger for that style of game out there. So internally, I say, if we’re able to hit that kind of quality level in gameplay, and then on top of that, we have huge replayability, multiplayer and some of the other features that we’re talking about here, who knows what kind of heights we might be able to reach with 30XX.”
Zach: “I’m glad there’s no motive amongst you or Capcom to switch to 3D.”
Chris: “You know, I think there’s room for some of that. I think our style of game in 3D could be really interesting, but it’s not the direction we’re going to go in right now.”
Zach: “I know you aren’t prone to setting release dates far in advance, as said before, so instead, I’ll just ask: what are the next milestones for 30XX?”
Chris: “So toward the end of this year, we’ll probably be running a closed alpha as we prepare for what we’re hoping is an early access release early next year. We don’t know exactly when ‘early next year’ means right this moment because we tend to make those kinds of promises once we’re very sure we can keep them. The next real milestone there is early access. From that point on, we kind of earmark about a year between launching early access and then finishing up 1.0, but there’s so many lines in the sand there.
For one, we don’t know exactly how much work is going to come our way once we start early access. We know that as soon as our fans get a hold of the game, we’re going to get a ton of new feedback, new ideas, new fantastic stuff that we are really eager to sort of weave into our backlog and into our development roadmap, but we don’t know how extensive that stuff is going to be. We’re in a really solid financial state, so we’re not in any rush to finish 1.0 or anything like that. Once we go into early access, there will be some amount of time while we continue making the game.
Then we’ll come to 1.0, which’ll be on Steam and probably one console platform. We don’t know which one yet. We’re still kind of figuring that out, but even then, 1.0 is really another kind of arbitrary line in the sand for us. You know, once we feel like the initial game promise is fulfilled, we’ll start a 1.0, we’ll have a big release, and stuff like that. But we really intend to continue to develop the game long-term. You know, we really want 30XX to continue to live as a genre standard for the coming years, so we want to continue to sort of push it with new stages, characters, items, features, things like that. So even 1.0 is very far from being an endpoint for us.”
Zach: “Stability right now in the game development environment is very enviable.”
Chris: “Yeah, we’re very fortunate!”
Zach: “Thank you for your time and for providing me with the 30XX Pre-Alpha Demo. My impressions so far are very positive, and I look forward to seeing the game progress!”
Chris: “Thank you. Have an awesome rest of PAX Online, and we’ll talk to you soon!”
Enjoys paying less than 20 dollars for a game, especially when it is one people have forgotten about. Wants to be a character in the next Jet Set Radio and hopes you enjoy the site. Has a pet rabbit he nurtures and takes photos of. Still pushing for a Stuntman Ignition remaster 11 years later. Still hasn’t played Fortnite.