We recently ran an article about Xander Davis\’ development studio called Astrogun and about how he was given the Big N\’s seal of approval for being a certified Nintendo developer. Davis has been working on an overhead view, hack and slash, RPG, Zelda on steroid style game called Project Cider. Rather then most indie projects who look for donations on Kickstarter, Davis is running his project totally out of his own pocket–although he does ask for some donations on the game\’s website. I recently had a chance to correspond with Davis through e-mail and he was gracious enough to share some of his vast knowledge with readers.
First of all, where did you come up with the name Astrogun?
Determined to build the company while working, I found myself in the desert, like setting out on some kind of vision quest. A spreadsheet of 500 names. But one of the very first names I came up with a year prior, Astrogun, was the name I chose. It stood the test of time for me, and it just seemed to inspire all the right ideas in my mind.
You have been in the indie development business for quite some time, where did you get your inspiration and drive to keep going with the ever changing tide of game development?
J Allard\’s GDC speech around 2005 inspired me, and it was right on the cusp of the seventh gen. I was into Flash then, so I had this crazy idea to make a SNES-style RPG like Chrono Trigger in Flash with HD sprites. I even hired Yasunori Mitsuda, the composer of Chrono Trigger\’s music, to create an original main theme for the game, with a working title \’Novabound\’. At the time, you didn\’t see a whole lot of that level of ambition for a Flash game on the web, especially since there was no business platform to really support it.
It\’s a great time to be indie. You have ComiXology Submit, Amazon Kindle self-publishing, music self-publishing with TuneCore, and now video game self-publishing on consoles, PCs, mobile, and tablets. After all my experience at various triple-A studios, it feels like the perfect time to go back to my original goal I had in 2005 of making my own games. And, low and behold, Project CIDER is a Chrono Trigger / Zelda inspired game, just like Novabound was all those years ago.
What have you done to try and make funding for Project Cider possible since you stated its most out of pocket?
For 10 years, I\’ve been working two fulltime jobs: one that pays me and one for which I pay to work. I\’m very used to moonlighting my own projects, which usually involves insane sleep schedules, but now I\’m taking advantage of a chance to be fulltime with Astrogun for awhile. If donations, Early Access, and a potential episodic model work out, it may be indefinitely. I\’m hoping to hold off on a Kickstarter or something like that, but I\’m not opposed to it when I have more of the game developed to show.
What kind of video games did you play growing up and how have they influenced your game design development?
I\’ve grown up on NES, Game Boy, and SNES. I used to draw out my own Mega Man levels on sheets of paper. Now, after owning almost every major console ever made, I have another spreadsheet that ranks every game I\’ve ever played or bought, with links to unit sales data and metacritics. There\’s about five-hundred entries. I found doing this was very useful for giving me understanding of my own context as a game designer. Taste is so important and you can only develop that through exposure and understanding.
When did you begin work on Project Cider?
Project CIDER actually began back in 2011 as an iPad prototype, but when I was watching this year\’s E3 coverage, I immediately just got this urge to jump up out of my seat and build something. I returned to CIDER, one of those game projects I had in the proverbial drawer. I had done a few game jams before, like my Bombcrash game on Kongregate for Ludum Dare 18 in 48 hours and my Centric Dare Augmented Reality iPad app game I did in 100 consecutive hours. So I knew that timeboxing a prototype and putting on that kind of pressure would get me results. The studio I was at had just lost over half its employees in mass layoffs, including me, so I had the time. I gave myself one week, around the clock, to put something together. I couldn\’t find any music for the YouTube video, so I even had to write and produce that in a single night.
Below is a picture from Davis\’ Kongregate game Bombcrash.
What other games, besides Zelda, inspired you in developing Cider?
For the game jam prototype, I looked at merging Hotline Miami style gameplay with Zelda. That, plus an IP and character-driven story-driven open world like Chrono Trigger are currently the biggest influences in approach for CIDER.
Where did the name CIDER originate from for the game?
CIDER is just a codename to get the project rolling, and I often pick codenames from concepts that are totally abstract and have nothing to do with the actual IP of the game. This is usually done by default at the beginning of a project, especially if you want to prototype and develop in stealth. The real name has been chosen and is being filed with the trademark office now. To be revealed soon, I hope!
When will we be finally able to see a certified playable demo or polished and finished version of CIDER?
I am currently in the early stage of a three-month goal to have a complete Vertical Slice Demo, one chapter of the game at 100% finished quality, or as close to that as I can get. I\’m finding ways to design it modularly, so I can release it for Early Access on PC (Windows, Mac, Linux) first, enhancing and improving that based on player feedback, and then keep expanding on it with more chapters episodically as potentially separate releases to help keep me going. You have to understand this is all being done 100% out of pocket and there isn\’t really a budget. I\’m just floating on savings. So these approaches will help keep me going. It may even be possible to do things like Early Access on the new consoles now, with free updates for indie developers. It will depend on how consistent all of the Big Three\’s terms are for that, and whether something like that would end up being well received or not. I know this may be very possible on Wii-U, potentially first. However, there\’s a lot to think through with these new models for indie development and the online ability now to perpetually update a game.
What is it like working with Nintendo and where do you see them headed in the future?
\”Their indie terms are a dream come true, and now it seems the rest of the industry is following suit\”
I\’d say right now I\’m more encouraged by Nintendo\’s direction than in awhile, and I feel I\’m understanding their approach more too, how a lot of that is much smarter than many give them credit for, myself originally included. Sure, there are things I wish they were doing differently, but I\’m happy with the opportunity for indies on the Wii-U. And a rising tide lifts all boats. I\’m looking forward to first-party Wii-U games, and I think there is a ton of potential for serious indie devs to make new classics this generation for Wii-U and the other consoles too.
Will Astrogun be more Wii U focused right now or is there a possibility of adding development for the 3DS too?
Astrogun is a Unity shop, so because Unity is supported on Wii-U and not currently on 3DS, the focus will be on Wii-U for now. I really hope 3DS and Unity eventually come along. I\’d love to see a new handheld by Nintendo that is more synonymous with the Wii-U platform, like a Wii-U portable that can be played on the go without the box.
How do you feel about Nintendo\’s stance on region blocking and its effect on CIDER?
The main hurdle though, which may be minimal, seems to basically be getting CIDER rated in all regions. The ERSB now does this for free, which is wonderful, but getting it rated in other regions is a costly hurdle. Iwata claimed that the various laws of each country are why Nintendo chooses to region-lock, to ensure compliance, and I can totally respect that. But a universal method would be great.
And, finally, are there currently any other projects in the works for Astrogun Studios?
Radical Sleep (previously codenamed SHIZUKA) is basically Inception meets Akira, something I\’ve been working on since early 2012. It\’s kind of a dream project, just like CIDER. It\’s a more mature IP, taking even a more abstract Kubrick-esque approach. You can follow Xander Davis at his Twitter address @XanderDavisLive and head over to cidergame.tumblr.com to check out his developer blog and progress on project CIDER.