Xona Games Interview

Interview by Keith Murray & Jamie Davies, June 2009

With the rapidly expanding range of Community Games, theres precious few games which stand out above the deluge of poorer titles. One of the titles on the horizon which is shaping up to be head and shoulders above the dreck is Duality ZF. We got the opportunity to speak with Jason Doucette about making the game and working on Community Games.

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Tell us about Xona Games who are you and how did you get started?

Xona Games is me, Jason Doucette, and my twin brother, Matthew Doucette. We’ve been designing and programming games since we were 7. We’ve had chances to enter the industry numerous times, but always wanted to do it ourselves. Our first attempt was a horizontal shmup, but that fell through due to lack of equipment from a collaborating party. We were developing a photo-realistic scenery generator and renderer based on my voxel technology, and placed that on hold to enter the Dream Build Play 2008 competition. The promise of the Xbox 360 opening up for 3rd party developers was too good to pass up.

When did you first start working on Duality ZF and how did it come about? Were there any major influences behind it?

Duality ZF was started in late July 2008. We knew we wanted a shmup right away. We decided on the vertical orientation for a quicker development. All of our favourite shmups were influences. Raiden II is my personal favourite. It does a lot right where most fail. It is almost perfect, so we’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from it. But it has major flaws: the fighters move slowly, chasing icons is annoying, hitboxes are too large, etc. We’ve analyzed many shmups to avoid their flaws and annoyances. We follow a unique philosophy:

Give the power to the player. The game’s difficulty should arise from enemy strength, not player weakness.

This changes the gameplay drastically. The experience is enriched as you can tackle stronger adversaries. You’ll never be frustrated by dying from a silly game mechanic implemented for a challenge. You need only be aware of applying your skill to effectively shoot down the enemy while surviving – the two core foundations shmups are built upon. Duality ZF’s gameplay is geared towards letting you kick ass: Power-ups seek you out (to the teammate most in need). You can switch quickly from laser, for concentrated fire, to spread, for more coverage, on demand. This allows an increase in game intensity without increasing frustration. Player deaths occur when they err, not from annoyances like a hidden bullet within an explosion. We’ve strived to remove all gameplay mechanics that cause annoyances.

The scoring system enforces our philosophy. It awards points for domination. There are no bonus points for collecting icons, medals, or level completion, etc. Such bonus points arise from enemy kills themselves. The better you kick ass, the higher your score – as it should be. An expert, high scoring “power play” of Duality ZF won’t be dilly-dallying, delaying shooting enemies, chasing fairies – it will show wrecking havoc; causing pure destruction in the most efficient way possible. Finally the gamer achieving the highest spot in the online scoreboards will be the one who is best at surviving enemy attack while decimating them – what shmups are all about.

Was there any particular reason why you decided to go down the Community Games route instead of trying for a full blown XBLA release?

Community Games is a sure thing, since it’s wide open. We prefer XBLA, but it’s a restricted distribution channel; they are rejecting shmup classics because they have too many existing arcade ports. Merely having a good game is not enough; you have to fit their portfolio. We will submit Duality ZF to XBLA, but we cannot guarantee success.

I’m developing technology that allows online play with the incredible intensity of Duality ZF – something never before seen, since the precision control required to successfully navigate arcade shooters is normally lost in online experience. Duality ZF’s successor will feature this, and thus will not need the disclaimer, “Game Experience May Change During Online Play”. You can’t let gameplay change in shmups like Duality ZF, since if it is not maintained, the game becomes unplayable with severe frustration. We hope this breakthrough technology will get us in XBLA.

The Shmup genre was arguably all but dead in the mainstream until Microsoft and others launched their download services. Now theres been this slight return, do you think developers have made best use of the opportunity to draw new people in to the scene, as well as keeping old fans of the genre happy?

No, they have not. Shmups are an easy concept. Game making tutorials often use them for examples. But, everyone misses the importance of gameplay. They implement ‘challenging’ things such as acceleration, rapid-fire limitations, and under powered weapons. They end up being annoyances. It’s easy to make a game hard. It’s not so easy to make it fun and rewarding. Proper shmups require certain essentials. First and foremost is the feeling of accomplishment. 95% of indie shmups lack the ability to even kill everything on the screen (some even boast that you need multiplayer to achieve such feats). These shmups are immediate fails. Most programmers are not true fans, and unfortunately, are helping kill it. We are here because we enjoy it. Duality ZF is the game we want to play.

We’re striving to keep everyone happy: Old fans will love the game immediately, because it’s back to the roots of what shmups are all about: Gameplay and kicking ass. Fans of maniac / bullet hell shooters will like the modes made just for them. Fans that hate shmups (likely due to poor quality releases in the genre) will like it because we made it fun and exciting. Newcomers to the genre like it because it’s simple and easy to learn. Newbies to video games in general like it because there are training modes, which give the same sense of accomplishment found in the rest of the game. We beta test the game in all of the above scenarios.

Duality ZF has an interesting take on the Shmup genre by allowing dual controls. Was this something you wanted to build in right from the very start?

The game was programmed from scratch to support multiplayer and Dual Play. Dual Play arose from Japanese gamers looking for new challenges. They’d walk into an arcade, pop two quarters into both player’s coin slots of a game, and play both simultaneously. We take it a step further by allowing all four players to play Dual Play, so you are not commanding another gamer’s fighter; you each have the ability to control two at once, for a total of eight simultaneously. It’s total mayhem. The firepower is just insane.

Our philosophy to give the power to the player dictates that dead fighters spit out their remaining firepower for others to use. This mechanic also works in Dual Play. Once you’re down to a single fighter, the firepower from the other can be obtained for a power boost to give you one last chance. If anyone completes the current stage, all dead fighters are reborn in the next stage (for multiplayer and Dual Play), and all surviving fighters resurrect unused power-ups for the revived teammates.

The only other game to really try something like this was Schizoid on XBLA. Why do you think its a mechanic that isnt used too often?

Dual Play is nearly impossible to use in most games. Schizoid has it, but it demands 100% attention for both players, at all times, each with different objectives. Duality ZF doesn’t have such problems. You needn’t be concerned with both fighters always, and they both have the same goal: shoot enemies. The fighters automatically fire in Dual Play mode, so you can focus on just moving them. It takes a single game to get used to it, especially in Easy or Training mode.

Dual Play was discovered naturally due to desire for challenge from expert gamers; it was not implemented as a marketing trick to get sales. The gamers invented it. It fits naturally with shmups, as Duality ZF shows. It just doesn’t work with other genres, and their attempts to achieve brownie points with it fail. The features of Duality ZF are not gimmicks. They work, and are demanded for, by the true fans. We are a part of this fan group.

How did you overcome the inevitable problems of implementing the controls to make sure it worked?

There were no problems. The Xbox 360 controller has two thumbsticks, one for each fighter. Most Xbox 360 gamers are already used to controlling two thumbsticks simultaneously in 3D shooters, so the transition isn’t difficult. Since the triggers control the spread/laser morph, we simply made both fighters respond to a single input. This avoids the complexity of needing to control two guns at once. It also avoids the need to change the control scheme from Solo Play to Dual Play. The fighters automatically fire so your fingers never need to leave the thumbsticks and triggers. It works well.

Whats been the reaction been to the game so far?

The reaction has been very supportive. People are dying to finally play a back-to-the-roots game where gameplay matters. People can’t wait to try Dual Play – it has never been implemented natively before. They can’t wait to try 4 player co-operative play, since most shmups are rehashed arcades with 2 player limitations. Duality ZF uses the full widescreen real estate to fit all 4 players nicely. Also, they can’t wait to see 8 fighters at once. Duality ZF has been referred to as “Raiden on Red Bull” due to the intense firepower.

Duality ZF has also been dubbed the “Geometry Wars Killer”, based on the excitement of Survival mode (before we even beta-tested our Multidirectional mode!) Duality ZF’s atmosphere is much more intense than Geometry Wars. You have crazy bosses that take a pounding before they die. Enemies shoot at you in varying patterns. You are never underpowered, but you always have strong adversaries to deal with. With Multidirectional mode, you can swerve intense bullet streams, spinning around huge enemies, efficiently aiming in the meantime – something that cannot happen in traditional dual-stick shooters where all enemies are one-hit kills. In Duality ZF you’re launching the attack – being the aggressor. You’re not running, whimpering, and hiding, as you do with every other dual stick shooter on the market. The feeling of accomplish via domination is just one of many game mechanics we understand thoroughly, where all others fall flat. In Multidirectional mode, you still have access to the spread / laser morph, which allows concentration of firepower, or as much spread as desired to ease the need for aiming precision. There’s absolutely no comparison of Duality ZF to any other multidirectional shooter – and that’s just the Multidirectional mode; one of many bonus modes.

Further, Duality ZF allows 4 player co-operative play in every game mode, including Multidirectional mode, and each has their own online scoreboard. Unlike Geometry Wars, Raiden, and all other shmups, where only a subsection of their game is credited in the leaderboards, Duality ZF ranks every mode, even multiplayer. You’ll get the credit you deserve, and you’ll actually want to play every game mode. The game has 8-stage campaign modes, so you’ll desire help from friends to progress further, to experience even crazier boss fights, in even harder difficulty modes, to achieve even higher scores – which will be recorded in the online scoreboards. It’s going to be fun to see just how far four (or eight) fighters can get! Due to the credit and recognition received for all 96 game styles, there’s a ton of replayability.

With the vast majority of Community Games being either ‘me too’ clones of existing titles on XBLA or just instantly forgettable, have you ever worried that your work will be lost? What steps have the team put in place to make sure this doesn’t happen?

There’s a fear that people may not give Duality ZF a chance, believing it’s just another clone that offers nothing new. Shmups have a bad rep, but the success of Geometry Wars has shown that it’s not the genre’s fault; it’s the games. The shmup genre is our favourite, and Duality ZF is the game that we’ve always wanted to play, so its gameplay is solid. Our philosophy of giving the power to the player, emphasized by our unique scoring system, ensures the playability and fun factor are high. We’re confident once people play the game, they’ll like it.

The problem is getting people to see it. We’ve already purchased advertising and submitted trailers to many game review websites. The native Dual Play controls will draw attention, and we’ve named the game ‘Duality’ to emphasize this. The online scoreboards will be visible at all times, and thus will generate a competitive atmosphere. We’ll be offering in-game challenges, like achievements (in the first update of the game), that are globally visible as well. We’re going to make a few competitions with prizes for the top players. This should generate some amazing footage of the action available in the game, and will draw some crowds. The ridiculously intense 8-fighter action – not offered in any other shmup – will be advertised all over the internet during these competitions for highest score, which will be great indications that Duality ZF is not your average shmup.

How have you found working with XNA and the whole Community Games process?

The XNA Framework allows, in a single night, to have a simple game engine running with sprites responding to your controller’s input, and have a single-source code base that compiles on the PC and the Xbox 360. It allows for quick testing of game ideas. The tools are amazing and free.

XNA runs on top of the Compact .NET Framework on the Xbox 360. The compiled code is not optimized for floating point (math functions) nor function inlining (meaning the nice little modules you normally write once, and use everywhere, are slow). This is a huge roadblock for making fast engines. But roadblocks are opportunities in disguise. I have significant experience optimizing game engines, so I made use of this to bypass XNA’s sluggishness, and the result is the Duality ZF engine: a silky smooth 60 frames per second, capable of handling 8 fighters shooting over 2,000 bullets, colliding with 100’s of enemies, with 1,000’s of explosions. The action literally fills the screen, and you just won’t find this anywhere else. This places Duality ZF in a league well above our XNA competitors, since this type of action is simply impossible with a standard implementation with no optimization, and it challenges the best of the best shmups ever made.

The ability to reach right into people’s living rooms with the Community Games section on the NXE is an appealing prospect. Do you see this as an opportunity to show off your creative skills in the hope that a development house will take note, or to maybe source funding to expand Xona Games?

Making video games is my passion. It’s about the programming challenge, the logic of optimizing algorithms to do things faster than would normally be possible, the artistic design of the graphics, and the artistry of the game play. It’s an opportunity to show off our creativity, and gives us the ability to allow others to experience a new world and universe that we’ve created for them. I am excited to see others play Duality ZF, experience it, and perfect it. I’ve felt this previously with other games I’ve made, and it’s an amazing feeling.

We are hoping someone will take notice, as we want to get into XBLA. It would give us access to leaderboards, achievements, and the ability to give out Gamerscore points. The lack of these features is really hurting Community Games, since all other games available on the Xbox 360 have them, and gamers expect them. We are implementing online scoreboards and will make our own in-game, achievement-like challenges, but we are not able to award Gamerscore points for beating them. This has to change if Community Games is to have any chance of success, since many gamers absolutely will not purchase games without Gamerscore points. If this is not implemented soon, we will have no option but to pursue XBLA full force.

We have every intention of expanding Xona Games. What we really need next is a graphics / animation artist.

Recently theres been a great deal of discussion amongst Community Games developers who bemoan the lack of sales of their titles. Have you worried about this, or do you think the complaining stems from some unrealistic expectations of the platform?

The primary reason for poor sales is that the games are bad. Some showcase amazing programming but have poor gameplay. Our #1 priority is gameplay and fun factor, so we are not worried about this.

The second reason for poor sales is the lack of leaderboards, achievements, and inability to award Gamerscore points. Almost all gamers mention their lack of intent to purchase Community Games due to this. Gamers tell us they’ll buy Duality ZF if it gets onto XBLA because they want Gamerscore. Microsoft has successfully made the world care about Gamerscore, and even the XNA developers admit they are Gamerscore whores. For those who don’t understand what the deal is: Gamerscore is recognition for your efforts. People want and need recognition. That’s why they’ll buy Doom and get all the achievements even though they already have it on their PC.

Community Games has no recognition. Duality ZF tackles this the best way possible: We rank every mode available in the online scoreboards (whereas most XBLA games require a specific game mode). You absolutely get recognition for everything you do. The scores are displayed proudly at the start and end of every game, and on your Xbox LIVE status, so you get that recognition. The in-game challenges (available in the first update after initial release) will also be displayed to your friends. The one thing we cannot do, due to Community Games limitations, is award Gamerscore points. Community Games needs this!

Whats your plans after Duality ZF? Any plans for a horizontal shooter?

The next step will be a Duality ZF update that includes 150 in-game challenges, similar to those in Mega Man 9 (except only a few are extreme, so they’ll be fun to complete).

After that, we’ll start on a new game: Duality 2. It will have an advanced weapons system. I am developing technology to deliver the same intense action with online multiplayer, without detriment to gameplay. We want it to get into XBLA, so we’ll enter it into Dream Build Play 2009 to increase our chances.

Our dreams have always been to make a horizontal shooter. We believe it’s where a masterpiece lies to be awakened. There are some concerns, since Bullet Hell shooters have failed in horizontal alignment (perhaps due to the difficulty in determining where the hit box exists).

Has there been anything on the downloadable platforms thats recently stood out for you and why?

R-Type Dimensions is near perfect. The original set standards in the shmup genre, and I’m happy to see it on the Xbox 360. OutRun Online is close to perfect, but they just miss the point when they put other Ferraris on the road. I still love the original and the concept, and I hope to do a sprite-based racer soon with my Full Tilt engine. Braid is simply amazing. The puzzle designs and the graphics are just awesome. Everyone should play it.

Heavy Weapon is focused on simple gameplay and fun, so I relate.

Mega Man 9 is great. It’s very cool that they reprogrammed a new version with the restriction of 8-bit systems. It’s funny how Mega Man sort of died on the 16-bit SNES. If they hadn’t tried to be more than what they were, it’d have been fine. The 8-bit restriction enforces this design philosophy, so Mega Man 9 is more than merely being retro; it’s getting back-to-the-roots of what made the series fun.

Portal is awesome. It’s one of the most amazing puzzle games ever.

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A big thank you to Jason  for taking the time to speak to us. Be sure to check out Duality ZF when it hits the Community Games channel later this year.