When a one-man studio developer states - with as much humility as possible - that they've previously worked at both Rare and Retro Studios, you can't help but be intrigued. These are two of the most storied Western development studios in Nintendo history, with Rare being an integral part of the company's past and Retro Studios being very much part of the present. Some of the greatest moments on Nintendo hardware have come from these studios.
Of course, being an AI and gameplay developer (in a lead role at Retro Studios) doesn't necessarily prepare you for life as a small Indie studio. Rhys Lewis, who founded Squarehead Studios in South Wales (in the UK) in 2014, has learnt some of these lessons. After a debut with 'Star Drift' on iOS he's preparing to make his debut on the Wii U eShop on 10th March with Star Ghost; it's been a modest and quiet approach to launch, perhaps typified by the latest trailer's opening line of self deprecation - "From the creator of not much else".
Nevertheless it looks like a slick, enjoyable game, and not only has the pedigree of Lewis himself behind it but also music from David Wise, a legendary composer in Nintendo circles for his work at Rare and most recently for Tengami and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. With that in mind we caught up with Lewis to learn more about his time since starting out alone, moving from the prestigious Retro Studios in Texas to his own business back in the UK.
First of all, can you introduce yourself and Squarehead Studios to our readers?
Hi, my name is Rhys Lewis. I'm the founder of Squarehead Studios, a tiny little indie game developer based in the UK. My personal background is mainly in Nintendo development, including stints at Rare and Retro Studios. Some of the games I've contributed to include Banjo-Kazooie, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Donkey Kong Country Returns and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.
I formed Squarehead in 2014 after returning home to Wales from Texas. When I arrived back, I found that although there were a number of micro studios around, there weren't many capable of offering stable employment. I was half expecting to make a career transition into something like sheep farming to be honest but in a mad moment, I ended up taking a naked flame to my life savings and started Squarehead Studios instead.
It originally emerged in early 2015 that you were working on 'Star Drift' for iOS. Can you tell us about how that project differed and what prompted the switch to the eShop?
My first objective was to establish that I could ship a game by myself and gain some experience of self-publishing. My background to that point had been heavily focussed on AI and gameplay development and so making a complete game was going to be a new challenge. Having previously worked on at least 2 projects with runaway scope, I was also quite mindful of the trap of trying to make the world's most amazing game straight out of the gate. On balance it seemed like iOS would be the best fit.
The final straw with iOS came as I reflected on Iwata-san's words.
After a couple of initial prototypes, I hit on the concept of a shoot-em-up that used the rocket barrel controls from DKCR. This meant that I wouldn't have to compromise the controls scheme to work with a touch screen (I wasn't prepared to use virtual joysticks) and that it would hopefully make the game stand-out in the shmup genre. From that point onwards, development went quite smoothly and on launch, Star Drift managed to achieve the holy grail of a featured placement on the App Store.
Despite this, I had some reservations. I couldn't escape the nagging feeling that I was working in a market that I didn't properly understand and perhaps more importantly, felt quite limited by. As alluded to, I think games need to be carefully designed for touch screens but most of the interesting game ideas I have tend to require physical controls.
A further worry I had was that it seemed very challenging to build a relationship with Apple. The number of developers competing for their attention understandably makes it difficult for them to communicate with everyone. That said, it really highlighted to me how unlikely it would be to create a sustainable business based on their platform.
The final straw with iOS came as I reflected on Iwata-san's words.
"These platforms have no motivation to maintain the high value of videogame software - for them, content is something created by someone else. Their goal is just to gather as much software as possible, because quantity is what makes the money flow - the value of videogame software does not matter to them."
In my heart, I felt this to be true and in direct contrast with the values that I had experienced working directly with Nintendo at Retro; quality and player experience always came first.
Fortunately, Nintendo were very understanding and welcomed me into their developer program. The immediate question then became whether to begin afresh on a new title, or take advantage of the work done on Star Drift and evolve it into a game that was more aligned with my own sensibilities.
I was pretty happy with Star Drift as a mobile title and enjoyed the basic game mechanics but I also felt that it could offer a lot more if it were opened up to a game controller and some extra processing oompf. Star Ghost shares some of its assets and ideas but it has fully evolved into its own thing now. I generally describe Star Ghost as the game that Star Drift wanted to be.
Can you expand on the core gameplay behind Star Ghost?
Star Ghost draws inspiration from the golden age of the arcades, both in terms of its over-arching structure and the tightly coupled game mechanics. In order to keep the quality as high as possible, as a solo developer, I needed to strip away all of the fat and focus on the really important stuff; how the game felt in the moment to moment gameplay and how much depth I could provide from a relatively small number of parts. It's not the kind of game that uses cut-scenes or new content as a carrot on a stick.
More specifically, it's a side-scrolling shoot-em-up that uses one-button controls for movement (hold the thrust button to go up, release to drop) and the left control stick to either direct your fire, or engage a traction field to help collect power-ups (you can't do both at the same time). Using both of these controls simultaneously can feel a little odd at first but it does become second nature pretty quickly.
Does that Donkey Kong barrel-style gameplay greatly change how the player tackles a shoot 'em up challenge? What drove that design decision over conventional controls?
I think it does change the emphasis, yes. In a traditional shoot-em-up, the movement controls are very direct and simplified, whereas in Star Ghost, your ship has a lot of weight and momentum. I don't think you could make a bullet-hell style of game with this approach as flying the ship can be a challenge in itself.
You are always under tension between collecting pickups and firing your weapons at the on-rushing aliens.
Similarly the controls on the left stick are quite unconventional. You are always under tension between collecting pickups and firing your weapons at the on-rushing aliens. The ships systems are in a constant state of decay and collecting pickups is a vital skill to master in order to stay pumped up and ready to dish out some damage.
The motivation for this control setup came from the initial limitations of its roots on a mobile platform but I also wouldn't have made a shoot-em-up unless I felt that I was bringing something new to the genre.
How does the procedurally generated level design play into a story campaign, if that is the case?
The game takes place over 12 Star Systems, each of which is typically composed of 6 sectors (the opening systems have less). The individual contents of each sector are procedurally generated. This makes it very replay-able, as you can't anticipate what's coming next.
Is the plot an integral part of the experience, and if so can you tell us a little about it?
No, the story is not important at all. It's a shoot-em-up!
There is a story of course, but rather than focus on it too much, I decided to put the bulk of the emphasis on the in-game voice-over. Your on-board companion provides a near constant stream of feedback to let you know how you're doing and she also throws in one or two little one-liners every now and again. It's not a game that takes itself too seriously.
Does Star Ghost encourage repeat plays with an arcade / endless mode or any form of score uploads / Miiverse posts (despite the procedurally generated stages)?
Being inspired by arcade machines, the game loops at the end to allow for high score accumulation. Sadly, there are no online features at present. This could be added at a later date if there turns out to be sufficient demand for it.
You enlisted David Wise for the game's soundtrack, can you talk about how that came together?
Dave and I go back a long way. We first worked together in the late nineties at Rare and then again more recently at Retro Studios. He's an industry legend and it was a no-brainer to seek out his talents for Star Ghost.
Dave exemplifies the idea that the very best people are often some of the nicest and easiest to work with. I gave him the brief for the project and he knocked it out of the park. It was a little like having a mind-reading super power that takes your half-baked thoughts and instantly manifests the best possible version of them.
On the one hand it's a game made without much respect for, or reflection on current trends in the industry. On the other, I think that's probably a very Nintendo-like thing to do.
You've utilised off-TV play using the GamePad - are there any other features that make use of the Wii U's capabilities?
Not really. I wanted to focus my efforts on the needs of the game as they naturally unfolded. On this occasion, nothing called for any quirky use of hardware.
How would you describe the experience of working with Nintendo to publish your first eShop game?
On the development side, things went very smoothly. Nintendo offer great technical support for developers and they are making clear efforts to support indies through initiatives such as their support for the Unity engine.
The publishing side of the business has been much more of a learning experience for me. Nintendo have been very patient as I fumble around and try to find my feet. As a AAA developer, you rarely have to worry about the publishing side of things and it's easy to underestimate how much work it takes and how many moving parts there are.
Are you optimistic that the Wii U audience will be attracted to Star Ghost and its concept?
I'm a naturally optimistic person but you never know how things will go. On the one hand it's a game made without much respect for, or reflection on current trends in the industry. On the other, I think that's probably a very Nintendo-like thing to do.
Do you have a final pre-launch message for our readers?