While Dan Adelman had a rather grand formal job title at Nintendo of America - Head of Digital Content and Development - he was, in the eyes of many, the Indie Champion; he was highly regarded for his efforts to bring quality download games to WiiWare, and then the eShop on 3DS and Wii U. A little under two years ago, however, he left the big N to start out on his own, and has enjoyed early success working with Tom Happ, the extremely talented one-man development studio behind the critically acclaimed Axiom Verge.
With the Metroidvania-style title heading to Wii U we caught up with Adelman to talk about the upcoming release and what helps it stand out on Nintendo's system, while also getting an update on his own plans. We also took the chance, of course, to pick his brains about a few key Nintendo topics.
Before we get started chatting about Axiom Verge, can you tell us how you've adjusted to working for yourself after being Nintendo of America's indie champion for so long?
Like with anything, there are pros and cons. The biggest cons are that I miss the team at NOA. There are a lot of great people over there, so being on my own, I miss out on that banter. We try to get together every couple months, so we're able to stay in touch. On the other hand, large companies by their very nature have multiple layers of decision making, and things didn't always go the direction I would have liked them to. Now that I'm on my own, I have complete freedom. Of course that means I have complete freedom to screw up too!
How did you come to work with Tom Happ, the developer of Axiom Verge?
Not too long after I announced that I had left Nintendo, Tom reached out to me. He told me that he wasn't sure if he needed help with the business side or not, since he didn't have a good feel for that element of game development. Tom, his wife, Chloe, and I met for lunch during PAX Dev one day to discuss working together, and it was a great fit.
For those yet to encounter it, can you tell us what Axiom Verge is all about?
Axiom Verge is about a physicist named Trace who gets caught up in a lab explosion. When he comes to, he finds himself in a mysterious alien world and hears a telepathic voice call out to him for help. He needs to explore the alien world, reach the source of this voice, and then uncover the mystery of the world and his role in it.
Now that I'm on my own I have complete freedom. Of course that means I have complete freedom to screw up too!
The game itself is an action-platformer exploration adventure game with a retro 2D art style. It's squarely in the Metroidvania genre, but it definitely leans heavier to the Metroid side. The game definitely wears its inspiration on its sleeve. In addition to Metroid and Super Metroid, Tom Happ was a huge fan of a bunch of the classics, including Blaster Master, Contra, and Bionic Commando. Players can see elements of each of those games within Axiom Verge.
In addition, Tom was heavily inspired by the experimentation he did with trying to break some of those games. There used to be magazine articles back in the day with tips that people discovered, like if you loaded up one game and then swapped out cartridges at a specific point, the system would get confused and let you pass through walls that you weren't supposed to get through. Game Genie also used to let people glitch and break the games in interesting ways. Tom used to love experimenting with that stuff, so he actually added that as a core mechanic in the game.
Happ is truly an example of passion and endeavour paying off. Can you talk about the development of the game and how it came together?
It's kind of funny. Axiom Verge was created because Tom Happ was bored one day. He had gotten off work at his day job making games at Petroglyph and wanted a hobby project. Most people might veg in front of the TV or do anything other than what they do all day for a living, but Tom just loves making games.
Tom's interesting in that he's kind of a renaissance man. He was trained both as an animator and as a programmer, so he's equally comfortable in both worlds. He taught himself how to write music, and he enjoys writing. So there was really nothing in game development he couldn't do on his own. He decided that since, at the time anyway, programming was his day job, he would start off just making art and designing an overall world map. He told me that he knew that once he got in the zone programming, he wouldn't want to have to stop, create a new art asset, and then get back to coding, since it would just disrupt his rhythm. So instead, he created virtually all of the art that you see in the game right off the bat. Over time, he started animating all of the creatures in the game, and putting together the music. Finally, when the game was more or less put together in his head and all of the art was done, he was able to code everything and get it running. The entire process took him 5 years, since he really could only work on it during evenings and weekends since he had a full-time day job.
It's interesting that a lot of people talk about his perseverance and work ethic, but the fact is, he just enjoys making games. Before Axiom Verge launched, I asked him what he'd do if Axiom Verge sold so well that he didn't have to work any more. He told me he'd probably just make another game anyway. When people ask him why he didn't just hire someone to make the art assets or write the music or write the code, he says that it would be like paying someone else to eat his dessert for him.
Axiom Verge clearly pays homage to a number of games, including the beloved Nintendo game Super Metroid, but what features set it apart?
Super Metroid is probably one of the more obvious influences, but when Tom started making Axiom Verge, he actually was trying to see if he could combine his favorite aspects of a bunch of different games all into one. For example, he tried to put the grapple hook of Bionic Commando and the Yo-Yo weapon of Rygar in a Shatterhand and Blaster Master-like universe. The variety of weapons in the game is much more evocative of a game like Contra than it is Metroid.
As I mentioned before, probably one of the most distinctive features of Axiom Verge is the glitching. Tom really enjoyed experimenting with how he could glitch games with Game Genie or swapping out cartridges to see how it might respond. It was only about a year into development when he decided that experimentation could be part and parcel of the game itself. So now, every enemy can be glitched (though it's harder to glitch some enemies than others) and some parts of the environment can be glitched. You can actually get through the game only glitching a handful of enemies, but you'd be missing out if you don't try to find out what everything does.
What was the reception like when Axiom Verge launched on PS4 last year? What updates have been made since that time?
The reception was amazing. On the one hand, you had the critics who just loved it. We got more than 20 review scores of 90 or higher, including some by a few really tough critics. We had fans telling their friends about the game and people talking about how it brought back their childhoods. We even had a few Nintendo fans lamenting the fact that it was PlayStation exclusive at the time.
Super Metroid is probably one of the more obvious influences, but when Tom started making Axiom Verge, he actually was trying to see if he could combine his favorite aspects of a bunch of different games all into one.
There haven't been many updates to the game since it launched. A couple minor bugs got fixed, and we localized it into Russian and Japanese, but for the most part, Axiom Verge launched as a fully realized game.
What do you think makes Metroidvania style games so compelling?
To me, there are two main things that stand out. The first is the exploration. In a really good Metroidvania, you're not really sure where you need to go next, so you have to keep checking your map to see where you haven't been able to go before. It really helps your spatial memory, since if you get an upgrade, you can often remember exactly where you need to return to to use it. And if you explore every little nook and cranny, you can often find things that you know most people miss.
The other thing I love about Metroidvanias is the power trip you get toward the end. When you start out, you have to be scared of every little creature, since you're so weak. But if you come back to the starting area later, you have so much more health, firepower, weapons, and upgrades that you can just tear through those creatures!
The in-game soundtrack is amazing, can you tell us a bit about that?
The soundtrack of any game is fundamental to creating a unified experience for the player, so it's important that the music be coming from the same place as the game design itself. Not necessarily the same person – but someone who shares the vision for the game. For example, not many people are conscious of this, but in game environment animations, the health bar, and even some enemy animations are synchronized to the tempo of whatever track is playing. This makes for a much more integrated experience than overlaying a soundtrack onto a game haphazardly. Tom wrote the soundtrack over a period of four months, part-time. Music is actually the one aspect of game development in which he's entirely self-taught.
How was the process of porting the game over to Wii U? What technical challenges did you have to overcome?
Axiom Verge was originally developed in FNA and MonoGame, which unfortunately isn't currently supported on Wii U. The only real solution was to take the game and have it ported over completely into C++ and then onto Wii U. BlitWorks is a studio that specializes in this kind of work, so we just handed it off to them. It's been the easiest port for us, since every month they just give us a new build which is better than the last! I remember thinking of the build from a couple months ago that it already looked pretty much ready to ship, but there were a few things that we still wanted to tweak and add.
Does it utilise the Wii U GamePad in any particular way?
There are three primary uses of the GamePad. First is that Axiom Verge can be played entirely on the GamePad with the TV off, which is super useful for people who don't have complete control over the family TV. The second use is the weapon select screen. Instead of pausing the game to swap weapons, you can just tap the weapon you want and you're good to go. The third use is that, when playing on the TV, you can have the map always visible on the GamePad. On all the other versions, you have to pause the game, check the map, and go back to the action. Now you'll always know where you are, which is huge benefit in a game that focuses on exploration!
Considering its approach and the games it references, do you think Nintendo gamers in particular will respond strongly to Axiom Verge? Why do you think that is?
I sure hope so! People have been clamoring for a good Metroid game for more than 10 years. Some people have even said that Axiom Verge is better than any of the Metroid games. It's kind of sacrilege to say that any game is better than the original Metroid and Super Metroid, but I think that there could be some truth to that, especially for people who never grew up with those games. There are a lot of things that Axiom Verge does that just weren't possible back then. And anyone who is a fan of those classics will pick up Axiom Verge and feel like it belongs in a similar category. I'm obviously biased, but I think that Axiom Verge is as good as people remember Metroid and Super Metroid being when those games were new.
As you're now working outside of your Nintendo, what have you made of the rumours and speculation around its 'NX' hardware?
I was at Nintendo long enough to know not to put any faith in online rumors.
I was at Nintendo long enough to know not to put any faith in online rumors. Nintendo is very good about keeping its cards close to its chest, so in the vacuum of any real information, online speculation is taken for fact. The reality is that Nintendo will unveil it when they're good and ready. The one thing I do know is that I'll be getting an NX – whatever it is – day one!
Knowing the company as you do, are you confident about what it'll have planned for the rest of 2016, in terms of releases and reveals around NX / Mobile?
I really can't speak for Nintendo. I was surprised that they've chosen to show only one game at E3, but Nintendo is always full of surprises.
The eShop has continued to evolve in some ways, and titles such as Binding of Isaac are starting to arrive. How do you feel the eShop has progressed since you left NoA?
I think it's been great what the team has been able to do. Unity for the Wii U has made it possible for a ton of great games to come to Wii U with relatively little risk. And I consider it personally very fulfilling that games like Binding of Isaac and Super Meat Boy have finally made it onto Nintendo platforms.
What's next for you? Do you have any notable projects in the works at the moment?
I'm working on 3 games right now. First, of course, is Axiom Verge! The next game that will be coming out is Chasm. Like Axiom Verge, Chasm is a Metroidvania-style game, but the similarities end there. To the extent that Axiom Verge is more Metroid-like, Chasm is more akin to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, in that it has a bigger focus on melee combat, RPG-style character development, and gear that you can equip. But also, like Axiom Verge, comparisons to its inspiration can only go so far, because there are a lot of things that Chasm does that make it quite different from anything else out there. For example, the world map is procedurally generated, so the game will have nearly infinite replayability. Right now it's targeted for a PC and PS4 launch for technical reasons, but we'd love to bring it to Nintendo platforms as quickly as possible.
The third game I'm working on is called Mages of Mystralia, which I think is most easily described as Harry Potter meets Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. In it, you play as a girl named Zia who discovers she has magic abilities. Magic has been outlawed, so she goes into exile to master the ways of magic and learn how to design her own spells. She crafts spells to fight enemies as well as solve environmental puzzles along the way. The story is being written by legendary fantasy author Ed Greenwood, so the gameplay and story should be equally compelling! We haven't announced any platforms yet, but suffice it to say I keep my old friends at Nintendo up to speed on the game's development progress.
We'd like to thank Dan Adelman for his time.