Eschatos – 2011 Developer Interview

Eschatos - 2011 Developer Interviews

Eschatos is a vertical shmup released for the X360 by Qute Corp in April 2011. This interview was featured in STG Gameside #3 and covers the creation and design behind Eschatos and its connections to M-kai's previous handheld shmups, the highly regarded Cardinal Sins and Judgement Silversword. I've also appended a short interview for Ginga Force, Qute's 2012 follow-up to Eschatos.

M-KAI – Programmer
Mach – Director
Yonezawa – Qute Director

—Let’s start by having you introduce yourself for our readers.

M-KAI: Hello, I’m M-KAI. I did the main programming for Eschatos.

Mach: I’m Mach. I was in charge of the game direction, design, and the basic system.

Yonezawa: I’m Yonezawa, and I oversee game development at Qute. For Eschatos, I handled the technology side, the advertising, project management, and things like that.

—Please tell us the history of Eschatos and how it came to be.

M-KAI: After finishing Cardinal Sins, I had been trying to create a new game for the WonderWitch, but I was completely stuck and couldn’t come up with any interesting ideas. During this time I had begun learning DirectX and was really into it, but after 2 years, all I had to show for it was an unfinished STG with about 2 stages. One day I showed this to Mach, and that was how Eschatos started.

Yonezawa: Qute worked together with M-KAI and Mach on Eschatos. The way we worked together isn’t exactly like a commercial game maker, nor is it like the typical doujin circle… so it might seem a little strange to people. Qute had a connection with them from the WonderWitch programming contest, and we had talked about wanting to collaborate on something together. Finally the circumstances aligned for everyone and we were able to start development.

Mach: At first M-KAI and I worked without any definite target, and we didn’t really have the goal of releasing a commercial game. But after we started working with Qute, the project gradually took shape into an X360 release.

—If you had to give a keyword or theme for Eschatos, what would it be?

Mach: “Normal, not classic/retro!” Also,
“a fusion of gameplay and dramatic presentation.” You know, people often describe Eschatos as a “classic” game, but we were really aiming for a “normal” game, but in a good sense.

Yonezawa: Lately there have been hardly any new “normal” STGs. The systems are way too complex, or its all about danmaku, and you can’t really play it normally, just dodging and shooting.

Mach: That’s right. So we wanted to rehabilitate the concept of the “normal” STG, and turn that word into a badge of merit. And M-KAI already had a 3D engine he had programmed, so we designed the game to make full use of 3D in its presentation.

Eschatos’ 3D engine.

—Eschatos was programmed for the X360, a very powerful and flexible platform for development. Compared to the hardware you’ve used before, what was easier, and what was harder?

M-KAI: As for easier things, above all, it was great having almost no limit on the number of objects. Though that also made it easy to forget and carelessly put too many objects out. Most of the code I wrote for Windows also worked without modification, which was nice.

The difficult parts were mostly related to the 3D aspect, and the fact that most of my usual tricks for a 2D STG didn’t work anymore. For example, when enemies overlap each other on a 2D screen, you can still visually determine which is above and which is below. But in 3D, the enemies would appear to sink into each other, and it looked distintictively strange. I spent a lot of time correcting that in Eschatos.

Also, most of my knowledge about how to design a 2D game didn’t work here. With the MSX and WonderWitch, it was necessary to make the bullet speed very fast, but that approach didn’t work here, and actually fettered my progress in the game design when I tried it. Another problem was the greatly expanded parameters needed for displaying sprites. Most of the methods I’d used until now became obsolete… I looked back fondly on the time when games could be made with sprites that needed just 4 variables: the character id code, color, and X and Y coordinates. (laughs)

—You included Judgment Silversword and Cardinal Swords with this release. Could you tell us about any interesting anecdotes or struggles you had when you originally made those games?

M-KAI: At the time I was drowning in work at my main job, and so I nearly missed the application deadline for the 2001 WonderWitch Programming contest. I was on a business trip at the time, and I only had internet at my company office. I remember sneaking back in after everyone had left under the pretense that I had forgotten something, and uploading my submission. I also remember the final phase of the commercial release of Judgment Silversword in 2004 being very stressful. I’d leave work on the last train of the night, and it would take an hour to get home… then I’d work all night without sleeping, taking the first train in the morning back and napping at the office. It was like a test to see if I could succeed at this as a side job. I slept even less then, than during Eschatos.

Mach: During that time I playtested the game everyday on the commute train. I also did debugging then. Back then it wasn’t quite like today, when everyone is looking down at their mobile device or handheld.

—And why did you decide to include Cardinal Sins with this release?

Mach: Once we decided Eschatos would be an X360 release, we thought we might try porting our older games as well. We had the source code available, and Qute had put these out for WonderWitch, so it was a relatively painless process. Since these were actual ports and not emulation, the slowdown was initially different. Simulating that correctly took the most time.

Cardinal Sins, with tate supported via patch.

Yonezawa: At the start we hadn’t talked about porting them. But I myself really wanted to play those games on a TV screen. (laughs) Both are well-suited for smartphones and other handheld consoles too, so if there’s a chance we’d like to release them there, but we have no concrete plans for that right now.

Mach: If we’re going that route, can it be something new instead? (everyone laughs)

—In recent years, STGs have experimented with anime characterizations, and human characters instead of actual ships. Why did you eschew this approach for Eschatos, and instead opt for an “80s flavor” STG?

Mach: Our original game design plan was to make an arcade version of Judgment SilverSword. What led us from our basic prototype program to the finished version today was coming up with the idea of a UFO invasion theme. So with those things in mind, we decided on a nostalgic atmosphere for Eschatos. We didn’t really have the free time to add a lot of non-essential things like character illustrations, since the project started with just the two of us.

—In Eschatos there are three modes with different gameplay and systems: Original, Advanced, and Time Attack. Was there a reason for dividing things up like that?

Mach: At first, we only had Time Attack and another mode, now called Advanced. That was originally the default difficulty, but at one point we got stuck and tried changing things up with a no-power up mode, which then became Original. After that we rethought and retooled Advanced as well. For Time Attack, we aimed for a STG experience that would feel like a racing game. However, since we didn’t have anything to actually compare this idea with, in the end I think we made the difficulty level a little too easy.

Regarding the three modes, Original is about destroying everything as quickly as possible to spawn more enemy waves. Advanced is for people who like scoring. Time Attack includes a rank system that changes the difficulty. Our plan was to make a single game you could play several different ways.

M-KAI: The idea for that came from our consideration of the diversity of modern shooting players’ tastes. In the same vertical STG, you can have a completely different experience depending on simple things: many or few enemies? a big or small hitbox? a fast or slow ship? many or few buttons? a charge shot, or close-range attacks? etc. And in this way players themselves have different preferences we wanted to cater to. So our intent was to make Advanced and Original almost opposite in their style. Our staff really liked Original mode, but I felt it was missing something with regard to modern STGs, so we added more score items and such. But even with games that emphasize scoring, we know that different players enjoy or get bored by different things. I think that rather than just adding difficulty adjustments, making games with multiple choices in the overall game style is one way to expand the horizons of STG in the future.

STG Weekly #5 featuring Eschatos

Yonezawa: For the most part, the game mode and basic system were left to Mach and M-KAI. But with Advanced mode, we reached a major standstill, and for a time there was even talk of dropping it. In order to make the deadline for release, I ended up contributing some ideas at our meetings, and we were finally able to get it completed.

—In JSS and Eschatos, there’s an emphasis placed on the clear time for each section. What led to this idea?

Mach: The way JSS and Eschatos make you think about time, or sequences, is a unique feature to those games compared with other STGs. We tried to construct the stages and sequences in Eschatos so it could be completed in 30 min (20 for JSS). It isn’t the typical system with a fixed stage length, a midboss, and boss. It starts with short “sequences” that are only several seconds long, which then gradually get longer. Its sort of like one really big stage. So the bosses don’t align with any specific stage.

Back when I had hobbies other than games, there was a time when I went to a lot of clubs. I thought it would be cool to make a game that flowed like a DJ’s mix, gradually building until it reaches a peak. That was the design we used for JSS and Eschatos, where its like one seamless sequence.

We then had to come up with a scoring system that would give a sense of continuity between each section, and for that we came up with the “kill everything quicker==better score bonuses” system. We tried it out and it worked surprisingly well, giving a good sense of intervals and a tightness to the enemy spawning.

M-KAI: Unlike most STGs these days, we didn’t synchronize the background and enemies for JSS and Eschatos. Instead you’re trying to defeat enemy formations as quickly as possible, and doing so gets the next formations to spawn quicker and clears the stage more quickly as well. This might be what people are referring to by the “80s flavor” comment, as the progression is meant to feel very speedy.

Judgement Silversword

Its also true that, from the beginning, I’ve always been very bad at placing enemies according to a background. I’ve tried STG construction tools that do it, but it just didn’t work for me. When the background scrolls fast and is in 3D, its all the worse. For that reason we made all the enemies and events in Eschatos based on time and how quickly you destroy every enemy in a given sequence. It was therefore easy, I think, to add a time attack mode to the game, and doing so brought my ideas for the game in closer alignment with Mach’s, too.

—The catchphrase on the Eschatos packaging says “saigo no shinban” ("the final judgement"). There’s also the message that appears before bosses in JSS, “HERE COMES THE JUDGE!” So it seems like the worlds of the two games might be connected…?

Mach: Our first conversations went something like “if we’re going to do another game, how about another Judgment sequel?” (laughs) The original codename for the Eschatos project was “JSS3”, and it was meant to be the third game in the Judgment series. We mainly just wanted to make another game that used the same shield mechanic. I thought of the Eschatos title early in the development. From there, the overall direction of the story and events took shape quickly, and we decided not to make it JSS3. So there’s no connections in a timeline sense or anything; its more like a parallel setting.

Yonezawa: People who know things like the mirror shield from JSS will probably grin when they see certain things in Eschatos, but there’s no direct connection between the worlds.

Mach: It isn’t the same world as our previous games. There are certain connections we imagined, but we’ve decided not to talk about them. (laughs)

—What other STGs have you been influenced by?

M-KAI: First and foremost, Zanac. The way it reacts to the players movements and the abundance of hidden items left a big impact on me, even as a kid in grade school. There’s so many good ideas in that game… the way you pick up the same weapon to powerup (and the variety of weapons), enemies that can’t be destroyed without running into them, the way scoring well is linked to the aggression of the enemies… and to think it was all done in 1986 just makes it all the more amazing.

Also, personally for me, Batsugun is irreplaceable. I wanted to make something for the MSX that could display those kind of sprites and that many bullets… it was the start of it all for me, really. (laughs) After Batsugun, there was a 2-3 year period where classic STGs–games that are talked about even today–came out one after the other, and of course many of those titles influenced me. Listing them all would take all day, but yeah, I think it was a very good time to start making games.

Mach: Xevious, Zanac, Star Force, Air Buster, Terra Cresta… I could go on and on, so I’ll just list these for now.

Zanac is often cited as an influence of modern STG games.

—What is the ideal STG to you?

Mach: Exciting, the whole time you play.

M-KAI: One that continues to surprise and delight you when you least expect it.

—What was the first game or games you ever played?

Mach: I’ve been playing games since Arkanoid and Space Invaders, so…

M-KAI: I remember playing in the game corner at the department store, before starting grade school. I was more into the medal games than the video games, and also those 10 yen games where the coin drops from the top and you try to roll it into place for a prize. I played those kind of games a lot. When the Famicom got popular, I mainly played console games. I think Galaxian and Xevious on Famicom were the first games I played there. I remember I would also play action RPGs back then with my siblings and friends… we’d all get together and we’d all get really into it.

The first concrete arcade experience I had was later, with Rayforce. It was my first 1cc achievement too.

—If there are any STGs you would suggest for beginners or new players, please share your recommendations.

Mach: Something tells me I don’t need to recommend anything like that for the readers of this publication… (laughs)

M-KAI: Strikers 1945. I’d say go with the Messerschmitt or Zero ships. I think this game condenses a lot of dodging and attacking strategies common to modern STGs. If you learn to 1CC this game, I think the skills would transfer to other STGs easily.

—Please share a message for people who haven’t played Eschatos yet.

M-KAI: There’s been a trend to make recent STGs more and more visually flashy, but that isn’t the element we focused on with Eschatos. We wanted it to feel fun while you played it, so that before you knew it, you were deeply hooked on the gameplay. So for the scoring system and such, we worked hard to make it something players could grasp as they play. In contrast we didn’t spend an undue amount of time on special effects, and we hope people play it and think, “wow, someone is still making games like this!”

Mach: We hope you have a chance to experience the unique world of this “normal, but not normal” STG.

—Thank you very much for your time today!

Eschatos Official Page Bonus Interview

from http://eschatos.qute.jp/extra_interview.html

—Please tell us the history of the Eschatos development.

M-KAI: I had actually been involved in making a completely different STG for Windows, but in the middle of that Qute talked to me and asked if I would try making a game for the X360.

—Please tell us about the difficulties you had in making Eschatos.

M-KAI: I had become used to playing games where the bomb was designed to be an emergency save. But some of the design ideas I had for this game were “shield, not bomb”, “wide shot range limitations”, “the enemy appearance and patterns must be randomized to a certain degree”, and “stages where the player’s view would change at predetermined points.” So I struggled to create a game that had design elements that I wasn’t familiar with.

I remember especially worrying about the visibility during the 3D perspective parts. Also, unlike most current STGs, Eschatos has a system where you can’t progress to the next stage until you’ve defeated all the enemy formations or let them escape, so I had to pay extra attention to making sure the backgrounds syncronized with the action. Since there are many parts where the length of the background changes depending on how quickly or slowly you defeat the enemies, I worked really hard to make everything appear natural. I also spent a lot of time developing and adjusting a scoring system that would be simple, not too puzzling or complex, but also wouldn’t be totally boring or extraneous.

—Please tell us about the difficulty of the game.

M-KAI: People had said Judgment Silversword was too hard, so at the start of development for Eschatos we added a Normal and Easy mode where things are much easier. So if players clear Normal mode once and feel something is lacking, I would definitely like them to try the Hard mode. From the start I programmed Eschatos with the Hard mode as my base, and the Advanced Hard mode is the one I played the most as well. Hardest mode is unlocked as you play the game, but it contains parts that were done almost half-jokingly, so please don’t worry if you can’t clear it.

—Please give us some simple strategy tips.

M-KAI: Compared with the Wonderswan series of games I made, the shield has a more important role here, so if you learn to use it, you can defend against most attacks. But if you move around with the shield out, it becomes easier to accidentally collide with the bullets stopped by the shield, so please be careful. Also, by picking up the bullet cancelling flash items that occasionally appear, the difficulty of the game will greatly change.

—Regarding Cardinal Sins and Judgment Silversword, is there anything you’ve updated from the original WonderSwan versions?

M-KAI: I developed these using the WonderSwan source code, which I ported to the X360. Since this was a source level port, I was therefore able to keep most everything the same, down to the original sprite flickering. I did have to recreate the slowdown by hand, but I was able to adjust it to my satisfaction, I think. I also added online ranking and achievements.

M-KAI: After consulting with Qute, we asked Yasui to write the music. He also helped us nail down the image of the game as a modern STG. To be honest when I first heard the stage 3 and 4 BGM it was very different from what I expected, but after test playing the level many times, I now can’t imagine any other music! I remember the whole development staff being very excited each time he'd bring a new track to us.

A track from the Eschatos OST.

—Have you thought about what your next project will be?

M-KAI: It hasn’t been fully decided yet whether I’ll be developing for the X360 for my next game, but I’d like to make a “90s” style game. (laughs)

—Thank you.


Ginga Force – 2012 Developer Interview

originally published in Famitsu

—Tell us some of the highlights of Ginga Force.

Qute: Ginga Force is a vertical scrolling STG for home console, and we challenged ourselves at Qute with a brand new story and setting. The story develops in scenes between the stages, and each stage is like an individual episode of the story. It has many new elements in it, like the decisive battles with the enemy characters that ride in huge mechs, and the bosslike enemies that appear at the beginning of the stage, rather than the end. Ginga Force continues the exhilirating, fun style of play found in Eschatos, so I think it will appeal to fans of that game as well. We’ve worked really hard on the story and setting too, and we’re hoping a wide variety of players will enjoy it.

—I see Ginga Force uses a full 16:9 widescreen vertizontal format.

Qute: Yes. Eschatos used the arcade STG as its baseline, but for Ginga Force we focused on the strengths of the home console. We improved the 3D presentation and graphics since Eschatos, so we decided a full widescreen format would best reflect that. We also thought it would bother non-STG players if they saw empty space to the left and right of the screen.

—Please tell us a little about designing the story and characters.

Qute: In Eschatos we did our best to have no characters, but this time we added characters, dialogue, and in-game events that are meaningful to the story. For the story itself, rather than realism, we aimed for an anime and manga style.

Ginga Force trailer

—What are the features of the game system?

Qute: In Ginga Force you can play for score, but it also prominently features a system where you can equip your preferred weapons to clear each stage. We strove to create a game you could replay multiple times at your own pace, taking on new difficulty levels and equipping stronger weapons as you go. Conversely, there’s also a score attack mode where the settings are always the same and you can play purely for score, so the STG format experienced players are familiar with has also been retained. I think the evolution of shooting games is similar to vs. fighting games; although there’s been a transition to 3D, the gameplay elements have remained in 2D–that’s one path, at least. We’re hoping to share this modern 2D STG style with players.

—Please leave a final message for Eschatos fans, and all shooting fans out there!

Qute: We worked hard to make Ginga Force a game where, like Eschatos, you could enjoy it as a straight-ahead pure STG experience; but we also made it so a player can enjoy the opposite experience of slowly improving his performance with multiple playthroughs. We think both players who enjoyed Eschatos and those who haven’t played STGs much will enjoy Ginga Force. Thank you!

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