Jamestown – 2011 Developer Interview
Jamestown is a vertizontal shmup for the PC released in 2011 by Final Form Games. The game shines in 3 or 4 player mode and the lenient-but-satisfying revive system makes it an excellent choice for newcomers and veterans, as experienced players can “carry” the team while newer players have a chance to develop their skills. This interview with creator Mike Ambrogi was originally featured in STG Gameside #5.
—How did the idea for Jamestown come about?
Ambrogi: When we decided we would make a STG, we also decided we needed to add some kind of hook. We exchanged different ideas we liked: “an elegant, beautiful steampunk world”, “historical people and places”, “space that feels vibrant and active, not empty and cold like in reality”… We ended up creating an alternate history where we imagined Jamestown, the actual American colony, taking place on Mars.
—How long did the development take, and how many people were involved?
Ambrogi: It took about 2 years. The core group was 3 people–2 programmers and 1 artist. We got a lot of assistance from friends and outside contractors though, and this game couldn’t have been made without them.
—What were the most difficult aspects of the development?
Ambrogi: There were many challenges in the development, and wittling it down to the hardest is difficult to say. The first hurdle was getting that actual danmaku feel down. Every genre has a 1000 little unstated rules. If you break one of them, it won’t feel right to people who like the genre. The second challenge was creating a multiplayer mode where players of different skill levels could play together. We wanted a game that both very experienced players and danmaku beginners could play together, in a way that would be meaningful to both of them, where players could support each other. Pulling that off was one of our greatest challenges.
Personally, I think the #1 challenge for any game is getting the game balance right. Our big wish for Jamestown was that it would help new players learn to play and enjoy danmaku games. Getting that difficulty balance right so that beginners and veterans could enjoy the game (playing alone or together) was something we grappled with through the entire development.
—You can see the influence of Japanese danmaku STGs in Jamestown. From your perspective as Westerners, what is the charm and appeal of danmaku STG?
Ambrogi: There’s many elements we love from scrolling STGs, especially danmaku. All our members grew up playing Galaga, Space Invaders, Gradius, and similar games. Its really been a lifelong love affair. But outside of nostalgia, we had an interest in the intensity and skill required for danmaku games. Its in that moment when you’re threading the needle through a fierce bullet pattern, and the total concentration it requires.
We especially like the dazzling bullet patterns in Cave games; in particular, Dodonpachi, Ketsui, and Progear were inspirations. On top of that, we love the idea of complex scoring systems in danmaku games. Its almost like you can have two separate games in one: a game for beginners who are trying not to die, and another for veteran scorers.
—The Vaunt system is very unique. Why did you opt for this, instead of the more typical bomb system?
Ambrogi: The Vaunt system was our attempt to share with players what we thought would be the most fun way to play a STG. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that we were very inspired by Takumi’s games, especially Mars Matrix. When there’s multiple players, you have to share resources and do things cooperatively, but when playing alone you have to do all the work yourself… that kind of scoring system was directly inspired by playing cooperative music games like Rock Band.
As for the Vaunt shield, there were various reasons we used it instead of a traditional bomb. First, in a 4-player co-op situation, using a bomb means you’re dominating a very large portion of the screen. Second, we thought it was cool to be able to shield your teammate from bullets with the vaunt shield. Third, I think that scoring systems that revolve around bombs are a bit overdone at this point. Rather than receiving a bonus for not using bombs, we thought staying in Vaunt as much as possible and keeping your multiplier going as long as you can made for a better experience.
—What has the reception to Jamestown been like so far?
Ambrogi: We’ve been surprised at how many people like Jamestown. We knew when we started development that this genre isn’t popular with everyone, and that in America, many STGs don’t even get reviewed. We occasionally get mail about Jamestown, or read posts on the internet about it. Its been kind of unbelievable, hearing people say things like “I don’t actually like danmaku games that much, but when I played Jamestown, it made me want to play more games like this.”
—What STG titles have influenced you?
Ambrogi: Well, as I said above, we’re huge Japanese STG fans. We all played a lot of Gradius in the arcades. The big influences for Jamestown were Cave’s fantastic games, especially Dodonpachi, Progear, and Deathsmiles. Takumi’s Gigawing and Mars Matrix were also big inspirations. At the same time, with regard to building the right tempo and progression, Ikaruga and the amazing Gradius V provided many insights.
—What do you think of Japanese STG?
Ambrogi: I hope people can tell from this interview and Jamestown itself how much we love Japanese STG. We really strived to make Jamestown more like a Japanese STG, rather than any euroshmup or western developed STG.
—What are some of your favorite games?
Ambrogi: There’s a lot! I’ve already gone over the STGs we like, so I think its ok not to relist them again here. We grew up alongside the game industry, so we like a lot of classic games. Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario 64, Mario Kart, Zelda: LttP, Rock Band… naming them all would take all day. The two founding members of Final Form games met each other through Soul Calibur and Starcraft, so those titles are especially dear to us. We’re also interested in the games coming out of the indie game movement. Monaco and Spelunky are two really interesting games.
—What are your favorite Japanese games?
Ambrogi: Well, as you can see, most of our favorites games are from Japan. I’ll name a few others though: Shadow of the Colossus – our whole team fell in love with this game. Dark Souls – the very deliberate gameplay is wonderful Suikoden II – one of our members thinks this is the best RPG made, to this day …but yeah, I could go on all day like this!
—What is the ideal STG to you?
Ambrogi: If it existed, I think it would go something like this: a new and exciting idea every few seconds of play; a scoring system that is simple, intuitive, and gives players interesting choices in how to score; a game that can be enjoyed by both completely new players and 40-year old veterans who have dedicated their lives to STG; an interesting story and setting that don’t distract from gameplay, but rather strengthen and deepen it; ushers in world peace.
—Will you continue to make STGs?
Ambrogi: We love the STG genre, but we’re looking at a lot of different options right now. There’s a lot of possibilities to explore for our second game. We’ll be experimenting to see what’s fun, what’s exciting to us… and that could be another STG, or it could be a different genre.
—Please give a final word for our readers.
Ambrogi: I want to extend our gratitude to those who have played Jamestown and supported us. Its a great honor to us that Japanese players (especially superplayers) have enjoyed playing our game. For those who haven’t tried Jamestown yet, we hope you enjoy it!
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