SkyGunner – 2001 Developer Interview

SkyGunner - 2001 Developer Interview

In this SkyGunner roundtable interview from 2001, sourced from the GSLA archive, the PixelArts team discusses the making of their well-loved PS2 cult classic. Originally designed for the PS1 as part of Sony's "game yarou ze!" developer contest in the mid-90s, here the devs explain their design philosophy, abandoned ideas, gameplay systems, and more.

Hiroyuki Kotani - Producer
Yuji Nakamura - Director
Yoshikazu Hiraki - Designer
Kei Watanabe - Designer
Daisuke Emura - Programmer

Kotani: This is our first game with this team.

Hiraki: There's a lot of gamers here. (laughs)

Kotani: I thought Watanabe was maybe an outlier, but he turned out to be just as obsessed as the rest of them. (laughs)

Hiraki: The truth is, SkyGunner started with Sony's "game yarou ze!" developer audition contest. The development time, if you include everything up to the release, has been about 3 years.

Kotani: It was originally planned for the PS1. We had an idea for the main system of sorts, which was the jumping-off point. We also had a screen mock-up of the clouds, which looked just like what you see in the PS2 version. We soon realized, unfortunately, that what we wanted to do would be impossible on the PS1, and thankfully, we'd just been given the PS2 developer toolkit, so we resolved to switch over to that platform.

Hiraki: During the PS1 phase of the development, we had the basic form of the game where the camera would chase after enemies you'd locked onto. The controls weren't quite solidified yet though. The backgrounds, too, didn't have as much detail as you see in the city of Rive on the PS2. Compared with the game today, the PS1 version was overall a more stripped-down, minimalistic experience.

Kotani: You could still fly freely throught he sky, and we'd done a lot of work making sure the hit detection was on the level. But we were greedy, and we wanted to have gigantic bosses and objects, and that's where we hit the wall with the PS1. (laughs)

Emura: We had some really big bosses then too, but the hit detection was where we ran into problems. If we made it to precise, the system couldn't handle it. Also, sometimes in SkyGunner, you can't see where your ship is going, and if you collided into a battleship or something and died it would feel very cheap and frustrating. For that we added the Crash Avoidance System to let players recover. It was while we were making that, that we realized the PS1 wouldn't work.

Kotani: Yeah, because adding that system meant that the hit detection had to be very precise.

Emura: We even calculate the hit detection for the up-down movement of the battleship's wings too, for example, but when we did that, it overloaded the processor. Colliding with terrain doesn't make your ship crash in SkyGunner, but when you do collide with something it doesn't feel unfair, it matches up with what you see on-screen. It doesn't feel awkward, I think.

Natsuo Imai, who handled the scenes with the Poulet and their effects, he placed them all over the place. (laughs) When the Grandir starts tilting they grab on to the railing. He added lots of little gestures and movements for them, the heart marks in their speech bubbles, he really went to town.

Originally, SkyGunner had a first-person cockpit perspective, but we experimented a lot. (laughs)

SkyGunner full playthrough with Ciel.

Hiraki: In a normal full-3D STG game, the enemies are hard to locate, right? You waste all this time searching around for them and it lowers the tempo of the game, making it boring. So we came at it from another angle… what if the enemy was always in your sights? So we tried it, and it felt exhilirating to fly across the bow of a battleship like that. Let's make this the core of the game! That was the simplest reason SkyGunner is the way it is.

Kotani: Yeah, I hate finnicky and fussy systems. (laughs)

Hiraki: In any event, that old-school flight sim style of looking at your radar, flying to your target, and locking-onto them… that was out.

Kotani: It's like, hey, before you look at the radar, look at the actual screen. (laughs) We valued the feel of your traditional 2D STG, where you blast down enemies as you plow through the levels. We want players to get all the info they need about an enemy's position etc from just looking at the screen.

Emura: And even if you zone out the enemies will still be there in front of you. (laughs)

Hiraki: We wanted to emphasize the visual experience in SkyGunner. That was a big part of how the systems turned out. It's common for 3D STG games to use a 3rd person perspective, like After Burner or Space Harrier, but that means you don't get to see the enemies that you've taken such pains to defeat. I always hated that. If we were going to put all this effort into building the world and atmosphere for SkyGunner, it'd be way more fun to see the battleships crash and burn once you defeat them, right? (laughs)

Emura: There was a lot of debate amongst the team about having two separate targetting systems (Novice and Expert)…

Hiraki: I'm firmly in the Novice camp myself. I think an easier targetting system makes the game much more approachable for players, given the potential disorientation of flying around a 3D space. That's why we added the Novice option. However, as players get better, they will come to feel something is missing there. They may start to feel like it would be more fun to have more manual control over the targetting, and that's why we added Expert mode too.

Beginners, therefore, shouldn't hesitate to choose Novice mode. That way you can enjoy the thrilling pace of the game without having to worry about switching targets. Then once you've got the hang of the controls, you can go all the way in with Expert.

A collection of SkyGunner goods posted in celebration of its 20th anniversary by character designer Kei Watanabe.

Kotani: On our team, there's more hardcore people who feel like it's not flying if you don't have yaw controls, or can't roll. So for them we added the other modes. (laughs)

Hiraki: Yeah, it's for hardcore players.

Kotani: I think Reverse will be to many people's liking. That, Novice targetting, and Easy controls are our recommendations.

Hiraki: Expert is for people who like Flight Simulator style controls.

Nakamura: Our development team is divided into the "Novice" and "Expert" camps.

Emura: Flying in Expert is cooler. (laughs)

Hiraki: EX Actions were added to give depth to the game. For Femme, even bad STG players can make steady progress just by using her EX Action and machine gun. That's the balance we aimed for with her. 3D STGs are notorious for having very difficult controls, you see.

Emura: That reputation is something we wanted to do away with. So long as we could maintain this welcoming, cozy vibe combined with snappy gameplay, then we wouldn't have to obsess over making the action and movement feel like a realistic airplane or anything.

Kotani: Things like air braking, being able to stop and suddenly start flying again, that sense of direct control… that came less from thinking about actual airplane dynamics and more from a feeling of "that's cool!"

Hiraki: Yeah, I mean, if these were like real dogfights it wouldn't be very fun.

Kotani: If we made it realistic, you'd just go in for an attack, then fly away, everytime. No matter what you fought it would be that basic pattern.

Hiraki: I love creating visual scenes, visual direction. If something looks good, you'll want to use it again and again. This isn't a paritcularly realistic STG game, so I said we should definitely go all-in on adding cool visual stuff that makes you feel good. That's why EX Actions were something we had envisioned adding from the very beginning of the development.

Kotani: We knew the player ships needed to have their own special abilities. Doing that would naturally lead to different playstyles with how you attack. It would be a boring game, after all, if you employed the same tactics on every mission. That was another role the EX Actions fulfilled, to create distinction between each ship.

Hiraki: Three ships means triple your pleasure. (laughs) This is a STG, you know, so we don't want to make people play for hours and hours at a time. It should be something you can play casually once a day, a quick high-tempo experience. And for that, having variety with the ships is much more fun.

Kotani: You could put it the other way around, too. Without those kind of gameplay differences, it's difficult to give the ships their own individual personalities. This is true of the Optional weapons too.

A neat collection of ships shared by @funnwari_ku for SkyGunner's 16th Anniversary.

Emura: There were a few ideas for Optional weapons that we abandoned, right? There was a Chaff (anti-radar, heat-seaking missile evasion) item, right?

Kotani: "Bone Chaff" to use against "Dog Missiles". (laughs)

Emura: We actually did program and implement that into the game. They were usable until very late into the development. If you scattered the chaff, the enemies' dog missiles would veer off towards those bones. And the dog missiles would emote little hearts as they chased towards them. (laughs)

Watanabe: The bone was gigantic! It was so huge, it was like… where the hell was this being stored inside the plane?! There's a little nod to the bone chaff in the manga on the SCE home page, by the way.

Hiraki: Part of the reason we made SkyGunner five stages is that we wanted a playthrough to be short. It takes a little over an hour to beat the game, but if we'd added more stages, that casual, pick-up-and-play aspect would have been lost. That didn't feel right to me. Originally we did plan to have more stages, but I thought it would be a more interesting to pare it down and make the stages we did keep stronger. There's lots of games out there now with long playtimes, but with many of them, once I played through them once, I didn't feel like playing them again. That's why making SkyGunner shorter, something you could play a run everyday and have fun—that was the better choice, I thought.

Kotani: We're not saying that large games, packed with content, aren't valid. But here at PixelArts we're not a huge corporation—we're more like a big family, and if we tried to make some grandiose game outside of that scope, it would probably turn out half-baked. So from the very start of SkyGunner, we never lost sight of that theme, that this should be a game you could replay many times. Sure, we could expand our staff, put dozens of people on the project, and then increase the number of stages accordingly… but that would quickly lead to a "bigger/more is better" mindset.

We want to mark out a different path, making games that you don't want to rush off and re-sell the minute you beat them. Also, another theme for our deveopment was overturning the idea that STG games are only for some niche group of players. We hope SkyGunner will be played by girls who normally don't touch STGs, too.

Watanabe: Yeah, and if you're curious, be sure to check out the demo disc.

Hiraki: If we've piqued your interest today, be sure to give that demo a go. We know you'll love it.

Kotani: And don't forget to set the controls to Novice. (laughs)

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