Kraken Empire Discuss Their Award-winning Free-roaming 3D Shoot-’em-up

Kraken Empire Discuss Their Award-winning Free-roaming 3D Shoot-’em-up

Having recently won the ‘Best Creative Design’ award at the 2014 hóPLAY Game Festival in Bilbao, Spain, the two-person team at Kraken Empire took some time to speak to Rising Star Games about Kromaia, the developer’s recently released 3D free-roaming shoot-’em-up.

A game four years in the making, Antonio Iglesias and Daniel Blasco talk about developing an experience that pays homage to some of their favorite films, games and other works of art, as well as the challenges they faced in bringing something fresh and unique to the shoot-’em-up genre.

Rising Star Games: So, first off, congratulations on winning the Best Creative Design award at hóPlay 2014! Considering you walked away with a Finalist place at the same event in 2010, you must be pleased about the progress.

What do you think helped you move from finalist to winner?

Antonio Iglesias: There was an event where finalists made short presentations speaking about why you should be the winner. We made a presentation about the different perspectives from which we designed the game and the references we used from films, art and other games… I think that made a difference for the judges.

Daniel Blasco: Maybe it was our different approach to the design concept itself. We’ve tried to merge several genres from a technical point of view, something we explained as ‘creativity through engineering’. Managing real, not fake, ultra- high speeds; hundreds of physical objects interacting with each other at the same time; vast open environments; total freedom of movement using a structured set of physical thrusters to achieve any possible maneuver. All those things contribute to create a new experience that’s clearly different from other titles. I guess that’s why people name so many different games, like Shadow of the Colossus, Wipeout, Dodonpachi or Descent, when talking about Kromaia. Actually, it’s easier to explain the whole thing when naming those references.

RSG: Winning the award must be a nice way to bring the game’s development to an end though. You’ve been working on it for, what, four years, as a two-man team… what were some of the biggest challenges you faced during that time?

AI: Actually, developing an open world game doesn’t have an end, I’m afraid! Being a two-man team is hard – not just because you have to do everything from graphics to programming, but also because you have a very limited workforce. With Kromaia, we had three main challenges. The first was to be able to use physics to create gameplay that allowed the player to move fast and fluidly without problems. The second was to find a visual style that was interesting enough but that two programmers could still achieve, trying to avoid complex modeling or texturing. And the third was to make a full game with everything we wanted to add to the shoot-’em-up genre with arcade controls in mind and great gameplay flow, like those 90s shoot-’em-ups.

RSG: Did it ever seem overwhelming to only have a two-person team? Was there ever a point where you thought it wouldn’t ever get done or you might need more people?

AI: From the beginning, that was definitely our biggest concern. We tried to add more people to team from the start, from artists to graphics programmers. People always show a lot of interest but, when the time to work hard comes… well, most people disappeared forever. We have been the core team all this time and we had to do everything… it was really hard work! We didn’t expect to reach this quality level – the original plan was to release the game in one year, but our testers always wanted more. More weapons, more ships, more enemies, more levels, bigger bosses…

We built the game incrementally, so in truth we could have released it – or, at least, a version of it – at any time. But we always believed we could do something great if we put more time into it and that way, we reached the current high quality state of Kromaia that fans are playing today.

RSG: What were you inspired by when coming up with and making Kromaia? Were there any particular shooters or other titles that you took cues from?

DB: We belong to probably the last generation growing up playing coin-op arcade machines, so titles like 19XX and the ‘Bullet Hell’ shooters like those made by Cave were a great influence on the experience we wanted to achieve. The real challenge was moving that arcade feeling to an open world 3D experience, which

involved a lot of technical issues, ranging from perfectly tuned controls to making sure the AI was right. I’m very fond of exploration while Antonio is a regular FPS player, so our favourite titles – like Shadow of the Colossus and its gigantic enemies – were a great inspiration. On the other hand, giving the users an extremely complex and responsive but, at the same time, intuitive Descent-like experience was another aspiration we had from the very beginning.

As for the artistic inspirations, our aesthetical reference at first was actually the original Tron movie (not Rez as a lot of people think!) and, later, the temples scenery design in the works by Shingo Araki (a Japanese animator who created anime such as Saint Seiya) and the paintings by Zdzislaw Beksinski.

RSG: What was the thinking behind moving the shoot-‘em-up genre into an open world for Kromaia though? It’s been interesting to see a split between those praising it for being that way and some saying they wish it was on-rails.

AI: The original idea of the game was creating unrestrained movement in 3D space with six degrees of freedom. That in itself created the need of an open world without discussion. From there, it all made sense – action, exploration, big open worlds, great bosses…

Ultimately when it comes to fans of genres, some people just want to constantly play their favourite style of games; if their favourite genre is the on-rails shooter then they’ll ask for games from that genre, and that’s all. There are also people saying that the trailer makes it seem like the game is on-rails, so that could be an extra reason for people mentioning it. At the end of the day though, you have to play Kromaia to fully understand it – our fans say it works great if you play it with an open mind…

RSG: What about the story of Kromaia? You mentioned being inspired by the likes of Araki and Beksinski for the art style, but did that rub off into the spiritual concept for the plot too? Or were you more inspired by classic tales of gods, revenge and mysticism?

DB: We wanted a dark mood and a story/world that didn’t involve the classical space games stereotypes. Non-conventional creatures, bosses or antagonists were also in our mind since the start. As for the way the story is told and driven, GladOS and the voices of the Dormin were definitely a huge inspiration for the final design…

RSG: So, nothing particularly religious stuck in your mind as you were making it?

DB: There are clear references to Greek mythology and some concepts found in many religions, like eternal recurrence, overcoming titans or gods and questions about the existence of fate and free will. For instance, Kyllene – the central hub world like the Nexus is Demon’s Souls, the place where everything begins and finds true meaning – is the place were Maia, one of the Pleiades, gave birth to Hermes.

RSG: One of the more unique things about Kromaia that people might not expect is that players can create their own gameplay experiences by tweaking the XML files in the background. Why did you decide to do that, instead of creating a ‘locked down’ experience?

AI: One of the initial ideas of Kromaia was creating modular ships that could be edited in some way by the player. Initially, we had some gameplay ideas involving proper editing tools, including a multiplayer game in which players built their ships with a budget and fought in kind of a competitive space game, or a game in which you had to create a ship to overcome a specific set of circumstances.

On the other hand, being able to edit ships, levels and enemies (including AI) without programming makes for easy and fast fine-tuning, and allows a lot of fast prototyping and experimentation. In the end, we created the editable XMLs as an ‘exchange’ format to be able to edit without programming or the need to export from the editing tools (which we will probably have… we hope!). Thanks to the XML files, it’s easy to modify the levels, enemies or ships quickly here and there, but our final objective is to allow players to use those editing tools for easier modding instead.

RSG: Have any modifications of the game caught your eye yet? What kinds of things are you expect players to come up with, and have you come up with any mods of your own?

AI: We don’t know the full extent of what people have achieved by modifying our XMLs yet – right now, we have a small user base and the game is only just over a month old, so I’d bet that people are still enjoying the regular gameplay. The game length is more than ten hours – that’s not bad for a shoot-’em-up and even after that, it’s pretty replayable! We even added New Game+ so that you can play again and again with an increased difficulty. So as it stands, I don’t know if people feel the need to go and mod the game in its current state – that’ll probably come when they discover what they really can do…

We know one Kromaia fan multiplied the size of the bosses and made it so they could kill you just by touching your ship, while some other players created ships without friction so they could play with a ‘real space experience’. There was a player who altered the thruster power so they could move even faster and even one who didn’t like our extreme glow and depth of field, so they changed the shader to reduce the blurriness.

The possibilities are huge – certainly though, having all the game data exposed is fun from a developer point of view.

RSG: It sounds like there are plenty of things for players to be getting on with. But what about Kraken Empire – what’s next? Do you have plans for Kromaia that you’re still working on and can you say what they are yet?

AI: It’s hard to say. We are just two developers and there are so many ways to expand Kromaia! Right now, we’re working to add a few features: some extra power-ups and add-ons, extra options to configure the game and settings, some small prizes for explorers and so on. We also have Steam achievements and online leaderboards half-done too.

Personally, we would love to see Kromaia on other platforms and multiplayer is something we had always in mind. Cooperative gameplay could be first probably, but it can take a long time to make a great multiplayer game… It’s hard to say what will be next in terms of big changes for the future, but Kromaia will definitely grow in one way or another. We’ll just have to wait and see!

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