Interview: Xenoraid – Classic-Inspired Shoot’em Up Focuses on the Act of Shooting
Xenoraid is a vertical shooter that calms the typical swarms of bullets seen in shooters yet still brings familiar bullet-hell instances that can challenge gamers every step of the way. It features a 5 stage campaign mode, hard mode, and survival mode. But why am I the one telling you about this. Instead, let’s have Jaakko Maaniemi, Game Designer and Project Lead of Xenoraid at 10tons, tell you more about it.
Jaakko Maaniemi: The main idea behind Xenoraid’s top level concept was that I seem to remember a time when horizontally and vertically scrolling shoot’em ups were a major genre, a big part of the wider spectrum of shooting games. Then, I suppose tech advances enabled newer genres like FPS games and such, and shmups got pushed out of the limelight.
Shmups continued to evolve as a niche genre, but largely towards the bullet-hell direction I don’t much care for. To me bullet-hell games seem to be largely about memorizing levels and figuring out bullet pattern navigation in a very puzzle gameplay kind of way, and I think there are even rhythm game aspects to some of them. And crucially the actual shooting seems to be a very trivial activity, where you just push the trigger down at the start of the level, fill the screen with bullets and let go once the level is done. The enemies just die while you focus on dodging. This is all fine, it just does very little for me.
I enjoyed the classic shmups as a kid and figured there must be people out there who feel the same. So I wanted to make a shmup that is very much a general action/shooting game, and especially have it focus on the act of shooting while making the combat as exciting as possible. I also wanted to throw a lot of new or rarely seen ideas in there, to see if I could innovate within the broad genre limits.
Andrew Stevens: When I first took flight in Xenoraid I immediately fell in love with the controls and feel of the ships. I like seeing the air pressure shoot out from the sides that represents the ships movement in space. It’s a great look and helps the player get a better sense of the movement.
Jaakko Maaniemi: Yeah, I’m really happy with the relatively low tech, near future theme of Xenoraid. The game is set in 2032, and it’s the first space war humanity engages in. A bunch of aliens just show up and attack, so obviously we defend. The tech vision is a very stretched analogy of what went on in aviation and aerial warfare during World War I. Powered flight had just been invented, and then this huge war broke out. First there were just planes, and soon you had pilots firing pistols at each other. It escalated really quickly, so first they mounted machine guns to the planes they had, and pretty soon after they started designing the first actual warplanes.
In Xenoraid the sort of same things happens with spaceships; we just have a couple of models of spaceships, and we need to turn them into starfighters. Machine guns, autocannons, rocketpods and missiles are bolted into them, and bam, the first generation of starfighters is born! This is one of the many things I wanted to do differently to the stereotypical shmup where the player controls the last ultra-experimental super starfighter and the fate of the entire galaxy is at stake. No, I wanted something a little more relatable and plausible (as implausible the concept of a starfighter is; we’re not talking about realism here).
Gameplay-wise the “feel” of the fighters is something I was pretty nervous about, as it’s a total anathema to shmup/bullet-hell purists. In those games there are no physics to the controls whatsoever, it’s always super sharp 1:1 reproduction of controller input. Again, I get it, I just don’t like it. The thruster effects are also a nod to one of the shmups I loved back in the day, Xenon 2 Megablast.
Andrew Stevens: Players get to experience five stages with multiple missions within each one. The first stage is pretty much an introductory to the game and allows the players to get familiar with it as it’s pretty easy to complete. During this stage I also had a few moments toward the end where I needed to push myself through as it began to feel like more of the same going from one mission to the next without much change in challenge or enemies. Change does come, however, it just didn’t appear much in the first 6 levels of stage 1.
Question: For a developer, how hard is it to get the right balance of ease and difficulty when first starting out a game and how much does this typically concern you? Obviously you don’t want the player to be too stressed out at first which is normal, but then you don’t want them feeling like it’s a chore to get through the early stages until they get to someplace more interesting and difficult.
I ask this because I did feel that portions of stage 1 and 2 drag a little bit in the game. However, it really picks up once players get to stage 3 with more unique enemies throughout, along with a spike in difficulty.
Jaakko Maaniemi: I totally get what you mean. The thing is, with the fighter switching, gun overheat and fighter tilting while maneuvering, we felt like there are a lot of core mechanics the player needs to learn. It’s very difficult for us to gauge just how tough the game is overall. So the first battle, the first six missions, it’s indeed an extended tutorial. We’ve had game testers who breeze through it, and we’ve had testers who aren’t able to finish it on their first or even on second try. It’s an ongoing balancing act.
Content-wise, the first chapter features two types of player fighters, four types of enemies and all of the metagame features. More would probably always be better, but it’s one of those things where we just need to acknowledge that with the resources we have we need to be somewhat frugal with how we spread content. I feel we have a good amount of new content and new challenges coming up throughout the game to keep the player entertained. Like in the second chapter, there are new fighters and new enemies, and especially the shielded mini-bosses that seem to cause a lot of headache to some testers.
The first boss is also found in chapter two. And you’re very correct, the values that determine the level of difficulty basically reach a plateau at the third chapter as it doesn’t rise much from then onwards. In practical terms the level of challenge probably does increase some, as more new and dangerous enemies are introduced.
Andrew Stevens: When I completed the first stage I felt happy and was ready to move on to the next stage. It didn’t even occur to me that there isn’t a boss at the end of the first stage. I only realized it upon reaching the boss at the end of the second stage. I must say, after pushing through each mission and seeing the boss I became ecstatic and was ready to take this massive ship down.
Not having a boss at the end of stage 1 and then seeing the massive ship at the end of stage 2 made the encounter much more exciting that way.
Jaakko Maaniemi: Yeah, this is again about our very real fear of scaring away less skilled players, and about bosses being quite a chunk of work to create. Five, six or twelve bosses would be awesome, but the game wouldn’t be coming out this year if we did that. 🙂
Storyline-wise, I think it works well with the theme, as I think it’s a fairly obvious idea that if big alien ships are coming in, wouldn’t you just nuke them? And in the first chapter you get to see that it doesn’t work. I imagine fighting the first space war includes some fumbling in the dark and downright failures. Secondly, and I think this is precisely what you experienced, is that it makes for a good dramatic trick to spend some time setting up the first boss fight.
Andrew Stevens: During each mission players earn cash that can be spent on repairing ships and purchasing extra capabilities and firepower. I like this mechanic. In bullet-hell games players must dodge every bullet or pay the price with the multiplier. In this situation players can take damage and still continue on. However, if they want more abilities a lot sooner than they must continue to not take hits so that they don’t have to spend money in repairs. Plus, if the player loses a ship in battle, it costs a lot more to purchase a new one.
Jaakko Maaniemi: We went through quite a few versions of this, and the overall metagame. Initially, at the very start of the project we set out to create an extremely light version of the kind of strategic metagame the XCOM games have, which is something I quite like. It would have been great for delivering on the certain plausibility vibe we wanted to have in the game. We had to abandon that form of metagame though, as it had a couple of issues we couldn’t come up with good enough solutions for.
We streamlined the metagame to what it is now, and it’s fine. The squadron management features are good, although it was surprisingly difficult to find a good balance between making the system work for good and not so good players, and offering some choice per player preference. But with the structure we now have, with the plentiful checkpoints and item prices, it seems to work well for most. There might even be a bit of magic going on behind the scenes that may give a less skilled player a couple of breaks a very skilled player never gets (or needs).
Andrew Stevens: Moving on to stage three is when players first encounter new ships with laser weaponry which provides a fresh experience midway through the game. There are also new enemy ships that appear and they are more complicated to deal with which makes the game that much more exciting as players press forward.
Discovering new enemies in the middle of the game is often exciting and sometimes even frustrating due to the difficulty of getting used to them. This is what makes shooters like this great though and why having good progression to new experiences is key to the success of a shooter.
Jaakko Maaniemi: Yep, the idea in the game is that the boss enemies are the capital ships of the alien fleet, and various nations are running defensive bases with their own unique forces in couple of places, like the Moon and Mars. Similarly, each alien capital vessel comes equipped with a handful of new enemies, so both the player fighters and the enemies evolve a lot throughout the game.
The basic gameplay is fun, but it does need a good shakeup regularly to keep things interesting. I’m quite the game mechanics nerd so I just enjoy the sheer difference of how a beam laser works compared to a burst grenade launcher, for example.
As said, the third chapter cranks the difficulty up to where it basically stays for the rest of the game, so that’s probably the first chapter the player is required to make at least some good tech lab purchases and fighter upgrades to either support his or her playstyle the best or to help deal with whatever seems to cause the most problems. Like if it’s difficult to be effective with the laser, there’s an app… err, upgrade for that. Or if the stealth enemies are getting you, a certain tech lab item will do wonders.
Without going into spoilers, there are a lot of paired mechanics in the game inspired by the well-known weapon – counter weapon cycle seen in real life military technology.
Andrew Stevens: The biggest challenge in the game comes from some of the larger enemy ships as they have a stronger weapon that causes the player more damage. They also have extra shielding that forces the player to discover the weak point to take it out as fast as possible. I didn’t realize this right away and simply continued to unload all weapons, both primary and secondary, on taking out these tougher enemy ships without narrowing in on the weak spot. It didn’t work very fast that way!
Once I realized these ships had weak points it made the game a little bit easier, but also more strategic at the same time.
Jaakko Maaniemi: Indeed. As I said, I’m a mechanics nerd and I just love coming up with all sorts of major and minor mechanics. As Xenoraid is my first proper game from concept to release, I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of years from now I’ll feel like I went just a hint overboard with a thing or two here. 🙂 That said, I think the weak spot mechanic is one of those fun, novel and modern ideas that work well within the game.
As you discovered yourself, you can do ok and maybe even finish the game by just unloading with the heaviest weapons you have on the bigger enemies. They’ll go down. But it’s quicker and much more economic to focus fire on the weak spots, and this really comes into play in the Survival leaderboards. I’m pretty sure the top scores will be by gamers who are excellent at conserving heavy weapons by blasting through the weak spots. This is one of the things I did to really make shooting matter in Xenoraid.
Andrew Stevens: Xenoraid also features a Hard Mode for those who want an even greater challenge. There is also Survivor mode for those who want to test their skills to see how long they can last and then have their times placed on the leaderboard.
I enjoy Survival mode, but that’s because I’m a sucker for leaderboards. During survival mode I would always die once I started to encounter multiple large enemy vessels that are shielded. I would take down a few, but would quickly run out of firepower to take down the rest. Thankfully when destroying ships in Survival mode they do end up dropping more ammo for the secondary weapon, which is the player’s strongest weapon. I still have to establish a better strategy when engaging those enemy ships so that I can challenge for the top spot on the leaderboard.
Currently there isn’t a real obvious way to see how the scoring system works outside of shooting down the most enemies. This is an area that’s still being worked on.
Question: What’s the best strategy for players to earn a top score in Survival mode and how does the scoring system work? Will this mode feature an in-game scoreboard eventually? Shooter fans love their leaderboards and learning how to perfect the scoring system, so please tell us everything you can about your plans for this mode.
Jaakko Maaniemi: The three different Survival levels are indeed the end game of Xenoraid, in my mind. They’re for the biggest fans of the game to see what’s what. There’s two parts to them. First you spend a limited amount of credits on the fighters, upgrades and techs you have. Then you try squeeze out the highest score possible. Afterwards you go back to figuring out what changes to your setup might yield better results. I have no idea if there is some ultimate setup that is just absolutely the best for most. I hope not!
The scoring is currently really simple, it’s just a set amount of points per destroyed enemy and a low multiplier that grows slowly over time all by itself. So it’s a matter of killing as many enemies as you can and also about going on for as long as possible. We aim to expose the scoring system fully to the player so there’s no ambiguity about it. We also hope the survival attempts don’t generally drag on for longer than about 15 minutes, as we prefer to keep sessions manageable.
Andrew Stevens: Xenoraid is due to release in the next couple of months on Steam, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. It’s shaping up to offer some enjoyable moments for shooter fans.
The final word from Jaakko: It’d be great to hear feedback! As far as I know, there aren’t very similar games out there or coming up, so it’d be great to hear if Xenoraid seems interesting. And especially why, or why not. Huge swaths of the game are just something that I have pulled out of my hat based on very personal preferences, so it’d be cool to gain insights into how each bit is perceived.
Also, if you’re a Steam gamer, add the game http://store.steampowered.com//app/460220 to your wishlist so you’ll get notified when the game launches, hopefully sometime in September or October. The way Steam works these days, purchases on launch day and positive user reviews are extremely important to indie releases. Console customers are of course equally appreciated, it’s just that currently Steam puts a lot of very real power in gamers’ hands and I’m not sure everyone’s aware of it!
Thank you, Jaakko, for taking the time to speak with us about Xenoraid. We look forward to playing the final release of the game this fall.