The big indie enthusiast and ex-Nintendo employee gives us an overview of this Metroidvania.
In the third interview at Gamescom 2016, we sat down with Dan Adelman. He has working with Thomas Happ Games to bring Axiom Verge to market. We discuss the game in general and the journey to get it on the Wii U.
Daan Koopman (DK): I am here with Dan Adelman, who is representing Thomas Happ Games - their game Axiom Verge is coming out September 1 on Wii U. How are you doing?
Dan Adelman (DA): Very good, how are you?
DK: Very good. So what was your involvement with the project, and how did you get in touch with Thomas?
DA: So as many of your listeners may know, I actually used to work at Nintendo. I left my job at Nintendo, where I ran the indie business at Nintendo of America, and made an announcement that I was interested in working on the business side of some indie games. So a month after I left Nintendo, Tom Happ contacted me, and he said he wasn't sure if he needed help, he didn't know really much about the business side, but he wanted to discuss with me working together. So he sent me a build of the game - at the time, it was about 80% complete - and it was a very good game, I enjoyed it very much, and so we arranged to meet at PAX. I met with Tom and his wife Chloe, and we had a really good conversation and it just went from there. So we've been working together almost two years now, so I think I started working on Axiom Verge about six months before it launched, but he had been working on the game for about four years before that on his own.
DK: For people who are unfamiliar, can you give them an overview of what the game is like?
DA: Sure. It's a 2D, retro-styled action platformer exploration adventure game. The easiest way to think of it is that it has a lot of Metroid influence, but also a lot of influence from classic games from the NES and Super NES days. So games like Blaster Master, Rygar, Shatterhand, Ninja Gaiden, many other influences that permeate throughout the game.
DK: What are some mechanics that players will toy with as they journey across the world?
DA: I probably should have mentioned when I was describing the game who you are, so let me start there, then I'll answer the question in that context. In the game you play as Trace, who is a scientist who gets caught up in a lab explosion and wakes up in an alien world. As you progress through the game and explore more and more areas of the game, you uncover the mystery of why you're there, what you have to do there, and also you find more and more power-ups and abilities. For example, at the very beginning, you're at your weakest, you can't jump very high or do a lot of the things you want to do, your weapon is very... relatively weak, you don't have much health. But as you progress, you gain some abilities, and I don't want to spoil too much, but things that will give you access to new areas you couldn't reach before.
DK: You kind of already answered the question, but... the game is very gameplay focused with the story sort of coming second base. So what's kind of the backstory of the world?
DA: So as I mentioned, the backstory is that you're a scientist caught up in a lab explosion. And then it turns out - without giving away too many spoilers - that when you awaken in this alien world, essentially what has happened is that they have cloned your mind and so as you progress through the game, if you ever get killed, they can just reincarnate you and bring you back because they have a copy, the latest copy of your "mind" and they put that back into your body and you're able to function again. The game has a lot of themes about what is reality, is this a dream world, is this reality, if you die but a clone of you is brought back with all of your memories are you the same person? There's a lot of those themes that question reality. Even though I agree that gameplay comes absolutely first in this game, there is a deep and rich story element to the game as well.
DK: I like how you described that. "We'll put the mind back in the body!"
DK: It has been quite a journey to bring the game to the Wii U - what were some of the roadblocks and how did you overcome them?
DA: So the biggest challenge was that when Tom started working on this game, and at this point it was six, nearly seven years ago, he started working in something called XNA which is actually a Xbox technology. It was a development framework, and Microsoft abandoned that. In its place, someone created something called Monogame, which is essentially an open-source version of XNA. Originally it was very easy to release it on say, the PC, and it's also available on the PS4 because PS4 got support for the Monogame framework on their console. But for the Wii U, since Monogame wasn't natively supported, we basically had to take the game and port the entire game engine to C++. We worked with a company called BlitWorks who specializes in those porting services and they were able to get the game up and running on the Wii U very effectively.
DK: What makes the Wii U version special, and why should it be picked up on that platform specifically?
DA: In my opinion, it's the best version, and there's a couple of things that stand out about it. First of all, it's the only console version that has a leaderboard functionality for speedrunners. There's a dedicated speedrun mode in all of the versions of the game, but if you get a good time you basically have to record it yourself somewhere. On Wii U, you can compare yourself to the global leaderboard which is very nice for Nintendo fans. The other primary benefit of the Wii U version is that you can always see the map on the GamePad. The whole theme of the game is exploration, so this game compared to a lot of other modern Metroidvania games does not lead you by the hand and tell you where to go next. There's no arrows that point like "Next, go here!", you constantly have to be checking the map to see what have I explored, what have I not explored yet, and so having that always on the GamePad makes it very easy to keep playing without disrupting the action. And of course, the last one is that you have the ability to play off the TV, so if somebody else is using the TV and you still want to play, you can play in off TV mode.
DK: Which is always a nice plus, in my opinion. This is more of an elevator pitch question - you know the Nintendo fanbase a little bit, why should they specifically be the most excited for this game?
DA: I'm very familiar with the Nintendo fanbase, as I'm a former Nintendo employee myself... one thing I have consistently heard is that people have been waiting a long time for a very good, 2D Metroid-style game. And of course, Metroid is an amazing IP, an amazing franchise, and Axiom Verge is a totally different universe. Some of the gameplay elements in Axiom Verge I think will satisfy that itch that people have had for almost 20 years now for a true, console-based, 2D Metroidvania.
DK: Thomas was asked this at E3 by my colleagues about the potential for a Nintendo 3DS release. Do you think it's possible at all?
DA: We would love to, but we're looking into the technicabl feasibility. Even though the graphics/artstyle is very retro-looking, there's actually a lot that's technically going on under the hood. It's always funny when people look at it and say "Oh, you could run that on the NES", and I laugh because there's no way you could run that on a NES. It really pushes the Wii U hardware. We're investigating what it would take to bring it to the 3DS. We probably wouldn't be able to, if we were able to do it at all, there would have to be some compromises made. We don't know what those compromises would be, and if it's not going to be a great experience we don't want to do it. We're looking into it now, if I had a magic wand and could make it play perfectly on the 3DS, absolutely we'd love to do it.
DK: I would love to have that magic wand for you as well, but I don't... What about plans for the future? Are there any exciting games you're working on right now?
DA: I'm personally working on three games at the moment: Axiom Verge of course is one, another one is a game called Chasm. As much as Axiom Verge is on the Metroid side of the Metroidvania equation, Chasm is more on the -vania side. It's actually a procedurally generated Metroidvania game, where all the rooms are hand-designed but the order in which you encounter them is randomized. So every time when you play a new game, you will have a world map that is unique to you, so you can keep playing the game over and over and still have that sense of exploration. That is Chasm, it's made by BitKid Games, and they've been working on it for three or four years now. The other game I'm working on is called Mages of Mystralia. In Mages of Mystralia, you play as a young girl named Zia, who discovers one day that she has magical abilities kind of like at the beginning of Harry Potter. In this universe, magic is known to exist but it's rare, and it's illegal, it's been outlawed. So she has to go into exile and kind of teach herself the ways of magic, and on the way she discovers these runes, which she can combine in different ways to design her own magic spells. Eventually, you'll be able to make potentially millions of different spells from combining the runes in different ways, so it's going to be interesting to see what different things people come up with.
DK: I think that's all we have time for, is there anything you wanted to plug or discuss before we wrap it up?
DA: The main thing is to keep an eye out for Axiom Verge coming to Wii U - it'll hit the eShop on the 1st of September, and we're really excited about it.
DK: Awesome. Thank you so much!
DA: Thank you!