by Jonathan Port
Before we dive in, I would first like to mention what a relief it is to tap these words on a keyboard, with the knowledge that the game is finally finished. At the end of an extended project there is always relief that you did it. It doesn’t matter if you started out with absolute confidence or with worrying doubts – finishing anything that you have worked so hard on is always incredibly satisfying. But this game wasn’t just another project.
Think back to when you were maybe ten or eleven years old, can you remember your favourite thing? Maybe it was a memorable film, or a catchy song. Perhaps it was a toy you took with you everywhere. And maybe, as it was in my case, a computer game had the biggest impact. As an imaginative young person, you also probably dreamed that one day your name would be credited with creating that seminal film, a great song, or an amazing computer game. Maybe that happened, maybe it didn’t. For me, as time slipped by and over 30 years passed, I never really stopped imagining that the dream I had as a young lad might one day come true.
And then it did. Please enjoy the story of how it happened.
The first spark of an idea to make Hyper Sentinel came to me while I was on a holiday in sunny Spain back in the summer of 2015. A lot has happened since then, and it would be tempting to use this opportunity to write events down in a standard diary format. The reality of making a game though, is that much of your time is taken up by the routine and often mundane work of simply getting your head down and cracking on through. That’s not to say that nothing interesting has happened over this time, quite the opposite in fact!
This isn’t going to be your standard development diary, nor will it be an overly technical breakdown of how the game was made (the process, the tools, etc.). When I was building Hyper Sentinel, I always tried to stop regularly and ask that all-important question: where is the fun? While it may be interesting to focus on just the technical process of making a game, I don’t think that would be particularly fun. I didn’t set out to make a game that was just interesting to play – nostalgically or not – I set out to make something that is fun to play. So, instead of being a complete diary or a process, I am going to look back and pull out the events, details and anecdotes I think you will find the most interesting and the most fun.
Well, in the interests of keeping it fun, I suppose I ought to jump in with the odd comment here and there, just like in the magazines of old!
PRESS PLAY ON TAPE
I’m fairly certain that the first game I owned was a Grandstand game called Astro Wars (I had a chance to play one again recently which was quite a treat!). For those who know, the game played a little like a mix of Space Invaders and Galaxian. In Astro Wars, you controlled a ship at the bottom of the screen and had to clear the waves of enemies that circled above you. Successfully clearing all of the enemies triggered a tricky docking sequence. The game was housed in a boxy silver case with a screen that sat up so that you could place it on a tabletop. There were a few other similar electronic games by Grandstand at the time, such as Munchman, housed in a splendid yellow case. Perhaps I chose Astro Wars over the others for a Christmas present, or perhaps it was bought as a surprise. Regardless of how it happened, space shooters have been one of my favourite type of games ever since.
Growing up playing home computer games in the early 1980s really was a privilege; I don’t think there has been a period of creativity and variety that has matched it since. I’m sure there are many reasons why this may have been the case, but chief among them was that anyone had the chance to make something, assuming you could afford the computer of course. There were no barriers to entry and age didn’t matter. Variety was not hard to find, if you wanted to be a pilot, an adventurer, or a robot for the afternoon. Even a coal-collecting mole (with a political agenda that passed me by at the time) got a look in! Let’s just say that if you grew up during that period, any game you create today likely bears the influence of those early classics.
As I sat down in the Spanish sunshine with a long gin and tonic in hand, I cast my thoughts back to more of the games I used to love playing during those days. There was a game called Tornado Low Level (T.L.L. – Costa Panayi) that had you piloting a Tornado jet fighter over a super-fast scrolling map with scenery obstacles that you needed to avoid. You had to fly really low to the ground to disable all the ground mines; it was a tricky game. There was something that game had that made it a bit special though – you could sweep back the wings of the plane and fly at supersonic speed! The game could be played perfectly well without it – it didn’t actually need that feature – but that feature was where the fun was! There was another game I remember playing on the ZX Spectrum, called Orbiter. I didn’t know it at the time, but Orbiter was actually a home computer clone of the legendary Williams classic, Defender is still an absolute masterpiece and hasn’t aged a day – a wonderful mix of speed and precision blended with lovely chippy sound effects. The magic and the fun of that game was its lovely one-shot kills accompanied by screen-filled particle explosions. Take some time and watch a video of Orbiter alongside Arcade Defender. You’ll notice there was quite a gulf between home computer games and video arcade games of the time.
The first time I saw Uridium (Andrew Braybrook) playing on a friend’s Commodore 64, was quite a moment. Here was a game that was super slick and smooth, running on a humble home computer. You could spend hours playing, just zooming around and doing the flip-roll manoeuvre without really caring about much else. It was just fun to be the pilot of a super agile spaceship, dodging and weaving and hoping to survive. If you were good enough – or lucky enough – you even got to see the set piece end-level destruct sequence!
Thinking back through these games, I could see they each had an element of something in them that was just fun to play, something you didn’t have to work hard for or earn the right to. All you had to do was pick up the joystick and play. The more I thought about it, the more other examples popped into my head. I’m sure most people reading this will have played the classic game, Space Invaders. It’s a good game, although a bit of a grind until you get through half the invaders, that’s where things really start to heat up and, of course, that special moment when the saucer comes in to view with its own signifying sound effect. You need to hit the saucers to get a good score in Space Invaders. The fun of Space Invaders is timing; that shot made just right to hit the saucer (without losing focus and a life to an enemy bullet).
As I sat there on the beach sketching out some ideas on a pad of paper and sipping my chilled glass of gin, I thought about what kind of game I would like to play, and how it would be fun. I knew at this time, I wanted to make a game that played like the games I grew up with. I wanted to incorporate some of those elements that had stood out to me from these games.
I knew the Alienoid passing across the screen (and the associated sound effect) reminded me of something! I’m not sure if we discussed this influence before and I have forgotten, but it makes perfect sense.
It had to be instantly accessible, easy to control, with a fast and smooth scroll. There would have to be plenty of action and things to shoot; shooting the baddies’ ships had to give instant reward.
Looking back in your memories at the games you used to play can be a little deceiving and nostalgia itself can deceive us. Our brains are deeply wired to remember the good things while smoothing out any of the bad, until most of that memory appears good. We don’t always remember the limits of the hardware at the time, some flickery movement here a bit of jerky animation there, a steep difficulty spike (designed to stop you from completing a game too soon). So instead of trying to emulate these games I decided it would be more fun if I tried to create a game that played the way you imagine games used to play in the 8-bit period of the 1980s. A game that stood on the shoulders of giants while using current technology to give a thoroughly modern nostalgia trip. This was my vision of Hyper Sentinel.
This philosophy is very astute, and it immediately told us that Jonathan was somebody who knew exactly what he was doing. It also provided the foundation for what we now call our ‘Neo Retro approach’, which continues to underpin all the thinking around the project.
After returning from the sun I got to work on prototyping and experimenting with some of these ideas. I already owned all of the tools I needed: an iOS developer account, a Mac and an iPad. Output on iPads are automatically VSynced, which basically means they are locked to 60hz for a nice smooth display. If your code falters you will get lost frames as the display waits for the next update. So right from the start of development, 60hz had always been the only option for this type of game. The first thing I did was to get a basic ship on screen that could fly over a scrolling background. It quickly became apparent that flat coloured backgrounds worked better than those with too much detail. Even at 60hz, small pixel details get turned into a blur when using the high-speed scroll that I wanted for Hyper Sentinel. Rather than look nice, that pixel detail starts to streak the display. Next up was, creating dynamic enemies, I wanted to have the enemy ships fly by in formation groups that would change both shape and pattern as they moved. It seemed to work well having them fly back and forth a few times, giving the player a chance to hunt them down. I put together a basic tile set for a first level and after a few weeks had the basis for a game up and running. I started to think about gameplay objectives and after a bit of experimenting it seemed that having to clear targets on top of the enemy decks that you were flying over would work well. Even at this early stage, the game was starting to have the feel of those elements that I had previously thought about trying to incorporate. I started a second level layout, but this time introduced a new enemy to the mix: one I would later name, a Hunter! I thought it would be nice to have each level progression introduce a new element into the game, something that would surprise the player. Things were hanging together well. I introduced a large gun turret as the end-of-level boss for the first level and decided to video it up and throw it out there to get some early opinions.
In my excitement, I might have mentioned that Hyper Sentinel would be, ‘coming soon’ even though I only had a couple of basic levels and a few enemy types coded in. To my surprise, it somehow managed to catch a bit of traction. It got picked up in an article by Touch Arcade (a website devoted to mobile games) and in a screenshot section of a popular indie gaming website. It looked like I was on to something! At this time the aim was a six-month development cycle, which meant the game was intended to launch sometime around January 2016. I had about four months of development time to make a game for the Apple App Store. It was around that time when I realised I needed to get some game music in place. As it happened, at that same moment, Rob Fenn (Fractures Music) had come across the Touch Arcade article and was interested in working with the game. This was my first piece of good fortune; Rob Fenn already had an established track record for producing incredible music for games. After an email or two Rob agreed to work on some music for the game even though I was still very early in development, but as it turned out, we were both based in the same neck of the woods in Manchester, England. This was the start of the Manchester team, or as we later tag lined it, ‘Made in Manchester’.
Within a few weeks, Rob and Fractures music had produced some amazing chip tune theme and level music. During that period, I decided it would be worthwhile to put together an early-access open beta so, I continued to put the hours in to get a playable game together. I am a full-time professional business programmer by day, so all the work had to be done during the evenings. Making a game is a lot of work and it really does pay to plan ahead. I used my relatively long daily commutes to work out designs, solve problems and set milestones for myself. By November of 2015, I had a working beta up and running complete with a title screen and level select options. I had already picked up a small amount of momentum for the game on Touch Arcade, so it made sense to distribute some beta codes through the forums on the site and get some real feedback. Anyone who has tried to make a fast-paced arcade game on a touch screen mobile platform will sympathise with me at this point. I had put a control scheme in place that I thought worked well: up button, down button, fire button and a button to flip the ship around. The ship moved at a constant speed, but to give the player a little more control on the touch screen, it would slow down a little as you fired your lasers. Initial feedback was completely split on the controls; some wanted absolute control position, others wanted a virtual stick, some players wanted sliders to move and others thought the controls were already great. What to do?
I was lucky enough to bump into some great people on Touch Arcade who really put the hours in to test the game and give proper detailed feedback. I continued to work on the game, tweaking and changing things around here and there. The gameplay itself was coming together just fine, but the controls continually caused issues; it’s hard to make touch controls that suit everyone. I had yet to implement physical controller support, although this was never going to be a solution in itself because very few mobile gamers own them. It was around this time that I received my second bit of good fortune: a colleague at my daytime job, Tim Keenan, posted some screenshots and a video link of the game on a forum for indie game developers. The exact order of events that followed are still a little unclear, but somewhere along the way a person named Rob viewed the images and video of Hyper Sentinel and posted a comment saying he liked the look of the game and that if I sent some more media links he would share them on his Twitter feed. The Twitter account it turns out was, Hewson Joystick and Rob was in fact, Rob Hewson, the son of Andrew Hewson of Hewson Consultants fame! I was shocked, to say the least: a little unknown mobile game being made by my humble self was going to get a chance to be shown to a horde of retro gaming enthusiasts.
Uridium is one of the first games I remember playing. In fact, I remember learning how to spell my surname from the title screen. When I saw the first video of Hyper Sentinel, I obviously recognised the Uridium influence and thought it would be something fun to share with our community on social media. Then I noticed all of the original elements – the power ups, the boss battles, the enemy gun turrets, the Space Invaders style Alienoids – it was clearly a game developing its own identify so I knew I had to play it.
But not just that, Hewson Consultants were one of my childhood legends, and publisher of my favourite game of all-time “Dragontorc of Avalon” by the Steve Turner. Before the dust had settled, I learned that Rob Hewson lived in Manchester too. Not only that, he was popping in to a local indie game developer meetup in Manchester in a few days’ time. It so happens that my colleague Tim regularly attended these meetups too and offered to bring me down with Hyper Sentinel to show Rob for real: this was to be my third piece of good fortune. By the time the arrangements had been finalised I had just one day to cut a build of the game to take down and show.
But I had a problem. The touch controls were bust. I had been trying various schemes in the hope of achieving a balance that would suit all my beta testers, and everything was becoming a bit of a mess. I would later learn that it is best to offer a few different options instead of trying to balance a single control scheme for everyone, but at that moment in time I only had one broken control scheme. I spent the whole of that evening and well into the wee hours of night, putting in an options page with various sliders and buttons in an attempt to give the player some control adjustment. I then quickly cut a build for the next day. I didn’t know what to expect, this was all a bit out of my comfort zone. I had no real idea what was going on to be honest, but maybe that was a good thing. The gameplay was in a pretty good state, but the controls sucked and I knew it. I met Rob in a pub in Manchester (along with a host of other indie game developers) and showed him the game. I remember his opening comment was that he really liked the font used as the game started up. Rob played the game and I could see the controls weren’t great; but Rob didn’t let on. He was pretty good at picking them up and was quickly playing through several levels; I figured that this was a good sign. Rob seemed very enthusiastic and we chatted in detail about various elements within the game. That night, we ended up agreeing to keep in touch and speak again after Christmas (this was early December). What an exciting opportunity!
This was in the Port Street Beer House in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. It was clear that the game had potential, even in that early build. I do remember that the controls needed some work, but it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be solved with some careful thought and discussion.
True to a promise, Rob contacted me after Christmas wanting to chat some more about the game. He asked if it would it be okay if he popped over to my house in a couple of weeks along with John Ogden (Technical Director at Huey Games) and, oh by the way, his dad Andrew Hewson? Andrew Hewson, to my house for a chat about potentially working together on Hyper Sentinel? I think my reply was, ‘Err, yeah okay that would be fine’, in a typically British and understated manner. This was undoubtedly my fourth piece of good fortune.
If you were a young kid who played games on your C64 or Speccy during the 1980s, you are surely familiar with Hewson Consultants. Over a period of many years Hewson Consultants produced a consistent string of top-quality hit games. They published some of my all-time favourite games and I’m sure many of you reading this will have similarly fond memories of their games and the names of our heroes behind them. Imagine for a moment how I was feeling, having Rob and his dad Andrew turn up to my house to talk about my game! The only way I can descried it is: this was an incredibly surreal moment.
It was a great day, I can remember it very clearly and always will. We played the game, John checked over my code, we chatted about old games and Andrew talked about how the industry used to work and some of the great programmers he worked with. I nearly forgot to offer anyone a drink, which normally would be seen as a little rude, but I think given my excitement level, I can be forgiven this once. Everyone was happy to see where we could take the game and the plan was to get a build of the game for Rob, so he could have a proper play through. Rob would then put together some professional design feedback and assistance. The partnership with Huey Games had begun.
Jon, Rob, John, Rob and Andrew – this was going to be fun!
It was a memorable day for me too. I was still serving my notice as a Game Director at TT Games (TT Fusion) and John Ogden was in a similar position, so this was right at the beginning of our Huey Games journey.
One moment that sticks in my mind is when Jonathan pointed out that the ship slows down almost imperceptibly when shooting in that early build. It was that sort of nuance which, with my designer’s hat on, showed me that not only could Jonathan program, create brilliant pixel art and produce fantastic sounds effects, it showed me he also had great design instincts. My Dad was particularly animated in his appreciation of this touch, as he understands better than most that it is this sort of elegant thinking which is the hallmark of only the most talented developers.