by Jonathan Port
Continued from Part 1 in previous blog entry…
Found: Hyper Sentinel
Development continued for iOS much the same as normal for a few weeks. I was just cracking on with filling out levels and building bosses. It felt like I was getting reasonably close with everything, although at this point there was no delivery plan as I was awaiting design feedback from Rob at Huey Games. At the end of January 2016, a ping from my email came through announcing the design feedback was waiting for me. I was expecting it to highlight a few tweaks here and maybe an addition or two there; the game was nearly done after all! I opened the document and my initial reaction was that it was much longer than I was expecting. I started to read with an expectation that much of the suggested changes would probably be unnecessary and that there would be far less work to do than the size of the document implied. Looking back, I had convinced myself that I had nearly completed the game, simply because most of the levels had been coded. But the more feedback I read, the more I found myself thinking, oh yeah, that makes sense! Or, Yeah, that would be better. As I arrived at the end of the document, I realised that I hadn’t disagreed with any of the feedback at all. This was my first lesson in what it takes to polish a commercial game. There was a lot of work needed to improve this game. I later discovered that this was only to be the first layer of polish, there would be many more to come in the months that followed.
You can make a game functionally complete, but that is only the start of making a modern game. I think it was John Ogden who later mentioned something along the lines of: 20% of development time is making a game functionally “done” while the other 80% is what completes the game through layers of polish and player feedback. Looking back, I wouldn’t disagree with that split. It was probably at this time that we also started to inject more Neo Retro ideas into the game, but it wouldn’t be until we redeveloped the code base in Unity, that these ideas really took on a new level of sophistication.
Part of my job at TT Fusion was to give extensive design feedback on all areas of the game. You quickly learn the importance of being detailed, precise and diplomatic. It is not about providing all the answers, it is about putting your finger on the pulse of the project, so the team can collectively discuss the best solutions. This needs to be done repeatedly throughout development to ensure a game fulfils its potential.
From our point of view this document was also an important way to ensure that we were on the same page as Jonathan. Hyper Sentinel was his baby and creative control should always remain with the visionary behind a project. Since we were proposing a co-development partnership, it was important that we all put our cards on the table to ensure our views aligned. If we were going work together to make this a commercial, console-quality game, then we all needed to buy in to the same roadmap.
Over the next four months the game improved tremendously. I would work in two-week sprints, sending a build off to Huey Games at the end of each one, which naturally resulted in more ideas and further improvements. It was a very productive time for the game where we developed a lot of ideas; many of which have made it into the final release. A good example of this was the hyper-boost function, which up until this time, didn’t exist in the game. I always had a nagging feeling that the game speed needed to be more dynamic, and then in a bolt of inspiration one evening it occurred to me; if I let the player hold down the fire button, I can implement a speed boost. It was such a simple thing but made such a huge difference to the game and design-wise it’s a natural balance to firing. Tap to fire, hold to boost: but you can’t do both together. It turned the game from simply shooting and dodging, to allowing much more strategic gameplay and is one of, if not the most, important design feature we implemented in the entire project. It might seem such an obvious thing to do, but you have to put it in the context of touch screen controls. At this point we were running on iPad and iPhone where we already had four buttons on screen (realistically the maximum you can have for touch controls on a fast arcade game). The best ideas are always the simple ones, the ones that in hindsight appear obvious.
It was about this time that I also ported the code over to work with Apple tvOS. I seem to remember that it was relatively straightforward and maybe took a week or two whilst also implementing gamepad controls to go with it. This code set became very important to us over the rest of the year, it was the version we took to many expos and used as a live testing ground for real players.
By mid-May of 2016, the game was really coming along and it was time to start thinking about how we would take this to market.
By this point is was crystal clear that Jonathan was a special developer and that the relationship we’d formed was working brilliantly. We all understood and respected each other, and the game was coming on in leaps and bounds.
R Tape Loading Error
By May 2016, I had spent nearly a year single-handedly coding the game as well as making all the graphics and animations. It had been a lot of hard work, but fun and rewarding. A few people had played the early version of the game (prior to Huey Games’ involvement), but since that time the game had essentially been on internal lockdown. I think Huey Games may have taken it to show a few people behind closed doors at a few industry events (I recall that Julian Rignall had a play of it at one of them). We now needed to plan where we were going to take the game.
That’s right, we took an iPad to GDC 2016, and Julian Rignall, the legendary games publisher, played Hyper Sentinel! It was the first time my father Andrew, and Julian had seen each other in about 30 years, and the first time for me to meet the former editor of ZZAP!64!
We also showed the game to a connection at Apple, who was pleased we planned to release on Apple TV. I believe he was the first to offer the feedback that; bumping into obstacles disrupted the flow of the game for him.
I discussed this with Jonathan on my return to the UK, but although he understood the feedback, he was worried about maintaining the challenge. A few days later Jonathan told me the answer had come to him while out on a run: although the player would be able to fly over obstacles as our friend at Apple had suggested, bullets would still be blocked by them. When this was implemented it instantly felt right, but we did agree to have a “Retro” difficulty mode in the final game, which would maintain the obstacle collisions with the player ship.
The idea all along was to release on multiple platforms including console. The game was in pretty good shape, it played well and most importantly, it was fun. Everything seemed to be set, apart from one slight issue that had been nagging at me for quite a while. The game was only running on a mobile platform, specifically Apple hardware. The game was written in the Swift programming language using Apple’s proprietary game engine, SpriteKit. If we were to release multi-platform we were going to need to port the game in some way to be able to run on both consoles and PCs. This was far from a trivial issue. We decided that it would be best to move the game over to the Unity engine, which would enable us to target everything we wanted plus, Huey Games had prior experience with Unity. We had some discussions about how we would go about implementing the move and it came down to either porting code or rewriting code. It was going to be significant work whichever way we decided and significant work had a cost. We were going to need to bring in some funds to help move the game over to the other platforms.
Some years previously Andrew and Rob had successfully funded their book; Hints and Tips for Videogame Pioneers through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. I remember them both saying how surprised they had been with the warmth of reception they received for the campaign. Following on from this they had built up a good social media presence, reuniting with the retro gaming community around the games made by Andrew’s previous companies (Hewson Consultants and 21st Century Entertainment). It all seemed to fit together, another Kickstarter campaign would be a good avenue to raise the necessary funds needed to support both the console and PC development. We already had a good game with a playable demo, which was essential because raising funds for a new game on Kickstarter was fast becoming a difficult ask of potential funders, without a playable demo. Fortunately we had one that was already well polished. Andrew and Rob had experience putting together a successful Kickstarter campaign and John Ogden had a videogame development background that would lend us technical credence. It all made sense.
We wanted to get going as soon as possible and Rob didn’t waste any time getting the wheels turning. It came together quickly but there were still a few things that needed to be in place. One of those was an action-packed and attention-grabbing piece of artwork for the game.
The cover for Andrew’s book had been produced by Mike Berry, who had also created some terrific Voxel art dioramas of Hewson hits such as Exolon and Uridium. The style seemed to fit Hyper Sentinel well, so Rob contacted Mike to see if he would be interested in making an original piece for the game. Thankfully Mike agreed and it was very much a collaborative approach that we took. To start with we chose a level from the game that would be a good fit for Mike to model. We went with Level 3 due to its striking purple colour and interesting design. I seem to remember pulling out various in-game assets that we would send to Mike to model out in Voxel 3D. Then Mike would send us back multiple renderings with slight differences so we could choose our favourites. The process went both ways though and it was at this point that we decided to throw away the existing Hyper Sentinel logo and Hyper Sentinel spaceship and rebuild them both. This was all happening just a few weeks before the Kickstarter campaign was set to begin! Rob had been showing our game demo behind the scenes to some trusted friends and feedback was that the game logo was difficult to read – I think someone even thought it was written in Japanese!
The final logo that we went with was made very spontaneously over an evening. I produced about four versions with slightly different styles and colouring and then Rob, Mike and myself all voted for our favourites. The Hyper Sentinel logo we have now was the unanimous winner.
The Hyper Sentinel spaceship in the game came about through the process of Mike, creating the cover art. The original art asset simply didn’t render well in Voxels, which requires a certain amount of detail so that the 3D model stands out. The original spaceship was too subtle to render well, so I started from scratch with a brand-new spaceship concept with Mike doing various 3D renders: some had wings hanging low, others angled upwards.
After various tweaks and voting we decided to go with the version that had a poised attack style. That is the one that made it to the final game. This approach has been very much a theme in the development of the game: collaboration and cross development of ideas. I think the final cover art really catches your attention and it looks unique and stunning.
The feedback regarding the original logo came primarily from my sister, Charlotte. She has a graphic design background and a keen eye for detail, and she found the word “Sentinel” very difficult to read. When I look back at the old logo now it is striking to me how obvious it is that “Sentinel” is difficult to read, but I had grown accustomed to it at the time. That is why getting fresh eyes to review your work is so important.
Working with Mike Berry was an absolute pleasure and he was very accommodating to our iterative approach to creating the cover artwork. Jonathan, Mike and myself went through several review cycles agreeing to the next tasks step-by-step, and we couldn’t be happier with the result.
By the start of summer there were a lot of things going on. Rob was organising various events where he could showcase the game, and I there was even a teaser competition being carried out over social media. Rob was in contact with a lot of people in the retro community and had also arranged for a piece in Reset magazine for the C64, which was to coincide with the launch of the Kickstarter campaign. I was taking a holiday at the time and did the interview on my phone while sat in bed in a caravan. Good times!
The Kickstarter was scheduled to start on July 1st, 2016. I remember waking up that morning and watching my phone as people backed the game, but I had to leave before too long so I could get to work on time. On the very first day of the Kickstarter campaign we got an unexpected feature on the Eurogamer website. I had been out with a colleague for my regular lunchtime run and when I came back everyone in the office was congratulating me. It was a great little feature and a complete surprise. I spoke to Huey Games over email and they seemed as genuinely surprised as I was. It was a great write up and we had some really good comments from it. We were working hard during that Kickstarter; we did a games show in Leeds with the game available to play. We had a lot of the retro community shouting out for us as well. I even got the chance to chat to an Ex-Rare coder who had worked on Donkey Kong 64 (I played this game to death with my wife during the Christmas of ‘99), which was a fantastic privilege for me. Here I was with my little game and I was chatting with someone who was excited to play it and who had worked on one of my favourite N64 games – dreams really do come true!
Unfortunately, our first attempt at the Kickstarter campaign wasn’t to be. By about the halfway point it was becoming clear that we weren’t going to make it; we ended the Kickstarter having only reached half of our funding goal. I think there were several reasons: we only had a demo on mobile, consoles were a stretch goal, too many pledge tiers causing a lack of focus. It was a bit of a Catch 22 though. We needed to raise the funds for a rebuild of the game in the Unity engine, but to do that we really needed the demo available on PC. We didn’t have a demo on PC because that required us to have the game in Unity. Despite the Kickstarter failure, we did get a good amount of backing from the retro gaming community and made lots of friends along the way. We didn’t know it at the time, but ultimately this is what set us up to fully realise the game on Console and PC. However, in that moment, the path ahead remained unclear.
I don’t think it is possible to overstate how important it was to have so much support from the Kickstarter backers and the wider retro community at that time. If they hadn’t cheered us on in the way that they did after the Kickstarter failed, things might have turned out very differently.