Today we had great pleasure welcoming William from indie developer Sinister Cyclops and is the creator of the upcoming game Spartan to Nintendo Switch which drops on April 1st 2018. It took him and his brother four years to develop from scratch. Switchwatch were interested in his story and so we asked a few questions. Welcome to our first interview with a game developer, this is a Dev’s tale!
Basketball shaped a future
Your game Spartan is due to land very soon. Tell us about why you chose to make this game. What drove you and where does this passion stem from?
Since I was a little kid I was always fascinated by video games. Their colors, their sounds the feelings I would get when I completed a level. But everything in this life has to do with being at the right place at the right time.
Back in 87 when I was 10 years old, Greece had just won the European basketball championship. Something truly unbelievable considering the size of the country and its nonexistent basketball legacy. My bro at that time was studying at Berkley College of music and he had bought me in (86) the first NES in the country. The only reason I could even hook it up was because we had NTSC tv sets in the house.
The NES had the best basketball game ever (!) called Double Dribble from Konami. I would call my friends over and play for hours at a time. We were living the dream!
But as a future entrepreneur I noticed something interesting. No computer back then had a basketball game! So I decided to try and figure out how to create a basketball game on my friends Spectrum 128k (Yes kids! 128k with a cassette. Not even a floppy) For hours I tried to understand how to do that.Then out of the blue a few days later I saw a magazine in a store that was showing how to code a game. Obviously I didn’t have any money to buy it but I managed to flip its pages and see something that resembled a black box with some text in it. Das? DOS? Something like that.With that new found knowledge I rushed to my friend’s house and we fired up the computer.Everything I did would return an error when I pressed enter… When suddenly I realized that if I enter the command print “ ” (or something like that .It’s been ages so please don’t hate!) then it wouldn’t return an error.
MEASURING A COURT!
Now how would I create a basketball game? My buddy came up with the most brilliant idea ever. Let’s describe the rules and how basketball is played, and it will work! Truly genius from his side! He was ahead of the time at his age for sure.
Since I was the only one that knew English I started typing with my 10 year old brain everything related to basketball inside that console command. Five players against five players. The court is … How big is it? We literally went out to a court and tried to measure it when one coach saw us and spared us from our misery by telling us its exact size…We spent 3 hours together trying to describe as best as we could the sport called Basketball.Three hours for a 10 year old equals a millennia! Imagine how devastated I was when I pressed enter and I saw nothing happening. It just showed me the things I wrote!!!!
THE STRENGTH OF MY FATHER
Up to this day I always wished that an adult that knew how to code would magically appear and would show us how to do it. I would probably be working for Microsoft now… But the chances of that happening especially in a country like Greece in the 80’s were slim to none…Fast forward to 2012 and our dad enters the hospital with a rare case of leukaemia that appeared out of the blue.They gave him 10 days, he fought for 200.It was 7 brutal months of pain and misery, before we lost him.It was a wakeup call for me. I needed to do something that I always loved but life wouldn’t allow me too. How could I do it? I wasn’t 20. I have a house, a wife, a business and I have lost 20+ years of practicing the art. I thought nothing will stop me I’ll start learning at night. However I needed an artist. Who is the artist in the family? My brother of course. I asked him if he would learn animation and digital painting so we could create a video game.
MY BROTHER WOULD BELIEVE IN THE PROJECT!
“Sure kiddo” he said “I will also start working 10 hours a day for something that there is no chance of even moving a sprite from left to right! Let alone creating a full game! Why not start working on our new airplane that will replace the 777”
So I got to work alone and after five months I had my demo ready. Stock assets and a very rough platformer that had basic functionality. But it worked..kinda.I slowly lured him into the project when further down the road with the project and we decided to create a game that would be dedicated in memory of our father, the original Spartan! We chose to make it as tough as he was and fun and quirky as he was also.
The rest is history. We are the first ever 2d game to come out for consoles with Unreal. We have won an Unreal Dev award and we are the first ever Greeks(Americans) to release a video game for consoles.
So in short, love and the need to be happy and create something that would bring families together around the world is what drove us to create Spartan.
No violence, no controversy just pure fun regardless of ethnicity and religious beliefs!
WHY THE SWITCH? IS IT EASY TO DEVELOP FOR?
Nintendo for me equals everything that I love in gaming. I grew up with them and there will be always my number one choice because their values align with mine.
Spartan was created from day one as a Nintendo game. We knew that it would never happen (read previous answer) but nevertheless we tried to.
I had to rewrite the whole game from scratch in order to make it work for the Switch but UE4 made my life super easy regarding the rest. I refused to make any compromises( I optimized the crap out of it!) and I was determined to repay their trust with a game that runs identical with the PS4 and in my opinion (which is a fact because I created it :p ) it is the best version of them all.
It was nothing but a joy to work with them and in my humble opinion they are the only ones right now that truly support and help the little guy.
I understand this game took you and your partner 4 years to make. Can you give us an insight to what it’s like to give 4 years of your life for a project like this? Some of the ups and downs you faced?
I will not lie. Creating a video game out of your own pocket without having any access to funding and people to back you up will probably cost you everything. Even your sanity. You need to find motivation every day and that is extremely difficult in a time span so great. Video games take a lot of time to develop.
We lost loved ones, we lost social interactions but we never lost our smiles and what kept us going was training six times a week. It helped us relieve the stress and kept our brains sharp!
But there is no greater reward when people send you an email from across the planet telling you how their daughter woke them up on a Sunday morning just so she could watch her daddy play your game.
That makes it all worthwhile!
What does it feel like to play back a game you created? Can you enjoy it like a gamer or do you have a different hat on for example testing it for bugs and improvement.
I love playing my game even after the millionth time! Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to complete it as a project. What I don’t enjoy is watching other people play it and die at the same place 20 times in a row and complain how unfair it is. I want to grab the controller out of their hand and show them how it is done!
How long have you developed games for and what are some of the lessons you have learned?
Its our first game and I learned the hard way that 1’s and 0’s cannot be reasoned with. Also this industry is starting to become like the evil villain from a movie. They are using gambling tactics to milk and take advantage of someone’s passion. They lie, they overpromise and they only care about money.I don’t want to be that guy and nor does our company. We have priced our game at a pretty low starting point.
We know how it is to be broke and how difficult it is to make money in this industry and it’s especially difficult as a small developer but regardless, we want everyone to be able to afford and enjoy it even if it means smaller potential revenue for us.
The breathing in this game looks realistic, especially the animation, how did you guys go about developing that?
From day one we both agreed that we would create a game that would have an old school feel but no old school looks and music. I’ve been there since day one and I will probably kill myself if i hear another tune that goes bip bip bip bop again!For that reason we decided to go with UE4. Not a really wise choice when you are just starting out…Nevertheless we fought hard throughout all those years and soon we realized that we were limited by the size and nature of flipbooks.As the game was getting bigger and bigger it would have been impossible to have such detailed animations running at 60fps.So we took a chance and adopted a new plugin for ue4 that was created by a former Pixar employee responsible for the liquid simulations on movies like the Toy Story.
No time to quit!
I worked really close with him for several months in order for the plugin to work correctly with the UE4 ecosystem. It was a period that had crossed my mind many times to quit.No paper2d development from Epic, new and untested tech that we had no guarantee that it would work with consoles and their closed source code and constant crashes that I had to debug and figure out solutions while actively developing gameplay for Spartan. Nightmare!
Theo had to learn new software to be able to implement our animations and I had to make everything from scratch and figure out ways to create collisions, sync SFX to the animations with no anim notifies .etc .etc, while probably being the only studio working so actively with that plugin at the time. The end result payed off! We were able to create complicated animations without the restrictions of traditional texture sheets. Real-time mesh deforms and physics motors allowed us to give our characters weight and subtle details like the one you described. Spartan might look simple on the surface but it has a lot of interesting tech running on the background, and that is our biggest achievement. Complicated yet simple for the user!
What do you think is special about your game?
The fact that in all levels you can choose your path without any restrictions. That was a HUGE challenge regarding level design and game logistics. Usually most platformers either follow a direction or when you reach a certain point you cannot go back.We wanted to make something different. A lot of people in the beginning don’t realize how our game works but I will give them a little hint. Use checkpoints to move quickly within levels. If you are confident with your skills avoid one and die (pause menu) when you want to cover some distance 😉
You say this game has 20 hours gameplay. Do you decide early on how long you want a game to be? Are there any secrets or Easter Eggs?
We never intended to make a game as big but we kept pushing ourselves in order to improve. That led us to creating massive levels with over 10,000 actions while running at a stable 60fps on the Switch!
Some people love that, others want smaller and easier levels without all the back and forth but at the end of the day you can’t make everyone happy. Just enjoy it for what it is, something different and if someone unlocks all the pictures in the gallery then he/she is a great gamer and deserves a cookie!
Lastly why should our audience consider checking out your game?
Spartan is a product of love, hard work and dedication.
I firmly believe that everyone that picks up Spartan will have a blast, will develop a habit of throwing their Switch out of the window (joking! or maybe not) and will witness firsthand what normal hardworking people can achieve when driven by passion. All that for the bargain price of 10.99e! What’s not to love?
Thanks William, It has been an absolute pleasure!