Thunderbeam is an ambitious merging of early-90s PC game methodology (vast worlds, procedurally generated scenarios) with contemporary functionality via the iPad’s multi-touch interface. With a psychedelic soundtrack by The Octopus Project and trippy visuals by animators who worked on Waking Life, Thunderbeam will pair its unique ideas with stellar production values.
We sat down to talk to Karakasa about British sci-fi, the elements of old-school games that should be left in the past, and why being a couple loners in a basement is something to aspire to.
Thunderbeam for iPad! from Wiley Wiggins on Vimeo.
What is the origin and inspiration for Thunderbeam?
Wiley Wiggins: James and I are classic game fans. We met each other during this sort of alcohol-fueled tirade about classic gaming. We talked about how we miss games with unique devices and voices and those weirdos in basements that made them.
James Curry: It was quite funny because when we finished there was a twenty foot radius around us where no one else was sitting.
Wiley: Everyone cleared out! We were just frothy-mouthed, yelling. “DID YOU EVER PLAY CAPTAIN BLOOD!!?!” [laughs]
James: We love classics games but there are also things about classic games that we hate. We love classic, cheesy British sci-fi as well. At the time, I think we loved it because we loved it, but now we love it because it’s God-awful.
You mentioned British Sci-fi series The Tomorrow People as an inspiration?
Scott Lee: I told my British father-in-law that we are basing the game off The Tomorrow People and he started laughing. That’s a good sign, I think. Maybe?
Wiley: Was it sinister laughter? The Tomorrow People kind of started off and it was like Doctor Who with these swinging teens, but then it degenerated to fuzzy shampoo bottles with a spring and an eyeball on top being shaken in front of the camera.
There is actually a Tomorrow People fanclub on Facebook. I very timidly went on there and was like, “Hey, we are making this video game that’s inspired by a lot of 70s sci-fi and parts of it are like The Tomorrow People.” And I immediately got these really angry letters back, like “The Tomorrow People would never cause the deaths of innocents. YOU HAVE MADE A MOCKERY OF THE TOMORROW PEOPLE, SIR!”
What exactly are some of the things you are trying to keep and avoid from classic gaming?
James: We hate “hunt the pixel.” It’s a thing in classic point-and-click games where you move your mouse pointer over every pixel on the screen, until you find the one that is a slightly different shade of blue -- and that’s the object you have to find! It’s a way of extending game time without really extending game time. Sure, there is a sense of accomplishment if you don’t pick up your Amiga or Atari and hurl it through the window first. It’s a chore!
Wiley: We are avoiding any “road bump”-type puzzles. Puzzles should make you use your brain and the sense of accomplishment you have shouldn’t come from being patient...or being sexually frustrated.
James: If we can extend the game, it’s not going to be through the means of extra puzzles. It’s going to be because we will have vastly procedurally generated parts of the game, which are non-essential -- they are there to explore.
Wiley: I’m okay with vastness and a sense of scale. People complain about Wind Waker because of the sailing sequences. I actually thought those sequences were kind of cool and Zen-like. I liked how the weather patterns would go over the sea and --
James: Remember everything you hated about Wind Waker? Well, play it again in Thunderbeam!
Wiley: We want to recapture that feeling that this game is made by a lone, madman who should be arrested immediately.
Another World/Out of This World seems to be a big influence on this project. Will there be platforming in Thunderbeam?
Wiley: There is no platforming. There were puzzles in Another World, but they were physical -- you get shot and you had to be dexterous. [Our game] is more straight puzzle-based. It’s 2.5D perspective, like Maniac Mansion. The big conceit of the game is that you are some superteam ostensbily on some 70s kids' show.
You can’t kill anyone so you spend a lot of time getting other enemies to kill, blind or paralyze each other. We have different responses for different groups and different types of enemies. We are able to procedurally create puzzles by dumping different numbers and types of enemies on the same screen.
I’m of the opinion that one of the great hallmarks of games -- especially when games left the Pac-Man-era of letting things procedurally happen rather than scripting everything out -- some of the greatest things I see in games are bad guys that kill one another and corpses that do not disappear. We have persistent death in this game; when death happens, it’s part of the story. You can’t return to a previous save. You are responsible for it. Some puzzles require you to get cadets killed.
So, will the player feel a sense of loss when they lose a member of their team?
Wiley: That’s our hope. As you level them up, you start to get attached to them. And, it’s all your fault when Alicia Gibson or Jorge Chong die. Because the turnover rate of the “Red Shirts” is so high, a lot of the game involves cheating skills with valuable objects that you’ll need to go into some of these worlds to find. You can also retrieve those from a corpse and give them to another kid.
They level up and get powers. While you’ll have an infinite number of cadets, you only have four prefects (the main chracters). The only end game scenario is when all four of those are killed.
James: But if only three of them get killed, you can promote regular kids and make them into prefects.
What drove you to the iOS platform?
James: The distribution model for iOS is great and the App store is made in mind for the average user. The user experience is great. The other part of it is that there are really only so many hardware configurations we are able to target. The problem with Android is that you don’t know anything about the hardware. You have to account for every single hardware configuration. You have to detect all that and account for that. That’s tough! Right now, there are two models of the iPad and we can target both of them.
Why not PC?
Wiley: That would be really cool but we really want to use multi-touch. One of the barriers to adventure games and RPG games is the glut of menus for verbs. One of the nice things about having multi-touch and gestures is that you can eliminate some of that. We are hoping that when you interact with objects, you can grab them with your finger and drag them down into your inventory, drag them ontop of each other to make combinations and flick them to throw them through the in-game physics.
Scott: Games can be a thing of beauty on touch interfaces and that’s something seldom ever utilized. We want to take advantage of it.
James: Gaming on the iPad is really interesting. Some developers really get it and they make games around the interface and then there are others, who just port stuff with virtual d-pads -- they are terrible! The worst thing in the world! People have barely scratched the surface of this. You can really make some great games -- making great games doesn’t mean taking things from the past and porting them. It means making great games that really takes advantage of the interface and that’s what we are going to do with Thunderbeam.
Wiley: Even though we really appreciate classic games, we are not slaves to any of those game styles. After Sword and Sworcery EP, I feel there is an audience out there that can play it. We can make it deeply nerdy and approachable at the same time. I mean, I was a kid when I played those games and I didn’t identify myself as being deeply nerdy. I saw something that was mysterious, I played with it and it was deeply rewarding. I want others to have that same experience.
I like a lot of triple-A games out right now. Some of them are fabulous, but there’s a lot of homgenization of those experiences. I know what to expect when I play those games and I want a feeling of surprise.
[Special thanks goes out to associate editor Sean Carey who helped conduct this interview.]