Interview: Hitbox Team on the art and design of Dustforce

After the notable successes of developers like The Behemoth, 2D Boy and Team Meat, more and more gamers are starting to pay attention to indie games. Whether it is for their visual style, their unique gameplay mechanics, or their interesting take on storytelling, indie titles are starting to become ingrained in the general gamer consciousness.

On October 8, 2010 at GDC Austin, the independent publisher and gaming site indiePub hosted their 3rd independent game developer competition, with the grand prize of $100,000 going to Hitbox Team for their acrobatic, sweeping platformer Dustforce. One of the past winners of the competition was the particle bending beauty of Auditorium in 2008, which has since been ported to iOS devices, PSN and XBLA.

Now, well over a year after winning the competition, I got a chance to talk with Hitbox Team to find out more about their inspirations, the process behind the visual style of Dustforce, and the harder parts of this past year of development.

How about a short introduction? Who are you, what’s your background and what’s your role on the team?

Woodley Nye: I’m Woodley and I do art and game design. I used to make games in The Games Factory back in high school. Lexie and I made some small projects in GameMaker as well… after that I went to study animation in Brisbane, and then wandered around for a few years before deciding to try giving independent game development a serious go. So, Lexie and I went to live in a shed and make games. The [Dustforce] prototype won the indiePub competition, which allowed us to work fulltime on a proper version of the game.

Lexie Dostal: I’m Lexie, I do all of the game code. I started making little projects with Woodley in GameMaker during high school. I learnt the basics of programming using its simple scripting language. After high school I studied game programming at collage. After a year of not learning anything new, I dropped out. A few years later I started making games again with Woodley.

Matt Bush: I’m Matt, I write the engine code. I learned to make games in Flash during high school with the help of some friends I met online. After high school, I went to college where I met Woodley and Lexie, but college was expensive and I wasn’t getting much out of it. So after working on a few other projects, I came to be working on Dustforce.

Terence Lee: I’m Terence, and I make the music and sounds. I made small games in my free time while I was in college.  I won a contest from indiePub with one of those games, and through that I met the rest of the Hitbox guys.  Meanwhile, I had always been interested in music production and piano, and had been creating songs on my own.  I ended up joining Hitbox Team to do the audio for Dustforce.

Could you tell us a little bit about the back story of Dustforce? How did the initial concept for the game come together?

WN: I had always been really interested in the idea of challenging, acrobatic 2D platformers. I like the feeling of being in precarious places, and achieving mastery within a system. I played a lot of N in high school and Nikujin in college and I think a lot of the inspiration for Dustforce comes from those two. I actually had the idea for Dustforce while sweeping leaves off the path at my uncle’s house. Lex and I were working on another game idea, but switched to prototyping Dustforce when we heard about the indiePub competition.

The art style is very unique and really stands out amongst other games in the genre. What were your inspirations when creating the world and characters of Dustforce?

WN: I wanted to settle on a style that was fairly simple, allowing for lots of frames of animation. Hard edged shadows have always worked well for me. DragonBall Z is another inspiration actually; they have great poses and also good shapes.

Did the characters and environments come together naturally or were they the product of much iteration?

WN: All the art since the prototype has been redone, so you could say that version was the first iteration. I learned a lot about animation and producing assets during the development of that first version, so I think the game looks much better now since we scrapped all of that art.

Could you describe the process of animating one of the Dustforce characters? What kind of tools or software do you use?

WN: I use an Intuos4 tablet and Flash to produce all the art. I usually just sketch the poses by animating straight ahead, instead of doing much planning. Then I divide the character into layers and complete it piece by piece. I used to draw a lot of flipbooks on post-it notes and notebooks when I was younger; so this allows me to still animate in that rough style, and then make it look more complete afterwards.

What was the level design process like during the development of Dustforce?

MB: I like to start by building a rough level without any visuals to just get it to flow well, testing each part thoroughly as I go. Once I’m happy with that, I’ll go through and try to make it look nice. Rapid iteration is really important in game development; it helps being able to instantly switch between playing the level and editing it by pressing a button.

LD: I spent many months working on the level editor for the team to use. We wanted to be able to test level layouts quickly.

Speaking on the level editor, I remember that you guys included it in the prototype. Will you be adding the level editor to the full version of Dustforce?

LD: [laughs] That [level editor] one was pretty simple back then. The new one is pretty complex now. For the final release we would love to make it available. We received some really interesting custom levels from players in the demo.  We’re excited to see what people can make with this much more advanced editor. Also, ideally we will have some sort of system for sharing levels and replays, but that’s not really decided yet.

I asked Woodley this earlier, but from a programmer’s perspective, how much has Dustforce changed since the initial prototype?

LD: [pause for dramatic effect] Everything got recoded. The movement in the prototype wasn’t that good, [but] it was my first attempt of capturing Woodley’s idea for the game.  The movement [in Dustforce] is the most important thing, so I want to make sure it’s perfect. I have lost count of the times Dustman has been recoded. [When] we started making the prototype in GameMaker, we ended up having a lot of performance issues; mainly due to the amount of high res sprites Woodley had drawn. This [was] where Matt came in.

MB: When I started on the engine, my main concern was the sprites. There’s over 7000 high resolution sprites now and Woodley is constantly adding more. I didn’t want to impose any limitations on how many sprites a character could have, or how much environment art Woodley could draw, so I decided to try a streaming technique similar to what RAGE uses, but much less complex. The engine packs all the sprites into huge sprite sheets then packs those in to a 65k virtual texture space and loads 128×128 chunks as they’re needed. This worked out pretty well and because the sprites have lots of solid colors, they compress well enough to keep them all in RAM and not have to worry about hard drive latency or pop in.

The music has a very retro game feel to it, as it were coming from a Super Nintendo cart. Could you describe the process of composing the music and effects? Were there any tracks that stand out as personal favorites or that posed a challenge to you?

TL: We wanted the music to evoke some feelings of retro games, but done in a modern way that fits the game style.  I did this by using some simple electronic sounds, like sine and saw waves that you’d find in older games, but produced with modern effects and samples. One of my favorite songs is the tutorial song, which really captures this style. The tutorial level is a world with simple but modern graphics, and I feel like the music fits that well.

I made each song with an idea of what mood I wanted to capture and just worked from there.  It was interesting for me because I am always learning as I go, and I feel like I’ve improved my skills significantly since working on my first few songs, so sometimes I have to go back and rework those songs to get everything at the same level of quality.

One of the challenges we faced was giving each track relatively equal playing time. We had an issue where the main world song only gets to play for a few seconds before you jump into the next level.  We fixed this by using more ambient, less dynamic tracks for the common areas.

Team Meat has made it a staple of theirs to add in characters from other indie game titles into their games.  Could we expect to see some cameos from other indie titles in Dustforce?

WN: We’ve been so busy on the game that we haven’t really had time to contact other devs. No plans for this at the moment.

Are there any plans for DLC or extra content for players?

WN: Updates will be free. If people like the game, we have some great ideas for other modes and levels that we’d like to add. I’m obsessed with competitive games like StarCraft and Super Smash Bros. Melee, so a major one for me would be adding some sort of 1v1 versus mode.

So far, what has been the hardest part of the whole game development process?

WN: For me, it has definitely been inspiration and motivation. I find it really hard to animate if I’m feeling uninspired, so that has been kind of difficult. Other than that, there have been a few design issues to overcome. Various quirks of the movement; implementing slopes and the behavior of the character on them was a lot more difficult than it seems.

LD: The hardest part for me is figuring out what to work on next, there is so much code that has to go into a complete game; it’s a bit overwhelming at times.

MB: I think the hardest part for me is the lifestyle; the combination of not having set work hours, living in our workspace and having something I’m trying to solve constantly on my mind makes it really hard to take a break from work. The worst part is when it creeps in to your dreams in the form of some unsolvable nonsensical problem and you can’t even escape work with sleep!

LD: Programmer nightmares…

MB: So it helps to enjoy the work, if you can’t escape from it. [laughs]

TL: Sometimes Dustforce is too fun and I keep playing it instead of working on it.

WN: [laughs]

TL: Finding the right balance between challenge and accessibility is also often a concern for us.

When will Dustforce be releasing and on what digital distribution platforms will be seeing it on?

WN: At this point it looks like it’ll be early next year. So far, just Steam.

MB: Mac and PC.

Any final words that you would want to pass onto the Destructoid readership?

LD: Hmmm

MB: Wise words, Lex.

WN: “We hope you like Dustforce!”

TL: Buy it for the music.

MB: “In the information age, the barriers just aren’t there. The barriers are self imposed. If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it. We slept on floors. We waded across rivers.” – John Carmack

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Jason Cabral
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