Xbox Live has quite a few solid, original danmakus. Aeternum is one of these, a horizontal bullet hell created by the indie game studio Wasted Brilliance. The game features four difficulty modes, pixelated graphics, a wacky story, some very nice soundtracks, and lots and lots of bullets.
I recently got a chance to speak with Brooks Bishop, the developer of Aeternum, and ask him about its development. The following are my questions and his responses.
What inspired you to create Aeternum?
A few years ago I started building up ideas for a game which very quickly turned out to be a rather complex project. Rather than jump right into the larger project and flounder with it, I started looking around trying to figure out a smaller project to work on to build up some skills and a code base for the more complex game.
Around the same time I was watching a lot of high level replays of games like DoDonPachi, Deathsmiles, Ikaruga, and especially various Touhou Project games and marvelling at the visuals you could create with a bullet system like that.
Kenta Cho (aka ABA Games), creator of rRootage among other games, was also a big inspiration. His work and ideas for BulletML as a markup language for describing bullet patterns was pretty eye-opening.
I also like to credit Ted Lauterbach for creating his little game jam bullet hell Vatn Squid for really pushing me over the edge in deciding to make one myself. Aeternum’s Archibald is kind of my own little nod in his direction.
So as a smaller aspect of the larger project, I decided it would be fun and educational to build a highly efficient scripted bullet engine. To facilitate that I decided it would also be good to develop a much smaller scale game. Aeternum is that game.
What do you think sets Aeternum apart from other bullet hells?
It’s probably strange to say, but making a game that set itself apart from other bullet hells wasn’t really an intention I had going into it. What I really wanted to do was build skills in creating a game that was solid and polished, and actually finish it. My philosophy was just to make something that I would buy and play myself as well as something that I would like to watch gameplay videos of, and hope that others would feel the same way about it.
I do want to credit my co-conspirators though: Nate Graves (@taxincluded) for managing to bring the characters to life with dialogue that’s quirky without going too far into wacky territory, as well as Jesse Bishop (@bishopof82) for creating a soundtrack to fit my demanding expectations, that I believe is his best work as a musician to date. Everyone should pick up the OST (it’s free!) at http://jesseabishop.bandcamp.
Do you believe that bullet hells are a good genre for indie game developers? If so, why?
I think making a bullet hell as my first game to actually see release was probably a terrible idea. It’s a genre that comes with a lot of baggage, both positive and negative.
On the down side, your average gamer will probably at best see a bullet hell as an interesting diversion that’s probably a bit too hard for them. And at worst, you get a lot of people who will dismiss you outright because for whatever reason they “hate bullet hells.” It’s hard to sell someone on something when they don’t even care to put in the effort to learn the basic mechanics required to succeed. For example, I’ve seen reviews of Aeternum that skipped over the tutorial entirely, and knew absolutely nothing about the “focus” mechanic, which I consider to be absolutely essential in order to succeed at the game.
On the plus side, shmup players are some of the most devoted video game players you can find. They’re incredibly supportive and loyal to the things they love, just as much as they’ll call you out (accurately) on any mistakes you make.
With that said, I think every genre is good for an indie game developer. Indie devs are really the best when it comes to innovation right now, and I love seeing the interesting new things that are coming out in the indie scene. I especially love things that don’t even let themselves be pigeonholed by genres altogether. You’ve got games like Sequence which is a rhythm game and an rpg, or Binding of Isaac which is a roguelike and a twin stick shooter with original Zelda style level layouts. In fact, trying to come up with interesting ways to combine bullet hell type mechanics with those from other types of games is something that’s constantly on my mind.
I also think one of the luxuries indie developers have is the fact we can pretty much choose what we work on, so why not choose something we love. Developing Aeternum wasn’t something I was doing for fame or fortune, it was something I was doing because it’s what I enjoy. And if you’re working on something and enjoying it, I think the end result tends to be better as well.
What would you say was the most difficult thing about developing Aeternum?
The most difficult thing about developing Aeternum was definitely the difficulty balancing. Hitting that right balance is especially important for a game like Aeternum, because games in the shmup genre (bullet hells in particular) are known (and loved) by fans specifically for their difficulty. However, when you’re working on something every day for months and playing it through continually, you get really, really good at it. Without good external feedback, especially good testers of varied skill levels, it can get incredibly difficult to know if you’re hitting a proper difficulty balance or not.
I actually built Aeternum by developing everything at the Lunatic difficulty, and using features of my bullet engine to scale back from there for the easier ones. So while I still believe that’s the best way to go about building content for a game like this, I also think it made it even harder for me to accurately gauge how hard the game was. Up until the week before launch Aeternum was actually way more difficult than it is now. And this is for a game that people still say is perhaps too hard. Some frenzied last minute playtesting by friends convinced me to tone down the low end difficulties even further, almost across the board, to where the game is now.
Looking back, is there anything you would have changed in the development of Aeternum?
Towards the end of development when I really needed some exhaustive playtesting from my testers, I started wishing I had a replay system in place. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of thing I would have had to build from the start. Not only would it have allowed me to view replays saved by my testers to observe how they played the game and adjust things based on that, but it also would have been a nice feature to have available for players.
In fact, I think a good replay system would benefit a dev greatly in most any type of game. It just so happens that shmups are one of the easier types to implement them in, and one that players appreciate most due to the communities that build up around score building and sharing.
Do you think the Touhou project influenced the danmaku genre?
Although I can’t really speak too much to the actual history of shmups as to how Touhou fits in, I think ZUN has definitely made his mark on the landscape. In my experience, asking your average non-shmup playing gamer what they think of bullet hell, their exposure has far and away been seeing some gameplay of either a Touhou Project game, or Mushihime-sama Futari. So Touhou has definitely become something of a poster child of the genre in the west, for better or worse. I can say that Touhou project is definitely the single largest influence I had in Aeternum, and most people recognize that even if they’ve never played a Touhou game themselves.
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming indie game developers?
The goal for your first project should be to just get something done and released. Your game could be the greatest thing in the world, but it doesn’t matter much if you sit working on it forever and no one gets to play it. So I’ll just reiterate the advice I always hear: start small. Ridiculously small. Maybe make your first project a clone of something simple like Pong or a bare bones platformer. Having ideas and innovating is fantastic, but developing the skills to follow through is probably the most important thing you can do starting out.
Thank you for your time.
Wasted Brilliance’s website can be reached at http://wastedbrilliance.com/, and you can follow Brooks on Twitter @brooksbishop. For those of you who have yet to play Aeternum, it is available on Xbox Live Indie Games for 80 Microsoft Points, a very small price to pay for an enjoyable bullet hell, and I strongly suggest you try it out.