One of the many wonderful things about indie games is that developers can do whatever they want. While what they may create may not be an instant success that will go on to eclipse triple-A games, indie developers often bring fresh ideas to the table or at least provide concepts that are engaging if not visually amazing in the art department. There is a certain level of pretension that’s to be had with certain indie games, but every now and then a game surfaces which is simple and is flat out fun in what it provides the player with. One such game that perfectly embodies fun gameplay and inventive design is Aztez.
A game that may not be immediately recognizable right now, Aztez is an endeavor that has a lot of heart and talent behind it. Created and designed by Ben Ruiz and Matthew Wegner, the game does something simple things but presents a level of sophistication to it that’s hard not to be impressed by. Taking place in a stylized world Aztez provides fast and brutal melee based combat that goes beyond offering simple attacks as we see other indie games do. It’s not just the gameplay that’s impressive about Aztez but the presentation of it as well as the game is in complete black and white, save for the red color found in blood when a spear makes contact with a foe.
Aztez may still be in development and still a ways off from release, but I was intrigued enough by the game which is why I decided to chat with Ben Ruiz about the project. My chat with Ben covers the history of Aztez as well as what sort of design choices are being made concerning the combat and the separate strategy mode the game includes.
Ian Fisher: We see a lot of indie games surface that boast unique premises and art directions, but we really haven’t seen anything surface like Aztez before which is why I’m so interested in the project. Can you tell us a bit about how the game came to be and was a side-scrolling brawler with strategy elements always the first direction the game was going to take or were some other concepts thrown around first?
Ben Ruiz: Aztez was born at a game jam event years ago, when I knew I wanted to A. make a game about one of the Mesoamerican civilizations and B. make a beat 'em up. Since an action game about the Aztecs makes way too much sense I enthusiastically rolled with it. Years later, when it went from being a hobby project to something I very seriously wanted to develop, I started thinking about what makes beat 'em ups what they are and I realized that as game experiences they mostly bore me to tears. I decided I wanted to take them to a higher level of engagement and replayability and that's when the action/strategy hybrid concept emerged.
Ian: The core of Aztez, if not the main draw, is the combat of the game which is fast, powerful, and very engaging. What was it like trying to develop a combat system that is relatively simple for people to get into but has a nice layer to it through the moves that can be pulled off and that more importantly feels good for people to play on their computer keyboard?
Ben: Well I suppose that's the obvious route; make combat accessible so anyone can enjoy it but deep enough that it is fun for prolonged periods of time. It can't be said at this early stage whether or not Aztez has pulled this off, but I'm definitely super conscious of it and move forward with the intent of accomplishing this. As far as the keyboard is concerned, it's a weird issue because this type of game is definitely more suited to the game pad, but we'll still do our best to make sure it's not any more cumbersome on the keyboard than it absolutely has to be.
Ian: Since you’re trying to achieve a certain flow with the combat of Aztez, is there any worry that you may either be over simplifying things or that you should go even deeper with things to provide a combat system that’s even more robust than it is now?
Ben: That's a really good question and interestingly enough, my main concern here is that I'm actually going to make it too complex. I love very technical beat 'em ups like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, and I instinctively emulate those types of rich combat experiences. But those types of games are terrifically inaccessible and despite being amazingly constructed, they appeal primarily to people who have been playing those types of games their whole life and are comfortable with them. For some perspective on the intended depth of Aztez, just know that what you can do now in the current builds is a very small chunk of what you'll be able to do when the game is ready to be put in people's hand. Making that many mechanics not feel totally overwhelming to the inexperienced action gamer is going to be an interesting challenge.
Ian: Gamers out there have been able to get a small taste of the game through the playable build that’s available on your website. But beyond the combat Aztez also features strategy elements as well which so far haven’t been shown too much. Can you tell us what sort of things we can expect from the strategy portion of Aztez and are you trying to achieve a similar easy going feel with that portion of the game as you are the combat or can we expect something that requires more depth on the part of the player?
Ben: The basic idea here is that they are symbiotic. The actions you perform in one of the modes directly affects the other. So for example, you will see in the strategy portion of the map that a plague has broken out in one of your tributaries. If you choose to “resolve” this, you'll enter real time beat 'em up gameplay with the purpose of killing all the infected characters in the combat environment. If you are successful, the plague does not spread. If you are not, then you will return to the strategy game to find the tributary in ruins and your income compromised.
Maybe I'm completely wrong, but this kind of play structure sounds infinitely more fun and replayable than “Run into this room and kill x dudes. Now run into this room and kill y dudes. Now jump over this thing into another room and kill z dudes. Now kill this boss.” We'll find out!
Ian: The combination of combat and strategy elements fits rather well given the Aztec theme of the game since those are two elements that defined that culture. But with that said was there ever the idea to perhaps add something else into the mix or perhaps favor one gameplay element (combat, strategy) over the other instead of focusing on them both?
Ben: The point of the strategy portion of the game is to be a reliable vehicle for engaging combat and replayability. So while we certainly intend to make the strategy portion great, the game is still ultimately a beat 'em up and that's where the emphasis is. That is my strength and it's what I like to do the most so it's in the best interest of both myself and the players that I put my best foot forward there.
Ian: Intense melee based combat and strategy game elements are about as far apart as gaming mechanics/genres can get since they provide the player with different tools and goals. In general has it been difficult to make sure the combat and strategy elements of Aztez feel cohesive and ultimately make the game feel like one complete experience as opposed to a game that splinters off to something entirely different from time to time?
Ben: Honestly we don't know yet. As of this writing, we have a burgeoning combat game and we have a burgeoning turn-based strategy game but we've yet to marry them. It's entirely possible it will be jarring to go back and forth between the two modes, but I'm optimistic. There are enough factors to play with here (mode complexity, length of engagements, mechanic variety) that I'm confident we can make it work. And besides, the worst case scenario is that we have a game that unsuccessfully smashes two fun games together, as opposed to the modern beat 'em up which is just one poorly made game.
Ian: The first thing that stuck out to me when I played Aztez was how good the game looked and how unique the art style was. The simple yet detailed approach the game is taking with its visuals is something that I think will latch on to a lot of people as it really sets the game apart. What has it been like to create a game based on the Aztecs yet come up with inventive and manageable ways to convey that in the art style the game has?
Ben: It's been surprisingly easy, actually! For some strange reason the look and feel of the Aztecs are very well represented by the game's aesthetic. That certainly wasn't my plan, but I took a risk and it ended up working out. These characters and environments have made themselves; every time I sit down to produce it just falls out my brain like it's being fed to me; like it already existed and I'm just pushing it through my brain and into a game. It certainly helps that I'm one of those artists that thrives under restrictions. When I originally set out with the goal of making a monochromatic game, I was excited enough that my motivation trumped the difficulty. My main point here is that I lucked out and took advantage of it. ;)
Ian: Has it been hard not to go overboard or add more when it comes to combat effects (blood, sparks, visual trails) so the art style doesn’t either seem unbalanced or simply begins to lose some of its identity?
Ben: Part of the game's identity is the excessive usage of combat effects. I believe that the only time combat effects are overboard is when they're obscuring the action. The effects that can be seen now are tame in comparison to what you CAN see if you play the game in a certain way; when the character is in a powered up state they're going to be even more flashy than they seem now.
Ian: Aztez is powered by Unity 3D which has been catching on amongst more and more developers of both an indie nature and those who are in the “big leagues” such as Square Enix. What has it been like to use Unity 3D for Aztez and do you think the engine has the potential to become a great tool for developers in the future?
Ben: It already is! We've (Matthew and I, along with a lot of our developer friends and colleagues) been using Unity for years and years now. We've watched it grow up and become more and more powerful over time and I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest to see it become ubiquitous in both AAA and indie development.
Ian: Like other indie games Aztez is a major project undertaken by a small team, this case it’s just two guys. In general what has it been like to develop the game with such a small team? Has it been easy since the both of you know what things to tackle or has it been difficult since you want to make an awesome game that’s unique but don’t have the immediate time and resources to make that happen in a relatively short period of time?
Ben: There's a couple factors at work making this a good arrangement. I've known and worked with Matthew for a long time, and we have “production chemistry.” There is enough courtesy, mutual respect, and self awareness between us that we don't really conflict and we're always moving forward. A game of this scope is not what we're used to but after 4 or 5 years of collaboration this isn't a compromising factor. As far as necessary resources are concerned, we have all of them already: the money to pay our bills, computers, desks, food, and tea.
Ian: In general what do you think of the state of indie games today? Developers may have more ways to release their games (iOS, PSN, XBLA, PC), but it seems like either getting funding or attention in the press/gamers is still a luck of a draw no matter how good the concept is. So do you think things are gradually improving since portions of the gaming community are beginning to wise up and look towards indie developers for unique game experiences or do you think certain things need to be changed or at least addressed so that more developers have a shot at success?
Ben: Success with games is tricky business; to be financially successful as an artisan you have to make something that a lot of different people want. But the scary thing about being an independent game developer is that we want to make whatever we want to make, and the more personal and expressive our games are the more they run the risk of not appealing to enough people to yield substantial financial success. I believe there is a way to reconcile this because I've seen it happen (games like Super Meat Boy and Braid are both incredibly personal products and incredibly successful) but it's only with black magic that no one can really explain.
To sum that up and answer the first question, I believe you can get the funding and get the press and even the success if what you're making is objectively compelling and it's as simple as that. It's nearly impossible to see it this way especially when you've been working on something for years and you think it's the coolest thing ever, but if it doesn't/didn't catch on it was most likely for a good reason. What's scary is that no one is immune to this phenomenon, which is why early and frequent feedback is SOOOO important. Before you embark on back-breaking journey to put a game into the world, put it out there in some form and test the waters. It's going to be scary and it's going to hurt so bad when people don't respond to it but you'll save yourself a lot of future heartache and pain.
Ian: Can you tell us when we may be able to expect Aztez on the PC and Mac and could we ever see the game appear on the PSN/XBLA as well or is it too early to tell at this point?
Ben: Hopefully at about this point next year! By the time we received our funding in January, we already put about 4 or 5 months of work into it, and development is accelerating as the tech continues to get built. And it is highly unlikely to appear on a console. For us, pushing a game past the console gatekeepers and getting it into their crowded marketplaces is not worth the time and energy. What we really want to do is put it on Steam. Steam is such an incredible service and from what I gather, actually placing your game onto the service is JOKINGLY painless, It's just a matter of them identifying with your game enough to let you in. Fingers crossed!