In a lot of ways the video game industry is built around copying what’s popular or fresh. Now that’s not to say that there’s no originality in the industry as there truly is in both the core triple-A and indie communities. But in general it’s hard, or more particularly rare, to see a game that totally takes us aback in what it’s setting out to do and what the central themes are.
So with that said it’s a bit ironic that one of the more played out genres this generation is receiving a game that takes a few elements we know but manages to present them in such a way that the end result is simply striking, effective, and downright cool.
Retrovirus is a game that not many of you out there have heard about but it’s certainly something that should be on your radar. Part TRON, part Descent, part old-school Quake era FPS, Retrovirus is an indie project that once again shows that true talent and creativity rests in the indie community and not some mega studio which pumps out franchise releases every year. Developed by Cadenza Interactive, Retrovirus is a unique FPS game which in some ways can be looked at as TRON or ReBoot except with a lot more shooting. Entirely set within a computer, Retrovirus sets players on the mission to delete an ever growing virus that of course is one of those nasty things that sets out for complete & utter destruction.
The thing that truly sets Retrovirus apart from other games is that instead of limiting the action on the ground through some predictable cover based action gamers have complete freedom of movement through six-axis gameplay. The ability to move at any axis during combat delivers a feeling that not many games have offered in recent memory and that fits the computer based setting of the game quite well.
I was lucky enough to chat with Cadenza Interactive's Community Manager Dylan Barker to discuss the evolution of Retrovirus and what the game will offer players. For those who love games or narratives set within computer worlds then I think you'll dig what Retrovirus is striving for as the game is creating a mood that's entirely unique.
Ian Fisher: Retrovirus may be a FPS game in nature, but it’s far from being similar to anything we’ve seen before. So what served as the inspiration for Retrovirus and how long has the concept of the game been floating around the talented minds of the development team?
Dylan Barker: The clearest inspiration for Retrovirus is obviously Descent, but hardcore Descent fans will point out a lot of differences. The core of Retrovirus is based on Descent, but it has been influenced heavily by games like Unreal Tournament, Quake and Portal.
Ian: It was mentioned that Retrovirus will have a dual narrative to it that actually involves the people on the other side of the screen as opposed to having the tale set entirely within the computer world. So what sort of elements can we expect from the story? Will it be more akin to something like TRON in how it somewhat sets up the real world and that of the computer world or will it have an entirely different feel to it? Also, is there any worry that hopping back and forth in the narrative may be jarring to players since there’s bound to be a contrast in tone and visual style or is the development team hoping that gamers will have an open mind to the story told in Retrovirus?
Dylan: At its core, Retrovirus is a game about fighting viruses inside the computer environment. If a player wants to play the game on autopilot, they'll be able to see the virus as it develops into its more dangerous strains. The dual narrative comes into play through finding little bits of information scattered throughout the world. Because you're an email client scanning through the system, you might find a text document with real world information in one spot, or an email in another. Either might contain text that, to the antivirus program in the game is uninteresting, but which might contain information for the player in discovering the virus' origins. The second layer of the story is there for people who want to pry, but it won't be in the way for players who just want to slam through some enemies.
Ian: One of the most striking things about Retrovirus is the visual approach the team at Cadenza interactive is taking. With things such as TRON and ReBoot serving as inspiration to a degree, what has been the main goal of the art direction for Retrovirus? Has it been difficult to come up with designs that are original in the sense that it doesn’t do a familiar design trope or are too abstract for people to process and understand?
Dylan: Our last game, Sol Survivor, wasn't colorful enough. We looked a lot at the visual style in Mirror's Edge, specifically the use of color as a highlight for navigational information, and decided that we wanted to try our hand at that. Our game is generally darker than Mirror's Edge, but we certainly learned a lot from that game on top of TRON and ReBoot.
The core goal for Retrovirus was to create a world that would be distinct from nearly any screenshot. We also have to keep in mind team size; for the bulk of the project, we've had only one artist who was in charge of filling the world. That has led to the use of a lot of simpler shapes, interesting light play using transparent “blended objects” and bold colors. This fits well for a lot of our “clean heavy industry” theme, which either forms or is grafted on to the frame of most of Retrovirus' environments.
Ian: Can you tell us a bit about how the world in Retrovirus is represented in the different areas the game features? Will certain locales have a more pronounced look to represent a particular technical element or will things simply have a unifying feel that is akin to a massive city residing within a computer?
Dylan: Each locale within Retrovirus is going to have its own unique feel, visually and mechanically. There will be things that are thematic throughout the game, particularly as it pertains to elements of the antirvirus program appearing in the world. Otherwise, each major player on the computer, like the Operating System or the Control Panel, will feel different because their roles are so different to both the citizens of the system and the humans that use it.
Ian: Retrovirus not only has unique art direction but it also has a rather crisp visual look that isn’t seen in too many indie games. In an interesting decision the game doesn’t run on Unreal or even Unity but instead is running on a proprietary engine which seems to be getting the job done so far. So can you talk about the choice to go with a proprietary engine to power the game and how that has generally helped the development of the game?
Dylan: A custom engine and toolset means that our programmers can tailor solutions to our artists and designers. Because we're such a small team—with only one production artist and one designer—we have to have our programmers create tools that save our artist and designer time. It is all about amplifying the man-hours we do have by working smarter, with tools that are designed for exactly the job we're trying to accomplish.
The second, but probably even more important reason we run with our own engine is that distinct look you mentioned in the question. We want to stand out, and with tech being so core to our team, this is one way we do that.
Ian: At this point some core gamers may be tired of most new FPS releases but Retrovirus is doing something special as it’s a six-axis FPS game. With the freedom of movement the game allows, what has it been like for the development team to not only design the levels but make the game feel approachable to those who grew up playing stuff like Quake or even Call of Duty?
Dylan: 6DoF movement threw a wrench in the design process early for a long time. Descent was over a decade ago, and there wasn't much reference on how to make a game with 6DoF at its core. We struggled with scale and pacing, then we struggle with navigation, then it was target acquisition in combat. We're starting to get closer to a formula that works.
Players of more traditional “ground pounder” shooters have transitioned well into Retrovirus because of the way our player movement system automatically orients the player onto a preferred axis in the world. Every room is designed to function along one axis, though there's no floor or ceiling that would be walkable in the traditional sense. In this way we're favoring players that don't want to fully manage the 6DoF controls. We'll then enable that full control by allowing players to turn off automatic orientation, which should give the more hardcore 6DoF players the experience they're looking for.
Ian: I’m really intrigued by the concept of a six-axis FPS game and what sort of scenarios that will allow players to get into. But did the DNA of Retrovirus originally have it as a six-axis FPS or were other potential scenarios conceived when the game was first being created?
Dylan: The idea itself was hatched in an evening meeting just after we finished Sol Survivor. Retrovirus was conceptualized as a six-axis game early, but the setting itself wasn't paired to the mechanics until one of our programmers took a family vacation and had some time to mull the concepts over. The meeting we'd had that night involved a bunch of different ideas, and a few threads came together in this programmer's mind which became the dual storyline and 6DoF gameplay for Retrovirus.
When he got back from that vacation he had produced a really simple movement prototype and it wasn't long until we were sold on the idea of making Retrovirus.
Ian: From some of the gameplay footage that has been released so far it appears as if the battles in Retrovirus will have a very unique feel to them through how players can defeat enemies thanks to the six-axis nature of the project. Now will there be multiple ways gamers can take on enemies or specific stages, not only through the weapons they use, but the general tactics or will there be a set pattern in a sense?
Dylan: Absolutely. Players will be able to customize their ships, to favor mobility, strength or cunning. We're still working on a lot of the specifics, but a player built to soak 100% extra damage is going to approach a scenario much differently from a player who gave up that health to be twice as fast. Some players are just going to get into the thick of things and scrap with enemies, others are going to use their weapons to control their enemies, and still others might try to stealth or outflank.
Ian: Has it been hard to accommodate the six-axis nature of the game into the multiplayer modes while still trying to achieve a rather twitch vibe to it akin to Quake? And in general what has been the core goal of adapting the Retrovirus gameplay in a multiplayer setting that doesn’t suddenly become Call of Duty: Cyber Edition?
Dylan: Players die about as quickly as they do in Quake. If an enemy gets the drop on you in Retrovirus, you should have a second to react unless they've hit you with a max range rifle shot plus scan combination. Add to that the fact that our environments are a bit more open than those of Descent and we've found so far that the twitchy elements of the older “traditional FPS” games is still there.
We won't be another normal shooter, as you say “CoD: Cyber Edition” because our levels are built to force players to use the floor and the ceiling as available resources, like cover or entrances and exits from rooms. Players can be flanked just as easily from above or below as they can be from behind, which should also change the way players devise tactics for situations in Retrovirus.
Ian: A really cool element of Retrovirus is that gamers will be able to use mod tools to create their own levels. Now such a thing may be a relatively common or expected occurrence on the PC side of things but there ought to be a greater sense of variety and freedom due to the six-axis gameplay that Retrovirus provides. With the mod tools that are available, what are you hoping the community will put forth once the game is out and do you think the game could create a niche in the mod scene due to what if provides?
Dylan: The tools are absolutely critical to the goals we have for Retrovirus. We are making Retrovirus, not another Descent game. For some, that's going to be disappointing. We've been working with Descent communities around the internet and we're pretty sure that, with our tools in hand, these guys will be able to do a total conversion that satisfies even the most die hard Descent fans. So, firstly, we're trying to give this community the tools they'll need so that they can have exactly what they want instead of yelling at us to do it for them.
Beyond that, there's just a lot of potential in 6DoF and there isn't a good toolset designed around it. Who knows what an aspiring designer could create if he constrained himself to a new set of parameters like those our editor lays out?
Ian: As a developer that has opted to go the Kickstarter route to drum up interest and financial support for your project, do you think interest or support in Kickstarter has declined since the great Tim Schafer incident of 2012? Obviously there are still games that reach their funding goals, but so far quite a few of those have had big names/properties attached to them which make it “easy” for people to donate $20 or $400. Amazing projects such as Retrovirus surface on Kickstarter but there still seems to be a wall that’s occasionally hit for one reason or another which sometimes results in a project not being fully funded. So as a whole do you think Kickstarter has reached a limit akin to the issues that plague the publishing industry today or is it something entirely different?
Dylan: Doublefine didn't herald the slow decline of Kickstarter, but rather, they announced the possibilities inherent with crowd funding to everyone. We'd been mulling over Kickstarter for a long time, but Doublefine showed us it'd be possible to finish Retrovirus entirely under the power of community support.
The main wall that teams hit, including ourselves, is obscurity. If Tim Schafer or Neal Stephenson want to make a game, their mere announcement of entry into the Kickstarter space is going to be enough to get them the attention they need to succeed. The bulk of game projects succeeding without celebrity developer power are doing so at the 11th hour with help from games media (see Kinetic Void and Republique).
There's still a lot of room in the Kickstarter space for games to get made, and gamer fatigue with all of the fundraising is still a much smaller problem than good games languishing in the gaming world's blind spot.
Ian: With how Kickstarter has impacted the way some games can be made do you think core publishers will perhaps change their base practices to cater to the games that catch the interest of people, perhaps through raising awareness of particular indie games as opposed to staying focused in licensed properties or established franchises?
Dylan: Kickstarter is a great way to prove that a game has some baseline amount of support without having to come up with all the production budget up front. Core publishers could use this to hedge their bets a bit on riskier games, but for now it's likely that they'll continue to make more conservative games that execute on known formulas. I actually think that's OK, too. It doesn't take a big company or tons of money to innovate anymore.
Ian: Retrovirus is a FPS game but in a lot of ways it doesn’t follow the typical traits of the genre, which is a good thing since some of them have been bashed to death this generation. When you look at FPS games today do you think the genre has lost some of its creativity or have gamers just become too accustomed to things compared to the earlier days of the genre when games like Wolfenstein and Quake were popular?
Dylan: FPS games in general are more about the cinematic experience now than they are about player investigation and curiosity. That doesn't have to be the case! If Retrovirus succeeds, people playing it will be challenged just as much with puzzles as they are with combat. I want players to remember breaks in the tension where they explored, and tried to figure out the world around them. The world of Retrovirus is so far from the typical FPS battlefield that we'd be wasting the opportunity we've got here if we stuck to typical scripted linear shooter mechanics.
Ian: When all is said and done, why shoulder gamers check out Retrovirus and where do you hope the game is a year from now?
Dylan: Above everything, a game has to be fun. Retrovirus is already fun here in our home tests, and there's a lot of meat here that just isn't available in other games. The game is going to have some quirks, and it's going to feel different from most other modern games, and that's intentional! We're going to release content for free after release, we're going to give you our editor and let you make your own maps and content, and we're here to support our community through the long haul.
A year from now I'd love to see a couple of mods, maybe a Descent total conversion and something else that a fan will come up with that I can't even imagine right now. The coolest thing in the world to me would be to see a fan-made mod take off like Day Z did with Arma II.
I want to extend a huge thanks to Dylan for taking the time out to chat about Retrovirus and what the team at Cadenza Interactive hopes to achieve with the project. For those who were raised watching TRON or ReBoot as I was when I was a young lad it's simply cool to see a game that takes a few base elements from those amazing projects yet puts a new spin on everything that is flat out awesome.
Looking at Retrovirus it's hard not to be impressed with the game as it's simply stylish as hell and has gameplay that really doesn't look like anything else on the market today, which is a rare thing to occur these days.
If you want to support Retrovirus then check out the Kickstarter page if you want to make a donation to the project. You can also stay up to date on the latest happenings in Retrovirus on the official site of Cadenza Interactive.