Even though video games usually allow us to go the worlds we always wanted to for ages there’s still always something else that we want to experience but sadly never get the chance to. For every game that allows us to take to the streets as our favorite superhero or some other such fantastical thing there has been one genre that has laid dormant for way too long. While playing as a regular hero may be good and all, sometimes it’s good to just our aggression and inner beast fully come out by smashing stuff up all the while battling a massive three headed beast. It’s been nearly six years since a game has allowed us to do such a thing but finally a new project is on the horizon which may give us the kaiju brawler we’ve been patiently waiting for.
Potentially coming to the PC in the near future is Kaiju Combat, a new monster brawler which will see the action depicted in films like Godzilla retold, and in some cases amplified, to become a fighting based video game. That already may sound like the best thing ever, but here’s where things get even sweeter: the game is being handled by some of the same folks who gave us the amazing Godzilla fighting games that were released on the PS2, Xbox, and GameCube.
Developed by Sunstone Games, Kaiju Combat is essentially the next evolutionary step in the kaiju fighting sub-genre as it’s taking the core elements found in the old Godzilla games while adding new features and improvements. What’s really interesting about Kaiju Combat is that since it’s an independently funded game the team at Sunstone may very well give us a game that features some of the cinematic monsters we know and love in a video game that’s actually fun to play. The only catch is that the team at Sunstone needs the support of gamers and kaiju enthusiasts alike to make such a thing a reality since the project is attempting to be funded via Kickstarter.
I had the immense pleasure of chatting with Simon Strange, a video game industry veteran, owner of Sunstone Games, and one of the brilliant minds behind Kaiju Combat. In the interview Simon and I chat about some of the design approaches the project is taking along with how the community will play an integral part in shaping the experience that’s offerend in Kaiju Combat.
Ian Fisher: Kaiju Combat is a project that has caught the interest of a lot of people so far but it comes from a studio that is entirely new to them. So can you tell us a bit about how Sunstone Games was formed and what the general goal of the studio is when it comes to developing games?
Simon Strange: It’s pretty much a bunch people from Pipeworks Software, that’s sort of the main thing. I left Pipeworks in 2007 and I’ve been back several times since then to contract on projects like Deadliest Warrior. I was off doing other things and there were other Pipeworks people who worked on the Godzilla games with myself and have since gone on to different projects. When I went to GDC in 2011 there was just so much excitement over the idea of making your own studio and funding your own studio and it just seemed so possible. So when I came back I mapped out a plan to open a studio with my friends. That’s what we ended up doing in May or June of 2011.
We said we would work on mobile games which was great since with mobile you don’t need any investment; if you have the money to feed yourselves you can sit there and start making games. I was going to continue with that but really it was the Kickstarter blow-up around March with Double Fine that made people start to say “why don’t you Kickstart a new Godzilla game?” As soon as I started thinking about things it seemed very possible. So I got in touch with Toho, got in touch with Pipeworks about licensing their engine, and also get in touch with Atari about using some of the things we had done in the past games [past Godzilla games]. It all just really seemed to fall into place and now if we only get the funding we can make this game exactly the way I hope we can get it made.
Ian: I think the reveal of Kaiju Combat was something that took people by surprise since no one had really ever expected another monster brawler to be released given the way the current generation is. But with that said, is there any worry that the game may be too niche for the tastes of most consumers today? Or are you hoping for widespread interest since monsters beating each other up may be appealing to those who recently got into games like Mortal Kombat or even Street Fighter?
Simon: Well this is a great thing about Kickstarter. In the traditional model when you made a game you were betting on the fact that a lot of people wanted to buy it and if people didn’t buy it the way you had anticipated people were going to buy it you lost money and it was a big problem. But with Kickstarter there is no risk. If there aren’t enough people who want to play a kaiju game and support it we won’t get our money and nobody would’ve wasted years of their life betting on this. If we do get the money we get to make the game and we don’t end up with a huge debt; we just put the game out for sale. It completely turns the economic model upside down and it’s amazing; it makes the game easier to produce and cheaper to buy, it makes the game what the fans want. I really hope that Kickstarter is a big part of game funding forever.
Ian: As of now there aren’t any licensed characters in Kaiju Combat such as Godzilla as that’s something you and the rest of the team will look into later. So obviously the omission of classic monsters opens up the opportunity to provide entirely new characters which have a unique spin on them. In general what sort of tone and scope can we expect from the original creations in Kaiju Combat? Is the development team aiming for a more classic look akin to old movies from the 1960s/1970s or will there be a more modern and extravagant look to the monsters? And can you also talk a bit about how the fans and Kickstarter contributors will have a hand in designing the monsters of Kaiju Combat?
Simon: So the goal of working with a licensor like Toho is to really do justice to the film vision of the monsters. Toho specifically, who I worked with for years, they’re very exacting that everything you put in the game matches up very closely with what they have in their films. This is actually a little interesting because they often base what they want the monsters to look like on the actual suits and/or models they used in the films. But interestingly the films often don’t exactly look like the suits or models. The suit may have a particular greyish color but when they shot the movie they used blue lights that day so the character in the movie looks a little more blue in the famous shots. But when they’re looking at the shots that’s what they’re comparing our in-game models to. So even when we get things and Toho says that’s exactly right we will often get fans that say we got the color wrong. Because the suits and so forth are real objects they’re of course subject to physical laws like the color of something is different when it’s well illuminated. So that’s kind of interesting and I like to think of it as a game since you’ll never convince someone that it’s exactly right.
Ian: On top of the art direction the game will strive for through the monsters, what sort of graphical style is the team at Sunstone striving for? Looking at the old Godzilla games there was a crisp look to everything and the same could be said of other titles in the same vein such as War of the Monsters. So will Kaiju Combat have a very clean look and almost anime style look to it or will the game be more “realistic” in a way through how the world and monsters are rendered?
Simon: We absolutely won't be going for a realistic look – but our art director Matt Frank will be skewing the game closer to his preferred style, which will change our look for the better overall.
Ian: Now have you settled on a graphics engine for the game or is that still undetermined at this point?
Simon: No, that is completely set in stone. We’re using the Spigot engine which is Pipework’s proprietary engine that they used in most of their internal projects. That is a key element of this whole thing since there was no way I could make this game for anything less than $1 million if I had to make an engine from scratch. So the goal here is not to reinvent the wheel but rather to keep the wheel turning.
The Spigot engine is something I’ve used and helped develop along with my team for over a decade. So we all know exactly what to do and we can sit down and start making content for the game within a week as opposed to making our engine or get another one we would have to get the tools, get the licenses and it would be a big ramp up learning process that would cost a lot of money. Because this is exactly the tools and technology we’re familiar with we know exactly how to make the game so that allows us to sit down and start working efficiently which is why the price tag is so low.
Ian: Obviously at this point you haven’t settled on any monster licenses to acquire, but if the Kickstarter funding is achieved how much of that will you decide to put aside to acquire a big name license to include in the game? Will such a thing merely be dependent upon the fan feedback or key discussions that go on amongst the development team?
Simon: I’m actually in contact already with several people who own monster licenses and I already have handshake deals for acquiring those licenses for certain amounts of money. I’m not ready to talk about those yet, but assuming we get our funding on the first day when the design forums are open I’m going to sit down and go “here’s our money, here’s how I’m thinking about spending it, and here’s how much these different licenses cost.”
Let’s say for arguments sake that I can get the Ultraman license for $100,000. I would sit down and explain how I would make the game without any monsters and if we wanted to spend $100,000 on Ultraman this is what I would remove from the game to make up for the money we used to apply that license. Basically we’re going to have a discussion, likely a week or two at the outset, and we will figure out how to spend the money. Now that won’t just be for the licenses but actually all elements for the game; cinematics, environments, monsters, audio. Maybe the fans will say “look, we don’t want five environments, we only want two if it means we can get six more monsters in the game.”
Ian: On the topic of fan input I’m really impressed with how you and the rest of the development team are planning to go about receiving input from fans and having that feedback mold the game. Now in general is that something you feel more developers should do, not just those involved in Kickstarter projects but perhaps developers who do more high profile games?
Simon: Well here’s the trick, it’s very popular for fans to say that developers should listen to fans. In most cases developers shouldn’t listen to fans since fans don’t have the information necessary to make good decisions. In order to have fans involved the way I want to you have to be transparent. You need to tell them the truth and talk about money and I think that’s something most publishers wouldn’t allow developers to do.
For example, on the past Godzilla projects there have been huge threads and discussions about why one monster was included and another was not. To really talk about that there are all sort of things you need to understand about legal difficulties, time constraints, what sort of assets exists; it’s really complicated. The fans just want it to say “you liked this person and you didn’t like this person”; they want it to be on that level. I really want to involve the fans on Kaiju Combat so that means the fans will have to step up to the plate and absorb some very complex and sophisticated information since we’ll be making complex decisions together. That’s why I’m not letting everybody in on the design forums and you have to be a backer and put at least $5 dollars. It’s a nominal amount but it at least shows that you care and want to see the game succeed.
Ian: Is there any worry amongst you or other members of the development team that Kaiju Combat may not be able to get massive attention or even be taken seriously since it may not feature Godzilla? Obviously you want the game to stand on its own merits through the design approach and the depiction of the original monsters that are created, but is there any worry that the game may not receive major attention in a sense due the lack of a recognizable brand?
Simon: That’s certainly a fear that if we don’t reach our funding goal that’s definitely something people will likely point to as something we could’ve done better. Initially I wasn’t going to move forward with the project until I had secured a monster license but that became financial unobtainable. Once I started thinking about how we could go ahead without a monster license attached already that actually made me more excited about the project. Although it might be a harder sell and it might shoot us in the foot I actually think a project that is not tied to one license is stronger and more robust. If we tried to get the Gamera license and we made a Gamera game then what? We got nothing and then we would have to come up with a new idea for a new game. But with making a game engine like Kaiju Combat that isn’t tied to just one franchise we make it and when we finish we know exactly what we’re doing and we can do another one with new monsters.
Ian: At the heart of every Kaiju tale is a story, sometimes featuring aliens while sometimes it’s meant to serve as a metaphor on some kind of world issue. So what serves as the narrative glue in Kaiju Combat? And how will the future DLC releases such as new stories play into everything? Can we expect something along the lines of serialized monster tales or it is something completely different?
Simon: Well I’m not going to talk about story at all and obviously we don’t have a lot of specifics in the story since we don’t know what our monster set will be. But I can tell you some important parameters for the story. There have to be a lot of monsters fighting each other. So you need to have a story that gives a reason or explains why all these monsters are fighting. You need to have some interesting choices that the player can make.
There has to be something you’re working towards, something that you can do A or do B but not do both. That’s a really interesting challenge and I tried to work on that in Godzilla Unleashed but I don’t think I came up with a compelling answer. In Godzilla Unleashed I thought you could fight a monster or not fight them and unfortunately nobody thought not fighting monsters was fun so that wasn’t much of a choice. So we are working together and Chris [writer/developer] is really working hard on this to come up with a way where you can have a choice that’s interesting and have branching storylines where you’ll want to play the game multiple times to see the story from all perspectives.
Ian: I know you said you can’t discuss the story too much, but will the core perspective in the story be from the monsters and not from a human perspective?
Simon: It’s actually the opposite. I guess it depends on how you define things. Sometimes you have movies where the humans are acting as stand-ins for the monster and they’re talking about the monsters motivations while other times the humans are talking about their own motivations. Some of each will probably be involved but you’ll at least have humans or sentient beings rather than the monsters talking.
Ian: The combat in any fighting game is important so obviously it’s a big deal for Kaiju Combat to stick out from other titles and more importantly is balanced. In general what sort of approach is the development team taking in designing the combat as far as combos, general speed, and accessibility is concerned? It was mentioned that the game will feature asymmetrical combat, which is something that has me excited, but will the inclusion of such a thing result in a game that caters more towards the core crowd such as those who attend EVO or will the game be something a casual gamer can pick up and play?
Simon: So this is a very interesting thing. I have sort of wrestled with our publishers for years on how we want the combat to feel. I’ve had ideas to make the combat very strategic, but I’ve always had a lot of pushback to make the combat be very frenetic like Tekken. So the Godzilla games thus far have been a little bit halfway and haven’t really shown in either perspective. Something that has been strong about the Godzilla games is their movement towards longer fights and something I hate about fighting games is when I sit down to play King of Fighters XIII and I’m not good at it I won’t even get to play since the person fighting me is so good and so fast that they’ll start hitting me and I’m in some huge combo I can’t break out of and I lose the game. I think that’s incredibly unfun.
So it’s always been the goal to make a game where even you know one person is going to win the game but the other person can still get some licks in, feel like they’ve done some awesome stuff, and destroy the city somewhat. That doesn’t necessarily mean that two people should have an equal chance of winning the game since obviously if someone has practiced the game they’re going to win. But I think it’s important to let people participate at least. So for that reason I’ve been cautious about putting in long juggles, long combos and things that take away huge amounts of life. The life bars in the Godzilla games have always been really long so fights normally take three to four minutes instead of 30 seconds. That’s definitely a direction I feel really good about but maybe the community will push back on that. I’m open to that but I suspect we’ll see something where the fights will be long and both people can feel like they’re participating since I feel like that’s been a strength of the series so far.
Ian: You’ve mentioned that the combat for the game will have more extravagant things such as teleportation moves, flight abilities, burrowing abilities, and even super moves. It may be too early at this stage to discuss some of those things in great detail, but what can gamers expect from things such as seeing a kaiju suddenly take flight and how will super moves play into things? Will there be a standard sub-bar for super moves or will that element of the game differ from how it’s represented in games like Street Fighter?
Simon: Those elements will be a little more emphasized in this new game since we won’t have a publisher mandate to normalize the characters. For example, in Godzilla: Save the Earth we had some mini-games in which you had to shoot something with your beam. That meant that all the monsters had to have a beam and I was not allowed to implement a monster without a beam. Even in Godzilla Unleashed there was a boss fight where you had to use your beam so everyone was like you must use your beam and you can’t build a monster without a beam. I would’ve liked to make a monster that didn’t have a beam as that would’ve been an interesting choice. Of course if you have to balance that with monsters where most of them have beams you need to give them more extreme movement opportunities like faster teleports and things like that. In this game since there won’t be any publisher oversight I’m going to be able to make all the extreme variations I like to make so that means we’re going to see more extravagant and over the top abilities.
The other thing I want to say is that the camera system in the Godzilla series sort of led to the odd abilities of the characters. In every fighting game ever the camera shows the two fighters on the two sides of the screens. So even in a 3D fighter like Soul Calibur because the camera is locked it feels like a 2D game. With Godzilla Atari really pushed for us to have four-player battles and we felt like that was a terrible idea. So we put in this camera to show four players at once and we were like “see this is going to suck” and we did it and it was awesome. We were completely surprised and we totally ate crow on that one. This also meant that a lot of the time when you played the game you didn’t have that side on view that every other fighter has in the world. And because you didn’t have that side on view you had this broader view of the environment and that meant you could odd things where you jump across the screen more or fly.
I really like the Marvel vs. Capcom series and in that game you have this super jump where you jump so high that the other fighter is off the screen. I think that’s a really interesting choice where my action pushes you off the screen. In Godzilla since we have this camera that pulls in and out you can have a monster flying around while another burrows in the ground. You can have all these things going on at the same time. A lot of that was really driven through the camera which from the perspective of Pipeworks we sort of stumbled across as a happy accident since it was a mandate from Atari.
Ian: It may be too early to discuss this, but what sort of things will the development team be employing in Kaiju Combat to represent the massive size of the monsters in the game and how their battle is affecting the world? I know you said that most people want a character that feels like a regular size person, but will there be an emphasis on certain things in the game?
Simon: Well clearly if the monsters don’t look giant then we haven’t done our job properly. It’s true that I said that people don’t want a monster that moves as a 100 meter monster would move in real life. I’m physics major so I kind of want realistic gravity and realistic inertia but that feels terrible. Most people want things that move at sort of a human scale. So imagine a human being that’s 6ft tall and it takes them 1 second for their head to hit the ground and in the Godzilla movie where it’s a person in a suit it takes the same amount of time to fall. But if you imagine a tree that’s a 100 meters tall or a building that’s a 100m tall the top of the building is not going to be anywhere near the ground in 1 sec. It’s going to take a long time to fall.
So I’ve tried at some points to have a monster take 8 seconds to completely fall. Everyone hated it, it didn’t feel like a fighting game and we moved away from it. I’m always inclined to try and do that but fan opinion has always been against me and it’s probably the right decision to not make a game where it takes 8 seconds to have a monster hit the ground since that does sound a bit slow.
Ian: A rather surprising element of the project is that Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal is creating the music for the game. It’s not too often that the lead guitarist for a major rock band contributes the score for a video game so can you talk about how Ron joined the project and what sort of flavor he’s hoping to achieve with the soundtrack for Kaiju Combat?
Simon: I can't take any personal credit for that – Chris Mirjahangir knows Ron from past products, and knew he was a Kaiju fan. So Chris reached out to him, and we're all thrilled that he's officially on board. I've always felt that Kaiju and Rock music went together really well.
Ian: Why do you think it took so long for someone to step up to the plate and try creating another kaiju game? Looking back over the last few years it’s kind of odd to not see a grand kaiju game be released, either from an American company or even a Japanese one. Do you just think such a thing is because how the video game industry has been over the last few years or is it simply something else?
Simon: I mean a big part is that the license holders are very selective of what they want to do with their monsters. A lot of it just has to do with where we are in the console cycle and in the video game cycle. Console games are really in big trouble and mobile games are just huge compared to console games. There’s so much growth in mobile games and so much people are spending money in the mobile market compared to the console games that people are really getting gun shy in the console, arcade and even the PC market. It’s all sort of sequels and expansions to things that are already established so it’s not really the time in which a big publisher will spend money on something that hasn’t been done before. So that’s why I think you won’t see monster games since they’re not well established and they don’t have broad appeal so there isn’t money to fund them.
Ian: Being a veteran of the video game industry what do you think of Kickstarter? Obviously the service is allowing talented folks such as yourself to pitch projects that may not have ever received funding from a major publisher, but do you the service may not reach its maximum levels of potential due to gamers not having as much faith as they should in particular projects or needing to have a big name attached in order to justify donating $100.
Simon: I think Kickstarter is amazing, and I hope it becomes an ongoing pillar of game funding. However, there is a big problem looming – which is that someday, perhaps soon, a company will raise $500,000 or $1M, and then totally fail to actually make a game. I understand why that would happen – making games is hard! But it will probably really shake people's confidence.
Deciding who is reliable to back and who is not is a delicate art. Some people say that you need to have a playable prototype first – but that's not a reasonable expectation for a major product, where you need a dozen people or more to work on the game. Also, it can be hard for consumers to tell a good demo from a sloppy one – building a car than only has to travel once around a track is FAR different from making a car that will run for 20 years or more.
Ian: In the off chance that the Kickstarter campaign isn’t successful what’s the plan for the team at Sunstone Games and the future of the Kaiju Combat franchise?
Simon: It’s certainly very possible that I could try to fund this through a publisher or an investor but that would really kill a lot of the fun in the project for me. If I were to do that I would most certainly not be allowed to involve the fans or put the money back into more content. It would probably turn into one release, try to make money on it, and then we’re done. That’s not really the game I want to make since I want this on-going fanbase thing. I know it’s really easy for people to be gun-shy since they’ll see we only have 10% of our goal and not participate.
If we miss our goal by $100,000 that sends a really strong message whereas if we miss our goal by $200,000 that sends a completely different sort of message. So I really want to encourage people to vote their conscience and if this sounds like a project you’re interested in it’s important to become a backer even if we’re not going to reach our goal in this round. Demonstrating your support for this game is really important.
Ian: Now if the worst happens and the game isn’t funded are you going to take a long break to re-evaluate things and perhaps look at other prospects such as mobile versions?
Simon: I would not do Kaiju Combat on a mobile platform. It needs a controller and needs to be a real fighting game that you control with buttons. But there are a lot of different options, not just with this project but with Sunstone Games in the future. This is where our energy is focused right now but there are other opportunities we’re putting on hold to go after this. I am too sure it would be economically feasible to keep promoting this one project so there may be a break there.
Ian: Even if the Kickstarter campaign doesn’t go as planned, where do you want to see Kaiju Combat in a year from now?
Simon: On people's Hard Drives! I know that our funding thus far is small, but we have options to find other funding, even if Kickstarter doesn't pan out. Those all involve giving up some amount of creative control, so obviously Kickstarter is still the best option for everyone.