This year the three of us jetted our way to the United States to attend GDC (Game Developers Conference) in sunny San Francisco. This was not only the first time our team has attended a major event together, but also the first time any of us has been to a GDC! We were excited, a little bit nervous and not entirely sure what to expect!
Arriving the Friday before the conference we had the weekend to get over any jetlag, learn how tipping works and run into more Australians than was statistically probable.
Thanks to the combined powers of the Indie MEGABOOTH, Unity and Intel we ended up with three separate offers to show the game, which for a three person team left us a little overstretched. So we roped in our friend Lachlan to fly down from Seattle and hang out with us for the week. To sweeten the deal I got extra t-shirts printed up so we could look like we belonged to some kind of hardcore street gang.
Starting Monday morning and running the full five days, we had Assault Android Cactus playable in the Indie MEGABOOTH Showcase. It had a great atmosphere, very laid back and approachable and we were surrounded by other super cool indie developers, like Tower of Guns‘ Joe Mirabello and Daniel and Sam from the Airscape: Fall of Gravity team.
Jeff identified a serious technical problem on the first day – not enough people were complimenting him on his soundtrack – so we called by Office Depot on the second morning to secure amplified speakers and rectified the issue.
On Wednesday the Expo started giving Assault Android Cactus it’s second home at the Unity booth and also giving people the first chance ever to play an early version of the PS Vita version, as chronicled in Dave Zwierzchaczewski’s coverage for Autodesk! (we show up at 1:30 but it’s a great video covering a lot of Australian developers)
As one of last years winners of their demo contest, Intel gave us a timeslot to show Cactus at their main booth in the expo hall, which meant at one point we had the game showing in three separate locations simultaneously, and at least one person wandered from the West Hall, past Unity in the expo hall and made it all the way over to Intel and was very confused about why they kept seeing the same game. (twinstick shooters are just everywhere these days and they all look the same amirite? (IGF judges feedback – “yeah you’re totally right.” whoops, getting ahead of myself there))
While we did our best to sneak off and catch talks from time to time, it’s fair to say the booths meant we really didn’t take as much advantage of seeing the talks live as I would have liked. But there was no way we were going to miss the Robotron: 2084 post mortem.
We get asked about our influences a lot, and honestly there are a lot of them and I don’t feel weird acknowledging it. There’s games like Cannon Spike / Gun Spike, Smash TV, Gunstar Heroes, Radiant Silvergun, Super Stardust HD, many of the bullet hell shoot-em-ups, all kinds of things really, without even counting our anti-influences, containing elements we are consciously seeking to avoid. Someone even asked me if there were shades of Cave Story in the way the weapon upgrades work in Cactus, and the answer is yes, but the thing is any kind of high intensity dual stick shooter can pretty much trace its lineage back to Robotron: 2084.
Often these discussions of older arcade games are academic – such as recognising proto-mechanics that would fully explored in later games – but Robotron is a practical demonstration of chaotic escalation, offsetting high player power with sheer enemy numbers, a nuanced enemy mix where every additional rule and ability was designed to fill a gap and a high risk counter intuitive goal dangled in front of the player to encourage them to overreach.
When Eugene Jarvis showed a slide of the core goals of Robotron, my jaw dropped as they could line for line describe Cactus. Which is actually super amazing because objectively, the games don’t have that much in common outside of the core “omnidirectional shoot-all-the-robots” thing, but to me this highlighted how they had emerged from a similar place – two solutions to the same design aspiration – and this made this whole talk just magic for me. When Eugene described the way the enemies were designed, how each pushed a theme or added a challenge that had not been in the game previously – even small details like adding a floating enemy because he was tired of animating walks – I felt not just a connection, but vindication, having spent so many years at larger studios wondering if I was the mad one because everyone around me seemed to see gameplay totally differently.
As a kid I liked Robotron: 2084 a lot, and as an adult building my own games, I respect it even more now for it’s design. As proud as I am of what we have achieved and built in Assault Android Cactus I feel zero embarrassment in reporting how firmly it stands atop the shoulders of others and it was amazing to meet such an influential creator personally. Then Jeff nagged him into swinging by our booth on Friday.
By Friday night the trip was starting to take a toll on me, but Sanatana and I headed to the Unwinnable Salon, setting up in a little mini living room with comfy couches and a big TV. After nightclub parties and being on the expo floor for the last three days the intimate environment was really nice and I enjoyed being able to go for a little mingle and play a bunch of cool stuff while talking to creators like Dynamighty’s CounterSpy, Untame’s Mushroom 11, GaymerX’s Read Only Memories, These French Fries Are Terrible Hot Dogs, Action Button Entertainment’s Videoball as well as meet a bunch of interesting people I have secretly idolised for a while in ways that mean they won’t remember having met me.
Saturday was my flight back to Australia, and after Sanatana’s twitter feed lead us to the hostel where it seemed like all the indie devs were hanging out to play Towerfall for a few hours, I did a last minute sweep of San Francisco before heading off to the international airport and enjoy the fun of a twelve hour flight in a middle seat with gummed up sinuses. (I have never reached more readily for a piece of candy as when the Air New Zealand lady came through on our descent into Auckland)
All in all, I met a tonne of interesting people, forgot to mention a whole bunch of exciting things, but thank you to everyone who came by and played the game or had nice things to say about it or stopped and chatted with me or the other guys about game development, it was amazing to be there. Did we achieve what we wanted to accomplish by heading over? It’s hard to say – we were really there to meet and to be visible more than anything else, and the real value of the trip most likely become apparent in time, but on the other hand, we knew we were being a bit indulgent, we’ve been slogging away at this game and it was a way for us as a team to experience an important event together, and maybe we’ll never get a chance to do it again! But we did GDC 2014 and it was pretty damn cool!
So while Jeff and I are safely back in Brisbane, madman Sanatana is braving Boston to show Assault Android Cactus at PAX East! If you’re going to be there, be sure to look out for the Mini Indie Booth at booth #1093, along side Imagine Me, Ten Second Ninja and Seiji Tanaka‘s new game.