Aaero isn’t your average action rhythm title and Mad Fellows’ development was far from typical.
Mad Fellows has had an interesting journey. It started out as a two man team before joining the studio FreeStyleGames. From there, it splintered off into the team we know today and has created Aaero, an action rhythm game where players race across a futuristic environment. There are ribbons of light that must be traced and their power will help you defeat enemies and bosses alike. It feels very Rez-like, which certainly isn’t a coincidence according to the developer.
GamingBolt spoke to Paul Norris of Mad Fellows Games to learn more about Aaero, how the studio got off the ground, what makes the game so interesting and some bits about the upcoming Xbox One X.The days when an indie could be cut a break for making a flawed game are long gone. We didn’t dare even think about review scores. We just concentrated on making the best game we could.
To begin, can you please tell us a bit about yourself and the company you work for?
Hey! I’m Paul Norris. Mad Fellows is a 2 man indie team made up of myself and a genius programmer called Dan Horbury. I’ve worked with Dan on various AAA projects for about 16, maybe even 17 years. We both started out at Codemasters working on things like Race Driver and Colin McRae Rally.
Some guys from Codemasters and Rare started up FreeStyleGames in 2002 and were working on a very cool project so myself and Dan both left Codemasters around the same time to join FreeStyleGames. FreeStyleGames was bought by Activision in 2008 while we were developing a project that evolved into DJ Hero. For a while I ran a team working with Neversoft creating the download content for the Guitar Hero games. That was really great fun.
As teams and budgets got bigger, development became less organic and more regimented. We left FreeStyleGames/Activision in 2013 to form Mad Fellows so we could make games the way we wanted to.
The Steam reviews have been extremely positive so far. How do you feel about the critical reception?
We’re acutely aware that gamers and critics, quite rightly, have very high expectations of games. The days when an indie could be cut a break for making a flawed game are long gone. We didn’t dare even think about review scores. We just concentrated on making the best game we could.
It’s been overwhelming to receive such good reviews. Of course, there’s always people that aren’t happy. The few negative Steam reviews we have are mainly from China where controllers aren’t widely used. We made the decision to not support mouse and keyboard because, while it could technically ‘work’, it was designed for a controller and we didn’t want to compromise the experience.
What was the inspiration behind the game?
The buzz you get from music games is something really special to us. We noticed that the standard ‘tapping in time’ games polarized people. Some people just don’t get on with that sort of gameplay. We wanted to make a game that might appeal to people that wouldn’t normally choose a music game.
Hopefully any player will find an exhilarating and challenging shooter experience and, if rhythm gamers want to get further into it, there’s a lot of depth to how the score is rewarded for the timing. In terms of other titles that had an influence, the first one mentioned is usually Rez. Indeed, I’m a huge fan of Rez and the shooting in Aaero takes many cues from Tetsuya Mitzuguchi’s game as well as Panzer Dragoon which was likely an inspiration for the shooting in Rez.
In fact, at the heart of Aaero is the ribbon following gameplay. This was the starting point for the game and what we hope makes our game very different to anything else. The biggest influence on this part of the game was my love of Gitaroo Man, a Japanese game by iNiS released in 2001.
"As such a small team we have to design and create some pretty crazy tools to make creating that much content possible within a reasonable time-frame."
Aaero is a two-man development effort. This obviously brings in a lot of pressure. What kind of challenges does this bring on a daily basis?
It does. It’s very stressful. There’s no-one to defer responsibility to and nowhere to hide. My responsibilities are art, music, sound design, game design, PR, marketing, social media etc. and Dan’s are programming, tools, porting, platform integration… um… this is Dan’s job so I don’t really know… algorithms probably, general maintenance of the Matrix and making up new complicated words.
The point is, our job descriptions don’t overlap at all. If we don’t do any of the things that are our responsibility the game doesn’t happen. Evenings and weekends have lost all meaning. It’s not that bad, really. Once you get used to not sleeping and living in a state of permanent anxiety it gets much easier.
Can you tell us about the game’s engine and what kind of effort it involved?
We made our own engine for our first Mad Fellows game from scratch… I say ‘we’… Dan made the engine from scratch. He’s a control freak when it comes to coding. He likes to work as closely to the hardware as possible and doesn’t want anyone else’s code in his way.
For Aaero, Unity seemed like the best tool for the job. At first Dan resisted a LOT but after only a week we had a fully functioning prototype and proof of concept. Dan soon warmed to the idea of using it for the whole project.
We (actually just Dan) pulled over all of the rhythm, midi and timing elements from our own engine and bolted them onto Unity. We’re both now really happy with Unity. As such a small team we have to design and create some pretty crazy tools to make creating that much content possible within a reasonable time-frame. We certainly wouldn’t have managed to ship a simultaneous PS4, Xbox One and Steam release without Unity.
A couple of days ago you famously stated that you were tired of the gaming community’s negative backlash to every Microsoft’s announcement including the Xbox One X. But do you think this backlash is due to Microsoft’s blunder during the 2013 reveal event of Xbox One and the subsequent E3?
People seem to go out of their way to find something to moan about and seem genuinely incensed if someone dares to actually think it’s pretty cool and look forward to it. For something that’s supposed to be fun, gaming seems to have more than its fair share of haters.
The launch and that particular E3 seemed pretty disastrous from an on-looker’s point of view. I think that leading up to the launch Microsoft had had some really cool ideas that were overshadowed by DRM, focusing on the TV aspect and the ‘always online’ issues.
"I thought that all indies expect to sell more on Xbox at the moment. I’d be interested to hear other developer’s experience with this."
ll these huge corporations are so used to looking ahead at the whole life-cycle of a product, I think they misjudged that the average gamer was ready to be prevented from playing if the internet went down. I don’t think it’d be as controversial to suggest that a new console needed to be online in 2017, but in 2013 it was pushing things a bit too far. The frustrating thing for me personally was that I’d come to accept that it’d need to be online and I was looking forward to the feature where you could share games with your friends and family.
Then, after the infamous ‘this is how you share a PS4 game’ skit and an E3 arena chanting ‘Sony! Sony!’ it seems that Microsoft did the mother of all U-turns. I guess if they had to restructure how the whole console worked at the eleventh hour, that’d explain why it was a bit bare bones at launch. In terms of features, it felt like I’d downgraded from the Xbox 360 at the time.
To Microsoft’s credit, despite it completely disrupting their launch, they did listen to the feedback and went out of their way to address it. It’s a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation at that point. Do you push ahead regardless and try to prove everyone wrong with the original plan or do you do everything you can to deliver what people say they want?
In answer to the original question, I don’t think it’s possible to please everyone (and us gamers, much less so). I think it’d still happen if E3 2013 had gone without a hitch. Can you imagine if after the Sony and Microsoft keynotes everyone just said “We’ll this is all looking amazing. Great work Xbox and PlayStation. Let’s go to the pub together and celebrate a win for video games!”? Would that be so bad?
You have already confirmed support for Xbox One X and are looking to upgrade Aaero to 4K and 60fps on the new console. Having said that, what are your thoughts on the 6TFLOPS of GPU available on the Xbox One X?
I’m excited about people getting to play Aaero in 4k. As far as my thoughts on 6TFLOPS of GPU… I’m not really technical enough to know what that really means for performance. Numbers get thrown around a lot but, in my experience, programmers will tell you that there are many qualifying factors that can change what those numbers mean in real terms.
Interestingly, Aaero sold more on Xbox One than the PS4, especially given how the latter has more than the double install base of the former. How did you achieved these results on Microsoft’s platform compared to Sony’s?
This is an interesting one. I wasn’t aware this was news. I thought that all indies expect to sell more on Xbox at the moment. I’d be interested to hear other developer’s experience with this. I’m not sure if it’s that Xbox has a better attach rate or if it’s something more subtle and complicated.
It’s true that Xbox have done much more to help us promote the game but without big, AAA style campaigns, the results are marginal and indies still rely on the community and word of mouth and Aaero is marketed as a multi-platform game.
"If developers made games at 1080p that pushed the hardware then, of course, they’d be better than the current console but I don’t think that’s the objective with the One X."
Microsoft have been reportedly quite hard to work with in case of indies. That’s why you see most indies preferring the PS4 or PC platforms. What was your experience working with them?
Frankly, it’s the polar opposite of that. My guess is that we may have been in the right place at the right time when Microsoft were doing everything to repair their reputation with indies but we’ve never experienced any problems at all. We’ve found them much more approachable than other platforms. Having developed the game simultaneously on all 3 platforms, it’s Microsoft that offered, by far the most help.
We’ve been displayed on the ID@Xbox stand at many EGX, Insomnia and even GDC shows. They also set up a press day where they invited a bunch of ID@Xbox developers to come along to their London offices and show our games to some of the top journalists. I don’t know what experience anyone else is having but they’ve been really great to us.
Do you think Microsoft are holding back the Xbox One X given that no developer can make exclusive games for the system?
No, not really. I mean, if developers made games at 1080p that pushed the hardware then, of course, they’d be better than the current console but I don’t think that’s the objective with the One X.
To run the games we are playing now on the Xbox One in 4k and at 60fps takes a considerable amount of extra power. I think that the Xbox One X is well suited to meet that particular challenge. To do this without alienating those that aren’t ready to upgrade yet is a good move, in my opinion.
As someone who has developed games across a number of platforms and across PCs, do you think the Xbox One X is more powerful than most gaming PCs out there?
I don’t know, to be honest. I mean, there’s always going to be PCs out there that are at the cutting edge and surpassing consoles. I think it’s safe to say that, because we’re developing for a specific system, developers get good results from consoles compared to PCs of roughly the same spec.
If you want the best performance you need to go for a PC. If you want value for money and to just bang a game in and get playing, consoles are the way forward. That’s my thing. I need to relax on the sofa and play in my spare time. I sit at this desk way too much already!
"Because there’s only two of us, we’re still working full-time promoting Aaero and working on the Asian versions."
From a developer perspective, the Xbox One X is obviously more powerful. But do you think devs will utilize all that power given that the majority of console base is on the PS4?
I think if it’s a case of just setting the resolution to 4k, possibly upping texture resolution and letting it run at a better framerate there’s no reason for devs not to utilize the power if it’s there to use. I think that’s the aim with Xbox One X as opposed to developing something completely bespoke for the system.
Finally, do you think Xbox One X will help Microsoft to get closer to Sony in terms of sales?
It’s hard to say. I guess it may do in some regions of the world more than others. I think both platforms have a solid install base now and good support for and from developers. I don’t think there’s going to be any losers any time soon. I’d like to think there’s just going to be more options for gamers to choose the console that best suits their taste.
The Switch is carving out its own market. Do you think you will ever have a presence on that platform?
Yeah, it seems to be a great machine! We’d love to get involved but there’s a shortage of dev kits at the moment because everyone is trying to jump in there now. I’m really glad it’s taken off better than the Wii-U did. Nintendo have their own thing going which is really important for the industry.
Do you have any plans to support the game with more content?
We’d definitely like to if there’s enough demand for it!
What’s next for your studio?
Usually, by the time a game is nearing completion, the team start to transition over onto a new project or sequel. Because there’s only two of us, we’re still working full-time promoting Aaero and working on the Asian versions. We’ve got some cool plans for the future if all goes well, though.