Commander ’85 Interview – Back to the ’80s

Talking about the game’s setting, tone, mechanics, and more.

Posted By | On 09th, Jun. 2020 Under Article, Interviews

Not often do you get a game that combines the promise of an interesting setting, a unique premise, and equally unique mechanics in a single experience. With the upcoming Commander ’85, that’s what indie developer The Moonwalls is doing. From its nostalgia-fueled 1980s setting to the central premise of befriending an actual computer and then leveraging that friendship to save the world – all while listening to your mom when she tells you to do your chores – is certainly a fascinating one. In light of that, we’ve had several questions about Commander ’85 and what it’s going to be all about, and recently, we got the chance to ask those questions to its developer. You can read our interview with the game’s lead Marcin Makaj below.

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"Mixing different aspects of the 80s – realistic interiors and fashion, with electronic and technological aesthetics from movies of the same period, has resulted in a very unique gaming experience."

Commander ’85’s period setting is an interesting one, but clearly, the game isn’t trying to be just a historical piece, and looks at the era through a different lens. Can you talk about what sort of a balance it strikes between those two sides?

At first, the game was supposed to be a little different – I wanted it to be a realistic simulation of the 80s. It didn’t go quite well with testers, as the real-life retro hacking was too complicated and boring to an average player. The idea to add a little bit of retro sci-fi came to me after watching Weird Science, and their visually pleasing and simple approach. Mixing different aspects of the 80s – realistic interiors and fashion, with electronic and technological aesthetics from movies of the same period, has resulted in a very unique gaming experience.

How important is the period setting to the game? Is authenticity in the portrayal of that setting and people of the time crucial to its story?

The entire game is a one, huge easter egg – you can find references to the 80s, the technology, the popular culture, the architecture, and others in literally every corner. For example – the protagonist’s room was closely based on rooms of that era – you can find there the same furniture, books, toys, and gadgets you remember from your very own room.

How much of the game is about interactions with this computer to save the world, and how much is it about being a kid who has to listen to his parents and do what they say? How do the two sides manifest in terms of gameplay mechanics?

You can split the game into two main parts – the computer world, and the real world. In the computer world (while using a computer) you can visit different BBSes (datanets), hack, and use them to your own advantage (for example – you can order new toys, play secret video games, win the lottery, or simply – have fun while reading news, or secret documents from the NSA, or Area 51), play video games from floppy disks, or do whatever else you want (and what was possible on old computers, like Commodore 64). In the real world, you can read books, watch TV, listen to radio, pick up almost any object around you, talk with your friends through a walkie-talkie, or perform tasks for your in-game mother. If you miss her requests, she will be more and more angrier, and if you cross the line – you will be grounded. 

It sounds like there will be a lot of dynamism at play in the players’ interactions with the computer, which could lead to unpredictable things and might even encourage replays. Can you speak more about that and what the game is doing behind the scenes to ensure that?

The secret lies behind the computer’s artificial intelligence – it analyzes your every move and decision, and behaves accordingly. It has several hundred dialogue lines, which can be mixed together to create unique and fun dialogues (it is even possible that it will argue with your in-game mother). Obviously some parts of the game are heavily scripted (for example the tutorial part), but after that – you are free to do whatever you like, and you won’t hear even a small part of the possible dialogues during your first play-through. 

commander 85

"There are three possible endings, but multiple ways to achieve them. After the tutorial part if over, you are on your own."

How does the game ensure that in spite of using random elements, it still feels like a cohesive, handcrafted story?

Some of the random elements are purely for aesthetic purposes (like your in-game mother having different outfits, or different voice-lines for similar situations), some of them add a little bit of realism to the game (for example when your friend told you to call him around 5 o’clock, and he isn’t reachable, because his mother wanted him to eat his dinner first), and some of them are implemented to give you a challenge (like new passwords being generated for each BBS when you start a new game). In other words – there are different randomly generated elements, but they are consistent with the game’s world and with the gameplay.

Can you tell us about the games and programs players can install and run on the Commander, and what that adds to the game in terms of variety and content?

First of all, there are several different video games, inspired by classic titles (for example Arkanoid, Missile Command, Frogger, Space Invaders, or Donkey Kong), but you can also install several applications to help you during the storyline (for example a secret NSA software, or a tool to scan and fix corrupted files on your computer). Some of the software is there to give you fun while waiting for certain events, and others will be helpful while fighting the virus, and Commander’s artificial intelligence.

How significantly will player choices affect the story and how it plays out?

There are three possible endings, but multiple ways to achieve them. After the tutorial part if over, you are on your own – the virus is spreading through your system, the computer’s artificial intelligence tries to convince you to help it, and your friend is offering you his help to defeat the threat. The virus is infecting your computer in real-time – so the longer you spend playing video games, or reading books – the more your computer is affected (some functions will behave not as expected, some of them won’t work at all, and applications can crash anytime). You have a lot of possibilities to defeat the virus – scanning and repairing files, causing a blackout in the neighborhood, contacting the military, acquiring the root privileges, or going inside your computer (like in the movie TRON), and many others.

Roughly how long will an average playthrough of Commander ’85 be?

You can get the easiest (negative) ending in an hour, if you want to simply finish the game, and get one of the good endings – you will have to spend at least 4-6 hours, but if you will get involved in the side quests, and explore the possibilities – you can easily spend 10 hours in one play-through.

Will the game feature Xbox One X and PS4 Pro-specific enhancements? Is 4K/60 FPS on the cards?

The game will feature the same graphical settings for PlayStation 4  Pro and Xbox One X as for the PC version. We use a lot of dynamic lighting, reflections, and high quality textures, and the game looks great on each of those platforms.

commander 85

"My publisher made sure that the game runs smoothly on every platform – we have spent several months on optimizing the game for Xbox One and PS4, without compromising the graphics."

How is the game running on the original Xbox One and PS4, in terms of frame rate and resolution?

My publisher made sure that the game runs smoothly on every platform – we have spent several months on optimizing the game for Xbox One and PS4, without compromising the graphics. I can honestly tell that we did a good job, and you can achieve a steady high number of frames per second on every platform.

What are the docked and undocked resolution and frame rate of the Switch version?

The Nintendo Switch version was made entirely by my publisher, who has some of the most experience in Switch games in this part of Europe. As I don’t have any technical knowledge about the Switch platform, I was informed that Commander 85 will be one of the better looking games available for this platform.

Given that next-gen consoles are right around the corner, have you given any thought to next-gen ports for the game?

This is entirely for my publisher to decide. I would love to make new versions of the game, to expand the title even more, and provide the support for next-gen platforms.

What are your thoughts on the PS5’s custom 3D audio engine Temptest? How much of a difference do you think tech like this will make to how immersive games can be?

First of all, I have to point out that currently I do not have any next-gen developers kit, so my opinions and answers on further questions are based on my knowledge from presentations and the internet.

I always considered audio as one of the most important elements of a video game, and I am all into new audio technologies, especially as advanced as Tempest. Being able to achieve realistic 3D audio without additional hardware is an amazing opportunity, and I really want to explore it in my next games.

Since the reveal of the PS5 and Xbox Series X’s specs, a lot of comparisons have been made between the GPU  speeds of the two consoles’ GPUs, with the PS5 at 10.28 TFLOPS and the Xbox Series X at 12 TFLOPS – but how much of an impact on development do you think that difference will have?

According to my experience in developing games for Xbox One and PlayStation 4, usually I got better performance results on PlayStation 4, and I think it will stay the same for the next-gen consoles. Having more power is always a great thing, as it opens new possibilities in terms of graphical quality.

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"One of the biggest challenges in developing Commander 85 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One was keeping the loading times as low as possible."

The PS5 features an incredibly fast SSD with 5.5GB/s. This is faster than anything that is available out there. How can developers take advantage of this and what will it result to, and how does this compare to Series X’s 2.4GB/s?

One of the biggest challenges in developing Commander 85 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One was keeping the loading times as low as possible. The main game is built on one scene in Unity, so there is a lot of data to load and process. After several weeks I managed to drop the loading times to below thirty seconds, but it was very hard and time-consuming to achieve. Because of this, I am very eager to see faster drives in the future models of PlayStation and Xbox. It will allow developers to process even more data in much shorter time – especially on PlayStation 5. I believe that this next generation of consoles will bring us some of the best games in gaming history.

There is a difference in Zen 2 CPU. The Xbox series X features 8x Zen 2 Cores at 3.8GHz (3.6GHz with SMT) whereas the PS5 features 8x Zen 2 Cores at 3.5GHz (variable frequency, with SMT). Your thoughts on this difference?

Both of them are a good step forward in CPU performance. The Simultaneous Multi-Threading can make a big difference – an increase in performance is always a desirable thing, but besides the difference in PlayStation 5 more flexible approach, I honestly don’t see a clear winner here.

What are your thoughts on the Xbox One X’s Velocity architecture and how will it make development easier on it?

Xbox has told that this technology will unlock new, never-seen before capabilities in game development for consoles. I am aware that this is a marketing jargon, but I am honestly excited to see the Velocity architecture in action. Together with a fast SSD, it can really make a difference. 

Xbox Series X’s BCPack Texture Compression Technique Reportedly Better than the PS5’s Kraken. What are your thoughts on this?

Textures size is always a bottleneck in game development, and optimizing. I don’t have enough details yet, but I will be sure to check them out as soon as I have an opportunity.

So, there is a power difference between the two new consoles, there is no doubt about that. But do you think that power advantage of Xbox Series X will matter because of Microsoft’s cross gen policy?

I am a long-term Xbox fan, and I have a lot of games for this console, so from a players point of view – the cross gen policy is always a great thing. Obviously when playing previous gen games the power advantage of Xbox Series X won’t make such a big difference – but hey, I can play my favorite games!

Do you think the Xbox Series X will out-power most gaming PCs for years to come?

I honestly hope so! Developing PC games is always much more time-consuming than developing games for consoles – because of the amount of different hardware configurations. From a developer’s point of view – if players switch from their PCs to consoles, it will allow developers to focus only on two main hardware platforms – PlayStation and Xbox. This will ensure that future games will be more carefully crafted, and tailored to the exact platform specifications, allowing for better graphics and performance.

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