GamingBolt speaks to Yousuf Mapara about Switchblade Monkeys’ debut game.
With most of the games set in post-apocalyptic worlds or involve mindlessly shooting the bad guys, an independent development team compromising of former developers from the likes of Blizzard and Radical are working on Secret Ponchos. The game is set in the wild west as the player takes the role of an outlaw and fugitive. The game is mostly based on PvP mechanics as players battle out for notoriety and reputation.
GamingBolt caught up with Switchblade Monkeys’ Yousuf Mapara who is the creative director of the game and were able to ask a few questions. His response to our questions are below.
Ravi Sinha: Secret Ponchos has had some very humble beginnings in its development. What were some of the bigger obstacles faced in development?
Yousuf Mapara: Secret Ponchos started (and still is ) as a passion project between friends, meaning everyone collaborated because we loved the game we were making and being independent. Starting a collaboration this way sets you up for a lot of obstacles, as you are basically self funding the project, through sweat equity and your own hard earned savings! You are always on the verge of some Financial Crisis so you have to be really careful about how you use resources. I think though that it’s also an advantage, because by having so much at stake on a personal level, we learned a lot about the process and ourselves.
"Getting bounties right was very critical for us , especially since our gameplay ranges from 1vs1, to 8 player FFA. Our goal was to keep one "bounty System" so players can progress properly despite what game mode they choose to dominate in."
Ravi Sinha: Secret Ponchos takes inspiration from the likes of Team Fortress 2, Street Fighter II and League of Legends. Was it difficult to come up with a concept for a competitive PvP game, especially considering heavy competition in almost every sector?
Yousuf Mapara: You hit the nail on the head about that. We’re definitely making a game in a very scary competitive space against really talented larger studios – which is a weird thing for an indie studio to take on. But we did it because we love competitive gaming and it was the type of game we wanted to play, and we felt we could add something new. One thing we noticed was that the genres of Fighting games and Team Shooters are tending to become a bit formulaic with changes feeling more superficial or graphics upgrades. We knew the key to Secret Ponchos having its own identity would be to do something new with combat so it breaks those boundaries of how combat games typically play.
The isometric PVP style really helped us achieve this, as players can clearly see the environment around them, enemy positions, teammates, and the exact spacing for launching attacks. Unlike the moba genre everything in Secret Ponchos is quick (think fighting game), and you’re playing with exact spacing and precision timing. It all came together in a really natural mix that has this addictive competitive feel.
Ravi Sinha: Tell us about the Bounty system in the game. How do you balance multiple players ganging up on a single player with a bounty and what kind of rewards are in store for those who successfully complete bounties?
Yousuf Mapara: Getting bounties right was very critical for us , especially since our gameplay ranges from 1vs1, to 8 player FFA. Our goal was to keep one “bounty System” so players can progress properly despite what game mode they choose to dominate in.
Like all multiplayer games its possible you get matched up with people who are just terrible… So imagine one super skilled outlaw, teamed with 3 guys who are just doing terrible that match. Our solution was to make bounties take into account Performance instead of only being outcome based.. So if your team lost (all 4 of you died), but before you fell you took out 3 of the enemies single handedly, your earn bounty points despite the loss because you performed like a legend. And vice versa if your team does awesome and you win the match, but you were being a jackass and did not contribute, you will gain some small reputation for getting the Win, but you will lose bounty points from your performance.
That’s where we are taking Bounties, we’re excited about this because it makes performing well important. Even if your team cannot secure the win, you can progress forward as an individual if you do well.
Ravi Sinha: What can you tell us about the game modes and character types? We already know about the capture point style of play that will be available in DLC but what else is on offer aside from straight-up death match in the base game?
Yousuf Mapara: Even within death-match, there are huge opportunities to discover different type of depth…variations on the way scoring works can dramatically change the feel of the combat. So that’s something we focus on as a team.
Some modes you respawn on death, so the action is quicker paced and more like a wild shootout. Other modes in Secret Ponchos your teammates do not re-spawn on death, so everyone plays very tactical. Every bullet that hits you matters, so you see teams taking cover and protecting each other more strategically.
Another example is Free for All. Even just changing the way a score is calculated dramatically has an impact on the feel of play. We initially set it up in the typical ” whoever gets the most kills wins the match”.
But at the last second we changed something small almost seemingly insignificant, but it dramatically changed the strategy behind free for all. We thought “if a guy has 11 kills and 13 deaths in a round, he is not playing better then someone who has 8 kills and 0 deaths”. So we changed it so the score is your kills minus your deaths. All of a sudden people started playing more strategic with less spamming.. It added another dimension, that if you take out the leader, the difference between you and hte leader changes 2 points instead of one point if you killed someone else.. Because you gained a kill, but you also gave the leader a death so he lost a point.. So strategy in who you gun down started to emerge.
We will use Early Access as a way to really explore these dimensions to the modes we have. Post Launch is another story, we’re also excited about expanding modes dramatically to include some of the newer stuff in R&D at the moment, some things we are currently playing with include things such as AI hoards, coop missions against AI, and capture the gold mode. Those things we can continue to develop and patch in if the game can hold its own in the market.
"Yes! The biggest source of excitement for us when we switched to PS4 was 60 FPS, because we're a fighting game and that type of responsive gameplay was critical. The PS4 is special because it supports 1080p and we really want to be a game that showcases that. We've been working hard to push towards that goal... 60 FPS 1080p."
Ravi Sinha: How has Sony assisted the team in development, besides offering PS4 dev kits? What has the experience been like in developing for the PS4 thus far?
Yousuf Mapara: One area that Sony has helped us with a lot, is their world wide reach to gamers. As a multiplayer game our lifeline is the size of the community. You need a healthy population playing the game, or else matchmaking falls apart, and people end up sitting around in empty lobbies. Sony’s invitation for us to participate in Playstation Plus helped Secret Ponchos because it will create a very healthy install base right off the bat and a strong Secret Ponchos community as the foundation we build off.
Another huge area of assistance was technology. We switched Engines to Sonys proprietary “Phyre Engine” when we found out we were going PS4. Sony’s R&D team led by Richard Forster and Jason Doig took a very interesting role in our game development. They looked at how we were using their engine, and actually became more and more involved in directly supporting how the engine handled things. This was amazing for us, because A) they are a top notch crew that knows their stuff and B) they could help us understand the engine side, or adapt it if we needed something the engine did not support.
Ravi Sinha: Secret Ponchos will use the PS4 to implement features like cloth physics and ambient lighting. What other graphics technologies are you looking to implement?
Yousuf Mapara: Lighting is very important to the visual style of Secret Ponchos. We use a lot light to paint the set so you see strong color composition. Techwise there is a lot of subtly to the rendering that our TD Richard Yandle and his team have setup. You’ll see things like Radiosity where light is bouncing from one object onto another and projecting some of its color, Screen Space Ambient Occlusion so shadows get more depth particularly in crevices and corners. Lit particles and lighting FX so when kidred throws his dynamite down the hall way you see spec on the ground reflecting.
Ravi Sinha: Will the game run at 1080p and 60 FPS on the PS4?
Yousuf Mapara: Yes! The biggest source of excitement for us when we switched to PS4 was 60 FPS, because we’re a fighting game and that type of responsive gameplay was critical. The PS4 is special because it supports 1080p and we really want to be a game that showcases that. We’ve been working hard to push towards that goal… 60 FPS 1080p.
"We are targeting Fall 2014 for release on PS4 once everything is rock solid and balanced, and we are doing that by bringing the game to Steams Early Access very soon ( this summer) with an actual community of gamers instead of internal testing only."
Ravi Sinha: Work is also on-going for the PC version of Secret Ponchos. How does developing for the PC compare to the PS4, and has the latter offered any benefits in terms of the available audience for PvP-focused titles compared to the former?
Yousuf Mapara: I would not say one is better than the other, each development platforms has advantages. It’s definitely nice how on PS4 we are dealing with a common set of hardware for all customers. We can optimize the game to have a very exact line between performance and quality. With PC that line is in a different place for every machine, so the approach is different. You let the customer pick what they want and give them the settings to do that.
PS4 development is pretty cool for devs because of things like the share feature.. It’s great when you have a bug and you press a button and it captures the footage, although it’s a feature for players, we use it a lot as a dev tool. I like being able to run the game on my Dev kit and have my computer I’m animating on running at full speed.
Some stuff is really cool on the PC though too.. You can take your Laptop to the coffee shop, and not worry about your devkits! Both have trade-offs.
Ravi Sinha: What are your thoughts on the Xbox One and Microsoft’s ID@Xbox indie development program? Given the opportunity, would you consider developing for the console in the future, perhaps with a new project?
Yousuf Mapara: I think it’s great Microsoft is making big steps towards supporting indie development, it creates more opportunities for all indie developers to have multiple platform options.
In terms of our SKU plan for other consoles, we decided earlier on that we want to keep development focused on one single console platform (PS4), so we can have the best chance of creating a high quality experience. It is tempting shipping on multiple platforms because the sales opportunities would increase, but we felt it would risk the quality to spread our development thin trying to support too many things. We would rather focus all that development around PS4 and putting out a strong and respectable game.
Ravi Sinha: While Secret Ponchos features twin-stick controls, will it implement any of the DualShock 4’s unique features such as the touchpad?
Yousuf Mapara: There was a temptation to use every feature available like touchpad, but we came to our senses and decided to focus on what works best for the specific gameplay we designed instead of tacking stuff on. The reality is the analog sticks and the core buttons/triggers play super well for twin stick shooters! So we kept a classic controls approach.
The feature we are excited about for Ponchos is the Share button, because it’s a competitive online game. Players can easily capture their epic battles and replays. It’s funny at the start of development we wanted to integrate replays because it was so perfect for our game, but we realized we had no chance to get the resources to build all those features from Scratch. So it was like a Holiday Miracle when we found out the PS4 had it built in on the hardware level.
Ravi Sinha: Have you managed to narrow down a release date for Secret Ponchos yet? If not, can we look forward to seeing the game at E3 2014?
Yousuf Mapara: We are targeting Fall 2014 for release on PS4 once everything is rock solid and balanced, and we are doing that by bringing the game to Steams Early Access very soon ( this summer) with an actual community of gamers instead of internal testing only. People who want to get their hands on it early, or help us shape the balancing of the game should participate! We were super excited that Sony was supportive of us doing a larger scale beta, even if it meant on another platform. Ultimately this will lead for a better game for everyone.
"We did put quite a lot of effort into GPU optimizations to attain 60fps 1080p split-screen with 8 players. Secret Ponchos supports Split screen matches between 2 players on a single machine. The 2 players can then take it a step further and compete online together as a team in matches supporting up to 8 players."
Ravi Sinha: There is no doubt that the game looks gorgeous and it has this distinct art style to it. Can you tell us about the engine that is running this beauty?
Yousuf Mapara: Thank you so much, we have been working really hard on achieving a memorable art style. A lot of this comes from the artists being very strong at their craft, but in terms of technology there are things we do to support the art look. Lighting was very important to us, we’re using the “Enlighten” Lighting system (I think it’s used also in Battlefield). We use this because it allows the artists to use splashes of lighting color with area lights and create a more exaggerated or stylized look, and we utilize features to allow for light and color to bounce and reflect nicely giving a subtle gradation to things. Screen Space Ambient Occlusion is very important for us too, as it helps define the volume of our objects and ground things. We’re also working quite a bit with custom characters light rigs, so we can exaggerate the lighting effects on the characters, and define their shapes/volumes.
Ravi Sinha: What are your thoughts on the PS4’s architecture [RAM, CPU, GPU]? How are you using the all of them to their full potential and how challenging has it been?
Yousuf Mapara: We use Sony’s Phrye engine, which supports multi-core, asynchronous task management. It wasn’t too difficult to utilize the CPU cores available. Memory-wise, we’ve room to spare, because our levels are not open world or huge.
We did put quite a lot of effort into GPU optimizations to attain 60fps 1080p split-screen with 8 players. Secret Ponchos supports Split screen matches between 2 players on a single machine. The 2 players can then take it a step further and compete online together as a team in matches supporting up to 8 players. Mixing local coop online was very exciting to us, but came with a lot of hard work.
The reason this challenge was significant was potentially each side of the split screen could be rendering battles with 8 players in a match, so we had to evaluate rendering a total of 16 players and 2 sets of environment on a single machine and maintaining 60 FPS. We put a lot of effort into optimizing to make this work, because ultimately we felt the idea of having a friend over as a teammate next to you on the couch, and then going online for battles against other players was a great experience we wanted to support.
Ravi Sinha: Thanks for your time.
Yousuf Mapara: No problem, it was my pleasure. Please keep an eye out for Secret Ponchos on Steam’s ‘Early Access’ if you’re interested in getting your hands on the game early, and joining us in our push for Final PS4/PC release. You can sign up for our mailing list on www.secretponchos.com and we’ll keep you up to date the second Early Access is available.