Monday, January 15

Interview with Jonathan Deutsch of DUFGAMES About Black Hole

Already in the Switch’s somewhat short lifespan it has been blessed by a number of twin-stick arcade-style shooters. The first Switch title by DUFGAMES, Black Hole, should be added to the list soon. I recently got to spend some time picking the brain of one of DUFGAMES’ co-founders, Jonathan Deutsch, about the upcoming title, their company, and life as an indie developer for the Switch.

True to tradition we'll open with the classic elevator pitch question. How would you describe Black Hole to help get people excited about it?

JD: Black Hole is a short and challenging twin-stick shooter in space. Fly through themed black holes, collect boosts and gold while defeating the many enemies coming at you trying to destroy you. Upgrade your ship with meaningful and rewarding upgrades, unleash your hyper attack on anything coming into view and defeat the mighty bosses at the end of each world.

Looking over footage of the game I'm getting feels for a twin-stick shooter meets Asteroids but with boss fights thrown in as well. What games would you say were an inspiration to your efforts?

JD: I played a lot of Crimsonland and Super Stardust HD and they are my personal favourite in that genre. While they didn't come up as goals for the development I thought about them a lot and they probably had some influence on the ideas for Black Hole, even if only subconsciously. Super Stardust HD is probably closer to the final game with the asteroid destroying parts in it.

What would you say was the target level of difficulty you were aiming for with the game? 

JD: The game is targeted at people that already know their way around in the twin-stick genre. While the first few levels are fairly easy and there are multiple difficulty modes, it picks up rather quick, giving the players more of a challenge. It may not be hard as nails, but it will take the players some time to learn the mechanics and enemies and how to best beat a level. I used myself and my skill level as a measuring tool. I can barely beat the game on hard mode myself but that's fine as I think it will provide many fun hours trying to beat fully the game.

With arcade-style games there's always an expectation that there's not necessarily an end but with 40 levels listed I'm assuming it is possible to "beat" it? Or from that point does it just repeat or crank up the difficulty until you die?

JD: I'm no fan of never-ending arcade games. While many players enjoy the possibility of endless increasing difficulty and skill I find it more appealing to give the player a certain goal to play towards.

That's why I prefer games like Crimsonland and Stardust to something like Geometry wars.
So yes, there will be 40 levels after which you will have beat the game, but there are three different ships and multiple difficulty modes to keep you coming back for at least a few times. Also achievements.

How big a role in success would you say the upgrade system is? Do you think it's better for tuning for each individual player and their style or weaknesses or would you say there's a more set path to success?

JD: I like player progression of any kind in any game. Towards the end of Black Hole you should be able to max out every upgrade so you can't deviate too much from the "path to success" and you will need almost all the upgrades to beat the game. There aren't many different "builds" if you want, but you can decide where to put your points. And it feels like you earned that particular upgrade. It is more important to gather up more points than which upgrade you choose exactly. I have my own upgrade path I usually like to stick to, though. :) But all others are viable as well.

I noticed in your feature list for the Switch version you list both motion and IR controls? Do these play out more like a "nice to have" so people have options or do you think they're viable for people who want to get their best scores and times?

JD: I don't think any control scheme other than using both sticks will be better for this type of genre because of the precision and speed it provides. So both are more "nice to have". With motion controls it's definitely possible to play through the game, especially if you use both Joy-Cons separately: Tilt left for moving, tilt right for aiming. It'd be cool to see people playing that way and it is one heck of a fun to share the Joy with a second player. :)

IR controls are really just there because we can. Almost nobody else uses this feature and I thought it was a shame and wanted to put it to good use. Sadly it is rather difficult to control the ship reliably but it is still fun to do and try out. Bravo to those hardcore players who will beat the game that way.

Aside from the fact that it is now noted to be the fastest selling console in its first year what drew you to bringing your game to the Switch?

JD: I think the philosophy of the console is something that fits the game rather well. Who really has the time to play 2-3+ hours in one session? (Ok, lots of gamers probably) But the game is designed to be beat in about an hour and you can suspend the game after every level. It is really fast to pick it up and play only for a couple minutes if that's all the time you got.

Also the low price of entry for the dev console was really compelling and who DOESN'T want to release their game on a Nintendo console? With the lower dev price Nintendo seemed to cater more to the Indie developers than they have in the past.

What resources and level of support have you had from Nintendo along your journey?

JD: I can't tell you any specifics but the overall experience has been very positive and the resources and help they provide will make anyone be able to get their game on the system if you put in enough effort. If I didn't find the information I needed myself I could always find someone to ask and get answers.

What has the path been for this company to get to this point?

JD: Both of us are gamers at heart but also creators so making our own game was something we always wanted to do. But it's difficult to start from zero AND sustain yourself. So our company does something completely different. (Websites mostly) In our free time we always built prototypes and tried new ideas. But never really finished anything. Even if we would have, we aren't a super indie studio that pushes out a smash hit. So one big problem was visibility.

When the OUYA was announced it provided a really cheap point of entry for console development and, if timed right, you were one among only hundreds and not thousands or tens of thousands. Unless you take three years longer than planned with development. Then you missed that window. Still, we completed the game and released it for the OUYA and as soon as the Switch was announced (with a low priced dev console) we immediately tried to get our game on it as soon as possible.

You've seemed to dabble in a number of different styles for your projects, what drew you to a twin-stick space shooter?

JD: We never really were genre bound. We always worked on stuff that thought was fun for us at the time. Side scrollers, platformers, RPGs, browser games. We kinda just stuck with this one and it's something that works really well on consoles. The original idea was somewhat different. The working title was "Space Dodger" and had you only dodging various colored discs coming at you with different movement patterns. When we fleshed out that prototype some more it was became clear really early that only dodging wasn't as fun as shooting back.

How would you characterize the independent game development scene where you are in Germany?

JD: Oh, well... I have neither met or even heard of many German indie developers. The only one that comes to mind is Lanze Games in Hamburg, working on their game Pixel Princess Blitz. I backed them on kickstarter and it seems a very ambitious game but I have a feeling they will see it through. For me right now the scene seems kind of hidden. Just like most movies "usually" are made in the US, I have the feeling most games "usually" are made there as well. Maybe if we develop more in the future we will get to know more people.

Are there any more seasoned indie developers out there who inspire you?

JD: Although only being a two man team ourselves I'm amazed by other one or two man teams working on totally awesome games like Braid, Celeste or Axiom Verge. They are so much bigger than what we have created and yet they finished these beautiful pieces of art almost all by themselves. I wish I had the means (read: time) and dedication to make something that great.

What are your plans moving forward?

JD: We will watch how well Black Hole is going to be received and depending on feedback add more to the game, work on a possible Black Hole 2 or try a totally different game. We already have some new ideas.

We will also try to get Black Hole on more platforms like Steam, Xbox, iOS, Android. It would be great to be recognised as an indie game studio and produce many games in the future.

Anything else you’d like to share?

JD: I'm a video game music enthusiast and while it will probably be overlooked by the average gamer I think that our original soundtrack for the game is one of it's strongest points. To this day I still find we did a fantastic job and haven't gotten sick of it at all after all these years.

I wanted to take a moment to thank Jonathan for taking the time to share his thoughts and observations as well as Ryan Williford for coordinating! No final date has yet been set for Black Hole but it should be coming to the Switch soon!

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