Gadling's resident pilot explains what life in the cockpit is like

X3F interview: Shred Nebula's James Goddard

We recently got a chance to talk with James Goddard of CrunchTime Games, creators of the upcoming Xbox Live Arcade game Shred Nebula. A shooter of a different sort, Shred Nebula is attacking the shooter genre from a different angle than all the Geometry Wars clones (which are really RoboTron clones anyway) to give gamers a new experience. We discuss how Goddard is using his experience developing for the Street Fighter series to inject fighting game elements into Shred Nebula. Check out the interview for some exclusive details on the game as well as a look at what CrunchTime games is all about. We've also got some great screens of the game, many of which are new or exclusive to X3F. Read on for the full interview.

First of all introduce yourself. What is your position at CrunchTime? What are your responsibilities?

DJames Goddard, president and founder of CrunchTime Games Inc. I am the Director and Lead designer of Shred Nebula, Chief Planner(Japanese style) for all game systems and features, Co-Lead Ship Programmer and part time Level Trigger/Event Designer. I also run the company (Biz-Dev, HR, Accounting, etc.).

Tell us about CrunchTime. How was the company formed? What sort of games are your focus? What is the development philosophy behind the company?

I formed CrunchTime Games in May 2003 as a 1 man company (me), with the initial goal of providing clients with my know-how and expertise with action/fighting character gameplay development -- which covers anything to do with making characters kick-ass (especially the control/engine systems) -- so I could work on specialized pieces of big games while in the background plan and build up my company. This worked out well, I did years of contract work for both companies, also Atari Games, ended up working on fun pieces of StarCraft Ghost, World of WarCraft (control/camera stuff), Marc Ecko's Getting Up and a very short adjustment for The Da'Vinci Code (which netted work for myself and my newest programming hire Chris Rakoswky).

In October 2005, I pulled the trigger on phase 2 -- stop traveling, make a studio! -- and bought the ranch, converted the detached garage/shop, recruited local graduates/game students. We worked on a design doc for a client and then the 360 version of XBLA hit. I had been tipped this would be awesome, it sure was, so I solidified plans to do an XBLA game ASAP -- all with a crew of 1st time game developers!

We would not start the project until March 2006, which gave me time to define our approach and make sure the company's base philosophy was in place which was already captured in the Corporate Logo: Gameplay with Impact. It means, whatever we do, no matter what the genre, our games must be something that has ummff, you feel them visually with injected control (note the logo) and they let you kick the shit out of whatever is on the screen. We obviously will not be doing kids-games ever. The company approaches development with this attitude at all times. In this company, you will go as far as your talent will take you. I have guys their 1st month empowered to do work they would not get a shot at typically for years

For the record, even though we are called CrunchTime Games, in 2006 we worked all of three mandatory weekends (though some employees chose to work weekends anyway), we had many FO Fridays (f#%&-off), so this means dedication to the craft, not hours -- that would come later.

What are some of the challenges of being an independent studio? Advantages?

Funding. It always comes down to money in the end. We brought on one investor in October to assist with the funding, though I have personally covered sixty percent of the game budget. You start looking at things to sell when it starts getting tight and that gets old. But, we are not trying to do the whole giant investment VC thing to expand the company until we can sell it for x-millions, we are trying to make one great game after another and make ourselves and our investors a lot of money in the process. It is hard to find investors that are up for that, so we have to pull money from family, friends and the private sector. It is rough. On the upside, being independent lets us make a game like this, lets us operate in ways the traditional business cannot and be super creative. When this game hits the service, it will all be clear just what we have done here, in my backyard -- it is the dream so many talk about, we actually did it.

Okay, so Shred Nebula, give us a rundown of what the game is all about. How did it come about? What made you choose Xbox Live Arcade as the distribution channel?

XBLA is awesome, when I played Geometry Wars and Mutant Storm day one on launch, I was totally sold. I did not know – or care -- about the financial details (unlike now where everyone knows and wants in), all I knew is that the service would 'bring back the fun' of gaming. The 50 meg footprint (at the time) I knew would really make things interesting and keep everyone focused on play versus overloading with art, so I saw an opportunity to not only do a fun game, but via old school dev-tricks do very high-end art which would be needed by the time we were done to be cutting edge -- good thing we planned ahead (Undertow anyone)! We knew we would need something great to get on the service, so we rolled the dice and prototyped the game before pitching it. In January 2007 we were approved and now we are wrapping this bad-boy up for early 2008 (somewhere in Q1/early Q2) release.

Click this image for a detailed breakdown of the action

Now, it's been said that the game was inspired by SubSpace, but that's apparently a little misleading. Explain the inspirations behind the game. What sets Shred Nebula apart from other shooters on Xbox Live Arcade?

Some backstory on this: we forecasted the influence of Geometry Wars and Mutant Storm might cause a glut of twin-stick controlling games by then, so we wanted to make sure we would be in our own deal. I predicted Asteroids style flight control would not be done, because 99% of anyone who ever tries it NEVER gets it right (except of course SubSpace and Swarm!) and translating that to modern controls would be unlikely. It seemed wide open to us, we really wanted to do a crazy shooter that was also multiplayer, so Shred Nebula was born.

The source inspiration for the core game is the feeling Asteroids gave me back when I was like eleven and played it -- flying/drifting through space blowing things up, cool booming explosions, etc. The team being mostly early 20's had not all played the actual arcade version of the game. So I bought Asteroids Deluxe Arcade and we began a high-score challenge (that game is so hard) to tune everyone into the beauty of the ship feel. That said, Space Wars (coin-op) was a key source that made me personally want to do this since I was a kid. I have mentioned SubSpace as one of the inspirations to clearly contrast us versus all the other shooters and frankly SubSpace deserves a nod for being a ground breaking game for its version of this genre.

But we are totally different, imagine dog-fighting with entirely different ships -- meaning not classes/weights but with the ships as characters with their own weapons and techniques like fighting characters -- and then speed it WAY faster because our ships move, dodge and counter like nothing before this. The multiplayer portion of this game is very focused and takes the player into each ship -- like a fighting game -- at a deep level they can feel and relate to. You actually can grow over months of playing and have different ships you know counter other ships based on your/your opponents play styles. 1-on-1, this is really cat-and-mouse, more than that, it exponentially scales based on your skill as a pilot on how many things you can strategically do at once – say lay down this toxic sludge on a choke point to set up player A while spinning to shoot down player B's homing missiles, releasing your alternate fire to kill him and then spin-drifting to avoid player A's shots (now stuck in your sludge) to lock-on your special and blow player A up before he gets out of the sludge. All of that transpiring in brief seconds.

The controls are so natural, fast and sink deep into your motor-skills. The difference in speed and depth of action for the dog-fighting in this genre is like going from Karate Champ (great game) to Street Fighter II Hyper Fighting (great game + incredible genre evolution).

Did I mention the game is a blistering 60FPS? Wait until you see it in motion.

What details can you share with us about the single player experience? What about multiplayer? Co-op? How will it take advantage of Xbox Live?

We are being vague about details right now, but I can tell you the game has REAL dedicated single player modes that represent a significant portion of the game. We are gamers, we made damn sure people that like this genre are going to be happy in single player or multiplayer or co-op. There is so much to do in one of the single player modes, it is crazy deep and you can play it multiple ways. The demo will show this, we hope this surprises people.

We take every advantage of XBLA every way we can, as avid fans of the service, we have all the top things you could ask for including being the first developer/game on something we cannot talk about yet.

Have you given any thought to achievements? Are there any unique or interesting ones in there?

From day one, we planned achievements to be part of the game and challenge players to learn more about the game as a result of doing them -- gamer-point junkies (like us) might just find out they totally dig something unexpected from trying to crush the game and score their 200GP. We think we have lots of cool achievements, more on that as we get close to launching.

Finally, what do you want people to take away from Shred Nebula? How will gamers react when they play it?

We want players to be surprised and find they have a new genre to play that goes as deep as they want to go. Most importantly, we want them to experience: Gameplay with Impact.

We'd like to thank James for his time. To learn more about Shred Nebula head to the official site. You can also check James Goddard's personal blog. Finally, visit the CrunchTime Games website to learn about the company and pick up a sweet CrunchTime Games logo T-shirt.

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