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Making a Graceful Explosion Machine

Vertex Pop's Mobeen Fikree talks about the fate of arcade-style games and the GEM of the Switch launch lineup

Mobeen Fikree founded Vertex Pop to make a very specific type of game that had gone out of fashion and was no longer a viable business by the time he was old enough to play them.

"That doesn't sound very wise when you put it like that," Fikree conceded to GamesIndustry.biz last month.

Wisdom aside, it seems to be working. Fikree makes old school arcade-style action games, and his latest, Graceful Explosion Machine, has received good reviews with sales exceeding expectations since its debut on the Nintendo Switch early last month. Looking a bit like Defender with a stylishly vibrant paint job and a small arsenal of weapons instead of pesky innocents to protect, Graceful Explosion Machine was the first original shoot-'em-up on Switch, and a perfect example of Vertex Pop's design philosophy in action.

"What we want to do is make good action games, and good action games means a couple things. There's an immediacy to them. I'm a little bit too young to have played in arcades, exactly, but legend has it you put in your quarter, press start, and then you immediately start playing the game. And you can see that in GEM."

Fikree is old enough to have caught the tail end of the arcade era when Street Fighter II and Daytona USA were commonplace, but feels he missed out on a golden age of titles like Robotron and other classic shoot-'em-ups he learned about mostly through MAME.

"The '80s were a fascinating time for game development," he said. "In the '80s, there were these games that were made by a single person and felt very true to the author. The kind of games I'm trying to make... I'd like them to feel very true to Vertex Pop and what the team wants to do. If you knew us, you'd see everybody's personality is in the game, and that's kind of a unique thing."

Fikree's been following that vision for some time now. He founded Vertex Pop in 2008, and spent several years working on iOS games until the mobile market lost its luster.

"By the time 2013 and 2014 rolled around, it didn't seem like a very stable or safe or reliable marketplace," Fikree said. "And I thought that consoles would be better, would be a place where I could make these arcade-style shooter games and they would find their audience. And I think that more or less panned out."

The first Vertex Pop game for consoles was 2015's We Are Doomed, a twin-stick shooter for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC and eventually Vita. Despite that game skipping Nintendo platforms, Fikree had established contact with the company and was in regular communication with them, showing prototypes and trying to find a project that would work for both of them.

"We don't use any middleware... Once we got a dev kit, whether or not it would run on the Switch or if there were roadblocks on the way was entirely up to us."

"When [Switch] was originally announced, we thought GEM was perfect for it," Fikree said. "The way we've always thought about GEM is that it works equally well as a handheld game as it does a console game. It has a pick-up-and-play mentality that comes from arcade games. You can play it for a couple minutes and it feels pretty satisfying, but at the same time if you want to strap yourself in, get high scores and really drill down on perfecting each level, that's something you can do on a console at home."

Fikree said Nintendo needed little convincing that Graceful Explosion Machine was a good fit for it. And even though he only found out about the Switch when Nintendo revealed the system's console-handheld hybrid nature last October and didn't have a Switch dev kit until late last year, he was confident about turning it around for the launch window.

"We don't use any middleware," Fikree explained. "I write the engine, and controlling the entire software stack is helpful in situations like this. It was helpful to not have to rely on anybody. Once we got a dev kit, whether or not it would run on the Switch or if there were roadblocks on the way was entirely up to us. We weren't dependent on any kind of third party to make or break our launch date.

"The reason why I like our engine is because I've been using it for a long time. It's been rolling forward for many, many years. I feel like it works for me. I feel more productive using it, and I feel like being based off the same code base for many years has the benefit that some of our game design philosophy is built into the engine. There's a lot of stuff I did in We Are Doomed that rolls forward into Graceful Explosion Machine, and that's a function of using the same code base and evolving it. If I started using Unity today, there would be so much stuff that would be missing from the engine... It's a lot of little things that are a part of my design and programming process, and I can't imagine not being able to rely on that. It's partly a philosophical thing, but it's also very much a pragmatic thing."

It's obvious that Fikree wants to give his work a personal touch, and one way he does that is by spending a lot of time thinking about game-feel. Whether it's a bit of screen shaking or a bit of well-timed slowdown, there are sometimes little things that can go a long way to making the moment-to-moment action in a game simply feel good.

Fikree pointed to the controls in Graceful Explosion Machine as one place where he spent a lot of time working on game-feel. For example, there's an input buffering system when players switch from one weapon to the next that makes for a smoother transition and allows for some weapon combos very much inspired by fighting games.

"All you have are the mechanics, and if those don't work, the game doesn't work."

On top of that, he focused on keeping the controls as approachable and straight-forward as possible. Each of the game's weapons is tied to a single button. There are no commands that require combination button inputs. The game uses the controller's triggers, but not its shoulder buttons or right analog stick. While having approachable controls is probably good advice for just about any designer, Fikree said his pursuit was rooted in his personal pet peeve: first-person shooters that have players push the left analog stick in to toggle between standing and crouching.

"That's a terrible idea, because when I'm really stressed out and running away from enemies, I'm holding down really hard on the left stick," Fikree said. "So instead of running away from enemies, I end up crouching. It's really frustrating. But when you have a game with literally 16 or 20 inputs, it just makes it really difficult under high pressure moments to remember which buttons you're supposed to push or what you're supposed to be doing."

A lot of good game-feel is just making sure players can execute the moves they want to execute easily, stylishly, and consistently, Fikree said, and keeping the controls simple helps with all of those. It's a hallmark of arcade-style games, but it also puts a lot of pressure on the game's design to provide satisfying depth.

"When you're making an arcade game, you want it to be immediately accessible so any player will immediately understand and enjoy it," Fikree said. "But at the same time, if you want to have any long-term replay value and appreciation, you have to build in these deeper mechanics and hooks. But if those base mechanics don't work, you don't have anything to compensate for it. You don't have a storyline to fall back on. All you have are the mechanics, and if those don't work, the game doesn't work."

Even if the mechanics do work, it can be tough to entice people with arcade-style experiences in the modern games industry. Many of these games are relatively brief experiences for those who play more or less to "see the ending," the games' real value missed by all but those eager to play them again and again, mastering their systems and besting their high scores.

"The lack of a story is very deliberate... because everything in the game wants to communicate that this is an arcade-style game, a score-based game."

"I think to an extent, it is a harder sell for people," Fikree said. "People enjoy narrative-based games for sure, but honestly, it comes down to how you pitch the game and how you price it. With GEM, we went with $12.99. We wanted to go with a slightly lower price than you'd expect in the hopes that people who weren't necessarily shoot-'em-up fans would give it a shot anyway. And I think everybody who's tried the game, they immediately pick up on what it is, that it is a score-based game you want to get high scores in.

"We designed the game around that. We designed it with a score screen at the end, a ranking system. The lack of a story is very deliberate... because everything in the game wants to communicate that this is an arcade-style game, a score-based game. We communicate that, but we don't enforce it. If you want to play the game and finish every level with C ranks all the way through, that's cool. We're not forcing you to be a score attack person. We want to encourage you to do that but we don't want to force your hand."

That said, there are upsides to selling an arcade-style game. Fikree said there aren't many people making them these days, so an underserved audience of enthusiasts is more likely to take an interest in each one that comes along. Secondly, they can have a very long tail, both for the companies selling them and the people playing them.

"You can play all these other narrative or single-player kind of games you need to devote a little more time to, but you can always come back to GEM and play it for a few minutes or hours," Fikree said. "You can always come back to it and can never quite be done with it."

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