There’s not much I can say about Huntdown without immediately grinning or having some kind of introspective chuckle as I think back on the many evenings spent with it in front of the TV. Playing intense sessions with my partner, or in handheld mode by myself on hardcore (switch for the win) to the point where the switch looks more like a Frisbee and I look more like this. So right off the bat you should know, I love this game and recommend anyone with even a passing interest to leave right now, play it and understand, then come back… Do you see what I mean now? Ok, good we can continue.
Founded in late 2016 by fellow bread bin (A reference to the Commodore 64 console from the 80’s) enthusiasts Tommy Gustafsson and Andreas Rehnberg, Easy Trigger Games ambition set out to create highly polished and well-designed games and “leave nothing to chance”. Their philosophy is simple, a belief that there is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to innovative experiences. Instead their model is “to combine proven game-play elements that we know make a magnificent experience” and use the knowledge and skills they’ve learned to create memorable games, and you know what for my money (literally) they’re not doing too badly!
As you may know by now, we like to get to know folk around here and talk games around the CGC water cooler (we can’t afford one but that’s not the point). True to that form, I had the chance to talk with the four huntsmen (get it?)of the apocalypse team, to see how it all came together.
First off, thank you guys for taking the time to speak with us here, I know you must be busy with the post launch of Huntdown! How does it feel to have your first game as a studio finally out the door?
Thank you! It’s great, we’ve got amazing reviews from all over. It’s really fun to watch people play Huntdown on Twitch and reading all the positive feedback. At the same time we’re kinda tired haha… It’s been so much work putting it all together.
There’s clearly a lot of passion involved among the team here, how did it come about for you guys? Or rather, where were you all before this started?
For [Tommy] and Andreas, we were working in our own different companies before starting Easy Trigger. The two of us began discussing the idea of making a 16-bit platform game as Andreas had a really nice prototype already. The short story is: We made a demo of Huntdown and showcased it on fair trades like SXSW and Gamescom. At Gamescom we were fortunate to meet Coffee Stain Studios who made it possible for us to work with Huntdown full-time. They’re really great guys. They have been along during the development providing us with guidance, support and funding. This also enabled us to hire the awesome Marcus Jerner who worked in his company as a graphic designer. Shortly after, we recruited another programmer, Svante Almbring, who was studying at the time. Svante is outstanding and now we’re a team which excellently complement each other. We had some external help with SFX, some graphic assist and writers for story and dialogue, but basically it’s just us, two programmers and two graphic designers, making Huntdown.
With introductions out of the way, we start with Tommy Gustafsson. Co-Founder and the man behind the story, concept and art direction of Huntdown. For those not in the know by now Huntdown is an action comedy arcade shooter just like you remember. Packed to the brim with 80's inspired pixel art and references to last a life time, what struck me most about this game was how fluid it all feels. It doesn't take itself seriously with it's subject matter but the tough as nails game-play strikes a great balance that many have tried and failed to do before it. Don't believe me? Well buckle up and let these guys do the talking!
Tommy Gustafsson – Lead Designer & Co-Founder
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced starting out with this company? Starting out with the germ of an idea and realizing it over years, what are some of the biggest takeaways you have from this first project?
Well I guess time. We’re a very small team so we had to do most things ourselves. I’ve been working with the concept, story, direction, design, sound and music, all of which have been very time consuming. A big challenge has been to set a limitation on everything in the game. Like what’s good enough? One can tinker with a song or polish an animation for days. So keeping the vision clear and creating stuff ”good enough” for an equivalent experience throughout the game has been the greatest challenge. When working days and nights you really learn how to prioritize. It’s been a hell of a ride.
Huntdown is very clearly (at least to my eyes) a complete love letter to the 80’s. Everything from the level/enemy design to the music and classic side scrolling action game-play, was this always the case? Or did the game start life as something else and, through the development process change?
The iconic 80’s action style was the plan all along. There were some nostalgic things popping up here and there when we first discussed the idea, and of course it inspired us. But lots of the stuff was also quite lame, typical sunny 80’s Miami Vice-stuff like palm trees, pink neon logos and stuff like that, and somehow that was starting to “redefine” what the 80’s was all about. It kinda clashed with my memories as there’s much more to the era and the movie culture. I always liked the darker movies like Cobra, or Escape from N.Y. and stuff, we saw that style was kinda missing so we gave it a shot. There’s no sun shining on LV-426. Though Huntdown was much darker in the beginning we made most levels more colorful for variation during the development. Particularly it’s the first level that is still truly dark and bleak, introducing the players to the shady city.
Overall, the gritty world in Huntdown has been carefully designed in every detail. Everything from vehicles to 80’s art-deco furniture and the smallest trinkets on the levels has been made with a retro-futuristic approach. To make it even more “boots-to-the-ground” and old school we looked back to the 70’s for inspiration. For example the corporate police force in Huntdown use old Chinook helicopters and Steyr AUGs’, a futuristic-looking weapon that was actually designed in the 1960s.
Among these nods, I’ve personally noticed references to the likes of Running Man, Robocop, Terminator and Mad Max. On the games side, there seems to be shades of Contra and Metal Slug, what were the biggest influences?
Correct! Huntdown is a mish-mash of old games that we played ourselves in our youth, mostly on computers and arcade machines. Flashback was a game on Amiga 500 that really was an eye-opener for me at the time. Gorgeous pixel work, and the rotoscope-animations were groundbreaking. Visually, I’d say Flashback as a platformer and its sci-fi setting is the base for our influences in making Huntdown. Only way more action and freedom without the rotoscoping animations, thus making the theme even more cyberpunk and gritty.
There’s many games that stand as inspiration for Huntdown from this era. At the time, there was a UK based game studio called The Bitmap Brothers whose games were incredibly stylish: Speedball 2, Chaos Engine, Xenon and others. But there’s lots of other good stuff that inspired us as well: Double Dragon, Final Fight, Technocop, ESWAT, Narco Police, Commando, Alien Breed, Turrican 2, Another World, Alcatraz, Metal Slug, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Hired Guns... I can go on forever.
We used some stuff straight from the influences as well. Like the cover system in Huntdown: Boxes, crates, even your car, can all be ducked behind when engaged in a firefight, and specifically certain nooks and crannies allow you to fade into the background of a level for cover, buying you enough time to recharge an ability, or figure out an enemy attack pattern. This ”sinking into cover in dark backgrounds” is entirely borrowed from Alcatraz, an old Amiga 500 game. Man, I played that game for hours. There’s another old goodie with this forgotten mechanic called Blackthorne where you also hide in the background, but Alcatraz is where the idea came from.
I must ask, the music is downright awesome, are there any plans to improve everyone’s day and release the soundtrack?…Please?
Thank you! I’m working with just that as we speak. It might pop up somewhere soon. =)
Honestly, that OST can't come soon enough but we wouldn't have gotten very far without the next man on our list Andreas Rehnberg. The other Co-Founder and Lead programmer of Huntdown, Andreas is best described as a "Multi-talented like Leonardo da Vinci and humble like Dalai Lama" whiz kid. He is responsible for the games base code, incorporating the cover system used and the AI.
Andreas Rehnberg - Lead Programmer & Co-Founder
You’ve been quoted here as the “Leonardo da Vinci” of programming, how does that sit with you?
Hehe, yeah I would definitely not put it like that. :-) It's probably because I used to dabble with both graphics and code in previous games, but nowadays I leave the artwork to the pros.
All jokes aside, I have maybe the slightest of understanding into how programming works… at a stretch…. for those at home, laying down the groundwork for a game like this, how does that process change over time?
Well, I made my first platform game over 20 years ago and some of the basic features from those early games are actually still in Huntdown today - ported through a few different programming languages and engines over the years.
The development and processes have improved a lot over time for sure. Luckily we had the core mechanics like the cover system and arcade style weapon switching figured out pretty early in the process but it has since been refined and added to with many important features. For example the dash ability (being a vital feature for the hardcore gamers) was added in the very last month of development.
The scope of the game changed during development as well. We went from 4 to 20 unique boss fights, added a ton of voices for players, enemies and bosses, and came up with the idea to launch Huntdown on all consoles and pc/mac at the same time.
Was there a design philosophy you had in mind as say inspiration for Hundown or was it all built from the ground up?
In Huntdown we wanted to honor the way games were created in the old days. So we didn't use any fancy effects or procedurally generated stuff. Everything is pretty much made from scratch. Brick by brick – or pixel by pixel if you will. We made our own tools for editing levels and creating sprite sheets etc. We even had to do a program that creates japanese and chinese characters based on our hand pixeled Huntdown fonts.
It's been a lot of work for our small team, but it worked out and in the end I'm glad we didn't take any shortcuts.
Which such a laser focused design philosophy, it's important that each team member is on the same page. Making games is hard and without the safety net that bigger studios can provide, communication is key. With the groundwork laid out, enter Marcus Jerner, Easy Triggers environment artist and level designer.
Marcus Jerner – Designer & Environment Artist
In the early stages of development, was everything mapped out from the jump or was the process iterative?
The initial concept and overview was very solid and well-defined in terms of aesthetics and there were some mapped out level thematics.
Game-play features were added during development and decisions on amount of bosses, defining checkpoint systems and camera behavior all redefined the layout framework. We had tools for controlling and arranging enemy behavior, camera logic, platform materials and more which made it easier to try ideas and tweak game-play throughout the process.
Each of the 5 stages has a unique flavor to it, while still maintaining the same feeling of one city throughout. Executing a vision like that so the player is consistently seeing new things, all while maintaining the same overall design must be a challenge, how is that process for you?
It’s really fun to set up visual scenery and easy to get lost in details. Part of the challenge for me is to find balance between visual immersion and game-play readability.
The process involves a lot of game testing, never really feeling satisfied and many rearranged pixels :)
Thanks to the game’s fixed perspective and by using a limited palette helped in trying to keep the design decisions uniform throughout the game.
From the aesthetic differences of The Misconducts to the No.1 Suspects gangs, it’s a very vividly colorful game for it’s darkly humorous tone. Can you describe a bit of the work involved in building something like that?
It could have a lot to do with the mix of gritty action movies and old school games inspirations funneled through a limited palette. I personally think the two marries well and keeps it interesting.
With the intention to breathe life to the environments as a complement to the gangs’ identity we tried to bring variation to each area through different color schemes. Early in development most of the levels were all kind of moving towards a dark night scenery, gray and barren. While playing we found it refreshing to change the scenery every now and then even within the same area in order to avoid it feeling repetitious.
Last but not least on our list here is Svante Almbring, the programmer responsible for some of the toughest boss encounters throughout the campaign. He also played a hand in the Menu design too. An important yet sometimes overlooked part of a games overall design.
Svante Almbring - Programmer
Working with Marcus, Tommy and Andreas, what was the approach taken for the bosses in the game?
The team starts with an idea for a cool character. The ideas usually come from things we would find cool to face in the game with inspiration from characters in classic 80's action movies.
Following the idea animations are made for all the things the boss is supposed to do. We take the finished animations and implement them together in the game. We try to make the character act in the game to match game-play with visuals while still being entertaining. No boss turns out perfect on the first try so we try them to see how we can make them better from there.
It's a continuing iterative process which is a big part in getting the bosses to be their best. By watching people play we can find issues and together discuss ways to fix them. An example of this could be holding some attacks animations longer to give the player enough time to react or adding more attacks to spice things up.
Speaking of which, the likes of Unholy Goalie (ouch by the way) and Ringo Road Rage are bone crunchingly hard yet still engaging. I always went in with a “just one more go” mentality. How did you approach game balance there?
We don't want to persuade the player to give up by making it too difficult or too easy as to make it unengaging. It's a hard balance to keep especially considering everyone plays differently and is on different skill levels.
A particular thing I look for when designing game-play is readability. The player should not be punished for something they could not foresee. To avoid frustration it is important that when bad things happen to the player they feel like it's a result of their own mistakes.
With proper readability players usually learn from their mistakes and manage to beat the boss before they get frustrated. This growth keeps them engaged and wanting to play more.
It's about making the player feel like they are in control.
We also use a few tricks to make the player feel like a badass. Illusion is a big part of game design and we try to use it to its full potential whenever possible.
Outside of the bosses, I understand you are also responsible for the menu systems in the game, were you given free reign to implement them as you like or was the decision to have the menus act like a sort of area hub always the case?
The menus much like the bosses were designed first through art and then implemented. I did not get much say in how they would look but given the long development time we had a lot of time to discuss and streamline them while still getting a lot of features in.
Menus are a thankless task in all games. Though there has been essentially no complaints and few requests for more features so I feel like it was a success.
Two more questions then to wrap things up for you guys!
Between post-launch work and your upcoming arcade cabinet. What does the future look like for you guys? Anything you can share right now?
We really enjoy making games so that’s what we're gonna do. Though we can’t reveal anything specific just yet. Stay tuned!
For those of us who simply can’t get enough, where are the best places to keep an eye on all the latest news and updates for Easy Trigger?
That would be at: www.easytrigger.com.
What Easy Trigger has accomplished here with their first outing should not be understated. A 4 person micro-team that has equal amounts talent and passion put together something special and I for one cannot wait to see what the future holds for these guys. We've got some more spots below you can follow these guys at, including their publishing partner Coffee Stain Studios so don't be shy!
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