kFunction Interview - Amiga, Scintillatron, PlayStation & The Future - ArticleAdam Cartwright , posted on 05 December 2018 / 1,147 Views
Readers of my content will likely know that I have a real soft spot for twin-stick shooters, so when a developer named kFunction popped up on Twitter one day promoting its colourful high-score-chasing title Scintillatron 4096 and, better yet, announced that it was going to be releasing on Vita, the developer immediately had my interest.
I reached out to kFunction on Twitter and the team very kindly agreed to tell me all about their game, as well as some really interesting facts about their origins in the industry, development processes, and - perhaps best of all - choice of playtesting location.
kFunction consists of Charlotte Pritchard, Chris Pritchard, and Roch Gadson. These questions were answered by Chris and Roch, who are referred to as 'CP' and 'RG' in the answers.
First off, tell me a little bit about yourselves! Who makes up kFunction and what do you all do?
CP: The company was founded by myself & Roch who are the developers. Charlotte then joined us to manage the marketing and PR a few months later.
I notice Scintillatron 4096 is your first title – does the team have experience in the industry or is this everyone’s first game?
RG: We’ve loved gaming ever since Chris and I used to argue about whether his Commodore 64 or my Spectrum was better in the late 80s. We then coded together as part of the 90s demo scene on the Commodore Amiga, which included things like ground-up 3D engines in assembler. The intention ever since then was to make the step into writing games. I’m still not sure how, but somehow we ended up making backup software for 15 years instead. We half (well, probably quarter) wrote a massively multiplayer Elite-like game for light relief in that period, which we’d still love to come back to one day. That was kind of a reminder to us that gaming was what we really wanted to do, so we took the plunge and that’s when we started kFunction. So, first title, although it actually feels like we’ve been doing this sort of thing for quite some time.
CP: Obviously the C64 was better so it wasn’t much arguing really. As Roch said, we really got up to speed during the Amiga years, ultimately mastering that machine but just a little too late. After the demo work we actually made about half of an AGA based platform game in the Super Mario Bros vein, which was one of the few games on that machine that ever managed to be a full screen 50fps 256 colour scroller. Sadly at the time we took it to publishers there was a ‘wait and see’ approach to the success of the then new AGA Amigas. We also finished a non-AGA Air Hockey simulator (4096 colours, 50fps, which I think was a first) but at this point the Amiga was in terminal decline and it seemed time to take a break.
Your website details a little bit about how the title started life on mobile. How did you first get in contact with Sony and decide to shift it over to consoles?
RG: In hindsight, we spent too much time early on experimenting with several game ideas and a whole range of target platforms. We sort of assumed phones should be part of the picture… huge market, lots of growth, etc. etc. A couple of things changed our mind: Firstly, the touchscreen - great in some cases, but there’s a lot of games it’s just not right for; secondly, we really, really don’t want to make anything freemium, pay-to-win, etc. So, that kind of crystalised things for us - if you want to make serious games, make them on a serious gaming platform. There was PlayStation - with both the PS4 and a portable console with proper controls. We weren’t sure they’d be interested for a first title, but we pitched it, they said yes, and here we are
CP: The game started simply as an experiment to see if we could make decent touch controls work. We’ve always believed that decent control methods make or break games and had played so many that were ruined by their touch screens. I was in the process of making a touch screen car racing game (still on hold; it needs a bigger development budget that we can’t manage right now) and managed to make the controls work very well so wondered if we could reproduce the trick on another of our favourite game types. We must have gone through about 20 different iterations of the touch controls and all were liked by some and hated by others, which was frustrating. While doing all the control messing around we were also building out the main game and it became apparent that it could actually be good fun if controls weren’t an obstacle. It was around then we decided to write up the game properly and take the ‘moon shot’ of approaching PlayStation.
How has Sony been as a partner?
RG: Actually, really good. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t days when we’ve felt overwhelmed by the process or who to talk to next, but there’ve been some really helpful people. We’ve got several other games, at various stages of completion, that we’re planning to bring to PlayStation next.
CP: Yes very good, we’ve been well supported along the way. It *is* a massive company with heavyweight processes but that’s something that working 20 years in the data protection industry has left us probably better prepared than the many indie teams to deal with.
Have you found the development process easy?
RG: Honestly, no. We’ve absolutely loved it but, as we kind of expected, *really* finishing a game is demanding. We’ve all found Jeff Minter’s (http://minotaurproject.co.uk/blog/) “groovosity over time” graph is about right. There’re stages at the start and end of the project where things feel wonderful, straightforward, and clearly focused; and there’s a big long section in the middle where there’s a lot more uncertainty about how it’s all going. I cannot wait to get stuck in to our next title now - I think there’s a bunch of mistakes we can avoid next time, and probably an interesting collection of new ones to make.
CP: I was expecting it to be challenging and it has been. I think now that we’re in the closing stages it’s probably not been quite as bad as it could have been. It’s definitely a long road between having something that feels finished and something that is ready to go live on the store.
Why include Vita as a target platform in 2018?
RG: Firstly, because it’s a nice, well rounded gaming machine with proper controls, and we’ve enjoyed our time playing on it and the PSP before it. It felt too good a chance to miss to get our game on there. Secondly, for some PlayStation gamers on the move, the Vita is still what you’re going to have with you. We know, in the West at least, it didn’t get the success it probably deserved, but the community support is hugely impressive and that made it seem viable for Scintillatron.
CP: It is a lovely little machine, and quite suitable for drop-in drop-out games such as Scintillatron 4096. We also know it has a core of hardcore supporters that feel it is tragically under-supported and thought that a new release could be appreciated. Finally, score attack games like ours are quite popular in the Far East where the PS Vita still has good popularity. We aren’t releasing there initially, just as learning that market is going to take a little time, but it’s an option we are serious about for next year.
How have you found working on Vita as a piece of hardware? Is it difficult to develop for?
RG: We definitely had some work to do where things that made perfect sense on a contemporary living room console like the PS4 were just never going to fly on portable hardware from a number of years earlier. So, we did quite a lot for the Vita - re-writing all of our shaders, adjusting the dynamic range of our graphics, a new particle management system and lots of code efficiency work. So, it needed a lot of time, but it’s a well thought out bit of kit that I feel very fond of. We also learnt a lot from doing the port which will help us out hugely on both Vita and PS4 in future projects.
CP: We were determined to make the PS Vita version directly comparable to the PS4 one, especially in terms of difficulty. This meant needing to achieve the same numbers of enemies (which becomes quite a large number later in the game), bullets, and so on, and also hold frame rate. I tested the PS4 version over Remote Play to a Vita and while it looked fine the drop in frame rate and added control latency made it much harder. So, a lot of optimisation was needed and we ended up with some pretty different implementation techniques from the PS4 version - but that’s very often the case if you’re aiming to get the most out of each of your platforms.
Will the game hit 60fps on the handheld?
RG: Mostly, yes. When we started on Vita we sat down and said that 60 was what we wanted. Framerate’s always been a big thing - dating from Commodore Amiga days where you needed a pretty good excuse to drop below 50 (in the UK, or 60 NTSC). We could have made it hold 60 throughout by reducing the enemy count in some of the later waves, but we wanted to keep the same gameplay and challenge as the PS4 version. So, if you’re deep into the game, are fully powered up, and mayhem is breaking loose you won’t always be at 60, but there’s nowhere where the framerate falls off a cliff.
Has it been difficult raising awareness of your game within the ever-growing indie market?
CP: Yes. We understood the challenges and had conducted copious amounts of research but on a day-to-day basis, your message certainly can feel like it is being lost in the infinite sea of indies and gamers. We were prepared for this and have not felt foolish to ask questions or revisit methods if necessary. The indie community have been a great source of knowledge for us all and the support from around the globe has been great. Internally, we stick to a communication schedule, hold meetings every week to discuss our development and re-visit our marketing strategy. Along with our short and long term goals, this has helped to keep us focused on the main objective - bring Scintillatron 4096 to the players!
Let’s talk a little bit about the game – what was the inspiration behind Scintillatron 4096?
CP: It’s a mixture of things but there were some twin stick arcade shooters in the 80s and 90s that I was a big fan of. There was also a pair Japanese vertical scrolling shoot ‘em ups that I loved where the bullets and enemies were of different colours and that affected which ones you should avoid and which ones you should shoot for the best score. That led you to make the game as hard or as easy as you wanted depending on your level of ambition. This gave us the idea for the combo mechanic that makes it different from other twin stick shooters.
Finally we wanted the high-score obsession that I got from playing pinball. It’s not obvious but there’s a lot in common with how you play our game and how you play pinball; you can just smash the ball about (in our case just indiscriminately shoot anything and everything) until you die, which is fun but won’t get you much of a score, or you can take risks catching a ball on a flipper and shooting the difficult required shots for maximum score (in our case avoiding and running between hordes of the wrong colour enemies to pick out the last one to complete your combo). Taking risks is rewarded with a big score, just like pinball.
What engine is it made in?
RG: We’re using Unity. Prior to kFunction, when we were working more casually, we always avoided using an engine. We wanted to know how to do everything, and the upside of that was we learnt a lot that’s very useful today. But, it definitely takes longer, so once we went professional an engine seemed the right choice. I’m pretty impressed with Unity - nothing’s perfect, but I’ve done enough porting work to appreciate how much they are taking care of for you.
How long has development taken so far?
CP: Too long LOL. To be fair a lot of the time spent was making it work on all of these different mobile platforms, experimenting with PC versions, and generally changing our minds about what we were doing. Had we aimed for the PlayStation platforms in the first place, and probably started on PS Vita before PS4, it would have saved a lot of time.
RG: Yes - the elapsed calendar time from start to finish is too much! In hindsight, mixing Scintillatron with work on 4 other ideas was not quite right for a 3 person team! However, I do feel pretty good about a couple of the other ideas we have underway, so I think we can move quickly with our next project. It’s also worth saying that Scintillatron needed a surprising amount of playtesting to balance all the scores, bonuses and difficulty generally - I think it’s about right now for the type of gamers we think will like it.
What’s the basic gameplay loop that will keep players coming back?
CP: We hope that it will be people who really want to achieve a decent position in the world rankings and are therefore aiming for big scores. Doing this requires the player to take risks, and we’ve always found that if a player takes his own risk and dies as a result they don’t blame the game, they blame themselves and then want another go. Bomberman is a good example of that. You kill yourself rather than get killed by an opponent an awful lot of the time and it makes you want to get back in there and have another go. The other hook will be for the trophy hunters. It’s a full scope trophy game and some of them are going to be a real challenge to get so it’ll be interesting to see how long it takes for the first player to get the Platinum :-)
How long is the game?
CP: So it’s an arcade game rather than narrative driven so it’s not possible to say “it takes this long to complete” or anything like that. A beginner player will probably get killed in a few minutes each game, whereas in testing Roch and I have both played games that have gone on over 30 minutes. Unlocking all the trophies and reaching the end waves of the game will take a dedicated player quite a while we would expect. Our 2 player battle mode (local only so for PS4) is a winner stays on type game where you can choose how many rounds it is played over and on some test nights these battles have gone on for hours.
What have you done to make Scintillatron 4096 a unique proposition in the market?
CP / RG: We’ve gone all-in on the combo-based scorebuilding mechanic and it’s wrapped in a package that’s proud of its arcade origins. “Unique” is pretty difficult but we’d certainly hope that qualifies as “fresh.” There’s an interesting dynamic to the game once you’re properly after the highscores - you cannot flat-out attack all the time or you ruin your combo, so there’s some nice pacing that alternates between carefully manoeuvring to hit the next target of your current colour and then just engaging attack mode when you can. We don’t think there are too many games exactly like this at the moment, especially on the Vita.
Can you give us an interesting fact about the game or its development?
CP: Lots of meeting and playtesting was all done in a pub, in finest local tradition. :-)
RG: This is called “offsite meeting room 1” in our calendar.
RG: An op code, system error message and chip name from the Commodore Amiga are used to name areas and enemies in the game. I guess only interesting if you were an Amiga geek :-)
Will the title be PSTV compatible?
CP: We have not been able to have access to PSTV development or test hardware but it has passed QA on PSTV so we believe so. It’s usually only games that use the more unusual control systems such as the touch screen or rear touch pad that give problems with PSTV compatibility and our controls are very simple.
Will you attempt a physical release of Scintillatron 4096 if the opportunity arises?
CP: In the West I believe it is out of our hands since Sony have discontinued the ability to produce physical media for PS Vita. It remains a possibility in the East but since we are going to be a low price point game there’d have to be some firm demand and expectation of sales for this to be likely.
Finally, two questions I’ve been asking everyone – what are some of your favourite games you’ve played on Vita?
CP: For when I’m in a calm mood I play a lot of Everybody’s Golf or adventures like Day of the Tentacle. When I want a blast I’m a fan of TxK.
RG: It was great to see Another World on the Vita - loved that first time round on the Amiga and great to pick it up again; and then Downwell has been perfect for a quick challenge when developing - actually from a difficulty-curve perspective that was one of our reference points when tuning Scintillatron 4096.
Which of the two Vita models (LCD or OLED) is your favourite?
CP: I think the OLED although I haven’t spent a lot of time on the LCD ones.
RG: Similarly, my time has mostly been on OLED. I am a real sucker for OLED generally, and for a high-contrast, lots-of-black game like Scintillatron it’s perfect.
I'd like to thank Chris and Roch for taking the time to talk to me and Charlotte for answering all of my queries. You can read all about Scintillatron 4096 on kFunction's website, or you can follow them on Twitter. There's also a very nice PlayStation Blog post all about the game here.
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