Every week we shine the spotlight on an exceptional XBLIG and the developers behind them in what we like to call the XBLIG Spotlight. This week we take a look at Skoddle Games’ Astro Cluster; a space faring twin stick shooter. Check out the trailer below, our conversation with the developers behind the game, and as always, my perspective. As usual on CBR, reading has rewards as you may even get a chance to win a copy of the game. Add Astro Cluster to your download queue!First, the Astro CLuster trailer:
First, tell the readers a bit about yourself, who you are and how/why you decided to start getting involved in making games?
My name is Scott Lowther, aka Skoddle Games. I have been developing games for around 6 years and in the last year I made the transition to Indie games.
I was first introduced to game programming when I was around 11 years old. I had to type in a simple text adventure game from the manual of my first computer, a Commodore 16, and I knew then that I wanted to create games. Somehow I ended up on a very different career path and it wasn’t until many years later that I finally found an opportunity to enter the games industry as a programmer.
Tell us about your history as a game developer, previous efforts, etc.
I spent quite a few years employed at The Creative Assembly Brisbane studio (Now Sega Studios Australia) where I shipped a number of Total War games (PC), Stormrise (PC, XB360, PS3), worked on the recently announced Olympics 2012 as well as many unnanounced projects. Around a year ago I decided to take the leap to Indie Game development so I could learn some new skills and turn some of my own ideas into real games.
If you had to pick one specific game to describe as your inspiration, what would it be?
I don’t have a single source of inspiration for Astro Cluster, it has elements and inspiration from a number of different games. If I had to choose one specific game, I suppose Geometry Wars in particular gave me a push in the right direction by showing me how simple art and game mechanics can make a great game.
The game has obviously been released as a XBLIG, but have you in the past, or do you currently have plans to work in any other platform? What made you decide to develop for XBLIG?
I have developed games for PC, 360 and PS3, and each has its pros and cons. For me, XBLIG is the best in terms of pure ease of use and low overhead costs. I really appreciate how Microsoft provide the free tools and samples for XBLIG development and you can deploy games to the XB360 for a small subscription fee.
I don’t have any concrete plans to develop on other platforms, but I am interested in looking into Windows Phone 7 and social networking game development.
How long did you spend on development? Can you explain, roughly, how the development process worked for you? What tools and programs did you work with?
Development of Astro Cluster took around 12 months. It was a mixture of part and full time development (except during my childrens school holidays when I would make exactly 0% progress). I developed at home by myself so I had no external deadlines or pressure. This worked well for me in regards to making a good game but the lack of external pressure meant I spent a bit too long developing my first Indie Game.
All the tools I used for development were freely available: Visual Studio 2010 Express for coding, The Gimp for art and Audacity for audio.
If you had to pick one thing that you would improve or simply do differently in regards the game’s development what would it be?
For my first Indie game I should have stuck to a much shorter development window. I originally planned to make a simple but solid game, but I got carried away adding polish and improvements. 12 months later I finally released Astro Cluster. The Art and Audio took up the largest chunk of development time because it was all pretty new to me. On the next project I will leave asset creation to people with experience.
Many gamers dream of starting to make their own games, and it is obviously easier than ever for them to do so. What advice would you give someone hoping to make the jump from gamer to designer?
Know what you want to make, create a game you enjoy yourself and don’t aim too high. If you are new to programming/development it is best to start small, break down your problems into acheivable tasks and build the skills to tackle bigger challenges.
Have you found the XBLIG process to be a particularly easy or difficult one?
The process of developing and releasing a game through XBLIG is incredibly easy. You have full control over your game vision, the overhead costs are low and there is strong community support. For anyone interested in learning game development, I cannot think of a better platform.
Peer review also works pretty good, but could be a pain for releasing updates. Game updates have to go through the same peer review process as new games so it could take many weeks to release a patch for even a small issue.
XBLIG have had a mixed result so far, what is one aspect/idea/change you think would better solidify the platform as a contender in the gaming industry? What one thing do you think would improve the service as a whole, from designer to consumer?
I think the main aspect preventing XBLIG from being a contender in the gaming industry is the difficulty for consumers to find quality titles. I wouldn’t like to see the development process changed too much since one of the best aspects of XBLIG is how easily amateur game developers can create their own games. I think to improve the service while remaining accessable to Amateur developers requires easier methods for consumers to find quality XBLIG titles. The lists that are there now feel large and cumbersome.
What can fans of your game(s) expect in the not too distant future?
Astro Cluster was my warm up project to learn new skills and understand the XNA framework. I have some solid ideas for a revolutionary game I have wanted to create for many years. It is like nothing out there and I am certain it could change the future of games. I would love to get together with a small team and create this game sometime soon.
Anything else you would like to say?
Make sure you take the time to check out many different XBLIG titles, there are heaps of great titles hidden away and it is a shame for these games to not get the play time they deserve. Please also check out Astro Cluster, especially if you want a solid multiplayer game to play with your online friends.
Only a couple of weeks ago we explored a game that had us playing as blobs on a microscopic scale (Cell), but this time around we go big; Intergalactic big. Astro Cluster is a twin-stick “multiplayer” with a space aesthetic. You play as colorful blobs that shoot other colorful blobs amongst planets, asteroids, stars and even black holes. Sound simple? Well it kind of is, but as we know, simple could be good or bad. So let’s boldly go where no man (on this site) has gone before; Astro Cluster.
As I laid out already, the premise of the game is fairly simple and one likely to have been seen before. You and up to 16 total players/AI (up to 2 players can play on one screen) duke it out in typical twin-stick fashion (flying fancy circles while trying to dodge fire and objects on the map). The campaign has your particular space blob fighting in several different game types. Typical fare, such as death match and team death match are there, as well as more interesting game types such as: Survival (where simply not dying is winning), an oddball style mode where you have to hold onto a special “cluster” and a mode that awards you for having the most “clusters.” I suppose I should define clusters before we go any further. Clusters are little extra blobs that you can absorb into your space blob. Doing so not only makes you strong on the defense side of things, but speeds up your rate of fire making you far more deadly. A blob with a lot of clusters can become almost invincible. Back to the point though, each of the campaigns missions has you facing off against AI opponents of various difficulty over a variety of space themed maps for total domination.
Flight has a fluid and smooth feel to it. You feel light and agile, and even double so when you are seriously clustering (See: Roiding). Some of the maps offer far more to dodge and avoid, especially any map loaded with asteroids as they start bouncing around after a few minutes of collisions, and for the most part you feel completely capable of ‘threading the needle,’ maneuvering your way around. Other elements make movement more difficult, such as the massive gravity of a star or black hole. The fact that you slow down when you get too close to these giants was a very nice touch.
Combat suffers from not being as intuitive as flying. Fire often seemed delayed and I often had trouble getting it to go exactly where I wanted it to (which sounds like way more of a personal problem than I meant for it to). Once you have managed to build up quite a few clusters and your rate of fire is exaggerated this becomes less of an issue; but when you are a lonely, clusterless blob, it’s hard out there. The color of enemy fire also tends to change based on pick-ups they have and some other factors I never fully figured out, which made some of the team levels frustrating. Being killed when you failed to avoid fire that you thought was friendly got annoying. (On that note, the game sometimes seemed to possibly have trouble determining friendly fire, as more than once I died form what I swore was a shot of a matching color.) The tables also become far too stacked when you die (and are left clusterless); if one enemy has managed to obtain a high percentage of the map’s clusters there is basically no stopping them. This is made even truer by the fact that the enemies fire and your fire can cancel each other out. Meaning, when one is shooting four times as many (well call them laser blobs) they simply block all of your fire and destroy you in seconds.
The aesthetics are what really sells the game though. In addition to the space themed maps simply looking good, many of them add a serious layer of depth to the otherwise simple game. Planets sometimes block your way or allow you to get out of enemy fire. Suns often seem to just pop up on you, resulting in your blob becoming just a small smoldering black spot. Black holes can completely throw you off when one grabs you, and if you have enough health, spits you back out somewhere else on the map. Both of these also serve as gravity wells that throw off the planets and asteroids sending them flying around the map, making things even more hectic. Most dangerous of all though are the asteroid fields. Mostly stable when the match starts, a few random shots and collisions later and the entire map is filled with deadly flying rocks. So often I would be cheering a successful bit of combat or managing to evade a pursuer only to end up kissing an asteroid’s rocky fist.
Going back a couple of steps to the campaign, I have to say that it started off pretty bad. Bad isn’t really the right word, I mean incredibly boring. The first few levels did nothing for me, in fact, after my first couple of rounds I definitely found myself coming back “just cause I had to review it…” They are simply too easy. Luckily the difficulty and game type variance creeps up pretty quick and before too long I found myself having to retry levels rather than just breezing through. The game is at its best on hectic maps with the most difficult AI turned on, or I imagine with other people. The game really would succeed best in multiplayer, and it is important to note that Astro Cluster is one of the few XBLIG’s I’ve played that actually includes online matchmaking (even more unique for a 80 point game). Unfortunately, whether due to just the times I tried to play or the sheer numbers of people who have purchased the game so far, I was unable to find a match; a real shame really. Fortunately the campaign is entertaining enough to make up for this, but you may find yourself trying to convince some friends to pick this one up so you can play with them.
So the final verdict? Astro Cluster looks great, course I am a sucker for most space aesthetics. It is also quite fun to play. The controls feel mostly fluid and intuitive and some of the later matches found in campaign are quite challenging. The game does start rather slow and some of the visuals related to combat, as well as the combat itself are not always on par to the rest of the game. Without a doubt though, Astro Cluster is a good time, and one that would be even better with friends. Many full fledge XBLA games have tried to make this model work (Star Trek DAC comes to mind) and failed to do anywhere near as well.
Final Rating: 8/10
CBR Break Down:
Console Played On: Xbox 360 – XBLIG
Approximate Time to Completion: ~3 Hours
Gamer Score Earned: N/A
Price Bought at: N/A – Review copy furnished by Skoddle Games
Current Price: 80 Microsoft Points ($1)
Recommend Purchase Price: Literally doesn’t get cheaper.
Add Astro Cluster to your download queue!
We know how this works by now. Skoddle Games has been kind enough to give us a couple extra download tokens (codes) so that we can give two of you a copy of Astro Cluster! You can gain up to three entries, please read the details on how to enter below:
First entry: We want to know what your favorite game in space is, can be any genre, any system. Just answer the question, “What is your favorite game that takes place in space?” and you’ll be entered to win with one entry!
Second entry: Follow us on twitter and send the following tweet:
@ClearanceBinRev is having a #contest for the #XBLIG Astro Cluster! #Xbox, #XboxLive More Details: http://bit.ly/iUY5uj
Remember that you have to follow us; any winner we attempt to DM via Twitter who isn’t, automatically forfeits their win. If you enter via Twitter include your twitter name in your post below, winners who have their twitter listed will receive their codes immediately after winning.
Third Entry: Like our Facebook page and then simply like the post on our wall for this article. Simple as that. (Keep in mind the article may be lower on the Facebook page towards the end of the contest and it may take a minute or two to post on FB)
Contest will go until Wednesday at 8pm CST. A pool of all eligible entries will then be randomly selected from and the winners will be notified. CBR reserves the right to disqualify any entry we feel either violated the rules or spirit of the contest, including attempts at duplicate entries. Winner selected with no twitter name provided will be notified by email and have 24 hours to respond. We do not announce the names of contest winners, but do encourage them to post about their win.