Shadow Complex Creator Explores New Projects, Talks Fantasy

by Andrew Reiner on Nov 09, 2009 at 04:27 AM

Chair's Donald Mustard talks classic gaming, new projects, and has stern words for fantasy writer George R. R. Martin.

Shadow Complex is obviously a throwback to games like Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Are there any other classic games that you think could make a splash today, and moreover, would be interested in working on?

Obviously, games like Metroid are some of my favorite games of all time. Another one of my favorite games of all time is Zelda. It’s not a big shock that I would be saying that, but I think Zelda is one of the games that really translated well to 3D, whereas maybe Metroid, even though Metroid Prime is still really awesome, is kind of a different game to me.
But I love some of the 2D Nintendo DS and Game Boy Advance Zelda titles. I’m always surprised there aren’t more Zelda-like games on the market, and not necessarily from an IP standpoint, but from a game design standpoint. I mean, we have games like Darksiders coming up, and stuff like that that have attempted it, but I would love to see a game with the top down view, but with modern graphics – kind of the Shadow Complex formula. I think that would be so awesome. I hope someone is out there making it, and making it really good! Good enough so I can play it.

Well, you could make it.

We could. Maybe? (Laughs) I think that’s a classic design that I would love to see. I dunno, there’s lots of [throwbacks] I would like to see. Honestly, my favorite thing is the non-linear open world sidescroller, which is really what Metroid typifies. It’s basically this persistent world where your only limitation is the power-ups that you’ve acquired. You start with very little, and end up with the whole world unlocked to you. I just think it’s such an untapped genre – whether in a sidescroller or a full 3D game. I just so surprised that more people aren’t making them.

Why do you think that is? Obviously, everyone played Metroid, and everyone talks about Metroid, yet it seems everyone is afraid to make that 2D adventure.

I wonder if it is afraid, or forgotten? Super Metroid comes out in 1994. And then the PlayStation came out in 1995.

And everyone wanted to do 3D.
That’s what it was. 3D. 3D. 3D. And so, I really see Super Metroid as the height of that design – even though Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is amazing. For me, Super Metroid hit that pinnacle, and then boom, it was 3D everything. It kind of got lost in translation. I think there’s something special about that particular design’s underpinning in 2D. I think it works really well. That’s not to say it doesn’t work in 3D. I mean, look at Uncharted. It’s a little more linear, well, a lot more linear, but still kind of encapsulates some of that exploration kind of feeling.

I think it resonates better for gamers in 2D. It’s kind of like, this is the screen you are on, and you can explore everything on the screen and makes note like “I have to come back here with bombs,” whereas a 3D world can often be overwhelming.

Exactly. You kind of have to simplify it. In 3D it can be so overwhelming. You can lose your bearings, lose direction, and not that it can’t happen in a 2D game as well, but I think it just works a little better in that style. That might be part of the reason they are forgotten. I think we just need to un-forget them, and have lots more games in that genre. To me, it’s a genre just like a first-person shooter or third-person action/adventure game. Why aren’t there more games like this?

I’m right there with you. You grew up with them, as I did, but you also had the chance to design one with Shadow Complex. What were some of the things that you didn’t foresee as a fan going into the design?

The most difficult thing, which we kind of recognized going in but still didn’t make it any easier, was just how complex it is. Every power-up you get changes the way you can interact with the world. Because we had so many power-ups that empowered you, we had to know the entire game, from start to finish, before we even built anything. We had to build the entire game on paper first so that we could look through all the intricacies like “if the player gets the hookshot here, then that would totally break this, this, and this. If he gets the foam here, it will break this or that.”

One of the things that we kind of wanted to modernize was the ability to kind of really use your abilities anywhere in the world. Take the hookshot for example. There have been plenty of games made, even recently, where you get a hookshot or some similar type of tool, but it only works on this certain kind of block. We wanted our tools to be useable anywhere. So, if I got the hookshot, it hookshots onto pretty much everything. If I get the foam, I can foam it onto everything, and everything will react in a specific way. So, that made it even more challenging to balance the game in a way where getting the power-ups would still feel, from a pacing standpoint, really cool and not break the game.

Man. (sighs) That was hard. Months and months of work. Just figuring it out all on paper…designing little stick figure…putting it all together…

I guess you have to be confident in your ideas too. If one doesn’t work that kind of breaks the entire game.

Yeah. That’s the thing. We were making bets nine months or a year before we could even test whether they would be fun or not. We got pretty close. There were some things we had to change. Early on, we thought a certain jump height would be the most fun, and we got about six months into production only to realize the jump height wasn’t cool. It was too high.

The level designers and artists probably loved that.

Oh yeah. That was not a fun day at Chair. We were like, “hey guys, everything is wrong.” (Laughs) Most other things we got pretty close, but that one hurt. Luckily, we found it early enough.

So let me just ask this outright: Are you working on your next game?

We are. Shadow Complex is out, and we’re evaluating the landscape. As I said earlier, we’re looking at what we did right, and what we did wrong, and what we could have done better, and what would have been cool. We’re just trying to hone in on what our next game is going to be.

When you go into the early stages of development, do you come to the table with a bunch of ideas and discuss it with the team, or do you usually know what you are going to be working on?

Ideally, we would have know what we were going to do before we finished Shadow Complex. We’ve had that with games in the past. Shadow Complex is little different though. We really wanted to finish it right. Because we have such a small team, everyone was focused on finishing the game. Once the game was finished, we all kind of rested and went on vacation, then we came back and started to look at the ideas we had. I don’t know…whenever we sit down to start a game, we have a backlog of ideas.

Over the years, we said “this game would be cool, or that game would be cool,” but we have several that have gotten past the “wouldn’t it be cool stage” to the “this could be really good franchise and game” – whether it has an interesting mechanic, universe, or whatever it is. We certainly revisit those whenever we make a new game. We also talk about new ideas, or incorporate ideas into those others we are refining. It’s a good time to reflect on the last project and what opportunities that offers us, but also where we think the market is going, and where gaming is going, and what we think will be the right game for us to make next.

Shadow Complex is interesting. It has done really well, our team is still small and growing, and we’re at a point where we really want to grow our team into something special. We have this amazing opportunity with Epic, where we are kind of freed from some of the typical constraints most other developers have to face. We really are in a position where we can make good games. We don’t want to squander that in any way, or let consumers down in any way. We just want to make refined games that people want to play. So…we’re trying to figure out what will be good for our next game. (Laughs)

People are obsessed with hiking in the Pacific Northwest. How are you the first developer to bring that out in a game?

That’s not totally true. Half-Life 2 was in the Pacific Northwest.

But you weren’t hiking.

Well, that’s true. (Laughs) I’ve never actually lived there, but it has such a unique look, and unique atmosphere. It’s kind of a cool place for hiking and that outdoorsy environment. We thought it would be such a cool place to have a secret underground base, and to see hikers kind of stumble across this facility just seemed like something that could happen. It’s something we haven’t seen in a video game, you know. It just seemed like a natural fit.

This idea kind of came from, well, I’m sure this is true for most kids that got dragged on long road trips across America with their parents, those moments where you would stare out the window across these huge expanses of the United States. I know, for at least Jeremy and I, we’d sit there and dream about what if ships started raising out of the ground, or mechs emerged. There’s this huge expanse in America, and we never could get past this idea of hidden underground bases peppered across America that were up to nefarious things, and putting machinations into motion. We just could never shake that idea, and that’s kind of where it started.

And it’s real! I’m not making this up!  We were like a year into development on Shadow Complex, and we did a Google search on hidden underground bases, and it brought up, ironically, in Washington state, this old, ‘50s, huge underground complex that was for sale! It was like a year ago for $10 million!

Did you make enough off Shadow Complex to buy it? You should move your company there!

Wouldn’t that be awesome! It was crazy! It’s this real thing underground with missile silos and different farms and hydroponics. It must have been from the Cold War era.

You have to wonder how many of those are around the United States.


In Symphony of the Night, they flip the world upside down, allowing players to navigate it that way. Andy McNamara was wondering if you would do this in a sequel, if you are making one, and said, in his words “real men have their worlds turn upside down.”

(Laughs) Tell Andy that’s a little bit easier to do when you are dealing with sprites. There are lots of advantages that come with having our game be fully 3D, but one of the disadvantages is that we have to use real gravity. We have a lot more things to deal with than just sprites. I don’t know. That would be interesting to say the least. I’ll see what we can do. (Laughs)

People are into speed runs in classic games, such as getting through Metroid as quickly as they can. What’s the fastest time you’ve seen for a Shadow Complex playthrough? Did this person cheat, find shortcuts to the power-ups, or glitch the game?

The fastest one we have seen is a little over 14 minutes…which is crazy. That’s faster than we can even do it. The fastest internal time we’ve seen is just under 17 minutes. That’s how fast we can do it. I’ve seen the video of the 14-minute run through. I know it’s a legit run through. It’s perfect. It’s literally someone playing perfect. Every jump is perfect, every bullet is perfect, and they found many of our secret ways to get around the map faster. It’s amazing to watch.

I think I spent 10 minutes on the last boss alone.

Well, that’s just doing a straight-up speed run. That’s not getting 100 percent. I’m not a big speed runner myself, but in the community there’s a debate over if a true speed run is just how fast you can beat it, or how fast you can get everything for 100 percent and beat it. For those runs, I think the record is in the hour and 20-minute range. It’s just so mind-boggling that they can do that.

Here’s another comment from Andy that just came across my desk. He says once the lake drains, it’s difficult to get back to the other side of the map. He wants to know where the refill the lake switch is?

(Laughs) Well, you just have to have the right skills. There are ways to navigate the lake once it’s drained without too many problems. That being said, that’s the one thing stands out as we look at the game now, and evaluate what went right, and what didn’t go quite as right. We did so much focus testing on the game, and having tons of people play it, there are certain ways to circumvent the lake, but they are pretty hardcore. They are ways any normal person at all won’t even consider.

You are basically saying Andy has no skills.

No no. I’m not saying Andy has no skills. I do think the onus is on us. We kind of look at that and go “at the very end, we could have telegraphed that a little better, or made it a little easier for the normal gamer to navigate and circumvent if they wanted to.” Yeah, some of that is on us, but Andy also should up his skills.

So, you’re in-between projects right now, maybe even working on your next one. Is there any interest in revisiting the Advent universe? Since the story was left hanging, is there a passion to continue that tale?

Definitely. Advent is so near and dear to my heart. I love the Advent franchise, and I love the ideas that we kind of came up with for it. There’s so much that we could do with the story and with the gameplay. And we’ve learned so much about making games since we made Advent. Yeah, Advent is always in the forefront of my mind. So, we don’t own the rights yet. Majesco still has the rights, and every time I try to get them from them, they get more expensive. You know, we’ll see. We now have the backing of Epic behind us, and hopefully there will be a day when it all just makes sense, and I’ll be able to finish what we started. I sure hope so. We’ll see. Don’t give up hope!

Any interest in doing a 2D Gears of War game? Or maybe revisiting Cliff Bleszinski's’Jazz Jackrabbit?

I guess anything is possible. I think a lot of the cool Gears of War mechanics of pop and stop and using cover are really sound design principles, and could certainly work in a 2D sidescroller. In Shadow Complex, while we didn’t put in an actual cover system, we tried to balance, especially on the harder difficulty levels, a need to be tactical in your approach, much more of a pop and stop mentality. I definitely think you could see how it could work in a Gears of War environment. That could be cool. As for Jazz Jackrabbit, I don’t think Chair would be the right people to make that game, but maybe Cliff should make that game. I’ll hit him up to see if he’ll do it.

I think he already did…twice. 

Then maybe it’s time for him to make it again. (Laughs)

You’re a huge science-fiction fan, and also a fantasy fan. But in the gamespace, and in your games so far, you’ve focused on science fiction. Any interest in going into a fantasy world?

Oh… Okay, so we definitely, definitely, some day will do something fantasy. Most of the people here have a huge interest in sci-fi, but we also have a huge interest in fantasy. You know, with Advent we got to do a science-fiction flavored space opera, and with the Empire franchise and Shadow Complex, we obviously got to do a more realistic, modern day sci-fi. So yes, definitely some day. We’ve got awesome ideas for a really awesome fantasy franchise, and awesome ideas for a superhero franchise. We definitely have interest there. We are interested in telling our own stories.

Speaking of stories, what are you reading these days? And just so our readers know, I should reiterate just how huge of a fantasy and science fiction fan you are.

(Laughs) Okay, I just started reading a new science-fiction book by Greg Bear called City at the End of Time. It’s actually pretty cool. The premise, well…I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone, but Greg Bear is an interesting sci-fi author. I wouldn’t say he’s my favorite, but he’s definitely in my group of writers that I’m always cognizant of what they are doing. He’s more into the science of sci-fi, and is actually quite hardcore about it. There’s always a lot of scientific backing to his books, but this book, his latest, it seems like a blend between sci-fi and fantasy, which he’s never really done before. So far, it seems pretty cool. I’m enjoying it.

I also just finished – and don’t laugh at me for this because it’s seriously good – a fantasy series called Fablehaven, which is more for young adults like Harry Potter. It’s good! It’s really good! I’m so impressed with it. It’s a five book series, and the first four are out. The fifth one is coming out early next year. It’s so well done, and the characters are so awesome. I was so surprised by how good it is. [Brandon Mull] does such a good job of changing up the pacing on things, and doing unexpected twists. I think what’s so cool about that is it honestly reminds me of George R. R. Martin, in a way that in the Fablehaven series you never feel safe, you never feel that the characters are safe, and the danger feels real. I think that’s so hard. So many people fail at being able to do that well.

And like you, I am just dying for Martin to finish A Dance With Dragons.

Anything you’d like to say to George R. R. Martin?

YES! George R. R. Martin- start writing, and stop watching the Jets!

I just want him to finish, and then I see these pictures of him, and I think this, if you’re not writing, get on a treadmill! I love you, but you have to stay healthy. You gotta finish.

And he has a long ways to go.

For the love of all the people out there who love him like we do, I hope he finishes the book soon because I’m dying for it.