Early Access and Indie developers have been a big focus of PC gaming commentary this year. Lots of stories of some projects falling apart have come to light. We spoke with the developer of Tango Fiesta – Andrew Smith – about how to do Early Access right and 80s action movies.
One Hit Pixel: How big of a team do you have at Spilt Milk Studios?
Andrew Smith: Four people. Spilt Milk Studios is technically one person, which is myself. Mastertronic are publishing the game for us. Then there’s one designer, one art, one coder, and one audio.
So it’s almost like bedroom coding.
It kind of is bedroom coding. I believe Andrew who is our coder actually codes in his bedroom. I design in my living room. I think our artist has his own studio, which is like, “Woah! Steady on! That’s not indie; we’re going to have to have words!”
Where did the idea for Tango Fiesta come from?
Funnily enough it was born at a Eurogamer event. Almost two years ago at Rezzed, they had a Creative Assembly sponsored Game Jam. We’d submitted as a team of four, having done a few Game Jams before and thought this would be a bit of fun. The theme was the 80’s and we had eight hours to make the game. What we ended up making was that scene in Predator where they shoot the jungle an awful lot because we thought, “We could do that in eight hours, that’ll be easy!” We had four guys in a single screen, shooting the jungle. There was a bit of a cover mechanic in there, where the jungle slowed down enemies as they move but acted as cover too.
Essentially it came out of that. The name of the game came from the restaurant we had dinner at the night before. There was a tango class at the Fiesta del Asado in Birmingham. We’d pledged that whatever we created in the Game Jam, it would be called Tango Fiesta.
It’s a great inspiration for a name certainly! So it’s a four player twin-stick shooter, been in early access since June 2014. How has the reception been from early adopters?
It’s been really good actually. We have had the usual mix. Some people didn’t like it so much and others absolutely adored it and played it more than Call of Duty or Counter-Strike. Because it’s on Steam, we can check these things! It’s quite exciting. I think there’s a lot of room for us to push it really hard. We’ve been a little reticent as it was launched quite early, it was quite buggy and we were committed to weekly updates, which is what we’ve been doing for the first two or three months. We recently switched to fortnightly updates.
The positive reaction has been quite humbling. There are a couple of guys on our forum who after our patch goes up on either the weekly or fortnightly cycle, within two or three hours they have got full bug reports with screenshots and videos. There’s an element of “Wow, that’s nice, they’re finding the bugs for us!” though we still would like to find the bugs ourselves as well, but it shows how much they care.
So you feel as if these people are “the other member of the team”?
Yeah, they’re part of us now, whether they like it or not! We’ve always said that the game is more “the player’s game” than ours. We’ve got an idea of what’s going to be fun about it and what we’re going to change; but if the fans want something we should be able to give them that, within reason of course! It’s been born out of the fact that we’ve got a lot of really good will from the way we’ve handled Early Access. In the Steam Curation that recently launched, we’ve been added to a list of “Early Access Games Done Right”. It’s alongside games like [Vlambeer’s] Nuclear Throne for example. It’s really nice to see it alongside games a lot of people have heard of and know are successful, and being associated with them through our attitudes to Early Access.
I was going to ask about Early Access more broadly, as it’s come under a lot of scrutiny in recent months. One critic raised a point where developers have been developing on Early Access, then suddenly pulling the game, much to the ire of the early adopters. I know you’ve touched upon this, how the community has taken to the development of your game on Early Access. If you were to make another game through Early Access, are there lessons to be learnt, or do you feel you got it right first time?
We’re not going to get everything right first time I don’t think! I’m absolutely keen on making another game using Early Access. The major change we would take is twofold. We released a little early with Tango Fiesta and initial impressions were hurt because of that. That came from the fact that to developers Early Access means one thing, whereas to the consumer it’s changed a lot. We see a lot of games on Early Access that are essentially finished when launched and all they have left to do is add new content. I would argue that as a developer that isn’t Early Access. It isn’t an Alpha or Beta.
The reality is that they’re in the same bucket as other games on Early Access which are looser and unsure of how they’re going to end up. Consumers rightly pay for something and expect it to be fun. We were pretty certain that Tango Fiesta was fun on launch, but there were a lot of bugs and people weren’t ready for that. That’s down to us communicating it. So what we’re going to do next Early Access is wait a bit, make sure the game is way more polished, maybe fewer features initially, but more complete. The market is shifting more towards complete games.
A lot of the problem with Early Access in my opinion is that Valve hasn’t really communicated what the actual purpose of Early Access is. I think that’s been a bit confusing for consumers who are buying into an Early Access and expecting something a little more finished/polished. There are exceptions from the sounds of things, like your two guys who bought it and within hours of each update producing bug reports. Some people actually want to get involved in QA testing professionally and see this as a gateway into getting into an industry…
From way back in the day when I was making mods before I was making games professionally, I would have loved for this to be a thing, where I could see how a game is being made; weekly or monthly updates to see how things have improved. Part of the fun is seeing it develop. As long as at the end you get the finished game then that’s fine. It’s when it’s not finished where you see a lot of the negative feedback from consumers, who bought a game and the developers suddenly stop.
That was never a risk with us as we’re being published by Mastertronic. We’re being paid to make this game. We’re in a position where we can be incredibly confident about the fact that we’re going to finish this game. It will be available for a price at a time and people will be able to come back and enjoy it. Not everyone’s in that position and it’s on the developer to make sure they’re in that position and not release a paid Beta/Early Access if they’re not. They’re the ones with the knowledge of how long it will take to make, how much it will cost, etc. If it looks like it won’t be ready, you shouldn’t be doing Early Access because it’s dishonest.
Going onto the game itself, it’s a game born out of a Game Jam that’s a love letter to 80’s action movies. What kind of things can players expect?
It’s an arcade action game for one to four players, cooperative through and through. There are four worlds, five in the release version, each based on an 80’s action movie. One is inspired by Commando, one that’s a bit like Predator, there is a tribute to Ghostbusters, and the Running Man also gets a bit of a look in! We’ve gone a bit Arnie with our choices, but we’re looking to expand on that. The fifth one we haven’t decided on yet, but if anyone’s got any good suggestions we’re open to them! Maybe Tron because of its different aesthetic choice!
A lot of gamers want games like they used to be, mad fun, blasting through lots of enemies; but they expect it to last a bit longer and have depth to master some of the systems. We have got a simple example of that, where the characters in the game have eight or nine different attributes which affect how they handle and move in combat. If I’m running forward, then I move at a different speed for each character. If I’m running to the right and shooting to the left, essentially shooting behind me, I will run a bit slower.
We have character variety in there as well, from the broad tanks to the glass cannons. There’s a lot of room for interesting gameplay and dynamics. One of our more recent characters, Doctor Henk, who is a ghoul hunter character, he is a scientist and inventor so good with his hands. He reloads faster than anyone else in the roster, but has a weak melee. Another positive is that he’s thinner, so he can dodge bullets a lot more easily. There’s a lot of reasons to play through with different characters, so we think people will get a lot of a kick through the surprising amount of depth.
When it comes out of Early Access, is there more scope for more worlds or will it be feature complete?
The PR person in me would say, “Yes, it’s complete, we’re not releasing something not feature complete!” It will be finished to the point of scope, what we will be pleased to present as a finished product. We will have a story with a beginning, middle, and end. It will have a New Game +, seven playable characters, tons of bad guys, bosses on every world, etc.
That said, there are a lot of great 80’s action movies we want to homage and take the mickey out of as well! Why would we stop? If it does well enough, we will continue to support it and I can’t wait.
If you were to choose one 80’s action movie that isn’t in the game already, what would you pick?
A personal favourite is First Blood, the first Rambo movie. It’s a little darker in tone, but there’s an idea we’ve got for implementing a thematically similar element to the gameplay. First Blood is about a man who is haunted by his actions in a warzone and is wrongly pursued when he gets back home. We’ve thought of a Metal Gearesque way of tieing that into the game. I would really love to do that as the designer in me would be satisfied if I can pull that off!
The other answer would be Die Hard, because it’s the best action movie ever made!
You’d have to get a sound-a-like for Alan Rickman to do that!
He would be the most sarcastic boss battle! Maybe have the battle a bit like Monkey Island with the verbal ripostes! We can do what we like! We do have a publisher, but they let us do what we want.
Are we close to coming out of Early Access?
We’re aiming for the end of November. We have one world to add and polish the game up. [As of the time of publishing, it is still in Early Access]
We’d like to thank Andrew Smith for speaking with us and publisher Mastertronic for putting us in contact.