Interview: Skipchaser’s Michael Wilson

As an indie roguelite top-down shooter, Skipchaser packs its sci-fi/fantasy universe with action. Taking place in a largely-abandoned frontier, players dive into the storyline; scum and villains abound! With production in high gear, Ponywolf President Michael Wilson chatted with NerdQ’s Erik Meyer on the development process.

Erik Meyer: Players set up shop as a bounty hunter in a mining wasteland; the game focuses energy on customizable weapons, procedural levels, and fast paced gunfights. How have you worked to maintain a balance between these elements, and from your vantage point, what gives a game like Skipchaser the right feel for the person at the controls?

Michael Wilson: We’re big fans of twin stick shooters, but most of what’s out there focuses on some sort of “bullet hell” or at least very “twitchy” mechanics. We wanted something that felt slower, more methodical, where you could see yourself exploring as well as fighting. Diablo, Zelda and a few others do this pretty well, but as we’re realizing it’s harder than it looks.

EM: Ponywolf has turned heads with a number of projects, drawing attention for Time Golf Squad and The Mimic, to name a few; you’ve also taken part in the Ludum Dare jams. Speak to how your studio has come to where it is today and how these processes inform your work with Skipchaser.

MW: I’ve been building games off and on for almost 15 years, but most people on our small team have been creating games for just a few years. This combination of knowing how to get something done and fresh ideas makes for a great combination. We just completed a 72-hour game called “Flat Earths!” where we were able to make a fun-and-unique-looking game with just three people over three days.

EM: In addition to the levels, enemies are procedurally generated; from a dev standpoint, what kinds of challenges did this create for you?

MW: We’ve built this engine from the ground up (on top of the great Lua language, Tiled Map Editor and Corona Cross Platform SDK) to be able to create 2.5D games like this and platformer games like “Flat Earths!” Our biggest challenge is really all the little pieces of functionality that we tend to have to build ourselves–UI, controller support, audio tools, etc. I like it, because we “feel” different than other games in our genres, but it adds a layer of complexity (and time) to e-invent some wheels.

EM: The game art and animations have a glossy, magazine feel with a warm color palette. As you built assets, what did you see as critical, and what was your guiding compass?

MW: James Lloyd, who’s been doing our art and animation for two years now, is just amazing. Our games wouldn’t get noticed half as much without his efforts that make every screenshot look like a masterpiece. Somehow, he makes each game we do unique but with a very familiar feel. I wish I knew how he does it.

EM: When it comes to exploration action games incorporating upgrades, titles like Hyper Light Drifter and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past represent two success stories; how do you see games evolving, and how is Skipchaser a part of this evolution?

MW: I hope as we refine and expand our story we live up to 10% of either of those titles. We have the story arc written and are furiously creating the content behind it, but I don’t think we get to greatness until we have both the game and the story feeling perfectly polished.

EM: For some time, Steam has been a dominant force in the distribution of online games, but other options exist (think Humble Bundle or console sales platforms). Where do indie games fit in with this?

MW: We were lucky enough to be featured on for the better part of late April and early May. It opened up a whole new community of gamers that were open to supporting a game like our in early access.

EM: Devs often describe an ‘aha’ moment in which elements of a game crystallize as distinct, a world coming into view. When did you know you had something, early on in the process?

MW: The Ludum Dare really opened our eyes to what we could do. We had many, many streamers and gamers telling us what they liked (and didn’t like) about the Mimic (the spiritual successor to Skipchaser), and that led us to believe we could do yet another twin-stick shooter and make it successful.

EM: Game creation tools have changed a lot in the last five years; what makes your job easier, from a development standpoint? How do new tools help Ponywolf, looking ahead?

MW: We couldn’t live without Tiled–an open source object and tile based map editor. We visualize almost everything in that tool and bring it into our engine to build out. Other than that, we’re pretty traditional–Photoshop, Illustrator, Audition. We use Lua/Corona as our development platform–and that makes it super easy to write once and compile out to PC/Mac/Mobile, etc.

In case you missed it, here’s the trailer:

Author: Erik Meyer

Erik edits content, writes articles, conducts interviews, and draws silly things for The NerdQ. He also produces Planning Session, a comic showcasing dev discussions.

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