Sunday, December 31, 2017

Developer Interview: Yoko from Rebrank

Rebrank is the developer of Refrain: Prism Memories and other innovative shoot-em’-ups. The seven developer Doujin Circle are all former members of a college club called Amusement Makers.

Refrain is one of my absolute favorite shoot-em’-ups because of its uniqueness. After playing their other game, Redrive, I discovered that this circle has a penchant for creating new and interesting experiences from a staple genre of doujin soft. Redrive is a interesting shooter where you attack enemy ships by drawing rectangles around them. Their latest creation, C.C.S.B., which is currently in development, is a shooter where the perspective of the screen itself is manipulated.

I reached out to the circle, as was able to send some questions to Yoko, one of its leading members. We covered his time with Amusement Makers as well as the ideas that fueled their games. All of their works are worth playing for anyone who loves shoot-em’-ups and arcade style games.

Please describe the Amusement Makers and its purpose.  What was your experience?

Amusement Makers is an unofficial circle at Tokyo Denki University's Science and Engineering Department. The members of Amusement Makers changed each year due to new students joining or graduating students leaving. The following answers are based on my experience from 2001 to 2004. The latest incarnation of the Amusement Makers might be somewhat different.

The purpose of Amusement Makers is developing and distributing video games. The majority of members are students of Tokyo Denki University's Science and Engineering department. However, this group does not have an official relationship to university.

I helped to develop two bullet-hell shoot-'em-ups called Kioh-gyoku and Banshiryu from 2001 to 2002. I also established Project  Blank (P.N.B.) and recruited its members from Amusement Makers. I assumed a chief role of Amusement Makers from 2003 to 2004. The games we developed were distributed at Comic Market and Doujin game shops such as Melonbooks and Toranoana. All members of RebRank are from Amusement Makers and have created games together.

How did you and the other members of the Amusement Makers influence and work with each other?

The relationships of each of the members are flexible. If someone wants to create a game, they establish a project and start to create it.

For example, projects have been created for developing shoot-'em-ups, visual novels, action games, puzzle games, etc. Also, projects are created by members who have a corresponding role such as programming, illustration, composition and web design. Amusement makers had various projects and these groups exchanged their opinions and they play each other’s projects.

Do you think being a part of The Amusement Makers was a positive experience?

Yes. It was very precious experience to belong to Amusement Makers and create games.
It’s already been 10 years, and we continue to keep in contact with each other, regardless of our age. These members are like war buddies who have made a game together. I am proud that I was a member of Amusement Makers.

Can you describe a typical Amusement Makers gathering?

Amusement Makers held a meeting once a week after the university lectures were over, around the evening. After the circle meeting, we had more in depth conversations with each other at dinner.

We worked on our projects at home. We would bring the results and receive opinions from other members at the meeting. Also, we gave technical consultation to each other if the work was difficult or some problem had occurred.

For example we would say things like, "although it was good here, it is better for player to enjoy it a bit easier here" or "it is better to apply this implementation here". Looking back at the meetings, I think that it was a place to encourage each other with game development and help each other.

Also, if you make a game with only the developers, the game tends to be difficult. The circle meeting was a very good place to solve these types of problems. Currently, we can discuss a game under development and demonstrate it at exhibitions such as the Digigame-Expo and the Tokyo Rokete Game Show sponsored by IGDA Japan, but from 2001 to 2004 there was no event whose main purpose was the exhibition and play testing of games. For this reason, the circle meeting was a very valuable opportunity to hear the opinions about games under development.

What inspired the unique gameplay mechanics of RedRive?

RedRive is a game created mainly by Reine and Hajime, and was presented at the annual university festival (Hatoyama-festival) after Sheile and I graduated from the university. The mechanics of RedRive was mostly influenced by Introduction to Pac-Man's Game Theories written by Toru Iwatani, a Japanese game creator.

They were also influenced by other books about interactive design such as Chris Crawford's The Art of Interactive Design and Greg Costikyan's Game Theory. Reine was researching and studying media while at the university, and he thought that the rules of a game naturally exist and are rules known by everyone.

For example, Namco's Pacman is made from the verb "eat." So RedRive was created from the idea of making rules for games from simple verbs.  Initially, the game was designed based on the verb "draw" and trying to create a shoot-'em-up that attacks enemies by drawing a magic circle.

However, it turned out that the the player’s input becomes too complicated if they try to draw a magic circle. So I reconsidered the verb "draw.” Inspired by the rectangle tool in Photoshop, I used the verb "enclose." The concept of the player drawing a rectangle and enclosing the enemy was created. The game was proceeded with Hajime.

In RedRive, attempts were made to create rules from the physical laws in nature that can be easily imagined by the player. In a player's attack in RedRive, the size of the enclosing rectangle is related to the attack power. For example, if the size of the rectangle is small, the attack power of the player is high, and if the size of the rectangle is large, the attack power of the player becomes small; this is the same as the relationship between "pressure and area" in nature.

When RedRive was exhibited at the university festival we had to entertain player in a shorter play time. For this reason, it was designed to change the difficulty level of the game in such a way that the route changes automatically to a difficult stage or a easy stage.

RedRive was developed using RefRain's game engine which is highly versatile. Regarding the change of the stage and route, additional implementation was done by myself and Sheile so that the time to clear the game and the route change are easily visible before releasing the game online. We were able to finish development in short period.

In RefRain: Prism Memories, there are unique ways to avoid the bullets,
unlike a traditional bullet hell shooter. What inspired this?

To answer your question about inspiration of RefRain, I'll talk about RefRain's concept design, RefRain's game system, and RefRain's issues and differences from Samidare.

RefRain does not have mechanics for avoiding bullets that are like bombing systems or other systems in other, more traditional shoot-'em-ups. RefRain has alternative mechanics for attacking called  M.E.F. A2 and Concept Reactor. By using these two attack mechanics in conjunction with each other, these mechanisms essentially become the bombing system that is implemented in traditional shoot-'em-ups. For example, traditional shoot-’em-ups have bombs that allow players to become invincible only for a few second after use, the ability to erase enemy bullets within a specific range or deal big damage to enemies. At the same time these mechanics satisfy RefRain's concept design.

The issues in RefRain can be roughly divided into two.

First issue is: can we make Samidare, our previous game, more easy to play?
In the Samidare, the player avoids enemy bullets, uses a shield to enter the enemy's pocket, and can fight with a brief and powerful attack as a counterattack. In Samidare's game system, players can get a feeling of dominating opposing enemies and game field.

In this game system, players must actively continue to attack enemies. For this reason, we almost don't tolerate a style of play that avoids enemy's bullets passively like in traditional bullet-hell shoot-'em-ups. Even when playing regardless of their score, a player should do the following series of procedures: avoid enemy bullets and approach enemies, defend against enemy's attacks and counterattack. Players, who are unfamiliar with shoot-'em-ups, can't easily play Samidare and can not approach the enemy as they expect; the player will fail and lose their lives in immediately.

For this reason, RefRain has inherited Samidare’s concept of aggressiveness to give the player feeling of dominating opposing enemies, but also allowing a play style found in traditional bullet-hell shoot-'em-ups, like avoiding enemy's bullets. I came up with a game design that makes these two play styles compatible.

To make playing this game fun for players who are unfamiliar with shoot-'em-ups, we developed following devices on RefRain:

- Players don’t have to approach the enemies like in Samidare to get high scores because M.E.F.A2 can deal heavy damage in long range.

- We created a contrast between the ways bullets target the player and the ways bullets don't target the player. And due to the use of accelerating bullets and decelerating bullets, enemy's bullets do not remain on the screen for a long time. Therefore, a player can understand bullets that can be avoided easily, and the developer can set enemy's bullets to create a strong impression with the way they look.

On the other hand, in RefRain, as well as Samidare, we designed a way to avoid a barrage while using a series of procedures that would avoid the enemy bullets, shoot the enemy, keep your lives, and get a much higher score than in Samidare. For example, we devise the following innovation:

- We implemented a system in which score is decided by evaluating the survival state and play style of player. This score gets especially higher when you have a specialized play style.

- We implemented a system determines a high score by evaluating the skill of the player.

- We implemented a system that continuously analyzes the player’s behavior patterns and dynamically changes the game difficulty, so players who are unfamiliar with shoot-'em-ups can play. For example, this system will adjust the stage composition, the formation of the enemies, the amount of bullets, and the attack power of the player all according to the skill of the player.

The second issue is: can I change  the atmosphere of the opposing enemy to be stronger relative to the player while keeping the style of traditional shoot-'em-ups?

There is stylized design and then the basic game design like the 2D shoot-'em-ups that have been implemented in Space Invaders, Xebius and Gradius. These have been traditionally maintained in creating shoot-'em-ups, and they are also the beauty of technology.

We had thought, can we create something different from the stoic shoot-'em-ups while also preserving such a form? It’s funny ... the player that will defeat a mighty enemy, use their skills against the boss, and have a sense of defeating an enemy in a planned situation, and have a sense of delivering the finishing blow to the boss with a weapon specifically selected by player. Though these are styles and techniques that we often see in manga and animation, we considered whether we can make it plausible in game while at the same time keeping the style of shoot-'em-ups. In RefRain we conceived a circulation system that is based on the M.E.F.A2 and the Concept Reactor.

By making a seamless system to perform attacks in an order, canceling opponent's attacks and make continuous attacks, we decided to give the player a feeling of defeating the enemy while using their skills selected by the player. This system can give the player a feeling of defeating the enemy with timing that has been planned by player.

What inspired the unique game mechanics of C.C.S.B.?

The C.C.S.B.'s concept and starting point revolve around a question about the player's actions in a shoot-'em-ups. In general shoot-'em-ups, the player shoots bullets and avoids enemy bullets at the same time. As you do those two actions at the same time it increases the interest and the difficulty. The question is: what will happen if you split these two?

C.C.S.B. is under development. It's game system has not been finalized and has been made over again several times. As a result, it’s an action, shoot-'em-up, puzzle game ... it is fine in the form it is now. So, it is not directly inspired by a specific game system.

In C.C.S.B., I would like to convey a user experience of facing enemies more strongly, easily and more playful than in Refrain. To realize this experience, there is surely a relationship between the viewpoint that the human is facing and the direction the aircraft faces. Therefore, The structure of game screen and the user interface as traditional style of a 2D shoot-'em-up are important. If I had to choose, I would say I’m inspired by "Senko no Ronde" by G.rev Ltd. in structuring the game screen.

What are your favorite games?

Among the commercial, popular shoot-'em-ups, I like the Gradius series by Konami. My favorite is Gradius Gaiden. Among doujin games and free shoot-'em-ups, I like Touhou Kaikidan: Mystic Square, Kioh Gyoku, Touhou Youyoumu: Perfect Cherry Blossom, RAY-KUDRYAVKA X(Revision No.65), among other things. RAY-KUDRYAVKA X(Revision No.65) gives us a glimpse of the future of shoot-'em-ups with the novelty and freshness of the game.

Although it is not a shoot-'em-up, I also like the ANOS series by JITENSHA SOGYO, G.K.
It is a fun game that it is progressed and finished by the intervention of the player. Furthermore, you can glimpse reality from the back of the game. It is a very attractive game.

What games are the main inspirations for Project  Blank?

If I had to choose, it would be the Gradius series. I played the Famicom version of Gradius when I about 4 or 5 years old, but the impression of playing it still remains in my memory.

How did RebRank form?

All members of RebRank graduated from the Amusement Makers and the friends who have created games together. First, Sheile and myself, who are the same age, graduated the university, left Amusement Makers and established RebRank as a separate circle. Other members joined to RebRank when they also graduated from the university. Currently, RebRank operates with 7 members.

How would you define "Doujin"?

I think that Doujin is something like the rainbow, the prism, or the light that moves as it changes its appearance, depending on its own mindset and viewpoint from time to time.
I think that creative work of Doujin is a place where we can make as many things as we want, like anything we like, without constraints, without being bound by someone, with your own creed; it is battlefield for ourselves.

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