Talking to Mike Zaimont about game development is like opening Pandora’s Box. Normally he is a man of few words, but bring up the right topic and the conversation quickly becomes an explosion of information.
JUST WHO IS THIS GUY?
Mike’s interest in games started with the most hated level of Battletoads. “Ever since I played Battletoads I had wanted to make my own version of Turbo Tunnel,” Mike said, noting that most people would say something like that sarcastically. This tough but possible level has influenced most of his game development from Skullgirls to the recently announced action RPG Indivisible.
Mike started professionally programming at Pandemic for Star Wars Battlefront 2 and Mercenaries 2 in 2003, but even then he had already been working on the Skullgirls engine for 4 years. Designing fighter games can be harder than you’d think. Every character must be meticulously balanced against another, every hitbox the perfect size, every move scrutinized and animated. The sheer difficulty of starting development on a fighting game alone could dissuade anyone, but Mike was eager to try.
His eventual success wouldn’t have been possible if a mutual friend hadn’t introduced Mike to Alex Ahad, an artist who happened to be making art assets for a fighting game. Once Alex had sent over some art assets for what would eventually become the character Fillia, Mike put them to work in the engine.
“As a thank you I sent him a build of it and he said ‘Wow this actually feels really nice, let’s talk about being more serious,’ and then I proposed,” Mike joked. Once they had a stable tech demo and a publisher in the form of Autumn Games, they formed a team and joined Reverge Studios.
After that Konami agreed to distribute the game, the game’s future seemed as if it were set in stone. Unfortunately, their development process was soon plagued with a series of unexpected hardships. Their publisher Autumn Games was sued over DefJam Rapstar, a rap karaoke game. Now without a publisher, Reverge was unable to pay their staff and was forced to lay them off. The Skullgirls team, however, wanted to continue working on the game. They formed their own studio, Lab Zero Games, and started an Indiegogo campaign to fund the project. It ended up making almost $830k, well beyond their original $150k goal. Development and post-release support for Skullgirls lasted for six years in total. It came to an end in July 2015 with Robo-Fortune, the final character Lab Zero added to the game.
Now the team has started a new project: Indivisible, a 2D action RPG strongly influenced by Valkyrie Profile. The story is heavily influenced by the myths and culture of Southeast Asia, a region not usually represented in games. It’s inspired them to create a lot of unique creatures– like the Ahp, a sort of vampire woman whose head flies off her body with all her entrails intact.
In switching from a fighting game to a ARPG, the team faces new challenges. Since Skullgirls had no collision system, some publically available coding guides from the early Sonic games were used to create a similar collision system. Still, creating a fighting game first apparently makes Indivisible’s development fairly easy. According to Mike, “The number of things that you need to pay attention to in order for the fighting game to be balanced and fun and everything else makes it super difficult as opposed to making other types of games.” In fact, much of the development of Indivisible has been spent scaling back systems from Skullgirls and then re-tuning the rest. Transitions from platforming to combat are practically seamless making Indivisible feel smooth even in the prototype.
THE Z -ENGINE
Mike’s Z-Engine adds tons of behind the scenes tweaks for artists, as well as dynamic lighting on sprites. Apparently, many companies are interested in the engine simply for that feature. This engine also adds a range of color to lower quality art—so an artist could draw something with only one shade of red, and the engine would automatically shade it along the color spectrum. Essentially, this engine has made it extremely easy to create good looking sprite-based games for modern consoles.
While the main goal of the Z-Engine was to be easier for artists to use, Lab Zero also designed it to make rapid prototyping simple. Without this feature, it wouldn’t have been possible to make the Indivisible prototype with the time and team size available to Lab Zero. For example, during a pitch meeting for Skullgirls, Mike was able to drag a folder with all the scripts for another game’s character into Skullgirls and reboot the game to make this “new” character immediately playable. According to Mike, “All of the logic that makes the game a fighting game as opposed to some other type of game out of code, that’s all in script.” This makes each fighter easier to edit, as opposed to some fighters that hard code each character instead. The engine is even good on space, with proprietary compression software that brings down art assets to one-tenth of the original size. Features like these are what allow Lab Zero to churn out so beautiful looking sprite work so quickly.
It’s not usual for game companies to be as transparent as Lab Zero. Both of their Indiegogo campaigns have had budgets and rough timeline estimates. Mike went so far as to say “you should never back a project without a budget.” Honesty can be scary, though. For Indivisible, they’ve had to ask for $1.5 million. While being this transparent was in some ways a risky gamble, for Mike and everyone at Lab Zero, it seemed like the most honest way to have an Indiegogo– and the risk paid off, because the project was fully funded earlier this week. Now it’s up to Lab Zero to show their backers what they can do.
Kevin Slackie likes playing too many games and riding motorcycles though not at the same time.