Toltec With A Twist: The Aztez Interview
To the best of either of their recollections, Ben Ruiz and Matthew Wegner met in Phoenix, Arizona, where Ruiz was attending art school.
“My favorite part of our history is the way he was trying to hustle me out of the job I was at prior to working for him,” Ruiz says of Wegner. “He would IM me in the middle of the day and say ‘Hey there dude, how’s your job? Still shitty? Oh that sucks. Come work here.’”
“I remember asking him about money, worrying that he would balk at our pittance of a salary at the time,” Wegner says.
That colorfully-described job laid off Ruiz the day the art he was working on was complete, and soon thereafter he joined Wegner’s development company, Flashbang Studios. There, plans to develop their own game soon coalesced. Together as Team Colorblind, the pair began work on Aztez, a fast-paced action game (a beat ‘em up, more specifically) with a turn-based strategy twist.
“Beat ‘em ups have barely changed in the 25 years they’ve existed.”
Ruiz is what most people would consider an expert on the subject of fighting games and beat ‘em ups. He says the biggest distinction between these types of games is the opponent: fighting games pit players against each other, and beat ‘em ups effectively find players facing off against a computer opponent.
Wegner agrees and is quick to note that this is an important difference, because it means that–at least on some level–players are fighting the developer. That’s the pragmatic take from someone whose own development house (Flashbang Studios) has shipped well over a dozen self-funded games and countless contract projects.
With Wegner’s unique brand of development expertise in tow, Ruiz found himself eager to make his own game that would fix some of the problems he saw as inherent to the genres.
“Beat ‘em ups have barely changed in the 25 years they’ve existed, and they’re currently nigh unbearable as game experiences,” Ruiz wrote in a blog post early in 2012, citing reasons like contrived stories and ridiculous QuickTime events. “The old fans can be satisfied and new fans are out there,” he continued. “While I’m not automatically assuming I’ll be successful in those regards, I do believe you owe it to the things you love to try.”
Ben Ruiz grew up in a second and third generation Mexican-American household, but by his own admission, ancestral pride was not necessarily instilled in him. Ethnic holiday traditions were upheld, and Spanish was sometimes spoken amongst the elders, though by no means was he deeply rooted in the culture of his ancestors.
But as a child, Ruiz saw a Toltec pyramid in a book he was reading, and it was an event that single-handedly opened the door to his own cultural awareness. Reminiscent of the beautiful pyramids in Middle Eastern and South American cultures, the Toltec stood out to Ruiz because he knew that his ancestors built them.
Ruiz shared his feeling of wonder with his mother, whose response was simply to make sure he had every book he wanted about the pyramids and the culture. “It was one of the countless ways she was tremendously supportive to me as a child,” he says
From his blog post:
A light went on. I felt something. Looking into it, I discovered how vast and powerful and complex and beautiful my ancestors were, and I really liked the feeling. It wasn’t very strong at first, but as I got older and older it became more and more a part of me. Now I look upon the Toltecs, Aztecs, and Mayans with great pride.
Elaborating, Ruiz says, “I was affected by the Pre-Columbian civilizations because–as a builder and an artist–I felt instantly connected to them. I found them amazing from an aesthetic point of view, and compelling from a genetic point of view.”
Now, years later, Ruiz finds himself knee-deep in the design of a game heavily influenced by his heritage and his love of Mesoamerican culture. Aztez features environments, character models, and weapons that all evoke the mystique of Mesoamerican civilizations.
While the game is a beat ‘em up at heart, there’s also a significant strategy element of the game that relates thematically to the struggles of Ruiz’ ancestors. The region’s history is painted in broad strokes as players expand their empires through a mix of politics, diplomacy, and brutal conquest. Ruiz is proud of this history and of his people, and hopes that, with Aztez, he can help others connect to that culture, even in some small way.
Using words like “beautiful” or “distinct” to describe weapons, and phrases like “nuanced beyond reason” to describe attacks, Ruiz intellectualizes these games like few do. But as he and Wegner move into production of their “inaugural foray into the world of combat heavy real-time action games,” what do they measure themselves against? What is the penultimate game that hits all the marks?
“As far as beat ‘em ups are concerned, the game that most closely represents perfection is Bayonetta,” Ruiz says. “When it comes to combat engines, I have two primary measurements: depth of expression and kinesthetic sensation. Depth of expression is about the array of available mechanics and how broadly they can be utilized against the game’s enemies, kinesthetic sensation is simply about how good it feels.
“Bayonetta executes on these factors higher than any beat ‘em up that has come before it.”
Nuanced attacks, kinesthetic sensation, hit boxes… our entire exchange is peppered with the kind of knowledge it takes a lifetime to understand. But the pair is adamant that the game will be enjoyable for everyone, from new players to genre aficionados. In blog posts earlier in the game’s development, Ruiz even made special mention of how important “scrappers” were to these games.
However, Ruiz is somewhat concerned that the pendulum may have swung too far in one direction, with too many games trying too hard to ease everyone in. Often times, he says, this leaves high-level players feeling forgotten.
“Which I understand!” Ruiz notes, tacitly recognizing the business goals that drive such decisions. “But players who require legitimate challenge have little on the shelf available to them right now.”
Echoing the frustration of many modern players, Ruiz seems fed up with the current trend of hand-holding tutorials. “Since I’m ready to rock as soon as I turn the game on, seeing the game’s mechanics (the very thing I’m there for!) behind a gate is infuriating,” he says, before asserting that he refuses to do this to his players.
“I’m trying to create an game that is pretty and full of scenery changes, accessible enough that low-level players can have fun, deep enough that high-level players can stay engaged, is an interesting vehicle for combat that keeps you coming back, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, does not waste your time,” Ruiz declares. “I want to show the world that beat ‘em ups are capable of so much more.”
Years of passion–for games, history, ancestry, and family–have brought Ben Ruiz to an emotional precipice. His first large-scale, commercial game release, steeped in history and heritage, is nearing completion. “I’ve never wanted anything more than to get this game out into the world,” he admits.
That passion is fueling Wegner, too. After a lengthy discussion about their game, its inspirations, and philosophy, he admits, “A lot of my motivation is based on the trust I have that Ben will complete this journey.” He adds succinctly, “There’s a game here that I want to play that doesn’t exist, so we’re building it.”
That game is Aztez.
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Also, for the first time on Pixels or Death, we’d like to present the original interview conducted for the feature in its entirety. It’s a fantastic interview that showcases the personalities of both Ruiz and Wegner, and includes some great stories about the development of Aztez.