Unedited: The Aztez Interview With Ben Ruiz & Matthew Wegner

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What follows is the unedited interview I conducted with Ben Ruiz and Matthew Wegner for our recent feature about their new game, Aztez. It’s a fun interview, and it gives you a chance to hear more of Wegner’s input as well.

As with the feature, any images not from the game were taken by Wegner.

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Is there a distinction, either in the community or personally, made between beat ‘em ups and what most refer to as traditional fighting games?

Ruiz: Absolutely! Fighting Games are designed to put two players into the same space and having them directly compete. Think Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. Beat ‘Em Ups are designed to put one or two players in a space with groups of computer controlled opponents and have them compete against the computer. Think Devil May Cry or Double Dragon.

Wegner: The against-the-computer distinction is a good one, and really that’s saying you’re up against the designer.  The pacing and tempo of a fight falls a bit to us, versus the aggression of two humans (certainly play style still comes into it, though).

From a technical perspective, we have a lot less nuance in our physical modeling.  Most fighting games use a complex series of hitboxes and hurtboxes that animate along with each move.  See this Skullgirls example: //wiki.shoryuken.com/Skullgirls/Hit_Box_Ref

In Aztez we never animate the hurtboxes, only the hitboxes.  Each character is always a cylinder.  In some weird way you can actually imagine beat-em-ups as fighting a single “enemy” comprised of a bunch of different hurtboxes (the various individual opponents).

 I read the blog, and you’ve enthusiastically broken down several fighting systems. Is there one game that, to you, represents perfection? The mark against which all others will be measured?

Ruiz: As far as Beat ‘Em Ups are concerned, the game that closest represents perfection is Bayonetta. Mind you, I’m referring to Bayonetta’s combat gameplay. As a general game experience I actually find it boring at best and tedious at worst. But that’s a different conversation. 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, which ultimately comes down to proper animation, sensational visual effects, and impactful audio. Bayonetta executes on these factors higher than any Beat ‘Em Up that has come before it.

Matthew, are you as deep world of fighting games? If not, does that make the programming more difficult?

Wegner: I’ve been exposed to a lot of fighting games, but I’ve never put the personal time into any one game to get deeply into the interlocking systems.  I’m not sure if that puts me as a disadvantage or not, when it comes to programming!

One big difference with Aztez is that Ben has chosen to limit input to a very narrow amount of buttons.  This means most of the different moves are actually highly contextual, both based on your state and nearby opponents.  Pressing the same button does different moves if you’re standing, dashing, in the air, or whether a nearby enemy is lying on the ground, stunned, etc.  It’s a different programming/workflow problem (and one I think we’ve tackled well), but it’s hard to say how we’d stack up if we tried to do a straight SF4-style combat system or something.

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 Also mainly for Matthew, Flashbang games tend to be very physics-based. Fluidity and motion appear important to Aztez, too, and (unless I’m mistaken) it’s all in Unity–has this all helped you and Ben communicate about the game’s mechanics?

Wegner: Ben and I worked together on a few different games, which definitely helps with our shared vocabulary.  I think we differ a bit on our emphasis on predetermined motion and physics-simulated motion.  When I implement a new system I try to expose all of the tuning numbers I can; Ben tunes some of these numbers out of existence.  And that’s cool!  The combat experience here is his baby.

Ruiz: A few is a good way to put it, if by “a few” you mean “10”. Not counting Aztez.

Wegner: The combat aspects of Aztez are the furthest along, but there’s still quite a lot to implement “for real” (camera system, scoring system, etc).  I’m excited to tackle some of the big stuff, since going from the 10-line camera script we have now to something more directable is going to make a huge impact on the game.

Ben, from your side (and this may depend on Matthew’s answer to #3), specifically in reagards to the combat design, how are you communicating these things to him? You’ve got an intense knowledge about beat ‘em ups, and it seems like communicating what you want the game to “feel” like might be difficult without that shared vocabulary.

Ruiz: When it comes to the construction of our combat technology, I simply communicate to Matthew what it is I need to be able to implement. Most of the “feel”, like I mentioned previously, comes from the animation, visual effects, and audio. Since I produce these things personally, I am creating and maintaining the feel. But it needs to be said here that Matthew produces incredible tools, and I’m only able to do what I do because of him. And he very frequently gives me more than I asked for, which is an amazing part of our dynamic.

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 Your posts about the combat accessibility fork and skill divisions are amazing, and I love the fact that you speak about beginners and “scrappers” in a very non-reductive way. Why is it important for you to avoid being derisive towards these players? Do you think most games/developers miss an opportunity for inclusion in this regard?

Ruiz: Truthfully, I don’t have to avoid being derisive because I simply don’t feel that low level players are any less valuable to the success of the game. A skill-based game (in any genre) needs to be enjoyable on all levels, and I’ve just never held the belief that one’s position on the skill spectrum correlates to their meaning as a player of my game. And besides, low level players outnumber high level players many times over! So you have to take care of them, too.

Exclusion of low level players is not an issue anymore, which is great! Unfortunately, the metronome has swung too far in the opposite direction because these days, high level players are being pushed aside. When games moved out of the arcades and onto consoles, the focused changed from “collecting quarters in a difficult but enjoyable environment” to “making sure all the gamers in the house could experience the game’s content in a fun and safe environment”. Which I understand! But players who require legitimate challenge have little on the shelf available to them right now.

Wegner: Something we’re trying to work into the empire-management part of the game is the ability to modulate the difficulty of combat encounters before you have to play them (so a super-skilled combat player can crank up the challenge in exchange for more reward). This is a little bit like the single-player equivalent of match-making, where you’re trying to maximize someone’s enjoyment but not hitting them with a wall of frustration.

Ben does a super great job of the same concept at the second-to-second level of play.  The game is satisfying and fun and still enjoyable even if you’re mashing a single button.  There’s a glass ceiling there when it comes to how well you’ll do in a full and complete play through, but it doesn’t feel overly punishing.

 I love the idea of starting with the game’s entire toolset from the start (no unlockables). Is that still the current state of the game? Why is that important to you?

Ruiz: Because I have enough combat vocabulary to start utilizing the game’s mechanics immediately. I don’t need a slow and steady introduction. 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 and I refuse to do this to my players. I realize some people DO need a slow and steady introduction to the game’s mechanics, and that’s fine. But that’s what training and practice modes are for.

Wegner: We’ll probably have some “rare opportunity” type events in the overall game structure, but I side with Ben on allowing all combat combos and things from the get-go.

 Ben, do you speak fluent Spanish?

Ruiz: I sure don’t! My dad’s side of the family are all second and third generation Mexican Americans who rarely speak in Spanish so I just never picked it up as a child.

You mentioned seeing a Toltec pyramid changed you. When was that? Were you living there, or travelling? I’m sure you knew of ruins and pyramids before you saw the Toltec, so what about it in particular made your hair stand on end?

Ruiz: I have actually never seen them in person. Only in books as a child. What affected me was knowing it was MY ancestors that built them. The pyramids built by Middle Eastern, South American, and Asian civilizations are all incredibly beautiful, but the ancestral link is the core distinction.

Did you share your profound reaction with your family? How did they respond?

Ruiz: I shared it with my mother, for sure. Her response was to make sure I had the books I wanted on the subject (or any subject). It was one of the countless ways she was tremendously supportive to me as a child.

You wrote about how the hundreds of years of oppression has taken its toll on the cultural well–being. Do you mean taken its toll on the people of Mexico and their culture? Also, you mentioned it could be difficult to have pride under those circumstances. Do you think most people have simply given up? Do you think the average person with Mexican roots understands why heritage and pride are so important?

Ruiz: It’s really important to note that in that blog post about pride I was referring to ancestral/historical pride, and not pride in general. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Mexican American or Mexican that wasn’t proud.

The issue I was mostly referring to is the undeveloped connection a lot of people have to their ancestry. You can’t have pride for something you don’t know about, And obviously, this is not an issue specific to one ethnic group! But when it comes to a country like Mexico, with a complex history of military and political turmoil, forging that connection is much more difficult. I have spent very little time in Mexico and so most of my personal data comes from Mexican Americans. But growing up I never heard a single word uttered about Mexican history. And when I started polling other Mexican Americans about this in my youth I got a similar response. It’s very disheartening to me since there’s so much beauty and power in Mexican history, especially Pre-Columbian history.

You may have answered this in a previous answer, but just so I’m thorough, why do you think you were affected in the way you were? Is it just how you’re wired, that you’re simply not complacent about things, or was it really that impactful, in a way that you might not understand how others aren’t affected?

Ruiz: 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. “My ancestors made this! Holy fuck!”

I wish I could comment on why the same thing doesn’t happen for others more often but I cannot.

Matthew, have Ben’s experiences and passions rubbed off on you at all? What drives you to help make Ben’s visions a reality?

Wegner: I think we both marvel at the nature of the crazy world humans have built, so I certainly appreciate that viewpoint.  We haven’t talked much about his direct ancestral connection, though.

My drive is the same drive I had while directing Flashbang’s efforts on Blurst:  There’s a game here that I want to play that doesn’t exist, so we’re building it.

I’m very aware that it takes a serious amount of willpower to carry the spark all the way from Idea Mountains to the Coast of Shipping without dropped the damn thing in the mud and having it go out.  A lot of my motivation is based on the trust I have that Ben will complete this journey (regardless of my distractions with travel/photography/contracts/etc).  If it were my own idea it would have extinguished a while ago, smothered under a blanket of neglect and cognitive dissonance.

 How did the two of you meet?

Ruiz: I recall meeting Matthew back when I was in art school in Phoenix. He had very recently formed Flashbang Studios, and was running the IGDA local chapter meetings. I went to my first one and met him there. We only spoke briefly, and while he was lodged in my memory as one of the first actual game developers I had ever met, I don’t believe the same happened with him because I was just another student. Haha! In any case, there was some overlap in our groups of friends and we ran into each other regularly for a couple years.

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 at Flashbang. 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.”

Wegner: I’m not sure I remember which meeting that was, which is to say I guess I don’t remember it.  I honestly not sure how you ended up overlapping my social sphere.  Mutual friends?  (And is it weird to address the other interviewee in an interview?  I’m typing this in San Francisco on a trip).

Ruiz: Matthew, I occasionally ran into you while running around with Cory (Robinson, a then-classmate-now-character-artist at Blizzard) and Steve (Swink, a then-teacher-and-now-designer-of-Scale) who regularly ran around with Adam and Matt (Mechtley, formerly students-then-game-developers-now-graduate-students).

Wegner: I think I offered Ben a job somewhat drunkenly at halloween party at Flashbang’s new/first office. I remember asking him about money, worrying that he would balk at our pittance of a salary at the time, and him warily mentioning how much he was being paid at his old job.  It turns out he was actually being paid less and was instantly on board.

The blog post from last October, about living in Mexico I think, were you both living there together? What’s your living arrangement now? Sorry, kind of… I don’t mean for that to sound as personal as it might, but I’m just wondering if there were periods where you worked in the same room on the game and other times when it’s all been work online.

Ruiz: We were, yes! The relevant backstory is that earlier in 2012, we had implored Colin and Sarah Northway, the creators of Incredipede and Fantastic Contraption, to come visit us in Arizona. While visiting, they suggested the idea of sharing a place with them in Mexico later in the year and we were super into that! 6 months later, Matthew and I were on a plane to spend 10 weeks in Mexico with the Northways in a fishing village called Sayulita. Him and I took the two rooms upstairs in this beautiful walled garden property we had all rented, and the Northways took the bottom. We worked every day, talked to the Northways about everything and anything, and got a TON done.

As for now, Matthew and I live separately. I don’t actually think this is a weird question given how many indie duos/trios will shack up in order to raise efficiency and save cash. However, Matthew and I both have very serious solitude requirements, and refuse to live with anyone. There is plenty of time we’re in the same room (even though it’s rarely a necessity), and that room can be at one our places, a cafe, a coworking space, or anywhere else that has power and wifi.

Wegner: We live about a mile apart now, and see each other maybe 3-4 times a week?  Recently I’ve been doing a lot of contract work to buff up my savings for the final development cycle on Aztez, which makes things tricky.  There’s been a great new game-focused co-working space in Phoenix (//www.gamecolab.org/).  I joined up but have barely been there in two months (to avoid showing up and then just doing web programming on something that isn’t a game, which would crush my soul–like bringing a tupperware container full of sad carrots to a dinner at a BBQ joint).

We definitely each need to live alone.  It’s not that either of us hates people, or anything, but I love having absolute control of the solitude dial.

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In a blog post, there was much excitement for the fact that private funding would pay for development of the game in 2012. What about 2013? Was there funding for this year as well? It’s been awhile since that blog post, I’ll understand when this answer is “no,” but are you allowed to talk about that funding at all?

Ruiz: We’re still utilizing the the funding we received last year, actually! Matthew does a fair amount of contract work that he uses to sustain himself, so thanks to him we’ve carried it very far.

Wegner: What Ben said, basically!  Ben uses our funding while I do contract work to pay the rent and buy groceries.  Partly this is the reality that programming-based contract work is more lucrative than artist-based contract work, and partly this is how I was already paying for things so it was easy to continue.  I get a pretty good multiplier on my brain-time.

I personally understand exactly what you’re wanting to bring to the table with Aztez. I think you’ve made it very clear over the last two years of blog posts. But just to be sure I’m not drawing any unnecessary conclusions, from both of your perspectives, what are you hoping to achieve with the game? How?

Ruiz: I’m trying to create an game that A. is pretty and full of scenery changes, B. accessible enough that low level players can have fun, C. deep enough that high level players can stay engaged, D. is an interesting vehicle for combat that keeps you coming back, and E. MOST IMPORTANTLY, does not waste your time.

I want to show the world that Beat ‘Em Ups are capable of so much more. I want to introduce “interesting decisions” into the formula so that players can stimulate their brilliant tactical minds and not just their combat machinery.

Wegner: A big motivation for me is to package another genre of game into a form where you can play it 30-60 minutes a night in some complete way (think Weird Worlds or FTL in terms of how you experience those games, or even playing a couple rounds of BF3 or whatever).  I know that sounds like a really abstract thing to say, but I like play patterns where you can engage and disengage without abandoning required context you’ve built up.  (I guess you can see that a bit in the Blurst games too).

What’s been the hardest part of development for Aztez?

Ruiz: The hardest part was just getting started. I had no shortage of motivation or excitement, but building the first couple mechanics was really difficult because I refused to move on with more mechanics until I had one or two that met my incredibly high standards for feel. This required a huge skill improvement on my part, more technology from Matthew, and plenty of time to think and grind. But once I was happy with those first couple mechanics the rest just fell out of my brain.

Wegner: As the programmer, for me the hardest part is grinding on the nasty little bits you need to make a full-fledged game.  It’s like going from a quick sketch of the awesome tile job you’re going to remodel in your bathroom and then finding yourself on hands and knees grouting shit together.

What’s been the most rewarding part?

Ruiz: Just working on a game I want to make and knowing I’m responsible for the combat, for better or worse, is its own incredible, slow-drip reward. Every day is the most rewarding part.

Wegner: Is it a cheap answer to say “playing it”?  But really, in every game I’ve worked on there comes a tipping point where you accidentally play the game for 20 minutes when you meant to quick test something for 5 seconds.

You’re rapidly approaching an alpha stage of the game. What’s next for the both of you? Focusing solely on the release and some marketing? After this many years on Aztez, how do you feel about its impending release?

Ruiz: I’m focused 100% percent on the game until release, at which point I’ll be focused 100% on marketing it. I’m so excited to have it done that I can’t even think about it without totally losing my focus. I can’t wait. I’ve never wanted anything more than to get this game out into the world.

Wegner: I imagine Aztez could easily saturate the next two years of our life (release, support/marketing, updates, mild ports, etc).  After that?  Maybe uproot and travel a shitload, or focus full-time on photography for a year.  I guess it depends on finances and whatever else floats into our radar for collaborations or projects.

Fireside Stories:

Ruiz: We were showcasing Aztez at EVO 2012 in Las Vegas. EVO is the world’s largest fighting game tournament, and I was super excited to be showing off the game there because that crowd is FULL of high level players. At some point during the first day, a dude approached the game and started playing it. This particular dude instantly took to it, and was doing things in the game I didn’t even know you could do. Haha! But later in the day, he brought over 4 or 5 of his buddies and excitedly pointed them at the game. They all spent the next 45 minutes brutalizing my game, ripping it to pieces, finding exploits, and laughing as they watched each other do hugely violent things. It was one of the best moments of my entire life. I took a picture of them playing the game and I still have it.

In Mexico, we released a friends and family build of Aztez. Since we were with Colin and Sarah, I asked them to play it first. They both had amazing feedback that I wrote down (along with all the other great feedback I got from friends and family) but what stuck out to me the most is how Colin spent 4 to 6 hours a day for about 3 days playing the build after receiving it from me. Specifically, he played the encounter that pits the player against 4 of my vile Eagle Warrior enemy types. REPEATEDLY. He just did this over and over and over and it was amazing. Matthew and I worked on the balcony of the second floor of the property, and we could hear him down on the first floor shouting at the game, and we could hear that distinct shriek that plays when the Eagle Warriors perform their most devastating attack. I loved every single second of it.

At GDC of 2012 (or maybe 2011), I was at some random party with Matthew, and I ran into Amir Rao of Supergiant Games, the creators of Bastion and Transistor. When I introduced myself he freaked out a bit and told us that the team not only are big fans of my articles, but actually utilized them in the design of Bastion. This was a really proud moment and was huge motivation to continue writing. Since then, I have been cold emailed by students, other indies around the world, aspiring devs, and even veteran designers. The most remarkable cold email was from an ex God Of War designer asking me if I was going to be at E3 because he’d love to chat.

Matthew, help me out here. Haha!

Wegner: Oh man, it’s late and I’m tired!  My knee hurts, and I ate too much pizza earlier.

Most of my fireside stories are simply recounting fun times and adventures on trips with friends.  Mexico had a bunch of great times (some photos here — //www.flickr.com/photos/matthewwegner/sets/72157632167917598/ ), and we’ve had some delights in and around Vegas for EVO, which we’ve attended for a few years running now.  We’re showing Aztez again at this year’s EVO, which is a super awesome time.  The energy of that event is insane.

I guess I forgot to push this set to Flickr, which I can remedy when I get home, but this was from last EVO’s trip.  It’s prrrrobably not what you think it is? //sphotos-a.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ash3/552346_10151105225245522_966968517_n.jpg