Assault Android Cactus – A chat with designer Sanatana about the trials of game development

Assault Android Cactus – A twin-stick arcade shmup (shoot ‘em up) which reminds us of old times of nerds crowding around an arcade machine at Timezone, running to grab extra coins, and hot chips. Witch Beam brings us this exciting and exhilarating arcade game that has bedazzled many with it’s colourful and crisp visuals, challenging gameplay and super-cute androids. I had a chat with designer Sanatana Mishra about “Cactus” and it’s development.

Beard talk was the most important thing that Sanatana and I had discussed. His “development beard” has prowess far beyond mine, but I’m just going to put that down to the powers of being a game designer and me being just an average desk-jockey. There’s beard-power in game development.

After moving past the most pressing of topics; we delved into the mind of an Aussie indie developer to learn about some of the development process. Sanatana had lovely elocution and expressed his ideas and thoughts in my favourite manner – with great depth. His answers were wonderfully detailed, and showed a wealth of understanding and knowledge, but above all: passion.

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Witch Beam was founded after Sanatana Mishra, Jeff van Dyck and Tim Dawson had worked at Sega Studios Australia for a number of years. When things started to taper off in the region for gaming developers; the small squad got together, banding behind Tim’s intriguing idea. “Tim’s original concept was an action game involving this character named Cactus that he had invented 10+ years ago” says Sanatana.

At first this early creation was still very early in it’s infancy, but they could see the potential, gleaming like a distant star. “The first time I saw his early prototype – which was basically just Cactus walking around in a smooth manner shooting her machine gun and flamethrower – after playing it I turned to him and said something like “This is nice, it’ll be good when there’s a game there”.

The gaming development scene in Australia had been in somewhat of a decay over the years – but that isn’t to say that we haven’t seen some “diamond in the rough” titles come up from time to time. Games like Antichamber, more recently HackNet and a few others have come to light and have taken the indie gaming scene by storm.

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Taking a risk and throwing your ideas and hard earned towards a project is no easy feat. “When the Brisbane games industry was crumbling and we’d had enough of working way too hard to ship bad games we decided to risk it all and go indie with our life savings, and Cactus was a sort of complex but doable – or so we thought – concept that we were confident we could create a unique world class game with” Sanatana explains.

But contrary to the thoughts of many average gamers, indie developments aren’t always a one man show – quite commonly there will be a few people involved. “Tim handles all of the art & programming for the game, and Cactus is his original concept so he’s deeply involved with the design too. Jeff is our one stop audio guy who creates and manages all of the sound effects and music within the game”.

While a short list for the main contributors, it doesn’t end there. “We’ve had other people try to chip in however they can too, like Jeff’s wife and daughter who contributed voice work to the game, and my brother who helps us try and spread the good word”. Along with these the Witch Beam team also had Ryan Bargiel, a local from Brisbane who is a “highly talented artist here in Brisbane who helped with World 5 stages 1 and 4 when Tim was pressed for time during development”. As they say – many hands make light work.

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A lot of the time some of the extra people contributing to a game aren’t so much seen as they are heard. Music, game sound contributions and other audio-based content can come from the outside. Sometimes in the form of contracted parties, others (such as here with Cactus) will bring in the help of family and friends. At the end of the day there are only a few in the realm of indie that are truly a solo effort – especially those that reach fame and glory.

One thing that I’m still coming to terms with is how the music in Cactus has this intrinsic ability to always “self-hype” when you’re playing. It’s common in a lot of games to have various tone, pitch and tempo changes that evolve with the current status of the gameplay itself (hello Amnesia), but in Cactus I find that it has this incredible ability to infuse the speed and urgency into me when I’m playing – which makes it all the more fun.

Sanatana explained how this works from the inside. “It’s been really interesting to work with someone as experienced as Jeff on the music integration, the first idea he pitched when we formed our team was moving away from static tracks and implementing a dynamic layered system – it tracks a somewhat ambiguous ‘intensity’ meter and ramps up and down between layers along with the gameplay”. And boy does it ramp it up. On one of my favourite levels Transit you can really feel it. As you progress through the zone, you feel the music pulsate and thrive as the sense of urgency increases – it’s a fantastic vibe.

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“[Jeff] also did a lot of tuning to the lengths of each song and where they crescendo based on rough estimates we provided on expected level length in each game zone. You’ll notice the Zone 4 music takes longer to get going because the levels are longer and our design follows consistent peaks that culminate in the last 30 seconds of a level.”

“The bosses follow their own dynamics system which is basically phased musical tracks, it’s not dynamic based on your actions but switching based on how far through the fight you are and which attacks they are using.”

Part of what makes Cactus different is that it has many features of normal shmups – such as intense difficulty and mechanical stresses – is the ‘battery’ system. Slowly over time your android battery depletes unless you recharge with certain powerups. It means that the game isn’t “you die insert coins pls” but it still puts you on a clock and ramps up that intensity. Sanatana describes this as a key part of the design that he and Tim have shared from the beginning – “Our goal was absolutely to ramp up the intensity at all times in Cactus, the battery is a tool we use to force your interaction – It’s a similar concept to how Ikaruga is described as a switching puzzle game, Cactus is a damage efficiency puzzle wrapped in a really great bullet heck shmup.”

To me the ultimate design isn’t one that can be purley solved with mechanical excellence, it has to also involve decision making with no easily defined perfect option, it’s why I love watching Starcraft and why I love reading our top players discuss their score attack strategies.”

In the development cycle of a game – especially indie games – the developers have to look towards marketing, and visiting the big events to try and see the appeal and possible reach of their game. Sanatana and the team have been to quite a few events, and I was curious as to how these events feel from the developer side. “We’ve done more than a few PAX’s now including the American and Australian versions and every time it’s exhilarating and exhausting at the same time, I love showing Cactus to the public because they have no filter at all and you get amazing raw impressions. One big thing we learned early on was that feedback was pointless if you knew you had something to fix going in, everyone hits the same roadblocks and then that’s all they focus on”.

He continues, “The interesting stuff for me is usually when a developer I deeply respect like Tim Schafer or Eugene Jarvis comes and plays Cactus and has a good time, but that’s more of a feel good moment I suppose. Some of the stranger things to happen include a young Japanese man at BitSummit who played for 3-4 hours before the venue closed and then got in touch via email because he’s studying game development and was fascinated by our approach.”

“You might say I made a mistake letting someone use one of our two setups for 4 hours, but I just love the idea that someone is at a convention filled with hundreds of amazing (and unreleased) games and chooses to spend half their day playing Cactus”. To me this is actually a great thing – what better feedback and testing than having someone completely in the zone? Of course it is something to be careful of, given that at any large scale event you want a sizable breadth of gamers to have a go and see what you’ve created – but critical feedback from someone ingrained from the start is always important.

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One of the coolest parts of Cactus is the uniqueness of the androids themselves, and how each time you play through with a new one – your experience changes. New ideas and new strategies need to be implemented, and best of all – new ways of thinking. Personally this is something as a newbie to shmups that I’ve struggled with while playing Cactus, but I’ve slowly gotten used to it. Finding new ways of thinking when I try a new android, testing out the new tools at my disposal and how they interact with the world is a wondrous experience. Sanatana explains how weapons are designed and implemented:

“This is actually one of the most complex parts of our design, the primary focus is on designing weapons that offer new and interesting ways to play, many of our designs have been killed early on or even prototyped and killed because we felt they had too much overlap with an existing character’s playstyle.”

“After we figure out the weapons role in the play space we then need to partner it with a character, considering that character’s personality & traits along with the timing at which they are unlocked in the game. Starch for example has a relatively easy to pick up & visually appealing set of weapons because she’s the first unlock and we want to encourage players to try new things, meanwhile Aubergine is unlocked a bit deeper into the game and offers one of the most complex weapons because we feel you’re already invested by then and willing to give unusual but interesting mechanics more of your attention.”

“Finally we have to consider the inherent strengths and weaknesses of each primary and secondary, we moved around weapon combinations a lot in the early prototype phase because our characters need to have balanced overall damage ratios as well as methods to deal with flocks of small enemies and singular large targets. Holly’s a great example of this with her weak homing primary that’s super easy to use and her slow moving cannonball that deals huge damage if you can just line it up.”

The passion and expertise shown by Sanatana during our chat was infectious, and you can tell that he and the Cactus team have channeled a lot of the passion into this fantastic indie arcade shmup. It has been slowly reaching it’s boiling point, and with the upcoming full release on the 23rd of September you’ll be able to grab the game and dive into the full experience. I thoroughly recommend jumping on board asap – you can grab the early access right now – or just wait a few days and pick up the full release here on Steam.

Esports Contributor for Respawn Ninja. Follow him on @DUCKVILLELOL for all your daily Esports rantings and opinions.

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