I played a lot of games at PAX Aus this year, and Wildfire still sticks out in my mind as being one of the best. Between the clever combination of stealth, magic, and puzzle-platforming, and the potential for an interesting little fantasy story, I’ll be keeping a close eye on this one for when it releases. Sadly, I really am the reason that we can’t have nice things, and my attempt to try something unusual caused the game to crash to desktop… Whoops? Thankfully, developer Dan Hindes was fairly forgiving, and still gave me the time of day to have a quick chat, despite holding up everyone else’s crack at the demo while he stopped to fix things.
So, what I got to play of Wildfire was pretty cool, sorry I… Uh, murdered your game..
That’s okay, that’s why we’re here – to find stuff like that – so thank you, actually!
Uh… Yeah, you’re totally welcome? (Sorry, again.) So, where did Wildfire start?
I really like a game called Far Cry 2, and that had a fire propagation system in it, and I was like, “This is so cool!” But it was just a side feature, really, so I thought, “Maybe you could make a whole game out of this?” I’d always thought that, since I played the game. Eventually, I decided that I was going to try and do that, so, I made a pretty simple 2D fire propagation system, and it turns out you can’t make a whole game out of that. So, I was like, “Okay, well, what if you can manipulate the fire, and actually control it somehow?” That’s how it ended up as what it is now.
So, from what I played, it’s not just fire you can control, but the elements in general – I got to see fire and grass powers in the demo, what else can we expect?
There’s water, as well, and that’s the final element we’ll have, but those elements are upgradeable. So, you can actually turn fire into smoke, and throw a smoke bomb, or turn water into ice to freeze lakes, which lets you run across them, or trap people under the ice.
Will you be able to use the grass-earth spells to trap the guards?
Yes, definitely, you can trap them in vines and then they’ll be immobilised for awhile.
That sounds really aweso–
And then you can set those vines on fire, and the guards will burn.
Jesus… I mean… I did try doing that, I just didn’t think I could because it wasn’t working for me, but…
You need to actually throw them at, and hit the guards with the vines, then you can burn them.
… Noted. It’s a 2D game, was this a deliberate choice of style, or because it was just an easy way to start out?
Yeah, this is the first game I made, and I’m actually teaching myself to program as I go along. So, a 2D side-scroller is simple enough, I need to keep most things simple while I make the hard stuff, which is the stealth mechanics and the elemental interactions.
And what are you constructing the game with, and how has the process been for you starting out?
I’m using Game Maker studio. It’s really good, I mean, I didn’t know how to program before I made it, and now I do. Programming, I find, is really hard, I just don’t have the brain for it, but Game Maker is the first time I’ve used an application that lays things out for you really nicely, and easily, you get through some tutorials and you suddenly start to get it.
Do you also do all the artwork yourself?
No, no, our artist is a guy from Tasmania, and our animator is from the Netherlands, and we’ve got some sound and music guys, as well. I’m just designer and programmer.
So, how close are you to finishing Wildfire, and what kind of content do you see going into the game before it’s finished?
Next year some time, we’re not sure exactly when – it’s still a work in progress. We want new environments, we still have to work some of the final earth powers, we have two enemy archetypes that haven’t been fully programmed yet. And, we’ve got to lay the story in, as well. You didn’t really see the story here, because we just wanted to get people into the game as quick as possible, but there is a whole story that will drive it, so we’ll be putting that in and introducing some other touches, as well.
There was a little bit of story in this demo, being burned at the stake and then turning into an… Angel? Is that what that was supposed to be?
I’m not gonna specify just yet, but there is a whole introductory sequence before that part. You go through your village, you meet everybody, and… yeah. I don’t want to reveal too much.
So, with this being your first game, what made you want to start making games in the first place?
I don’t know, I just always have wanted to. I really like games from Looking Glass Studios, like Thief and Deus Ex, and I wanted to explore that design philosophy because there aren’t that many games that do that now. Like, video games like Bishock and Dishonored, I wanted to make games like they made, but simplified, and maybe more accessible in a way that people who may have found those games intimidating might not be put off by this one.
So, you want the stealth mechanics to be more simple, and the magic to be the larger focus?
Well, yeah, the magic is a way of saying, “We don’t care how you get there, do what you want, we’re not going to say yes or no specifically to any approach, but we want you to look at what’s around you and find a creative way to use it.”
So, being your first game, and with no prior coding experience, what’s been the biggest challenge in developing this game?
Like, literally everything. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, everything takes so long, and getting it to where we are now is the same – I don’t know how we got here. But, the absolute hardest thing I would say is optimising it, and making it run well. It only drops frames a few times, but you can make a complicated game pretty easily, and it’ll likely run at ten frames per second. So, making it smartly, that’s where you have to learn to actually code, and level up your knowledge, that has been so difficult.
Just to go a bit further into that, what goes into the optimisation process?
To take an example from the game, say you have a piece of fire, and it’s touching a piece of wood. What we say is, “Oh, we want that wood to heat up as long as the fire is touching it.” What that means is, every frame, sixty times a second, that fire is checking to see if there’s any wood nearby – if you can imagine how many fires are in the game, and how much wood in one level, that starts hell. So, what you need to do is create code that is creative in the way that it only checks for certain times, or certain spots, or does it efficiently. And doing that is this weird list of nested statements, and this gross, ugly thing, whereas normally you could say, “If this is touching this, that’s fine.”
So, this seems to be fairly ambitious as a first game, much bigger than smaller, arcade-style games that most indie devs might do as their first project, did it start off much simpler and become way bigger over time?
It started out with only fire, actually. So, adding the other elements made it exponentially more complicated, but I think it’s also exponentially a better game. It is a complex game, but it’s also very simple, as we said, in other respects – it’s a 2D side scroller, that’s very easy to get the basics down. I’m not making, like, a 3D first-person shooter, or something like that, so we’ve picked and chosen out battles. We got the sidescroller, that’s fine, the stealth gaming and the elements are the hard stuff, and that’s how it’s manageable.
I do like the sound element of the stealth design that you’ve got going on there, whistling or making noise to distract the guards.
That’s one-hundred percent copied from Mark of the Ninja, like, we really enjoed that game, and it’s one of the biggest inspirations for this.
When you eventually move onto another project, having the knowledge you do now, do you think it’ll be this difficult again, or that you’ll have a much easier time of things?
I’m gonna have a much easier time of things because I’m going to pick a much easier project to do, I want to do something turn based. The big problem with this is while you’re running through a level, there’s real-time checking of “is the player touching a wall?” The amount of times I’ve gotten stuck inside of walls for no reason is insane, but when you’re doing something turn-based, you’re only checking things when your turn executes. Like, that’s a dream to me, that sounds so simple; so, I’m going to do something quick, and simple compared to what this is.
You mentioned Mark of the Ninja as an inspiration, and Wildfire seems very fantasy based – what other inspirations were there while designing the game?
Yeah, Avatar: The Last Air Bender, and The Legend of Korra, if you’ve ever seen those. The way they manipulate the elements in those shows, I found it really interesting. Normally, in stuff like RPG games, you’ll get something like, “Water does extra damage to fire,” and that’s it. I wanted a game that have more physical, more tangible interactions, letting you do cool stuff with them, and not just stat bonuses. So, I like the way they used the elements in those shows, and I wanted to do something like that.
Finally, what would be your favorite game?
The original Deus Ex. The one from 2000.
Wow, that’s going a ways back, you really are a fan of stealth.
I am, and that’s not even a stealth game explicitly, what we’re taking from that is the ability to give you a sandbox level, and say to the player, “Solve it however you want,” like Deus Ex does. They don’t specifically say, “You have to do this, this, and this.” They’re just sort of more, “Here’s the world, here are the systems – go for it!”
Here are some other places where you can show your support for Wildfire: