Assault Android Cactus, in my opinion, is one of the best examples of an Early Access title done right. I’ve played it at different times throughout its various stages of development, going as far back as when they just had a grid to represent the playable levels, with many of them grayed out. A frenetic arcade-style twin-stick shooter that flirts with elements of bullet hell gameplay, I’ve only ever seen this game improve over time. I’m also fond of funny-crazy and the android Starch has that in abundance, spouting nonsense that’s equally hilarious and horrific. After spending far too much time playing the PS4 demo on display at the convention, I spoke with Tim Dawson about the development of the game.
What was your role on Assault Android Cactus?
I’m the artist and programmer.
Why the name cactus?
She’s got green hair; she’s an android with green hair, and she wrecks a lot of stuff – it just seemed like a good name.
All of the playable characters in the game are female as well, was that a deliberate choice?
Yeah, it came out of the fact that the main character was Cactus, and she was this sort of plucky android fighter. And as we started expanding the roster, it started feeling more appropriate that we kept a female theme going. Both because it fit her better as an entourage, and it also just felt like a good thing.
Can you tell us a bit about the game story?
The setting of it is that this spaceship – the Genkistar – it’s stopped responding to hails, and Cactus is this sort of interplanetary police officer. She’s out on patrol, she goes in to investigate, everything goes wrong, lasers start firing at her, and she decides that the best way to investigate is to crash land on the ship and see what’s going on. Against direct orders, too. So from the very start, Cactus is like ‘Well, let’s just smash our way in and see what’s going on.’ From then on, she finds out that the whole ship is under attack by its own workers, there’re these other androids on board who’re like ‘What’s going on?’ She rallies them and fights her way through the ship to the core so she can sort things out.
There was one character from the game whom I personally really love, and that’s Starch – any plans to expand on her character a little, or any of the others?
(laughing) Well, she’s, uh, I guess she’s got a destiny. We hint throughout the game subtly and not so subtly that she’s not quite entirely finished or alright. The way we do the story in the game is that it’s really light, but every character has their own interactions with the bosses, so it gives you a sense of why they’re there and what they’re doing. And Starch’s is about her wanting to get out of the ship and how that maybe isn’t a good thing, so there’s kind of maybe like a future… So, yeah.
The game itself is a twin-stick shooter mixed with Bullet-hell, was there any particular inspiration for the game?
Yeah, I grew up playing a lot of arcade games, and Smash TV was the original kind of visual inspiration for it, I love the energy of it. Funnily enough, I started making Cactus, and I was thinking “Yeah! SmashTV!” But then later I went back to play SmashTV, and I’d totally misremembered it. Which is okay because now I’ve got something a little bit different! Other inspirations are Radiant Silver Gun, a lot of the arcade shooters – like, Bug Princess and other bullet hell games. I love those types of games, and Cactus isn’t a Bullet Hell shooter in that style, but it sometimes has shades of it, especially during the boss battles when they start ramping up and shoots bullet everywhere.
Bullet Hells usually make you dodge through bullets at high speed; Cactus is more flowing like you’re anticipating where they’re coming from, and your hitbox is a little bit larger. So rather than having to dodge through patterns of bullets, which is what a lot of people find intimidating about Bullet Hell’s, this is more about dealing with large threats and planning ahead of time. You can jump through bullets, and do lots of other things to mitigate against getting hit other than just dodging them.
It was in Early Access for a really long time, what was the development process like?
Well, it was a little bit stressful because the game took longer to do than we had originally planned. I remember having to throw away hundreds of fliers because they said “Coming out in 2014 or something, and I was like ‘What were we thinking?’ But I think overall that Early Access was really good for us from a development point of view. My personal philosophy is is that you should build a game and make sure that it’s solid from the start. You don’t want to build a buggy mess and try to fix it up at the end.
I’ve worked in a larger studio and that development methodology kind of really bugged me. So when I was making something on my own, I wanted to make it solid and build it out, build it out and keep it working well. That was why it was a good fit Early Access, because you’re putting it in front of people – I’d be mortified to give someone a final buggy mess that wasn’t working. I was willing to give them an unfinished game and say ‘We’re building new levels, we’re finishing off graphics.’
What we found with Early Access, is that we didn’t do any massive game changing, we didn’t change the direction of the game, we actually followed the planned development path the whole way. But what we got to do was iterate and refine thing based on people’s feedback, we’d have people play it and be like “I love the game, I love how this character plays but I find this thing to be a bit weird.” And we’d be like “Yeah you’re right, that’s inconsistent,” and then we’d fix it up. It’s taken a long time but what we’ve ended up with is something that’s been refined and doubled refined and then refined over again, and now it plays pretty good I think. So coming out of Early Access, I feel really good about where the game is, it’s just a shame it took so long (laughing.)
What have your experiences with PAX been like?
We have been all over the world now, actually, we’re very well traveled, possibly recklessly well traveled. We’ve been at all three PAX Australia’s, and that’s been exciting. The first PAX Australia, we didn’t get in – we ended up talking with Fraglabs, who’re a laptop manufacturer, and we said, “Hey, do you want a game to show off on your laptops?” And they said yeah, which was very cheeky of us but very fortunate. So, despite leaving it to the last minute and not having any plans, we’ve managed to demo the game at all three PAX Australia’s, which we’re very proud of. We went to PAX Prime as well, and we’ve been to various other ones now and it’s good.
In Early Access, we get people who are really into the game and play it over and over again, people with hundreds of hours of play time and they’re telling us what they think of the bosses. It’s really, really in depth – and then we go to PAX and we watch people who’ve never seen the game before playing the first level. Between the two we get this sort of reality check, where we can keep the game balanced between not making it overly hard and making sure it has multiple skill levels.
Now that the game’s finished, is there anything else in the plans?
Well, first up we’re gonna finish porting the game to consoles. So, we’ve finished the game on PC, and now we’ve got the PS4 version, which is getting very close, we’ve been showing it here at the show, which is in a good place. We’ve also got Wii U and Vita on the cards. Unfortunately, we’re a very small developer – we wanted to do it all at once but it all just kind of fell out and we couldn’t. So, that’s our immediate future, and then we’ll be looking at what will be a good follow-up project. I really would like to do something different; I don’t want to roll into a sequel. Some developers like that, they’re like ‘Yes! Let’s do that again!’ I want to branch out into something with the same energy but in a different space.
What advice would you offer to any indie devs looking to start their own project?
Know what you’re getting into when you go in. It’s really difficult; you want to take a run-up, basically and know that it’s gonna be tough, know that it’s gonna be gruelling. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a long tunnel. That sounds a bit pessimistic, but from me you just need to prepare yourself, don’t go in lightly – it’s a journey.