March 2, 2024


education gives you strength

PAX Online: Chris King, 30XX, and Indie Development

Just because we’re in the middle of a global pandemic doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the pleasures that come with booths and presentations at PAX. Granted, something is lost without physically being on a show floor, but it saves money on travel and hotels.

I mused about these minor conveniences during my online appointment with Chris King, head of Batterystaple Games and lead designer of the Mega Man roguelike 20XX, and its sequel 30XX. Taking the pure run-and-gun zen of the blue bomber and mixing in procedurally generated levels and power-ups seemed like the kind of idea that would be done to death by now, but 20XX has gone on to be one of the most underrated gems of the past five years. In a lot of ways, 30XX has a tough act to follow, though a few of us here believe it’s on the right track.

As we talked more and more, King confessed that 20XX was a bit of a surprise and that he really didn’t have plans to fully develop the game, let alone do a sequel. Originally, he made a simple build of the game as a means of bolstering his work portfolio;¬†he even said he was hoping to get an interview at Bethesda Softworks.

Putting the game onto Steam’s Early Access was more to demonstrate his skill than to seriously support the project. But then the game started to get a fanbase with more and more users buying, playing, and giving feedback. One thing lead to another, and now King runs his own small indie studio with a beloved title under his belt.

Nina shooting at robot enemy looking like a shield with drills on the front
Pew pew pew! Just like Capcom used to make them.

The first immediate change with the sequel comes with its art direction. As much as I adored the endless replayability and buttery smooth primary loop that 20XX offered, its art direction looked more like an early 2000s fan game, the sort of thing you’d see on Newgrounds. Fast-forward to 30XX and the entire experience looks like a polished 16-bit title from the golden years of the SNES.

This was a case of serendipity according to King. He stated that was looking for a new artist that can perfectly embody the retro style the series is paying homage to, and he managed to catch artist Glauber Kotaki between projects and hired him to help. Kotaki’s work has included the more fantasy-inspired action roguelike¬†Rogue Legacy, so it wasn’t entirely out of his wheelhouse.

During this conversation I was playing the current build of 30XX on a livestream with King. I wasn’t exactly stellar, mostly on account of my reckless and speedy playstyle, but I commented on just how smooth and effortless it felt to play. I was curious, and King passionately divulged his craft. The entire game was custom-built using C++, and was done with keeping responsiveness in mind. Chris mentioned how certain pre-packaged engines like Unreal or Unity felt limited with what he wanted to do, and so he put in the effort to make his own material. The work shows in every single frame of the game.

Nina dashing through a world of clock faces, pendulums, and clock hands
I got nothing. This art is spot on.

He goes on to say that since the rendering is based on time rather than frames, it’s entirely possible to play the game with V-sync disabled and let the refresh go into hundreds of frames per second. Obviously you get diminishing returns once you go over sixty FPS to the human eye, but for certain players the response time is so instantaneous it is just mesmerizing. One playtester even said it felt like he was controlling the game with his mind. For a game that can already put ardent action-platformer fans into a zen-like state, that sounds almost transcendent.

When asked about certain challenges or lessons his team had learned from working on 20XX going forward, King was quite humble. There wasn’t a major road bump that lead to innovation, some great design dragon to slay, but many small problems that helped shape the game from its alpha state to the acclaimed darling it is now.

But the one story King did share was an interesting tale about listening to fan feedback. It was at a different PAX event where Batterystaple Games were scheduled to show off 20XX’s beta and get a huge publicity boost for their little project. It was also the debut of brand new character designs for the game’s main heroes, Nina and Ace. Things seemed to go swimmingly… that is until the fans who have been playing the game vocalized some sharp criticism about the protagonist’s new looks.

Nina in a hidden area, next to a cute robot cat
I’m a simple guy. I see cute robot cat, I screencap cute robot cat.

What started out as a week of respite from development for King turned into a mad dash of listening to valuable feedback from his passionate critics and reworking Nina and Ace’s look, mere days before a showcase that could very well had spelled doom for the entire project if it wasn’t handled quickly. It could have very easily had been a case of overprotectiveness blinding one from criticism, but instead became a crucial learning experience.

30XX may not have been a planned sequel, but it certainly feels like a natural evolution of the template King and Batterystaple had discovered with its predecessor. It’s an experience I wish nothing but the best for from a talented and optimistic developer that wears his inspirations and his heart on his sleeve.

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