Starr Mazer Interview
RETRONUKE: When did the Imagos Softworks team come together? Tell us a little bit about your studio and how you (Don) & Alex met and began working together?
Alex Mauer: We met when Don was looking for a chip music composer for his first feature film “Motivational Growth”. We met up at PAX East 2011 and I basically had to convince him I would be ideal for his soundtrack. We worked together on a bunch of film and video stuff after that… and I am now part of Imagos Films. We created Imagos Softworks to make Starr Mazer… which was actually a game in “Motivational Growth”… and the main character Ian travels inside his television and the Mazer universe.
Don Thacker: Alex hits on how we began working together pretty well here, so I’ll tell you a little bit about Imagos. Imagos Softworks is a team of six core members. I’m a co-founder and act at studio writer / director. Alex is co-founder and handles anything music / sound related. We have a producer, Josh Gelb, and an associate producer, Mahria Zook; they handle timelines, contracts and general production management duties. Vanessa Williams is a writer on our team, and Kazuo Mayeda is our social media ninja. That’s the core. We partner up for anything we might need for a given project.
With Starr Mazer, for example, we’ve teamed up with TOO DX’s Auston Montville to add to our game developer prowess, Pixeljam’s Miles Tilmann – a longtime collaborator – for additional programming muscle and Christina Antoinette Neofotistou as the project’s lead artist.
The core team works and plays in close quarters, and consider it game development family-style. Food fights and all.
RETRONUKE: Your new space adventure/shmup “Starr Mazer” looks beyond awesome! Can you tell us a little bit about the story of the game?
Don Thacker: Starr Mazer takes place in the year 9091, 130 years after THE GREAT WAR, which was, itself, over a million years from now (at the time of this writing). Human kind is nearly lost, with human beings considered a rare and deplorable species. It is largely believed that they were the cause of THE GREAT WAR, which they kind of were, but there’s a lot more to that story.
The game’s protagonist, Brick M. Stonewood (the M stands for “Metal”) was the hero of THE GREAT WAR, lost to the BARATHA DIVIDE soon after humanity’s last-ditch effort to turn the tide. He’s been in sleep-lock, a sort of cryonic suspension, for the past 130 years and is found by ingot miners. When he awakes he finds a galaxy vastly different from the one he remembers and must spend his time learning what it means to actually be a hero.
RETRONUKE: The characters and environment designs in Starr Mazer are beautifully detailed, colorful, and unique. How did you come up with the main character “Brick” and the world(s) we will see in Starr Mazer?
Don Thacker: The universe in which Starr Mazer takes place is actually much, much larger than Starr Mazer. Starr Mazer occupied a tiny fraction of this universe, which is also inhabited by every other media work Imagos Films, and now Imagos Softworks, produce. Because of that, there is a rich history of lore and technology and timeline events that I can draw from. I’ve been working on this universe since I was a kid. Starr Mazer has always been a part of it.
As for Brick, I needed an old-school hero. I needed a blonde haired blue eyed badass pilot with a cool jet-style fighter ship and a pistol and a cigarette and an attitude. I needed what I was taught, in the 80s and early 90s, what a hero was. I needed that because I want to explore action, adventure and amazing game mechanics through the lens of a more complicated and complex world. I want to teach Brick that simply being a white dude with an awesome ride and a gun doesn’t make you a hero. That it might, in some cases, even make you the villain. That there is a whole wide and integrated galaxy to contend with where the credit for being the hero if THE GREAT WAR doesn’t mean anything, and where human beings are generally loathed. He has to start from nothing with the idea that he’s entitled to something, and learn to, instead, earn it. He keeps his badass ship, though. And pistol. The cigarettes, they are the only ones left in the galaxy, and Brick might end up learning, before long, that smoking stinks. Yuck.
His name came from a landscaping truck my best friend and I used to see around Chicago, when I lived there. It advertised Brick, Metal, Stone & Wood as landscaping materials, in big comic sans lettering. We joked that it would make the coolest action hero name. Brick Metal Stonewood. So… there’s Brick’s name!
RETRONUKE: This question is for Don – We haven’t really seen a mashup like this before, what inspired you to combine the adventure and shump genres?
Don Thacker: I grew up playing SHMUPs on my TurboGrafx-16. It was unarguably the best console of the 90s. Ok, maybe that was just because it was what I had, but it was amazing. The TG16 was great for SHMUPS, as it had a dedicated graphics processor. SHMUPs are pretty terrible for story, though. Tons of action, but for story you’re mostly stuck with, “The aliens blew everything up, HAWK, and now you need to go blow THEM up!”
My second favorite genre of the time, way back in the day when dinosaurs walked the earth and used 1440 baud modems to connect to Prodigy, was the point-and-click adventure. PNCs are great for story! Tons of story but for action you’re mostly stuck with “Use HAMMER on PRISCILLA -> Sorry, you CAN’T DO THAT.”
Both of those genres are super cool, and were super cooler when I was a kid and not a discerning adult who knows things about things and stuff. I think they were both products of limitation, however.
It’s the future now. We have flying cars and dehydrated water and instant coffee! We can do ANYTHING. For instance, we can use mature game design methodology to merge the best parts of two genres into one cohesive experience. Also, induction hobs. HAVE YOU SEEN INDUCTION HOBS???
RETRONUKE: This question is for Alex – What video game music (and more particularly) which retro games, laid the inspirational groundwork for the music you’re creating for Starr Mazer?
Alex Mauer: Mega Man influences most of my chip music. That part is built in. It’s really a thrill that we’re getting Manami Matsumae to do a guest track if we hit our first stretch goal. My other influences for Mazer are Konami MSX games… specifically Space Manbow, Metal Gear, and Snatcher. There’s also a heavy influence from 80’s cartoons such as Transformers, Silverhawks, and Dinosaucers.
RETRONUKE: Are there any aspects to Starr Mazer the involve choices that may impact the storyline or open up additional missions/Easter eggs?
Don Thacker: We want Starr Mazer to be fun, replayable, exciting and satisfying every time you play it. We have devised a style of modular story building that will allow us to arc a compelling and whole story over a series of procedurally generated aspects. We’re implementing a system we’re referring to in-house as Open Middled Gameplay. OMG! From the minute you start a play-through, every choice you make fractals into a huge set of possible outcomes. When you start again, you’re presented a world that may, in some cases, be changed by your last play-through. You don’t play one game of Starr Mazer. When you’ve finished an arc, you start over again from a different entry point. You don’t play the same game in your subsequent play-through. We are attempting an ambitious amount of replayability. That is a core tenant of this game. Both SHMUPs and PNCs suffer from content sameness. Starr Mazer, if we can pull it off, will not.
This isn’t a rogue-like. We’re not spawning everything fresh. It’s not proceduarally generated as much as it’s procedurally assembled. Procedurally loved, if you will. This is for both the SHMUP and PNC elements of the game. We’re riding a line between experiences that are hand-crafted from frame to frame and experiences whose base elements are slavishly crafted to be beautiful and exciting and engaging, but also to be stacked together in many different ways.
It’s like LEGO or The Stanley Parable. Or BOTH. Those both rock. THE LEGO PARABLE.
RETRONUKE: How long after funding is completed for the Starr Mazer Kickstarter do you project the game to be released?
Don Thacker: We intend to release a game in April of 2016. That’s what our timeline looks like right now. That’s what our Kickstarter funding buys us in terms of time, and we’ve tried to manage our scope to ensure that’s feasible. The game is meant to be experiences in “seasons”, however. Each “season” a whole game, with multiple story episodes within. In April, 2016, we’ll be releasing Season 1. We’ll be supporting that, by adding content / DLC for as long as we can support that financially. The game will grow over time. If we have something of a hit, we’ll take all of the giant ideas that didn’t fit scope, and begin working on Season 2, while still supporting Season 1.
RETRONUKE: My continued love for retro style games comes from the imaginative spark they inspired in me as a kid. Which retro games opened up your imaginations as kids?
Alex Mauer: I always felt like Zelda 2 was one of the best… I’ve had a lot of dreams where I am inside that world. Everyone (including me) loves Mega Man and Metroid… but I want to mention some rarities: Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom, Guardian Legend, Solar Jetman… those games have special moods and unique features.
Don Thacker: I was absolutely in love with my TurboGrafx-16 and TurboDuo. I played the SHMUPs on that system veraciously. I was also into the Sierra and Lucasarts PNC adventure games. Go figure. The Neverhood, that too. That games AMAZING.
RETRONUKE: What do you think is special about creating Video Games, as opposed to other art forms?
Alex Mauer: Video games combine many art forms. The sum is greater than the parts. You become the character in the game… in a world where everything is beyond reality. It’s like being inside a dream world.
Don Thacker: I don’t think video games oppose other art foms. I think they include them, as Alex said. I also think that they can be a smaller part of a larger trans-media experience. I hope to be at the vanguard of a new initiative in artists to create universes instead of singular expressions. I want the Starr Mazer comic book. The companion novels. The Starr Mazer Viewfinder.
RETRONUKE: What do you guys think is the best part about being indie developers?
Alex Mauer: Having creative freedom to make things as stylized as we want.
Don Thacker: I agree with Alex. The freedom to fail. The freedom to grow from that failure and slingshot it into something incredible. I am not sure many huge publishers are doing that. If you get into indie ANYTHING for the bottom line, you’re doing it wrong.
RETRONUKE: What indie games are you playing now? Which are you excited for this year?
Alex Muer: Lately, I’ve only been playing games I’m working on… but I am very excited for Drift Stage and Hyper Light Drifter.
Don Thacker: Hyper Light Drifter gets my vote. Chasm. Drift Stage. Nuclear Throne. I’m RIDICULOUSLY excited about Galax-Z. Hotline: Miami 2 is going to be a religious experience. Rainworld. A ton, man.
I’d like the thank Don and Alex from Imagos Softworks for taking the time out of their busy work schedules to give the fans some extra insight into Starr Mazer. I think I can speak for pretty much everyone when I say that we are goddamned excited for this one and cannot wait for its release! I would also like to thank Jayson from scarlet moon productions for helping put this interview together!