Wrecking Balls Arena Developers Talk Ouya, Inspiration and Visuals

Wrecking Ball Arena is a rare OUYA exclusive and stands out on its storefront thanks to a unique premise and art style. It’s a fast-paced RTS-style game featuring wrecking balls. Interestingly enough, it came out before Miley Cyrus completely changed the definition of that term for at least the rest of 2013. Thanks to the OUYA Forum, we had a chance to talk with Team Kakumei’s Jonathon Bont and Isiah Gilliland about the project.

[Hardcore Gamer] Console-only RTSes are a rarity – what led to Wrecking Balls Arena being an OUYA-exclusive? Are there any plans to release this on the PC or via the Xbox Live Indie Marketplace/PSN in the future?

[Jonathon Bont] The game was really designed as a “couch” experience, especially as a multiplayer game both on a casual and competitive level. One of my initial goals for Wrecking Balls Arena was to create a good, local multiplayer game exclusive to the OUYA. Apparently, a lot of other developers had the same great idea, and now we have tons of local multiplayer games in the OUYA marketplace.

As for other platforms? While we haven’t (and probably never will) rule out the possibility of porting it over elsewhere in the future, we think the game is doing just fine as an OUYA-exclusive for now; the system needs more exclusives right now, anyways. It doesn’t deserve the amount of hate it’s getting right now.

[Isaiah Gilliland] To be honest we’re already planning our next games and getting started on them. We’ll be working together on some new stuff. We have a pretty large list of dream games.

I have to give due respect to Jon on the design of Wrecking Balls Arena. It was thoroughly his idea from beginning to end, and I have to admit I had my doubts. But, with Jonathon his ideas are the types where you can only really fully get it once you’re playing with it.

As for it being an OUYA exclusive, that’s a bit hard to explain without going into some background. Really it was a OUYA project even before we knew what it was. Me and Jon met online in the OUYA community and quickly found out we lived near each other. Since we both loved the idea of the OUYA we both jumped at the chance to work together on an OUYA exclusive. Maybe if we revisit the idea in the future, other platforms might be in the picture, but for now I’m happy with it being just an OUYA game.

Were there ever any plans to release this game on touch devices, and if so, do you think the OUYA’s touchpad would serve as an okay substitute or is the game best-played with a D-pad/button setup?

[JB] Wrecking Balls Arena was designed with the OUYA controller in mind at the very start. I’ve played very, very few games with good “touch” D-pads and buttons, so I do have a hard time seeing how WBA would work with a touchscreen-only interface. I can see using the touchscreen as a way to move the Wrecking Balls across the screen, but tapping to select them probably wouldn’t work so well because they’re always zipping across the screen. Not to mention that multiplayer would have four people huddled across a screen that may or may not be big enough. And there’s no way we’re going to try network programming. It’s scary stuff, man. I definitely feel that using the D-pad/analog stick and buttons work best for a game like this.

[IG] Actually, there were some ideas being thrown around about using the touch features and possibly even connectivity between the OUYA and touch devices. But to be honest I’m glad we trashed it all. It would of just been a big distraction, and I doubt it would of been that great anyways. In our future projects it might be something we bring up again.

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WBA’s gameplay is easy to pick-up and play since it only uses a couple of face buttons, the bumpers, and either the D-pad or left stick – would you recommend it as a gateway RTS for people who find more traditional ones too intimidating? How has the response been to the gameplay and are any tweaks in the pipeline for it?

[JB] I did intend to make the game as simple to control as possible, especially since you have to command not one but FOUR Wrecking Balls at the same time. The control scheme was revised a lot during development. There were a few commands that got scrapped, including “Heal” and “Stand”.

Another major change was how you selected Wrecking Balls; each of your four Wrecking Balls originally had a designated D-Pad direction you pressed to select it; pressing it again would deselect them. Me and Isaiah Gilliland (another Team Kakumei member who helped with development) liked the idea, as it also allowed you to instantly select a certain Wrecking Ball as well as multiple ones and command them at once. My parents, upon seeing me test an early build of the game, thought it was a bit confusing and suggested I instead use the bumper triggers as seen in the final game. I was hesitant, but it ended up working out just fine, and Isaiah agreed that it was a better idea. Have a problem with it? Take it up with my parents. It’s their fault!

We were able to gauge responses pretty well at SGC 2013 when we demoed a pre-release build of the game. While overall we had a very positive response, it took most people a round or two to get to grips with the game’s unusual control scheme and mechanics. After the con, I did some minor tweaks to the mechanics based on player reactions and spent a lot of time making sure that the tutorial explained the game well enough to not scare away newcomers as much.

I’m not sure I would recommend it as a gateway RTS for non-RTS gamers since I don’t actually play many RTS games myself *laughs*. The “Arcade-Style RTS” description was used to help quickly describe the game in a nutshell.

[IG] It’s funny that you bring up the controls because you didn’t see the first control set. There was so much control it was completely confusing. Luckily, like Jon says, it went through several levels of fine tuning and re-design. I think what we have now is something that’s a really good balance between full control and ease of use.

I really do hope it’s a gateway to other RTS games. It’s a genre close to my heart. Many of my first gaming experiences were with RTS games. Alpha Centauri, MOO2, and even War Inc are huge influences on me. If we can catch people with our simple and quick gameplay and lead them to other more traditional options it would be a success.

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It’s easy to think of RTSes as being a bit bland visually due to the heavy reliance on Earth tones many use, was the marker-drawn art style created as a way to breathe some life into the genre, work around hardware limitations, or simply help the game appeal to a broader audience, like kids, who might avoid an RTS but want to play this due to the visuals?

[JB] I don’t think it’s just RTS games that are like that; I see almost everywhere else these days. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing necessarily bad or wrong about the style, but it’s as overdone as 2D pixel-art platformers these days. It gets a bit stale and annoying after seeing it done a million times.

WBA’s art style borrows ideas from all over place. The Wrecking Balls themselves were originally created when I was in 5th grade (age 10); during class, I was always drawing comics that usually had stick figures in very violent situations. Wanting to create more original characters that didn’t take much effort to draw, the Wrecking Balls were born (originally called “Ballz” before I knew about Ballz 3D). Sadly I don’t remember how I specifically came up with the design. Looking back, they were probably more violent back then than they are in the actual game :P. I was big into Newgrounds back then, especially Knox’s Klay World series, so that’s probably where their violent tendencies came from.

The hand-drawn visuals were done both as a jealous reaction to the stunning artwork and graphics in Rayman Legends and as a tribute to me and anyone else who drew comics in school when they could get away with it. While I do think I’m a very creative person, my drawing abilities aren’t exactly on par with my imagination. Drawing all the graphics and incorporating the scanned-in images into the backgrounds, sprites, etc. was a lot of fun. There wasn’t any specific target audience in mind, but it seems nearly everyone likes the graphics, with a few even saying it reminded them of the drawings they did when they were younger.

The list of inspirations goes on forever, such as the 3D environments composed of flat objects being heavily inspired by Sega AM2’s “Super Scalar” arcade games like Space Harrier, Out Run, and Power Drift, but I’ll end this answer right here before it becomes 20 paragraphs.

[IG] I have to say, though the art looks as simple as it gets, it wasn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world. Much time was spent optimizing everything because of the gigantic texture costs. When we first got Wrecking Balls Arena running on the OUYA we had some serious issues.

As for the choice, I will say the Jon is holding back on you. There was much more thought and design put into the art than most people would think. It goes way deeper than you’d guess. I won’t say much but I will say everything has a meaning in the game. It’s great symbolism. You should’ve heard the discussions we had when Jon would pop in with his latest ideas about the designs of each level.

The stages vary wildly in terms of their design – was that done to evoke a peaceful mood early on and then bring about panic later? Things start off serene at a beach, casual in an arcade, and then absolutely insane with the Neon Bizarro Land where the screen splits into quarters. That would seemingly top the insanity, but then you get the Twister of Angst level with fitting rock soundtrack and lightning striking down enemies (ideally anyway). How did the level design come about and what was the idea behind such varied environments?

[JB] The development of this game was… interesting. It certainly took much longer than anything I’ve developed before (began mid-December 2012, ended around end of August 2013). As fun and rewarding as some parts were, other parts were very stressful and frustrating. I don’t work well under deadlines. I had a bad romantic breakup shortly after development started. Some features were a major pain the implement. I still had my senior year of high school to finish. I often considered cancelling the project all together. I had an incredibly hard time getting anything done without my ADD medication, but that stuff screwed around with my appetite. I suffered project burn-out multiple times, having to curl up and make custom multiplayer Doom maps whilst I recuperated and Isaiah (who was working on another project of his at the time) took over main development temporarily. I’m glad he was very understanding about that.

One time, I was so mentally and physically exhausted, fatigued, and lacked the will to do almost anything that I missed a day of school after begging my parents to let me stay home. I’m not sure how much of that was caused by WBA’s development, but I’m sure it played a part somehow. A few months later, I was on a trip to Germany with my parents as we stayed with a few family friends… and SGC 2013, where we had promised to show the game off, was to start the day after we got back. I had to bring my laptop and try frantically to get enough of the game working and presentable whenever I could. The collision physics weren’t even working until about an hour after our booth had opened up.

Despite all that, I pushed onwards. I wanted to get this damn thing finished. “I mustn’t run away.”

Wrecking Balls Arena was not just my little art-house experiment with gameplay, but also with how video games can convey meanings, symbolism, etc. Sometimes everything in life is going just fine, and then something hits you so hard emotionally that you have trouble reacting. You might store up negative feelings for so long that one day you just let it all out like The Twister of Angst. That’s one way to interpret the level designs, art style, etc. I guess. I wanted to burn a part of my feelings and self into the game, regardless if they were good and/or bad feelings. In the end, though, I persisted with making the game and I’m very happy with the final result. Perhaps it’s my crazy idealistic hope that WBA can help anyone who’s going though a difficult time in their life – not unlike my negative experiences during the game’s development…

[IG] Again, Jonathon is holding a bit back on you. There is a very thoughtful design in the layout of levels as well as their design down to the little details. There is a message in the game. It’s meant to speak to the child in all of us who went through tough times in that stage of life.


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WBA features the best soundtrack of any OUYA-exclusive so far – who created the game’s music and what was the idea behind each stage’s song?

[JB] Really, you think it’s the best one?!

I like how the soundtrack turned out, too. A majority of it wasn’t actually made with WBA in mind, and each song was done by a different artist, but it all came together so nicely I think. I searched high and low online for songs that I thought would not only fit the general theme of a certain stage, but would also make sense to play after the previous stage’s song and before the next stage’s song. I ended up with this eccentric mixtape of a concept album.
The only two songs that were made for specifically for the game were my own “Echoes of the Boss” for the Rose-Lust Gardens and a piece from Declan Kolakowski (another Team Kakumei Member) called “Neon Bizzaro” for the Neon Bizzaro Land stage.

[IG] I have to say we lucked out on Declan (Kolakowski). The game just wouldn’t be complete without his involvement and skill.

What aspect of WBA are you most proud of?

[JB] Tough question…

I do love how it accomplishes so much at once: it contains a unique visual style consisting of child-like hand drawings with emotional intensity (displayed through an 8-camera fish-eye lens system at 60 FPS, no less), an extremely diverse soundtrack with works by various musicians, and topped off with a semi-original game concept that combines elements of RTS and Arcade-style games to form this bizarre little package of a game. It’s probably the most original and unique game I’ve had the opportunity to work on so far (certainly my most personal project), and I think it’s a great way to show what Team Kakumei is all about. That, and from what I can tell, other people seemed to like the game. That’s always a good thing.

[IG] I’m really happy about the physics, targeting, and control scheme. I’ve had a good amount of input on those, so of course I’m proud of them.

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What does the future hold for Team Kakumei? Are you all working on a follow-up to WBA or on something completely different? Where can people get in touch with the team?

Right now, we have two separate projects in the works.

The first is a two-parter currently titled “End of the Raven”, loosely based on a concept I’ve had floating around in my head for awhile now. Part 1 is a 3D spaceship shoot em’ up, and Part 2 is… well, you’ll see eventually. Part 1 is being developed mainly by Isaiah with my occasional input. We don’t have any comment on what platform(s) it’ll be released on yet.

The other project is a fighting game called “OUYA Fighting League”, which is being worked on by me, another to-be-announced indie game developer, a few other individuals, and occasional help from the rest of Team Kakumei. It originated from this reddit post of mine on /r/ouya, and we’re working to turn such an idea into a reality. Expect more details in the future.

If you want to get in contact with me, just email me at jtbont@gmail.com. I also have a Twitter account (@Animan13) and so does @TeamKakumei. Feel free to email me your thoughts on the game; I’m quite curious to hear what you all have to say.

[IG] Yep, it’s true – we’re splitting up our efforts. Mostly because of my limited time availability. I won’t be able to work on a big project like OUYA Fighting League. Hopefully it won’t be a bad decision. Jon is leading on OUYA Fighting League. Of which, he’s putting in a great effort. He’s really received a fantastic response with it. We’re collaborating with many great developers on that front. It’ll be a complete collaboration between many other indie teams out there and we’ll all be working together.

My main project will be a shooting game in the same vein as Silpheed and Starfox. It’s called End of the Raven. For this I’ll be coding our own cross-platform 3d game engine that will be our own technology to make use of for future projects as well. The game itself is still in preproduction phase but it’s really going to be something special that will speak to all of us who grew up gaming in the Genesis and Super Nintendo eras. Honestly, the best way to get into contact with us is on Twitter @TeamKakumei. My email is gilliland.isaiah@gmail.com.