When Digital Reality teamed up with Grasshopper Manufacture, they made a shmup. What were they thinking?

Interview: Sine Mora’s creative director

Digital Reality’s creative director Theodore Reiker tells Develop why, in conjunction with Grasshopper Manufacture, the studio opted to visit an extremely niche genre by making a 2D shooter.

With Sine Mora, why did you opt to go with the 2D shooter genre? What was the appeal in designing a game in such a form?

The answer is prosaic: we were looking for a genre which we all love and are passionate about, and also a genre in which we are able to make something hopefully outstanding with a relatively small team. The 2D shooter was a perfect choice – it’s very compact production wise, has a rich heritage to build on and basically it’s in a crisis, so there is room for innovation.

Considering the relatively strict genre template the 2D shooter imposes on games designers, how did you find the process of making the game distinct – both mechanically and thematically?
We wanted to distance ourselves from the danmaku – AKA ‘bullet hell’ – trend, and open up the genre for the wider audiences. So we turned to the old-school shooting games, which were equally challenging, but in a different way; a not-so-scary way.

The time extension based progress, which is the game’s central idea was the starting point.

It was a very difficult process to get this working right and simultaneously respecting the genre conventions, but we are all satisfied with the end result. Personally, I also wanted to experiment with storytelling in this genre, which some may find very unusual. Last, but not least, there are the production values – Sine Mora was developed on an average budget, with a small group of very, very talented artists and programmers to create its outstanding visuals.

In picking the 2D shooter genre, there’s some very dedicated genre fans that expect relatively extreme difficulty. How have you gone about satisfying those shmup fans and ordinary gamers with the same game? Is Sine Mora even for both audiences?
In the beginning of the development, we simply wanted to make a very good game. But even after the project got the green light, we constantly faced skepticism, saying that this is a niche genre.

To convince the business decision makers, we began experimenting with elements that would widen the audience – and then came the direction to plan it for both audiences.

It made balancing really difficult, but now the game is out and people seem to like it. I mean, people who would not play a bullet hell game. On the other hand, it is interesting to see the reaction from the hardcore shmup fans. I think we split the community – some love it, some hate it from their heart. I sincerely hope that they’ll give a chance to the game on a long term.
For the fans it may seem very different and very strange, I must admit it. We breached many of their rules of engagement.

How do you approach play testing a game like this, so as to ensure it will satisfy those top-level players? Perhaps you have your own extraordinarily talented players?
When I first mentioned somewhere that all members of the development team are dedicated fans of this genre, I wasn’t exaggerating. Sine Mora was a professionally funded fan project, in a way. Our in-house QA also has some very good players.

Where did you take inspiration from? Did you look to other contemporary shmup development trends, or design the game free from influence from other shmups?
What we knew from the beginning is that we don’t want to make a bullet hell shooter – Cave basically mastered this sub-genre during the last decade. Going against them would be a suicide. The shoot’em up today is synonymous with danmaku, and we have a dedicated company who perfected it.

For Sine Mora, we had multiple goals: to make a game which is accessible to the newcomers, presents the beautiful world of shooters adequately to them and to make a game that experiments with the genre rules, while it stays familiar. Probably the biggest influence came from three titles: Battle Garegga – a Japanese-only Sega Saturn release from designer legend Shinobu Yagawa – Einhander and Under Defeat.

Battle Garegga inspired the scoring and ranking system of our arcade game mode, as well as the originally planned dark, dieselpunk setting. Einhander was important for us as it was able to move the non-dedicated audiences. And Under Defeat basically impressed us with its attention to every single detail. Many, many other games also influenced our game – like Gradius, Steel Empire, G-Darius, R-Type or even Uridium from the 8bit computers.

What is the appeal of the 2D shooter? Why has it endured for so long?
In my eyes, the 2D shooter is an essence of the video game substance. It’s basically a skill-based genre, which stimulates the player’s fantasy too. Yes, that’s the mojo.
While the contemporary video game is distancing itself from this skill based nature, there are still many who see the two things inseparable. After all, Space Invaders is famous for its direct impact on the Japanese economy, and such impact leaves a lasting legacy. I think it’s one of the few genres that deliver the highest level of satisfaction you can get from a video game.

What were the design and technical challenges in so far as making the bullet patterns interesting, varied and challenging?
We approached the pattern design similarly to Cave – experimenting a lot. If some of the designers came up with something interesting, we tested it in the game environment – if and only it passed the first, aesthetic round of decision-making. Of course, we were influenced by many great games we played before and during making Sine Mora – the end result is a very mixed style of patterns, with many original and interesting ones, hopefully.

How have you approached scoring mechanics for this game? Is it core to enjoying the game (as with complicated games like Cave’s and Raizing’s), or is Sine Mora really about the experience?
The Story mode of the game is about the experience. The Arcade mode is about skills and score. We hope that the experience is strong enough to lure our players toward the Arcade mode. That’s where the long term appeal lies. The experience is the bait.

Many mainstream players misunderstand conventions of the genre, such as one-credit-clears (1CCs). How do you think shmup developers should deal with this? Perhaps shmups should just be made to make sense to everybody, or perhaps the mainstream player needs educating.
There are many conventions, or I would say, traditions, which survived and are alien to the mainstream. It’s a very confusing and controversial situation, as these conventions are a result of the perfecting process.
The traditional shoot’em up today is almost perfect from the fan’s and completely indigestible from the casual player’s perspective, and from the genre’s perspective, this is a blind alley.

I think it would be very difficult to educate a generation, which is very, very well served and is used to the simple consumption of entertainment.

You need time to learn something, but time became one of the most valued and most important assets of this age. Sine Mora was our attempt to make a newcomer-friendly shoot’em up; one, which may introduce and lead the non-initiated into the amazing world of shoot’em ups, by holding their hand for a while.

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