Dork Shelf is pleased to announce the launch of The Indies, a brand new monthly games feature that takes a look at up-and-coming local and national indie games and the people who made them.
If, while playing Asteroid Base’s Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, you find yourself exponentially bossier and more irritated with your co-op partner than before you started the game, its creators have done their job.
No, really, that’s what they want. “We get to sow unrest in people’s minds and friendships,” said co-creator Matt Hammill with a hint of mischief in his voice.
Despite (or perhaps because of) Hammill’s seemingly sinister tone and the potential marriage poison that comes along with local co-op gaming, the geometric-styled, frenetic fun of Lovers already has many a gamer smitten — and we still have to wait until 2013 for the game’s official PC and Mac release.
Still, players have been teased and pleased enough at festivals and public arcades to know that what’s coming will be worth it.
The co-op micro-platformer Lovers revolves around an understaffed spaceship, dodging asteroids and fighting off enemy ships. Players dash frantically between the ship’s various controls and weapons that are each oh-so-conveniently placed at the ends of several twisting, winding hallways. The score is the result of the dual effort and the team with the highest score on the leaderboard wins. The more banter and yelling and arguing between players, the better.
Hammill and co-creator Jamie Tucker have been enjoying a turn in the indie spotlight since launching their trailer, thanks to endless support from the Toronto game community. Add that to some Twitter lovin’ from influential local devs Craig D. Adams (Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP), Capybara Games and Benjamin Rivers (Home), and the game’s profile gained serious upward momentum, landing on the pages of Destructoid, Rock Paper Shotgun, Polygon, and more.
To the tune of…
Believe it or not, the 1960s Canadian animated series Rocket Robin Hood — “that show is terrible,” remarked Tucker — is more responsible for the game’s name than the classic Bruce Cockburn song. The show’s exaggerated use of the word “cosmic” quickly led to programmer Adam Winkels singing “Cosmic Lovers in a Dangerous Time.”
“So I said, ‘That sounds great!’ And Matt hated it,” said Tucker.
Hammill and Tucker are used to each other’s antics. Their foray into jamming began during their years at Sheridan College, where they graduated from the illustration program. But their jamming initially began in comics, in which one artist would draw a single panel and pass it along.
Games were the next natural move for the pair — Hammill himself had seen great success with his solo game-making efforts, having released the award-winning Gesundheit! for iOS — so they signed up for the popular Toronto Independent Game Jam (TOJam) “on a lark” in the spring of 2011. Under the team name Asteroid Base, they joined forces with Winkels and created their first game Shuriken Skies, a two- to four-player competitive game about skydiving ninjas.
Bitten by the jam bug, Asteroid Base reconvened to make another game months later at the then-upcoming Global Game Jam.
Because game jams are typically capped by an arcade consisting of the weekend’s creations, the trio wanted Lovers to be a “show game” that would work well in festivals and are as much fun to watch as they are to play. Think Ramiro Corbetta’s Hokra and Noah Sasso’s BaraBariBall! and how they drum up rowdy gaming behaviour in public settings.
When the big weekend arrived this past January, they proceeded to jam, altering Cockburn’s tune and singing “Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime” throughout the three-day event.
Hammill still hated the title. He was outvoted 2-1. The name stuck.
The drawing board
But what was Lovers going to be? After many meetings and drinking parties and rejected ideas leading up to the Global Game Jam, Asteroid Base kept coming back to a simple concept: a couple of guys have to control a spaceship. Alone. Hammill and Tucker wanted to recreate the childhood fantasy of embarking on a grand, imaginary space adventure with your friends.
“The concept resonated with us,” said Tucker. “We thought if it resonated with us, it would connect with other people, too.”
If the pink spherical spaceship reminds you of a Death Star sliced in half with a lightsaber, it should. The game was partially inspired by the Star Wars scene in which Han and Luke were frantically climbing ladders to reach their turrets on the Millennium Falcon.
The visual design purposely stayed away from the gritty and realistic aesthetic of many space games. Hammill and Tucker instead opted to follow the rigid, geometric style of comic artist Chris Ware with a colourful twist, which fit the fun and lightness of their personalities. (Hammill has gone into more detail about the art behind Lovers in this Venus Patrol post.)
Lovers was coming together, even lucking out in the audio department. Asteroid Base was matched with sound designer Ryan Henwood during the Jam, and he nailed the audio in the first go — everything from the mechanical bleeps and bloops and grinding gears you’d expect to hear on a frantic space adventure.
As for the gameplay, the team loved the concept behind Artemis, a LAN party simulation of a spaceship where a computer-less designated captain doles out orders to all players at their respective workstations.
“We wanted to take Artemis and do it in a way that’s simple, accessible, arcade-y and exciting,” said Hammill.
“Instead of having players devise these deep strategy, we wanted to give them no time to think — just do,” added Tucker.
And that, they do do. The game had its first public showing at Toronto-based collaborative workspace Bento Miso this past summer since the Jam, and players yelled and screamed at all the right moments. More importantly, they loved it. Asteroid Base had renewed motivation to take Lovers to the next level.
“When people look and play it, you can see this switch go off … all of a sudden, they understand what’s going on,” said Tucker. “You watch when they play it the first time and they have this big grin on their faces.”
To infinity and beyond
Lovers has come a long way since its birth in game-creation software GameMaker almost a year ago. Hammill spent his summer porting it to the Unity engine and put his 3D animation skills to good use, adding details like dust particles that get kicked up when the characters literally hit the ground running to give it the frantic feeling of dashing up and down and around the ship. Tucker aided in fine-tuning the game and making additions of his own, from a badass laser beam to a new boss.
“The biggest complaint is that not everyone could play because someone was always playing,” said Tucker.
They’ll soon be at peace once they have their shot at falling in love with Lovers. But is Hammill finally at peace with the game’s punny title?
“Now I can’t think of it as anything else,” he admits. “I wouldn’t say I hate it. I can accept it.”
[Full disclosure: The writer of this story previously worked with Jamie Tucker on a game at the Toronto Independent Game Jam.]
Are you a local indie developer with a great story behind your game? You could be the next subject of The Indies. Get in touch! email@example.com