You will find a lot if you keep an eye on what is going on in the social media scene. Awhile back, I happened across a developer that was working on a game. It was in pre alpha but looked awesome and I couldn’t help but think of all those great old school shoot-em ups I used to play when I was younger. That developer was Jason from Zanrai Interactive and the game was Heaven Variant. We were able to have a conversation about the progress of his game and get some background information as well, I hope you enjoy it!
Jason K: Yeah, thanks for your time as well. Zanrai Interactive is a very indie dev team that consists of a 3 man team. My name is Jason Koohi, I’m the founder of the group, our other members names are Simon Inch and John Etheridge. Both of them were friends of mine as we all attended the University of Texas at Dallas together. When I got out of school I really had no direction so I thought it would be a good idea to take a crack at game development. After a few weeks I had registered a company, put a website up, and after talking with a few people started working on “Heaven Variant” our first game.
Jason K: Outside of that, our group is really just a small band of developers working out of our respective homes. Starbucks ends up being our meeting room quite often. haha.
Josh Knowles: So, what is the inspiration behind “Heaven Variant”? It certainly reminds me of a time before kill streaks and DLC.
Jason K: Most definitely. Heaven Variant really is a throwback to the old shoot ‘em up games of the early and mid 1990s. We’re trying to tap into some of that retro aesthetic, keeping in mind games that established the framework for the genre and building off of that with modern technology and modern sensibilities in the way games are designed today. In a way we’re trying to straddle the line between retro and modern in a well established genre that isn’t necessarily common anymore. The inspiration definitely comes from games like Einhander, the Thunder Force series, and the R-Type series.
Jason K: Especially those.
Josh Knowles: Those are absolutely staples of the Shoot-em Up genre! What type of game engine are you using for Heaven Variant?
Jason K: We’re using the Unreal Development Kit and it has been modified extensively by our programmer, Simon. The engine is set up now to gives us very familiar gameplay with modern graphical capabilities. It’s great, I can’t sing enough praises to the UDK and its ease of access for indie developers to get started making games.
Josh Knowles: Awesome! I noticed in your Alpha Trailer that there appears to be a story line that will accompany the game. As an old school Shmup fan, I know that outside of Einhander, this isn’t common. Will the story play a large role in Heaven Variant?
Jason K: The story will play a large role in how the game unfolds. It will compliment gameplay. With that said, we’re hoping we can differentiate ourselves from the pack by having our story unfold in a cinematic way all in-game as the player continues through the game. Our alpha video is a few months old, and was a prototype for how I wanted to accomplish this, and it opens a lot of interesting and logical gameplay options that have rarely been tried in this genre, like objectives. In the end, older games did this also they just didn’t give you the context in which you were doing. Again, similarly to how I said we were trying to straddle the line between modern and retro earlier, it’d be nice to straddle the line between old-school arcade gameplay and a meaningful story that makes the gameplay mean something once the game is said and done.
Jason K: Haha, this game really has become all about having our cake and eating it, too.
Josh Knowles: Are you saying that there will be branching storylines?
Jason K: It’s something we’re looking into, but right now we have no plans for it. With that said, we’re hoping to allow for some flexibility in the way the story unfolds in game, and while not necessarily as flexible as a full blown branched path, we’re shooting to have NPC characters on the in-game radio react and respond differently to the way the player plays (and whether they accomplish certain tasks or not). We’re also testing a few ways to have multiple lines of dialogue for a single response at a specific section in the game, kind of similar to the way Left4Dead had their characters saying a number of different lines for the same section of a level. It’s really have a cool way of adding more information to the story while making the game feel a little different each playthrough.
Jason K: It’s important for us to blend the story seamlessly into the gameplay and we’re looking at all the options available to us. :]
Jason K: Thank you. The alpha video is honestly just a prototype with a few rough ideas for how I’d like things to play out here and ther e(and I hope you’ll forgive my one-man show on the voice acting, haha). Right now, the story for the game takes place about 200 years in the future where Earth is in constant global war. Those that escaped to colonies in space live in relative peace but profit from Earth’s plight by supplying weapons and war materials to the factions at war on the planet. I want the game to explore the ideologies of those that facilitate and in a way perpetuate this system to support their lifestyle. Should a society function to increase war elsewhere so that they may remain in peace? And again, I merely want to ask questions about this and leave it up to the player to decide, because the issue is very complicated. It occurs in our world today, but nothing is truly black of white. The player’s role in this story is mucking it up in the gray area and hopefully coming away with some kind of meaining in the end. While the subject matter is serious, I want the game to retain a tone that isn’t completely depressed though and we’re doing that by having a snarky, detached main character that is able to criticize, make fun of, and joke about the things around him, even if they are very serious. The player’s character, Eind Westgunne, is a colonist from space who has never visited the planet, so his views of Earth will be much different from the player’s. In a way he’s holding a mirror up to the player and quite literally asking why things are the way they are, but still in a way that’s still not taking its subject matter THAT seriously. In the end, the game is just a game about blowing things up gloriously.
Josh Knowles: That actually sounds quite cool, so what gameplay features are you hoping will set Heaven Variant apart from other games?
Jason K: Right now, we have your traditional 2D shooter gameplay, but we allow the player sacrifice their movement to aim in 360 degrees, which is not the norm for the genre.
Jason K: We also have your staple armor degradation systems for enemies, and when the player is given the ability to manually aim, it allows the player to precisely pick apart enemies, which we’re using to develop gameplay strategies and styles of play. We also have a number of weapons the player can equip ranging from machine guns to melee weapons. We want to give the player a number of options for how to dispatch enemies. Some weapons will be better suited for the situation at hand which adds a strategic element to the gameplay. And again, the presentation of story elements will hopefully set us apart.
Josh Knowles: So far, what is the coolest weapon you have added into the game?
Jason K: Well, that’s very subjective. I’m personally in love with the Energy Blade. It’s exactly what it sounds like and it was feautred in our alpha prototype video halfway through. With the 360 degree aiming, it is really fun to swing around slice enemies with it because the rotation of the weapon is 1:1 to where you aim. With that said, the Vulcan Machine Gun’s constant barrage of sparks and ricochet sounds is pretty sexy, too. Haha.
Jason K: When we get giant chainsaws implemented I’ll have to revise my answer though. Haha.
Josh Knowles: Another cool thing I noticed in the Heaven Variant trailers is the soundtrack. Where did you draw most of your inspiration from?
Jason K: Thanks for the kind words. I’m producing the music to be as nostalgia inducing as possible. Haha. I want to embrace a retro feel because it helps sell the setting and tone of the game. As far as inspirations go, the original StarFox, the Thunder Force series, and hell, everything from Konami in the mid-1990s were major influences.
Jason K: It would also be very wrong of me not to mention Turrican, whose soundtrack is still amazing 20 years later.
Jason K: I could go on and on.
Josh Knowles: So, you obviously have some serious love for the old school shoot-em up, what is your all time favorite?
Jason K: Oh man, that’s like making a father pick which of his children he love’s best! Haha. I suppose I’d have to go with Einhander. It’s resonated with me the most after all these years.
Jason K: Hell, anything by Treasure, too. Haha. Again, I could go on and on about this, too!
Josh Knowles: I certainly see a a bit of Einhander in Heaven Variant, I was a Thunder Force(Spirits)/ Life Force fan myself. Do you plan on the game being solely a PC release?
Jason K: Those are good ones. Props on good taste! :]
Jason K: As far as the release goes, right now we’re aiming for PC. Mac may be a very distinct possibilty also, but PC is are focus currently. If everything goes just swimmingly, we’d love to get the game out on as many platforms as possible, but right now PC is our focus.
Jason K: Any releases on different platforms really hinge on how well the PC release goes.
Jason K: Fingers crossed!
Josh Knowles: Any ideas on a hopeful time frame for release?
Jason K: Shooting for a mid-2012 release. With that said, we’re all doing this on the side, so if we hit any bumps in the road that could get pushed back a hair, but mid-2012 is our goal right now.
Josh Knowles: You’ve certainly been making progress in the right direction! Are any current games doing their best to distract you in the completion of Heaven Variant?
Jason K: My God, man! The Steam sale is going on and is going to ruin not only my productivity but my bank account! Haha. I have a backlog of games on there alone. Right now though, Skyrim has consumed a lot of my life, and I’ll be starting Skyward Sword one of these days once I can kick the addiction. Haha. I actually have been meaning to finish Persona 4, I know I’m late to the party on that one.
Josh Knowles: Outside of Heaven Variant, what’s your most anticipated 2012 release?
Jason K: Metal Gear Rising. Hands down!
Jason K: Any game that lets me fight giant robots with a sword is a game I can get behind. Haha.
Jason K: I’m a little bit of a Metal Gear fanboy.
Josh Knowles: Doesn’t Raiden actually suplex a giant mech in the trailer? I can’t argue, it looks like pure action!
Jason K: *drool* haha
Jason K: Yeah, it looks very cool.
Josh Knowles: To wrap things up, do you have any thanks or shout outs you’d like to give?
Jason K: My team. Simon Inch is a programming wizard. He makes things possible that shouldn’t be. John Etheridge is modeling fiend. He makes amazing 3D art with my paradoxical M.C. Escher concept art! Haha. Without the two of them Heaven Variant’s development would not be possible and I cannot emphasize how absolutely vital the two of them are to the game’s production. They’re cool dudes, too. And a shout out to the University of Texas at Dallas for their cool game development programs.
Jason K: Outside of that, I’d like to thank you for hosting an awesome interview.
Josh Knowles: Any time Jason! I look forward to playing Heaven Variant!