Blast through the past

Blast through the past
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

December 21st 2009 at 8:30AM

We speak to the director and developer of one of our favorite iPhone games, Space Invaders Infinity Gene

The adage about the difficult second album is certainly one many developers can empathise with. Creating the sequel to any treasured game presents an immense design challenge for the team involved.

So how can you hope to succeed when tackling a project that is approximately the 30th successor to an icon of the industry’s early history?

Reisuke Ishida is a man who knows the answer. As director and graphic designer of Space Invaders Infinity Gene, he and his colleagues have met with critical and commercial success in creating a sequel to the oft mishandled and seminal arcade shooter.

Charmed by the game and keen to understand how Ishida approached Taito’s most revered IP, we spoke to hime about the motivation behind the project, why he deliberately made the game look harder than it is, and the artist’s pursuit of synathesia.

How do you find creative motivation when developing a game for a series that has already seen so many sequels and revisits?

I began this project with two questions in mind: how is Space Invaders thought of by the general public, and what do people want to see in a new Space Invaders game?

The original Space Invaders was an epoch-making game that challenged people’s preconceptions about what games were capable of. But 30 years have passed, and I think the younger generation don’t know much about the original game and its importance.

I thought about how best to present the appeal of Space Invaders to this new generation, and I concluded that it wasn’t enough to just create an attractive game of itself. The new game needed to show how Space Invaders impacted gaming culture.

In the end, I decided to create a game that was based on the original, but then guided players on a tour of the evolution of the shooter genre, ending up as a completely new, state-of-the-art shooting game.

What design approach did you take to ensure that you balanced a respect for the ‘feel’ of the original Space Invaders with delivering a fresh gameplay experience?
With Space Invaders Infinity Gene’s evolution system I took a gradual approach, diverging from the original experience in steps. I also took great care to design new graphics that would blend well with the original characters.

The original design made effective use of simple pixels, and as a result they don’t blend very well with three dimensional or more organic designs. When shown together with those kinds of graphic elements, the invaders tend to stand out and look out of place. In order to preserve the game’s feel I decided to go with a stripped-down, pixelated and geometrical look for the game’s graphics.

Also, when Infinity Gene first loads up it displays a parody of the arcade game’s attract mode screen. We’ve included this and many other references to the original Space Invaders in an effort to bring smiles to the faces of long-time fans. During the course of play, Infinity Gene evolves into a completely new experience, but everything is intended to tie into its preceding title.

Recently the 2D shooter has seen a small return to popularity and now caters for both casual gamers and the dedicated, hardcore players. How did you approach setting the difficulty in this context?
I set the difficulty so that even less skilled players could complete the game. Recent shooters demand an incredibly high level of skill from players, so much so that some are nearly impossible to beat even if the player knows exactly what strategy is necessary. With Infinity Gene I did my best to create a game that – with practice and steady nerves – anyone can beat.

For example, I went out of my way to place ‘safe zones’ in the levels, something not often seen in recent games, and some difficult-seeming stages become considerably easier if players take advantage of the different weapons available.

Another major difference between Infinity Gene and other shooters is that the enemy attacks are intended less to destroy the player’s ship than they are to create excitement. The result is that while some scenes appear at first glance to be incredibly intense, a large part of that’s due to the flashiness of the attacks, and many players will discover that it’s not as difficult to avoid the onscreen onslaught as would be expected.

We’ve tried to balance the combat so that it provided both the right amount of intensity as well as a sense of exhilaration. Our goal when designing stages was to promote a feel of exhilaration, allowing players to feel as if they’re participating in a music video.

I’d love it if even non-gamers were to try the game, approaching it with the same casual mindset they’d have when watching a music video.

What 2D shooters were influential when creating Infinity Gene?

I’m a huge fan of shooting games, so you could say I’ve been influenced by them all, but Taito’s RayCrisis had the biggest impact on me, although that’s more 3D shooting.

While it’s not an uncommon quality now, RayCrisis was effective when it came to the fusing appealing, exciting visuals with the actual game play. With Infinity Gene I hoped to achieve a similar fusion between the music video-style visuals and game play, so RayCrisis was a valuable source of inspiration.

And what about games from other genres? Did they influence your work?
While it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind when designing the game, I think I was slightly influenced by the RPG genre. Not by a specific title, but by the elemental systems common in RPGs – water-based attacks are strong against enemies associated with fire, that sort of thing. While the idea that effective weapon choice grants an advantage in combat has long been present in the shooter genre, I was more inspired by the systems seen in RPGs.

In this genre the elements tend to be associated with a particular colour, but usually a player has to read the instructions to I thought about how to present the appeal of Space Invaders to this generation, I concluded it wasn’t enough to just create an attractive game. It needed to show how the original impacted gaming culture.

The new Space Invaders Infinity Gene portrays the evolution of gaming culture understand the associated strengths and weaknesses of each element. With Infinity Gene I wanted to create a game that would be playable by anyone the world over without relying on written instructions, so the game emphasises whether or not a given weapon is more or less effective with certain enemies, allowing players to naturally recognise the difference and adjust their strategy accordingly.

The evolution system, where new capabilities develop as the player collects points, is also very similar to the advancement systems seen in RPGs.


What were the challenges of designing a shooter for the iPhone?

It was difficult coming up with a control system that would be stress-free for the player, but I don’t think that’s particularly special to the shooter genre with regards to the iPhone. I experimented with a number of different schemes before finally arriving at the one that appears in the final game.

I originally planned to allow players to select from multiple control methods, but after actually trying these alternate systems we discovered that the one finally adopted in the game was the most user-friendly and intuitive by far. We thought that having multiple systems could end up confusing the player rather than provide any real benefit, so we discarded the other options.

The control system used in Infinity Gene is completely synchronized with the movement of the player’s finger, and as a result there’s no upper limit to the speed at which the player’s ship can be moved. Some were concerned that this would adversely affect the game balance, but in the end stress-free play was more important to me than balance.

If the controls aren’t pleasant to use, other aspects of the game end up limited as well. It’s pointless to come up with interesting enemies or levels if control-related issues end up preventing players from defeating them, and for that reason the controls are absolutely critical.

Speaking of easy to use controls, if the continuous auto-shoot is turned off in the settings menu, players can toggle shooting on and off by simply touching the screen with three fingers at once. This option is isn’t necessary for more casual players, but it’s very user-friendly and ideal for players attempting the hard mode or those looking to maximize their high scores.

The audio in Infinity Gene feels very much interconnected with the gameplay. How much was the development of the gameplay and sound integrated? Was ‘synaesthesia’ a goal?
Yes, that was definitely a goal, and I’m happy you picked up on that. When coming up with a new game, I make a point of thinking about the game’s sound from the very beginning. I find that this promotes a more synaesthetic experience, and helps avoid becoming overly reliant on the visuals.

From the white noise at the title screen to the jolting sound effect played at the game’s start, I gave very explicit instructions for all of the sound effects and music in the game, listening to the results over and over when determining what sounds should be placed where. In fact, it’s quite possible that I spent more time listening to the sound effects than the designer responsible for them.

Like I said, I had very specific requirements for the sound. I wanted to avoid the typical bright ‘piroreen!’-style sound effects when items were picked up and during the introductory portions of the game, so I went out of the way to have a ‘gamish’ sound for enemy explosions, and so forth. These kinds of decisions are made when developing all games, but the concept behind Space Invaders Infinity Gene involved a very delicate balance, so I paid an unusual amount of attention to its finer points.

The in-game music plays an important role music growing more layered and elaborate as the game progresses. Many players wouldn’t notice this without comparing different tracks in the sound collection menu, but I think that they subconsciously feel the evolution.

How important was the involvement of members of Zuntata –the in-house sound team?
Depending on the project, we sometimes use outside sound designers, but because Infinity Gene was intended to carry on the DNA of Space Invaders– and that of Taito as a whole – we decided it was only right to have the music handled by an important part of Taito’s genetic makeup, our sound team Zuntata.

Even so, designing the music for the game was quite a struggle. One issue was the game’s story. It wasn’t the obvious ‘Invaders have arrived from space! Can you defend the Earth from their insidious attack?’ Instead the game’s underlying point was the evolution of the shooter genre, so I wanted to avoid emotional music –I wanted a ‘game-like’ solid sound. On the other hand, it was just as important to avoid an overly flat sound.

I told the composer Hirokazu Koshio to come up with something unemotional but dramatic and daring; a tricky request that put a great deal of pressure on him. But with countless meetings and retakes, the sound gradually began to come together.

We wanted to show an unbroken connection between classic games like Space Invaders and modern games. The idea of using once-ubiquitous FM sound sources in Infinity Gene and other unusual techniques were born out of this effort. I demanded a great deal from Koshio, but thanks to his dedication and hard work, the final result turned out great. I don’t think my goals and expectations for the music could’ve been met without Zuntata’s extraordinary pride and deep understanding when it comes to Space Invaders.

What are you most proud of with Infinity Gene?
The use of evolution as the theme, I think. Not only does the game use Space Invaders to trace the evolution of gaming, it’s also a love letter to the gaming culture as a whole. If it helps even one new person rediscover the fun and wonder of gaming, then I’ll be very happy indeed. The control system used is synchronized with the movement of the player’s finger, and as a result there’s no upper limit to the speed at which a player’s ship can be moved.