Rectify Gaming

Interview with Axiom Verge creator Thomas Happ

Posted on April 29, 2016 by Rectify Gaming

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Axiom Verge, the Metroidvania game from creator Thomas Happ, initially was released in March 2015 for PlayStation 4. It has since been launched on PC and was most recently made available on PlayStation Vita on April 19. I caught up with Mr. Happ prior to the PS Vita release and asked him how he came up with the idea, what it’s like to create a game practically by yourself and what he sees the future of the franchise is going forward.

When did you first come up with the concept for Axiom Verge?

It sort of evolved. My first idea was to make a video game that combined all sorts of things from my favorite games. I pretty much just looked at NES games like Bionic Commando, Rygar, Metroid, and Blaster Master and make them into one thing. So you would have this weapon that was like a grappling hook, and a death yo-yo and also, like a car. It ended up not being that at all. It was more awkward trying to make it all one weapon, a gun that can do all sorts of different things.

It wasn’t until about a year later where I thought about all those games having things like glitches or weird quirks. So I decided to start unifying things around that one idea. That is what I wanted to be the main differentiator, otherwise people would just think the game was about shooting aliens and that it wasn’t different from Metroid. So I took that and started to come up with different things to fit more and more into that concept.

Speaking of your influences, what interested you in creating Axiom Verge, specifically from a design perspective?

I worked as a game developer pretty much full time since about 2003 with EA and Petroglyph and a few others, so I was pretty used to working for other people making 3D games as a programmer and animator. Really the thing that I found I enjoyed doing the most, which I sort of found out by accident, was stuff that I did for school and things that I did for smaller studios that wanted to make GBA (Game Boy Advance) games. None of these games ever actually made it to the public though.

I had made a game for a school project that was pretty much a Metroid clone. Another company that was trying to break into the business had me doing cut scenes for a couple of Crash Bandicoot games. That company also had me, as their Lead Programmer, make a rogue-like type of game, as well as a pinball game and side scroller, which none of them ever made the light of day.

I sort of realized after that it was a lot more fun and easier and faster to work on those little games with tile graphics, especially the one school project I did. I made about a quarter of the Metroid-like game in about six months, and I realized that if I would’ve just kept on working on that I would’ve had a full game in just a few years. That was the main thing, I wanted it to be enjoyable for me. I didn’t think that making a 3D game on my own would really be very fun or even work out.
axiomverge5I know this started as a side project for you in 2010, when did it become more of your focus?

It started to change in 2012. It took me those full two years to make that first area of the game, up to the first boss. I basically spent a lot of time making what they call a vertical slice, so that whole section of the game was fully-polished, how the final product would look. I made a trailer of it, and I love telling this story because it’s the most surprising aspect of the whole thing, but I made a trailer and put it on YouTube. At this point I had a Twitter account with three followers, one of which was this guy who I knew from college, Ben McGraw, and somehow Ben had already inched his way into the indie gaming community, unbeknownst to me. I tweeted the link to the YouTube trailer, not really giving it much thought, and the next day I was reading about my link to YouTube in mags like Indie Game Magazine, and a couple of other indie–only sites. So that was just like the next day or next couple of days. I was just surprised that anybody even knew about it and figured that it had to be Ben because he had like 1000 followers, which was a lot at the time. A few days later GameSpot wanted to run a story on it and I would end up reading about myself pretty much on a daily basis. It may me understand that people were treating it really seriously. I had no idea that anybody would care about my pixelated coffee project.

So that’s when I started to take it more seriously. People were telling me that I should quit my job and just work on this, but I wasn’t quite ready to do that because I already had a house at that point and I was working full-time. I was living paycheck to paycheck, feeling like I still needed to work full-time. I basically stayed that way until I was 37 or so. I was about halfway into the game’s development or about four years into it, and I had already married my wife.

The next step was for us to go to Indiecade 2013 to show the game, which is the first time I showed it to game companies. Indiecade has this thing where you submit your game to them for it to be a part of their festival, and as part of it, even if your game flunks or doesn’t win any awards, they put you into contact with companies that are interested, and I guess Sony was interested in it. So Sony set up a 15-minute meeting where I got to pitch them the game, and while I was there on that same day there were other companies meeting with other people, so I talked with Microsoft and Nintendo, although at that point Nintendo’s indie program wasn’t really off the ground yet.

It was a few months of back and forth at that point, not knowing if it was going to work out. So I made another trailer of the game and showed it to Sony, hoping that it would finally persuade them, and they told me not to make the trailer public. I had initially wanted to use it for a crowdfunding effort, and Sony sent me an e-mail was like, “Actually we want to fund you instead and we want to use this for the marketing of the game after we give you the Indie Pub fund”. It was bizarre. I got that e-mail when I was at work and just thought, “This is like the best thing that has ever happened to me”. That was the moment where I finally realized I could start working full-time on the game, after four years of already working on it as a hobby.

This is where Dan Adelman comes in. He’s like my business partner. He was the guy at Nintendo who I pitched Axiom Verge to in hopes of getting them to fund it, but they didn’t have a program for that at the time. But he left Nintendo and wanted to work directly with the Indies, and one of the things he did was negotiate with Sony to get me some of the royalties up front, so I got a good chunk of change which helped me basically work the last six months of the game full-time without having to do any other work. Since then it’s just been me working on the game.

Based upon the conclusion of the game it could be inferred that there will be a sequel. Is that something that fans of Axiom Verge can expect?

I don’t want to just make the same game again. A lot of sequels seem to basically be the same game as the original but with a new environment and a new storyline, and a lot of times that’s all you want, but for me it becomes kind of monotonous. I want to change the sequel up so it plays differently. It’s not going to be a Castlevania game, but it’s more like a Castlevania than a Metroid game in terms of how it flows and how the weapons and stuff work. So I’m not sure if it’s really a sequel or a prequel or if it should be considered a side story. It isn’t really a side story though because it continues the main story too. I’m still trying to work out how I want to do it, but I’m thinking I’ll call it like Axiom … something, so it doesn’t have a number but it’s still part of the series.

Do you identify with Trace in any way? Do you see yourself in him?

Maybe in some sort of wishful thinking or alternate reality. When I was in college I really wanted to do things with physics. The thing is I’m just terrible at math. I didn’t know that though until I got to college-level math and was just like, I hate this. So Trace is sort of like this character that is going down a path that I feel I could’ve gone down. He’s working in a government laboratory with lasers and that kind of thing. I did a fair amount of research to understand what the facility should look like. If I was ever to write a biography about him I would know how to write about what he was doing that day. It’s not too important to the story what he’s actually doing; all you need to know is that he ends up in this other world.


You’ve worked on a number of games in the past. How has being the sole creator of this game made the production of Axiom Verge easier and, at the same time, more difficult?

It’s definitely easier when talking about the “mythical man month”. Basically, the more people you put on a project, the number of hours it takes to finish a project doesn’t decrease linearly. If I worked on it with a second person it doesn’t mean we would complete the game twice as fast or that it would be twice as easy, but instead it would be closer to fifty percent faster. So basically in working solo things are optimized. I don’t have any communication downtime. If I get tired of working on something I can just stop. I don’t have any arguments with myself. In that regard I think it is way easier than when you’re working on a big project with other people.

The downside, of course, is that it’s only me. At any time I could get an e-mail from Nintendo or Microsoft or Sony or whomever and they can say, “Hey, we have this big event and we need a bunch of banners made for our website that are all these different sizes. And we need some video of brand new footage. It can’t be footage you’ve done before.” So now it means I have to stop and open up the video editor and record some footage of the game and splice it together. Then I’ll make some banners and graphics that fit into the different shapes that they want. Of course this means that development just stops because I’m going and doing these other things. There’s a lot more than you would think of stuff like that. Not so much with PC or Steam, but things with consoles work a little bit differently and everything needs to be approved. Each Photoshop file needs to have a certain amount of layers. Or for example, if you made a trailer that took you two hours to render and just put Vita instead of PS Vita, now you have to go back and change it, which makes sense from their side of things, for branding, but it’s just another two hours that you lose having to re-render.

What were your goals or expectations with the game itself, in terms of critical or commercial success?

My whole goal was to be able to make as much as I did before when I worked for someone else. Just to keep my salary going. So it did that immediately. It’s funny when you talk about goals because I can see how many units I’ve sold on Steam, and PlayStation units are about the same, and I’ve had people look at that and say, “Oh man, this game is a commercial failure” because they’re comparing it to, say, Shovel Knight, which just sold a million units. But you have to think, yeah, maybe I made about twenty percent of what Shovel Knight made, but I’m just one guy with a wife. I’m basically set for a few years now. I can go and develop the other game and not have to worry about things. So for me, the low end of the spectrum is still a great success for me.

What gave you the idea of doing a speed-run mode and how did you go about building that out?

The original idea, like I said earlier, was to combine some of my favorite games, a lot of which I hadn’t played in a while. When you go and try and find footage of games, one of the best ways to get an overview is to watch a speedrun of it. These people are going to go through most of the levels of the game, if not all of them, and you’ll get to see every last bit and it could take you less than an hour to watch the whole thing. And that’s when I realized that there are a hell of a lot of speedrunners out there and these things are getting a lot of views. This was particularly impactful because of the similarities between Super Metroid and Axiom Verge. Super Metroid is sort of like the quintessential speedrunner’s game because of the way the original game rewarded you for beating the game faster and just the fact that it has all these weird quirks in it that people can take advantage of. So that was something that I really liked about it, especially the notion of quirks people can find, because I had this game based around “glitches”, so I wanted to see what kind of traction I could get there.

So basically the speedrun mode removes the dialogue and puts up timers and checkpoints on screen for each of the bosses so you can track your progress. In watching other speedrunners I noticed that when they would do runs they would have to use external software to track progress, basically that they would have to press a key whenever they beat a boss. I looked at that and just knew I could have that be instantaneous and built into the game, so I could have the most precise as possible time in there and it didn’t seem like other games were really doing that. Usually you would have to wait until the very end of a game to see how long you were taking to get through a game. I also took out some randomly-generated areas that I didn’t feel would work well with speedruns. I didn’t think it would really be fair if one person managed to get a relatively easy randomly-generated area while another person might experience something more difficult.


What’s your fastest run through the game?

I think it was like two and a half hours. I posted it on Twitter because I was really proud of it. I mean I could be wrong, it may not be the fastest I’ve done, but it was certainly fast enough for me to feel good about it. I was trying to go pretty fast throughout that run, but I don’t expect I could do much better than that. I’ve run into people though that can do it in closer to forty minutes.

What are you playing right now?

I basically have no time to play, but one of the most current games I’m going through right now is Link’s Awakening, which I tried years ago on a simulator. It was the black and white version of the game, and I couldn’t really get into it, so I got a 3DS and I’ve been playing the game on that. It’s sort of weird because now when I play games it feels like I’m studying them more than I’m actually enjoying them. But when I play games for enjoyment I tend to play games like Until Dawn or other Triple-A games that are nothing like what I actually create for work. The other one that I’m trying to get to at some point is Hyper Light Drifter. I also just downloaded SOMA, so I may be playing that if I can get permission from my wife.

What is the release schedule like for the Xbox One and Wii U versions of the game?

It’s still in development and it’s being ported by other companies. We want to release after E3, which hopefully means that Microsoft and Nintendo are showing it there. Of course that’s not something that I can just go and be like, “Hey, I want to go and be at E3” because it’s close to $30,000 for a booth, but if they do that it could be a good marketing push to advertise the game. Either way, I’m hoping that by the end of June we can release it. It’s certainly just a pending time-frame, but I’m hoping that’s how it plays out.

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