Stardust Vanguards Interview: Jason Koohi Makes Players Feel Like a Badass

In 2009, Jason Koohi and Simon Inch were students at the University of Texas competing in a game development competition, which is to say their school was cooler than yours. Today, they are the two-man team Stardust Vanguards Bullet Hellat Zanrai Interactive, or Team Zanrai if you prefer, an independent game studio from Dallas, Texas that created the couch multiplayer adventure Stardust Vanguards.

Stardust Vanguards is all your giant mech fantasies come true in a fast-action, colorful, twitch arcade styled game available on PS4 or Steam. Players control one of four Vanguards who zip around the stage trying to defeat the enemy team with blasters, laser swords, personal AI army and superior fighting tactics. It’s basically Gundam/Macross/Evangelion without the teen angst.

And there are space pirates.

Jason Koohi, Director, Designer of Team Zanrai, explains the importance of balance in Stardust Vanguards battle systems, knowing when to scrap a project and depth from simplicity.


Q: Can you please share some of your background on how you started in game design?

Sure! I’ve been working on small game projects since I was a kid with little game development programs that were easy to jump in and play with. I’ve always been entrenched in art, and by the time I went to college I was looking at getting into graphic design, but I started seeing people working on interactive projects and figured why couldn’t I do that. I met the other half of our team, Simon Inch, (we’re a two man team) when we both showed up for a game competition our university was holding. By then I was doing contract jobs for voice over and music for smaller mobile games, so I got a look into how people were doing things.

After graduating we tried our hand on a massive 3D project, and while unfortunately the project was too big for us we learned a lot about asset creation and I personally learned the hard way what not to do with regard to scoping a project. And after about a year of grieving that project I talked to Simon and said let’s try a smaller, focused 2D project and just get something out, and that became Stardust Vanguards which originally launched on PC and Linux and is now available on PS4. We’ve been playing it by ear the whole way.


Q: How do you describe Stardust Vanguards to people who haven’t heard of it?

Stardust Vanguards is a love-letter to couch-multiplayer fans. It’s a four-player dueling game where you’re a military leader in a space mecha dueling with swords (and a very limited ammo machine gun) in space. The spin on it is that as you kill each other off, you’re earning “RP”, what we call reinforcement points, and you can spend these points to summon computer-controlled reinforcement units to fight alongside you. The more RP you have, the bigger and badder your NPC allies will be, and you’ll even earn a little RP every second just for surviving. So if you only have 10RP you’ll summon a little 3 unit squad, but when you’re at 100RP, our maximum, you’ll summon a cruiser escort squadron with some serious firepower. So the dueling gameplay is really tight, and in the end it will always be about killing off other players, but you have troops to attack for you.

It’s a really intimate commander vs commander vibe even though the battlefield can be quite crowded at times. And on top of all of that, we have a random event system where a completely separate faction of computer-controlled space pirates interrupt the battle in dozens of scenarios. What’s cool about these events is that players suddenly have to respond to the changing conditions on the field and possibly briefly cooperate.

We’re really proud of the dynamic it creates. And the pirates can win the game just like the players can if they aren’t dealt with, which is essentially a lose condition for all the players. No one ever wants the computer to win, so it’s an interesting dynamic where you genuinely have a common enemy. It’s cool seeing how this simple element has such a big effect on the way players choose to fight.


Stardust Vanguards MercenaryQ: Are there any extra features or Easter Eggs in the PS4 release?

The PS4 version is how the way the game should be played. We wanted the game to be viable for tournament play but there are a lot of unlockable levels and modes to earn, so we included a “Tournament Mode” option to make all content available immediately for people that desire this choice. The trade off of course is that you can’t earn trophies this way and the unlockables are not saved the next time. Most people will probably never use this option, but it’s a cool extra for people that want to play competitively.

As far as little extras the PS4 hardware allows for, the controllers can light up according to the color team you choose which I think is the coolest thing ever.


Q: How much do the random encounters turn the flow of battle? Does it sometimes feel like a blue turtle shell moment?

The cool thing about the random encounters is that they generally affect everyone evenly, and because the computer-controlled pirates are so hostile, all the players want to kill them. Plus remember that each kill offers reinforcement points to earn, and the bigger the enemy the more RP you’ll earn. So it does turn the tide of battle by injecting RP into the system.

As far as it feeling like a blue shell moment, the random events help break up strategies that players might overly rely on, perhaps more of like a way to shake up things and force players to adapt to changing conditions. For instance, a guy that’s hiding away from combat will have to move a little to avoid the pirates once they come. And because we have so many different types of random scenarios, it keeps things fresh. I think the idea of the blue shell from Mario Kart is frustrating because it can quickly throw you into last place, but the heart of the design is in the right place: give the players in last place some way to catch up. I do think it’s a bit heavy handed though.

We did implement something in this spirit, though not nearly as punishing as a blue shell. So in Stardust Vanguards, if you have a 3 life lead over all the rest of the players you are certainly doing very well, so we boost the amount of RP you’re worth by issuing a bounty on you. Normally players are worth 10RP, but a player with a bounty on their head is worth 50RP, five times as much as normal, and half of the maximum! So a bounty is kind of a badge of honor, you’re worth more, it makes sense, and it offers an incentive for losing players to get back into the game. It’s been a pretty effective way of giving losing players a way to get back into the fight without winner players feeling sandbagged.


Q: Do the Reinforcement Points create a snowball effect of winning like in Call of Duty? It seems difficult to balance rewards and comeback opportunities.

This is one area where I can tell you we spent a lot of time balancing our reinforcement system. The cool thing about our reinforcement system, and something I am especially proud of, is how self-sustaining it is. If we’re playing the game and I summon a giant squadron it benefits me because they’re shooting at you, but it’s also a benefit to you because that’s more RP you can earn. And you’re own troops can earn you RP too for each kill they make, so it’s surprisingly balanced.

If you’re really at the top of your game or playing with custom rules, it can snowball at times, but this is exceedingly rare. There’s nearly always a way out, and the amount RP being fed into the battle has been carefully configured so that reinforcement amounts start off small and slowly increase to larger amounts as battles go on. And again, our random event system is another opportunity to reintroduce RP into the system. I’m very proud of how this system came together. I don’t think a lot of people will notice it, which to a degree is a good thing, but RP is doled out naturally and while at times you may be on the defensive, it never feels particularly unfair even if you lose.

Q: Have you seen any player-implemented strategies that surprised you within the game?

A lot of strategies have popped up. Most battles begin as a 4-player free-for-all since no one starts with reinforcements. As things move on, I was surprised to see how much the game resembles more of an action based DOTA or League of Legends. Players started letting their NPCs do all the heavy lifting for them.

You can reflect bullets with your sword, and that’s also been a cool little strategy to see players waiting behind NPCs and using projectiles from afar. Most of the strategies have revolved around carefully using reinforcements.

One cool tactic I saw a few guys on YouTube doing was using their own shield to project their NPCs. The game can be deceptively strategic.


Q: I’m a huge trophy fan…how did you decide what trophies to include?

There are a number of standard fare trophies for unlocking things, but we have some really fun ones for when very special conditions occur in a battle. For instance, there’s one trophy for having everyone lose to the pirates. Another trophy is for you to die but to have your NPC forces win the battle for you anyway. There’s another trophy for winning the battle but also having the most troop losses.

We wanted a few trophies to include some really strange ways to win battles.
Q: What percentage of players do you think will be able to get the platinum?

That’s a good question; our platinum trophy is to earn all the other trophies! [On STEAM the Complete all 30 survival waves in endurance mode trophy only has a 0.5% achievement.] It’s challenging but not impossible.

I’d imagine most trophies could be earned by simply spending enough time trying to earn them. Most are just fun extras to try and find. A few of the cooperative survival modes may need some careful skill to win because they can be quite brutal, which I imagine will provide the most challenge for trophy hunters.


Q: What is your development philosophy?

With regard to the design, the game is simple in premise, the combat is very tight, you die in one hit, and the RP system itself is very simple, too. What these elements offer is simplicity, but there’s room for these simple elements to interact in complex ways.

Stardust Vanguards Character SelectWe focused our core gameplay then said how can we use these simple components and use them in creative ways that expand on them. So your sword can attack but can also be used defensively to reflect bullets right back at enemies. Bullets are fast and kill instantly, but since they can be deflected, a stray bullet is an opportunity instead of a mere obstacle if you want to take the risk. It’s a very simple change and it added a lot of depth. Depth from simplicity.

On top of that, we make every action you can engage in feel as epic as it can. So visually each death, and bullet reflection, and sparking ricochet feels visceral, so that’s an important element visually that goes hand in hand with the design to ensure each action feels good when it’s initiated. We want to ensure the player feels like a bad ass. Can that be a development philosophy? Haha.


Q: What advice do you have for aspiring developers who want to break into the industry?

Start making stuff!

Get Game Maker or an easy development tool and just get your hands dirty. If you’re a coder just start coding. If you’re an artist, start drawing. You just have to get started. An education if you can get it is great too, but it’s not 100% required.

It’s hard getting started, but you feel your way through and eventually you’ll have something for sale. Just jump in. You’ll be lost for a while as you learn the necessities, and you can never know everything, but learning is part of the process. You just have to be willing to jump in.

Focus on small projects, something you can complete and just keep it up. Before you know it, you’ll have experience and be comfortable with making something you can eventually sell if you’re an indie. You can always build up skills and try to get hired at a larger studio, but just get your hands dirty.

Start learning. And there are so many resources to play with even if you’re on a strict budget. Unreal 4 is available to download this very second and you can start playing around with a really fantastic toolset. Unity has a free version. There are so many options. It’s a really great time because professional toolsets are very accessible where you can learn the ropes.

All that it takes is jumping into the learning process and not getting discouraged thinking you have to know it all. You’ll pick it up, just stick with it! It’s been my experience that continually learning new techniques and tools is just part of the job, so get comfortable being uncomfortable for a little while!


Q: What lessons regarding game development have you learned on this project?

Marketing is a serious reality that must be planned for early on! Some game genres are better suited for getting attention and it’s important to do everything you can to get on people’s radars. Some genres are inherently Stardust Vanguards Battlechallenging to explain without playing them, and local-multiplayer games are often that way; certainly Stardust Vanguards has been. Anything that needs to be experienced to be understood can be challenging. People expect gameplay to be the core of what makes the game good, but what good is the even the best game in the world if people don’t know it exists? It needs be fun, but it also needs to look fun and evoke something when people aren’t playing it, too.

I think one way we did this was with the character portraits and the music, which were touchstones for the type of style of game we were building. It’s certainly lent itself to helping us prepare for our next project. Having gone through a release on Steam and Humble, and now on the PlayStation 4, we were fortunate enough to be able to find success, but it’s been challenging to spread the word by the nature of this game, but I do think I’ve grown significantly in my understanding in how to design a game that is appealing at first glance.

Semi-Random Question: What is your favorite anime of all time?

That’s a difficult question! I’m a sucker for the all the Universal Century Gundam stuff. Though, One Punch Man has very recently found a very special place in my heart.


Thanks Jason for your thorough answers, insight into Stardust Vanguards and encouragement for players looking to transition to developers.

Stardust Vanguards is available in the PlayStation Store for the PS4 and on Steam (PC/Linux). Check out Zanrai Interactive to learn more about the development process of Stardust Vanguards and their next project, Westgunne.


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