Axiom Verge Interview with Developer Tom Happ

Axiom Verge
is praised for being able to out-Metroidvania even the likes of Super Metroid and Castlevania. This retro-styled game is able to revitalize the 2d action/exploration genre that was in serious need of an entry to remind old-school players why the started gaming in the first place and introduce newcomers to a world defined by tight gameplay and interactive mechanics.

At the core of those mechanics is Axiom Verge’s exploration, backtracking and usage of intended glitches which destroy enemies in the alien-like world and double as necessary tools for exploration.

Tom Happ spent the last five years as the sole developer on Axiom Verge; programming each sound effect, enemy, weapon, color choice, story element and environment within the stylized shooter and was willing to share insight into his process.

Many players who jump into Axiom Verge immediately compare it to Metroid, but that wasn’t Happ’s original intent, “When I first started, I was leaning towards combining the Diskarmor (Death Yo-Yo) from Rygar with the grappling hook from Bionic Commando. I liked how those looked and thought they would work well in motion together.”

“I ended up not going with that exact formula because I realized there was a lot more versatility with a ranged weapon.” Happ expands upon how the combat evolved into a more classic shoot em’ up game like Contra.

Axiom Verge Slug Boss“I then decided to allow players to drill into the different blocks through glitches. Each environment is a set of 16 by 16 tiles, each of which have their own distinct properties to telegraph their malleability. If the tiles were less conspicuous it would have hindered communication between the game and player. It ended up looking more like Metroid than i originally intended.”

With all the importance of glitches within Axiom Verge, I had to know if there were any extra glitches that made their way into the game, “By and large, the glitches that happened unintentionally crashed the game completely. But they did give me inspiration. There is one that is cool…but I can’t talk about it right now,” players need to discover it for themselves. However, “There is one that is in there now that is a temporary buff until you save and restart. It’s not obvious and if I found it in a game on my own, I’d be really excited to discover it.”

Due to the constant call back to the retro aesthetics of the game, some might think that Axiom Verge adheres to the same standards of an NES game or SNES entry. Happ explains that this isn’t possible, “Not even one screen could run on the SNES. The NES character palette is really restrictive; for example, you can’t have beige anywhere. That’s why NES characters have bright florescent skin tones and hair color. I didn’t do that but developed my own set of rules to abide by the spirit of those games.”

Axiom Verge Steam Vents“Sprites [in Axiom Verge] and tiles generally only have 4 colors. I didn’t limit myself to the 256 colors on the SNES. Axiom Verge looks like a NES game, but without those limitations…the hero is still flesh colored and realistic. Particles affects,” especially wouldn’t work on the older hardware, “each enemy explosion has more pieces that could be drawn on a NES. I tried to stay with what would service the enjoyment feedback loop of the gameplay” as opposed to adhering to the strict rules of an NES game.

Happ was able to put together Axiom Verge from the ground up on his own, but he knows this isn’t an easy task for any designer. The advice Happ can offer developers trying to follow his footsteps are similar to the model he took, “Don’t quit your day job. I stayed working full time through most of the development. Make sure you have a substantial demo/alpha before you start to do your Kickstarter. You want to make sure that you are going in a good direction that is going to work before you start to get into debt to finish it.”

Another piece of advice for designers comes from Happ’s business liaison Dan Adelman, “Do it for the right reasons. Do it because there is a game you really want to make and love the game. I see so many people who see the success story of some indies and done really well and think that there is a ton of money to be made there. The reality is that most indies have to supplement their income. You don’t do it to make money but you do it because you can’t not do it.”

Despite all the positive press, praise and accolades Happ receives for Axiom Verge, he recognizes he couldn’t do it alone. The hardest part of ensuring Axiom Verge was available for players according to Happ was always the business side, “Anything regarding business, marketing or public relations I had trouble with. That’s why I ended up hooking up with Dan. He left being Nintendo’s head of digital to find indies like me. He helps me out with all of those things that are the biggest weakness that i have.”

Axiom Verge Save StationAdelman greatly respects Happ’s abilities and was a huge proponent of Axiom Verge even before joining the team, “The first thing that really grabbed me was how tight controls were and how precise the game felt. The controller disappeared in my hands and I was able to jump right into the game.”

“I was only planning on playing for 10 minutes to get a feel for the game, but I ended up playing for 3 hours, put it down and then pick it back up again for another 2 – 3 hours. As soon as I played it, I wanted to be part of the game.”

Axiom Verge is available today on the PlayStation 4 and later this year on PlayStation Vita and PC.

You may also pick up the soundtrack separately through Amazon, Bandcamp or iTunes. Happ describes some of the inspiration for the original music coming from, “Classic video games for sure. Metroid is an influenster, as well as, Bionic Commando Rearmed OST and its copious amounts of bass. There is one boss track that has some feel from FFVI in it if you listen closely to the percussion. For pleasure, I genuinely listen to electroclash electro-synth-pop. I’m sure those have seeped in various ways, but I wasn’t trying to emulate anything specific.”

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