Cyberspace is a vast universe, wrought with peril and filled with danger. It's also the ideal setting for a 3D bullet hell shooter, but one that's also perfect for an open world adventure. For his debut project, Paul F ventured out with a great sense of ambition and its a vision that's starting to take shape in the form of NeonXSZ.
Paul F, better known to Chatty as vdwar, recently released NeonXSZ on Steam Early Access. Those that adopt it are about to dive into a conflict between warring factions, with each enemy possessing unique AI patterns. To survive, players will have a ship filled with hundreds of thousands of customization possibilities, thanks to numerous upgrades, weapons, gadgets, and ship models that unlock throughout the game through RPG-style leveling.
To learn more about NeonXSZ, Shacknews took a moment to talk to Paul F, where we also learn about the strife he's overcome, and his time as a member of the Chatty community.
Shacknews: How would you describe NeonXSZ? What is the game about and how long has it been in the works?
Paul F: NeonXSZ is a remarkably agile first-person shooter where every opponent has unique AI. That's the one sentence reply. In reality the game is so much more than that.
The core of the game is a twitch-shooter designed to have the fast responsive controls and general feel of playing Quake. It also borrows Quake's near-perfect weapon load out and then puts the action into fast nimble spaceships that have instant turning in zero gravity. For long term interest, the game offers the player dozens of ships to loot and fly and over 850 upgrades to install into those ships.
The game is also totally open-world and creates a very personal experience for each player. Procedurally generated content means that no two games are ever the same, and the depth of customizability only adds to the player's sense that they can set the game up to play exactly how they want it to. For example, there's a unique Gamespeed slider that can put the game into varying levels of slow motion for less experienced players, and they can even manually configure the intelligence/skill of enemies and the amount of damage that enemies do. To balance this, the harder the player makes the game the more loot will drop from each kill.
Spaceship combat in space can also be rather one dimensional, so in NeonXSZ everything happens within internal environments. Having obstacles to navigate and use for cover makes for a much more visceral, dynamic and tense combat experience.
The game began life in Dec 2011. Initially it was a side project, but two weeks after beginning work on the game my business (a small seaside gift shop) was robbed two days before Christmas. Although the robbery forced the business to close, I used the event as my source of motivation. I became utterly determined to make NeonXSZ a success so I could look back on the robbery as a positive event. Without it, NeonXSZ would never have existed.
Shacknews: What made you decide to go the Steam Early Access route? How has it benefitted you, as a developer?
Paul F: After a year of development the game was added to Steam Greenlight. It was important to see if there was enough demand for the game. This was a great learning experience and provided vital exposure for the game. It also lead to the community joining the development process to help playtest the game from a very early stage. Once the game was stable, with plenty of content, it was released on Desura as part of their Alpha Funding Initiative. This brought some much needed revenue, additional exposure for the game, more players to help fine tune the gameplay, and vital experience in how the whole digital distribution system worked.
Choosing to move the game onto Steam Early Access was a natural progression of this open development process and the additional funding was very much needed. There was nearly a year between the Desura and Steam releases and development funds were running dry. There are only so many noodles one man can eat.
With a 95% average rating from the players on Desura, and 18 months of alpha testing under it's belt, I felt confident the game was ready for a wider audience. The first thirty or so hours of gameplay was polished, fine-tuned and balanced, and the game had proven stable across all three platforms: PC, Mac and Linux.
It's too early to predict exactly what benefits Early Access might bring. Sales are steady but still low. The game is struggling to be accepted by mainstream gaming sites and this lack of coverage is the game's biggest hurdle right now. However, having it available to players on Steam should help with word of mouth and accessibility if someone wants to give it a try.
Steam also offers easy to access discussion areas for the game and it's already starting to build an active community of players there which can only help to increase awareness for the game. The gameplay in NeonXSZ owes a great deal to community feedback and this can only increase now that it's available on Steam.
Shacknews: You talk about every object in the game having a unique AI. Can you describe the process of how you went about making this happen and how much more difficult it's made the game's development?
Paul F: Every enemy does, indeed, have unique AI. The gameplay in NeonXSZ is very much like a multiplayer game. Enemies have access to all the same equipment, ships, weapons and upgrades as the player, so in that sense they are just like the player. To create the AI I needed to recreate the same mental processes that real players go through while playing these types of games, and simulate things like their reaction times, overall hostility, overall awareness of what is happening, and then the more experience based statistics like their aiming skill, their ability to dodge and when to use the various weapons and gadgets they have equipped.
I've always been fascinated by how the human brain works and the possible methods for creating human-like artificial intelligence. This life long interest meant that working on game AI was rather trivial. From the very outset the AI was designed to be unique for each enemy. To better describe this we could take a simple statistic like hostility. At the lowest hostility level the AI might run if attacked. The next step up would have them fight back but try to escape at the first opportunity. Step up again and they will be more likely to attack any nearby threat. This process continues to the point that enemies with maximum hostility will be looking for enemy targets constantly, will immediately engage, try to close down the target, and even attempt to flank them while calling for assistance from other nearby friendly ships.
The enemy AI has similar tiered levels for everything. Things like reaction time, aiming, spatial awareness, missile hostility, tactics, tracking ability, and things like leadership qualities are all modeled by this simple tiered approach. At the start of the game the AI for each enemy is procedurally generated based on the level of the enemy and the AI skill level that the player set the game to. This can be controlled by a slider in the difficulty menu so rather than simply giving enemies more health and damage, at higher difficulties, the player can control how smart and skilled they are.
Shacknews: Can you describe some of the ship upgrades you can pick up and the different customization possibilities in the game?
Paul F: The game currently has more than 850 upgrades across three upgrade types.
Core upgrades are your main ship systems: Energy Storage, Energy Regeneration, Shield Power, Shield Regeneration, Engines, and Engine modifiers. These core upgrades both determine the overall effectiveness of your ship but also its Tech Level. Each upgrade you loot has a Tech Level, and the average Tech Level of your core upgrades determines your ships overall Tech Level. This, in turn, increases your ships damage output. There are no experience bars in NeonXSZ. Leveling up occurs by looting higher level equipment and installing that equipment into your own ships.
Next there are miscellaneous upgrades. Every ship has between four and eight miscellaneous upgrade slots where these upgrades can be installed. Think of this system a little like a skill bar. You have limited space to install these upgrades so the choices you make can dramatically alter the playstyle and effectiveness of your ship. They allow you to build anything from blisteringly fast fighters to heavy tank like destroyers. Alternatively you can make a glass cannon destroyer, or a heavily shielded light fighter. Miscellaneous upgrades range from simple things like increasing the output of your core systems to increasing missile storage space. They can increase the damage from various weapons, or improve your fire damage. They can increase your shields effectiveness against various elemental damage, or add extra abilities like converting incoming damage into energy for your ships systems.
The final upgrade type covers Gadgets. Gadgets give new abilities and they use the same upgrade slots as miscellaneous upgrades. For example, the GyroShield gadget creates a physics based shield that swings around your ship based on your movement direction. Another allows the player to release automated fighter drones. At the more exotic end is Barrier which allows the player to drop static impenetrable energy walls anywhere they want, or Blink which allows for short range teleportation during combat. Gadgets are designed to offer completely new playstyles and turn the gameplay on it's head. Combined with miscellaneous upgrades there are more options than any one player could ever properly experiment with and the plan is to add many more before final release.
Then there are 30+ different ships the player can loot and fly which each offer even more playstyles and upgrade options. There are super light fighters with single turrets, medium and heavy fighters, missile class ships, corvettes, frigates, through to heavy destroyer class ships with high shielding and quad turrets. Overclocking then allows individual upgrade slots to be boosted in power, and every upgrade has an energy requirement and mass which needs to be taken into consideration while designing your perfect ship.
In short, the game has 1,386,000,000,000,000,000,000+ different ship, weapon and upgrade combinations.
Shacknews: The game's Steam listing notes that it's 70% complete. What still needs to be implemented?
Paul F: During the game, players will continually find completely new upgrades types. For example at level 9 they may loot the Drone upgrade for the first time. As they progress through the game they will find more powerful Drone upgrades. All upgrades have multiple, more powerful, versions like this.
Currently the average player will continue to find completely new upgrades and weapons for the first thirty hours of play. After that point they will only find more powerful versions of existing upgrades. So the game is fully playable already but the plan is to continue to add more unique upgrade types to the later stages so that there is always something completely new to unlock just around every corner.
So the first thirty hours are essentially content complete with the final seventy hours being about seventy percent complete. Incidentally, new ship types already unlock for the entire duration of the game.
The game is also split up into seven huge space stations. Each one has multiple unique Challenge Arenas at it's core. Unlike the emergent procedurally generated nature of the gameplay in the open-world areas, Challenge Arenas are scripted events in unique environments. Maybe the player will be swamped with waves of enemies to defeat, or maybe the arena will morph into different shapes during combat. Completing Arenas is entirely optional but they offer a sense of progression from steadily increasing challenges for the player to test themselves against. The first thirty hours of play (or the first three space stations), already contain unique challenge Arenas. After that point, previous Challenge Arenas are re-used with higher level enemies. The plan is to continue adding more unique Challenge Arenas so that totally new ones unlock for the entire duration of the game.
Other than those two things, the game is already polished, balanced and feature complete. In essence, everything still to be added to the game could be considered as free DLC but it's all part of the original vision for the game and so will be free to anyone buying the game now.
Shacknews: Can you describe what it's like to take on such an ambitious project as a solo developer? What were the steps you took towards bringing the game to the current state that we're seeing today?
Paul F: The game didn't start out being so ambitious. It took a very fluid approach during design. It started out by nailing the basic ship to ship combat and AI. The basics for the loot and upgrade systems were also added during the early prototype stage. The rest of the game simply evolved over time based on whatever was predicted to offer the most gameplay compared to development time invested.
The design of the gameworld also evolved naturally. Initial designs were much more linear with predesigned static environments and manually placed enemies. It soon became clear that as a solo-developer there wasn't enough time to create all of this content while simultaneously creating a massive game world to explore. At that stage I was an avid Diablo 3 player and it occurred to me that I could steal Diablo's method of both procedurally generating the content, while also taking the player back through the same content multiple times with the same character. In the same way Diablo allows the player to replay the game with higher leveled enemies, I realized I could use a similar technique with NeonXSZ. This is how the original design for the world began to develop.
Later in development it became clear that this design wasn't enough to keep players sufficiently interested to play much beyond ten to twenty hours. Even with new upgrades, ships, and gadgets constantly unlocking it wasn't enough. Asking the player to return through the same ten hours of content only with higher leveled enemies was okay but the game needed more.
This lead on to the inclusion of the Challenge Arenas. Challenge Arenas were always a planned addition but they evolved to where each station acquired a unique selection of them. The player no longer needed to play through the same content multiple times. The Challenge Arenas became such a significant part of gameplay that it's now entirely possible to play through the entire game doing nothing but those Arenas. As mentioned previously, the player will currently not see the same Arena twice for the first thirty hours or so of play, and the intention is to add more arenas so that this is true for the entire duration of the game.
Shacknews: What are the benefits of being a solo developer versus working with a team?
Paul F: There are many. A unified vision for the game is probably most pertinent as far as the end user is concerned. Everything fits together because it comes from a single vision with a single focused goal in mind.
On the coding side, having one person understand how every single element of the game works makes life much easier. Less bugs appear initially, and tracking down and fixing them is so much easier when one person knows the entire codebase.
Solo-development is also much more time efficient. There are no discussions and meetings to be had. There's no need to try and work out how someone else's code works or to create design documents. All of that stuff is in one person's head. It also means that the game's design is not pulled in multiple disparate directions by different developers with different gameplay tastes.
Of course, it comes with many downsides too. Development takes much longer because code and art cannot be worked on simultaneously, and there's an endless stream of other jobs like marketing, website design, support and community management that all take away from development time.
Thankfully I've had fantastic support from the community to help bug test and playtest the game throughout it's lifespan. The game wouldn't be anything like as good as it is now without that support.
Shacknews: How has the Chatty community helped with the game's development?
Paul F: I'd been a Shacker since the very early days of Quake, while it was still ShugaShack, and it was the first place I thought of to get feedback on the game. Nobody had seen anything of the game until it was released onto Greenlight in Dec 2012, and I immediately came to the Shack to gauge interest and feedback on the early videos. As a community that was built around Quake, I couldn't think of a better place to get feedback on a game so heavily influenced by it. As soon as the game was ready for alpha testing I sent out invites to Shackers who had shown interest in the game in the Chatty. Soon the game had fifty alpha testers and I continued to gather feedback from the Chatty with every major new video for the game.
NeonXSZ struggled on Greenlight. In hindsight the game was released to Greenlight too early. Although the game was fully playable at that stage the graphics were horrible. The original plan was to avoid spending time on graphics until the gameplay was perfected. This meant that the large initial flood of traffic to Greenlight saw a very early version of the game that only 30% of viewers voted 'yes' for. The Chatty helped come to my rescue later when I posted a video of some new footage and one Shacker inspired all the others to 'Shackpile' my game on Greenlight and vote for it. On that day, the game got more 'yes' votes on Greenlight than it had in the previous two months combined.
The Chatty has also been a constant source of support and encouragement during development and I can't thank everyone enough for helping to make the game a reality.
Shacknews: When do you hope to bring NeonXSZ out of Early Access?
Paul F: It's expected to take a further six months to add the planned new Challenge Arenas and new upgrades. A further three months is then penciled in for final tuning, balancing, and any last minute features to improve the overall cohesion and accessibility of the game. It's likely some time will also need to be spent closer to release to work on Steamworks integration like achievements, statistics, and maybe leaderboards for certain in-game challenges. However, as previously stated, unless someone plays beyond the thirty hour mark, they will be unlikely to see much difference between the game in it's current form and how it will be upon final release. The first thirty hours are essentially already finished and personally I believe this is how Early Access should be done.
Those interested in checking out NeonXSZ can pick it up on Steam Early Access.