Ten Questions With… Mike Traficante (Schell Games)
The retro shooter, Enemy Mind, kept us hooked with its blend of old school action and innovative enemy controlling mechanics. We were fortunate enough to catch up with Mike Traficante from Schell Games in order to find out more about Enemy Mind and what inspired such a unique concept.
Can you give our readers a quick introduction of yourself and the studio?
I’m a Games Engineer at Schell Games and a lifelong player and lover of video games, especially old school arcade style games.
Schell Games is a fairly large game studio located in beautiful sunny Pittsburgh PA. Most of our work has been for clients such as Disney, Sea World, The Fred Rodgers Company, and Yale.
We specialize in transformational games, experiences that leave you changed, hopefully for the better, when you come away from them. We’ve done all sorts of things from video games for the web and mobile devices to interactive experiences for popular theme parks.
How did the idea for Enemy Mind come about?
Silly as it sounds, the core mechanic of consciousness jumping came straight out of a dream I had many years ago. The idea was that a person could travel great distances quickly by casting their mind into robots and controlling them. I’ve always been fascinated by the nature of self and how it relates to a physical form. I probably think about stuff like that more than is reasonable!
One of the awesome things we do at Schell Games is our “Jam Week,” a week-long internal game jam where we can basically work on anything we want. I’ve always been a fan of side scrolling shooters and decided to apply my crazy dream idea to that genre. I explained the idea to a folks around the studio and got a few people interested in the idea enough to spend a week working on it with me and made a prototype.
The prototype was surprisingly fun so we decided to make a full game out of it.
What are the games that influenced you and how?
I have lots of fond memories of sitting cross-legged on the floor playing Gradius on the NES for hours and hours. I could almost never make it past that first volcano sequence, but I just kept going back to it over and over again.
I owe my love of local co-op to Ikari Warriors and Contra and growing up with a brother. Watching is a poor substitute for playing, so we loved anything that would let us play at the same time and work together to beat the game. I knew from the very start that Enemy Mind would have to support multiple players.
Our art director was a big fan of Biohazard Battle and I think you can see its influence on some of the ship designs.
What features of Enemy Mind are you the most proud of?
I suppose the thing that I like the best is the core mechanic of jumping from ship to ship. It allowed us to try something new in the side-scroller genre and at the same time simplifying it. We found that we didn’t need power-ups or life and ammo pick-ups to make the game progress in a compelling way. Introducing new ships with new abilities takes care of all of that.
We were able to stay very true the rule: “if you can see it, you can be it”. You can jump into an asteroid if you want to. Pretty much everything on the play-field is controllable and it’s not always good to be certain things. Figuring out what things do, and when to use them is a lot of the fun.
Also, consciousness hopping is weird and we got to write a pretty far out story to go along with the whole thing, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.
What was the biggest challenge while creating Enemy Mind?
Without a doubt, the boss battles. We spent tons of time trying to come up with boss encounters that would be difficult and meaningful while not violating our “see it / be it” rule. Our bosses have lots of pieces or segments or are special attack formations.
We worked right down to the wire (actually a little past it) on them and eventually got them to where they needed to be. Some of them even got to be huge!
If you want to read more about the unique design challenge of Enemy Mind, you should check out Connor Fallon’s Gamasutra post on the subject.
What aspect of creating the game was the most fun?
We made a point of having the game in a playable state at all times so we got to play it and watch people play it a lot. It was great to have the constant feedback of all of our coworkers at Schell Games along the way. It’s also just very gratifying to see people enjoying something that you’ve made.
We got to show the game at PAX East and GDC, and it was really fun to see people’s reactions to it. I love it when people jump into an asteroid or a non-flying ground critter for the first time and it hits them… “I can be one of those!?” Yes, you can!
Enemy Mind is your first Steam release. How did you find the experience?
It’s just so awesome that Valve has provided a place for small and medium sized indie games to exist and have a chance at success. We got through greenlight fairly quickly and got the game out there as an early access title which allowed us to talk to our players and potential players before we even finish the game.
Setting up steam leaderboards was pretty easy and adds lots of replay value and fun to an arcade style game like ours, so that was great too. The only question remaining is how to really get noticed in the sea of good games on Steam. I’ll let you know if I figure that one out!
What are the future plans for Enemy Mind/Schell Games?
As far as Enemy Mind goes, we’d like to see the leaderboards fill up and see a little community form around it. We’ve set up a pretty complex scoring system and, from the look of things, people haven’t quite cracked it yet. (hint: accuracy matters)
We’ve got a list of achievements we’d like to roll out and we’d like to get Mac and Linux builds going, too. Time will tell.
As far as Schell Games goes, that has to remain a mystery. One thing I’ve learned in my time here is that it will be something you didn’t expect!
What is the most unusual thing on your desk right now?
Anything else you would like to add?
One thing… There are five unlockable extras in Enemy Mind that we haven’t publicized much and a couple of them are pretty meaty. You’ll have to play through the whole game to find out what they all are. Or you could try twisting my arm a little.
Thanks so much for this opportunity to talk about Enemy Mind and for the help getting the word out. Keep up the good work!
Thanks for the great answers Mike and keep following your dreams (literally!) Anyone that hasn’t grabbed the game yet can check out our review HERE and then visit the Steam store page to buy a copy. We are looking forward to seeing what other great ideas are born from the Schell Games Jam Weeks.