It’s a deliberate subversion of the current state of major titles, an antidote to the glut of living games like “The Division 2,” “Fortnite,” and “Anthem” designed to completely fill up all of a player’s free time with a seemingly endless stream of content.
“Ultrabugs,” which developer Rami Ismail refers to as a sort of inverse “Space Invaders,” is also the byproduct of a studio that realized it was moving in the wrong direction, accidentally merging with the jetstream of successful game development that turns indies focused on small games, into major development studios creating massive titles.
“We haven’t been working on it full-time,” Ismail said. “It’s been an on and off project.”
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That’s much like the studio’s early games.
“At Vlambeer we started by making small games,” Ismail said. “We did ‘Super Crate Box,’ we did ‘Luftrausers,’ we did ‘Radical Fishing’ and as time went on we made bigger and bigger games.
“It was sort of the natural direction of things. We had money so we would invest it in making better games, bigger games, prettier games. At some point, we did ‘Nuclear Throne’ and we worked on it for three to five years.”
Sometime in the process of making “Nuclear Throne” the team started to realize that they were becoming a sort of studio they didn’t want to be.
“It started out as such a simple idea,” he said. “We made it a very simple game that was very content heavy. So making the game was easy and then making content, we could just keep doing it as long as we wanted.”
The problem was that it took them too long to realize that the game had enough worlds, enough bosses, enough weapons. The company had somehow refocused from being an indie studio that created odd little games that explored interesting game mechanics, to a studio making a big game.
“I realized that we’ve seen this before,” Ismail said. “You make a game. If it’s a hit you spend all that money making your next game to compete in the fidelity race with better graphics, better audio, bigger teams. Now you look around the indie space and you’re seeing the same thing. It’s just that race again. I’ve seen that race and it’s not interesting to me.”
Ismail is quick to note that he isn’t against the idea of indie studios growing and making bigger titles.
“I’m not saying it’s bad, because shit, indie games are beautiful right now,” he said. “Watching all of the crowds make beautiful games is awesome. It’s just not what I want to do. And I’m a little worried that there seems to be less and less space for smaller games. It’s more of an experimental space. It’s not a consumer space. It’s not where people buy games. You don’t buy small games.”
But Vlambeer wants to push on that notion. To see if maybe there is a place for smaller games in a world of ever increasing larger ones.
“If you look at how people play games, they’re playing bigger and bigger games,” he said. “]They’re buying fewer games. They want to play ‘Fortnite.’ They want to play ‘League of Legends.’ They want to play games like that. And a lot of those games have cues, have waiting and people play small games in that period of time.
“They play small, weird experimental stuff, which is awesome. We’re wondering if there’s just also a market for smaller stuff.”
“Think of it as inverse ‘Space Invaders’ in a way,” Ismail said.
One of the cool design elements of “Space Invaders” was that the game became more difficult as you killed off the creeping enemies. Each time a player zapped a bug, the remaining group sped up their march down the screen, until players were left with a single space invader zipping toward them in a death dive.
In “Ultrabugs,” which is coming to Windows, Linux, Mac, and Nintendo Switch later this year, instead of opening with a screen full of space invaders, there’s just one. When you kill that bug, two replace it, and so on until there’s too much to handle and the player dies.
“You start with one enemy and as you add more enemies to the screen things get busier and fuller, the game gets more intense,” Ismail said. “The idea is that it’s a two-minute game in which every enemy you kill splits into multiple enemies. So the better you are, the more enemies there will be on the screen.”
The result is a game that has a sort of self-balancing difficulty and time limit.
“If you’re really good by the end of the game, the screen is entirely full of enemies all shooting the most bizarre patterns of bullets at you,” Ismail said.
Importantly, the game is designed to specifically not get people to play it hours at a time. Vlambeer really doesn’t want that sort of investment of time in single play sessions.
That sort of flies in the face of the design of many contemporary games, which Ismail said are created to push players to the point of frustration, but not so frustrating as to get a player to quit.
“For this game, we’re trying to build a game that people will play for a little bit and then just stop and go play something else and then come back later,” he said. “This is an intense game. It’s hard. It’s challenging. It gets you to the edge of your ability really fast and then tried to keep you there as long as you can go. We don’t need you to keep playing that. We don’t need you to keep proving that. We just want you to have fun for a minute.
The idea to return to the studio’s roots really came into focus when Vlambeer decided to take two years off. In that time, Vlambeer’s other developer, Jan Willem “JW” Nijman, created a little game called “Minit” with Kitty Calis, Jukio Kallio, and Dominik Johann.
In “Minit,” players control a character in a black and white world who, no matter what you do, only has sixty seconds to live. The exploratory adventure game is a masterpiece of level design and game mechanics.
Ismail calls the game a small, interesting subversion.
“That’s where both me and JW shine most,” he said. “We make subversions. We make little interesting games. With ‘Ultrabugs’ we’re also experimenting with the business model of ‘Can we make a small game in which everybody that works on it is low risk. They’re not crunching, not spending a lot of time, they spend x amount of hours on the project and no more. Can we make a quality game like that?
Based on the reaction, based on the response. Yeah, you can.”