We've just seen the release of Serious Sam Double D XXL, a game we recommended for its classic shooting action rebuilt into two dimensions. Behind all its artistic style, crazy weapons and even more crazy enemies is one man: Nathan Fouts, owner of indie development studio Mommy's Best Games. We caught up with him to ask about how he put together Serious Sam Double D XXL, starting from its inception on PC to its massive expansion on Xbox Live Arcade. When we asked how it feels to have the game out and finished, he joked, "I think I'm still ready to go back to sleep!"
Serious Sam's jump to 2D
Serious Sam is a beloved franchise known for its old-school Doom-esque shooting that relies heavily on strafing and jumping while making players fight off swarms of aliens, monsters and headless kamikaze bombers. Leveraging his PC popularity, Serious Sam has gone on to make numerous cameos on Xbox Live Arcade in both new and classic games. However, they have all been 3-dimensional first-person shooters. How did Fouts score a gig that involved smashing it into two dimensions? As it turns out, "Devolver came to us and said that they were interested in this prospect and that it involved Croteam [the creators] and the Serious Sam franchise," he explained. "I just about flipped my lid. I couldn't believe it. [They told me] they liked our stuff and they’d like us to do this indie version."
Where some games struggled (and in some cases still struggle) to make the transition from 2D to 3D, Fouts had the opposite challenge. "I was most concerned with A) making sure it was worth playing and wasn't just a total conversion, like Serious Sam: The First Encounter squished into 2D, and B) if we do this as Serious Sam in 2D, how do we make sure it feels like Serious Sam without losing that kind of essence. So we spec’d out all the different aspects that make up what we thought were the core qualities of a Serious Sam game regardless of perspective. And, they’re kind of elusive. A lot of them actually do have to play into the first-person perspective. So like being able to circle-strafe constantly, hordes of enemies on the planes in the distance, walking backwards…that was tricky to pull into 2D."
Eventually, the game did capture this essence by bombarding Sam with enemies from all sides, forcing the player to jump constantly to dodge incoming fire. However, the main show of Serious Sam Double D was not an homage to previous Sam games, but Fouts' own creation: the Gunstacker. Surprisingly, this core mechanic was not part of the game until some lucky brainstorming brought it to them. "I was kinda riffing on the core aspects of Serious Sam," Fouts recalled. "All this machismo, adrenaline, and manliness of him [Sam], and I just thought, 'What if he was so strong he could carry all his guns simultaneously?'" This backhanded thought cued a snowball effect that would become the core of the game.
"The original iteration [of the gunstacker] was you cycled through your weapons," explained Fouts. "I’ve got a shotgun, a tommy gun, and a rocket launcher, and I just cycle through them, and then, when I get to the fourth option, it goes bling! Gunstacker. And originally that was it! That’s all there was! If you wanted, you could waste all your ammo at once in the gunstacker!" This iteration was how the game debuted at PAX in 2010, a year before its release on PC. Fouts had no clue how far this idea would go. "It was a light bulb moment where we thought…'Uh-oh. Holy crap. What if we could modify our gunstacks?' And then once it got to that point, we said, what if every single weapon slot IS a gunstack? Once we got to that point, it exploded. We were like, 'Holy crap!' And it took a lot of work obviously, it’s one of the core elements of the game."
As a result, Serious Sam Double D released on Steam in August 2011 with the ability to mix and match shotguns, rockets, lasers, etc., all shooting on top of each other simultaneously. However, there was still more to come for the gunstacker. Fouts was offered the prospect of releasing the game on Xbox Live Arcade, and he had new ideas to help make it happen.
"The main issue was, 'Hey, let’s not just port this in like three months. Let’s take a real stab at improving this, like what other kind of stuff would you like to throw into it?'" recalled Fouts. "Co-op was the first one." This was a given, as fans immediately clamored for this feature soon after its release. But the Mommy's Best Games head honcho didn't stop there.
"Some of the people would say, 'I hate the music,' or 'I hate the art style,' but that’s not gonna change. I freakin’ love the rock ‘n’ roll, my silly art style — I didn’t do the music but I love that kind of style of music," he told XBLAFans. "That’s not gonna change. But then they say, oh, there’s not enough variety, it’s too repetitive with the guns. So that was when it was like, 'Well…this would be a lot of work, but I want to make a mark on design and say let’s try to push the gunstacker into design history as something really interesting.' That was when the idea of adding 32 new styles of guns that give you some honest strategy in it. Between that and the co-op, those were the two main focuses on XBLA."
Fouts originally wanted to put some unique weapons into the original Serious Sam Double D, but he worried, "If I walk in there and give him like chainsaw launchers and flamethrowing dragons, and just wacky, wacky stuff, the fans are not gonna go for it. It’s just gonna be too weird, too confusing, even for Serious Sam. Let’s just keep with guns." But after seeing the reviewers' feedback, the developer embraced his wild side. "I personally love crazy-ass guns. That’s like my favorite thing. I love coming up with the guns, I like making them…in video games," he clarified and punctuated with a laugh.
This is where his history comes into play. Fouts started in the games industry in 1998 working on the Postal games and expansions at a studio called Running With Scissors. While recalling Postal 2, he explained, "It was one of the first and few games where you can decide to not kill people. Even though it’s ultra violent…we enjoyed just giving the player the option, how crazy do you get, or how good do you get, what do you do? There’s a lot of nonviolent weapons in that game."
The Postal veteran continued his career at developer N-Space and then moved on to Insomniac Games to work on Resistance: Fall of Man, a flagship launch title for the PlayStation 3. Here, his passion for "crazy-ass guns" was reignited. "I got there and tried to show off!" he exclaimed. "I did a bunch of programming on my own to say, 'Hey! I really want to do the weapons on Resistance!' And they let me do it, so that was a thrill. Pretty much all the guns are my design. We were under enormous pressure at the time to show off the PlayStation 3, all they wanted was graphics. I think it turned out okay."
Then Nathan moved into the independent games scene, starting Mommy's Best Games with his wife, Amy. "She handles the business, I handle the game development, and we founded in 2007. We wanted to take a game to XBLA, but Microsoft wanted us to make our first game for Xbox Live Indie Games because they said, 'We want a launch title that's going to stand out.'" Nathan's answer was Weapon of Choice (pictured above), which kicked off what was then called Xbox Community Games with a bang. "[Microsoft] made it one of the premiere ones, they gave us lots of dashboard advertisement space, everything like that, and Weapon of Choice did well, a lot of people liked it."
What? The Gunstacker is evolving!
With the public's approval to manufacture digital weapons of mass carnage and/or hilarity, Fouts revisited Serious Sam Double D and started cranking out new upgrades to every gun, drastically change their functions. He even drew from his experience in Postal 2 by crafting guns that were nonviolent, such as the Butter Gun, which makes enemies slip. He challenged himself, "What can you do in your games that, or your violent games even, to change things up and just give the player some different expression? Different ways to look at things, different ways to interact with the world." This is where the Gunstacker shined. Serious Sam Double D XXL allowed a level of offensive customization that had not been done before. It became Fouts' pride and joy.
True to the Same franchise, he also implemented cooperative play. "If you know about Serious Sam, there’s a bunch of multiplayer characters. There’s this Delirious Dan, it’s this black guy, and at the time, we thought, 'Oh, let’s go with him.' We were going to give him like a bald guy, tougher guy kind of look. He’ll be the co-op guy. And we liked that, we were gonna make him crazy and funny. And then…he was leaning towards this in the dialogue anyway, as it was getting written, fleshing him out and giving him something funny to say. He wasn't a redneck yet, he was crazy. Somehow, I don’t know, I was watching the gun trailer video again, and I called my friend that does the story and said, 'I can’t believe it, why don’t we make it Huff?' He couldn't wait to start writing lines for him. I checked with Devolver, we got a hold of Michael Dalmon, got his approval to have his likeness in the game, I freakin’ love it. He’s my favorite guy in there, he’s so funny."
While he was at it, Fouts took time to polish the flow and pacing to give it a dense, cohesive feel of adventure. "Just about every single level will have a new segment in the middle, like two or three, that will break up the action in a new way," he explained. "That gives players something different to do while they’re shooting. So they’re shooting, and then they get to a platforming segment. They’re shooting, and then they need to jump across this weird section. They’re shooting, and then they have to figure out a real light puzzle. That stuff wasn't in the Steam version. The Serious Sam franchise doesn't have a colossal audience, but there’s a lot of fans and I was really careful trying to make sure we got that right. I didn't want to put in stuff that bogged you down to the point that you didn't feel you weren't free-wheeling crazy enough. The pickup stuff is pretty light.
"What I liked about it was that it was a game with like the arcade style shooting, but it had that bulk to it that you can’t get it and beat it in 15 minutes. If you look at an old like Contra-style arcade game, even if you look at Hardcore Uprising, I really like that game, but this one gives just a bit more flavor of adventure. There’s a lot more exploring to do. I like being in those worlds. I love fluffing around, searching around, and enjoying shooting some things, and you get into some big fights along the way, but it’s kinda fun to just fart around in the side-scrolling world like that, and just have a lot of fun especially in something you’re not gonna see in the Call of Duties or the Halos. I like that difference. I love playing those too, Black Ops and stuff, I like playing those but this just feels different. I think average playtimes are like six hours or more, so they get a lot out of it. That feels pretty good. It’s not an hour, two-hour game."
One uncommon feature implemented into SS:DDXXL is the ability to manipulate the game's speed to play slower or faster. We thought it may have just been for fun, but it turns out that it was added to increase accessibility as well as challenge. In 2009, the Able Gamers Foundation and other organizations approached Fouts to explain this feature. "Once I started finding out about it," he said, "it’s embarrassing, it was just never even on my mind. They said, 'Just see what you think.' And it’s not that difficult. You can give gamers speed controls, and what that does is it just opens up so much more to gamers that have trouble processing information as fast as a lot of other people do, and they can still enjoy it."
This extended to also allowing re-mappable buttons to accommodate physical impairments as well. "I know that some disabled gamers have these custom controllers," said Fouts. "They’ll blow your mind when you see them, I saw them before at different conventions. That sucks to have been in that situation and then not have access to all these cool games." To him, this is a service he happily implements. "It’s not that much extra development time…They’re disabled, and they want entertainment, a lot of them are sitting in a wheelchair. You’d want to play video games to escape just to feel better."
Then, after having the speed modifier working, Fouts used it to enrich the game. "It was an obvious extension to say, 'Okay, we can allow it for disabled gamers, what if we let hardcore gamers crank it up, past one hundred percent?' And once we did that for most of our games from now on, Explosionade, Shoot1up, Serious Sam: Double D XXL, we try to provide it in all of our games so there’s always that option." Doing this adds another layer of frantic pacing and challenge to the game.
The Next Generation
We are now on the cusp of transition, and we expect Microsoft will soon pull the curtain on whatever it is their next console will be. Nathan Fouts, like other developers, is most concerned about one thing. "I would love the best imaginary digital store we can provide. I’m frustrated by a lot of digital stores, even just as a consumer. I’m hoping in the next couple years, companies can nail that down and just make it excellent, because I feel like it’s lacking."
Still, Fouts is also optimistic of the next technological advances that will come, because they'll also advance gaming. "I like technology because it pushes in new directions and gives you this inspiration." he said. "But, if you think about movies, there’s no technology there. There’s a TV, and there’s no intermediate technology that changes. You can do things like slice up how the show comes out, episodes, you know, that kind of thing, but that’s it! It’s just a commodity at that point and everybody gets to just grind away at making these interesting shows. Games are unusual because we got this interface that we have to deal with."
Regardless of the generation, one thing is certain: you can never have too many crazy-ass guns.