I recently got the chance to speak with the founder and director of Squarhead Studios; Rhys Lewis. Squarehead is a small games studio based in Wales, UK who have just released their first game on the Nintendo Wii U eShop. We talk about Rhys’ influences and history, challenges and advantages of developing for Nintendo and much more in a very interesting interview.
Hello and thank you for taking out the time to talk to us today. Could you introduce yourself and tell everyone a little bit about Squarehead Studios?
Hi, thank you for having me. My name is Rhys Lewis. I’m the founder of Squarehead Studios, a tiny little indie game company, based in South Wales. I’ve just released Star Ghost on the eShop for Wii U, which was developed by myself with major contributions from David Wise (music) and Michelle Sundholm (voice over).
Prior to founding Squarehead, I worked most notably at Rare and Retro Studios.
What games would you say have inspired your work had some kind of impact on your life?
The most intense period of game-playing for me was probably growing up as a teenager in the eighties. I take a lot from the early days of the arcades and the 8-bit and 16-bit home computer scene.
After that, the next most impactful phase was probably the introduction of the N64. Games such as Wave Race, Turok, Pilot Wings and Mario Kart 64 are forever etched into my memory. I also have a soft spot for flight simulators and the PC classics such as X-COM, Civilisation, Doom / Doom 2 and Half Life.
What games have you been enjoying recently?
I’ve been spending most of my leisure time eating blue shells in Mario Kart 8.
Although being a new studio you have worked on some very popular Nintendo titles in the past. What was it that made you want to strike out as an independent developer rather than work as part of a bigger team?
I was very happy working at Retro and would have enjoyed working there for the remainder of my career, if it weren’t for the fact that it required living abroad, away from my roots here in Wales.
I think it’s quite natural in a creative industry to want to define your own work. Earlier in my career that was a big goal of mine but as I grew more experienced, I came to appreciate how lucky I was to be able to play a small part in games that made a lot of people happy.
Hopefully, Squarehead Studios can eventually reach the same kind of audience as the titles that I’ve worked on in the past.
What is it like developing for Nintendo?
Developing for Nintendo is both challenging and rewarding. The challenge is to meet their high standards. You have to get used to the idea that you might have to redo a certain piece of work ‘n’ times before it’s accepted. The reward is that you are likely to end up with a product that you are extremely proud of. Nintendo above all others focus on quality. As a developer it’s really encouraging to know that the game isn’t going to ship to make a financially driven deadline but will be held back until it’s ready.
Are there any roadblocks or challenges involved in getting onto the platform?
I think Nintendo have been opening up more and more to indie developers of late.
That said, console platforms in general remain more of an investment than mobile or perhaps PC development.
Do Nintendo have any “rules” when you develop software for them? Any dos and don’ts or things that have to be included etc.
As far as I know, Nintendo don’t place any creative restrictions on content (within reason).
On the technical side, there is a very rigorous “lot-check” process, where Nintendo check for compliance with their guidelines in order to ensure an awesome customer experience.
Lot-check can be quite daunting, but it’s also one of the reasons why the quality of software remains so high. To be clear, it’s not meant to take the place of the developers own Q.A. efforts, but it’s still very reassuring to have such an intense level of scrutiny before you release.
Do you plan to release your products on any other platforms in the future or what other platforms would you like to develop for?
Star Ghost is a Wii U exclusive. I love being a part of the Nintendo community and I’m excited to discover where Nintendo are going to go with the NX.
As a labour of love, I think it might be great fun to make an arcade machine one day. I’d be interested to take something pared-back and abstract and try to make a very visceral, high—octane, experience.
I’d also love to see some of what could be done in the arcade environment with a huge budget and bleeding edge technology. Sadly, somewhere along the line we stopped reaching for the stars it seems to me. I’d love to see a return to the same kind of wide-eyed optimism that brought us articulated cabinets like the G-Loc R360 for example. There really was an incredible aura of excitement around the physicality of those machines.
You’re first game Star Ghost was recently released on the Nintendo Wii U eShop. Can you tell us a little bit about the game?
Star Ghost is a procedurally generated, side-scrolling shoot-em-up with a unique control scheme and an awesome soundtrack by the legendary David Wise.
The general concept behind it is to blend contemporary presentation with the kind of intense game-play made popular by the arcade classics.
Are there any games that directly influenced you whilst making this or are there any games you specifically played to help guide the process?
Generally speaking, I try to avoid looking at other titles in detail for fear of drowning out my own thoughts. With that said, Star Ghost draws a lot of inspiration from the early arcade machines like Scramble, Asteroids and Defender. It’s a deliberate attempt to capture the feeling of being sucked into an abstract world and engaged with deceptively simple gameplay mechanics.
The control scheme was heavily informed by the work I’d done on the rocket barrel in Donkey Kong Country Returns.
Star Ghost is a really pretty and striking game to look at. Can you talk about how you arrived at the visual style that is in the finished product?
I knew that I wanted a clean, dynamic look to the game, loosely based on the neon art style of the movie, Tron. My background is mostly in gameplay and AI programming and so accomplishing this turned out to be an enormous challenge. It required a lot of iteration and some generous help from artist friends.
I think it’s safe to describe Star Ghost as a SHMUPS; A great and storied genre of gaming. What separates Star Ghost from other games like this on the eShop?
I’ve tried to base the concept around the principles of subtractive and orthogonal design. This basically means trying to get a lot of depth from a small set of components.
Rather than use conventional SHMUP mechanics, you fly the Star Ghost via a single thrust button. Hold to go up, release to drop down. This gives a unique feel and adds an extra dimension to the challenge.
The left control stick also comes into play. Push it up / down to aim, or left to engage the traction field. When the traction field is active, the weapons are suspended and so you have to carefully balance when to go after the much needed pickups and when to attack the on-rushing aliens.
Ship upgrades are temporary and so collecting pickups plays a significant role in any successful run.
The game also differentiates itself in the use of procedurally generated stages. This was originally implemented as a means to speed up production but turned out to be a really great feature and so I went all-in on it. You can’t rely on memorising patterns to get through the game, forcing a high level of engagement. It also adds a lot to the replay-ability.
What would your elevator pitch for Star Ghost be for someone who doesn’t generally play games?
I’m not really a fan of elevator pitches. I understand why they are important but I feel they can be a bit too reductionist.
Star Ghost is a simple game on the surface that can be surprisingly deep. It is more than the sum of its parts.
What’s next for Squarehead Studios? Any projects you can tell us about?
I’m currently working on an update for Star Ghost and then it will be time to begin the process of discovering the next title. I like to work by experimenting with gameplay ideas until I find something with the x-factor.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about or promote?
Thanks very much for taking an interest. Keep an eye out for updates and for all the Dave Wise fans out there, I’m hoping to have news on the OST release in the coming weeks.
Squarehead Studios first game; Star Ghost is out now on the Nintendo Wii U eShop for €8.99/£7.99 and we’ll have a review up on Nintendo-Okie.com very soon.