With boomer shooters enjoying a resurgence of popularity in recent years, it could be argued that one of the retro styled FPS games that people are most looking forward to next year is the follow-up “sequel” to Ion Fury. A game that got rave reviews upon its release, and which is often regarded as being part of the “Big 3” of boomer shooters (Ion Fury, Dusk, and Amid Evil).
Although Ion Fury was developed by Voidpoint, Phantom Fury is instead being developed by Slipgate Ironworks (of Bombshell and Ghostrunner fame). And whilst Ion Fury was developed on the Build engine, development of Phantom Fury is actually being done on the Unreal engine. I spoke to Jacob Ostergaard (Game Designer) and Dennis Griesheimer (3D Artist) about this change, and also got to speak to them about why boomer shooters are suddenly popular again. Enjoy!
How big was the development team for Ion Fury at its peak?
Jacob Ostergaard: Around 30 people.
That was for Ion Fury. What about for Phantom Fury?
Dennis Griesheimer: That has definitely doubled.
Around 60 people?
Jacob Ostergaard: Yeah.
So the original game was on the Build engine, but now you’ve gone for the Unreal engine, even though you’ve still decided to maintain the retro aesthetic of the PS1 era, as well as the old PC 486 games. What challenges did you have in going over from the Build to the Unreal engine? What difficulties did you encounter in the transition? What have been the pros and cons? But most importantly, why?
Jacob Ostergaard: So the reason “why” we wanted to do this was because when we originally did the prototype, it was just a subway. It was like an experiment where we wondered as to what it would look like if we had Shelly in a scenario almost like Max Payne. And we did that and it was just like, “we’ve got to make this a full thing”. Then we started brainstorming and prototyping more and more and gathering developers, and then it became this full project where we talked with the Ion Fury team if we could maybe make a thing where we had this project that was set further into the future, so it left room for more stories to be told in between. We didn’t just call it a sequel because that blocks off any potential Build games – if there are any more. But it also gives us more opportunity to make a whole new story where we don’t just continue something, and we make a whole new story with it. The actual technical difficulty when we started using Unreal Engine 4 was that we had to really limit all the default settings on the engine because it was too graphically advanced for what we wanted to do. So with textures, we’re making them extremely low res. A lot of them are hand-painted with all the level geometry. We’re building that with the Quake-level editor called TrenchBroom. We’re building all the modules there and then importing them into Unreal and then putting them together there. By doing that, we limit how advanced we can make stuff, and we also keep it true to that era.
Dennis Griesheimer: And there are more cons to this. Just the Build Engine, which is pretty old tech, it means that the knowledge in order to be able to work within the Build Engine has been kind of lost throughout the years. So the amount of people that could actually work on a project like that would be very minimal. That is also one of the reasons why we wanted to step away from the Build Engine and go for something that is more open for talent. That’s why we went for a logical progression, from Build Engine to something that would have been released later than the early 2000s. So that definitely helped us out, and just as Jacob has mentioned, the tools that we’re using to maintain that old-school look, that is just a great way of kicking us into shape and making sure that we don’t go too overboard. So as the trailers show, there’s a lot of stuff that is adhering to that pixelated feel that it has. And the only thing that we try to add on top of that is just way better lighting. There’s more emphasis on animation than what would have been possible in 2001, but hopefully we’ll find a very good balance between the two and not go too overboard.
Jacob Ostergaard: To touch on the pros and cons that you asked about, the main cons are that we can’t produce assets as fast as if they were just flat pixel art. But the pros are that we can make something that feels more like you’re in the world. We can go a bit grander in scale as well because we don’t have to stick to only 2D assets.
I saw a flying helicopter in the game and thought, “that looks nice”…
Dennis Griesheimer: There’s way more of that coming. We’ve got more vehicles that the player can get into and just change the pace of the game. There’s of course more scenery to go through, when we’re following Shelly throughout her adventure through America.
Ion Fury was one of the first bigger games that’s sort of spearheaded this Boomer Shooter revival in recent years. Why do you think that is?
Dennis Griesheimer: Oooh, that is a good question. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that people really love to go back to their childhoods and relive the feeling that they had when video games were way more simple in that regard. There’s no hidden mechanics or automatic regeneration and just go for fun, while also looking at the later generation of people that are looking back into the past and thinking hey, “this is actually pretty cool, we’re into this”. So maybe that in regards to whatever influencers are doing, YouTube and the Internet in general, just reaches a whole lot of people that are potentially into this genre.
Jacob Ostergaard: I think it’s also due to the developers making those games. That’s the kind of games they grew up with. And they probably also always wanted to make those kinds of games. Now they have the option. That again ties into why we make these types of games, which is that we only make games that we really want to play ourselves.
This kind of goes back to the Build / Unreal question, as well as staffing question which I previously asked about. Your staff went from 30 to 60… Having spoken to a few other developers, they’ve said that one of the problems about the industry going from the ‘90s “boomer period” to where it’s now, is that you’ve got a lot of people who just develop games because to them it’s just a job. They don’t do it because they’re passionate about it. I know that the reason as to why you’ve gone for Unreal is because you wanted to make sure that you had the necessary skillset, where people are well-versed in the tech. But at the same time, when you start increasing the headcount of people working on a project, there will eventually be people that aren’t that passionate about the old boomer shooter genre, who also don’t “get it”, if that makes sense…
Dennis Griesheimer: Yeah.
When it comes to staffing and finding the right people, especially when you bear in mind that there’s a reason as to why Call of Duty IS Call of Duty, in that it’s popular for a very specific reason, and why once-popular boomer shooters like the old Doom game eventually faded away in popularity. When you consider the old school boomer shooter mentality, and you try to pitch that old school boomer shooter mentality to the new crop of developers who don’t remember the old Doom games, how hard is it for you to be able to find people who have the Unreal Engine skill, and who also understand the old school boomer shooter mentality, without necessarily attempting to throw in their own idea of what a shooter would be – which is essentially Call of Duty?
Jacob Ostergaard: It is hard. But I feel like we’ve been blessed with it, because we haven’t really had any people on the team who didn’t, as you say, “get it”. And in the cases where we feel like they’re not quite in the flow of what we’re trying to do, we have so many other projects that we can relocate them on. What we have been really privileged with is that we’ve even had some of the old guys from the old Valve team that did Half-Life 1 come and work for us. For instance, Dick Jones, who did characters for Half-Life 1, we have him on the team. He made Shelly. This just inspires people, and it also almost forces them to “get it”. Because when they show how they make stuff and also the passion that goes into it, that really inspires all the other people on the team to just get into that same flow of creating a really good game.
Dennis Griesheimer: And, of course, there will always be some areas within game development where someone’s involvement is not quite as high-level as the rest. Artists for example, it’s easier for them to get into the flow than it is for game designers, that’s actually a very hard point to get. But there’s always different levels of types of people that we need for these projects. And like Jacob mentioned, there’s always another project that we can use the people on, so there’s always a home for someone.
Jacob Ostergaard: But in terms of all the lead positions on the team, it’s highly critical for us that all the people in lead positions understand this type of thing. And probably also even work on mods or levels in their spare time, like in the community. A lot of the level designers on this game came from modding communities, so they have a really intense passion for this type of thing.
One of the big criticisms for Ion Fury was that a lot of people thought that the enemies were pretty samey. What would you argue were the big criticisms of Ion Fury and what steps have you taken to fix these criticisms for the sequel?
Jacob Ostergaard: At least for Phantom Fury, we’re adding in a ton of really experimental enemies where there’s really sinister experiments done on creatures and humans alike that have completely morphed their anatomy, which drastically changes how they work. We try to keep it fresh, like in the trailer, you see an enemy that can run up to a larger enemy and then actually latch onto that enemy, and then it transforms into a new enemy.
Dennis Griesheimer: Something that’s also challenging is that we’re also trying to exaggerate things in terms of silhouettes, so that when multiple enemies stand next to each other, you’re capable of making sure that, “okay, this enemy is a smaller one, this one is a bigger one”. So we definitely try to keep that in mind to differentiate between the enemies. But we’ll also try to incorporate different move sets per enemy to differentiate between the lower or higher-tier enemies.
You’ve obviously had experience in boomer shooters, and you’re a big fan of them. But at the same time, and from a grassroots level, boomer shooters are getting interest from people that are modders and solo developers. For people out there who want to create their own first-person shooter, using an engine like Unity etc, what tips would you give?
Jacob Ostergaard: I would keep it small at first. Try to design one level, maybe just one area of that level, and then start out with just trying to design it with one enemy. And then really refine that until you’ve got something that has a really, really good flow. Then you can start expanding on it. Then you can start expanding on a level, maybe you feel like, “ah, now I have this amazing enemy, I might want something to complement it”, so you start designing additional enemies. Don’t start out by taking a bite you can’t chew.
Dennis Griesheimer: Yeah, like go off into the void and just create an overarching story for whatever you’re trying to convey. Because then you’ll definitely lose track of things and lose sight of what you’re trying to do. But yeah, definitely make something that you would love to do, something that you would find fun. And just like Jacob said, just refine it and test it out and then see where you can go from there.
Jacob Ostergaard: But specifically for boomer shooters, really try to find the essence of why you like it, and then try to build on that. So for instance, if you find a mechanic in a ‘90s shooter that you really like, don’t just copy it, try to analyse why it is good, and then make something unique from that.
What would you argue is your favourite Boomer Shooter?
Jacob Ostergaard: That’s a tough one. There’s actually quite a few. I really do like Ion Fury. I wasn’t myself on the development team. I really like it.
What about new-style shooters?
Jacob Ostergaard: I know it’s a VR game, but Half-Life: Alyx really got me. That was amazing. Other than that.. it’s been a while since I had a really good one.
Dennis Griesheimer: I’m going to say S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
Jacob Ostergaard: Yes.
Dennis Griesheimer: The atmosphere in it, the mechanics behind it, the fact that you could actually use factions to fight each other… That was just great for me. As long as the shooter has a good atmosphere to it, the story is not always as important, but it would definitely help. So that would get my vote.
Last question… One of the main characters for 3D Realms, as far as boomer shooters are concerned, is Duke Nukem. Do you think 3D Realms / Slipgate, based on your development pedigree, would ever consider making another Duke Nukem game?
Jacob Ostergaard: It’s a potential.
Have you pitched it to 3D Realms? Because that might work…
Jacob Ostergaard: [Laughs] There have been talks, back and forth, but it’s not really something that I can delve into. There’s no plans for anything. It is something we would love to do at some point.
Dennis Griesheimer: There’s so many elements going on in that regard, for me personally. I am okay with leaving Duke within the Build Engine era, and I would argue that we’ve found someone to replace him with – in Shelly. Also, times are changing, and the type of humour that was really working back then might not work as well right now, which is detrimental to the character itself. So personally, I do not feel like we really need a new Duke, but again, all cards on the table, it could happen, we just don’t know.
Thank you so much.