Zapling Bygone dev Stevis Andrea Talks About Movement, Monsters, and Making a Good Map
Horror and metroidvanias go hand in hand like Texas and Chainsaw Massacres, I mean, half of the name of the genre comes from seminal horror series Castlevania, so there is no shortage of classically horrific games that have you playing as a heroic monster-fighter, braving the depths of some vile village or macabre mansion to ultimately rid the world of some unjust villain. But that is not the appeal of Zapling Bygone, a recently released reverse horror metroidvania from one-man studio 9FingerGames.
In Zapling Bygone, the player is tasked to play as the Zapling, one part of a hive-mind alien race known as Zap, that, despite being a consuming alien parasite, has some pretty cool views as far as not killing anything and only taking over dead bodies. Alas, it seems as though the peace was not meant to last as a parasite within the parasite aims to infect all life in the galaxy. In a race against the growth, the Zapling has been sent out to try to find a cure for the ailing alien hive. And they will do it by donning the skulls of the dead to learn their ways.
Zapling Bygone is a game that looks great in motion, and when I first saw the many-legged green menace running around, I knew I had to learn more about it. I reached out to Stevis Andrea, known as Stevie, the main brain behind the game, and asked if he would be interested in making time to talk about his title, the development, and the challenges that come with making a metroidvania title. Thankfully he accepted my request and was able to separate a small part of himself from the hive-mind of 9FingerGames to sit down, and through the magic of the world-wide-web have a conversation about his work as a game dev.
When we had first scheduled this interview, we had to set it quite a ways out, as he was about to release the title, and was going to be headed to Gamescom as well. Being able to go to an event like Gamescom is a huge deal for a one-man studio that isn’t working with any publishers, so I was curious not only as to how that came about, but how the experience was. So I started the interview by asking Stevie how was the trip to Gamescom, and how did you end up presenting there?
Stevis Andrea: It was good, it was really, really fun. So the way it works was the folks over at GameMaker, the engine I used to make the game; They basically paid for accommodation and flights for a bunch of developers that wanted to exhibit their games within the GameMaker booth at Gamescom. I got to meet a bunch of other developers that I have, like, already followed online for a while. And obviously meeting the GameMaker people, and obviously setting up Zapling Bygone in a tiny little booth inside the GameMaker booth was fun. Like, having people play it, because you know, you don’t really get to see people play it in person very often when you sell games online. So yeah, it was great, it was fun… It wouldn’t have been affordable, I wouldn’t even consider trying to do it as a solo dev if it wasn’t handled by the GameMaker people. So yeah, I appreciate those guys a lot. They’re very helpful.
I followed up by asking if he had a fun time meeting up with the people he had gotten to know over the internet?
SA: Um, well, I kind of follow them on Twitter. Like, there might have been a few tweets back and forth, but I hadn’t met them properly, online even. It was more like “I know your game, I’ve seen you around on Twitter.” But there was no one there that I had, like, reached out to on a personal level. But it was games I had known and games I’d heard of. So yeah, it wasn’t awkward or anything like that. It’s just meeting someone new and also knowing the game they’ve made so I’m like, trying to hide the fact that I’m a bit of a fanboy for some of them.
Moving on to talk about the game, I wanted to get one thing out of the way, because I had been wondering how exactly this idea had come up, and frankly the title was part of what drew me in. I asked Stevie how the game had come to fruition, and how and why he came to name the game Zapling Bygone?
SA: So the way I make games is I make quick things and then they evolve over time. And the name is a good kind of representation of that because it was originally called Sapling Bygone, and you were meant to be a sapling of a tree from like, a mother tree and like, you spawn, it’s a seed and you’d discover the world as a plant. And then at some point, I wanted to add tentacles, and I was like “You know what else has tentacles? Aliens.” So just switch the S to a Zed and call it Zapling. It sounds way more alien, and the bygone part is just kind of like showing a bygone era like something that’s lost or something that’s like, unknown. Bygone was kind of just added to that.
Now I had known that Stevie was a solo dev, but I know in a lot of cases you can’t expect one person to wear all of the hats, so I asked if there was any additional help on the title in the art departments, or if he had done all of that work by himself as well?
SA: No, the only two things I don’t do are the music. I’ve got a musician whose name is Anders he’s great. And I have commissioned the comic art from a guy on Instagram called TheKnobbyWood. Apart from those two things, it’s all me… all the other stuff that I had smashed my head against the wall about, all the hard stuff.
I followed up by asking how long he had been banging his head against the wall to get the game completed?
SA: The first like, year of development was a breeze. Because it’s all like a dream at that point, right? You’re like, “Oh, I’ll fix that in the future. I’ll change that in the future, I have so much time.” And probably the last six months, yeah, it’s been hard to like to actually put a date down and be like, I’m releasing on this day, and having to stick to it and do all the stuff that you said you would do, but then never got around to doing throughout like, two years of development, it’s a struggle. I think that’s why a lot of indie devs end up not releasing their games because they underestimate how hard it is in that last six months to like, just clear everything up, fix the bugs, polish it, make sure it works, you know, all the boring stuff…
I think it’s kind of natural for anyone to do the stuff that they enjoy doing first. And then there’s like, the backlog of stuff that they know is there. And they think they will do it later, they just don’t get around to doing it and it’s kind of like stacks up and then gets forgotten about as well. You don’t even remember that they’re there, you don’t even realize how big the task is until you are actually confronted with it at the end of the project. Small things like localization, like bug fixing, polish, balancing, stuff, that is not fun, but it needs to be done.
On the topic of localization, I asked Stevie if he had been working to make the game available in other languages?
SA: From a technical standpoint, like, the strings of text in the game, work in other languages, or are able to be swapped to other languages. I should say, that’s like half complete at this point. And then after that, I will consider porting it to other languages. It’s kind of up in the air at the moment, it kind of depends on how successful the game is. Because I have to balance localizing it to other languages and how much money that would bring in, versus using my time to make a new game. Because it is just me, right? So if I use all that time trying to make the game localized, I could have made a smaller game in that six months.
That was understandable, frankly, while making the game available in more languages means more players, it most certainly does take time and resources to do such a thing. I know that a lot of people will work with publishers to handle the localization and porting of the title, and with the game holding over 90% positive ratings on Steam it is ripe to be picked up for distribution. On that note I asked Stevie if he had been shopping his game around to publishers since its release?
SA: So, yeah, I’m chatting with three different publishers at the moment. Too early to say who they are. But yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s at least gonna come to Switch. And then during that process of going to Switch, hopefully, they will actually be able to localize it for me. In exchange for, you know, obviously, a share of the revenue on those consoles. But yeah, it’s all up in the air, talking to a lot of people about it.
It was very cool to hear that things were looking up for Stevie to get his game into more hands. It is definitely an eye-catching title in my opinion, as I said before, one of the things that initially drew me into the game was the procedural animation used for Zapling. I know that animating in that way can present its own challenges, even in a 2D landscape, so I asked Stevie if he had any problems arise when making the system for movement?
SA: So I kind of cheated. And I think, as a solo dev, a lot of people have to do this. And in game development in general, they have to do this. They like, learn from other people’s code, and they end up using other people’s code. For me, before I even started implementing inverse kinematics. I started researching that, figuring out how to train [the A.I.] to do that. And then I found out someone on the GameMaker marketplace has already done it, and they’ve released the code for free. So I was like, let’s try that. And honestly that did like 80% of the work. That last 20% is things like, choosing where you want the tentacles to go at different times, like if you’re on the ground where it has to find the nearest solid surface to try and stretch to and if it hasn’t got one, then it should go somewhere else. Or if you’re on the wall, how it should react when you jump off a wall where it should react, like all that stuff is in that last 20% of work. But the bulk of it, like the visuals you see, and making it actually go to the point that each tentacle goes to the point that I’m telling it to go to. That’s what’s handled by this package I used, it’s called inverse kinematics. If you just search inverse kinematics GameMaker in Google, I think the top result will probably be the package that I used.
I commented that it was always nice to hear how interconnected and supportive the indie gaming scene is as far as sharing knowledge and tools.
SA: Yeah, because I think when you’re an indie dev, everyone knows how hard it is, so helping each other feels good.
Getting back onto the topic of Zapling Bygone, I wanted to hear more about the structure of the world. A key component of the metroidvania genre is the large interconnected maps that require detailed exploration from a player’s perspective and careful construction from the development side. With this in mind, I asked Stevie what his design philosophy was when it came to building the map for the title?
SA: So this is a topic I could speak about for a long time. And about very specific parts of it. But the way I kind of went about it is I separated the map and I implemented it zone by zone, because I wanted the game to always be in a state where I could potentially release it. And that means each zone would have to be like, a coherent area. And then you just want to cut off the interconnected parts from one zone to the other parts, and it should work by itself. And when I did that, I would design the boss for an area before I actually designed the area. And then I’d work out what you need to know or what I need to teach the player to beat that boss fight. And then I’d work backwards from there and design the map in a way that will teach them how to kill that boss.
So for instance, one of the areas is called Mountain Path. And its boss is a big eyeball laser that tries to shoot the player. So I designed that boss first. And then the things that you need to learn are like lasers are bad, lasers hurt you. So I added mobs that would shoot lasers and obviously designed the world around the idea that these mobs shoot lasers, so you’d have to have protection against them. So yeah, I’d work backwards from the boss to make sure everything that you need to know, that’s going to happen to you in the boss fight is taught to you throughout the levels, or the rooms, I should say, leading up to the boss, and then try and just interconnect them in more interesting ways. One of the ways is just to create, I talked about this a lot, but just circles. If you grab any metroidvania map and just draw circles around, where if you keep going one way you will end where you end up in the same position, just draw a circle there and just keep drawing circles until you run out of circles you can find.
And if you do that to a good metroidvania map, it should leave very little points where things don’t end up in a circle. Because if it doesn’t end up in a circle, it means basically you have to backtrack and walk backwards. And usually people don’t enjoy doing that, but the way the circle system works is you can’t really go the wrong way. Because you have to keep going one way you’re going to end up back where you started and be like, “Oh, I should go a different way this time.” Because just like circles work, they start where they end or the end where they start. No one likes walking over places they’ve already explored just to get back to somewhere else. the same way in Skyrim, like, those sort of dungeons where they make a dungeon and there’s an ad hoc way of getting back to the start of the dungeon. You’re like, I’m suddenly here again, I don’t have to walk all the way back. It’s just that on a larger, more interconnected scale.
Another system that, while commonplace in most metroidvanias, has had a fun spin put on it for Zapling Bygone is the inclusion of a Charm-like system wherein the skulls that Zap acquires and dons upon his journey will each, on top of featuring their own gameplay mechanic needed for traversing the world, have an assortment of slots to equip mutations and change their gameplay style. I asked Stevie how difficult it was balancing out this system that featured many mutations over separate categories?
SA: It was hard, yeah. Ended up with a system that has it so each shape of the charm within the skull, like all the mutations, but coming from Hollow Knight, everyone calls them charms, the shape obviously has to match the socket. So the way I balance it is every circle charm is like a sideways buff, or a sideways modification, where you might have more damage, but less attack speed, so it just allows the freedom to play your own way. But that means balancing wise, I can put basically as many circle charms in a skull without that skull being OP because they’re all sideways. But I don’t know what you call them sideways improvements or sideways changes.
And then the triangle ones are just flat buffs. So then I can be like, Okay, this skull has two triangles, slots, therefore, it’s as good as every other skull with two triangle slots. So if you really wanted to just simplify things, you could be like, the more circles it’s got, the more like player choice you have in the skull. And then the more triangles it has, the better the skull, if you’re just going for flat damage or flat movement speed or whatever. And there’s also the square ones, but the square charms are just, there’s one on each end game skull that just modifies your main ability.
On top of the aforementioned mechanics attached to each skull, and the mutations attached to them, the skulls themselves will also speak to the Zapling. This sounded like a lot of fun, but I felt as though it must have been tough to create these separate lines of dialogue for these skulls to speak in different places, so I asked if it had been a great challenge bringing these skulls back to life?
SA: I always found it quite easy. And I think that’s because the amount of like, backstory and lore I have about the world is pretty huge compared to what I actually reveal to the player. So it’s very easy for me to like, grab something from this massive lore document I have and be like, “Ah, this this guy would say something about this area,” which I would have so much information on. But then I have to just think what would this specific character know about this area? I would have to say it’s usually like 1% of what I’ve written about it so it’s more not wanting to overwhelm the player. We have an insane amount of stuff that the skull wants to say and I’m trying to limit it in that respect. Otherwise I can go on forever, yeah.
After hearing that there was a massive lore document detailing the inner workings of the world, I asked if he would be able to tell us more about the world of Zapling Bygone?
SA: I can tell you about the conflicts that happen in the game. It’s kind of hard for me to explain about the lore because I feel like the lore is almost not for me to say at this point. The players themselves have come up with their own conclusions. And those conclusions might not be the same I initially wrote in this lore document, but I like that in a way. Because history itself is a bit wibbly-wobbly, I think they say, where the history of this world is kind of made by what people experience in the world and, and it’s like, hugely, vastly edited documents throughout our history that always ends up different from how it happened. And I kind of liked that aspect, so I never really want to go into like, “this is actually what happened in the past of the Zapling Bygone world” because it’s more fun if people have their own interpretations of the things in the world by listening to what the characters say, and the lore fragments that you find. [The lore] is important, but your interpretation of the lore is more important than the actual lore. If that makes sense…
I’ve done it a few different places where a skull or a comic will talk about one specific event. And the player might not even know they’re talking about the same event because obviously the skull was in the people that in this history of the world has interpreted the event as: one of them might think it was a god, one of them might think it was a parasite, one of them would think it’s the worst thing ever that has come from the skies above. So like, they could be talking about the same event, but interpreted in different ways. And the player might not even realize that they’re talking about the same event, until they start digging really deep.
Separate from the greater lore of the game, I asked about the power of the Zap itself, on a scale or 1-10, with one being an insignificant bug, and ten being an unstoppable monster, where did Stevie think his creature placed on the scale?
SA: It kind of depends on how early on. So the way Zapling works is, say if it goes to a planet, like he does at the start of this game. If he was to die then and there like, it’d be the easiest thing to kill. Like you said, you could step on it and be like, “ah, that’s the end of that fragment of the species.” But once it starts taking over and infesting the world in a way, it’s the way hive minds work, the more they infest, more enemies and more things inside the world, the more difficult they are to destroy. Because they’re just like a parasite, like a virus, right? The bigger it is, the more people it’s infected, the harder it is to kill. So it kind of depends how early on the timeline of how powerful it is. If it’s at the end of the timeline, it’s kind of like the Flood in Halo, right? Like it’s just impossible to destroy. But if it’s way earlier in the timeline, then it’s just a one on the scale. So I don’t know, let’s give it an eight.
Moving on towards the end of the interview, I wanted to ask about Stevie’s experience with watching gameplay of Zapling Bygone, specifically, I asked if he had seen any players use the tools in ways he hadn’t expected?
SA: Every time I watch a new speedrunner, there’s something new that I didn’t expect, or I didn’t know how they would do that. So yes, all the time. I’m trying to think of a specific example. There’s a boss in the sewers. Actually, this is an interesting story. So there’s a boss in the sewers, where the boss comes out of this red water and fights you. speedrunners realize that if they have the right combination of speed abilities, they can just jump straight down into the water before the boss spawns, and then fight the second phase instantly and skip the whole first phase. There’s something that I didn’t intend. But then I came back to it, and I was like, “Okay, time to fix this. But time to also not piss off the speedrunners.” So we added a secret, you could climb up somewhere and then press a button that would flush the boss to go straight to the second phase. So basically turned the speedrunners trick into an actual implementation in the game.
I followed up by asking if he had any tips or tricks for new players?
SA: No, I wouldn’t say. Just have fun with it. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s kind of intentional. You’ll learn as you play. Don’t think like, you’re missing information or anything like that. You kind of get that information naturally as you play. So don’t expect a tutorial, just kind of jump in and have fun with it.
After seeing how well the game has been doing since it’s launch, and learning about the wealth of lore behind the scenes in the world of Zapling Bygone, I asked if Stevie had considered making a sequel to the title?
SA: I don’t think I’ll make a sequel for one, simply because I like creating new things and new worlds and new environments. But because of the nature of Zapling and how he travels to different planets, there could be cameos or there could be a side story, a completely different game, different gameplay, might not even be a metroidvania, but it could be in the same universe as the Zapling simply because that universe is very easily expandable.
With no sequel in sights I ended the interview by asking what was next for Stevie not that the title had launched and Gamescom had ended?
SA: I am doing two things, fixing bugs and working on the randomizer mode I had promised the backers, I am also prototyping some new ideas for future games, and I am also talking to publishers and trying to get it on console, so lots of stuff going on.
I asked Stevie if there was anything we hadn’t talked about during the interview that he wanted me to cover and his response was short and simple.
And with that I ended my chat with Stevis Andrea and let him get back to the hive-mind and resume his work polishing up Zapling Bygone. If you want to check out the game for yourself it is currently available for purchase on Steam, if you enjoy it, be sure to review.
If you want to keep up with 9FingerGames you can visit their Twitter page for up to date information on Stevie’s work, and if you want to go above and beyond in supporting indie devs, you can support the Kickstarter for Rebel Transmute, a sci-fi metroidvania title made by a friend of Stevie’s.
And as always, if you are fiending for the latest and greatest in horror gaming, head back to DreadXP and read more of our frightful features!