Rivals of Aether's Dan Fornace talks ID@Xbox, Game Preview, and indie development

Rivals of Aether
Rivals of Aether (Image credit: Dan Fornace)

Rivals of Aether has a strong cult following on PC and Xbox, for its tight recreation of Nintendo's Smash Bros.-style fighting gameplay. It also has robust online matchmaking, great customization and multiplayer features, and a whimsical cast of element-based contenders.

We recently caught up with designer and Rivals of Aether lead developer Dan Fornace to talk ID@Xbox, game development, early access, and more.

Jez Corden: What made you guys decide to choose ID@Xbox over other platforms for early access on console?

Dan Fornace: Before I started on Rivals of Aether I was working at Microsoft Studios on the XBLA team. I met Chris Charla (ID@Xbox lead) who was also on that team. The ID@Xbox program was announced before I stopped working at Microsoft, so I chatted with Chris about it, and it seemed like a good fit for the game I wanted to create.

A platform fighter is best played with a controller, and the ID program was well equipped to handle a game of our size. Originally our team was only two members, me and our composer, flashygoodness. A new program that was meant to scale from larger to smaller indies was exactly what we were looking for in console development.

What kind of support do you get from Microsoft? And do you think they need to do more?

ID@Xbox has been a big help for Rivals of Aether and our development in general. When we were still pretty new, we attended shows like PAX West, GDC, and E3 through the ID@Xbox program at Microsoft booths. After we were able to establish our game, we were able to get into some of those shows on our own, but the ID@Xbox Event team helped for getting the word out.

We also have access to account managers and an ID-specific certification team. After we launched Rivals of Aether on Game Preview, we have been making a lot of use of that certification team as we have pushed multiple updates since launching in July 2016.

Rivals has been on Xbox One for quite a while now, has the ID@Xbox program evolved and improved since you joined initially?

The program has grown over the time since we initially started talking to them in 2014. I think the biggest improvements have come from developers who want to launch on multiple platforms in a painless way. One of the big changes that launched recently was an addition to the achievement system that many developers have asked for.

There have been other small improvements to make things closer to Steam for developers who want to bring their experiences over.

When making a Steam game, you can just fire an achievement with a simple function call and be done with it. However, on Xbox One, you had to hook up every achievement to platform stats and have those stats trigger the achievement. For organizing a game, the Xbox One way is technically better, especially for grinding achievements. However, it made porting a game from Steam to Xbox One more tedious.

So developers would just make achievement stats to make their lives easier where "0" was unachieved, and "1" was achieved. But recently Microsoft released simple achievements so developers can simply trigger achievements like you can on Steam and not worry about circumventing the Xbox One stat system. There have been other small improvements to make things closer to Steam for developers who want to bring their experiences over. I think this frame of thinking is good for the ID@Xbox program because indies really need to hit all the platforms they can to maximize their sales.

Console exclusivity is becoming a dying notion all around but especially for indie games that have niche audiences; it becomes important to hit all the platforms that are feasible to you in order to survive.

How does ID@Xbox differ from your experiences with Steam in terms of reactions from gamers?

I did not expect Rivals of Aether to blow up on Steam as much as it did when we launched on Early Access. But after the reception on Steam, that became our main platform in terms of online competition and community support.

We only have five members working full-time, and I am the only programmer who works on the Xbox One version on our team.

As small as we are, it is difficult to balance development on both platforms, let alone supporting communities across both Steam and Xbox One. In that regard, we feel bad that we aren't able to support our Xbox players as much as we would like. We also have pushed some of our Game Preview updates later on Xbox due to the certification process. However, we have found that our Xbox player base is very grateful to get updates and fixes when we can.

We managed to push an update that brought online team matches on Steam and Xbox One on the same day back in January, and we got some good feedback from Xbox players on Twitter. I think many other indie developers are in a similar situation where they have to prioritize one platform and then work on bringing the game to other platforms later. I also imagine that we are probably the smallest team that has been updating a live game on both PC and Xbox. We only have five members working full-time, and I am the only programmer who works on the Xbox One version on our team.

We learned a lot about how to do a game as a service on multiple platforms, and I now have a ton of respect for the big teams who do it well, like Blizzard and Bungie.

Rivals of Aether will soon get updated box art (Left: old; Right: new).

With regards to Rivals of Aether, what does the future hold for the game? Will it ever be "finished" or is the plan to keep it going with new characters and DLC, as we've seen with games like Killer Instinct and other titles?

Yes. We do have a plan to finish Rivals of Aether sometime next year. Unlike other fighting games that we see in the space such as Brawlhalla and Killer Instinct, I don't feel Rivals of Aether has the base to continue updating it forever.

The original scope of the game was much smaller, and I did not anticipate to work on this game for three years (since April 2014). But we do have plans to expand it; they are just finite plans.

We have announced that we plan to expand the roster from eight to 14 characters over the next year. The first expansion will be a guest character from another game that we plan to announce soon. The next will be four new original characters featuring one new character from each element late in 2017. The final will be a second guest character in early 2018 to wrap up the roster.

The reason I want to do new characters is that I don't feel quite done with the design space that we have created. After attending tournaments and seeing high-level Rivals play, I know we have something special here and I think a few more crazy designs would be great for our players who are already invested into the game. 

What do you think of the tournaments feature that recently became available on Xbox One? Is that something you'd like to implement for Rivals?

The Xbox Arena feature is something we are interested in but haven't had time to dig into. We would likely need to coordinate with the creators of Game Maker Studio to get something running in our game. Because some of the Xbox One features are challenging for a small team, we are mostly hard at work on just getting the game out of Game Preview into full release right now without extra bells and whistles.

We do plan on bringing new characters to the Xbox later in the year, so we'll look into if we can hook into the tournament feature before then.

Rivals of Aether recently launched on Steam fully. Do you guys have a time frame for launching out of Game Preview on Xbox One?

We do have a launch window in mind but can't announce it quite yet. Xbox One has been my only work for the last three weeks and likely will be for a couple more weeks.

While the rest of the team is working on bug fixes and new features, I have been working on getting achievements, leaderboards, story mode and Abyss mode all working on Xbox One. I am happy to say that all that remains are the leaderboards implementation and then testing. But until we are approved through certification, we won't know the exact timeframe that we are launching.

Achievements are on the way for Rivals of Aether on Xbox One!

Achievements are on the way for Rivals of Aether on Xbox One!

What do you think of the Windows 10 Store as a platform for delivering PC games versus Steam? Can it ever hope to compete?

I honestly do not have a ton of experience with the Windows store. I personally still use Windows 7 on my work computer because I was not a fan of the Metro UI in Windows 8.

In that regard, I can't really say how the store is as a customer. But as a fan of gaming, I have heard that it hasn't had the impact on PC gaming that it would like.

I think that taking market share from Steam is going to be difficult since Steam is such a behemoth right now. I think gamers are also afraid of Microsoft giving up down the road, such as with Games for Windows Live or even the Windows phone, so they are less likely to invest in the platform right now. I think that competition for Steam will improve the PC gaming space and Microsoft's efforts are valiant. I am not sure how they can gain market share, but out of any of the companies that can challenge Valve's Steam, I feel Microsoft has the best shot.

Which Rivals of Aether characters do you recommend to beginners? And who do you "main?"

I would recommend Zetterburn and Kragg for beginners. Both characters are very easy to learn and are capable of winning matches without requiring a ton of experience. My main for most of development has been Orcane, but I really do play every character.

I tend to play the most recent character we are working on so I guess I can't really tell you who my current main is. We will also have a Rivals of Aether announcement at E3 so keep your eyes peeled for that! 

Huge thanks to Dan Fornace for fielding our questions!

Rivals of Aether is an excellent example of the variety that ID@Xbox has injected onto the console. With improvements to portability hitting all the time between PC and Xbox, hopefully we'll see even more quality indie games make the jump.

If you ever enjoyed Nintendo's Super Smash Bros., Rivals of Aether is, in my opinion, as good as the real thing. The controls are tight, the playstyles are diverse, and the visuals are gorgeous. This is a great party game for up to four friends (made better by booze and pizza).

Rivals of Aether is available on Xbox One and Steam for just $14.99, and it's worth every penny. Stay tuned for Rivals' big E3 2017 announcement, which is now less than two weeks away.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!