Xbox Live Developer Interview: Mommy's Best Games, maker of Shoot 1UP and Serious Sam Double D XXL

We’re back with another installment of our in-depth Xbox Live Developer Interview series. This time we probe the mind of Nathan Fouts, President of Mommy’s Best Games. MBG’s first Windows Phone game, Shoot 1UP came out a few weeks ago and I gave it a rave review.

Read on to learn more about Shoot 1UP’s development process, MBG’s upcoming XBLA game Serious Sam: Double D XXL, Nathan’s experiences working on the Postal and Resistance series, and lots more.

Hey Nathan. Please tell us a little about yourself outside of the world of videogames.

I have a wife and two kids, and we enjoy doing outdoorsy stuff with them like playing basketball, exploring our nearby creek, and hiking. I also like baking pies!

What were some of your favorite games growing up?

The Sega Genesis is my favorite console with games like Ranger-X, Granada, Gaiares, Phantasy Star, and Contra Hard Corps high on my list. Super NES is great as well with some favorites being Space Mega Force, R-Type III, and Actraiser

Ooh, I love Gaiares. And pretty much all of those others too. So did you always know you wanted to make games?

I wouldn’t say I always knew I wanted to make *video* games, but I’ve always enjoyed making and playing games of all kinds.

Growing up, we had a large family, and all my siblings and cousins would play made-up, original, physical games outdoors. It was fun exploring the rules for them and what made some games fun and not so great. Later on in high school I would draw extensive level designs for original game ideas on paper. Finally, in college, I started actually programming and made my first games for PC shareware back in the nineties.

Let’s talk about your game development experience prior to starting Mommy’s Best Games. Early on, you contributed to the infamous Postal² and its expansions on PC. What was it like working on such a controversial and humorously low-brow series?

I loved it to pieces, and Postal2 is still one of my favorite games. Designer Steve Wik and I worked to create an early sand-box environment in which the player could interact with NCPs in violent but also non-violent ways. A game’s strengths are its interactivity and originality and P2 has that in spades.

Developer Running With Scissors is always at the center of some drama, so working there I learned to develop a thick skin. We also liked to push boundaries but I still maintain an interest only in ‘cartoon violence.’ I like things gross, but not too realistic.

Later on, you moved to Insomniac Games and worked on the Ratchet & Clank games as well as the first Resistance, all for Playstation consoles. How did you enjoy your time there?

Insomniac Games was challenging because it’s so high profile and there are [so] many very intelligent people there. It’s excellent because it makes you work all the harder. I designed and programmed the weapons for the first game in the Resistance series (Fall of Man) which was very exciting to have a big impact on such a large, exclusive PS3 franchise.

What led you to start your own company?

Torcher Kitty enemy mockup

I’m passionate about interesting art styles and 2D gameplay. Given current game controllers, I think 2D games hold the potential to deliver the most intuitive controls and gameplay. Working for Running With Scissors and Insomniac Games was great, but it was also in 3D. I really wanted to make some side-scrolling insanity!

At the time, back in 2006, Xbox LIVE Arcade was just taking off and I saw the opportunity to create our own games, exploring different art and gameplay styles.

Where did the name Mommy’s Best Games come from, anyway?

It’s from a weird in-joke I had with a friend, in which we laughed about being “Mommy’s Best,” like being the most favored in the family. But when I thought about games, I liked the sound of it - conveying the careful, loving attention we’d pay to the games we develop.

And why the switch to Xbox 360 and Xbox Live Indie Games for your first self-published titles?

In 2008, Community Games on Xbox 360 (now XBLIG/Xbox Live Indie Games) was just starting. Microsoft asked kindly if we’d like to have our first game, Weapon of Choice, be a flagship title for the new channel.

As I understand it, your in-house staff consists solely of you and your wife, with other duties handled by outsourcing. Does this approach work better for you than keeping a regular team on staff?

Living in the boonies of Indiana, it’s tough to convince people to move here. Hamdija Ajanovic has been our composer on all our games, though he lives in Arizona. We also contract the writing for our games from AJ Johnson, who lives in Florida. I’d love to have an office where we can all work, but the internet lets everyone live where they want.

Before we talk about your Serious Sam spin-off games, let’s look at their predecessors in the run-and-gun genre, Konami’s Contra series. How do you feel about the Contra games from the 32-bit era onward?

  • C: the Contra Adventure (PS1) is actually pretty good (inspired enemies and fights, manageable difficulty), but I’ve still never enjoyed Contra: Legacy of War (PS1).
  • Contra: Shattered Soldier and Neo Contra (Playstation 2): My brain likes SS best for the insane monster designs, but the linearity and difficulty make it hard to enjoy for long periods of play. Embarrassingly, I think I enjoy Neo the most of recent Contra games because it’s so easy to tear through some cool monsters, get an ending, and probably unlock something extra.
  • Contra 4 (DS): I think the sprite work was excellent and the use of dual-screen was inspired. I’m still not convinced it functionally worked well enough (or could ever in that case) to be really enjoyed.
  • Hard Corps Uprising (XBLA):  Beautiful looking, but too grindy for my tastes. Many levels felt padded (or just not always that interesting for a game in which you’re supposed to play them over and over), and I’m more inclined towards monsters than robots. That said, the boss designs were very good.

I’m with you on Uprising’s overload of grinding. That brings us to Serious Sam: Double D for PC, a 2D spin-off of the Serious Sam series of first-person shooters that Mommy’s Best Games released last year. How did you end up with that project?

Devolver Digital, publisher for the Serious Sam series, loved our previous games and wanted us to contribute to a marketing campaign for Serious Sam 3 BFE. The idea was a group of indie developers [would make] original interpretations of the Serious Sam franchise. They said “can you make something crazy like Weapon of Choice, but for Sam?”

Were there any challenges in working with an established property like Sam?

It was difficult to make sure it felt like a Sam game, but once we went back and played the old games enough (I loved them when they were originally released back in college), it started to make sense. We created new concepts like the ‘Gunstacker’ system to let players use all the old guns from the series, but in a fresh way that lent itself to a 2D side view.

We also let players jump over big enemies with our Jump Pad that Sam can use any time. And we carried the ‘stacking’ theme through to the enemies, letting you finally stack giant piles of enemy corpses, similar to the previous Serious Sam box art of Sam standing atop his fallen foes.

Were you pleased with Double D’s reception? Are you incorporating any of its feedback towards Serious Sam: Double D XXL, the upcoming XBLA version?

We’ve had a ton of support from gamers happy with Double D, citing the Gunstacker and the game “feeling like a Serious Sam game” as positive aspects. Most of the reviews were good, but one issue brought up occasionally was there was just “too much shooting.”  While that sounds silly at first, I understand that it can get repetitive.

For Serious Sam Double D XXL, we’ve made several all-new levels in which you can pilot really weird *not-shooting* vehicles. And many of the original levels have been reworked to incorporate new platforming sections with new environmental gameplay. The platforming helps break up the ‘straight action’ which some different skills and thinking.

What new features can we look forward to in Double D XXL?

Serious Sam Double D XXL co-op

The biggest request was to stack guns with a friend! Once Devolver Digital gave us the chance to make the XBLA port, we committed to expanding the original Double D (thus the XXL, to say it’s more than a simple port) and include 2-player co-op. Thus we’ve added an original character, expanded the story, and added voice acting (with the original Serious Sam voice actor!)

We’ve also greatly expanded the weapons system to make the most of the Gunstacker. There’s now 40 different guns to experiment and stack with, greatly increasing the player strategies available when encountering all the different enemies (and the levels and enemies have been rebalanced to accommodate and challenge the new weaponry).

Run-and-gun shooters, much like shoot-em-ups in general, are sometimes too challenging for mainstream audiences. Where does XXL fall on the difficulty scale?

AI path planning for the Torcher Kitty enemy in Serious Sam Double D XXL

Maintaining the original Serious Sam’s accessibility, there’s a ton of customization available in Double D XXL. For difficulty, the default Normal setting is a good challenge for most players, but there’s also Chilled mode (making it easier) and Serious mode.

Further, for each difficulty setting, you’re able to increase or decrease the actual gameplay speed when starting the game. This allows for skilled gamers to make it even tougher if they desire, or casual players to make it even easier, or to take a tougher setting like Serious, but slow down the game [in order] to handle it all.

I approve! When can we look forward to Serious Sam: Double D XXL coming out on XBLA, and how much will it cost?

Serious Sam Double D XXL is hitting XBLA later this Fall/early Winter and will cost 800 MS points.

Next I’d like to ask you some of the same questions I put to the producer of Dodonpachi Maximum about shmups in our interview earlier this year. First, the genre has many dedicated fans, but overall shoot-em-ups are much less popular than they used to be. Why do you think that is?

I think there are definitely some hardcore gamers still playing shmups (like myself, but many more I see on the web). That said, I think the reason they were originally so popular is because they embody the arcade spirit. A short burst of challenging fun, putting skill at the forefront.

As many more players and many more game options are available, things have become diluted. Tastes have changed over the years and those new gamers who maybe would have been interested in the shmup/arcade experience are [now] drifting towards online and multiplayer-style games - options not available 20 years ago.

What can shoot-em-up makers do to attract new players in addition to dedicated players? Is this a problem that Japanese shmup makers can handle, or is it up to western developers like you to open up the genre to new players?

I would love all developers to work to get more gamers interested in shmups. I think everyone should be involved. More variety, and more interesting ideas put forth in a well polished package will help draw new gamers in to shoot-em-ups.

That brings us to Shoot 1UP, which you first developed as an indie game on the Xbox 360. What were some of your goals in creating the game?

One focus of Shoot 1UP’s design was to make it easier for new gamers to enjoy it.  That’s addressed through giving the player more of a chance to stay in the game via the active, additional 1UPs as ships. Getting extra lives gives you more firepower. While dying is bad, [it also] sets off a giant explosion, killing things around you.

Giving players options other than shooting during gameplay, like sometimes determining what path they want to take was also there to entice veteran and new shmup players alike.

Did you pitch the idea of porting Shoot 1UP to Windows Phone or did Microsoft approach you?

Microsoft liked the game and wanted it on their phone (which is always nice to hear).

Was it tough shrinking the game down to a mobile resolution and/or adapting it to touch-screen controls?

It was difficult at first since we made the XBLIG version for widescreen TVs. Once we sliced the playfield back down closer to a typical vertical scrolling aspect ratio like an arcade game, it made sense. Also, keeping auto-fire on all the time and letting you move just by swiping worked great (instead of the virtual thumb sticks and buttons to press).

Shoot 1UP’s first level is littered with fallen robots that resemble characters from an animated series or two. Can you list some or all of the allusions for us?

Yes, that was fun adjusting the art after requests from Microsoft’s legal team. The idea for the opening level is that all these typical robotic defenders have been defeated by the alien foe, implying they really mean business! We’ve got influences from Transformers, Robotech, and several others. Take a look and see if you can tell!

Speaking of background details, level 6 contains an assortment of sleeping robotic ladies before culminating in a battle with a gigantic awakened one, Mecha Lilith. Unfortunately, the background ladies have been censored in the Windows Phone version. Whose idea was it to draw clothing onto the characters, and was it really necessary?

It was Microsoft’s decision which I now agree is reasonable. In the original XBLIG version, the game is “unrated” but we still can’t do nudity. I included some nude female androids asleep with wires covering their modesty (so they are ultimately *not nude*). Now, when we look at WP7, no games can be worse than a Teen rating. This is a good thing in a way, because it means no ESRB rating system to deal with, but it’s a blanket rating which is bad if you’re trying to do something racier.

While I tried to argue my case to keep the original versions while on the phone with a legal group of Microsoft there was a strange, humorous exchange:

Me: “But the androids are covered by wires. You can’t really see anything.”Legal: “Right, but under the wires, they’re nude.”Me: “Yeah, but under our clothes we’re all naked… that’s how nudity works.”

That didn’t win them over, and ultimately when I realized we had to go with straight Teen, I conceded to cover things up. So the androids now have wires shadowing them above, and underneath they have dark, sheer bikinis.

At least you tried! Anyway, the Windows Phone version of Shoot 1UP has been a long time in coming. We first previewed it back in October of last year, but the game didn’t release until this August. Can you tell us about the factors that delayed its release?

There were many issues involved and I can’t go into all of them, but one issue is we were developing several other games (such as the original version of Serious Sam Double D) in tandem with Shoot 1UP on WP7.

Another was that ‘tombstoning’ took forever to implement, and the game features the ability to perfectly save the game and return to that state. For instance, if you back out of the game, and turn off your phone, then turn the phone back on later and launch the game from the Games Hub, you get to jump right back in exactly where you left off.

Windows Phone 7 does not support this inherently (Fast App Switching doesn’t preserve the game state after you turn off your phone). That took a long time to implement but I thought it was worth it since being on the go I know it’s important to stop what you’re doing instantly and come back later.

Will you continue to use XNA in forthcoming game development, or would you prefer a different set of development tools?

XNA is extremely fast for development and as long as Microsoft continues to promote and support it, I’ll be happy with it.

Now that you’ve published an official Xbox Live game on Windows Phone and Serious Sam: Double D XXL is set to debut as an XBLA game on Xbox 360, will your future games be Xbox Live-enabled as well?

I love my Xbox 360, but there’s another console I like as well. We’ll see!

Finally, do you have any plans for Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8 development? A Windows 8 Xbox Live version of Shoot 1UP would be fantastic!

I agree, that’d be pretty sweet—could be something in the future for that.

Thanks for reading and EAT MORE PIE!

Shoot 1UP is available now on Windows Phone for $2.99. Get it here on the Marketplace.

Paul Acevedo

Paul Acevedo is the Games Editor at Windows Central. A lifelong gamer, he has written about videogames for over 15 years and reviewed over 350 games for our site. Follow him on Twitter @PaulRAcevedo. Don’t hate. Appreciate!