Indie Video Game Developer Ben Ruiz Talks Aztez, Beat-'Em-Ups

Ben Ruiz's makeshift office is located in a quiet corner of a Tempe coffee shop where he currently is working on his love letter to the beat-'em-up genre,Aztez.

Aztez is a stylized brawler with an art style ripped from the wall of an Aztec pyramid. Gameplay in Aztez is split between a turn-based strategy overworld map and responsive small-scale brawls with a variety of enemies. Aztez will be available for both PC and Mac later this year.

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Ruiz has been developing games for 10 years, and his septum piercing inadvertently inspired the development of Flashbang Studio's shockingly addictive Minotaur in a China Shop, a game in which a minotaur makes an earnest attempt at becoming a successful purveyor of expensive ceramic ware.

We sat down with Ruiz for a cup of coffee and short discussion about his issues with the beat-'em-up genre, where his game fits in, and the trials and tribulations of independent game development.

Would you mind walking me through a little beat-'em-up history? I posted a timeline, and I kind of divided things into three ages. Beat-'em-ups started 20 years ago, with Taito's Renegade, and the formula hasn't really changed. The first age, I think, kind of had an advantage because it was mostly arcade games. The whole point of [coin-operated beat-'em-ups] was to make a game that was fun enough that people wanted to play it, but hard enough so that people kept putting quarters into it.

The problem is that when they jumped to the consoles, the formula didn't change. They didn't bother giving it any replay value and it's super-frustrating. They survived the jump because, at their core, they're super-fun. No one thinks of these games as great because they don't end up playing them for over four or five hours, and that's just how it goes.

How would you say your game switches up the formula? I'm inspired by games like Weird Worlds, or any roguelike [a genre of minimalist RPGs known for procedural generation]. So, I thought, how can we pipe this in to the beat-'em-up in a way that's never been done before? So, our fingers are crossed, like we don't even know if this is even gonna be fun, but the way I see it, it can't be worse than anything that the beat-'em-up genre has been doing for 20 years: Fight [then] do nothing for a couple minutes. I appreciate that they change scenery. They have cut-scenes, plots, but I don't . . . I'm too old for that. As an adult, I realize that I don't have time to sit down for seven cut-scenes seven different times. That adds up! I'm working 10 hours a night. I don't have time to play games.

What inspired the decision to split gameplay between beat-'em-up and strategy? The beat-'em-up is obviously a priority. It's what we spent the most time focusing on. My problem with the modern beat-'em-up is that they're so linear, and when I'm done with one, I never feel like picking them up again. I mean, God of War has three hours of cut-scenes. I'm trying to make something different, and our idea is a strategy game. You're going to be going back and forth between these two modes, not just run around and do platforming shit [between fights].

Or the press-"X"-to-not-die systems. Yeah, we're not doing any of the quick-time event stuff. I grew up in the arcade. That's my whole thing. I don't like games that hold your hand and slap you on the wrist.

Could you walk us through the turn-based strategy portion of Aztez? So, the concept is that it's a constellation of cities all based on the layout of the Aztec empire. Every time, you start the game at the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. You're gonna have this randomized node of cities on the road between them, which is a really significant gameplay factor. The population of every city is going to be randomized, so all of the challenging factors are going to be skewed every time. There're going to be play-throughs where you won't see certain cities, roads, or empires. We're trying to think how many factors can we randomize. So, yeah, it has an element of the roguelike.

These games are going to take an hour tops. If we tune it, and it's fun for 20 minutes then that's what we're gonna do. If people play our game, 50 different times at 20 minutes, that's better than playing it once for three hours. So that's kinda the gist.

Your game seems more tactile than modern fighting games. It's a lot less rhythm-y than I guess what you'd call Arkham Asylum-style combat. What's interesting about that is, it's sort of intentional. A year and a half ago, the game was really hardcore, and I found that most of my friends couldn't even play it. It's sort of insane. It's like, "I don't play Devil May Cry all the time, I can't handle this." And so, I ended up accidentally making it fun to [mash buttons], but there is a rhythm there. Like, once you kind of figure it out and learn how to express yourself it becomes this really interesting tool. When I realized, okay, the people like me who play Devil May Cry can handle it, but people who don't play games like this can also have a really good time, and so far that's what we found.

How did you come up with Aztez? Before we were Team Colorblind, we were Flashbang Studios. Which was me, Matthew [Wegner coder/business for Team Colorblind] and five other guys. The reason they could hire us was they did some important contract work which put a huge amount of money in the bank and Matthew said, "Let's see how weird we can get if we're not worried about selling stuff." So that was an era of amazing experimentation, but it was also an era of not making any money. We had thrown this event in the office here called TIGJam. People flew out to come spend a weekend in the office and we made ridiculous things.

It was a really incredible event, but I can't program. So I sat in a corner by myself and made sketches. That's when I drew my very first sketch of Aztez. It didn't look very good, I had like two hours to do it, and I was like "Okay, this is interesting." I wanted to see a game that looked like the art in Spanish codexes. Ya know, it's like this really intricate but two-dimensional stuff. I just had a wild hair up my ass, and so I made this sketch, and people flipped out about it. I'm an animator, so I can make a sketch that communicates motion, and I think that's a big part of it. This was in 2008, one of the people that was there was Tommy Refenes of Team Meat.

He's like "Holy shit, let's make this game." He was based in North Carolina, so we had to do it remotely. I started to build things in Unity in the beginning of 2009, just some environments and character models. Tommy ended up starting work on Super Meat Boy, so I'm working solo for a while and I had a lot of time to just build stuff. Over the course of six or seven month, I'd built these environments and characters in 3D that just ended up looking really neat. Eventually, Tommy said, "I'm working on Super Meat Boy now." So I said, "Yeah, you should probably work on that." This basically ended up happening with two more programmers over the course of the next three years.

Things had to start looking up eventually, though, right? By the time this had gone on for three years, Matthew felt really bad for me, and by this point, all of the other guys had split off. We agreed that, "This makes sense, we'll work on it part-time while we do contract work." With his help, we finally got a game made. He said, "You just tell me exactly what you need. I'll make it. I won't ask questions. I don't want to direct this."

Long story short, in 2011 we approached a friend of ours -- who wishes to remain anonymous -- and he said, "I believe in you guys. This is going really well." So we worked out a deal with him and we've been operating on his money for the last year. We didn't have to ask for a lot because we're just two guys, but that's the whole origin of it. It took a lot of time to get off the ground, but the good news is that having so much time to process things is why our game is turning out so well.

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Alex Weiss
Contact: Alex Weiss