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

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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.

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Alex Weiss
Contact: Alex Weiss