Caster – An Independent Opinion

12 01 2009

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When I decided to set up Independently Speaking, I knew I would get to play some fantastic games that a lot of the gaming world would miss out on. Problem is, so many gamers believe if it’s not sitting on a shelf wrapped up nicely in a box, it can’t be that good, right?

Point in case – Caster. The brain-child of Mike Smith, a senior programmer at Hidden Path Entertainment, he recently promised me that it’s all about ‘feeling powerful’. Oh boy, he wasn’t kidding.

Caster throws the player into the world of Middon, where the Flanx race has taken over the land by, kinda… standing around. Our hero, a young Caster recruit, has the job of roaming the land blasting them all the smithereens while collecting up all the energy balls he finds.

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What begins as a typical linear shooter grows into something much more. A tutorial level here, an easy ‘get to grips’ map there, and THEN we’re off. Enemies start to fire back, lazers fly everywhere and energy balls become a lot harder to reach. Thank god, then, for the shop upgrades.

See, the energy balls aren’t just for show (or score). Energy means cash and cash means prizes, so to speak. Power up your rush, add some oomph to that blaster, pump that health gauge. By the time you’re halfway through the game, you’ll feel like a supreme destroyer, completely devastating the land and tearing the baddies to shreds – you’ll feel like the god of Middon.

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Problem is, that’s halfway through the game, and it didn’t take you long to get there. Yes, as is quite a trend at the moment, Caster is just too short for its own good – however, unlike others, it has a backup plan in the form of future episode releases – and at no extra cost. That’s right, just pay for this first part and you’ll get the remaining episodes for free. For $10, you really can’t say much better than that.

So that’s the game length issue cleared up. But what about those pixely graphics, hey? It looks all blocky, right? Well… yes and no. I mean, alright, it’s not the nicest-looking game ever created, but at the same time what’s wrong with a few polygon edges? It’s a 3D world created by 1 man! It was never going to be a artistic masterpiece. 

But you know what? What is there… is pretty nice. I mean, some of the scenes look pretty spectacular – the motion blurring when your character sprints across a lake towards a sparkling tree, the sky filling with the flash of lazer fire, for example. You’ll most definitely see sights you wouldn’t believe from an independently developed experience.

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Sound-wise, prepare for techno beats a-plenty mixed with more mellow… melodies. It’s what you would expect and it’s all done really well. Yep… nothing more to say on that. It’s all good.

In conclusion, here is what I’m trying to say – for $10, you are getting more than your money’s worth, especially with future *free* releases promised. Caster is fast-paced, high-action, explosive fun and an absolute delight to power you way through. Pick it up and feel the force.

Verdict: It’s your pathway to total power and you’ll love blasting your way through every second of it.

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The Caster-Way: Interview With Elecorn

10 01 2009

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Released a few days ago, Caster is the 1-man handy work of Mike Smith, senior graphics programmer for Hidden Path Entertainment.
I had a chat with Mike about Caster, working for HPE (developers of the recent Defense Grid: The Awakening) and his take on the piracy and DRM wars.
IS: Hi Mike! Maybe you could start off by explaining what Caster is about?
Mike Smith: Well, from a play perspective, Caster is about feeling powerful.  Blowing stuff up, deforming the terrain, running really fast, jumping really high, healing trees, etc.  

From a story perspective, while most of the story will be revealed in future Chapters, what we know now is that there is an infestation of Flanx (Bug like creatures) that are destroying everything.  You play as a Caster that has been sent to a the Middon region to help deal with the infestation.  I tried putting more story in the first chapter, but I couldn’t see how to do it without slowing things down.  I’m hoping to keep it spread out so that you get less reading and more playing over the course of the Saga.

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Where did the inspiration come from for the game?
I guess most of the inspiration for what to do once I decided to make the game came from games like Mega Man II (colors, powers, etc) and the original Metroid (big bugs, freeze ray and such).  Later I saw some other games that were very similar to Caster and I adopted some of what I thought was cool about them (PN03 was a big one).  

Also, a large part of what got me pumped about making the game was the music that Monte Emerson provided.  Caster had been laying dormant since my original partner kind of fizzled out on it (this was back when it was going to be a 2D sprite based game in a 3D world).  I by chance met up with Monte while waiting in a line at a Job fair and he had a demo CD on him.  I went home and listened to it and got super pumped.  It was at that point that I decided I would make this game no matter what it took and that Monte’s music would be featured front and center.


It’s hard to believe that the entire game is the work of a 1-man development team! Do you enjoy working on your own, or is your favourite work done in a team with other people?
All the good ideas in Caster came from feedback from other people–usually at a local indie night.  Also there is a synergy when working in a small group that dwarfs what individuals can do on their own.  My problem is that I’m not very good at keeping people motivated on my projects.  I’ve found and worked with motivated people on some other side projects and those worked out great, but I don’t like spending time trying to get people to do stuff.  

One benefit to working alone is you get to call all the shots without argument.  When someone gives me a suggestion for Caster, I alone decide if it makes sense, would be cool, is worth the time, or not.  I don’t need to argue with anyone but myself on it and no one’s feelings get hurt by not having their pet feature added in.

I did have some outside help for things that I don’t enjoy or that I’m not good at.  I had a mental block when it came to designing some more monsters for the game, so I called on a great artist Jake Parker (agent44.com) and he was like “Cool, I’d love to do some monster designs”.  Also I’m not very good at logo design so I had a friend Derek Drake (Zanfall on steam) do some logo designs.  And obviously I had Monte (Trance) Emerson do the music.

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The game was released a few days ago. What’s the response from the community been like? Has it been as good as the response received for Defense Grid: The Awakening?
Not much response yet.  Heh, I guess another thing I’m not very good at is marketing.  Defense Grid is one of the best games I have ever played.  I play lots and lots of games, and few are able to pull me in like Defense Grid did… much less a tower of defense game.  Defense Grid has gotten lots of reviews and everyone agrees that the game is great, it’s polished in almost every aspect…  No one can really argue that.  Caster on the other hand… well it has it’s issues… mostly in level design.  Hopefully Chapter 2 will help make up for some of the failings of Chapter 1.

Working for Hidden Path Entertainment must be fun but also very hard work. How do you manage to balance working on HPE games and working on your own personal indie games?
I don’t like my side projects to affect my work or my home life so it can be kind of tricky, but it’s doable.  For example I usually take the bus to work.  It’s about an hour each way.  I have a laptop so that’s two hours a day that I can work on Caster.  However, lately I’ve made some awesome friends on the bus so I end up chatting with them a lot too.  So I’ve been getting up a little earlier in the mornings to get some dev time in before I catch the bus.  

So I don’t make tons of progress in each sitting, but I also have a lot of time to think about what I do before I do it.  It’s also part of the reason it took me so long to complete the game.  Had I been working on it full time, I imagine I could have gotten the same amount of work done (minus some polish that only time can provide) in about a year and a half.


Of course one of the big topics for debate at the moment is piracy and DRM. What’s your stance on the whole situation? Would you implement any form of DRM in your games?
Well there’s a couple of things.  First, we have laws about what is legal and what isn’t.  Those laws should be honored irrespective of how you personally feel about it.  If you don’t like the law, breaking it is not the way to change it.  

On the other hand, I don’t like paying lots of money for my games and don’t generally like to spend a lot of time playing them either.  I play tons and tons of free demos and very rarely purchase a full game.  But when I do, I try to do it in a way that will support that company the most.  It’s my way of helping promote good games, the kinds of games I would like to see more of.

The way things are now, I feel like pirates will download a cracked game and legitimate gamers will pay for them.  So for me, I don’t want any kind of anti piracy stuff to limit or hurt the experience of my already paying customer. DRM doesn’t hurt the pirates because they already got a cracked copy.  It only ends up hurting the poeple who are already willing to pay for it.

So if it’s up to me, I would make sure whatever I think I’m doing to prevent piracy doesn’t hurt the paying customers.  If your DRM is cool like that, then I think it’s fine.  But once you start hurting your paying customers, it’s pointless!

So no DRM for me at the moment.  I love my paying customers!  They supported me in making my game!  I want to give them the very best!

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It’s clear that the independent gaming scene is booming at the moment. Are there any indie games coming out in 2009 that you’re following closely?
Hmm, well whatever Konjak has cooking up.  Noitu Love 2 was one of those games that I was happy to pay way too much for when it first came out.  I payed the full $20, but you can now get it for $10–A real steal!.  I loved paying him that much though because that’s the cool kind of stuff I want to support.  I’m also curious to see how Overgrowth turns out.  Although I don’t think they’re going to hit their release date.  They’re just trying to cram too many features into too short of a time frame.  Even if they get them all in, there won’t be enough time to polish it properly.  

Also I thought I would be more excited about Xbox Live Communities games, but for some reason it doesn’t do anything for me.  Perhaps it’s because for me, indie games are already more accessible on PC than on Xbox.  Plus the 4 minute demo is a slap in the face.  I refuse to impulse buy a game because of that.
 

Finally, can you please explain in less than 15 words why gamers should give Caster a go.
Fast ActionTerrain DeformingBug DestroyingPulse PoundingTree HealingPower Tripping… FREE DEMO!
 
Thanks very much for talking to IS, Mike, and good luck with both Caster and your future releases!
Thank you!
What a nice chap. I wish him well for the future of Caster and urge you to check it at at the official site.