Topstitch Games is a relatively new studio, but looking at their first game, Treadnauts, you’d have a hard time telling. In this interview, we look at how Topstitch has worked towards the idea of “fun”.
The Road to Indie
Cliqist: In the Treadnauts presskit, the description says that Caelan created the game’s prototype while studying English at the University of Washington. It goes on to say that Topstitch met him at the UW Game Development Club. Can you guys give me a quick and dirty history of how Topstitch came together and decided on Treadnauts to be their first game?
Reed Erlandson (Project Manager): Topstitch was founded by me and Nick in January of last year.
Nick Kaman (Art & Code): Yeah, about a year ago now.
Reed: Nick was still in school at the time and I had just quit a kinda poopy Quality Assurance job at a local mobile game company that will not be named. [laughs] We both wanted to make games and we had a couple months of runway right off the bat when we got a contract to do a learning game to teach middle school kids about science.
Caelan Pollock (Code): At the time, Nick was the president of the UW Game Dev Club, and I was a participant. I’d been making games since I was just a little kid, and I had this weird game going in which you were a tank and you could jump. It’s been completely reworked since then, but it was the same basic concept as Treadnauts. Back then, it was called Tank to the Skies. It was actually a single-player challenge-platformer sort of deal.
It’s really cool how robust a lot of the movement and the tech in Treadnauts is. How did the game change from a single-player platformer into competitive multiplayer?
Caelan: By the time Nick brought in Reed to see it, it was already multiplayer. I’d already decided that was the direction I wanted to go.
Nick: Did you decide that or did everyone pressure you? [laughs]
Caelan: Yeah, everyone at the Club was basically like,”Why can’t I shoot my friends in this game?” There was this weird schism between people who wanted that and people who liked the original concept.
Nick: So we saw the multiplayer version and we were like, “Okay, we need to take this.” [laughs] “Caelan, let us join your team and help you make this a reality.”
Reed: We were first just talking about publishing the game and helping with development to a certain extent. We didn’t think we were going to be able to go fully go all-in on Treadnauts development until we spent a couple months on it. We were able to get self-publishing agreements with Playstation and Xbox after we went to GDC. Looking back, our build was very crude.
Nick: I want to apologize to the Xbox representative who played that.
Reed: Yeah I don’t know how we tricked him into letting us put it on console. [laughs] After we got those agreements, we all sat down together again and were like, “Alright, let’s do a proper partnership.” From there we’ve just been doing it!
Living the indie dream! Having moved to the Seattle area last June, I’m continually amazed and impressed with how much gamedev talent there is here. What would you say makes Seattle a place where indies can thrive?
Nick: Obviously, Seattle is that “Tech Hub”, right? You’ve got Valve, Nintendo, Microsoft, Amazon, all these big players. So you’ve got all these developers living in the area who are interested in games and do indie stuff on the side. Most people I meet have a day-job and go to all the indie meetups, Seattle Indies events, there’s PAX too. There are just really great resources. Like, when I was president of Game Dev Club we just had people from Bungie show up and talk! It’s a really encouraging, empowering environment.
Caelan: Well, Seattle is historically a very artistic place.
Nick: Yeah, that too! So you have both those sides of the coin, and you can turn that into indie gamedev. The dream, right?
Nick: I’m probably the biggest Smash nerd in the group, in particular Melee. I definitely follow it, I play Yoshi, all the weird, crazy high-level stuff I’m into that, and I watch it at EVO, GENESIS, and on Twitch. It’s just so beautiful to me.
Reed: It’s all about movement.
Nick: Yeah, it is! Like, the cool stuff in Melee is how you can move in a way your opponent isn’t expecting. There’s a million movement options. In traditional fighting games, you have more fixed actions and combos. You have to know the game more. In Melee and, I think, in Treadnauts, it’s all about spatial reasoning.
Reed: And it’s about reading people too, right? It’s about controlling space, threatening people, juking and tricking them.
Nick: That kinda stuff is fun to watch, and that’s why we tried to introduce those mechanics and think about it in that way.
With the original concept that Caelan had, how did you add onto that with the movement mechanics? Treadnauts has a pretty high skill ceiling in terms of what the mechanics allow for.
Caelan: One of the first massive gameplay additions was the slide. That completely changed the game. Originally, there was just a button that made you not be sticky, you would just plop off the wall. It wasn’t really a mechanic, there just needed to be a way to get off walls.
Reed: It was useful, it had utility, but it wasn’t really fluid. It didn’t allow for a lot of options. It was a really binary mix-up.
Caelan: We were all yearning for some sort of “dash” mechanic.
Reed: We had a bug where you could do a wheelie. If you landed at just the right angle and you were applying force on the tank it allowed you to zip across the screen. We were trying to do that on purpose because it felt really good, and over time it turned into the “slide”.
Nick: The other mechanic we added that was really important was “squashes”.
Caelan: In the early prototype, there was a lot of someone jumping at someone else. They would just awkwardly blorp off of each other. We wanted interactions like that to be more decisive, where if one person jumps at another of them’s going to die.
Reed: When we started, we had all these cases like the slide or the squash that felt awkward or not fun about the game. We thought about how we could fix them without building a band-aid, but naturally extended this core mechanic of moving along the ground, rocket-jumping, and trying to out-position the other guy.
I was making all the maps, right? I had built all these angles in a way where there was good counter-play. You couldn’t just camp in one spot, there’s probably an angle that’s gonna beat it. Ultimately, we hit this sticking point where I could just sit in these little angles I’d designed. Like, 25% of the time Nick would dodge my bullets but he couldn’t do it consistently enough. It was making the game boring to observe and play at a high level.
I was actually watching Towerfall competitive play when I saw that they had this mechanic called “the miracle grab”. You can stop someone from killing you, snatch their arrow out of the air, keep going, and use the fact that they’ve wasted a shot. They have these tightly constructed maps with all these positions that are strong and all this interplay.
Caelan: So Reed came up with the “Perfect Clash”, where if your tank clashed with a bullet on the perfect frame you would just keep going. I… thought that was dumb.
Reed: Cause it was! [laughs]
Caelan: But we had a long discussion, because it was something the game needed: the ability to be aggressive when you’re being pressured, instead of backing off. So now, if you fire in the air there’s a moment where your treads can shatter the bullets. And it solved the problem!
Squashing with Style
It’s awesome how you’re taking from other games like Smash Bros. for movement and Towerfall for player interactions. What really stood out to me when I first saw Treadnauts was that you’ve got these really well-designed gameplay mechanics, right? But on top of all that, it’s wrapped in this great little package, these wonderful, cartoon-y, stylized visuals and a smooth jazzy soundtrack. How did you guys decide on the presentation for your game?
Nick: We wanted to have a lot of motifs, cause I think a game without its own style isn’t gonna stand out. So okay, we’ve got flying tanks, what are some stylistic things? Okay, there’s treads, and we’ve got treads prominent in the visuals, there’s lots of dashed lines. Okay, what else? We’ve got military. What’s a military thing we can get in that’s still fun? So we took the camouflage and it turned out really nice. It’s fun, lighthearted-
Reed: It’s in fashion right now.
Nick: Yeah, you can go to Zara and pick up some camo. [laughs] But then, how did the visuals translate to the music? Felix, how did you get inspired on your own?
Felix Peaslee (Sound & Music): I just came in with some classic video game stuff and it did not fit. The game’s too crazy, too wild, we can’t do basic sound design. So then we’re like, “Okay… Well what are we doing then?”
That crazy back and forth, players bouncing off each other, I kind of equated it to a jazz combo: a bunch of musicians playing off each other, going back and forth. We just kinda ran with that! I’ve been playing jazz for a while so it worked out. To touch on Melee again, there’s a really good video on YouTube of someone playing the drums to a match of Melee. That came out when I started working on the game, and I was like “Oh, I see. I see what they’re on about.”
Reed: Same with the sound effects too, right? If you listen close, you can hear that how loud a sound is or how its pitch bends is affected by how quickly two objects collide. We do a lot of randomization. A lot of sounds will have like, six layers and then some of those layers will have a container with like, ten sounds in them. They’re very similar, but slightly different, so every time it’s a little bit different.
That was really important to us because we do feel that this game is a lot like jazz. We wanted it to feel a bit unique and improvisational every time you play. That naturally extended into our crazy idea for the-
Nick: Dynamic soundtrack!!!
Reed: [laughs] -the dynamic soundtrack, y’know? We wanted to push that even further. We were all inspired by Nick and the characters he had created and were like, “How can we give these characters more personality and integrate them more tightly into the game?” Like, when I’m picking Wagner, I’m also picking him because I like the way he changes the soundtrack and the way the room feels when I’m in it.
Caelan: For a very long time, I thought the adaptive soundtrack was a terrible idea.
Reed: [laughs] You just thought it wasn’t gonna work.
Caelan: Yeah, I didn’t think it wasn’t gonna be cool. I didn’t necessarily have faith in our ability to pull it off.
Felix: [laughs] First time I’d done anything like this.
I’m interested in this “dynamic soundtrack”. I don’t think I ever really paid attention to it. Could you give me an example of how it might manifest a little more obviously?
Nick: A lot of people say that, then as soon as we tell you you’re gonna notice it immediately.
Felix: That’s a good thing to hear, because for a while it wouldn’t really work out. For example, if you’re on Rust Valley and you pick Nalani you’re gonna get this loud, sweeping melody that goes over the whole thing.
Reed: Yeah, you’ll hear woodwinds. The soundtrack has a basic spine, it’s got some basic drums and some sound effects that you’ll always hear. Then when you pick Nalani, you get the woodwind.
Nick: Then Momo’s the keyboard, Rohan’s the bass, Wagner is additional drums and weird… noises? Percussion is a good word, I think.
Felix: [laughs] Absolutely.
Reed: Then we added Santi after we’d already made two or three of the songs. Felix had to go back and find a way to add a whole string section to all these tracks that’s also like, not always there. But he came through, he killed it.
Caelan: So basically, the subtlety is something that isn’t intentional, but beneficial. Even if you don’t notice it specifically linked to character, it still prevents the music from getting boring. Once you learn about it, it’s a very cool thing to discover.
Reed: It’s a vibe. It helps people pick which characters they like, whether they’re thinking about it overtly or not.
Time for a Tune-Up
Now I need to pick the game back up and look for all these little details! With the visuals and the sound, you’re coming at it more from that artistic perspective and how it fits into every other element of the game. I love seeing stuff like that, like in Journey where the gameplay is just as important as the presentation. Seeing how different Treadnauts has become with all the changes and additions, was there a single defining moment where you guys realized: “Oh. Our game’s pretty fun!”
Reed: There were many moments! But it’s funny, when we look back we think “Oh, that build was trash.”
Caelan: Right, it’s sort of epiphany after epiphany. Like, the “shatter” was something that was introduced about a month before release.
Reed: Yeah, we were having a conversation about whether or not we should get it in on time. We still have some awesome stuff on our production board that we want to try that might be just as good as the shatter-
Nick: Curving the bullets! Pshoo!
Caelan: I’m constantly the guy who’s like “This is a terrible idea, how could you change the core of this game.” Then about 50% of the time I’m wrong.
Reed: But to answer your question more explicitly, from the beginning when Nick and I first played it, it was fun. It just felt good. We saw the potential to make it look pretty and feel better. I certainly didn’t have any inkling of how high the ceiling could go, but we figured it out pretty quick when we started seeing emergent mechanics. Like with the slide, we saw that when you’re sliding and you fire a bullet it gives you a huge boost. We didn’t even plan on that, it just happened.
What were some things (mechanics, features, etc.) that were cool in concept but bad in execution? What about the other way around: What didn’t initially work out that found its way into the final build?
Reed: Oh dude, “cough-shot” did not work out, but I still believe in the concept.
Nick: So the idea of the cough-shot is that once you run out of bullets, you have one blank left that gives you the movement recoil of the bullet without firing a shot. It wasn’t very readable. You thought, “Where’s my bullet?” as opposed to “I have a cough-shot”.
Reed: I still want to add it back as a modifier (customizable gameplay rules). We were at the stage where we started to realize that the game had the potential to be very competitive. We were getting frustrated because we wanted to turn the reload speed up so that you reloaded quicker. Because, when we were playing at a high level, we wanted to move fast and be fancy, move with style, but we couldn’t ’cause we didn’t have enough bullets. People that were just learning would just spam and it was really frustrating if they were reloading bullets quickly ’cause they would win by just being really greezy.
So we tried to add this mechanic where you could shoot when you were out of bullets and it wouldn’t shoot a bullet, but you could still have recoil and still do these crazy mix-ups. But it was hard to tell what was going on. Nobody knew what was going on, they were all like: “Am I out of bullets?”, “Am I not out of bullets?”, “I don’t get it.”
So how are modifiers designed and implemented? I recall speaking with Nick about it, who said it was sort of a slow trickle until most of them were just made in one day.
Nick: Yeah, Reed left early so it was just me and Caelan. With no PM to tell us to stay on track we just went hard on modifiers.
Caelan: Yeah I was just like, “Dude, let’s spend all night.”
Reed: I think I gave you guys my blessing on the way out the door, ’cause I remember even telling Felix, “You should do sound effects for these.” But I had no idea how many modifiers these guys were gonna crank out. They just killed it. They added the Jetpack, the Grappling Hook, the tank sizes (Big Tank, Small Tank, Hungry Tank), Lobbers, they just did all that it one night. I came back the next day and I was like “Whoa, maybe I’m a better Project Manager when I’m gone!” We kind of used modifiers as a break. If we were working on a serious feature and getting burned out, these guys would just be like, “Alright, I’m gonna do mods for a couple hours.”
Caelan: Right, and it’s a great way for us to explore different mechanics. All the different ammo types and stuff, we decided pretty early on we weren’t gonna go for powerups like Towerfall has. That just changed the game dynamic in a way we didn’t like. It forces you to control a point on the map that we decide, rather than what the best position is.
Reed: Makes it less like Melee and more like…
Nick: Melee with items on!
Caelan: But we still wanted to experiment with all those wacky, different effects, and also give the players a way to stretch out the game mechanics. One of the very first modifiers you just don’t have bullets, so you’re forced to squash people. Then things like Bouncy Bullets, which is just outrageous and not really fun, but the kids like it. [laughs]
Reed: Kids at cons love that mod! They just put all the modifiers on at once. It’s like mixing all the soda at the gas station.
It’s impressive that this is an Early Access release for you guys. Was the decision behind going into EA meant to ease the more full release in the summer? How have you differentiated between “Alright, this game is ready for Early Access” and “This game is ready“?
Reed: Porting to console would take a while, and we’re already on a tight schedule to do that. We knew we wanted to do a full release in the summer, ’cause that’s when indie games and especially indie multiplayer games can do well. We don’t want to get slaughtered by all the AAA releases coming out in the fall. When I was laying out our production schedule, I realized that in order to release this game on four platforms in the summer and have it be the game we’re gonna be proud of, we need to essentially finish the game and have two months budgeted for the port, then three months for tweaking and polishing.
So I’m sitting there and thinking, “Look, we’re gonna have the game done four or five months early. We might as well just put it out there on PC, get feedback, and build a playerbase while we’re making these console ports. Then we can just tweak all the bugs, knock out as many as we can, do any community improvements that people suggest, then we’ll have a killer product in the summer.”
Caelan: The secondary motivation behind Early Access that arose later on was having it be sort of a soft launch for the networking features. It’s very fun, it feels like Treadnauts, but it’s still quite buggy. With the small size of the studio we are, we don’t have the luxury of being able to test things on a large scale. We really had no idea how exactly it was gonna go, we’ve just been able to do tests in the office. So that’s been incredibly valuable to us, having a medium-sized rollout for that where people are hopefully a little more understanding about the bugginess. They get to constantly watch us improve that.
Reed: People have been awesome! I’ve just been blown away by the support that we’re getting in our Discord community, it’s crazy. People are super kind and really thoughtful. They’re like, “Yo! Make a public bug list so I’m not telling you about a problem you already know about!” And I’m like, “Dude! Yeah! I will do that for you, that’s great, thank you very much!” It’s awesome having the community. I genuinely like these people too, they’re funny and they’re just homies!
Nick: There’s a Word document with lore from the game that people are trying to piece together and figure out what things mean. They’re right like, half the time. I’m not gonna tell ’em!
- Topstitch Games has come out of the gate running. With a few months of tweaking and polishing before its full release, Treadnauts is already shaping up to be a fantastic multiplayer experience. Do yourself and three of your friends a favor and pick it up on Steam!