Black Future '88 Developer Interview
Written by Rilogator on October 13th, 2018.
Recently, I got a chance to talk with Black Future ‘88 lead developer Don Bellinger to get a comprehensive preview into his upcoming game. We discussed his indie development journey and how Black Future ‘88 pushes the roguelike genre in new directions.
Rilogator: Where are you guys based, if you don’t mind me asking?
Don: I’m in Oakland, California and I have a few contractors that are in the East Coast and a bunch in France actually. We’re distributed and don’t really have an office.
Rilogator: Oh, that’s pretty typical for an online indie game project. So before I dive deep into the “hard-hitting” questions that I’ve got, is there anything you’d like to say up front that you’ve prepared?
Don: Yeah sure! Black Future ‘88 is a fast-paced, synth-punk, action-roguelike platformer where you only have 18 minutes to live before your heart explodes. In most cases the player will die well before then due to many, many forces that are against them. During that time, they’re trying to climb this procedural tower to destroy it, but along they way they pick up tons of weapons, lots of curses, drugs, and buffs. They can get addicted to drugs and if they repair a drone using their blood and they’re addicted, then the drone becomes addicted. They can pick up a lot of weapons that do really interesting things — all the weapon design is really idiosyncratic. Some of the weapons will shoot the player’s money as their ammo source and some actually use your time left to live as their ammo source. So they’re extremely powerful but kill you to use them. The player has some time recovery methods available to them, but they’re usually at some great risk or great cost, so it really incentivises fast, passionate, fluid gameplay.
Rilogator: That’s pretty crazy, so can the player win? Is there a win-state?
Don: There are a lot of failure states. There’s an easy ending, there’s a hard ending; it’s not the endless runner version of Dead Cells at all, but [the player] can also play perpetually if they plan carefully. There are win states, but they’re not currently in the game so to speak.
Rilogator: It sounded like you took that one kind of personally, is saying that it’s the endless runner version of Dead Cells something you’ve heard before?
Don: No, not at all! Just going straight from the dome this time.
Rilogator: No worries, I also work on indie games from time to time so I know what it’s like.
Don: Yeah, lots of people looking for points of reference, like synth-punk Contra or something. I get that a lot.
Rilogator: So, what was the inception for this idea? How did you come up with Black Future ‘88 and what’s a bit of your background?
Don: I started in the casual, mobile space making games for Facebook using Flash when that was a thing. I got more and more hardcore — worked on a MOBA for three years and that killed me. That was really, really brutal. I took a few years off, worked on other stuff, and really missed games. I wanted to get back in and go indie. There wasn’t really a genesis for the project, I just wanted to make a short play session action-roguelike, because that’s what I play. Just from having a kid, I don’t play hundred hour games anymore. I wanted to make a game soundtrack and no one was going to let me make one for their game since I hadn’t really done that before. So I started with a platformer of a Nuclear Throne ripoff and a soundtrack version of like a John Carpenter ripoff — that was three years ago. The two started to become more and more unique and then they kind of met in the middle. Then they went into their own directions and got really cohesive and really unique. That was really it, the game has always been a prototype in some shape or another.
Rilogator: So your publisher, Good Shepherd Entertainment has a bunch of weird stuff. How did you guys get hooked up with them?
Don: They actually found me in Steam Greenlight and that was kind of interesting. They’re really good partners, I really like working with them. Their business model is a little bit different, so they’re just generally slow to sign games compared to Kongregate or Raw Fury. I really wanted to work with them. I pitched to a lot of publishers and got a lot of rejections, and then spent a lot of time working on the game and pitching it again. At one point I had a few offers to select from and I thought Good Shepherd could do the best job with the game, and I still believe that. They work super hard.
Rilogator: That’s good to hear. So, how did you get the inspiration for this sort of game? I remember you saying gameplay-wise you were into things like Nuclear Throne, and even comparing Black Future to Dead Cells. What about just the theme and atmosphere?
Don: Yeah, for me it was more of that organic process that I mentioned, and [Black Future] really started to move into this hard 80’s RoboCop, The Running Man-esque sort of vibe. Just making the characters nihilists was really interesting, and forcing the player to play fast and recklessly. That’s pretty antithetical to a lot of roguelike design — you know the classic roguelike is that anyone can beat it, but you might have turns that take very long because the player has to think about everything. Black Future really throws that out because the player is always overwhelmed with something and it’s up to them to make a really fast decision, and usually live or die by the consequences. So that started to influence the theme and force the players to really play passionately. That really goes into the tight integration between the music and the world. The music of the game itself is the voice of the tower that the players are trying to destroy, so I think it’s a pretty cohesive experience for them between the gameplay, movement, music, and playstyle that the players are incentivized to take on.
Rilogator: So, you’ve mentioned before that some of the mechanics are to get addicted to drugs and what have you, so that goes along with the theme of “live fast, leave a pretty corpse” sort of thing.
Don: Yeah, exactly, “live fast, leave a pretty corpse”. That’s pretty good, I think I’ve heard that before.
Rilogator: Yeah it’s a saying, I don’t know from where though.
Don: We’ve been saying lately, “die like you mean it”.
Rilogator: That’s pretty good.
Don: Yeah, it’s more likely than not that the player is going to fail, so I just try and make it a fun experience that they learn from in terms of the rules of the game. It’s really fun. I really enjoy playing it.
Rilogator: So, speaking of music, you worked with a band called Tremor Low. How was that?
Don: Yeah, that’s actually my band, we’ve been together for almost ten years. I’m doing the core composing of [the soundtrack], but then we get together and do the drum tracking and bounce ideas off everyone.
Rilogator: That’s pretty cool. I was going to ask what it’s like collaborating with an outside band, but I guess you don’t.
Don: Yeah, it’s not really outside. I wouldn’t really want to collaborate with an outside band. I think the amount of control that you have to give just requires them to really be on the same page, otherwise you kind of just let them do what they want. Being that the game and band are similar projects, I can push them together into a unique direction.
Rilogator: I hear you on that. You said you’re the composer, you’re also the programmer or project manager?
Don: Yeah, I write all the code, all the music, all the game design, most of the visual effects, and I find contractors that can kind of fill in the gaps that I have, and they’re really good.
Rilogator: Is there any sort of gameplay-music integration? Does the music ramp up for anything during action or anything like that?
Don: It doesn’t do so much of that. I wanted to make a really tightly coupled music game but without it being a rhythm game. Some events happen on the beat, but not really in a way that would affect gameplay. A lot of things move and pulse with the music, but again not in a way that would affect gameplay. There’s also kind of a limit to how dynamic the tracks can be. That’s something I chose not to do just because it’s an incredible amount of work. As a small indie developer, I’m already trying to boil the ocean, so I had to leave that aspect out.
Rilogator: Is that pretty important to keep your scope controlled?
Don: Yeah, exactly. I think that it offers a really good experience and it really does meld gameplay and music very well.
Rilogator: Alright great, so you mentioned this earlier, but in general, what is your opinion on the resurgence of 80’s atmosphere type stuff?
Don: I actually grew up in that era, so I think there’s a younger audience that’s discovering it for the first time. I’m a bit older so for me I think my experience and fondness for it is a bit different. It’s certainly cool, but it’s a little scarily oversaturated to me and I wonder how much it can keep growing. At the same time it’s an aesthetic that I really like and as long as someone can try to add a new take to it and mix it up, I think you can still be heard. To me, I listen to a lot of synthwave that all sounds the same and I feel like maybe that sandbox aesthetic needs to grow a bit more.
Rilogator: Do you think you guys are pushing forward in that genre with Black Future ‘88?
Don: Yes, I do.
Rilogator: That’s pretty cool. So in general, what do you think makes your game stand out among the other fast-paced roguelikes? I remember you said “die like you mean it” and having a really forward-first gameplay style instead of sitting back and being strategic. Do you have any unique mechanics? I remember you mentioned different guns.
Don: Yeah, I think that the movement in Black Future is really expressive and as you kill bosses and wardens you upgrade your dash, which is the signature movement ability in the game. Each run in Black Future is really different and unique. So I think that the game feel has a lot more variation than a lot of other games. You can choose how you itemize your character, but the tower is upgrading itself just like you. So, the player is having a roguelike experience, but if you leave stuff on the ground the tower will eat it and take a buff for itself. The tower is also having a roguelike experience and it’s up to the player to either adapt around that or to plow through whatever strategy they might have and hope that they can not get themselves killed. So, each run is way more variant than a lot of other roguelikes, but also the experience of the game itself is way, way different. To me it feels a lot like a rock opera — it’s just so intense and in your face that it’s pretty unique I would say.
Rilogator: That sounds pretty cool. When do you think the estimated release will be?
Don: I can’t say. We announced that it would be available in 2018 on PC, but it’s getting kind of late for 2018. I think there’s going to be some announcements pretty soon, but at this point we’re looking at either 2018 or very early 2019.
Rilogator: Three to four years is about par for an indie game to reach its development cycle, so you guys are pretty much on track. If you had to throw out a number, how many hours do you think will culminate the average player’s experience?
Don: That’s a really good question. I haven’t really thought about an actual hour number — it’s very much a scale-based game and I playtest about an hour or two a night. I’ve not actually found the skill-cap. The game lets you keep getting better at it and will continue providing challenges, so I’ve played thousand of hours and still enjoy playing it. My experience is obviously very different from how most players are going to approach it, but I think there’s a lot of time that someone can put into Black Future.
Rilogator: So are you saying it’s not the kind of game that you beat and you’re done with it? You’re supposed to play until the player feels like he’s ready to quit?
Don: Yeah, more or less. There’s a lot of experience here, the players don’t really need to grind anything out like in Rogue Legacy or Dead Cells. The game also keeps changing the longer players play. Some strategies naturally become more viable and old strategies that used to work maybe are less viable. The nature of the game and meta changes continually, and that may not keep every player interested, but to me it’s really engaging. It’s really hard to put an hour value on what that experience looks like.
Rilogator: No, that’s alright, I hear you about that. So no matter how much time a player spends on it, in your wildest hopes, what impression do you want your players to have after they finish their time with Black Future?
Don: I want them to say, “Holy shit, what was that?! I’ve never played a game like that in my life.”
Rilogator: That’s pretty good.
Don: Yeah, it really designs for “holy shit,” and that’s my core design philosophy.
Rilogator: Definitely, I bet it’ll be an action-packed sort of game.
Don: There are some slow points in the game, like where your time left to live doesn’t apply to some rooms and pauses so the players can make a deliberate and careful choice. For the most part, it really paces to be quite fast.
Rilogator: Depending on the success of the game, are you planning on any post-release content?
Don: Yes. Sorry, I can’t be much more precise than that. I really like working on the game, I could add a lot of stuff. Just the way that the core game is built, it’s really sensible, but right now we’re really just zeroing in on a really solid experience that players get on release.
Rilogator: So that leads into my next question. You said that the core experience is locked down, so you don’t think that it will change significantly in the next year or so?
Don: I think it will, but with very small changes around how movement works. To me it feels like these are really big changes I’m making, but maybe not everyone will see them that way. But we’re also filling in some of the weapon gaps, as some just don’t have enough items in them. We’re kind of re-juggling content, but it’s really just about polishing the stuff that we already have and getting everything lined up to feel as good as possible.
Rilogator: Can you walk me through what the gameplay loop is at this point?
Don: Players start in their base, kind of a forward-operating base, and they pick their characters among those they’ve unlocked. Right now there are five main and two secret playable characters, and they each have their own starting loadouts and qualities. Sue starts addicted to drugs and that really changes how she might itemize herself. A lot of characters start flexible and can go in many different ways, but a character that starts addicted to drugs and has low health has a very specific playstyle that’s easier for her. So [players] pick their character, go into the tower, and run through it. There are a few alternate paths up the tower; there’s a really challenging shortcut, but it’s a way to save time. Every time you die you earn experience points and eventually you’ll unlock stuff. They might be new challenge rooms that teach you fine mechanics of the game, new buffs, a new hunter that will come out to try and kill you when you’re in the tower, or a new weapon. Players hopefully learn something from death and will be ready to go at Black Future again with what they’ve learned and new content that’s in the tower. So that’s the core loop.
Rilogator: And you don’t think that might change?
Don: Yeah, we kind of need more data to see how we might change it. We might need to do another beta test to see if it’s a good, satisfying experience for the players. I think what Dead Cells has done with unlocks has really raised the bar and changed how players approach action-roguelike games, and that’s really good but it means we have to make sure that we have a compelling experience.
Rilogator: Even Dead Cells has changed the way that unlocks work — both the passives and the items that get seeded.
Don: Yeah, completely. So, we’re just making sure Black Future is in line with what players expect and that players are really happy with that experience. How I feel about it is not really as important as how the consumer feels. We’re still collecting that data.
Rilogator: That brings me to my next question. A lot of roguelikes tend to attract streamer or Youtuber audiences. Is that something that you’re hoping to do or is that not a concern at this time?
Don: I think it’s absolutely a concern. I think that if you’re developing an indie game in 2018 you have to acknowledge that streamers are a huge part of that ecosystem. So, it’s definitely a thing that I’m thinking about a lot. There might be some features specifically built around that, but at the moment I can’t really say much more. In 2018, it’s a reality that I think everyone has to acknowledge.
Rilogator: Yeah, that’s pretty prudent to be considering it before a release even. The one question I want to leave off on is, why do you want us to do an interview about you guys at this time as opposed to later on when you have a demo out?
Don: I think now’s a really good time to start getting people interested in Black Future, just based on how we see our own timeline internally and some of the upcoming dates that we have hopefully showing the game in public spaces. So, I think now is really the time for us.
Rilogator: That’s good to hear, promotion is definitely great. I think you have guys a sizeable chunk of the game ready and thanks for choosing Launch Party Gaming, having us interview, thanks so much.
Don: Oh sure, absolutely. I really appreciate it.
Black Future ‘88 is currently pending release on Steam. Thanks again to Don for his time!
About The Author
I've been playing games for more than a decade with an extreme level of passion. I always go for 100%, the secret ending, the hardest challenges. Nowadays I'm trying to develop my own games, and offer you guys a critical eye on the games of today.