Interview: Zapling Studios Justice Royale iOS Game
Life in NYC is anything but easy. Sometimes we are pushed too far and justice must be served...
While on a recent trip to New York City checking out the retro gaming and arcade scene, I found myself at the Video Games New York store browsing for a few key titles where I met up with Jermaine Wynn of Zapling Studios. As a fan of the classic beat ‘em up/shoot ‘em up genre, I mentioned to him that I was currently restoring a 1987 Double Dragon arcade machine. Our conversation quickly changed focus when Jermaine told me about a new iOS game called Justice Royale that Zapling Studios has been developing. Justice Royale takes the classic beat ‘em up formula to a new level with power ups, unique controls, cuts scene animations, rpg elements, catchy tunes, and a fun art style. Intrigued to learn more about the game and wanting to play it for myself, I sought permission to join the beta test and for a chance to ask Zapling Studios members all about Justice Royale.
ArcadeAction: Thanks for taking the time to talk about Justice Royale. As a long time fan of classic arcade and console games like Double Dragon, Street Smart, Final Fight, Altered Beast and a sometime game and art developer myself, I’m always interested to learn what’s new on the scene and spread the word.
Tell us, if you would, how Zapling Studios formed, what games influenced you in the design process and what motivated you to develop Justice Royale?
Quintin: Thanks for taking the time to interview us, Scott! I grew up playing Double Dragon on the Sega Genesis, it was the only game I had for a while so my sister and I thoroughly mastered it. From that point on Beat ‘em up’s and Fighting games were my main genres in gaming. Once the indie mobile scene started up, I noticed that Beat ‘em ups were barely given any love. The available games either had big buttons taking up the screen for attacks or were just had gameplay too slow for my tastes. I spoke with Davis about starting up a company based around a fast paced Beat ‘em up with controls made for mobile and the journey began!
Davis: Hi Scott. Quintin and I were both interested in creating games and after some discussion we decided on Justice Royale and just went for it. Obviously the games you named were a big source inspiration but on top of that we wanted to add tangible growth to a player’s character, and for that an unlikely source of inspiration was DotA, specifically for skills and way characters scale as you progress.
Justice Royale - The Game
ArcadeAction: After having the opportunity to play several stages of Justice Royale, one of the more striking features that stood out to me were the controls. Often times when playing a game on a cell phone/tablet touch screen device where there are no physical buttons, the controls can often sloppy. This happens due to the fact that everytime you lift your thumbs and press down again you increasingly become off-center as there is no tactile feedback, i.e. you think you are pushing “down” but actually end up pushing “right”. With Justice Royale, you seem to have removed this limitation with they way your controls are implemented by creating an auto-recentering joystick with the left thumb (configurable in the settings), and unique swipe controls with the right thumb that allow for a variety of interaction. Rather than fighting with the controls and becoming frustrated as with many other iOS games, I instead became more engaged with the game as I was consistently able to move and perform a full variety of attacks as intended. Many games for iOS seem to have “dumbed down” controls compared to what you might find on a typical console versions but Justice Royale keeps pace.
How did you come up with the idea to develop these controls? And what challenges/creative brainstorming was involved in the process? I would think other games could certainly benefit from your style of controls, correct?
Quintin: We played a ton of mobile games to understand the landscape. The majority of them had on-screen buttons that were huge and took away from the artwork, so we wanted to make a scheme that was more in tune with how mobile users operate. We had a team meeting to discuss the control scheme and all agreed on making it revolve around gestures. The main issues were how to distinguish between gestures that could be linked to activating specific moves. The main premise was for our game would feel like a controller in your hand.
Having a thumbstick that appears where the thumb is placed was the easy part, as most games have that kind of feature. That’s about all we can say without giving away a trade secret with the gesture controls! In terms of our controls working with other games, it depends on the genre. Anything focusing on action with beautiful artwork could definitely use a visually minimalistic control scheme. We will continue to refine our controls for future games and updates to Justice Royale!
ArcadeAction: So far in my experience playing Justice Royale, the game’s storyline seems to mesh pretty well with the reason many people pick up and play games: they want to let off some steam and maybe score some points and feel they’ve accomplished something. In Justice Royale, you basically get to do that. Essentially, the story itself seems to revolve around an urban main character minding his own business when he becomes harassed by people on the street. Time for some Justice…Royale style! He/she puts on his/her gloves and goes out for payback in a comical fashion - with the opportunity to perform Shoryu-Reppa-multi-launch-style juggle combos and special moves in the process!
For me, it captured a similar feeling I’ve had when playing Punch-Out!! where the characters all take themselves so seriously, and yet they have a humorous side in their design and movements… and that’s why it’s fun! When walking through a packed subway, I’ve ridiculously thought: “I wonder how big of a combo I could get if did a full roundhouse tatsu hurricane kick right now?” Justice Royale pretty much let’s you find out without causing any real harm. Is the “letting off steam in a fun way” a bit of the feel and concept you were going for in the game? What other themes shaped your game design or inspired you?
Quintin: I played a lot of Castle Crashers back in the day, and I loved the humor in that game. Growing up in New York City we realized we have so many elements of satire here to play with. From bikers going the wrong way and almost hitting a pedestrian crossing the street, to the showtime dancers performing dangerously close to the elderly on a moving train, the material here is endless. In the end we do want most stages to have silly motivations for the hero to act, but also we want to eventually have a steady storyline which shows the character’s growth.
Davis: Everybody has encountered or witnessed situations where someone commits an atrocious act and wished we had some something about it. Our characters encounter those situations and react in ways that many of us wish we could. But the question becomes "is that always the right thing to do?" Our characters will go on their journey trying right the wrongs of the world and we hope players will have fun along the way.
ArcadeAction: Justice Royale graphics looks to use a smoothly animated, pen and ink sketch-style that looks great and matches the scrappy attitude of the main protagonist characters. The game also includes a welcomed interface that lets you customize your character’s color design. What games/anime or art give you inspiration? Based on the style, do any of your members have experience with comic book creation or design?
Davis: Yea, great guess! I’m a designer by day with a love for comics. With Justice Royale we really wanted to differentiate ourselves amongst mobile games, and for art I wanted to bring hand drawn frame by frame animations. And I gotta give some love to Newgrounds.com here, I learned to animate as a kid by watching all the great works posted on that site.
For character designs, they weren’t influenced by anything specific, it’s a more of a case of form-fits-function. We want the characters to have personality and be clearly visible during fast gameplay, so only the most important parts of characters are emphasized. In the case of our main character, he’s angry, fights like a boxer, so his face is angry and his fists are big, round, and red. While our Gym Bro boss is super muscular and intimidating so he get’s a fully fleshed out upper body, and players will know “It’s gonna hurt if he hits me” from the moment they see him.
ArcadeAction: Since the days of Pac-Man which was released in 1980, cutscenes have been an important part of gaming that add a narrative and depth to the game play. One of my favorite parts of Justice Royale are the cutscenes that appear before the levels. I’m looking forward to playing through more and more levels just to watch the cutscenes alone. How many individual cutscenes did you create for the game? Are cutscenes one of the more time consuming parts of the game’s development?
Quintin: We decided to add in cutscenes to give some depth and world building to the game, a bit later in development. Each stage has an intro cutscene, so we’ll have five for the initial launch of the game. Every stage will have a cutscene to explain why you are running around fighting people. They are pretty time consuming and right now I don’t know how we can reduce that, but hopefully we will get more efficient at them over time.
ArcadeAction: I enjoyed watching the promo videos you’ve made for Justice Royale, especially the live action: “Talent Trailer”
How long did it take to shoot/produce that video? It looks like it was shot right on the streets of NYC. Tell me, do you ever carry a backpack stuffed with Everlasts on your daily commute in the event that “justice needs to be served”? :-)
Quintin: Happy you enjoyed those videos! They were a lot of fun to make! It took us a whole day to shoot both videos, plus a couple of days to record gameplay and post production. We were happy to be assisted by my friend Jackie and my wife-to-be Mi’Kele, who are film graduates and made the shoot amazing for us. My friends Alex and Amanda helped out as well by being a part of the commercial. It’s probably good that I don’t travel with boxing gloves in my bag, I get way too many reasons to use them just by walking through the city!
ArcadeAction: Role playing game elements in games can add a lot of variety and depth as you are always looking to level up, and can provide a ton of replay as you can choose to restart and play through the game in an alternate way using different skills/attacks. The RPG elements in Justice Royale reminded of the NES version of Double Dragon where experience points allowed you to build up levels to perform an increasing variety of attacks. With Justice Royale, though, you of course have way more options at your disposal, including a menu selection of attacks, defense, and utilities you can selectively choose to upgrade using points you’ve earned in the game. All of which makes players want to come back for more. Special moves like the Meteorcut are especially fun to pull off. The Heroine character has a creative use of the umbrella. How did you decide on the set of moves or attacks included in the game? What are your inspirations? I would assume they needed to go hand in hand with the types of controls you have implemented and make sense.
Quintin: We knew that we needed moves that were the foundation of a beat ‘em up; melee attacks, an air attack, evasion and crowd control. In terms of skills we wanted to make them be broad and have uses that could be applied in certain stages or difficulties. They each have their own personality in a way, and can make the way you play a stage change depending on what you have equipped. There were some moves that are inspired from fighting games. I loved playing as Terry in Mark of the Wolves, and our Shoulder Tackle skill is a homage to one of his attacks. In terms of some of creating moves, usually we discuss how the character operates and what we want their playstyle to be like. The heroine character (who will be released in our first update) is meant to be an airborne fighter, her moves have to be precise and deliberate to hit. She is meant to be the advanced character that takes a while to master. Meanwhile the hero character is the default “spam your way out of a problem” archetype that lets you make some mistakes while still being effective.
Davis: We had a long list of skill ideas and picked the ones you see as a starting point. The stages have very different pacing and challenges, so the skills are the tools we provide players to tackle those challenges. A combination of skills might give you great sustain for a long stage with many enemies, but that same skill combo might not give you the damage necessary to beat the bridge encounter where you fight a single boss. With the skills seamlessly integrated into the tight control system, I think we’ve given the players the ability to express themselves in gameplay and have the character feel like an extension of themselves.
ArcadeAction: Justice Royale features a catchy selection of music tracks which conveyed to me a “man on a mission” feel, some of which reminded me a bit of the Beverly Hills Cop theme and made me recall elements of Mortal Kombat. What type of influences did you have in creating the music and effects? What type of instruments, equipment and/or studio was used for creating and recording?
Shane: Justice Royale was born out of a love for old school beat em ups, so going into the initial production phase we definitely had games like Streets of Rage, Final Fight, Double Dragon, etc as a point of reference. I spent some time with these games and took note of the sound and style of the compositions, but I think we quickly decided that these should serve as merely a starting point to grow from and that we wanted the overall aesthetic to be referential but not derivative. So as you can see with the art direction it has it's own take on the genre but is not decidedly 8-bit or 16-Bit. Likewise, I wanted the sound to hint at its roots but not be straight up chiptune, so I incorporated sounds from really old school stuff. I used a C64 chip and Oberheim Matrix alongside more modern synths like Omnisphere, as well as a lot of original sound creations of my own design. The software i use is Logic Pro with a whole suite of plugins such as Native Instruments Kontakt and Arturias softsynths.
Justice Royale Release Date & Distribution
ArcadeAction: What is your projected release date for the iOS version of Justice Royale and what is your roll out strategy? I heard you may release the game in the European market or outside the USA initially and then release it to the States. Do you have future plans for a release on Android or other platforms? What type of promotion (game expos etc) have you done for the game so far?
Quintin: We are working on soft launching asap. We are looking at Canada and the UK as some of our initial countries to release on. We’ll be monitoring the releases to make sure there aren’t any major issues that happen, also to see how the players are enjoying the game. We will then release in the USA once we’ve analyzed all the data and fixed any game breaking issues, which I pray there won’t be any! We’ll be porting to Android eventually, I have to reprogram the whole game in the Unity engine, so that we can be multiplatform. We have gone to many expos over the years, including Playcrafting NYC, MagFest, AwesomeCon, Gameacon and Game Devs of Color Expo.
ArcadeAction: As a game developer, how has your experience been developing and preparing to release an iOS game on the App Store? Compared to the past decades of boxed/disk/cartridge/CD distribution, the freedom of digital downloads must be liberating, correct?
Quintin: This is my first game ever and I have to say that developing on iOS has been pretty amazing so far. Working on iTunes Connect and the Developer Portal is easy and straightforward. With Apple we have a set idea of the specs for all the devices our game will run on, so it was easy to get consistent performance across the board. With Android there are so many devices to account for that we didn’t feel our first game ever could be properly debugged and tested to ensure a perfect launch. The game engine we used, Cocos2d, has a great community and loads of tutorials that made learning it and understanding how iOS interacts with it easy and efficient.
ArcadeAction: From a game collector’s standpoint, we often like to have a shiny new box with printed art to place on our shelves when picking up a game. I suppose games could possibly even display a code of sorts upon reaching a certain level or achievement to earn some swag as a method to encourage further play and obtain something tangible. There are so many ways developers can now interact with gamers in ways they couldn’t have in the 8,16, 32 bit console era. Do you feel today’s digital distribution method can actually add more value to a game, since it allows developers to add additional downloadable content and features in a cost effective method - thereby expanding and enhancing a game’s universe as time goes on?
Quintin: I definitely feel that digital distribution can help game longevity. It is a double edged sword though as some games are released quickly and feel unpolished, because the developers know they can patch over time. That is something that we do not want to do. This is our first impression in the mobile gaming market, so we wanted to come off solid. While we may not have a ton of stages at launch we have enough skills/stats to upgrade, differing enemy AI by difficulty, gameplay and unlockables to keep people happy while we work on more content. We want the world of Justice Royale to grow over time, with new stages, challenges, skills and unlockables.
ArcadeAction: When developing Justice Royale, did you often have late night code crunching sessions, music recording sessions, team story boarding meetings, or has it been a more steady progression with schedules and deadlines you have attempted to reach over a period of time? Perhaps a bit of both? What has the game development process been like for you?
Quintin: I have had lots of nights with minimal sleep in the beginning, mainly because I was learning our game engine and also about game design. As we got further along, about a year or so into development, things began to go faster and just click. I was able to have more time to do other aspects like marketing, analytics and artwork. Because our team all work full time jobs it’s not easy to have everyone together in one place, so we would have a meeting together when we could and assign tasks to everyone. Then we’d basically hound each other for whatever task was needed. I’m sure things will get better and be more timely in the future, but so far I’ve learned that deadlines are very hard to meet. Mainly because we didn’t understand how long a task may take when we created it. Moving forward we have a better idea of time management for assets creation, code modification and other task, so we can plan accordingly.
ArcadeAction: Which features of Justice Royale are you especially proud of? Please tell us about any other features of the game, development, or stories you’d like to share.
Quintin: I love the controls, gameplay and the art style. We spent about a year user testing our game when it was barely in a playable form. We hounded people who were stuck on lines at NYC Comic Con to get their feedback on the controls and flow of the game. We went to every expo we could to see the ways people hold their devices and how their fingers are drawn to the events on screen. To see people get excited about the speed of the game, learn how to make their own combos and scream over a cool special effect from a skill they used has been the most rewarding thing to me.
Davis: It’s the controls for me as well, and the fact that people actually get it. Throughout our playtesting, a major challenge of having a new and unique control scheme was “How do we teach people to play the game without us standing there telling them how?” We refined the tutorial level endlessly until we got to a point where we can hand people the game and they can just play it. A moment that stood out to me was then a little girl around 4 or 5 years old came to our table with her mom, picked up the game and beat the tutorial level on her first try and had a lot of fun doing it. At the time we weren’t sure if our tutorial was a success yet, and seeing a small child beat the level felt like we have passed a major milestone.
ArcadeAction: Have any Zapling Studio members been involved with other game development prior to Justice Royale, whether it be music, art, programming, concept or promotion?
Quintin: No, we are all rookies here!
Future Games from Zapling Studios
ArcadeAction: I heard that you may have a couple more game titles or concepts in the works. Are you able to tell us any details of what these games may be like?
Quintin: We can’t say much yet, but there are plenty on the list. Of course we will be extending Justice Royale with our heroine character, new stages and new skills. We have a couple of ideas that are more puzzle-based, quick play type of games that we hope we can create in a short turnaround time!
More From Zapling Studios:
YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC17WQ03-Mnuz4IH-F8rzMag