Interview: Honey Tribe Studios and Salamandaga

While Ao and Honey Tribe are obviously very different, it’s interesting that they’re both side-scrollers (from what we’ve seen so far, at least!). Were you able to piggyback on some of the game engine work done for Honey Tribe and evolve on what you’d accomplished there, or did you build Ao’s game engine completely from scratch?

Ryan: I approached Shaz wanting to do a side-scroller, and he refused at first, not wanting to repeat himself. But after coming up with mechanics like the “lane changing” you see in the trailer, it became clear that we had a much different type of game in mind.

Shaz: The scrolling method I used in Honey Tribe has come in pretty handy for Ao. So that’s saved a bit of time. But yeah, naturally I want to make a different game from what I’ve already done, so I was hesitant to have runner sections at first. Clearly Ryan must have secret and insidious mind control techniques!

When we show all the gameplay elements and the game as a whole, you’ll see it’s a completely different kind of experience. Ao is very much a “game for gamers.” So mobile phone owners who have enjoyed gaming on consoles, or as far back as the Amiga — they should definitely be happy with Ao.

We know you probably want to keep the second gameplay mode under wraps for now, but how do the running segments and the mystery segments relate, structurally?

Ryan: They will relate logically gameplay-wise. Put it this way, she’s running along with the “enemies” to reach something before they do. What might happen if too many reach the destination before her?

Shaz: Yeah, so Ashley and the planet’s native species are all running to the same destinations. Those destinations fit into the story of the game. And then the gameplay shift will be a counter balance to the running aspect. With the running, we wanted to give the player the feeling of freedom and agility — of being able to run through these beautiful landscapes while having all these cool abilities that you can pull off and feel like a fast-paced anime hero. The destination sections will vary the pace and introduce some problem solving into the action.

As far as the running segments are concerned, what does each of the action virtual buttons do, exactly? Are their functions split between air attack/ground attack, punch/kick, weak/strong, etc.?

Ryan: She uses two buttons, one for attack, which can be held down in order to sprint. The second button is a jump button. Swiping will change lanes so she can jump between the foreground and background.

Shaz: So one tap on the attack button will be the “light attack” elbow. Timed correctly, a double tap will trigger a roundhouse kick. And then a triple tap will activate an air uppercut. The jump button is the same: single tap, double and triple taps. While in the air, the attack button will trigger a ground stomp attack. And then you can keep cycling through the air and ground attacks to build up big combo chains. I hope that doesn’t sound confusing. It all feels very natural while playing.

Ryan: We want the player to string together moves as though it was a dance.

Let’s move on to the gorgeous artwork. Are all the characters and environments hand-drawn, or are we looking at 3D models presented from a 2D perspective? If Ashley and the various creatures are HD sprites, how does lane changing work – are the assets resized dynamically by the game engine, or are separate assets used depending on which lane the character’s in?

Ryan: Everything you see is hand-drawn, which translates into lots of hours behind the drawing tablet, but as you can see, it’s going to be very unique looking.

Shaz: It’s a 2D game but we use a couple of techniques like parallax scrolling and the shading on the characters to give the feeling of depth. Yeah, the assets are resized dynamically for lane changing. Optimization is something that I’m always thinking about. We want loads of cool animations, backgrounds, music and sounds, so sometimes you have to think creatively about how to organize everything so that the game feels how you want it to, while allowing it to run on older iPods. So rather than having duplicate objects all over the place, it makes more sense to reuse the assets where possible.

What level of anatomical realism did Ryan shoot for when designing Ashley’s movements and running posture? Were any real-world martial arts styles used as references for her attacks?

Ryan: There is a balance between realism and anime type art in Ao. Too much realism takes away the belief that she can do the great moves she does. But like I said before, we’re trying to do something new here, so too much anime, and we’d just be retreading many great games we’ve played before.

Shaz: When we’re deciding on moves, I quite like bombarding Ryan with video links of martial arts tournaments and films, or examples from anime and games. You can never watch enough training montages!