Swords, blood, shields, death – the bread and circuses that kept Rome, Rome. A new video game hopes to combine the brutality of gladiatorial combat with the fun of having friends over for beer and pizza – and hot damn if it doesn’t win the wreath.
Showing off their in-development Arena Gods game at the recent SXSW Gaming Expo, creators Mark Parrish and Rodrigo Costa said their goal was to create something their 10-year-old selves would be proud of, and after about working for over half a decade on other people’s social games, farming games, and lowest common denominator games, they wanted to strike out on their own and make something special.
Costa, Arena Gods lead artist, said going indie was Parrish’s idea, but leaving job stability behind was as exciting as it was scary, so he couldn’t pass up the chance.
“I always wanted to do something that was mine,” explained Costa. “Usually you just are subject to an art director or project owner, and you feel very restrained.”
Going independent meant working without company-imposed censorship or worrying whether this demographic or that demographic would like the game.
It also meant creating the “couch multiplayer” both men grew up playing.
“I’m from ’85, so I grew up playing Goldeneye on four splitscreens, and Bomberman on Super Nintendo,” Costa said. “Nowadays when you sit down and play a two player, all the emotions come to the surface.”
The end result is something Parrish, Arena Gods‘ game designer, said drew from some of their favorite classic and modern games. He doesn’t mind hearing comparisons to other indie hits like Hotline Miami, Nidhogg, Towerfall and Samurai Gunn, but at the same time, Arena Gods was meant to be its own animal.
“When you want to make something special, you also don’t want to just do what everybody else is doing,” Parrish explained.
As each round begins, two to four players emerge from underground staging areas to battle fist-to-fist until weapons are released onto the scene. With Pac-Man-like physics, players can run from one side of the screen to the other instantaneously, or throw weapons that travel around the “world” until they hit a target – but as simple as the gameplay is, the controls and mechanics are designed with nuance.
Before matches start, for example, gladiators can choose from a variety of helmets or go bare-headed. Unequipping the helmet at the start of the round gives a player an instant weapon advantage, and any player can pick up a thrown helmet and wear it while using both hands to carry various swords, spears, and shields, giving a single character between zero and three items at any given time. A correctly-timed dodge role before the round starts could also give a player a head start on the battlefield (not unlike the boost in Mario Kart) and the creators promise more tricks and tactics as players become more experienced.
The game didn’t start out this way.
While working for a gaming company in Beijing, Austin-native Parrish and Brazilian-born Costa decided initially to make a multiplayer shooter, but grew bored with the mechanic. Allowing one player to throw a gun at another player got them thinking about melee.
Costa said a ninja-based game would have been fun, but admitted that ninjas are a bit overdone lately. Finally, they just let the game’s development determine its course.
“We love beautiful looking games,” Parrish said, “but have you noticed when you play games like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, that every time you target a bad guy, they have to highlight him?”
That meant keeping the characters clearly defined by bright colors.
“At the beginning it was just the color,” Costa added, “then the tiny image of the helmet, and now you have the gladiator figure.”
Trial and error encouraged them to keep both the player characters and the background simple.
“Our mantra is: do not add noise that can make the player confused,” Costa explained. “We tried more complex geometry on the architecture, but it just gets too messy. … If they ground is too bright, you cannot see the weapons … with blue land, the blue guy would disappear. We found a formula and a range of colors we could use.”
Also important: keeping the gore appropriate. A player “wins” against a player as soon as the opponent splurts blood (or is dismembered, depending on the weapon used in the killing blow), but other than the bright, cartoony red, there is very little actual carrion.
“The blood is very low frequency. It kind of looks like a jelly,” Costa said. “We are restraining ourselves to ‘clean cuts, no guts.’ No, like, spinal cords coming out.”
The game has already gone through pre-alpha testing, and has been demoed at a few trade shows, but Parrish wasn’t ready to give a firm release date, or even format. Both Internet-based services like Steam and the various consoles are being considered, but Parrish said given the international nature of their company – including British animator Kyle Chapman, who’s helping polish their game – they wanted to keep all potential markets in mind when getting Arena Gods out there.
“I feel like, traditionally, things are so focused on North America and Europe, the rest of the world kind of gets a little left out,” he explained, adding that there’s a lot of tweaking left to be done. “Visually, we’re in the ballpark … of what the game is [meant to be].”
Costa added it would be fun to see the game as an old-school arcade someday – a sentiment echoed by artist Manuel Augusto Dischinger Moura’s 80s arcade cabinet-inspired promotional art – and that he hopes it will stand the test of time and have other games compared to it, instead of the other way around.
“We always wanted to have a long-lasting value game, for people to say, ‘Oh, [this is] a game like Arena Gods.'”
A quick aside: This article is intended to have the game creators telling their story, but speaking as a gamer, I played this game with my 30-something friends, pre-teen cousins, and my wife, and they are all demanding to know when they’ll get to play it again.
Give us a release date guys! This game makes the cut!