Richard and Claire Hill-Whittall are the beating heart of indie developer Super Icon, a studio that has been working on a game called Best Buds vs Bad Guys for the last 18 months. However, what sets this particular project apart from others is the fact that they've been working on it with their 11-year-old son, Lucas.
The game is a side-scrolling 2D platformer that draws inspiration from some of the genuine classics of yesteryear, but in a twist that'll warm the cockles of even the coldest heart, it features the father and son duo as the two main characters (in real life they call each other best buds - "or 'best' to keep it short" - hence the title).
We recently had the chance to speak to Richard about the collaborative project, as well as their studio, Super Icon, and given the heartwarming nature of the project, we jumped at the opportunity. But don't let our soft spot for a feel good story cloud your impression of the game; we played a preview build of the game and, while it's still rough around the edges, we like what we've seen thus far.
Best Buds vs Bad Guys is not the first game that Super Icon has made, with titles like Life of Pixel and Vektor Wars coming before it and sharing the retro theme, with gameplay and visuals reminiscent of titles that we haven't seen since much of since the days of the Amiga and other similarly classic consoles. "I think the main point you've probably noticed is I am a bit of a retro nut," said Richard, explaining his influences.
So what does this mean if we're more specifically considering one of the studio's past offerings, Life of Pixel. It's a platformer that takes in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, and it oozes homage. Hill-Whittall explained to us over Skype that they "wanted to do something different to what we'd done before - which was mainly casual/sports games.
"I'd always wanted to work on a pixel art project, as I slightly missed out the first time round on those. I started in games on the Amiga so I thought it would be fun to create a game which incorporated all those old machines and give me the opportunity to try my hand at pixel art for the various system limitations. I really enjoyed it and got quite into working on pixel art, so that is one of the main reasons we went that route with Best Buds."
The reasons didn't stop there: "I'd been trying to get Lucas into classic games, which he is, and it kind of felt right for Best Buds". Thus it became a project to push Richard's love of retro games into a modern and very personal experience, both for him and his son - the titular Best Buds.
"Vektor Wars was slightly different," he continued, reminiscing. "I'd always loved wireframe graphics, like the intro to Escape From New York with the glider coming into the city in wireframe. At the time Steve [Howard] (our coder) was working on Pixel, so I needed to do the game myself, so I used a couple of Unity plugins - UFPS (Ultimate First Person Shooter) and Vectrosity (a vector line drawing plugin). This allowed me to build the environments, get some gameplay going, ready for Steve once he finished up on Pixel - then he could take care of the AI and other tricky bits".
It's clear, then, that the previous games built by Super Icon have reflected the passion Richard - and now Lucas - have for retro gaming, and Best Buds vs Bad Guys takes inspiration specifically from games like Metal Slug and Ghosts 'n' Goblins. Richard said that reflecting his own love of these "is something I like to do in all the games, put in a load of references to classic games & movies. So in Best Buds I have little bits in each level that take influence from levels in games such as Contra, Ghosts 'n' Goblins, Green Beret, MegaMan, Black Tiger and quite a few more.
"I love those sort of games, and I guess it is my way of complimenting them - after all, I grew up playing them and wouldn't be making games if it wasn't for that." Perhaps not in quite the same way that Richard grew up with video games, Lucas is growing up with them too. After all, times have changed and we've come along way, games are everywhere and much more accepted by society at large. On top of that, game development tools are more accessible and more readily available than ever before. Making games is even a game unto itself these days (Super Mario Maker being a good case in point). Now the younger Hill-Whittall is learning to use these tools for himself, and with them create a game with his dad in a style that both of them feel passionate about.
It's very much a family affair, uniting father and son through the mutual love of retro games and a desire to exercise their creativity by producing their own authentic gaming experience. Much like Thunderbird, the VR title made by another father and son team (that won Best VR Experience at the Vision Summit awards), Richard and Lucas both worked together on designing the game, and even the title is a personal one as they call each other "best bud" in real life. Richard is the designer, artist and audio producer, and Lucas helped with all elements of the game. Claire, meanwhile, is responsible for business and marketing, and is enjoying increasing success in raising the profile of the studio.
The old saying is that family and business don't mix, but that's obviously not the case for the Hill-Whittalls. When we asked how working on the game with his family had been working out for him, Richard said "it was/is brilliant - we'd chatted about doing it for quite a while. A few years back I had Lucas and Holly (my daughter) record bits of speech for a game we did called Family Games. Holly also did some doodles that I scanned and used in that game. It felt right to do something bigger, especially as Lucas really loves games now. Claire is great too as she gives feedback and ideas, which really helps to get a fresh perspective on what you are doing. So about 18 months ago Lucas and I started thinking about what sort of game we wanted to make [and] the style to go for. Then we started with the notes for levels, weapons, enemies, etc."
What is crystal clear is that both Richard and Lucas have worked hard at making sure that all of their ideas are themed and in keeping with the concept, reflecting the creativity of Richard and particularly Lucas, who has helped his dad immensely with the creative process, making imaginative enemies out of Lego and giving feedback throughout the game's development.
Describing the journey from Best Buds vs Bad Guy's beginning, Richard said "the process has been great fun really. The biggest task has been the graphics - that is what took about a year of the time so far. I've done about 100 enemies, and the nine levels are split into various sub-levels and secret areas. It took quite a while - especially as my pixel animation was really bad when I started. Lucas has been there with feedback, new designs and ideas throughout. Most of the weapons, pickups and level ideas came from Lucas, we had long lists - and then I went through and chose a theme to work on from those. Levels were created and populated one at a time - so that is why now we need to go back through and properly balance and add in the global puzzles and such."
Richard and his son are both on the autistic spectrum, indeed, it's something that's upfront and centre on the studio's Kickstarter campaign. The developers don't shy away from it either, rather they embrace it and their can-do attitude is, frankly, inspirational. We asked Richard how it has influenced their collective attitude towards Best Buds vs Bad Guys, as well as games in general. "I think the main thing it does is to give you incredible focus - you often read about various tech guys with Asperger's, and I think in that respect it is a gift in getting things done, staying on track and focused on the project goals. It gives you a kind of unshakeable single-mindedness."
"The flipside of the coin is that socially, it kind of kills you. My social skills are terrible, and stuff like small-talk and general day-to-day conversation is often a bit of a mystery. I see people doing it, but if I try to do it myself more often than not I fail and end up rambling about something, aware the other person's eyes have glazed over. Lucas has certainly struggled with this - although these days the schools are very understanding and supportive. It has caused him a lot of problems though at times, and I am really keen to try and make sure that while he accepts there are issues he will always have to overcome, there are also advantages. It can be really positive, providing the negatives are well managed, but it can lead to bad depression and poor self-esteem."
Richard has previously said that the game helps prove to both him and his son, as well as the world, that "having a condition like Asperger's doesn't prevent you from making your dreams and ambitions come true." And quite right too.
Designing Best Buds vs Bad Guys (as well as playing other games) acts as an outlet for the pair. It's a project for the two of them to focus on and through which they can share their love of retro games and collaborate in a way that many parents and their children don't get to. "Having a focus, something to go to and put 100% into, even when things are going bad, is essential. I think a person with Asperger's tends to think and analyse things too much, and become their own worst enemy - and focusing positively on something else completely takes you away from that".
Focus is one thing, but you still need the skills to go with it. Computer science and game development are increasingly prominent in modern education, with the current Government making an effort to integrate the required skills into the curriculum. Lucas is a part of an upcoming generation that'll be able write software, not just read it. "Schools are actually really coming on with teaching games creation now, which is nice," Richard told us. "He has done quite a few projects in Scratch, and is also a big Minecraft fan - he has built some amazing stuff. And then stuff like [Super] Mario Maker is great too - he really enjoys experimenting with those".
Of course, having a father who is so fond of retro games has also helped inspire him too, with Richard encouraging him to try the same kind of titles that he liked as a kid - and it seems to have rubbed off on him. "I even got him doing a bit of pixel art and level creation in the Tiled map editor (which is what we used on Pixel and Best Buds). I think he's got an eye for pixel art".
We also asked Richard about the dev tools they're currently using for the game and its development: "We use Unity now for everything," he told us. "Day to day I use ProMotion and Photoshop for art, Lightwave for 3D stuff and the Tiled editor for level creation. So the Pixel/Best Buds engine uses Unity and a plugin called 2D Toolkit (we started Pixel before Unity had its 2D support). And we use the Unity asset store quite a bit for certain plugins and tools that help - there is some amazing stuff on there".
We've only tried an early build, but Best Buds vs Bad Guys looks like it's going to be a fun game with all kinds of retro elements packed into it. But it's more than just a game with potential. It's also something more personal; the digital adventures of a father and son fighting pixelated monsters, and a very real journey through which they've strengthened their relationship whilst working on a project that reflects their mutual passion for video games. On top of all that, it also gives them something to focus on when their shared disorder conspires to make the world a more challenging place, and that alone makes it a worthwhile endeavour.
The project is currently on Kickstarter where it needs £4,500 if it's going to get funded (at the time of writing they're nearing the £2K mark). The campaign includes a whole host of rewards for potential backers as well as gameplay details, previews and much more.
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