The SXSW Gaming Expo is a clash of ideas. The biggest things you’ll notice are similarly the largest companies. Nintendo dominated the front entrance with an overhanging Wii U- and 3DS-branded mothership that rivaled Independence Day. Xi3 had basically constructed a foggy, thumping nightclub right next to it, which itself takes up the place next to the GEEK Stage where all the big names will talk about stories and audio design. Of course, walk a little deeper, and it’s hard to ignore the IGN IPL stage which takes up the almost the entire width of the exhibit hall.
Take a stroll through the trenches, though, and you find some of the smaller guys. Devolver Digital, the Austin-based publisher of Hotline Miami and the recent Serious Sam revivals, has a nice crowd, as does burgeoning Wil Wheaton-boosted TableTop subsidiary of Felicia Day’s Geek & Sundry initiative. Compared to the aforementioned goliaths, these fellas are half a David combined.
And then there’s Syraca Studios. Or rather, there’s a guy who calls himself Syraca Studios (he refers to him and the studio in the plural a lot). David Tian is a one-man operation based out of Austin. Originally from the Texas capital, he moved to Seattle to work for Amazon, but soon found himself back in the Keepin’ It Weird city with one goal in mind: make a video game.
“I only came back a couple months ago,” Tian said as we chatted in his sparse booth space. Well, sparse in the sense that there only was a TV, an Ouya, and two controllers under the tent. Every time I passed by, there was always someone in there playing his debut game Phoenix Revival. Perhaps it was because it was a fun and attention-grabbing game, or maybe it was the high score competition to win free stuff.
“I haven’t really been immersed yet in the Austin indie scene,” said Tian. “But everyone starts to get identified by their indie style, I guess, and we’re getting to be known as the Ouya guys.”
Back at Amazon, Tian was a mobile app developer in the mobile innovation division. “It was a great learning experience,” said Tian. “I learned how to make products that change people’s lives.” But he also learned a lot about just straight-up mobile development. His time in Seattle garnered him experience developing for both iOS and Android. So then the question is why Ouya?
“Ouya is new. We wanted to pick something up and coming rather than develop for something already established,” said Tian. “As an indie firm, we don’t have a lot of money to spend on marketing. Usually an app that gets a million dollars costs like $100,000. I’m also the one that funds this and I’m living out of my savings account basically.”
“Android and iOS are very developed and fraught. Most people know about them. It’s hard to get distinguished, so unless you had about $100,000, it would be very hard to make a successful app on day one. Some indie developers, if they get picked by Apple, they get a lot of free attention.”
With a new, untested platform like Ouya (and GameStick and GCW-Zero, two other open-source gaming platforms Syraca will be developing for), it’s still a bit of a gamble. It’s a much more open range with more possibility to get noticed, but the audience is also inherently smaller and more ephemeral. “We’re rolling the dice a bit,” said Tian. “But this is one of the best ways as an indie developer. About 1,000 to 2,000 developer kits were shipped but there’s not a lot of games out there. Day one might have 200 indie games, but first-to-market is the best advantage of all.” True or not, Tian seems to believe it. Phoenix Revival took about two weeks to code to get it up and running.
A lull in passersby has hit the booth, so we take some time to play the actual game. It is, for the most part, a dual-joystick shooter where you move your little round spaceship with the left stick and aim with the right. In its current form, you can choose in the menus (which are very obviously Android-based with the telltale gray/orange text buttons) to be either a tank or a healer. A strange combination. Surely there must be some impetus.
“We saw a lot of space shooters and we noticed they were mostly one player. Ikaruga was done pretty well but it was just two players, not four players. We wanted to take the ships and assign different roles like tank and healer and spell caster to give it more variety and more cooperation. We feel like that sort of game is lacking and that we can capture on all those points and do it really well.”
As for inspirations, Tian listed 1942 and Space Invaders among them, but that’s only half the equation. “The other half is stuff like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, DotA, and all that because we like how they cooperate,” said Tian. “They have all the classes and they’re really amazing but obviously there’s nothing like that for space shooters.”
Phoenix Revival in its current (and nascent) form has just two players as the two roles of tank and healer fighting to get through structured swaths of non-shooting but highly mobile spiked enemies, but the cooperative hooks seem to be in place. The tank has much more health than the healer, so the healer will often hide behind the tank as waves come flooding in. Press any one of the four face buttons and you’ll cast one of four spells. The tank has a black hole spell that provides some much needed crowd control and a flared out swirling attack spell that does some hefty damage. The healer, obviously, heals, though both of them have shields that can be used at any time.
As I said, though: this is a very early build of the game; you can see debug information dump out onto his laptop. But Tian hopes to add an item house, virtual currency, more classes and bosses and enemies, and a bunch more by the time Ouya launches. “We will definitely have it done by day one,” said Tian. He also plans to eventually (or rather hopefully) port to Steam and Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but mobile versions for Android and iOS seem largely out of the question for now since, without controllers, they would have to be rebuilt as completely different experiences.
For now, we’ll just have to wait and see. Phoenix Revival certainly is an interesting take on space shoot ’em ups, but there are plenty of questions that linger over its development. How much can be added before the impending Ouya release? Will gamers be receptive to whatever it ends up being? Can Syraca find a way to stand out even among 200 potential launch titles? I really don’t know, but I do know that for two months’ worth of work, Phoenix Revival is a pretty fun way to roll the dice.