A gamedev story told by...Visual Artist: Thomas Feichtmeir Ready your weapons because we interviewed Pixwerk on their title, Tower 57: a fast-paced, arcade-style shoot ‘em up with highly destructible environments rendered entirely with 16-bit pixel art.
My name is Thomas Feichtmeir aka Cyangmou, and I’m the visual artist on Tower 57. My role on the project was to come up with the concept art and designs of the game. I laid out the basic structure of all the levels, did a lot of preliminary game design as well as testing. Every visual element you see in the game was illustrated and drawn by me.
Tower 57 was developed by a small team. We have Benitosub (Marco Pappalardo) who does all the coding and Rafael Langoni Smith, who is our musician and sound designer. I also want to mention 11Bit Studios, our publisher; they help us with all the marketing materials.
A Visually Striking Approach for Nostalgia
There are a variety of different artistic mediums ranging from 3D art, Lowpoly 3D to HD2D art. Then, there’s pixel art; it has a nostalgic factor, but as a medium, it performs outstandingly well for tasks like tiling and exact color control; making still images is only limited to your drawing capabilities. On top of that, pixel art is one of the simplest mediums to create traditional frame by frame animation. We wanted to challenge ourselves with the graphical representation of Tower 57 and the premise of the gameplay; pixel art seemed the best possible choice.
Importance of Color
Color and contrast control are critical for all visual crafts. Color is important to set the mood and make gameplay elements matter. In pixel art, you work with a limited amount of colors, but you don’t have gradients. Soft and low gradient can imply volume. Lighting can add a lot of atmosphere. It’s challenging to find the right balance between soft light and pixel art because you need a pixel art style that uses realistic shading. The light must be carefully balanced, so it doesn’t destroy visual clarity. The light gradients, in particular, are smooth and enhance the atmosphere.
Accomplishing the Amiga-style look
To achieve the Amiga-style presentation, we combined the elements of games from the 90’s on a 16:9 screen while using a pixel art aesthetic. Most arcade games back then were purely straightforward, and Tower57 can be played in a similar fashion, but it also has exploration and side paths. We wanted to focus on shooting to meet the idea of the gameplay style but innovate with some more modern elements. In the process, we used fancy arcade like pixel fonts. We also used a detailed pixel-shading style which is reminiscent of 90’s styles, but we tried to refine it for the crisp monitors of today as well as a single-screen co-op mode. The animations in the game run at 24 frames per second which makes the visuals smooth.
If you were to compare Tower 57 with actual Amiga releases from 20 years ago, there’s a huge difference. Mostly regarding graphics, gameplay, and controls. Today, most people have precious memories of beloved games they played earlier in their lives – and like all of our good memories, they’re even better than reality. But memories don’t fade while real games and real hardware do. The important thing was to capture the essence of the era and relate to peoples’ memories, but also enhance many aspects that appeal to a contemporary audience.
The level design process starts with a handful of words, which convey the big idea of the level itself and we prioritize them throughout the process. Every level has a unique element (or elements which get introduced later in the level) that feels natural to the level, and it keeps each new level interesting. The levels themselves must strike the balance between straightforward arcade-like gameplay and exploration aspects. The level architecture should go along with how most players feel at a particular point throughout the game. In the first few levels, we want the players to test out the mechanics. The later levels especially the ones in the middle contain mazes and we want players to explore or find different ways to complete them. The endgame levels are more linear but packed with heavy action to keep you motivated to finish.
Once there is a solid sketch on paper, I usually build a dummy for testing the size of the level. At this stage, a lot of ideas are generated. I might change the positioning or amount of rooms by making them streamlined or complex to get the pacing right. After I have the solid skeleton of the level, I exchange all dummy elements with actual painted art assets – which is the most elaborate step of the process. Then all the logic in the level follows. This means pre-planned objects, encounters, and gameplay elements get placed, usually by Benitosub, because he also codes the missing logic. At this stage, the level is in a playable state.
After a lot of playtesting, we try to find out where the level needs tweaking to be played in the best way possible, leading to more iteration and refinement.
Designing a Variety of Levels
Each level should depict a floor of the mega tower. Although all levels are interiors of a huge building, they all should feel diverse and have a clear identity. They should depict an area which is crucial for the world of the game. For instance, a canal which conveys a claustrophobic feeling should also play out differently than the upper floors, which mainly contain spacious halls. The challenge was to come up with a huge list of possible settings and room ideas and then make a good selection. Our focus gameplay-wise was to keep the player entertained by making the levels feel fresh and motivating.
Branching pathways must be applied in a way that doesn’t break the gameplay or storytelling. The levels in Tower 57 are designed thoroughly. Alternative routes and branching pathways are planned right from the beginning. There are also storytelling elements in most rooms. I usually start with a sketch where I draw the layout of the most important areas for a particular setting. I then try to connect them in a way which feels natural from an architectural standpoint which helps the intended pacing and gameplay planned for the level. It’s also important to maintain a level of ‘believability.’ By having a sketch, many more iterations follow until I have something which comes close to the vision I had for the level.
Destroying the Environments of Tower 57
Destroying the environments has a lot to do with how encounters play out. Depending on your weapon, the shooting style changes. Even if everything is destructible, there are some things you shouldn’t destroy because they might turn into traps. On the other hand, enemy fire can destroy things too. What makes it fun is little changes in the way you play can lead to different results, and it’s possible to use objects to your advantage. It’s also fun to place dangerous objects at spots where unless the player avoids them, they’ll likely cause mayhem.
Weapons of Tower 57
Every playable character starts out with a unique weapon intended for that character. The characters in Tower 57 can arm themselves with any weapon in the game. Some characters have abilities which make some weapons much more powerful. The Diplomat, for instance, is fire resistant; he starts with a flamethrower. If you like the style of scorched-earth gameplay, you might not want to change your weapon throughout the whole game. But eventually you’ll meet an enemy you can’t reach with the flamethrower’s limited range and the encounter itself could turn into your worst nightmare.
It’s game development. In every game, there are tons of ideas which don’t make it and ideas which sound great at first, but once you play them, they feel terrible. There are always shortages in terms of how many iterations you can afford and how long your budget will cover expenses. There could be more depth to everything. But what counts at the end of the day is the game is fun to play and the content works.
What’s in the final game are the things we think were the most important. In an optimal world with unlimited time and budget, the game most likely would look different. But some people say creative limitations can lead to more interesting results. From a game mechanic perspective, we had a lot of crazy ideas; playing around with elements like fire melting ice, ice freezing gas and so on. At some point, we played around with much more puzzle-focused gameplay. We designed weapons which didn’t work. We had orbs that contained elements of lighting once a player used them. We had giant open levels with dead ends much more focused on exploration.
There were ideas considered passable that didn’t fit with the “big picture.” But I guess it’s only natural you cut stuff which doesn’t work and emphasize mechanics which do work.
What made me proud was to develop a game as an indie developer. I think that was the most outstanding part of all. There were many obstacles and hardships we overcame. We started out as small “garage developers.” We had a Kickstarter campaign and worked for a year. Fulltime. Even though we had a limited budget, we still worked hard. We had enough creative freedom, aside from financial limitations. All in all, we were lucky to have this whole rollercoaster of an experience; one entirely different from any day job. Partnering with the amazing 11Bit Studios, they knew how to market Tower 57 perfectly. I’m looking forward to a successful launch of the game.
We like to thank Pixwerk for giving us the opportunity to discuss the development behind Tower 57.
by Noah Ezrin
Tower 57 is a throwback to classic arcade style games I grew up playing back in the day (ala. Contra). Combined with a pixelated art style that relies heavily on cooperative play, the destructive environments and the branching pathways allow for hours of play. I can’t wait to see what other surprises are in store as I ascend the tower.