Galak-Z: The Dimensional, the sci-fi 2D shooter from Skulls of the Shogun developer 17-Bit, began life last year with a relatively standard structure: distinct, handcrafted missions spaced out with more free-form segments over the course of a few hours. The studio showed that version of the game at PAX Prime 2013 in one fully built mission, but it later became apparent that things weren't working. So the developers went in a new direction.
"We decided to go full roguelike," said Jake Kazdal, CEO of 17-Bit, in an interview with Polygon during a demo of Galak-Z at IndieCade East 2014 last Friday.
17-Bit's initial vision for Galak-Z included some elements from roguelikes, like procedurally generated areas of deep space filled with asteroids, aliens and abandoned ships. But they existed primarily to break up the missions, which took place in caves à la dungeons in Super Metroid. The game's aesthetic was always inspired by Japanese anime from the '80s — the Saturday morning cartoons of Kazdal's youth, like Macross and Star Blazers — and Galak-Z was presented as if it were a television series, complete with "we'll be right back" interstitial screens.
With that in mind, 17-Bit realized it could push the roguelike qualities of Galak-Z to the fore, and everything would still make sense. Instead of being an hourslong game with a specific progression of missions that take place in stages designed by 17-Bit, Galak-Z is now a roguelike with a structure akin to games such as Rogue Legacy and Spelunky.
A single playthrough of Galak-Z will consist of five or six missions concluding in a boss battle. The entire experience will take about an hour, and there's permadeath, so you start over if you die. Each playthrough functions as an "episode" of a TV series, and since stages are procedurally generated based on a variety of mission types, every time through the game will be different.
17-Bit specifically built the difficulty and pacing curves of the PAX Prime demo for that setting, with an eye toward gradually ratcheting up the challenge amid peaks and valleys of intensity. The problem with moving to a procedurally generated structure was figuring out how to quantify those curves so Galak-Z's engine could automate them and ensure that computer-generated levels are still fun to play.
"It's like a giant recipe," said Kazdal, referring to the variables that 17-Bit has to take into account. "You can't leave everything to chance." For example, the studio is hand-authoring "nodes" that will be randomly distributed throughout stages, providing unique arms of caves for you to explore. You might find enemies guarding loot, and you might find nothing at all.
The studio is spending a lot of time on that aspect of Galak-Z, but one piece of the puzzle that helps is the game's enemy AI, which is powered by technology from a software company called Cyntient. Galak-Z's world contains three warring factions: Imperials, space pirates and indigenous aliens. They're all hostile to the player character, a pilot named A-Tak. But you can use their ongoing conflict to your advantage — we watched Kazdal lure one type of enemies toward another, and then pick up the pieces after their battle concluded.
According to Kazdal, A-Tak's foes will also exhibit advanced behaviors that "you just don't see in video games usually," thanks to Cyntient's AI. Squads of the same race will communicate with each other, and while you can break line of sight with enemies, they'll do their best to track you down. And their voice chatter illustrates their intelligence: You'll hear them relay information about your location and spout more human-like shouts, like cries of despair when you shoot them down.
The loot you collect can be spent at a traveling shop, a ship that you'll find through the strains of dub music wafting through space. You can repair your ship and buy ammunition as well as weapon upgrades; there's a deep tech tree with weapon mods to fill out. New weapons come from blueprints found during the missions.
The goal, said Kazdal, is for players not to feel like a one-man army in space; instead, they should feel like they're always outmanned and outgunned, just barely surviving by the skin of their teeth. Before missions, you'll open up with what Kazdal called "chill time" — an expanse of space that you can explore at your own pace. You won't usually encounter fierce opposition there, but then again, sometimes you might — that's the beauty of procedural generation.
According to Kazdal, 17-Bit is aiming to release Galak-Z: The Dimensional in the "late summer" of 2014 on PlayStation 4 and Windows PC.