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Strafe is the best-selling game never published in 1996

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Lessons learned from Spelunky make it stand out from other shooters

I found Thom Glunt and Stephen Raney standing in front of an arcade cabinet. Tucked inside, behind the hollow shell of a Compaq Presario, was their baby — a game called Strafe. It lept into popular consciousness following a brilliant Kickstarter trailer featuring every single early 1990s gaming cliche they could think of. Now they’ve got a working demo of their retro first-person shooter, and it was on hand at this year’s PAX West for the public to play for the first time.

Glunt looked tired, but he was still talking a mile a minute. It’s been a long road to get to this point, he said. Three years of work to bring a working version of Strafe here to one of the biggest fan conventions in the world at the Devolver Digital booth, the publisher that’s helped fund the game.

"I just got off a five-day shoot for a live-action release trailer that we're doing," he said. "I'll tell you the premise: Strafe is the-best selling game of all time. ... My goal, as far as the marketing goes with Strafe, when we started with the Kickstarter we were first-time developers. We knew no one should trust us.

"We knew at that time, January 2015, that the gaming side of Kickstarter was starting to wane because of the vocal people who felt burned by failed campaigns. And the worst part was that a lot of the indie campaigns that actually needed the money to get by needed Kickstarter. They were the success stories. Then AAA developers started to come in and make money, but they had such a magnifying glass on them that when things were delayed or things went bad. That got so much exposure in the press that people were suddenly turned off by Kickstarter.

"Our options were either, we can take this route that's tried and true or, coming from video, I would love to make a '90s style commercial that kind of satirizes it in a loving way but turns it up to 11 and make that interesting instead of just having our dumb faces asking for money."

Glunt’s plan was to create a trailer unlike anything anyone had ever seen for a Kickstarter. Glunt leveraged his own background in commercial video production to make it happen.

"All my experience with game development came from me building levels for me and my friends to play in middle school and through college," he said. "And because of that, I ended up seeing this technology come out when I was at home writing show treatments and thinking, ‘Video sucks. I'm so over this and I'm really bored.' As a way to fill my time, and because I would stay up to date with game news, I found out about a software with Unity that let you model and realized this is what I used to make all those old mod levels."

And it worked, to the tune of more than $200,000. But Glunt he's still been relying on Devolver to help them get the game finished and help pay his eight-person team at Pixel Titans. It was at that point in the conversation that Glunt’s partner Stephen Raney stepped up to a vintage IBM Model M keyboard to show me how the game actually worked.

You can see the video of that play session above.

What makes Strafe unique is that, start to finish, the shooter is only about an hour long. But every time you start up a new session Strafe rebuilds itself. You’ll see the same textures and lighting from level to level, but everything about those levels will be different.

"We're intentionally trying to make it more like Spelunky," Glunt said. "If you're a high-level player, if you're really good at old school shooters, you can probably sit down and beat the game once without having to die. For having a shooter like this, it should be run based. Every zone — we have four zones in the game — is drastically different than the last because we have to generate all new geometry.

"Level one is always bright and outdoors and sunny. Level two goes underground and level three comes out in a rainstorm. But within that, all the procedural stuff is happening. It's still using the same rooms and stuff, but aesthetically, you're getting different songs for every level. You're getting a different welcome room that's consistent for every level. So every time you go to a different level, you're always going to see the same space that has random spawns and a different level exit spun off it."

In Strafe’s fiction, players take on the role of a deep-space scavenger that crash lands on an alien planet. Players will have to fight their way through several levels to repair their ship, called the Icarus, and make it home again. In the beginning they’ll have access to three weapons: a shotgun, a rifle and a railgun. Other weapons, like plasma rifles and missile launchers, will be available as pick-ups on each level.

"We want to give you a sense of ownership throughout the game," Glunt said. "So with this, you have a primary and a secondary, but you can change those throughout the game if you find upgrade machines. If you find these perks, you can upgrade the ammo, damage capacity, the accuracy and the rate of fire."

In order to upgrade your weapon, however, you’ll need to find an in-game kiosk. Players give up their weapon, which is accepted through a little slot by a robot that will look it over and then begin to weld new bits onto it. During that time you’ll need to defend yourself from aliens that spawn into the area.

You’re not just forced to put in-game resources like scrap at risk when upgrading your weapon. You have to put yourself on the line as well. The result is a tense standoff, with the big upside of having a much more powerful weapon for the remainder of your run.

"We don't want ammo to be a huge factor either," Glunt said. "We don't want it to be like survival horror where you're very aware of it, but I do like the moments where, if you're not paying attention to it or using secondaries too much, you can punish yourself by backing yourself into a corner or wasting those resource and having to resort to finding more."

When a gun does run dry, every weapon in the game has a melee ability. From pistols that become throwing stars to spent battery packs that blow up like grenades, each has its own perks. Even the environment itself can be used as a weapon.

"Every game has exploding barrels," Glunt said. "In ours, you can actually pick up exploding barrels and use them as grenades. If you're holding it and get shot, it blows up in your face. But you can take the pain to the enemy instead of just making them come around to it. We like the idea of making a playground or giving the player options so that there's multiple ways of handling a situation and the possibility space is larger."

That sort of improvisation should make the 60-minute experience highly replayable, and appeal to the modern-day streaming community focused on games as performance.

Strafe is scheduled to release in early 2017 for Windows PC. Glunt has a date picked out, he says, but he’s not announcing it yet.

"Level design for the game is finished and the art is complete," Glunt said "As far as the game, the programmers are working on connecting everything and balancing it. My job — aside from managing the team and producing, writing, directing and all of that — is making sure that the team is still working hard so I can go shoot a video without slowing down production.

"I know with a small team, people can be skeptical, but it's going to be awesome."