Whilst scouting out for new indie developers over the past few weeks, there’s been one developer working on a particular title in particular that I’d had my eye on for quite some time. Ampersat, developed by Gaterooze Ink operating from Australia, is a rogue-lite bullet hell RPG, whereby players must guide an anthropomorphic ampersat across a wide array from different environments, along the way solving various puzzles and contending with hordes of enemies in order to progress. The RPG element exists in the ability to upgrade the player’s stats for things such as attack, defense, and critical hit rates to make the player character stronger over time. The game was heavily inspired by the likes of old-school Legend of Zelda and arcade classics such as Smash TV.
Wanting to find out even more about this game, I contacted the lead developer, known across the indie community as The Pale Gibbon, and asked him a series of questions relating to the game and what players can expect to see upon the release past the initial Steam demo. Here’s what The Pale Gibbon of Gaterooze Ink. had to say about Ampersat:
Where exactly did the idea to use an ampersat as the game’s main character come from?
I was a huge fan of the original Rogue games – Nethack, Moria, TOME, and especially Angband – which all used an ampersat for your hero (out of necessity in those days). The original spark of an idea for Ampersat was combining ASCII characters for your avatar and enemies with colorful pixelesque environments in “proper” 3D top-down. I thought the mix would be interesting, and it turned out exactly how I imagined so I’m extremely pleased with that.
What has the developmental process been like?
Incredibly fun! I’m lucky enough to be able to develop full-time, so every day (and I mean EVERY day, for 12-16 hours) I just sat down and worked through the massive list of things in the dev plan. Broke it into workable chunks so that every day I achieved something, then overnight I “dream coded” so that I could hit the ground running the next morning with a bunch of code already written in my head. I have to say, nearly all of the actual development was an absolute joy, I loved creating something every day.
How close are we to seeing the finished product?
It’s done! Well, barring anything else coming out of the console QA (like the gamepad UI handling improvements from the first round) – and there is always the temptation to keep tweaking the balance, like armor stats or perk attributes. The idea was to have the Steam and console releases be in the same week or so if possible, so Steam has been pushed back a bit to accommodate. The demo on Steam now is essentially the final game but with only 2 (of 50) levels accessible, and the village Well (procedurally generated levels) can’t be unlocked.
What has been the most exciting aspect of development?
I wanted to make every element from scratch – coding, art, music, etc, and I have to say coding was by far the most enjoyable aspect. It combines my “past life” of long-form writing (in the sense of macrostructure and micro succinctness, though coding is far more creative than it seems) with a love of problem solving and puzzles. I found it very addictive!
What has been the most challenging aspect of development?
It’s all the little things that add up. It’s great when you want to make over 200 unique items but for each one you need to make a 3D model, pixel art, descriptions, animations, sound effects, particle effects, etc, so the effort just multiplies and can become overwhelming if you don’t compartmentalize.
The UI was also very troublesome as I didn’t architect it properly from the start, didn’t consider gamepad control fully, didn’t include hooks for localization, didn’t leave enough space for languages that use more words, didn’t accommodate different language fonts, etc, etc. I really should have just scrapped it and started again at some point! It worked out in the end, but it was really much harder than it would have been if I’d done it right from the start.
The most challenging aspect of the project, though, is everything that comes after development. Ugh. Marketing and PR – no thanks. My wife (partner in Gaterooze, Ink) had been handling that, but we were very happy to sign with a publisher ( @GrabTheGames ) to take over!
How well has the game been received so far?
The response has been fantastic so far for such a niche title. Aside from the amazing playtesters we’ve had a bunch of early players who have really “gotten” the game. It’s unabashedly old-school and you start off with weak-ass weapons so it can be disconcerting at first, but people can really get sucked into it – a couple has even played for around 40 hours to find everything in the game (though a normal playthrough would be 6-12 hours depending on skill).
I think the other challenge for people coming new to the game is that it’s marketed as appealing to fans of Roguelites, but it isn’t actually a Roguelite. The main 50 levels are all handcrafted/designed, with only The Well being procedural, and it’s not about multiple “runs”, it’s a single quest that you gradually make your way through, building up your character – though you can approach areas in any order and after death, start from any place you’d been before. Once you have that realization, everything “clicks”.
I’ve also been really pleased with tons of positive comments on the art style, appreciating that blend of ASCII and a more defined world. Oh, and similar comments for the Commodore 64 SID chip sound effects mixed with the more real-world music in parts – I wanted to use that same ethos from the graphics in the sonics and I think that worked too.
What had been your prior developmental experiences before founding Gaterooze, Ink?
Before starting development on Ampersat, I’d never actually done any development at all. So I took some crash courses in C# coding in Unity and learned the rest (voxel models, pixel art, music production, etc) along the way.
Prior to that, we had made design documentation for a studio physically-released Xbox 360/PC game, and I’d “managed” some amazing AAA developers on a large, multi-year project so we were at least familiar with the concepts. That helped, as did being a hardcore gamer since the Atari 2600.
What platforms are you looking to bring the game to?
On Steam, Ampersat has PC, Linux, and Mac versions, and GrabTheGames is porting it to Switch, Playstation, and Xbox platforms. I saw it running on the Switch handheld the other day – what a thrill!
Has the idea been considered to use other textual characters as a recurring theme in other games you develop in the future?
There’s a sequel in mind for Ampersat that will definitely use ASCII enemies again, though with another new custom font that will change things up again with some new themes.
Have there been any ideas at this stage of development that has since been scrapped or reworked?
I’m glad to say the end result has matched the original design documentation very closely! The only element that was scrapped entirely was random weather in the village – with the top-down view it just didn’t work well and had no actual impact anyway.
I think the main plan that had to be reworked was the music. I was far too ambitious there for someone who’d never played an instrument or written/studied any music before. My original plan was for a completely different musical track for every single level (yeah, 50) but it was just taking so long it wasn’t feasible. So instead, on top of the intro/epilogue/main menu and such, I focused on a handful of main tunes (village, dungeon, tower, boss) and then switched up the instrumentation to suit the different regions. So the “fire dungeon” uses the same underlying tune as the “ice dungeon”, but instead of icy pianos, bells, violins, and spooky synths, it has a growling organ, power chord guitars, and sharp horns.
That approach worked surprisingly well and the resulting tunes sound quite different. I also realized the actual level music should be more background/atmospheric anyway, so it all suits.
What do you feel would be next for Gaterooze, Ink following Ampersat’s release?
I mentioned the sequel earlier, but we also have other games planned, all with a retro/old-school bent but in different genres. Got to keep things interesting! While Ampersat is the first game we’ve done, Gaterooze has been our (my wife and me) creative partnership for twenty years with projects in various mediums as well as lots of contract work for third parties. We’re able to focus on our own stuff now though, for example aside from Ampersat we recently released a great photography zine (https://bit.ly/3jkn9LY). Some future games may actually be combined with books, graphic novels, etc to compliment them!
If you had the opportunity to develop a game with any company or any franchise, which would it be, and why?
Honestly, that doesn’t sound appealing at all. We wouldn’t want to deal with restrictions, external pressure, etc. Life’s too short. Sure, in my fantasies I’d love to work with Elder Scrolls or Zelda, but I know the reality would not match the fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, if I was young and starting a career I would be honored to get a job at Bethesda or Nintendo, but we’re very happy having the freedom to do whatever the heck we feel like now 🙂
Do you have any advice for aspiring developers that may be reading this?
Jump in and get cracking! Seriously, just start fiddling around, experimenting, and learning everything you can. There’s nothing holding you back – start with something like Unity or Godot, some free tutorials, and just have fun. Find what you enjoy and what to focus on.
Probably the biggest advice, though, is if you’re taking the indie route make sure you’re doing it out of passion, not as a way to make money. Because on average you will make less than flipping burgers, possibly a lot less. Long-term sustainability is hard and rarer than you think, and financially life-changing hits are far rarer. But if you are developing out of the pure love of it, nothing else matters.
Where on the Internet can people find you?
www.gaterooze.com, however, the best place is probably on Twitter: @gaterooze
Do you have anything else to add?
Thanks for the support, it’s really appreciated! Ampersat is the game I always wanted to play – the action of Gauntlet and Smash TV (in the Tower levels) with RPG depth and real progression – so we’d love to make like-minded people aware that it’s (soon to be) out there.
I’d like to thank Gaterooze and The Pale Gibbon for taking the time out to talk more about this game and to wish the team the best of luck with it upon release. Ampersat is one of the most wonderfully outlandish titles I’ve seen for some time, and from what I’ve seen of gameplay, it holds a lot of promise in my opinion. If anyone is interested, you can play the demo on Steam via the link below:
In the meantime, I hope you guys enjoyed this article because I particularly enjoyed putting it together.
Scouse Gamer 88