This year I got the pleasure of interviewing Thomas Happ at PAX East. Within the same year I also interviewed Charles Martinet (the voice of Mario, Luigi, etc). Both were amazing and I felt honored. However, unbeknownst to me, my mic cut out during my interview with Happ which made the audio very difficult to hear. I salvaged the video the best I could by manually adding every single subtitle line and uploaded it to our YouTube channel. And now, in celebration of Happ’s excellent Axiom Verge hitting the Wii U eShop, I decided to transcribe the original interview and repost it. I think there are some juicy tidbits inside. Enjoy!
Me: So for those don’t know, how would describe Axiom Verge?
Tom: Oh man. So Axiom Verge is—it’s a side scrolling, action, adventure, retro, pixelated, quest game. You play as a scientist who is whisked away to this strange alien world.
Me: When did you first come up with the idea for Axiom Verge? Because it’s kind of a big game.
Tom: Well you know, basically I was employed working full time at Petroglyph Games and I was just trying to come up with something to do as a hobby. So I mean, it was basically, whatever seemed like it would be fun for me at the time. My original thought was can I combine my favorite NES games somehow. I was actually trying to come up with some kind of game that would combine Bionic Commando, Rygar, Blaster Master, and Metroid. So I had this idea that you’d have a grappling hook, there’d be a death yo-yo, and that could also turn into a car. But I ended up both simplifying and expanding it because I decided I would have everything just be the one gun. But because I did that focus on the gun the game became more focused on ranged combat and that sort of thing. So that’s how it sort of morphed to be closer to the Metroid side of the spectrum. Sort of Metroid, Contra.
Me: Speaking of Metroid, everyone drew a comparison to it. What other games did you draw inspiration from and were they all retro, or were some of them modern titles?
Tom: I’d say by and large, most of the titles were retro. Bionic Commando, Rygar, Blaster Master, were all figured in there. But there’s a variety of other things. There’s some Revenge of Shinobi influence. Definitely Mass Effect was an influencer which is far outside the realm of classic games. Explicitly I don’t think I was looking at too many games. I think Metal Gear Solid was a bit of an influencer. Originally I had wanted the dialogue to take place on a codec screen like Metal Gear Solid, because I thought that would work well with a sidescrolling pixel art style game. But I ended up not doing it just for the sake of making it flow more evenly while you’re playing.
Me: Other than games, did you draw inspiration from any other forms of media like movies or comics?
Tom: Definitely. I think you can see there’s an Alien influence in there. Sort of the overall vibe of it was kind of inspired heavily by Farscape, with the living ships and the half organic half machine constructs that are in there. Even the main character being a scientist originally looked a lot more like John Crichton, but I decided to take him in more of the scientist direction. He ended up with a lab coat and everything.
Me: I think the glitch mechanic in the game is absolutely genius and that it’s a clever homage to game glitches and kill screens from back in the day. Was that something you originally had in mind or when did that idea come about in development?
Tom: I didn’t originally have it in mind. I think I had been working on the game for about a year, maybe two years, before that finally hit me. What was going through my head at the time was I went through what I like in classic games. One of my favorite things was how in the original NES Metroid you could walk through walls using a special glitch and end up in forbidden areas of memory. And when I started thinking about that I started realizing there isn’t just that, but all the glitches you can get. Like the minus world in Super Mario, the glitches you get by moving the game cart, the glitches you get from the game genie. And I was like wow, I could make this whole thing into a mechanic or many many mechanics, depending on how I want to do it. So I wrote it down, and the rest was history as they say.
Me: It’s exciting as you play the game to use the gun and see how it affects certain enemies, sometimes in positive way and sometimes in a negative way.
Tom: Yeah. Actually I was trying to make it more in a positive way. Originally it would be about fifty fifty whether it would be positive or negative, but then I realized people wouldn’t want to use it if sometime it was negative. So I tried to remove as much of the negative consequences as possible. Towards the end of development there’s a good sixty some odd creatures in the game, and to have every one have a different effect was overwhelming. What I ended up doing was swapping the creatures around and a couple slipped through where I swapped them with a more powerful creature. I didn’t mean to. But now that it’s like that I can’t change it because everyone’s got their high scores with that and all the speed runners are used to that.
Me: I loved the game. I gave it a 9.5/10. What was it like to see that much love for a game that you worked on pretty much solo? It was about five or so years where you did the pixel art, soundtrack, everything. So what was it like, when it was all said and done, seeing that kind of reaction?
Tom: It was definitely very very strange. Because if you can imagine something that in your mind you think of as a hobby, this thing that you thought of as for yourself, and all of a sudden people are coming out and telling you it’s great or it’s terrible, and having all these passionate opinions about it. And having it transform into this other thing separate from you. It’s definitely very strange and it took me a little while to get used to it.
Me: What were some of the biggest learns and struggles? I know you guys had an unforeseen roadblock getting it to Vita.
Tom: With the Vita, probably the biggest thing was just that we announced it. We shouldn’t have announced it. So we had a game, not knowing what would be possible. We really needed a port of Monogame to be running on Vita, and that didn’t exist. But I guess as a counter to that, by that point I had already signed a contract with Sony saying I will have a Vita version. And if it wasn’t for Dan Adelman, I would’ve been stuck in some of these requirements in that contract that, thankfully, he got me out of. It was always a plan to have a Vita version. It didn’t even become possible until about nine months or so after the release of the game when Sickhead Games basically re-wrote Mono for the Vita, just so that we could have MonoGame games run on Vita.
Me: I consider comfort food games as titles you can just play at any time. For me, I could always play Super Mario 3 and Super Mario 64. What are those games that you kind of find yourself going back to when you want to relax?
Tom:. Oh man, you know, Mass Effect is definitely up there. I usually don’t play games more than once myself but that is a game I’ve played more than once. The first Mass Effect, then onto the sequels through it. There’s something about the first game that just really captured me. Besides that, maybe Silent Hill. You know, that whole series of games.
Me: Last question then. What’s next for Thomas Happ? Are you thinking of Axiom Verge DLC? Do you think you would do a sequel? Or are you just going to kind of relax and wait for something to come to you?
Tom: This summer we’re going to be releasing the Xbox One and Wii U versions of the game. That’s going to definitely require some work. BlitWorks and Sickhead Games are doing the ports, but typically I still need to offer some kind of support, maybe on the publishing side of things. In terms of DLC I’ve always felt that DLC was—I know a lot of people think of it as a bonus—but I always felt like it was shortchanging players.
Me: It’s very divided. People either love it or hate it.
Tom: Yeah. I mean in my experience, I worked at EA before and other places, and the DLC we had ready at launch. That’s the worst. Just that they chose to not release it until later because they wanted that extra money. I feel like when I released the first game, I wanted to work on the next game. I want to work on something new and have it able to come to players faster, rather than having it be like I kept something in reserve. So yeah, I’m working on the next game. It’s going to be a long time and I probably won’t have anything to show for like, a year, and then it won’t release for years after.
Axiom Verge is availabe on Steam, PS4/Vita, and Wii U. A release for Xbox One is expected this summer and both Tom and Dan are looking into a 3DS version, but are facing technical issues with the current hardware. You can find the original video version of the interveiw embedded below.