Ziggurat blends dungeon crawling and FPS. Just be sure watch your step, bold adventurer…
“To be honest, we'd probably be doomed if we weren't making games,” says Milkstone Studios co-founder Alejandro González, from his office in Oviedo, a city in a small region in the north of Spain called Asturias.
As with many game developers, González, along with his longtime partner-in-crime Miguel Herrero, started his love affair with videogames when he was little. “In our case, being born in the 80s, it all started with a NES, and we focused our studies and time to videogame development,” he says. As was the case with many other Spanish developers of their generation, their first steps in the field began with a tool called DIV Games Studio, a development suite released on 1998 that was sold at newspaper kiosks for around 30€. “It had its own coding language, designed with games in mind, and plenty of tools to ease development,” recalls González. “You could call it an ancestor of Unity.”
Although most of the games they created with DIV were, in González’s own words, “pure garbage,” it provided a fun way for them to learn the basics of game development, and allowed them to specialize once they started their computer science degrees. González and Herrero eventually found gainful employment at Virtway, a company that specializes in VR (in the form of virtual visits and serious games), as well as work-for-hire videogame development from time to time. “While it wasn't entirely dedicated to videogames, the skills required to perform the job were mostly the same, so we learned a lot on the technical and team management skills required to finish a project,” says González.
In 2009, González and Herrero eventually formed Milkstone Studios as a two-man team—a small indie studio developing games as a hobby. It blossomed into much more than a hobby, however: during its first four years, they developed and released an impressive 25 games for Xbox 360 through the Xbox Live Indie Games platform, achieving a decent level of success in the process (their most notable games from this period are Avatar Ninja, Avatar Farm, Firing Range, Little Racers Street and White Noise Online, the last two of which have also been published on Steam). “That allowed us to leave our jobs and make a living out of game development,” says González. During that time, they also managed to increase the size of their team to four people.
Their most recent—and biggest—achievement to date came next. “We wanted to do our own mix of the roguelike/roguelite and first-person shooter genres,” says González. “We’d seen and played other attempts at it, but weren't satisfied, and thought we could improve over them.” The idea was very focused from the beginning: “It didn't evolve much; we just kept adding content and improving it, while attempting to avoid falling into feature frenzy.”
Enter Ziggurat, a fast-paced FPS dungeon crawler with light RPG elements and plenty of procedural generation. The game puts players in the sandals of a wizard apprentice on the day of his final test: Enter the Ziggurat, and make it through alive. Players will face dangerous creatures, treacherous traps, unpredictable gods, and more. Handling and combat is very old-school—read: no reload, no health regeneration—but adapted to modern conventions and controls. In many ways, it can be thought of as a mix between Serious Sam and The Binding of Isaac. To differentiate it from the usual modern sci-fi themes seen nowadays in FPS games, Milkstone decided to go with a classic fantasy theme, following in the style of Heretic and Hexen.
The game’s elaborate lighting and sharp, detailed graphics might indicate a much larger art team, but for Milkstone, it’s been a process of milking their own resources to the maximum. “Initially the game art was much more repetitive and unoriginal, because of the limited number of assets,” says González. “But when we started to add lights everywhere (thanks to deferred lighting), we saw that bright and colorful was the way to go for the game.”
There’s also a conspicuous lack of violence and blood for a game of its kind. “At some point in the past years, we decided to tone down violence in our games a bit,” says González. “Nothing too drastic, as violence itself is still the goal of the game—you’re killing enemies, after all—but at least not to be too explicit in that regard.” Ziggurat was also the developer’s first game destined for official ratings (PEGI, ESRB, etc,), and they wanted to keep a low profile so it wouldn't get rejected or receive a high age requirement.
In regard to overarching design philosophies, González maintains that his studio’s attitude is to remain vigilant in many ways. “Our approach to development and design is rather pragmatic, and we tend to choose simple solutions to problems whenever possible,” he continues. “Games are complex projects by nature, so keeping that in check is a must if you want to finish the game someday. Due to the ambition of our projects, we try to work in a relaxed environment, without external pressure: no publishers, no release dates.”
He says the studio has never had to enter “crunch mode” in the entire six-years of its existence. “At Milkstone our motto is to have fun while we create fun games,” says González. “We're hardcore gamers, and we like to believe that can be seen in our games. We usually favor gameplay over other aspects of game development.”
That said, there remain plenty of hurdles. “We’ve found that it's really difficult to keep a sense of progression on larger projects,” says González. “We were used to one-to-three month development cycles, were the progression is obvious. In larger games, however—Ziggurat took around 10 months—you may look back a week and see no advance at all in the playable build. It can be a bit depressing, and it’s usually because you’re working in a big feature and haven’t managed to finish it yet. I think it’s a good idea to alternate between big and small features, in order to keep a good pace and be able to see some improvement over time.”
Currently, Milkstone Studios consists of González (the rare CEO who programs, and wears a number of other hats); Miguel Herrero (programming, technical director, sound and music); Juan Fernández (2D art, scenario modeling and texturing); Santiago Orozco (character modeling, texturing and rigging); Carlos Albertos (programming); and Desi Garrido (character animation).
González and his studio’s approach to game development is, in many ways, a concentrated effort not to lose touch with reality. He cites the example of renting a small office right from the start, to ensure the team was able to separate life from work, and keep playing games on their free time, both as leisure and as a way to measure the market trends. “We enjoy most game genres, from graphic adventures to hardcore FPS, so we play almost anything that comes in our hands,” says González. “We're not adept at getting the latest AAA games on release, and we don't really follow the trends or the hype.”
“But above all, and I think that's what makes us different from other studios, is that we focus on the current project, not just on the emotional side but also on the practical one,” he continues. “We always have the goal in mind: a finished, enjoyable game. So we make cuts if needed, and keep improving things if they’re important enough.” Spending an entire week trying to improve handling of the player can be an acceptable thing, then, even if in the end they just go back and use the previous version; spending a week because there’s a small visual glitch in a corner of the scenario, or because something “could be better,” however, isn't. “In many ways it’s like playing a game like FTL: your resources are limited and you can't do everything, so you have to prioritize and make do with what you have at hand.”
González says that now that the studio is working on bigger projects, he can see the importance of this even more clearly. “It’s very easy to keep working on small tasks and lose focus on the larger scale, so development can stall even without noticing. Also, the need to detect inefficiencies during development—long build times, chores that take awhile, debugging at a specific game point—and trying to fix or improve them is another thing that can help speed up development and even improve overall quality by allowing the developer to focus on the important parts.” He gives the examples of automated builds, editor tools, and in-game cheats for testing purposes.
Ziggurat is currently available on Steam, Xbox One, and PS4, and has managed to achieve considerable success, with over 100,000 copies sold across all platforms. Milkstone has thereby been able to increase its team size to six developers, and start work on its next project: Pharaonic, a side-scrolling, Dark Souls-esque beat-‘em up set in ancient Egypt. “Our latest additions to the office are a big TV to play games on, and [heating], so we can survive the cold winters of Asturias without having to work with mittens on again.”