Interview: Aztez brings strategy and insight to beat-em-ups

Bayonetta and Devil May Cry. Those are hack-n-slashes, right? Wrong. Designer Ben Ruiz of Team Colorblind knows the often confusing difference between games like Diablo and Anarchy Reigns, and he’s applying that knowledge and expertise to his studio’s first game, Aztez.

Ruiz (pictured on left) and co-founder Matthew Wegner are veterans of Flashbang Studios, where they made games like Off-Road Velociraptor Safari and Minotaur China Shop with a small team of developers.

Those were different days.

The games that we made for Flashbang were all essentially group-directed,” he told GameZone. “Every one of us had design, art, and implementation input, so those games are reflections of us as a group of close friends. In this case, not only is Team Colorblind just Matthew and I, but this game happens to be my baby. I definitely agree that it's much more mature, but it's just because I happen to be deeply in love with this type of game. We certainly didn't aim to create more mature material or anything like that.”

He’s referring to Aztez, which resembles the mature-rated Wii game Madworld with its black-and-white visual style and dashes of red blood exploding across the screen. The comparisons end there.


Madworld is actually an influence in the ‘what not to do’ direction,” said Ruiz. “For me personally, Madworld hurts my eyeballs really bad; I actually can't play it for more than a short while. Interestingly enough, we didn't originally intend to create something that looked like Madworld even though the initial concepts were purely black, white, and red. But I quickly realized this kind of contrast is pretty rough on most people and introduced the gray scale.

“It was the right decision because it lets me create a lot of interesting but clear depth in the game's environments that I wouldn't have been able to do in purely black and white. Oh, and let me just be very clear here: I love Madworld and everything else Platinum Games has ever done. In fact, their very own Hideki Kamiya — Devil May Cry, Okami, Viewtiful Joe, Bayonetta, etc. — is my personal hero. There is absolutely no hate in their direction.”

Aztez is also different because of its Aztec theme. Ruiz said he’s researched the people and culture extensively but not intimately.

“The strategy-game portion of Aztez is actually based directly on the Aztec's system of political expansion,” he said. “Furthermore, before I design any character or build any environment — all based on actual Aztec city-states — I dig up as much information as I can and go from there. I'm very much in awe of the Aztecs and their civilization, and everything I've produced for the game has been from a position of absolute respect and adoration.”

Any gaps in available research, likely caused by famous Spanish invaders’ eradication of the original culture, affords Ruiz a sense of artistic liberty.

“Since no one knew what some of these people and places looked like, I get to ‘reinvent’ them,” he said.

What remains is the hybrid style of the beat-em-up and real-time strategy genres that Team Colorblind is concocting, which is part of what makes Aztez unique from other games out there.

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“Every turn event will appear on the empire map, and you must address them directly with your ‘Aztez’ warriors, who are essentially the empire's special forces units,” said Ruiz.

Victory or defeat leads to separate consequences for the empire you’re “macromanaging.”

He added, “For example, you might have a plague break out in one of your tributaries this turn. The beat-em-up gameplay segment would involve killing the sick inhabitants while they try and defend themselves. Failing means the population of the tributary is obliterated, meaning no more income from that location. Success means the plague is curbed and location is preserved. Of course, if this was an anti-empire city, you could simply elect to not address it and watch as the city is obliterated in the next turn.”

This kind of beat-em-up is what Ruiz calls “deep and expressive,” which means players can experiment with a variety of attack mechanics and defensive strategies.

“You can watch five different people play a game like this and see five different play styles,” he said. “Traditional beat-em-ups were very shallow, and there was really one or two ways to play them.”

While Ruiz has used the studio’s blog to make an excellent case for what beat-em-ups are, he’s less clear on how one would describe a true hack-n-slash.

“The tricky thing about the hack-n-slash label is that everyone means different things when they say it,” he said. “Strangely enough, I don't have my own definition because I've never used that term to describe anything.”

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The difference, though, doesn’t come down to whether weapons are used or not. It’s more about rhythm and timing and consciously employing a range of offensive maneuvers — or knowing when to back off. Hack-n-slashes seem to focus on rote button presses and waves of enemies that you can mow through without much discretion.

Taking that one step further, Team Colorblind is diversifying traditional beat-em-up conventions by maximizing the benefits and openness of strategy.

“We've structured the game so that any one game won't take a very long time, but it's fun many times over,” said Ruiz. “The biggest problem I have with beat-em-ups — and this has been an issue since their inception — is that they are terribly linear, and once you've made your way through their trite narrative, they're done trying to please you. I realize there are exceptions to this rule — notably Devil May Cry's Bloody Palace, which lets me turn the game on and quickly get my carnage on. But even the Bloody Palace is rigid and inflexible as a gameplay experience. Honestly, I'm just trying to make a beat-em-up that is fun to turn on more than a couple times.”

Currently, Aztez is about halfway into development, and the studio expects to release it for PC, Mac, and Linux in early 2014. It’s hard for Ruiz to see past that point, but he's optimistic about the studio's future.

“I can certainly tell you that ideal situation for me personally is to simply bootstrap more games with whatever profit we might make from Aztez,” said Ruiz. “I would love to turn Team Colorblind into a brand known for its combat-heavy games; if I'm able to do that, I'd be very happy. I very sincerely want to be the best combat designer in the world. If that means growing a bit, that's fine, but I also really love being a small company. So we'll see!”

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