Episode 13: Hyper Meteor

Christa Mrgan: Before home computers and gaming consoles began to take over in the mid 1980s, arcades were the places to play video games with cutting edge graphics and precise, skill- based gameplay, where you’d vie for high scores while hanging out with your friends.

Though arcades themselves have dwindled over the years, arcade-style games are still really appealing, in a pick-up-and-play, get into the zone kind of way. Inspired by the arcade classic “Asteroids,” Hyper Meteor is an arcade-style game that’s perfectly suited for Playdate, where it’s really fun and sometimes frustrating to slam your damaged ship into oncoming enemies.

Welcome to the Playdate Podcast, bringing you stories from game designers, developers, and the team behind Playdate, the little yellow game console with a crank! I’m Christa Mrgan. Today I’m talking with Mobeen Fikree, who, along with Robby Duguay and Halina Heron, created Hyper Meteor. Spoiler alert: we talk about gameplay mechanics and tips, and Mo hints at the kinds of enemies that appear at higher levels of the game. Okay. Let’s meet Mo!

Mo Fikree: I’m Mobeen Fikree, you can call me Mo, though. I run Vertex Pop, an indie game studio based in Toronto, Canada. And we make what I call feel- good action games. So they’re action games that are intense and full of like skillful and deep game mechanics, but they’re also cute and colorful and kind of inviting and intuitive.

Stuff I did on Hyper Meteor: so I did the design, programming, and the art on Hyper Meteor. Robby Duguay did the music and sound design on the game. And Halina Heron is the, the voice in the game. So all of our in-game announcer voices are done by them and that’s it. That’s the whole team!

So Hyper Meteor is an arcade style game. You play a ship lost in space. All your weapons are down. You’re in a lot of trouble. And to survive, you have to ram your ship into meteors and hostile forces that are closing in on you.

And you’re trying to just survive as long as you can. Classic arcade game stuff, you know?

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, it really feels like an arcade game in handheld form. So, how did Mo first hear about Playdate?

Mo Fikree: I heard about it on Twitter as I hear about most things. I follow y’all on Twitter because of your great Mac software that I’ve been using for many years.

Christa Mrgan: Oh yeah, Did you know that until recently, Panic mostly made Mac and iOS software? We’re older than Google! There’s a whole other podcast about the company, if you’re interested. I’ll put a link in the show notes. Anyway:

Mo Fikree: My mind was blown. Like I saw this thing. I think if it was like any other company, I would’ve assumed it was like a joke or not real, but it was like, this is Panic. This sounds like the kind of thing that they would do. This seems legit. So I was at the office when I saw the tweet and I kind of gathered everybody else at, at the office around, and we kinda looked at this thing and collectively lost our minds and started talking about-- “This is so weird! Why would, why, why is this a thing? And then, but wait, can we make games for it, though? Is that a thing?” And, and that’s, that’s how that got started. We kinda ,like at the office, we were pitching ideas around each other and like, thinking like, “whoa, wouldn’t this be cool.”

And I was actually like gonna cold DM Cabel, cause I’m like, " Why not? We have to do this. Like, I, I, I wanna do this." But then Nick Suttner had tweeted that he was a part of the Playdate Panic stuff, and Nick and I go way back, like he helped me get the first Vertex Pop game onto PS4. So onto PlayStation and all that.

And that’s kind of what started this whole indie games journey for me. So I DMed him, instead. And he was like, “yeah, we can make something work.” So it was, it was pretty cool.

At Vertex Pop, we make arcade and action style games. I really love designing pick up and play kind of games. And I thought that was like a good fit for the Playdate, being a handheld device and all that. But of course, like we wanted to design something around the constraints of the system.

Right. You know, constraints are a good thing for a design. They help you kind of scope what you can do and they kind of can give you good ideas. Right? So obviously the main thing that I found so exciting about the Playdate was the crank. Just like as an input mechanism, like I’m, I really love novel input devices.

And so the crank is just interesting from like an input perspective. It’s like a one dimensional analog controller. Right? And so I wanted to do something that was based around the crank. And so, yeah, like I had a bunch of like weird ideas up front and then I started kind of like trying to, you know, narrow it down.

And I thought that something like Asteroids-- like a unique take on Asteroids would be a cool thing. Like a cool idea both from my design perspective, but also to fit on this Playdate.

Christa Mrgan: Released in 1979, Asteroids was one of the first massively successful arcade games and its black and white graphics featuring a little triangular ship firing on asteroids and flying saucers is pretty iconic. The gameplay requires timing and precision to turn in fire at oncoming enemies with careful use of the thrust button while avoiding collision.

Though arcades themselves have become somewhat scarce and tend to feature newer, flashier games, you can still find an Asteroids cabinet here and there sometimes even in bars or at the backs of pizza parlors that lean into nostalgia. Mo wanted to make an homage without directly copying Asteroids, creating a new take on the classic that would feel fresh on Playdate.

Mo Fikree: Importantly, one of the things that I thought was like, so cool about the Playdate is like the crank, right? And so we wanted to like emphasize that, and the shooting part of Asteroids is not that much fun. Like you basically need a math degree to figure out, well, okay, this is moving that far and I’m moving this fast. And nobody enjoys that. The real fun of it is like using the crank to like move your ship around and guide it and stuff.

Right. And so I thought, okay, could we do something like Asteroids but without the shooting? And I was like, okay, maybe that would work. But then the next question is alright. What makes it challenging? Like if there’s no shooting, how do you destroy enemies? And I was like, okay, what if there are some parts of the enemies that when you hit them?

They get destroyed and other parts where if you hit them, they don’t. And I’m like, all right, well, how do we tell the difference? Well, we have like a black and white screen here, so , so it was all like very logical, right? Like I just followed, like, what is the device want us to make and what kind of design goals do we have?

And it just kind of worked itself out in a way.

Christa Mrgan: I asked Mo where his love of arcade games comes from . Did he spend a lot of time in arcades growing up?

Mo Fikree: Alas, I’m slightly too young to have played arcade games at actual arcades

uh, which is tragic! I would’ve loved to do that. I was born in the mid- eighties, so I just kind of missed that era.

So I didn’t really play a lot of arcade games in the arcades, but that’s actually a good question. Why do I like arcade games? Uh, I think like when I was growing up for whatever reason when I started getting into like game development and game design, there was something about arcade games that were, so that was so appealing from like its minimalism and simplicity.

Like, it really is about the mechanics and how things work and you know, what do the inputs feel like and stuff like that. It felt like a very like challenging design problem. And it felt like a very solvable problem. Like it was something that you could grasp in your hands and actually figure out and perfect in a way.

Right. So I I’ve played a lot of like arcade games, like on MAME and emulators and kind of arcade inspired games and all of those, like really struck a chord with me. So I guess that’s where like my love of arcade games comes from.

Christa Mrgan: MAME stands for multiple arcade machine emulator. It’s a free open source software project that aims to preserve arcade home, computer and console games, so they’re not lost to history. Until recently, Panic had a custom- made arcade cabinet in the office, where you could play literally thousands of old games, thanks to the MAME emulator and some front- end software. it was pretty amazing.

And while they’re nowhere near as popular as they were at their peak, arcades never really went away completely. You can still find them attached to family fun centers that might also feature things like go-karts and mini golf, or in a small dedicated room at your local movie theater, or even just in a random strip mall.

Some places, like the arcade / bar Ground Kontrol here in Portland, specifically offer classic arcade gaming. It’s a big dose of nostalgia for those of us that remember the era while at the same time, it introduces a new generation to these skill focused games. And there are still new arcade games being produced all the time! So, yeah, it’s not like arcades have totally gone away, even if they feel more niche these days. And with games like Hyper Meteor, you can have an arcade- like experience on the go with your Playdate, whose one- bit black and white screen was perfect for an Asteroids homage.

Mo Fikree: So the art was definitely like a big challenge for the game. But it was in some ways more technical than it was aesthetic. So one of the challenges is that we want everything on screen to rotate, right? The player rotates, the enemies, rotate the bullets, rotate everything rotates, and there’s a lot of it on screen at once.

So as you get to the later levels, it’s. Unusual to see like 20 or 30 or 40 different objects on screen. And the Playdate hardware just doesn’t really support rotating and scaling all those things at once. So I had to be like a little bit creative about it. And kind of do that math offline. Do you have a rotations offline?

So the basic art pipeline is that I would draw stuff in Sketch, which is like a vector art tool. And then I wrote a script that would load load each piece of vector art, rotate it like a hundred plus times, like every, every little angle, a turn off anti-aliasing, because it’s a one bit display.

Christa Mrgan: Anti aliasing here refers to the digital averaging that software applications like Sketch or Photoshop do by default, to smooth out jagged lines on borders or edges. But in this case using a one bit display, Mo needed to preserve those actual pixel boundaries.

Mo Fikree: And then like render that out into a PNG file. And so we did that for like every enemy and everything in the game. And, you know, long story short, when you boot up Hyper Meteor it is loading over 3000 images just to have like every rotation and like all the hit boxes and stuff like that. Which was pretty cool. So that part was challenging.

Like actually getting that whole thing, working. The art itself was-- in terms of like drawing something out in Sketch and going, okay, this looks pretty good. And then running it through the script and then seeing, okay, how does it look now that it’s rotated? How does it look without anti-aliasing and then going back, making small adjustments, trying it on the device so on, so forth. And then kind of contrast issues between the stuff and the foreground, which is like a stark black and white, but then okay, if we’ve used black and white in the foreground, what are we gonna do for the background? And so it seems like such a silly issue, but it was like a big deal. And so for the background, we used a lot of like fun dithering patterns. So like horizontal stripes and, and checker board patterns and stuff like that.

It was just like a lot of trial and error. Thankfully I like doing vector art, so that part came to me very naturally. And I think it fit really well with the Playdate, like the style really looked good on like the high resolution, sharp looking display, you know, and the, the black and white screen gave it like a lot of really good contrast. Like it looked nice on my Mac, but then when I put it on device, it looked like even better. So it was cool to see it all come together.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah. And combined with the art and music, the voice of the game by Halina Heron, really ties it all together. Their disembodied, What I’d call “benevolent robot” delivery of level announcements and “game over” really fits the space theme. It reminds me of Jenn Frank’s voice work in the game “Super Hexagon” by Terry Cavanaugh, which is another portable game that’s pretty straightforward, but quickly becomes very challenging. Anyway, Halina Heron’s voice work just fits so well with the music.

Mo Fikree: And the music is kind of interesting. We wanted something that had like a good arcade -y, you know, kind of chiptune-y kind of feel to it, but still felt a little bit modern, like felt a little bit synth based, like something that you would expect to come out of something like a Playdate.

We actually used an OP1 to make most of the audio for the game, cuz that felt fitting right. You know, Teenage Engineering and all that.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, the OP-1 is this rad little synthesizer made by Stockholm- based Teenage Engineering, the company that collaborated with Panic to make Playdate.

You can hear more about that story in Episode One of this podcast, but yeah, the music of Hyper Meteor fits the game, and definitely feels right at home on Playdate.

Mo Fikree: So yeah, we tried to make something that felt kind of like, yeah, blippy and chiptune-y, but also had like a modern kind of like sound and feeling to it. One of the other interesting things is that the music is dynamic in the game.

So in the initial levels the song like the tempo of the song is slower. And then as you get to the harder levels, it picks up and picks up which is fun. And then like it kinda Yeah, as the game gets more intense, the music gets more intense and as all of that happens, you feel more intense, but in a good way. And that’s a cool thing.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah. As an arcade- style game, the gameplay is straightforward and approachable, but requires precision and becomes increasingly difficult. So, Mo and the team needed to figure out ways to ramp up that intensity.

Mo Fikree: When we started working on Hyper Meteor, it was just an idea, right. We didn’t really have a Playdate to, to get started on. Although we got one pretty quickly. I was actually like looking through my emails and y’all tweeted in May and by July, Greg had sent me something in the mail.

So I’m like, all right, this is pretty cool. I like it. Didn’t like looking back at it now. It feels like such a compressed period of time. But but yeah, so like at the. You know, the game was just an idea because we didn’t have hardware to test on. So I just thought about like, what would make a good, good arcade game on the Playdate?

But once we actually got our hands in it and I implemented this thing, like I tried building out this prototype, it all just worked well. The first time. And like that never happens in game design, so I’m like, this is amazing. But then once the basic idea worked, if like, you know, you move around and you hit the, the white areas and, and avoid the armored areas and stuff there was like the challenge of coming up with new enemies.

So there’re kind of just like different kinds of enemies, right? So the, the density of them grows, like there are more enemies on screen, but there are also different kinds of enemies. So there are like 10 levels. It’s more of like a like a measurement of difficulty.

So as you start getting to level like nine and 10, we really like ramp up the difficulty and there are lots of cool, cool new enemies for you to discover.

But what’s interesting is that normally when I design enemies, I don’t really think about the visuals. I just think about the behavior and then the visuals kind of like come afterwards. Right. I’m very much a programmer first.

But what’s cool about Hyper Meteor is that the visuals are the behavior. Right? So based on what the enemy looks like, it is actually harder or easier to, to fight. So if there’s a lot more armor on it, you know, it’s a more challenging enemy. So it really just was a matter of like doodling out these different shapes, like would donuts work or would circles work or triangles, like what would these all look like?

Right. And then just seeing how they felt in game. And then like, as I came up with like lots and lots of ideas, I tried to think about like, is this adding something unique to the game? Or is it, you know, just an existing enemy, but with a different shape or a different something. Right. And so that part was kind of challenging of like making sure that every enemy added something unique to the game.

But it was also just like a lot of trial and error and just like trying out different art and trying out different shapes and seeing what they felt like.

One thing that is always surprising is play testing. Especially when it’s something small, like, like Hyper Meteor is the kind of thing that I mostly, you know, we worked on with a very small team. It was over a short period of time. So you don’t get a lot of like outside influences. Right. So eventually though, we got people to test the game. Folks around the office. This was all before COVID.

So it was easy to just give people a device and ask them what they thought. So watching people play Hyper Meteor and not only get to grips with the game, but get to grips with the device itself is always a fun challenge. I remember like the same thing happened when I was making games for the iPod touch.

Right. It wasn’t even an iPhone. It was like this weird new device that nobody had ever seen. And there were so enamored by the device itself. Nevermind the game. But with, with with Hyper Meteor and the Playdate, it was interesting to watch. How did people use the crank? How did people hold the device? Even like, deciding what do we put on A and what do we put on B was kind of like a thing we went back and forth on like, how do the ergonomics of this work if you’re also holding the crank and you need to push the buttons at the same time.

Christa Mrgan: What they came up with seems really natural and obvious to me now, but isn’t that always how it goes with design iterations? The B button is the thruster and there’s a nice little sparkly animation of geometric shapes that trail out behind your ship when you use it. And the a button activates your smart bomb, which will destroy all enemies on screen, but you have to use it wisely because you only get one to start out with.

Mo Fikree: So just like watching people play the game and kind of try to not only listen to their thoughts, but also look at how they were reacting to the game itself was an interesting challenge as it always is.

Also a good time to shout out the folks at Plastic Fern, who you folks at Panic kind of hooked us up with for testing.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, Panic did some in-house QA for Playdate Season One games, and also worked with Plastic Fern, which is a development studio that does everything from platform porting and release management to sound design and quality assurance.

Mo Fikree: They did a really good job. They gave us a lot of good technical feedback and like gameplay feedback, which I ended up taking, taking into account and all that.

Christa Mrgan: I’m pretty bad at handling the physics of Hyper Meteor, which are similar to those in the original Asteroids, and also kind of like the arcade game Joust, where you flap around on an ostrich with that same kind of gliding momentum. So, I asked Mo for tips on how to improve my playing and my overall score.

Mo Fikree: I think the main thing is just to like play at a steady pace. So kind of make careful movements and kinda like take your time up front. At Vertex Pop, we try to make what I like to call “feel good action games.” So they’re action games that like have these kind of like deep mechanics in a high skill cap. So they are challenging, but we try to make them accessible to like people of all skill levels and kind of try to make it easy to get started with. But, you know, the challenge ramps up once you get used to it.

So I would say. You know play at a steadier pace, try to make more kind of like deliberate movements and decisions. And then before, you know, it, you’ll kind of get used to the, the movement and get better at it and, and stuff like that.

When we did play testing, a lot of people just like hit the, hit the gas and just went full speed and I’m like, oh, you gotta slow down a little bit.

Christa Mrgan: Oh yeah, that was definitely me. I really like that little animation. So I would just kind of zoom forward and wrap back around the screen constantly, but it sounds like the solution is for me to just kind of chill out a little bit.

So we’ve heard about designing the game, its soundtrack, and play testing. But what was implementation like? What did Mo think of the Playdate Software Development Kit?

Mo Fikree: It is one of the nicest game development tools I’ve ever used, like APIs I’ve ever used. It was really nice. So for the Playdate, you can write stuff in C or in Lua. Lua is like the easier, more sensible approach to take, but I’m not a particularly sensible person. I’m a huge nerd who wants to write like the lowest level code possible. So I’m like, all right, there’s no question here. I’m writing stuff in C.

And the whole C API is, is so well written. Like it’s really well designed. The simulator works easily. It was like, it was really easy to get started on things like normally when you start working on a new platform, you know, be it an iPhone or a console or something like that, there’s normally a lot of setup up front.

Like you need to configure things just so, and all that stuff. But on the Playdate, all of that stuff, honestly, it just, it just kind of worked. So all the time was spent being like, okay, now how do we make this game work on this weird device, as opposed to, how do we configure things that they work appropriately and all that.

Oh, and also good documentation. There was actual documentation and it was good and made everything easy. So I, I appreciate that because That doesn’t always happen.

But let me tell you about the real challenging part about making Hyper Meteor: naming it was the whole ordeal. So when I pitched the game to Cabel, I was like, “This is a game. We don’t have a name for it. It’s called ‘Playdate Thing,’ and that’s, that’s, we’ll come up with a name later!” And I really hate naming things.

So I kept putting it off and I didn’t wanna do it. And eventually I got on Slack and I got the whole, the whole team together and I’m like, okay, everyone, this is Playdate Thing. We need to come up with a name for it. Here are some vague thoughts that I had, and it was like a whole multi-week ordeal to figure out the perfect name.

So that was, that was the real challenge, but I really like “Hyper Meteor” so I think it was a whole thing, but we came up with a good name in the end, so like it, it’s the good thing where.

You go through the whole process and then once you come to the end of it, it’s like, it should obviously be called this. What else could it be called?

Christa Mrgan: So now that it’s named and it’s out there in the world, what kind of experience does Mo hope that people will have with the game?

Mo Fikree: There are some games where they’re kind of like single player experiences and they have a story and you kind of play through them.

And they’re really good. Like, I love those kinds of games. But I kind of hope that our games, something like Hyper Meteor is something that you come back to over and over again. Right. So it’s not necessarily something that’s gonna engross you for like hours on end in one session. But it’s kind of like, If you have five minutes, if you’re, you know, if you’re waiting at a bus stop or in my case, you’re waiting for code to build or something, you know, you can just like sneak in a quick game of Hyper Meteor.

You, you get a high score or you don’t, whatever, you put it away, but you kind of keep coming back to it. And so the hope is that there’s enough of a kind of skill range in the game, such that, you know, you start and it feels a little bit challenging, but as you kind of play it over and over, you kind of gain mastery over the systems and in no time you’re gonna be a, a pro and bragging to all your coworkers.

Christa Mrgan: Well, so far, I can’t really brag to anyone about my high score, but maybe that’ll change now that I have some tips. But I hope you enjoy getting lost in space with Hyper Meteor!

Mo Fikree is a designer and programmer as well as CEO of Vertex Pop. You can find out more about him, other members of the team, and about Vertex Pop’s other games like “We Are Doomed,” “Graceful Explosion Machine,” and “Super Crush KO,” via the links in the show notes.

Thanks so much for listening and stay tuned for more episodes coming soon to the play date podcast feed

Mo Fikree: Thanks. Talk to you later.

Bye bye.

Christa Mrgan: The Playdate Podcast was written, produced and edited by me, Christa Mrgan. Cabel Sasser and Simon Panrucker composed the theme song. Additional music was composed by Robby Duguay, and comes from Hyper Meteor.

Huge thanks to Tim Coulter and Ashur Cabrera for wrangling the podcast feed and working on the website. James Moore for making me an awesome Playdate audio extraction app, and Neven Mrgan, who created the podcast artwork and site design. And thanks as always to everyone at Panic.

Playdate is shipping now and available for pre-order at play.date!

Mo Fikree: I really like arcade games and action games and I’m not very good at them, though. Like I’m okay at them. Oh, wait I have a cool Cabel story for you. Can I tell you my cool Cabel story? This doesn’t need to be in the podcast or whatever. Okay. It’s really stupid. And I also tweeted about it, but I will tell you anyway, cuz it’s hilarious and very Cabel. So I met Cabel at Pax to pitch him on Hyper Meteor, or, or Playdate Thing.

And so I came up to the booth you know, I was kind of, “Hey, I’m here to talk to Cabel and stuff.” And he was off talking to a bunch of other people. And you know, eventually he came over and he said hi, and we started talking and he, he grabbed a pen to jot something down and the pen didn’t work and he looked a little bit annoyed and me, being silly, I kind of jokingly quipped, I’m like, “Hey, you know, you guys should make your own pens, too.” And then he let out the weariest laugh and was like, let me tell you about the Stereo Dock that we’re making.

Christa Mrgan: Oh, yeah: we’re making a Playdate Stereo Dock that’s also a pen holder and it comes with a custom pen, which we spend a lot of time really nailing the details on. As we do!