PlayStation 4’s Secret Ponchos Q&A with Yousuf Mapara
Secret Ponchos is a title that I have been eagerly anticipating since reading a description for the game back in early February. My excitement continued to build at this year’s E3 when it was announced that the game will be debuting on the PlayStation 4 and will be part of the PS4’s instant game collection with PlayStation Plus.
With that excitement came a lot of questions for the fine folks at Switchblade Monkeys and thankfully the Creative Director Yousuf Mapara was nice enough to answer them for me. So read on to hear all about Secret Ponchos, how it has been working with Sony, and what their favorite Western movies are:
Q: Who are the Switchblade Monkeys and how did the team come together to make Secret Ponchos?
It started out by a few of us who were friends wanting to make our own game outside of any corporate or commercial system. We just wanted to make a game we thought was cool, without all the fear and sales expectations we were dealing with in our careers at that point. There is a fundamental difference when you approach a game “what do we want to play” instead of “what will sell”. So our goal became to make a game that was fun to play, even if it meant we did not get paid for the process of building it. So it was about eliminating the business side of things and making a game creatively, the way a group of kids collaborate together to make a band in their garage because they like the music. Over time the quality of what we were producing surprised us , and more and more of us made the sacrifice to leave our day jobs and put all our energy into seeing how far we can push Ponchos.
Q: From the gameplay footage we can see that the game is a top-down arena shooter with a Wild West theme. What else can you tell us about Secret Ponchos?
Giving Secret Ponchos an original game play feel was very important to us. We wanted to do something more innovative in game play then just making another game in a standard genre, Hopefully the result of this effort is that Secret Ponchos has its own feel to its combat. When we put the camera overhead it created opportunities for new mechanics you would never find in a standard shooter. For example you can see the exact spacing between you and your enemies, so controlling that spacing by using different moves with different ranges became very important. We started learning quite a lot from fighting games, which use more precision timing and spacing elements, and our game really became its own type of combat system unlike other shooters. We’re so glad we were bale to bring a new flavor of gameplay to the combat genres which recently have been repeating a lot of mechanics and play-style over the last while. Looking back we are kind of surprised why there have not been any isometric team shooters that we can think of , it feels like a very natural and obvious thing that should have happened!
Q: My first thought when I heard of Secret Ponchos was how great the name was. How did you come up with that name for the game? Where any other names being considered?
We are glad you like it! The name is an interesting topic. People either really love it, or they really hate it but the interesting thing is its memorable. We went through hundreds of names when we were brainstorming, and all the more ‘appropriate’ names felt weirdly generic in a way. We decided to go with this one because it stood out to us as original, and just felt right. Its probably not what we would have been able to call it if we were more marketing-centric. It had a bit of that quirkiness you see in the Spaghetti Western film titles, and touches a bit on the more Mexican side of the Wild West.
Q: Clearly the employees of Switchblade Monkeys are fans of Spaghetti Westerns. Did you watch a lot of Westerns in creating the setting for Secret Ponchos? What are some of your favorites?
Yeah we watched a ton of the films, we were huge fans prior to making the game. Any of the Sergio Leone films are amazing. He sets you in that extreme moment of tension and just keeps everything still and calm, like that moment is frozen. Then Ennio Morricone does his work with the music, and there is this tension that builds and builds, until its so epic its overwhelming. Then fast forward to modern times with “Unforgiven” when Clint Eastwood Directs his own experience, but without the iconic music, or cool poses, relying entirely on different story telling tools. He is also successful and achieves that same Spaghetti Western tension. There is so much to learn from this genre.
Q: Were there any games you took inspiration from when designing Secret Ponchos?
Because Secret Ponchos sort of invents its own Genre of combat, we’re flying by the seat of our pants a bit with no rules to how we need to make this genre. But that being said sometimes there are not easy answers available, and you need to draw parallels from other industries or games to understand how to learn your craft. Even though they may not seem directly applicable, there are games we find ourselves discussing a lot. Street Fighter II, Soul Calibur IV, Team Fortress II, and League of Legends, and strange as it may seem Ultima Online. When we are building Secret Ponchos we find key concepts that have parallels with aspects those games. So we try to understand how those aspects worked, so that we can learn our craft better and build our understanding for Ponchos.
Q: So far you have reveled five outlaws that you can play as. Can you tell me what makes each one unique? Can we expect more then these five when the game releases?
We challenge ourselves to make each outlaw extremely different from each other, so mechanically and creatively they are a fresh experience. We wanted to stay away from just superficial aesthetic changes on characters, and make sure they fundamentally have different play styles. So I’ll use boxing as an explanation to give you an idea. You have guys that are Swarmers, they just rush you punching and want to overwhelm you with volume of attacks.Then you have guys that are slick technical boxers that try and keep you out of range. They counter punch you when you make a move, and then reestablish that spacing – chipping away at you gradually. Then you have guys that are sturdy and just hit hard (punchers) and are going for that one big hit. A boxer always has a different challenge ahead of them when they fight a new opponent, and has to solve it a unique way. We wanted to create Ponchos characters with this mentality, that there is a diversity in play style. So Gordo is effective at a really long range with his Gatling gun, and against him it’s a challenge to get in your range. His secondary is a Molotov, which he can use strategically to ignite parts of the environment and keep you where he wants you. Kidred is short range dual pistols, but can move super fast with running and dive-rolls. Those 2 are going to try and impose their style on the other. Phantom Poncho has a shotgun that deals lots of damage but has short range. He has a bullwhip that can disarm an enemy, and his strikes “wound” them so they move slower. So he is like a predator that wounds an enemy, takes away their strengths, and then moves in for the kill.
We are going to Launch the game with 6 distinctive characters, but we actually have plans to support the game by expanding the roster even further past launch via DLC. There are so many amazing western characters we are inspired to build, so as long as people love what we’re making and there is demand we want to keep going and take the vision further and further.
Working with Sony has been a very smooth, and awesome experience. We presented our game for the first time to the public at PAX East last year. Sony was very proactive in scouting out potential upcoming projects, and had Brian Silva and Nick Suttner on the floor checking out promising indie projects. We did not know their faces just their names, so when they came we had no idea who they were, they were dressed in regular clothes and we assumed they were gamers there for the show. The took their time, hanging out at the booth to get an understanding of the game, and even observed how other gamers reacted. After a while they introduced themselves and that they’re from Sony and Brian asked us if we’ve ever considered launching on PS4. We had no idea that was a possibility at the time, and I explained that we were too small to do something like that. He said “what are your barriers, maybe we can eliminate them”. Fast forward 2 Months later we are on stage at E3 announcing our passion project has become a PS4 title. Sony is going to have a killer indie portfolio, and I credit their team and guys like Brian and Nick for being proactive, and actively seeking out and supporting cool projects.
PS4 is a very Dev friendly environment. We have not had any problems, and we were able to get things running on the kit smoothly, without fighting anything in the hardware. PS3 was a great piece of technology but it used its own architecture which often required too much custom code to really make it work for you out of the box. From what I can see working with it the PS4 seems to have been built around the priority of making it Dev friendly. Things just seem to well work out of the box.
Without Canada media fund we would not have been able to make Secret Ponchos. Even when you’re working on a passion project without drawing a salary, there are so many costs to bring it to market, especially in a console game landscape. Although we had a great creative concept, and a team so committed that they would contribute their skills to build it without income, the misc costs would have been a show stopper. The Canada Media fund has a program in which they support innovative and creative projects by partnering with you. We submitted Secret Ponchos early on with an animation showing what the game would be like if we completed it. A Jury reviewed and selected Secret Ponchos – we were so fortunate and are very grateful. Partnering with them gave us the funding we needed to cover the miscellaneous costs that would have been a barrier, while keeping that creative freedom and innovative spirit we set out with.
Our strategy has always been “lets make a great game, and see where that takes us”. Our future is tied with the quality of the game we put out. We’re going to put every drop of creativity we have into making Secret Ponchos a fun game, and we’ll see where that takes us. Our goal is to always make games that push boundaries in 2 things, innovate in both Style, and Gameplay.
If you like what we’re doing, join us on our Facebook page. Its pretty unique because its run by us developers instead of a PR team, so if you see a post on there its from one of us. We want to use that as our main tool for dialogue with our community, and we share updates, concept art, chris posts some music he’s working on there. facebook.com/SecretPonchos because its time for us to start spreading the word about the game, and its really exciting seeing our facebook community start to grow. We also recently started a twitter page @SwitchbladeMkys
Thanks to all the gamers and press for getting behind the game, its been so amazing and motivating meeting people at PAX and E3, and online and seeing their response to the game.