Exclusive Interview: Mayan Death Robots Programmer Karel Crombecq

When it comes to games, sometimes it’s their premise that first catches our attention, sometimes it’s the visuals, and sometimes it’s the people behind it. And then you get a game with a name like Mayan Death Robots (PC, Mac, and Linux) that just makes you wonder, “What heck kind of game is that and how can I play it now?” (To which the answers, in this case, are “Please keep reading,” and “No, not until August or September.”) Though in talking to programmer Karel Crombecq, one-half of this Belgium’s Sileni Studios, it’s clear that this game’s name isn’t the only interesting thing about it.

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Let’s start with the basics: What is Mayan Death Robots, how do you play it?

Mayan Death Robots is an artillery game, similar to Worms, Scorched Earth, or that old Gorillas game from DOS. But the big difference is that, in our game, both players take their turn at the same time, which means you never have to wait. This allows for much more hectic and fast-paced gameplay and interesting interactions between the two players. For example, you might have projectiles bouncing off each other.

Where did the original idea come from, and how different is the finished game from that original idea?

The initial concept of the game was a Worms-game without any waiting, to be played on one tablet with two people, and that’s still the core gameplay concept today. But thematically, the game was called Clockwork Riot, and was about small nanobots in a huge clockwork machine. After three months of development, though, we hit a slump and eventually even considered dropping the project until we, at the last-minute, decided to give it another go with a different theme. That night, we transitioned from miniature robots in a huge machine to massive robots in a Mayan setting. So the core gameplay was the same from the start, but the theme was totally different.

You kind of already answered this, but what other games do you think Mayan Death Robots is similar to, and what makes it different?

Most people compare it to Worms, but we prefer to call it a spiritual successor to Scorched Earth because in both our game and Scorched Earth you only play with one character as opposed to an army of worms.

But there are some big differences between our game and Scorched Earth too. Firstly, we have the simultaneous turns, as I explained earlier. Secondly, our world is tile-based as opposed to pixel-based, which in turn allowed us to do awesome stuff such as adding rebuildable terrain with Tetris-like blocks. Thirdly, we offer a multiplayer campaign mode, through which new features, robots, bosses and other things are gradually introduced and unlocked as you play with friends.

When you started designing Mayan Death Robots, did you consult any text books or documentaries about the Mayans, or even visit their ruins, or did you just make it up based on that Simpsons Treehouse Of Horror episode?

I’ve always had an interest in South American history, but never really did any research on it before I started this project. When we started, I looked up reviews on popular textbooks on the Mayas, and quickly discovered that there are surprisingly few recommended works. Based on what I could find, I bought A Forest Of Kings by Linda Schele and David Freiel, which I enjoyed immensely. I also bought An Illustrated Dictionary Of The Gods And Symbols Of Ancient Mexico And The Maya, which is kind of a glossary of ancient Mexican ideas, and is very useful to extract new ideas from. Of course, we also extensively used Wikipedia and the Internet in general as a source of information, and whenever there’s an exhibition or movie about Mayas, I’ll be the first in line to visit. I would really love to go Mexico someday and visit the ruins in real life, but I haven’t been able to do so yet. If the game makes me rich, it’ll be one of the first things I’ll do.

And why did you decide to go Mayan as opposed to Aztec or Olmec? Or did I just accidentally announce the first two sequels?

There’s three reasons. Firstly, we have a storyline of alien robots visiting earth, messing with the human population and then leaving and cleaning up after themselves…the typical “Ancient Astronaut” scenario. This works well with the mystery around the demise of the Mayan civilization, which in our scenario is caused by the robots messing up the climate and leaving Earth.

Secondly, there’s a practical reason. Our game is tile-based, and so is typical Mayan architecture. Both their statues and temples tend to have very square shapes, which makes them ideal for tile-based destructible terrain. It was a match made in heaven.

Thirdly, I just like the Mayas more. The Aztec were a very centralized and military empire, and in our game the Mayas are basically agricultural, tribal and relatively peaceful, contrasting against the violent alien robots. The Olmec were just not as technologically advanced enough to do really interesting stuff with.

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How about with the robots, did you base their design or capabilities on real robots or fictional ones, and why did you go the way you did?

The idea is that when the robots arrive in their UFOs and fall from the heavens, the Mayas think that their gods have arrived and start worshipping them. When we decipher the Mayan writing, we think they are talking about their gods while they were actually talking about the robots. Because of this, every robot is actually themed after a Mayan god. For example, Chac, the Mayan god of Rain and Lightning, was actually an overcharged electricity robot who shot lightning bolts from the sky.

As for their graphical design, all of the robots look like ’50s and ’60s science fiction movie robots. Think Forbidden Planet and look for the similarities between Chac and Robby The Robot from that movie. We thought it would be a fun twist that a highly advanced alien robot race from 1000 years ago actually looked like our first robot designs.

Each of the robots in Mayan Death Robots has their own unique abilities. What are some of them, and how do they change the game?

One of our most distinct and difficult robots to play is Itzamna, whose projectiles explode not when they enter the ground, but when they ground the ground. So they basically drill through the ground until they hit air again and then explode. Against most robots, defending means building a solid wall of ground with blocks. But against Itzamna, this can actually work against you. It’s important against Itzamna to build walls with lots of tiny holes in it, so they catch the drills and make them explode before they drill through.

Another cool one is Alom, whose projectiles become stronger the longer they are in the air. This makes Alom a very terrible close range fighter, and makes you shoot high angles to get the most out of your shot…but these are the most difficult to land. So with Alom, you’re constantly juggling between hard-hitting, difficult shots or easier direct shots.

Every robot has special skills like that, and part of the fun of the game is discovering how to optimally use each robot.

In one of the screenshots, there’s a dragon poking his or her head up. What do the dragons do in the game?

The dragon is Kukulkan, the Feathered Serpent God from Mayan mythology. Also known later as Quetzalcoatl in Aztec mythology. The idea is that the Mayas start worshipping the robots, and forget about the real Mayan gods, who were actually there as well. The real gods don’t really like this evolution, so at points during Campaign Mode, you’ll be forced set aside your differences and enter a co-op battle against one of these real gods. This turns the whole concept of the game upside down and makes for a fun break from the typical gameplay.

The idea of playing with other people on the same computer is something you see a bunch in console games, but not as much on PCs and Mac. Where did you get the idea to do this?

The game was actually conceived from the start as a local multiplayer game; initially on one tablet. But as the game outgrew its original platform, we naturally moved to Steam, but kept the focus on local multiplayer. We really love the local multiplayer revolution of the last few years, with such excellent titles as Nidhogg and Towerfall focusing on playing with your friends in the same room. Our game is similar to those games in that the social interaction during gameplay is really a big part of the fun; laughing when the other guy makes a mistake, taunting him to finish the game off, shouting when something unexpected happens, etc. This feeling can never be fully achieved with online play, so we encourage people to play the game with friends on one PC.

But what if you’re someone who doesn’t play well with others? Are you shit out of luck where Mayan Death Robots is concerned, or is there a single-player mode as well?

There won’t be a single player mode. We considered doing it, but quickly realized that you would lose most of what makes our game fun: the social interaction. Besides, who plays Worms in single player anyway?

Mayan Death Robots is coming out in August or September on PC, OSX, and Linux. Are there plans to bring it to tablets or consoles?

The game will come out on consoles as well, but we are not ready to announce which platforms it will come out on first. It won’t be coming to tablets because we just added too much stuff to the game and tablets can’t run our game anymore.

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Finally, Mayan Death Robots is not the first game you guys have made. If someone really like it, which of your other games would you recommend they play next and why?

This is our first big project, and the previous two games we made were us figuring out our way in the industry. I would not recommend playing those, as they have very little in common with Mayan Death Robots. I do, however, recommend checking out the sequels Aztec Death Machines and Olmec Killer Droids, which will be coming out shortly after Mayan Death Robots.

 

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