3D Realms recently revealed the new game under its hat, the pixelated and slapstick gore shooter Ion Maiden. We had the chance to sit down with Frederik Schreiber, the vice president of 3D Realms, and talk about the studio’s approach to crafting an authentic retro shooter that doesn’t fall prey to the whims of nostalgia, as well as the divide between modern shooters and shooters of old.
Give us the pitch on Ion Maiden.
Ion Maiden is an old school first-person shooter. It takes place in the near future. You play as Shelly Harrison, a bomb disposal expert in the near future for the GDF. The GDF is the Global Defense Forces and in Ion Maiden you have to hunt down a madman scientist gone rogue named Doctor Jadus Heskel who has created an army of cyborg brainwashed zombies who are taking over the United States.
The game is based around the old Build engine from 1996, which was the first licensed 3D engine for video games. It was used for Shadow Warrior, Duke Nukem 3D, and a range of other games. For this game, we took the original engine and expanded aspects of the engine so we could do new things. We wanted it to be a hindrance to us but we also wanted this game to be authentic, so it not only looks and plays like a ’90s game with a lot of new elements to it – it is a ’90s game. All the artwork in the game – the sprites for weapons and environments – are handcrafted. The authenticity meant a lot to us.
Retro shooters are pretty popular now. What makes Ion Maiden stand out?
For us, the most important part was to make a great first-person shooter first and foremost. The art style should not dictate the game itself. It is an art-heavy game for obvious reasons: we want to make sure it’s an absolutely beautiful game to look at but that shouldn’t dictate the actual gameplay. When we designed Ion Maiden, we designed it gameplay-first. What makes it a great first-person shooter? It has some elements of older first-person shooters we really loved and miss nowadays, part of that being hub-based multifaced levels. We love a lot of different crazy weapons and secret areas. Stuff that we feel is more lacking in modern first-person shooters, so we wanted to bring those things back.
The art style itself is something we decided on afterward. Nowadays you can have a game that’s appreciated for its art even though the art style is ‘old school’ even though that wasn’t the case 10-15 years ago. Where a game like that would just be “old.” Compared to many other retro style shooters, we wanted to take another approach, with the graphics and style coming second to the gameplay. So the appeal of the game is that it should be a kickass first-person shooter.
How long has it been in development?
What connects Ion Maiden to Duke Nukem and Shadow Warrior outside of gameplay?
The style of protagonist. All three games are very protagonist heavy, with characters who are very unique and exaggerated and stylized in their personality and weaponry. We wanted to go back to creating badass protagonists, protagonists that were basically action heroes. And we always wanted a great female action hero. Bombshell is a heroine we established years ago in another game, and Ion Maiden is sort of a prequel to that.
It was important to us to create a character that both differentiated itself from Duke and Lo Wang but also complimented them.
What can you tell us about the world of Ion Maiden?
It takes place in the future, in Neo DC, so a version of Washington DC. The main inspiration for the world is Blade Runner for its style and visuals. The music is way more synth-based but also still MIDI. So I guess you’d called it cyberpunk.
Why choose not to make a 3D shooter?
When you ask people often what the pinnacle of first-person shooters is, they’ll often say something from the mid-90s. So, y’know, Doom to Half-life. That time period. That was the golden era. After that, games started to be more linear, maybe a little dumbed down. So we wanted to back to the golden era and imagine “Well, what if we continued down the golden era road?” Instead of making games more cinematic, more cutscenes, more quicktime events, we went the other direction. We made the levels more open, we added more secrets. Things in one level will affect things in another. We added way more exploration-based gameplay where you have to look and think. You don’t get any text prompts that tell you what to do in Ion Maiden.
There’s this video from Egoraptor where he goes around in Mega Man X and talks about why Mega Man X has no tutorials at all but instead the gameplay teaches you how to play. And we took the same approach with Ion Maiden.
No offense to modern shooters. Those are way more cinematic and take you on a rollercoaster-like experience, where you have a lot of sequences that are fairly well put together. We go in the complete opposite direction and basically free you from those constraints and let the player figure things out themselves.
Do you think there is a compromise between these open-style shooters and more narrow cinematic ones?
Oh yeah, definitely. I think the new Doom is a perfect example of that. It’s a pretty hardcore game but if you just walk the path that the game leads you toward, it’s a pretty linear game. If you start looking alternate routes and paths, and stop and explore, the levels open up and reward you for that. So that’s a really good example of a game that does both really well.
What are some non-first person shooter influences on Ion Maiden?
Super Mario Odyssey, the way they approach moons, is a really good example. All the secrets in Wolfenstein 3D were secrets you couldn’t really find unless you were just combing walls and pressing square. Our approach is different, a bit more like Mario. You can always see an area that you might be able to get to but you have no idea how. You can always see what you have to get to, but how you get there is up to you. You can use physics or maybe find secret doors and buttons. It’s all teased at you at all time, and we have a ton of them in the game.
Do you think there is a large audience for this style of game?
I think the assumption worth challenging is that “there’s a style of game.” When we talk about retro-style games, we’re usually only talking about games that look retro. You talk about pixel art games. Yeah, they look like they were made for the Super Nintendo but they’re all completely different games. They could be 3D and they would be just as good. So that’s the first challenge. We’re trying to break out of that. Ion Maiden isn’t a retro shooter. It has old-school elements and an art style, but I hope we’re past this thing where just because it looks like that it’s getting put into a box with everything else that looks like that.
It’s like saying Doom and Uncharted 4 are the same game because they used physics-based rendering, which is not the case. Completely different games. They just both look beautiful.
For more on Ion Maiden, be sure to check out our New Gameplay Today on the game.