Shawn Alexander Allen is a fascinating developer creating a game that's a complex mash-up of turn-based tactics and oldschool brawler. Drawing inspiration from influences ranging from Bad Dudes to FTL and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Treachery In Beatdown City is currently seeking a final push on Kickstarter. I contacted Shawn to discuss the game and the influence of a life in ever-changing NYC, as well as his time working at Rockstar, the finer points of GTA and the representation and cultural impact of previously marginalised groups on the development scene.
RPS: For those of our readers who missed the initial news post and might not have seen the game elsewhere, can you briefly describe Treachery in Beatdown City?
Allen: Treachery in Beatdown City is a hybrid brawler/turn based tactics game. It's got real time movement, and some attacks, but much like Fallout III the best attacks come when you bring up a menu and use points in a VATS like system to build combos. Our combo system is fairly open and allows for players to think about their next move, while also maintaining the pace and some of the twitch elements of a brawler.
Our battles are more akin to "matches" instead of just mowing down enemies, so you are fighting dozens of distinct opponents with their own look, attacks, range, style of fighting, etc. No two are exactly the same, and the biggest similarity between enemies is that many of them punch, but there's a lot of different types of attacks to keep things interesting.
RPS: I often think that taking an existing genre and breaking down its mechanics in some way – making a sidescrolling brawler turn-based for example – is a form of interpretation. Done well, it can expose aspects of a genre that we take for granted and open them to re-analysis. Is there any of that in Beatdown City or am I projecting?
Allen: Yeah, definitely. The first thing is by making people aware that - A: every move they have has a name, and B: that they have a bunch of them and C: that they can do combos of different moves - people really care and don't want to fall back on their instincts to button mash as much as the presentation may make them want to.
Part of designing the play in Treachery in Beatdown City was watching speed runs of Final Fight/Double Dragon III (a game I am terrible at) and just prior knowledge of the pitfalls of beat 'em up design, like finding the dominant strategy and only using that for the next 30 minutes or so that the game lasts for in order to get through on a single life. And that's not saying we are going to hammer out any existence of those, but we make the need for them translucent and make players want to play better because it only benefits them in the long run.
RPS: How exactly do the fights play out? More like Final Fantasy Tactics or more like actual Final Fantasy? Or something else entirely maybe.
Allen: I've been joking about this for a bit recently because of the return of FTL to prominence but our game is like the FTL of brawling, in terms of the fights - you can stop time, and plan out your next few moves, but when you're fighting a ship and have people on board trying to take out your pilot, things can get very hectic.
You're moving around in real time, and have some real time strikes at your disposal. But the meat is the combo building via a menu. Using attacks leaves you waiting for different amounts of time, although you're not required to spend all of your points or COMBO meter. You can, say, uppercut one guy, turn around and grab then suplex the next. Or do a three jab combo.
There are also status effects that affect attack strength, damage taken, walking speed, poison type ailments, etc. There are also buffs to these as well.
RPS: What kind of fighting styles are incorporated and do you take reference from actual martial arts/wrestling etc?
Allen: Our main characters have different styles.
Lisa, the middleweight, is a mix of boxing/MMA, which means she has a lot of cool boxing moves on top of some kicks, and a bunch of holds. In fact she gets a dash punch, like Balrog, a "superman punch", like several fighters use in UFC, a leg kick (that causes SLOW on enemies), etc.
Brad is a wrestler type who, as a bigger, older guy, uses a mix of grapple strikes and slams, but can also equip a new costume to bring some of his more acrobatic moves from his younger days back into the fold. He uses moves from numerous wrestlers. One of his initial strikes is the Dusty Elbow which causes STUN (enemy's next attack may fail).
Then we have Bruce, who is a Jeet Kune Do/Capoeira expert. We modeled a lot of our moves from Bruce Lee's training books as well as taking a few of his capoeira moves from watching a lot of Eddie Gordo. He also has an elbow that gets stronger as his health goes down, modelled after Anderson Silva.
Different enemies focus on different styles too, so choosing your player against different groups of enemies will change how the match plays out. Some characters have higher strike evade, making it harder for Bruce to gain the upperhand. Meanwhile, a guy like Brad, who uses mostly grabs, becomes a lot stronger in that fight.
RPS: The cultural references and touchstones in Beatdown City surprised me. Is this one of the first socially aware brawlers or have I been missing out on an Abobo subtext for years?
Allen: Probably...in fact beat 'em ups have a long history of having weird issues, like Bare Knuckle 3 and Crime City 2's use of leather clad gay men with highly exaggerated animations. These games pretty much were products of pop culture, so they looked more like Fist of the North Star or Streets of Fire.
The most socially conscious brawler I know of is the Kunio Kun series. The first game was referencing the creator Yoshihisa Kishimoto's time in High School when he'd get into fights. It was then transformed into Renegade, and the rise of the biker brawls began. So even with humble, personal beginnings, the series quickly became an action movie cliche, which is part of the fun anyway.
I love action movies, games, etc. And I think some of the best ones dealt with those aspects to an extent. The A-Team dived into BA Baracus' past here and there, making more human characters with complex interactions that were nuanced over entire seasons of episodes, or a couple of hours in a movie. That's where we come in. We don't want to jam a message down people's throats, but we make you care about the characters and the places you are in while also telling a lot of uncomfortable jokes, both in dialog and in environment design. If you get down with that, that's cool.
RPS: As well as working on Beatdown City, you’re a speaker and advocate for a more inclusive development scene, particularly in your native NYC. What kind of events and talks do you find helpful?
Allen: For me diving headfirst into the games industry on numerous levels woke me up a bit, it didn't hurt that I always have this nagging race issue in the back of my head being a biracial black dude. The efforts at places like GDC for women to find a more inclusive space by people such as Brenda Romero definitely helped embolden me to think minorities, men or women, could be included more as well.
Different Games, Indiecade, Indiecade East, and special efforts by Brandon Sheffield for the Games Career Seminar at GDC are great places to find helpful information and support. I gave a talk at PAX East this year too and I feel like it helped a few people.
But you also have to go to places that aren't filled with the people that immediately care about what you have to say, which is why I think events like DICE need to open up their talk categories.
RPS: I see the broadening of the medium as an inevitable step forward and a great opportunity. Do you feel there’s a fight involved for previously marginalised groups to be heard, respected and represented?
Allen: It's interesting, as the gates are opened and the barriers towards game creation go down, the amount of competition goes up immediately. So while more people can make games, I think people will have to work through more nontraditional means, either for direct sales, or by making their games more interesting or unique or telling a different story, or showing different types of player avatars to get noticed.
Having more voices being heard is important, but I also don't want it to be in some weird pandering because a person is "different". We're all going to just have to do our thing, and market the crap out of everything we do, just like everyone else, which is still a hard thing right now. I try to signal boost people as much as I can so people see these talented people more readily.
RPS: Is the recent rise of microstudios, by which I mean one or two person teams, partly responsible for the dialogues springing up about diversity? In a team of a 100+, aren’t individual efforts somewhat subsumed even where they might swerve from the norm?
Allen: I'd say so. I think seeing more people taking stuff into their own hands you'll see more types of people with their own interests showing up. There's still always going to be a contingent that chases the almighty buck though, as I've seen smaller diverse teams pumping out facebook clones too. But I think we are moving forward because there are less company NDAs to hold back people like myself from trying to make our voices heard.
RPS: From a creative standpoint, what do you think any artistic medium can gain from a diversity of voices?
Allen: I have been giving a talk called How Urban Black and Latino Culture can be the Next Frontier in Indie Games. That talk is centered around the notion that more cultural influences will grow everything, from having more meaning, and worth overall.
Def Jam didn't just start with LL Cool J, but with the Beastie Boys as well. Keith Haring became popular because of big influences by Puerto Rican graffiti writers. I have a friend who has work in the permanent Whitney collection who calls Andy Warhol a thief because of how much he would assimilate from other voices. No one knows Jack Smith, but he influenced Warhol quite a bit.
RPS: Beatdown City involves a fight against gentrification. Where in New York did you grow up and how much has it changed?
Allen: I grew up in the East Village in Manhattan. It was down the street from where Allen Ginsberg used to live. He came to my elementary school once and sang some songs and told some stories. In my building one day my mom almost got thrown down the stairs by some dude high on something when we came home at the wrong time. So there was this creative culture that existed, but it was still 80's New York.
My mom moved into her current apartment in the late 70's. The gates from the window in the room that was mine as a kid are still up. My mom had been broken into one too many times. Still she chose to move here from North Carolina, and she did poetry when I was a baby.
New York was once a place where rent was cheap-to-nonexistent in areas, and an artist could come to live and create. Now we are stuck with million dollar cheaply made condos and a new class of people jamming into overly expensive apartments just to get a job at some tech firm.
I was joking with my daughter this morning about how many coffee shops were springing up, representing an obvious shift in our neighborhood's populace (we live in the Lower East Side area now). New York still has a very personal side, but it's a lot harder to find these days.
RPS: How can you reflect that in a game? Particularly this kind of game?
That is tough, honestly. I try to just pour all of my soul into creating the backgrounds that you walk by, trying to represent this decay butted up against boutiques and condos. And we try to write that into the characters, and how they interact with each other.
At one point you, as Lisa Santiago, a born and raised East Fulton resident, you're fighting a private security officer who is blaming you for harassing a drunken socialite. If that doesn't say something, I'm not sure what will. But again, it's kind of there if you pay attention...or it just looks like three women fighting otherwise.
RPS: You’ve written about bad dudes rescuing the president and Beatdown City’s America has a familiar face at its helm. What sort of political twists and turns can we expect from the story?
Allen: A bunch of the story is rooted in a farcical, but maybe not, premise of how far will the rich go for power. Also the "NinjaDragon Terrorist" organization who takes credit for kidnapping said president is dubiously named on purpose. Who are they, anyway?
Think Metal Gear level shenanigans, but even though they have meaning, there won't be several minute long explanations.
RPS: Tell me if I’m wrong on any of these, but my first instinct was that River City Ransom, Streets of Rage and Double Dragon were the key influences on Beatdown City. But then I started to think about The Warriors, Paul Auster and MF Doom. What else should I be thinking about?
Allen: In terms of story? There's a bunch of stuff from a lot of games that I either played or read about as a kid. In fact I just re-ordered the Ninja Gaiden 2 NES guide because I remember loving that Nintendo Power guide's comics and back stories for every enemy. Double Dragon on the NES, Narc, and Bad Dudes were huge for aesthetic and story influences, but I also again used Ninja Gaiden as a style guide for ideas of cutscenes because that was a game that really went in with the art in those.
I love MF Doom and would love to work with him on something one day, but I'm also a huge Ghostface mark.
RPS: You spent several years working at Rockstar – my thinking on the GTA games in particular is that they mostly represent characters who are variants on a type. I rarely find the satire strong enough to counter the stereotyping and cheap jabs, even though there are some damn fine performances scattered about. Do you think there’s an argument to be made that the cast is at least more diverse than four bald space marines?
Allen: I loved GTA IV because Niko isn't Russian, and gets offended whenever people call him Russian which is such a nuanced detail. It's a unique idea to tackle because I even had a producer tell me "Duh, he's Russian" before I worked at the company, right after seeing the first trailer. I postulated Eastern Europe, or perhaps even Middle Eastern.
Luis Lopez is also really interesting in that he is a Dominican dude wrestling with his old life, friends, family and lack of having a father figure around. He's full of machismo to the point where he constantly points out that he's not gay, and then he has a complicated father son relationship with a gay white man.
I'd like to see more of those details explored in games, personally.
RPS: Thanks for your time!
The Treachery In Beatdown City Kickstarter is live right now.