TA Interview With DR's Theodore Reiker

By Michelle Balsan, 4 years ago
Now that the cast of characters have all been revealed for Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture's Sine Mora, we've had the very good fortune to sit down with Sine Mora's Director on the Digital Reality side, Theodore Reiker.

Theodore Reiker - Director of Sine Mora

We know that many of you had questions about what to expect, so we hope we got them all here! Many thanks as well to Akos Kota for helping us get this interview together!

Matrarch: The game has an emphasis on speed, efficiency and timing. When testing the levels was it difficult to strike a balance between difficulty but exerting a sense of pressure on the player?

Theodore Reiker: Yes, this was probably the biggest challenge from a design perspective during the development – it was very difficult and fragile process, but we are satisfied with the result. The time extension mechanics in Sine Mora played a key role from the very birth of the idea, as we wanted to make a shoot’em up that feels and plays completely different from everything in the genre’s history. The last 30 years produced several hundred games with excellent systems and fresh, innovative things, even if they look the same for those who did not follow the evolution closely. For the uninitiated, all Cave games may look like carbon copies of each other – they look like bullet hell games, and that’s what they are. However, if you take the time and learn to play them, they are completely different and amazing.

In the case of Sine Mora , saying au revoir to the bullet hell style was just the beginning. The second most important thing was to find something that makes its system unique – on paper, time extension based progress sounded good, so we spent the next 12 months bearing the consequences. :)

M: Another quality that has been touted in Sine Mora is its story. Story-telling is not usually associated with games of this genre, so how do you plan to keep players engaged in the character's tales? Is their a single over-arching story that all the characters experience, or does each character experience unique story elements?

TR: The story unfolds as you progress through the game and concludes when you finish the game with the alternative narration that includes the true ending. There are two different tales being told here expanding on each other and are actually complementary.

The original idea was to tell 7 stories, with 7 (human) characters, based on the 7 virtues of the Japanese Bushido. At a point, we even thought that it would be cool to have 7 stories from 7 different authors, Suda 51 and if possible, his friend Kojima-san amongst them, of course – a dream that we keep for our next game. We never asked them about this idea, as soon we realized that we need very concrete plot details produced very early and quickly to proceed with our level design according to the milestone plan. That idea was very, very ambitious – too ambitious for such a small title, if you ask me.

M: The boss training mode offers unlimited attempts at boss fights to perfect your tactics. Can you tell us something about the difficulty we can expect in that mode and what strategies may come into play? Will certain pilots be better able to take on certain bosses?

TR: The Boss Training game mode is completely customizable – you are able to select and modify every single aspect of the encounter that has a parameter attached. This includes the difficulty level, of course. There are certain tactics that work better against a boss, so this mode is really about experimenting with the various settings and selections. You may find a weak spot in this mode and that will seriously alter your approach within the main game – you’ll save a secondary weapon for a certain phase of the fight or you’ll know which character is the perfect choice for a better Score Attack run.

M: The Arcade mode sounds addictive with certain tasks to complete. Can you tell us a little about some of the trickier tasks gamers will have to accomplish to a high A rating?

TR: Literally, you don’t need to complete tasks to reach a higher rank – there are only circumstances and actions that will accelerate ranking up. In Arcade mode, it’s about controlling your rank with your actions – for example, not using a secondary weapon or a time manipulation device may get you into more dangerous situations, but will definitely boost your score. You need to control yourself first to control the game world.

M: You've explained before that, while a quick run of the game can be completed fairly quickly, gamers will need a significant amount of time to explore all that Sine Mora has to offer. How many hours do you envisage it would take for players to perfect a Challenging run through to see the true ending for Sine Mora? How many hours would it take to experience the game fully?

TR: Now, it’s very important to mention that both Story mode and Arcade mode will have two difficulty levels (Challenge being the harder Story difficulty), but we separated the modes for a reason – Story mode, even on Challenging, is way more forgiving, than Arcade. Hardcore shmup players are more interested in the game mechanics, than in a story, while the non-dedicated players avoid these games mostly because of the outlandish challenge they represent.

That said, it’s very hard to tell, how much time is needed to get something, if that something is different for you and for me. Any player can have 15-20 hours of fun with the Story mode and the connected content, challenges and completion criteria. As mentioned before, we strongly believe that to get those 200 gamer points from the game you’ll need strong determination and 50+ hours – just like in any other modern shoot’em up game.

M: Are there any future DLC plans to expand the title with more content? Even more characters perhaps?

TR: There are no DLC plans. This decision was left to the development team, and we approached it as players. As players, we’re not fond of the business model when connected to digital releases, to be honest. Small additions would not justify any price point, we would definitely feel guilty of ripping off our customers, while major expansions, like the Side Wover expansion for the G.rev shooter Strania: The Stella Machina make sense only if you have a very large installed base.

While on Strania – every single person who loves classic shoot’em up games should give that XBLA beauty a try; it’s full of great ideas.

M: Speaking of characters, the character design has certainly drawn quite a bit of commentary so far, as that is the bulk of what we've seen of Sine Mora to this point. You did reveal that Mahiro Maeda contributed designs for the game's bosses. How did he come to work on the project? Also, who is the designer behind the game's cast of characters?

TR: I have a burning passion for The Wings of Honneamise, a Japanese animation masterpiece from 1987 and just kept on talking about it to my friends at Grasshopper Manufacture, when we were discussing the art direction. I’m a fan, and that movie is one of my absolute favourites, when it comes to world building. Then, suddenly Suda-san made a very, very generous decision – he promised that he’d try to convince one of the mechanical designers of Honneamise to work on Sine Mora.

With Maeda-san, he basically kept his word – he was one of the key animators of the movie. Frankly, I thought that he’s only joking for a good while, but one day, we simply had Mahiro Maeda on board, working on several of our boss encounters. Working with Grasshopper Manufacture was a fantastic, almost surreal experience… and not just because of episodes like this.

A gentleman named Gez Fry designed our characters. He’s extremely talented and possibly the most humble artist I’ve ever met. You should take a look at his portfolio here.

Also, the bulk of our environmental concept arts are coming from the mind of Tony Holmsten. Another fine chap – before joining Grasshopper Manufacture, he worked on projects like the Battlefield series from DICE, Bionic Commando or the cancelled Swedish Final Fantasy project, Fortress.

M: While we're on the topic of collaboration, how is it that Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture came to work with each other? There's quite a bit of distance between your studios, so how did you collaborate/distribute tasks?

TR: Yes, definitely a very strange pairing… call me crazy, but I think Grasshopper Manufacture is actually compatible with the majority of the game developers out there. They represent our still small voice, our suppressed rebel yell. They do freely what most of us would like to do. People love Double Fine for the same exact reasons.

What we did here is letting out that yell. We made the game that no publishers would back on this planet. For a venture like this, you need a similarly minded partner – and there is no better choice for the wacky, than Suda 51’s Grasshopper Manufacture.

The game is a co-development, meaning it was developed fairly democratically. GhM made all the concept art and delivered the sound design, including the fantastic soundtrack from Akira Yamaoka. The game design, story, programming and 3D modeling is coming from Digital Reality. Both studios overlooked all aspects of the development, with regular meetings in Tokyo and almost constant communication.

M: We know that sometimes the game world will be taller than we can see on screen. Will the gamer be rewarded for making use of the entire playing area with hidden items and better routes through the carnage, or does it come down to pure skill and dexterity in the heat of battle?

TR: When this happens, there are definitely better and worse routes, yes. However, it really depends on the players’ personal preference and skill, which is which – balance wise, they are mostly the same.

M: Frequently, people have drawn comparisons between Sine Mora and other shoot em ups. Which games did you draw most inspiration from?

TR: The definitive inspiration was Battle Garegga – the Sega Saturn favourite of the team. Dark and cool, that game has everything you ever wanted from a shooter. Einhander’s approach to the genre was also very inspirational – they ignored the emerging trend of challenging (alt. punishing) the player even more, and went down on the attractive and newcomer-friendly route instead. Under Defeat on the Dreamcast and Progear no Arashi in the arcades, for their astonishing attention to detail.

M: Sine Mora has had a fairly lengthy development history, after first being announced at E3 2010, initially for a third quarter 2011 launch. What led to the need for extra development time?

TR: When Microsoft Studios picked up the title for publishing, a lot of extra things became important. For example, initially we thought that no localization will be needed – players should be happy with English and Japanese, period. Although the game’s voice will remain entirely in Hungarian everywhere in the world (this was an artistic decision), we got a request from Microsoft Studios regarding French, Italian, German, Spanish and Portuguese localization. The game, mainly its frontend was not prepared for this – it took a while to implement the extra languages.

Also, the publisher carefully analyzed Sine Mora and came to the conclusion that contrary to our statements, the Story mode is still too hardcore and discouraging for newcomers to the genre. They were right, so we spent some time balancing the difficulty in this play mode further. The Arcade mode’s Hard and Insane modes passed without a single comment.

M: Was Sine Mora always intended to be a console-exclusive? What prompted that decision?

TR: Originally, we also had an arcade game on mind. Arcade as a platform, not (just) as the genre, of course. We were interested in SI Electronics’ System Board Y3, which was advertised as a goggle free 3D compatible architecture, as we were keen on 60fps native 3D support from the very beginning. Unfortunately, we were advised that the arcade market in Japan is shrinking too steadily, so we decided to skip the arcade version, and develop Sine Mora solely as a console-exclusive title.

M: One element of designing a game for the 360 (and one of importance to our readers) is the achievement list. Would you describe the list as a difficult one? What goes into deciding what tasks will add to a person's gamerscore?

TR: On a scale from 1 to 10, I believe it’s somewhere between 8.5 and 9.5, I guess. So, it’s a difficult one. The Achievement list itself contains mostly Promotions to certain ranks – to get promoted, you need to complete tasks (so, here you go with the tasks). Actually, you need to meet the criteria for over 70 various objectives throughout the game. I think the first 110G are relatively easy and could be obtained by most gamers. The last three Promotions include nasty tasks, like completing the game’s Arcade mode without losing a life (1 coin complete), or finishing a stage on Insane without picking up anything, for example. These sub-achievements were sorted by difficulty.

M: You very recently posted that development of Sine Mora is now done (Congratulations!) and that you have a launch window to reveal? Any chance you can narrow it down for us a little bit or at least let us know when you'll make that reveal?

Thank you! Sine Mora will launch on the 21st of March, simultaneously worldwide.

And here's a video about the release date announcement, in which you can see a little more gameplay as well as some of the members of the team behind Sine Mora.

Again, our sincerest thanks to Theo for sitting down and chatting with us! We're promised will have some new information about Sine Mora soon, so stay tuned! For our previous coverage, check out the game's page right here.
Michelle Balsan
Written by Michelle Balsan
Michelle is the Assistant Manager of the Newshounds at TrueAchievements and has been a member of staff since 2010. When not contributing to gaming websites, she makes her living as a mild-mannered librarian. She can be compelled to play just about anything if there's a co-op component, and has been playing games with friends and siblings since the Atari 2600. As it's reportedly healthy to have hobbies outside of gaming, she also roots for some of the most difficult sporting franchises to root for, the New York Mets and New York Jets, but offsets that by rooting for the New Jersey Devils. She's also seen pretty much none of the movies you have, but she's working on that.