Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Interview: Why485, developer of Tiny Combat Arena (Part 1/2)
Updated: Sep 23, 2022
Tiny Combat Arena continues its development march towards becoming a commercial game. This visually nostalgic simcade recently demonstrated a full-game loop in a video. Skyward Flight Media has discussed how that video sums up months of progress and how players can interact with its development through demos from its earliest iterations. We reached out to Why485, the developer of Tiny Combat Arena, to discuss his motivations and thoughts on creating this still work in progress title. Our 8-page interview with him has been split into two parts and features screenshots, .gifs and video provided by the developer.
Thank you for making time for this interview while you’re still in the middle of development. Could I ask you to introduce yourself?
Hello! My name is Brian and I'm the lead developer behind Tiny Combat in its various incarnations. I'm a software engineer by trade, but like to play games and keep up with the gaming industry in general.
In recent years, game making has become so accessible that it became a hobby of mine to write little games and tech demos to test ideas and mechanics that had been floating around in my head for years. Recently I’ve been taking it more seriously and am now working on a Tiny Combat full time.
Before being a game developer you were a mod creator. Which games did you create mods for and what were they?
The main ones I worked on were Battlefield 1942, Battlefield 2, and Freelancer, though I have made mods for myself for many other games like Sins of a Solar Empire or Oblivion.
For BF1942, it was mostly silly stuff that me and friends in school would draw up. I'd then take those drawings home, model it, then put it in game for us to play around with. Stuff like a super tank with 4 tank treads and a double barreled cannon. TurboJeeps was a publicly released mod that gained enough notoriety to be mentioned in a PC Gamer UK issue. It stuck rockets on the back of the Jeeps and disabled collision damage.
The only notable things I did for BF2 was HoverJeeps, a sort of spiritual successor to TurboJeeps that let you fly the buggies around like a Back to the Future Delorean, and an effects pack inspired by games like FEAR and Max Payne. Those games had super visceral gunfights that filled an area with smoke and debris, and it really left an impression on me. Effects like that are so important to the feel of a game, and something I focus on a lot in my own work.
I got into Freelancer modding in a big way. Both playing mods and making them. I played a lot of 88 Flak, a complete overhaul of the game's balance from the ground up, and also contributed to it. Eventually I did make and release my own big Freelancer mod called Itano Circus. It was my interpretation of vanilla Freelancer, but a bit smoother, faster, and with a big focus on missiles. I think what most people knew me for in Freelancer though, was all the effects and tutorials I made and released. The effects pack in particular got used in a lot of different mods.
What caused your transition from modding towards game development?
Two big reasons:
1. My own skill as a programmer was growing. While working on Freelancer mods during my university years, I was also learning how to program at school and at the jobs I was working. Hacking around INI files taught me a lot, but you were almost always limited by the systems that the developers wrote. Learning how to program, I realized that YOU'RE the one writing the rules. You don't have to come up with a weird hacky way to add proximity burst flak cannons to a game that was never built to support it, you can just write a flak cannon. It sounds obvious in hindsight, but gaining insight into how computer games were put together was huge.
2. Game development got a lot easier, and a lot more accessible. I first started messing around with Unity around 2012. Previous to that, I had written something I called "SpaceEngine" and it was my own engine I put together using libraries like Ogre 3D for rendering and Bullet for physics. It took me about a month to get to the point where I had a space ship model loaded that could move around an environment. One weekend, I did a quick Unity tutorial and then in 6 hours I was able not only to recreate what I had for SpaceEngine, but also far exceeded it. That was when my amateur game dev journey began.
What was the main reason for the sudden shift in development in April 2020?
For various reasons, I had been considering leaving my job and working full time on my game for a short while. In the beginning of April, around when COVID was really starting to pick up, I was laid off, and the decision was made for me. I wanted to have at least one released game under my belt, so the plan was to build a very specific and focused version of the game, along with all the game-like things a game needs but nobody thinks about like a main menu, options screen, and so on, and then release it.
The code base for the version of TCA on itch.io was a mess anyway, and very much hacked together in an "I'll worry about it later!" kind of approach since it itself was grown out of the Arena Prototype code, which in turn was built on hastily hacked together projects from my GitHub page.
Things have gotten a little out of hand since then. Though, in a good way I feel.
Belly landing test footage.
How did the concept for Tiny Combat Arena begin?
Various versions of the idea have been floating around in my head, and even existed in earlier projects. Tiny Combat Redux was supposed to have something kind of like what Arena is today, but that project was deliberately over-scoped so it never happened.
Tiny Combat Arena began as something of a dare from Mike Dolan. The idea was based on an almost throwaway mode from the Xbox 360 game, Over G Fighters. In it, you started on an island in the center of a large map populated with enemy planes that spawned semi-randomly. There was no explicit objective, just go out there and shoot down baddies. Occasionally a "boss" plane appears.
However, because Over G had such a mechanical depth to it, the actual process could involve sneaking around other planes, careful and efficient deployment of your very limited weapons, effective use of your wingman's weapons, and fuel management lest you run out and fall into the ocean. It was really engaging, and probably where I spent most of my time in that game. What most impressed me about it though, was how dead simple it was on the "game" part.
All of that gameplay was just an emergent property of the mechanics the game had, and hey, I love writing mechanics for video games. As they say on Top Gear, "How hard can it be?"
I was not expecting to hear Over-G Fighters as an inspiration. Does the Arena mode of Tiny Combat have something like a set campaign or randomly generated campaign?
A "campaign" (I don't like using that word) is preset based on data files. While the map itself is static with predefined locations, all of the strategic targets can be activated/deactivated on a per-campaign basis and even be named arbitrary things. There's also a basic trigger system in place. This allows me to build a couple different scenarios out of the same map, which hopefully will be big enough for there to be enough variety for a couple of these scenarios.
That's a pretty dry developer answer, but I hope that was okay! I must also add the disclaimer that this is just how it works right now and not necessarily how it'll be on release. As an aside, since the campaign files are plain text JSON, a sufficiently motivated individual could probably make their own.
Which part of Tiny Combat Arena has been the most significant to you?
I think most people would probably expect me to say the graphics, since it has a pretty striking visual style, but what's most important is that golden age of flight sims spirit. To me, that means building an engaging flying game that draws from real life when it makes for interesting mechanics, but also knows when to streamline or exaggerate them to make a better game. I'm not aiming to make a hardcore flight simulator. Options for that already exist. The kind of flying game I've been looking for, nobody really makes anymore.
That said, it's a very fine line to walk, and I'm always second guessing myself on whether or not I'm straying from that mentality and getting too realistic. I look at games like the classic Jane's Fighters' series, or the earlier MicroProse games like F-19 and marvel at their elegant simplicity and game design choices. I think it takes a lot of confidence in your game to eschew realism the way those games did, because in a lot of ways it's "easier" to just copy real life and hope for the best.
Were changes or additions mostly community-driven, or based on your own preferences and ideas?
For the most part, I'm making the game I want to play, so frankly most of the changes and mechanics for the game don’t come from the community.
Though that's not to say I ignore what people say. I read pretty much every single comment I can find on the game. I'm always curious what people think. For example, the decision of which plane to focus the game on, was in a large part inspired by one very vocal supporter of VTOL jets in a Discord server. It also sometimes happens that some off-the-wall comment inspires me to make some change or fix earlier than I was planning, or I draw from when I get to working on that part of the game months later.
Honestly, I kind of wish people would be harsher, since it’s hard to act on people saying things look good, but I’m sure there’ll be plenty of that to go around when a build is released.
Would you be interested in bringing in other VTOL aircraft of about the same vintage as the Harrier, such as the Yak-38? Either pre-launch or post-launch?
Certainly not pre-release, but I do want to expand the plane roster post-release. I already have a few specific planes in mind. I think people will really like them, and it'll allow me to expand the types of play styles available to players.
The second half of our interview will include more images, .gifs and videos from Why485 himself. Stay tuned, it'll be up on December 1st, 2020!
About the Interviewer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.