Interview with Fractal Phase, Developer of Sky Rogue
Updated: Sep 22, 2022
Following our article about how genuinely fun the co-op gameplay of Sky Rogue is, we reached out to the developers behind the game for an interview. Wanting to delve deeper into this visually unique flight arcade game, we made contact with Kenny Backus from Fractal Phase, the developer that created Sky Rogue.
Thank you for this interview and thanks to the Fractal Phase team for creating Sky Rogue. Can you introduce the members of the dev team?
Hello! I'm Kenny Backus, the main developer of Sky Rogue. Charles Blanchard did the artwork and Pete Lepley (via The Otherworld Agency) did the music. I'm the only developer at the moment though, so all of the following answers are going to be from my perspective.
Is Sky Rogue the first game that you've worked on?
When I made the very first prototype for Sky Rogue in 2013 I had already been working in the games industry as a programmer since 2008 working on games like Age of Conan, The Secret World, and Far Cry 4. I made about 20 or so small games on my own and one medium-sized one called SWOOOORDS! before Sky Rogue. I've since made several small games such as MEKA-ON!, Weapons, Inc, and Aero Cup, which along with many other small games can be found on itch.io.
However, it was the first commercial game I made outside of being employed in another studio. For the first year of its life it was pay-what-you-want as I was just getting comfortable asking for money and started figuring out how taxes and incorporation works.
What was the original concept for the game? Is the full game completely different from the original idea?
The original concept was to be a "rougelike flight simulator" and I don't think that's changed much at all. The only changes have been in the details of how I approached that concept. I think the most major deviation from the original idea was that I decided to make it more like a "dungeon in the sky" where you fly short open-ended missions one island at a time, because the original plan was to make it an open world with AI commanders generating missions and keeping track of industrial assets which would affect what aircraft you had and what aircraft would get sent out against you. Despite how exciting that might sound, my years of experience told me to scope down from that so that I could manage to actually release the game and release something that wasn't a buggy mess.
Is it true that the prototype version of Sky Rogue was designed in 2013 in a single week?
Yes, it was a really simple arcade flight sim with only one aircraft (called "aero" in-universe), guided missiles, and infinite waves of enemies. Here's a video of it:
An interesting aspect about the game is that there isn’t really a story or narrative that drives players forward, but there are mentions of organizations and states in the Aeropedia entries for certain aircraft and buildings. Is there a hidden story?
The game was intended to be story-light from the beginning because I thought a lot of air combat games included storylines that weren't actually any good and often made the game a bit worse as it got in the way of the gameplay. Since the game was a roguelike, we avoided a story-driven campaign mode (though now we have incredible games like Hades to show us how a roguelike can be story-driven). We made content for the game and wrote the Aeropedia entries to provide a narrative context for it, I was inspired by Dark Souls to do that.
The context is that you're playing in a near-future world where the icecaps have melted (thus, all of the islands) and the large corporations mentioned in the entries basically control governments and their militaries instead of the other way around. These nations are trying to capture and control what resources they can, but it's kind of a rigged game of infinite warfare. You'll notice that there are still oil rigs in existence, so no one's really learned the lessons about fossil fuels despite being in the midst of climate change. However, practically all warfare takes place via aircraft now, which is convenient for making a flight simulator but also has some inspiration behind it.
I think a lot of people see airstrikes as 'stuff fighting stuff' rather than something that kills humans, so it's not nearly as controversial as putting boots on the ground to do similar things. You can "send a message" with a few bombs, but everyone understands sending troops in is a lot more than "sending a message". Sky Rogue sits comfortably in this perspective, you are in the middle of a conflict where the humans involved are literally invisible.
When I was a kid growing up in the 90s I watched a lot of military aircraft documentaries like "Wings" on the Discovery Channel. As an adult, I notice something that flew over my head as a kid: when these documentaries talked about the aircraft they avoided talking about the actual role of these aircraft as killing machines, as weapons we should really avoid using at all costs, and focused on their really fascinating technical details, talking about them as sort of engineering problems to solve. They are machines designed to fight other machines, or to destroy real estate and capital assets. The description of each aero is generally inspired by this perspective, of the aero you're flying being a tool and not a weapon.
So the game pretty clearly removes a lot of the human element just like that perspective does, and doesn't want to acknowledge the fact that you're flying a killing machine and there are people just like you on the enemy side and on the sidelines as civilians. If I had made a more explicit storyline I probably would have leaned into that more, which is what some of the Ace Combat games have been doing where both sides get completely wrecked and the war is a lose-lose situation orchestrated by a few sociopaths at the top. It's kind of dark, and wouldn't really match the aesthetic of the game, so it would have been pretty difficult.
Anyways about the word "aero", I wanted to use a term that had the same feeling as " 'mech " from Battletech, it was an abbreviation which sounded futuristic, reminding you that you're not in the real world, and like something invented inside the game universe by the people actually using these machines. I came pretty quickly to "aero" which is an abbreviation of "aerodyne" which itself is a jargon-y term meaning "heavier-than-air aircraft".
I would have never guessed this story setting! I’m surprised. But, by sidestepping the story you’ve certainly avoided weighing down the gameplay. Thinking about it from this point of view, it seems like a factor in Sky Rogue’s easy to pick up and play feeling. Was the game designed to be played in short sessions?
The game is definitely designed that way. I don't know if I can really explain why, it just seems like the most natural option. There's probably hesitancy among players in general to even start your game in the first place if it takes awhile to start up and get to the actual "game" part.
Your perspective of the Aeros shows up well in the game. It’s natural to just focus on their cool designs and think of how you can use them to defeat the opposing forces. Some of them have memorable designs that even include strategic bombers. Are there any Aeros in particular you think people should try out?
The Schwalbe is one of my favourites because it is very maneuverable and fast but is limited in all other aspects, so it really forces you to not take much damage and only use a few basic weapons.
The Monarch (can be unlocked after you beat the game) controls in a really weird way because it's acceleration is absurd, and it also has a pretty cool double swing-wing design, I think it's really fun to fly.
The Bronco and Puma are "warbirds", prop aeros which are slow but have really good acceleration and low stall speeds and most notably, double mounts on all their secondary weapons. I think this makes them a bit overpowered but since they were added well after the release of the game I think they help add a different kind of experience.
Speaking of the double mounts, I was inspired to do that by the modding community. The way weapons work is that each of your three weapon secondary slots has one mount inside it, while your primary has two. The code is not enforcing this constraint, it just fires as many mounts as exist inside a given slot. Modders figured out they could put as many as they wanted, and end up making very overpowered aeros. I followed the "rule of cool" and didn't consider it a bug, especially since people made some really interesting setups with mounts pointing backwards or a B-17 with "special" mounts where the turrets are, so if you mount a tailgun in your special slot you'll have a B-17 decked out with working turrets. Eventually I decided to try it for myself with the warbirds.
The co-op gameplay feels like it is such a crucial part of the experience. Was this a planned part of development since the beginning?
It wasn't really planned, I just figured that it would be a pretty exciting feature for a game which design-wise didn't have any issues supporting it. I thought it would be pretty easy in technical terms, but of course that proved to be false over the years as a bunch of co-op only bugs showed up. In the end I of course think it was worth it and a great addition to the game. Sometimes players reach out to me via email or Twitter and tell me they played co-op with their friends or kids, I really appreciate hearing that.
While doing research we noticed that mods were supported very early in the project’s life, as early as alpha. What motivated that decision?
When I was a kid (teenager?) I bought Half-Life specifically so I could play Counter-Strike, which at the time was a mod for Half-Life. Before that, I played a lot of Team Fortress Classic, which was a Quake mod (or "total conversion" in those days). I was also absolutely obsessed with AirQuake, a Quake mod that turned the game into an action flight simulator not entirely unlike Sky Rogue. I also made a few mods myself, like a Yehat Terminator (from Star Control) for Microsoft Flight Simulator '98, some StarCraft maps lost to time, and helped a bit with a Homeworld mod for Freelancer which fizzled out as many collaborations do. So before I ever made games I was very aware of modding and knew that if I made a game where mods made sense, I would want to support them.
Do you have any personal favorite mods?
I don't like picking favourites, but I would like to point out the RVR-01 and the other mods themed around shmups, because they include custom weapons that made you really overpowered in an interesting way that completely changes the tempo of the game. It ended up directly inspiring the weapons in the core game you can unlock after beating the game. I wanted to add that kind of super fast, shmup-like experience to the game but in a way that doesn't affect the original game, so it's given as a sort of motivation to keep playing, the reward is a new way of playing the game.
Other than that, I really like the Swordfish II from Cowboy Bebop, simply because I really like Cowboy Bebop, as well as the Star Fox mod. The Ikea table and Geo Metro mods are also really fun since they inject some humour into the game. I also appreciate these mods because they were really visible and I think helped bring more people to the game.
However, I also like the original mods a lot, like the FA-27D Longbow, or Marauder, because they showed how people could copy our style and do unique things with it that weren't attached to a particular franchise or IP.
To be honest, though, I like every single mod anyone's created because it means the game we created inspired them to create something in turn.
At what point did Fractal Phase start considering a game console release? Was this the goal from the beginning?
Then Richard Duck at Nintendo, who had been following the game, reached out in an email and invited us to make the game for the Switch back in 2017.. Since it was the launch year of the console, and it was obvious from the start that it was a huge success, we of course wanted in on it and it was an incredibly good idea in retrospect. The game already had gamepad controls and there's nothing in the design or menus that required mouse controls, so it was already oriented towards console play even if that wasn't an objective. The game was still on Steam Early Access at the time so I wanted to exit Early Access and launch 1.0 before going onto the Switch, so it was great motivation to get that squared away rather than let EA continue indefinitely.
Sky Rogue definitely feels like it's best played with KBM or gamepads, but the Steam version of the game can also support flight sticks. Was this something players requested during development?
People have definitely requested flight stick support. As a flight sim it makes perfect sense for there to be support, and thankfully because I am using a third-party input library called Rewired, most flight sticks are natively supported.
There were actually two shows here in Toronto where I demoed it with a flight stick, at Toronto Comic Arts Festival Comics x Games and the CNE (Canadian National Expo) Gaming Garage. It definitely got some attention.
The motion controls on the Nintendo Switch acting as a type of Hands-on Throttle and Stick flight system was an interesting addition. Was this control scheme hard to develop on the Switch?
It definitely took some extra effort and tweaking, but it was a lot easier than I expected. The inputs that the gyroscopes on the Joy-Cons provide are really clean, I was expecting to have to smooth out some noise but I never had to.
Are you working on any new titles or are you a member of a game studio at this time?
I'm currently working full-time for myself (Fractal Phase) on a new unannounced title. I only started doing it a little over a year ago, for the vast majority of Sky Rogue's development I was working for other studios and making Sky Rogue in my spare time.
Thanks for taking time to do this interview. I’ve become a big fan of Sky Rogue and continue to play it with many of my friends because it is so easy to access and share with others.
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.