Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Interview with KookaNova: Educator, Developer of Space's Aces
Updated: Jan 30
During our latest dive through Itch.io, the fish like shape of a space fighter darting across the surface of an asteroid caught my attention. What seemed to be a small one-off game demo took me to a website of a developer that had a lot more going on than it seemed. With multiple projects beneath his belt, a game award and mentions of being an educator, we reached out to KookaNova for an interview about their past and current projects.
Hello, and thanks so much for accepting my sudden interview request. After reading about you on your website, I felt like I had to talk with you.
Thanks a ton for reaching out to me. I'm glad you find my work interesting. I'm Connor Cox. I'm a game developer and a teacher of technology and programming. I've been drawn to games since I was very young, and always knew I wanted to do something creative. At a different point in time, that has meant different things. It was fine art, it was animation. These days, it's programming, 3D modeling, music, and piecing all together into games that I want to play.
Growing up, how did your interest in video games start? Were flight games and simulators a part of that?
Despite my childhood being spent mostly in the 2000s, I grew up on the Super Nintendo first, and then Nintendo 64 and Arcade games. My first game was MegaMan X. Early on I encountered Ocarina of Time as well, and then in an arcade with my father, I experienced Galaga, which became my favorite arcade game. Somewhere in the midst of all that, my brother got his hands on a Playstation 2, and with that, Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies. That might have been the first game I actually completed, and that experience specifically has driven me forward in the creation of my most recent projects, Space's Aces and now Ace Perinova.
When did your interest shift from a pass time towards learning game development?
I was always interested in game development, but my environment growing up wasn't conducive for understanding it at all. When I was very young, I was under the impression that everything was code, even all the music, and art. Eventually, I learned how game engines worked. Throughout high school, I was certain I was going to be a 2D animator or a musician because I really didn't understand technology very well. I thought if I couldn't make my own games, I could at least work on them through art. Yet for some reason when the time came to apply for colleges and sign up for courses, I dove fully into the hands-on coding classes and 3D classes instead of animation or music. Learning that is what has led me here.
While Skyward Flight Media has interviewed indie developers before, I believe this is the first time we have interviewed an educator. Please tell us about your teaching experience thus far.
I am, in fact, an educator. Specifically, I teach Unity Development, 3D modeling, programming, app/web development, and a plethora of other interesting general technology skills such as Arduino. I run the Makerspace at a residential treatment center where we focus on young adults with processing disorders, severe ADHD, who are on the autism spectrum, or who maybe struggle with depression or addiction. Specifically, our goal is to take in these young adults who have these hurdles in their life that make living on their own a challenge, and teach them how to become self-sufficient and independent. At the Makerspace, I teach students (often with technology addiction) how to use that interest in technology to develop skills and make technology work for them, as opposed to controlling them.
Do your students create games as a part of the syllabus?
Part of the fun of my class is that it's mostly self-directed. A new student comes in with an idea of what they want to learn, and I feed them the tools they need to be successful in that. I've had multiple students make games, and they learned a ton of great information about Unity that you can't get from tutorials on the internet. On the other hand, I've had students who used CAD software to design buildings and parts, and then print them out with our 3D printer and piece them together. One of my favorite projects has to be from a student who is fascinated with data science. They've enjoyed collecting data and finding ways to display it. This student is currently on a quest to find the center (in graph theory terms) of Wikipedia. That is, where all links in Wikipedia connect through the most. All that is to say, there's not a specific curriculum, just self-directed projects and myself as a really strong resource and guiding hand for the students. Some make games, some do other equally interesting projects.
Has being an educator also helped with your own development projects outside of the university?
Yes, very much! In University, I mostly learned programming and 3D art as it related to games development; however, the interests of my students have pushed me to pursue web development, programming console and windowed apps outside of Unity and with other languages, creating fun hardware projects (I once made an Arduino "scream machine" for the class), and generally I have been exposed to the broad world of technology where before I was very limited to only Unity. I will say, my favorite way to develop is still Unity.
The game that caught our attention is Spaces Aces. Was this game developed as a part of the university course?
Space's Aces was developed as my end-university capstone project. In our classes, we worked in cohorts, meaning we stayed with the same people from year 1 through year 4. So in the middle of year 3, we all came together to pitch capstone projects that would be completed in year 4. Then people got to pick which projects they wanted to work on. I pitched Space's Aces, and had a team of 6 initially join up with me. That was enough to make my project one of the few that would be completed in year 4. I created all the design documents and tasks for everyone to complete. Unfortunately, before we actually started the project, I lost 3 members of the team. Two of them dropped out due to long-covid symptoms, and one of them I had to fire because of a nasty little thing called plagiarism. Our team still felt confident that we could deliver on the idea of what we wanted, and so we continued development with a slightly scaled-down scope. In the end, we published what we would refer to as a complete demo of the game we wanted to make.
I can understand Space’s Aces being seen as a demo for future work, but even this demo is already award winning isn’t it?
Yes! We won a gold award at our University's "Digital Media Showcase" for 2022. It's similar to a film festival, but a lot more broad range. Each year in the spring my University holds this showcase where any student or alumni, single or as a group, can submit a "Digital Media" project to the event. There were really cool music projects, films, websites, commercials even. VR and AR projects of different kinds as well. My buddies worked on an animated horror short together for it. In the end, Space's Aces won Gold in the Animation/Games category. Fun fact: the video for that still had some of the cut features from Space's Aces.
Spaces Aces is a single-player game but it's set up as a team deathmatch-style flight shooter. Did this game have local multiplayer? Were there plans to make it multiplayer?
Multiplayer functionality was a part of the original scope, and we actually did have it completely in-game and working. Even better, it was online multiplayer! You may have also noticed that the enemies have names and character art. There were supposed to be characters in the game, and they were in and function too. Thank you so much for asking about this. So where did that multiplayer go? Well, the university had promised all of us that the projects we made for them that year would belong entirely to us. Then we changed deans something like 3 times, and whatever legal document was there that was supposed to guarantee us ownership vanished. When we caught wind of that, I decided I wasn't going to pay for server hosting for a game that I couldn't even legally claim as mine, and the team and I chose to cut the characters I designed out so that I could save them for a future project. I then kept them up to date with Ace Perinova development. My original plan was to take Space's Aces further outside of university and add a story mode, more ships and characters, more levels, game modes, and just more of everything.
I'm most curious about what seems to be a cast of unique characters tied to each spacecraft. There isn't much information about them. What can you tell us about them?
So actually, the characters are not tied to specific spacecraft. You were able to independently select them, and each had their own set of unique abilities that complemented the function of specific spacecraft. For example, one could teleport herself forward through time, and with the press of a button, could do the same to the secondary weapon of the spacecraft she was using. This was really effective with tracking missiles, which I think all spacecraft in this version come with for the following reason. This character ability functionality is actually still in the game, just this specific move set is selected by default and the select screen has been removed. That is due to me wanting to save the idea for a game that I can actually claim ownership on.
Ace Perinova is your current development project. This game is inspired by Spaces' Aces but not completely based on it. What can you tell us about the ongoing development of Ace Perinova?
Ace Perinova is essentially going to be what I wanted Space's Aces to be, but this time without any of the limiting factors. I have more time to work on it, a ton more knowledge (I built what you see for Ace Perinova with entirely new and 10x more efficient code in 2 weeks), and with a better render engine. I've taken a few month pause so that I could focus on learning more in general technology and programming so that I could be even better at my work and make some different portfolio pieces. I really want to return to it, because I can't think of a game I want to play more right now, but I'm also trying to get hired out in Seattle by some game developers so that I can hone my craft and use my income to fund further development of Ace Perinova, including things like voice acting for the characters and server hosting for the multiplayer.
What are some of the biggest features/functions that Ace Perinova is bringing to its future audience?
The biggest part of Ace Perinova I look forward to seeing is the way people use character and ship combinations to accomplish stunning feats that I probably couldn't have imagined. I have a character that creates gravitation anomalies for instance. Can you imagine the cool things people can come up with for using that? Or how about a grappling hook that attaches to ships like a towing line would? That's probably the most important part about this game. There are some other features though that I never planned on for Space's Aces that I now know how to incorporate thanks to my recent time off. Like a replay/picture mode! Imagine how Halo's Theater mode works. I plan on incorporating that and hiring a friend of mine to take some advertising shots for me, and in the meantime, it'll act as a good way to share development progress. I just have to implement it.
We mentioned in a tweet a while back that the flight model of Spaces Aces was surprisingly well done for turning battles. Will Ace Perinova continue to focus more on close range combat or is longer-range combat coming with the new game?
I saw that tweet and I was really happy to hear that. Having played Ace Combat a lot and really enjoying Project Wingman a while back, I find fun in the circle game of trying to maneuver behind your target through careful management of speed, pitch, yaw, you get it. That will certainly stay in for Ace Perinova. However, some ships will be better for maneuvering behind while some might be more suited for bombing an objective, or taking long distance pot shots. Of course, Ace Perinova also focuses on the characters and their abilities and how they play along with the weapon types and maneuverability provided by the ships. Some of the planned abilities affect movement. So the outcome may vary in any case. I look forward to seeing how people use these mechanics to change the game and seeing how I as a developer can play along.
Ace Perinova is still a ways away, but do you have an idea of what you’d like the final product to look like?
Visually, I have some ideas. The rendering in my videos on the game were actually an experiment with Unity's HD Render Pipeline and some of the effects I can get with that. Same with the updated Tri-Speeder ship. I tried some new techniques to add more polygons without hurting performance. So right now, I'm capable of producing something with visual fidelity comparable to that of Star Wars: Squadrons. I like that look a lot, but is that definitely what I want? Maybe. I'm working on some concept art and trying to see how vastly different environments may look. In terms of features, I absolutely know what I want. I have made up my mind on what the play experience should be like and what features can be expected by launch. For example, Online multiplayer and objective game modes that put emphasis on team cooperation. I have a required number of ships and characters to have in for launch. I have a specific list of features that are needed before launch, and that list isn't allowed to be changed. Removing anything to be a detriment to the project, and if I add anything I would consider that feature creep. I can't go into full detail on the plans, but I have a really good idea of what I want, and a decent understanding of how I'm going to get there.
Thanks for this interview. We look forward to seeing more of your work in the future. I’ll be checking in to see how your next game project is doing for sure!
Thank you for the interview! It's been great to have a chance to talk about this work, and has given me even more motivation to keep the progress going on it. For anyone looking to know more about what I do, I'm @KookaNova on Twitter and YouTube, where I post about the games I'm working on, or some of the techniques and technologies I'm learning and tutorials for them from time to time. Currently, I'm posting about a mobile strategy board game that plays like an infection checkers. When that's done, it'll all be about Ace Perinova for a while.
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.