We had the privilege to sit down with Switchblade Monkeys Team Leader and Creative Director Yousuf Mapara to discuss their hit Indy title “Secret Ponchos”. The team started out with a small budget and a group of veteran developers looking to pursue their passion by making a game that’s both creative and stylish.
Secret Ponchos is a top down competitive character based gunfight with elements seen in both shooters and fighting games. Players choose from a series of characters each with their own unique moves, weapons and skills.
Each character is very easy to pick up and play but certain weapons and abilities need to be mastered to maximize their effect.
Examples of this are the Phantom Ponchos whip and shotgun combo where a skilled player could lasso an enemy to pull them close for a devastating pointblank shotgun blast.
Gordo an obese Gatling gun totting outlaw can throw Molotov Cocktails blocking an enemy into tight corners allowing him to fill them with hot lead.
The Deserter armed with a bayoneted rifle can impale enemies and fire off his gun while they are still skewered launching them into potential hazards or even at other players for a very satisfying double kill.
I originally encountered the team at PAX east where they had spent most of their budget buying a booth setup at Ikea. They were nervous; it was their first time showing a playable build to the public. Soon they had people not only lining up to try their game but people returning for more (myself included).
As word spread they were approached by representative from Sony interested in supporting them by making Secret Ponchos a launch title for the then upcoming PS4 platform.
How did you get into game development? Did any particular experience, project or company have a significant impact on your career?
I started the industry as an animator, then moved through several positions as Lead Animator, Art Director, and Senior Art Director, and now Creative Director on Secret Ponchos.
I've worked on lots of larger scale games with teams of up to a 100 people and larger budgets. I think that impacted me by creating this hunger to do something with a smaller boutique team.
This way we could take some changes and be a bit more creative. Being on a huge team has advantages in terms of work power, but there is a lot of red tape, especially around creativity.
How did Switchblade Monkey come about? What other prior titles or companies have your team members worked on or for?
My friends and I all worked in the industry at different studios, and we were all pretty high up in various companies, but sort of felt like we were making products instead of art.
Just for fun we wanted to take a step away pool our skills and see if we can make a game that we just wanted to play again, instead of a game that is built to sell units.
Of course this meant we would not get paid to make the game, but it gave us the freedom to make whatever we wanted so it was worth it.
When did your studio start development on Secret Ponchos? What was the games core concept? Was their any significant design changes over the course of the games development?
We started in 2010. The game started on a much smaller scale, it was supposed to be something a team of 2 people could handle. But as we started it, other friends were like "hey you guys want help?" so we were like "yeah!" and then our capabilities grew as more of our friends jumped in.
Its so weird too because the calibur of the team is super high, we have a guy who was a senior concept artist at Blizzard, an art Director at Hasbro, a former art Director from Rockstar and a killer coding team. I've never had such a stacked team, and I think what drew everyone together was that the game concept was compelling because we certainly did not have any money to pay anyone.
Your game has a very distinct visual style. How did your artists come with this style? Was their any inspiration from other visual sources? Has the art style changed during development?
We have 2 goals for our Title, Make the Gameplay Totally origional, and make the Look & Feel Stylized. So we knew right away we wouldnot be making a realistic western, it needed to have more of a stylized origional feel.
When Jose Lopez (long time friend) joined the project, he just ran with it. He's got an amazing comic book style, and has designed characters for really stylzed projects like "The Batman" animated series, and tons of other stuff, so it was a great fit. Jose uses Shapes super aggressively, which has always attracted me to his work.
From there we decided what do the characters look like in this universe, (how tall, how cute, how realistic) and we all pumped out lots of drawings and experimentation, until we hit a drawing with a vibe we thought was perfect. Then we defined that , and it became our style.
Last time I spoke with you and your team the game was poised for the current gen arcade market. Now Secret Ponchos is a launch title for the PS4 how did Sony contact your team?
Sony found us at PAX. They were on a mission to scout out up and coming cool games for PS4 indie lineup, and they checked out our game at PAX East. They were really down to earth, cool guys (Brian Silva, and Nick Suttner) and for the first 20 mins they were at our booth we thought they were just regular gamers, we had no idea they were from Sony.
They introduced themselves after they got a good vibe of the game, and asked if we considered the game for PS4. It was an incredible opportunity for us. You gotta commend Sony for their insight way back then into understanding the potentially large role indie games could play on the next generation, I think their strong indie portfolio is going to be the results of that foresight, and proactive work in scouting games they like.
What has it been like developing a launch title for next-gen? Has the PS4 platform offered your team a chance to add new features or content that was impossible on the previous gen systems?
Its going to be amazing to launch our game 60 fps, 1080p HD. We have the opportunity now to push the art and lighting , which is exciting because its such a stylized game, so the look is really important for us. The leap to Next Gen is just going to reduce technical barriers for us, and artistically let us have more fun with it.
You had mentioned things have been a bit more interesting with the PS4 and Sony supporting smaller studios, What sort of support has Sony been offering these small studios?
First off, for many small studios one initial barrier is being able to talk to a person at the distribution level. Sony has a great Developer relations Team, and they're really approachable and helpful. So the resource of them giving their time and communication, which is extremely valuable to an indie developer, because it gets the conversation started.
The next one is help with the submission process, they they take the time to look at your game and in our case provided valuable feedback.
And of course, they let small studios and indie developers self publish. You don't need to be backed with a large company to launch on PS4 if you have a great game.
I think these changes inspired changes throughout the industry at other companies, which has been a huge contribution to the indie scene.
To wrap things up I want to ask what do you think the future will be like for smaller developers for this generation? What is the future for Switchblade Monkey’s?
When we started Secret Ponchos, we approached it less like we're starting a business. instead our philosophy was "Lets make a game we love, and if other people love it we'll go from there".
So if our creative vision turns out to be something people like, it will create the opportunity for us to move forward, but in a way that allows us to be independent and creative.
If you like what we're doing with Secret Ponchos, join us devs on our Facebook page. We the developers run it, and we want to use it to interact directly with the gaming community, now that our game is no longer top secret. We use it as the hub for updates and content for the game, and its a great way to message us.