Exophobia has the pace of a retro FPS but the soul of a Metroidvania. José Castanheira tells us about his first commercial project.
What do you get if you fuse the sprite-based, first-person action of an early DOOM game, the aggressive enemies of Mega Man, and the level structure of Metroid? You get Portuguese developer José Castanheira, poring over GameMaker Studio 2, trying to get to grips with the challenges of making his first 3D game. Or, more specifically, you get Exophobia: a hectic shooter that, with its limited palette and low-res sprites, looks like a first-person shooter (FPS) that’s somehow been forced to work on ageing NES hardware.
Set aboard a spacecraft that has crashed on an alien planet, Exophobia has you roaming the vessel’s cavernous floors, finding keys for locks, and discovering new weapon upgrades that will help you defeat the increasingly vicious enemies you’ll encounter as you progress. If Castanheira has struggled somewhat with the process of getting GameMaker – a platform more typically associated with 2D experiences – running an FPS, there’s little sign of it in the demo currently available on Steam. The action’s fast and punchy, while the Metroid-style sense of progress means you’re constantly finding new items or uncovering previously hidden areas.
Most surprising of all, Castanheira previously had little interest in the FPS genre. “I like to make games I enjoy playing myself, so Exophobia collects influences from outside the retro FPS genre,” he tells us. “Metroid and Mega Man were huge influences, and I always thought about how I could bring the feeling of playing those games in the first-person.”
Exophobia began life in 2015 as a “super-clunky and impossible to beat” entry in a Ludum Dare game jam. Called The Red Planet, it may have been a victim of its hurried development, but still provided the basis for what would become Exophobia – there was the sci-fi story, the DOOM-like action, and a limited, 8-bit style colour palette. “Despite the bad gameplay, the game got a lot of attention because of the graphics and how it was reminiscent of retro shooters at a time when they were just starting to make a comeback,” Castanheira recalls. “When it was time for me to start my first commercial game, I picked [The Red Planet] because I thought I could make something small and special with it, and most importantly, I wouldn’t get too attached since it was a genre I didn’t particularly love – I wouldn’t risk falling into the pit of scope creep.”
Castanheira was still in college when he made his Ludum Dare entry, and as graduation approached about three years ago, he made the bold decision to start making Exophobia rather than take on a full-time job.
“My plan was to release my first commercial game right after college, before I got bigger responsibilities or got used to a comfortable salary,” he says. “So I worked on it pretty much full-time, doing the occasional client work or some teaching each week, because I needed something else to focus on for a while.”
What Castanheira didn’t envisage was just how long development would take – which is where we come back to the task of getting an FPS working in GameMaker. “There have been efforts by the community and the GameMaker team itself to improve how it works with 3D, but it’s still a challenge compared to other 3D engines. For someone who’d never worked with 3D graphics before, most of my early development time was understanding it. But I still fell into traps like bad performance, where a lot of things needed to be rewritten, and that’s where I really had to ask for the help of someone experienced.”
Support also came from PM Studios, whose funding enabled Castanheira to move out of his parents’ house and spend more time on development. Exophobia is now scheduled for release in 2023, and for Castanheira, those larger technical concerns are at last in the rear-view mirror. “Right now, I’m working on finishing the map and assembling everything together,” he says. “There’s also a lot of testing and bug fixing left. There’s always that lingering feeling that the game could be so much better, but I will have to let it go sometime! I’d cut some content before the game got delayed, so I hope now I can add one last secret boss fight for players that like a good challenge. I really hope I can hit gold before the end of the year so I can finally move on to other projects. I’ve been itching with some ideas but no time to do anything about them yet.”
Whatever Castanheira tackles next, don’t expect it to be an FPS. “I will probably never return to 3D after this experience” he laughs, “but that’s just because I really prefer to design 2D games.”