[Game Connection / GDC]
VIDEO INTERVIEW: Old School Game Brothers: XONA Games reinvents Retro

Jason and Matthew Doucette, twin brothers from Yarmouth, have scored big with a killer why-didn’t-I-think-of-that concept: take classic games from the 80s and 90s, and juice them with the graphics and processing power of modern gaming platforms. Their independent game studio, Xona Games, has been reaping awards and adoration from gamers and press alike... after less than a year in business. Video Interview with Jason Doucette and Matthew Doucette from Xona Games at the Game Connection / Games Developers Conference - GDC 2010 - San Francisco by Charles Prémont, reporter for Le Lien MULTIMEDIA /

They had been working on their flagship game, Duality ZF, a bit longer than that. Development began in earnest in September of 2008, and a year later the Doucette brothers entered their game in Microsoft’s 2009 Dream.Build.Play contest, finishing seventh out of more than 350 entrants. As their momentum kept building, they finally got around to incorporating Xona Games in April 2010. By that time they were already a Top 10 finalist in Dream.Build.Play 2010.

In another sense, however, the origins of Xona Games go back much further. By the fourth grade, the Doucette brothers were already programming, and forging the game-design principles that are bringing them so much success today.

Matthew Doucette put it this way: “The idea to intensify retro games comes from all the games Jason and I wanted to make in the past and couldn’t make. Of course, these are games from the early 1980’s to the early 90s. All of those games now are retro games. Those are the games we were most in love with. That classic gameplay never gets old.”

How to explain the success of an indie studio developing 2D 80s-style arcade games, in a word of giant flatscreens, accelerated 3D graphics and supercharged gaming consoles? To understand this, one must delve into the Retro Gamer’s Mind.

Hardcore classic gamers know all about the "kill screen." In arcade oldies like Pac-Man® and Donkey Kong®, those skilled enough to reach level 256 would see crazy garbage on the screen. The code of the original games, running on 8-bit processors, would literally “bug out” past Level 255. True die-hards would play through those messed-up levels to get to the brass ring: a perfect score. Seeing that level for the first time was like an adrenaline shot.

A bunch of ASCII gobbledygook on the screen was a bigger thrill than hyperrealistic cloud formations or texture-mapped terrain.

The genius of the Doucette brothers is in bringing that level of intensity to classic games on purpose.

"We take gameplay of the past and intensify it," says Matthew Doucette, who wears the game-producer and marketing hats in addition to helping lead programmer Jason Doucette with coding.

It’s unusual for the word “intensify” to be an understatement, but in the case of Duality ZF, it is. Jason Doucette explains: “for Duality VF we introduced Dual Play, which is the ability to control two ships on the screen at the same time.” In a full four-player game, that’s eight ships flying and firing - each with a lot more “oomph” than in the classic games that inspired Duality ZF.

"Duality allows you to have as much firepower as the processing allows, so even an individual ship is much more powerful, and much more intense than what you’d be used to in the original game," Jason Doucette added.

That, to paraphrase Jerry Lee Lewis, is what you might call “a whole lotta gamin’ goin’ on.”

What’s next for Xona Games? More titles for more platforms. Duality ZF remains in the stratosphere of many game charts, in Canada and worldwide. Decimation X, a “shmup” (shoot’em up), was released in January 2010 and quickly became both the best-selling and top-rated game on Xbox LIVE Indie Game in Japan. Xona’s third title, Score Rush, is due out in the Fall.

The success of Xona Games clearly shows we’ve yet to find the boundaries of innovation in indie games. In their embrace of retro games, the Doucette brothers have proven that the future is whatever we want it to be.

Video interview and photo by Charles Prémont, reporter @ Le Lien MULTIMÉDIA -

Text: Daniel de Segovia Gross is a nomadic Internet pioneer, software designer, and unapologetic old-school gamer.

 [March 12, 2010]

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