Sine Mora | Developer Interview

The shmup genre is something I hold dear to my heart for a few reasons. I’ll be honest in saying that I wasn’t playing shmup classics like Gradius at a young age as my first exposure to the genre came via the PlayStation 1 classic Einhander.  Upon playing Einhander I was blown away by the general design of the game and the somewhat damning difficulty. I didn’t know what it was, but the sheer simplicity of having to evade dozens of energy bullets from standard enemies or bosses that filled half of the screen was something that really hooked me in, thus I was a fan of shmup games from that point forward.

Over the years we haven’t seen too many prominent shmup games be released for either the main consoles or even the PC.  The decline can be attributed to a few factors such as companies moving forward to try other things or the general declining interest in the genre thanks to fully 3D shooters of the first and third person variety.  Despite shmup games not having the immediate weight they once had, we are lucky enough to receive some titles worth playing, one of which is the upcoming XBLA exclusive Sine Mora.

Co-developed by Grasshopper Manufacture (Killer 7, Shadows of the Damned) and Digital Reality (Skydrift), Sine Mora is an interesting project for a few reasons, the biggest of which is the talent that’s involved in making the game a reality.  Featuring music from Akira Yamaoka, mechanical designs by Mahiro Maeda (Blue Submarine No. 6, Neon Genesis Evangelion), and having the design expertise of Digital Reality, Sine Mora is a project loaded with talent that could become the stuff of legend in the shmup genre.

With both Grasshopper and Digital Reality focusing on different aspects of the game and being based in different continents, Sine Mora is a unique project all around and it could be the title that not only revitalizes the shmup genre but brings a new awareness to it for the many gamers out there that have been reared playing Call of Duty.  After playing Sine Mora at PAX Prime last year I was simply lost for words as the game stayed true to certain aspects of the shmup genre but provided a level of detail and visuals that we really haven’t seen in the shmup genre for a long time.

I was lucky enough to chat with Theo Reiker, the Creative Director at Digital Reality, to discuss Sine Mora and how the team has gone about developing the game and effectively resurrecting the shmup genre.

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Ian Fisher: Sine Mora is a game that received a lot of attention when it was announced at Gamescom 2010 and gained even more interest once it was shown off at Gamescom 2011 and PAX Prime 2011.  So with that said can you tell us how the project came to be and how it became a joint venture between Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture?
Theo Reiker: Digital Reality has two divisions. DR Software’s purpose is to develop small games for digital distribution with small teams. DR Publishing’s goal is to publish titles on digital platforms. In 2009, I’ve been leading the business development arm of DR Publishing – and thanks to a mutual friend, we were lucky enough to meet Grasshopper Manufacture. They were knee-deep in Shadows (of the DAMNED) that time, but were also interested in developing smaller titles in the future.
I immediately approached our CEO András Peller with a previously hibernated, then 4-year old game idea of mine – a scrolling shooter for the HD consoles, for which I was looking for a Japanese partner. Both parties were convinced by the pitch, so when we signed the deal, I stepped down from my position and assembled a similarly enthusiastic team from DR Software for the project – who could resist the chance to develop a game together with the legendary Goichi Suda and Grasshopper Manufacture?!
Ian: Gamers who have only seen Sine Mora through the initial premier trailer that was released got a hint that the game would receive a rather unique story. Now most shmup games have stories, of varying quality, but what’s the exact tale that’s told in Sine Mora?
Theo: Well, you must play the game to find out, I’m afraid! Seriously, the story is… well, complex and pretty much multi-layered. We called it a ”kizuna shooting game” internally with Grasshopper Manufacture. Kizuna is a Japanese word meaning “bonds”, and Sine Mora on a personal level is about the various bonds between people – families and friendship. Beyond all the revenge and time-travelling, resistance stuff you can find on the official page, the game really is about… time. About our time here, on Earth, our bonds and our decisions. There are more questions in the game’s story, than answers, that’s for sure…
Ian: I love side-scrolling shooting games but sadly they aren’t as popular as they were in the early to mid-1990s which if you ask me is a shame. So what sort of things have Digital Reality done to ensure that Sine Mora stays true to the shmup genre from a gameplay perspective while still being something fresh enough to gain interest from folks who haven’t played shmup classics such as Gradius or Einhander?
Theo: This is a classic 2D side-scrolling shoot’em up game. If you never played one before, you should really try this one out! If you played one before, you’ll be immediately familiar with everything in it. It’s 3D (with true 3DTV support) with many of the genre’s aspects modernized. The best metaphor here would be Street Fighter IV, I think. That brought about something new, while being 100% true to the old.
Ian: Was it somewhat hard developing Sine Mora given how particular gamers are when it comes to certain elements about shmup games? Obviously you want to hit a home run and have a game that everyone enjoys but was it difficult knowing what sort of things need to be changed and just what the general design focus of Sine Mora should be?
Theo: It was not really hard, but definitely very confusing. The goal was clear from day one: to make a shoot’em up which is appealing and accessible to anyone. This is an extremely bold goal, and you’re instantly crucified – hardcore shmup players bury your game because it’s going to be too easy, other players will ignore it because it’s going to be too hard or too boring and your marketing guys keep their eyes rolling, as in their book, there is no game for anyone, only for a very well-defined target group.
Sine Mora is respecting the genre conventions. It also does everything to appeal to new players. We kept the design within the limits we set for ourselves, while trying to
be contemporary.

Ian: For you what was the biggest inspiration developing Sine Mora?  Was there a particular game or even something else that inspired you and the rest of the team at Digital Reality?
Theo: The most important was Battle Garegga, an arcade/Saturn shooter directed by Shinobu Yagawa. Although this game basically changed the whole approach with its fresh, “manic” style and successfully derailed the development of the shoot’em up genre, for me it was important for the exact opposite reasons. The dominant sub-genre today is “danmaku” – bullet hell, and from the few remaining development houses dedicated to this genre only a few are making what we call “old-school” shmups. This same process, however, alienated the general public, unfortunately. They find bullet hell games difficult and scary. Consequentially, they find shoot’em up games difficult and scary.
Sine Mora is our tribute to this genre. To make it attractive, we wanted to go back to the point in history when the genre changed forever, and that point is Garegga. We absolutely love that game, as it encapsulates the very essence of the genre, but we wanted to take it somewhere else driven by our own inspirations. To a place that is less scary but similarly cool.
There were other things, which heavily inspired us, per se. For the game world, it wasRoyal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise, a classic anime by Gainax. Honneamise’s world is something wonderful – everything has a very deliberate design, and you’re always surprised by its solutions. We really wanted to replicate this in Sine Mora, so we spent an unhealthy amount of time crafting our universe. Most things make sense, work and have a history on planet Seol.
Gameplay-wise, Raizing and Seibu Kaihatsu games were the main inspiration, as well as the fantastic Einhänder and Progear no Arashi, a horizontal, arcade-only shmup from Cave… and many, many more were “disassembled” mentally to mere Lego blocks, so we can plunder their beautiful design. Of course, you’ll also find a healthy amount of originality and innovation in Sine Mora, but as a tribute, it was very important for us to look back and carefully analyze the past.
Ian: Shmup games can be fun but at times they’re almost notorious for being extremely short, even with the added element of replaying stages to beat high-scores or unlock a few bonus items.  In general what can gamers expect from the length of Sine Mora, will it be fairly long or stay true to the shmup genre and be a potential one-sitting completion type of game?
Theo: The life span of a shmup always depends on the player. If you’re playing this game only to see all the stages and fight all the boss enemies on the easiest difficulty, you’re done in 90 minutes. If you’re interested in the story, too, then count with 4-5 hours. There is an alternative narration that can be unlocked upon completion. Shoot’em up is an arcade genre, focused on one-sitting completion and player skills. To master the game (and get all the achievements) you definitely need 50+ hours… and we did our best to keep persevering players entertained during those 50+ hours, so please expect a lot of motivational tricks, in the good sense of the word.
Ian: One thing that completely blew me away about Sine Mora when I played it at PAX Prime was just how colorful and detailed everything in the game was. I was just taken aback by how vibrant everything looked and how things didn’t seem static due to the camera swooping around ships and things like that.  What was the general design inspiration for Sine Mora? As a whole the game seems somewhat grounded compared to other shmup games which can be a bit extreme in what they throw at the player. Has the game always maintained this somewhat retro sci-fi look or did it originally start out as something completely different?
Theo: The diesel-punk (retro sci-fi) art style was the starting point from my side, although a bit darker and gloomier version (think Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow). On the other hand, GhM proposed a much, much crazier design (which was even darker, likeTatsujin/Truxton on the Mega Drive) – the final, current visual approach is the “compromise” we made after talking a lot about it. This consensus fed on the artistic style of Studio Ghibli (Porco Rosso), Sky Crawlers, Blacksad, Machinen Krieger and Metal Slug.
Ian: A key aspect of any shmup game is the boss battles which tend to feature behemoths that occupy half of the screen.  I fought one particularly difficult boss in the demo that was offered at PAX Prime which I found to be challenging but in just the right way. I know you may not be able to give an exact number but will there be a lot of boss encounters in Sine Mora or will there just be a few key battles so as to not over do things? And more importantly, what has it been like to design the boss battles so they aren’t too difficult to overcome yet at the same time present the bullet hell gameplay that shmup veterans love?
Theo: There are 13 massive boss encounters in the game, and 3 additional, medium-sized bosses. I think we did something differently with our boss fights – in most shmups, all you need to do is to shoot the boss and avoid the curtain of fire it is sending at your way. Survive several changing patterns, and it’s done. In Sine Mora, the boss encounters are more similar to those in a platform game – there is a weak spot, a trick, certain logic for the fight and almost always multiple phases in the combat, with continuous dissection. So, we don’t really rely on the bullet patterns alone.
Ian: With Digital Reality handling the core gameplay of Sine Mora while Grasshopper Manufacture handles the more creative elements such as the music what has it been like to work together on one cohesive project?
Theo: Working together with Grasshopper Manufacture was surprisingly easy, to be honest. They’re one of the most original studios worldwide, so we didn’t expect them to be well organized – but frankly, now I think they are the most organized and most orderly punks on the globe! Cohesion came from early planning and several trips to Japan – a lot of meetings and talks through art and music. They were fast, very productive and highly creative – the two teams worked together like a kibbutz… sometimes I had a strange feeling, that we are one family. Kizuna development, then.
Ian: Can gamers expect any downloadable content for Sine Mora or is the game pretty much complete once it gets released on XBLA?
Theo: No, this is a complete package, no hidden fees. To quote PlatinumGames on Bayonetta: “The game ships with everything you want.”
Ian: I know you’ve worked on quite a few games and Digital Reality has been on a roll lately thanks to fun games such as Skydrift, but what aboutSine Mora are you and the rest of the team are the most proud of at the end of the day?
Theo: Development of Sine Mora was totally independent from other Digital Reality developments; we even made a custom engine and editor for this game. What you’ll get from our side is a work of a very small core team of 10 guys, done in 14 months. This was our first game together; our first shoot’em up and our first collaboration with another fantastic team working 5000 miles away. The end result was good enough for Microsoft Studios to pick up and publish it. I’d be lying if I said we were not extremely proud.
Still, we’re here, holding our breath and waiting for the players to decide if our pride is justified. Hopefully they will love it as much as we do!
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I want to extend a huge thanks to Theo for taking some time out to discuss Sine Mora and telling us what we can expect from the game.  Sine Mora is a game that I’ve been looking to ever since it was unveiled at Gamescom in 2010 so it has definitely been nice to see everything evolve and learn just how deep Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture are going with the project, whether it’s through artistic elements or taking a chance in the story by featuring non-human protagonists.
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Article originally posted on February 1, 2012
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