Interview with Matt Toschlog, Project Lead of Rustbucket Rumble

I had the privilege to visit Reactor Zero’s headquarters to check out the soon to be released Rustbucket Rumble with project director Matt Toschlog, and programmer/designers Steve Buchi and Jason Mooney. I was privileged enough to play a few rounds with the creators of the upcoming title. I sat down for a formal interview to get the inside scoop on the upcoming release.

APGNation: So can you do a brief introduction of yourself, for our readers?

Matt Toschlog: I’m Matt Toschlog and I run the Reactor Zero group here which created Rustbucket Rumble and we do games and we do some game-like simulation work here. I’ve been doing video games for almost 30 years, so I started out in 1986 doing flight simulator games at Sublogic Corporation in Champagne, Illinois and worked there for a couple years and then I worked for a company that became Looking Glass Technologies and worked on several things there including contributing technology to Ultima Underworld. And it became combining the flight simulator stuff and the tunnel stuff from Ultima Underworld where me and my partner, Mike Kulas at Parallax said ‘what if we were flying through tunnels?’ So we had this idea and we pitched it to Looking Glass and they were interested so we went off and started our own company in 1993 and that was Parallax and made Descent which took about a year and half to get out the door. And then did Descent 2 and Descent 3 and it took up a whole bunch of years, and at that point we split the company in two halves. So Mike’s half was Volition which was located in Champagne, and my half was Outrage located in Ann Arbor. After Decsent 3 we did a couple other games. One of which did not get released because Interplay sort of imploded and stopped funding the game. We had to shelve that and the other game we were doing for THQ and that game was called Alter Echo which is sort of a weird little fighting game. I think it’s a good game but anyway. I guess it’s out now, they just re-released it on that Playstation…Released on the classic something or another. And about that time we were finishing up Alter Echo, THQ acquired the studio, so we worked as part of THQ for a while , and then THQ shut down the studio. I took a couple years off when my kids were little. And starting around 2003 or something started talking to Mitch Rohde who ran Quantum Signal, he was friends with one of the guys from Outrage. He was doing signal processing and other kinds of stuff and thought there was an opportunity to bring game technology to a lot of non-game kind of applications. Which is more commonplace now then it was then. So we sort of pitched that game technology for automotive and military simulations and a bunch of stuff So we’ve been doing that sort of stuff for about ten years.

APGNation: So why did you guys decide to make a game?

Matt Toschlog: So we’ve done a couple games before. So when we first started out we did a prototype for Sony for a ps3 game that ended up not getting picked up. And we did the PC version of Red FactioAPGNation: Guerilla. We hadn’t done any games for a while and for many years we pitched game projects and nothing ever game to fruition, which was very frustrating. And about a year ago we had an opportunity with an outside investor to fund a game. So we pitched around a bunch of ideas and figured we had a fairly conservative amount of money. So we were looking for something we could do in less than a year with a fairly small team and settled on this because we thought we like that solid gameplay and we thought that doing a multiplayer only game we wouldn’t have to spend a lot of money on content. So we weren’t going to have to generate hundreds of levels like if it were a single player thing. So we wanted something where we could concentrate on the gameplay, get some solid core gameplay and get something out pretty fast and being multiplayer and online gives us the opportunity to add more content later if we wanted. So if we wanted to more levels or more characters we could do that.

APGNation: I have to ask, I know a lot of companies when they’re faced with that issue they usually got to things like Kickstarter and crowd funding. Was that a choice to not do that?

Matt Toschlog: We thought about doing that a little bit. I mean the people I know who’ve done Kickstarter campaigns have sort of a mixed blessing. Some people have been very successful with it, some people get sort of bogged down with rewards. I think people are getting smarter about that now, doing no physical rewards and things like that, keeping it all online. So that was a possibility, so we had talked about that but never just gotten too excited about doing it.

APGNation: Why did you guys decide on the 2D design and the side scroller element to that?

Matt Toschlog: I think a lot of it was trying to make a game that was just more accessible. I think we wanted something that was a style that was sort of cartoony and that was accessible to both casual and hardcore players and also a broader age range. So I think just a side scroller seemed something that was a lot easier to jump into and didn’t require a lot of 3D navigation skills or whatever. So it just seemed like we could make a game that was more approachable.

APGNation: So when designing the game, what were some of the major balancing challenges you came across?

Matt Toschlog: I think the main thing we wanted all the characters in some indescribable way, equal. We didn’t want one strong character, because that’s going to make it more fun to play if you’re not all totally dominated by one character. And also it allows people to sort of specialize. Like if they want to really put a lot of effort into one character and get really good with that character. Of if they find a character that better matches their own personal playstyle. So it gives a lot of variety like that. But doesn’t provide clear advantages. And then also it worked in well to what we were thinking about doing for the free model, we didn’t want it to be a pay to win kind of situation. So we didn’t want to say you get the lousy characters for free and you pay for the good characters. So we wanted all the characters to be to some degree equivalent in terms of power. Now that and the interesting dynamics come from how you match them up and pair them up and these three characters together might operate in an interesting way. Or these three characters may not work so well, or they might not work so well against other teammates. So I guess the biggest design challenge was just trying to keep that level balance across all the characters.

APGNation: Do you have a favorite character?

Matt Toschlog: I have a least favorite character (laughs). I probably like Daisy best.

APGNation: And your least favorite would be?

Matt Toschlog: Kasumi. I can’t play Kasumi and I hate playing against Kasumi so it’s bad all around.


Behold, the creation that destroys the creator

APGNation: Are there some ideas that didn’t quite make it to the final version? Are there any characters or ideas that were your darlings that you really wish made it?

Matt Toschlog: So some of the stuff we talked about. We would have endless arguments about all sorts of randomness that should be in a level. How much the games outcomes should be a direct result of the skill of the players vs. how much a sort of randomness there should be. I think I was more in favor of more randomness than maybe the center of the team, whatever. So I would have liked to see more of that at least as an experiment if not in the final game. I guess the biggest reason is it would make the game more fun new players or for less experienced players or less skilled players, that’s the whole reason. Because I’m not such a good player (laughs). Because if there’s a little more randomness you’re going to win because you get a little more lucky or something. So that was something I would have liked to see more. Otherwise we had lots of ideas for like powerups or characters or other interactive level elements that we just didn’t get in. but the nice thing is that we’ve got them queued up for new levels or new characters when we do those. We had two characters that were in early versions of the game that we didn’t put in the final versions, we sort of picked our best six out of eight. So those characters may make an appearance in future versions or elements of those characters may get mixed and matched to make new characters or something like that.

APGNation: I thought it was interesting to put genders with each robot. I thought how that might have been challenging to design robots with the gender as an element.

Matt Toschlog: Yeah, so I think we always designed Kasumi always as being female. It’s like we always had one female robot.

Steve Buchi: There were, I think we were always 50/50. It was just a little…

Jason Mooney:  Some of Dave’s [the project artist] sketches, even though they were females, just based on the sketches you wouldn’t know that.

Matt Toschlog: One of our investors said “you should have more women robots”. Then we would have all these discussions, what does this mean to be a female robot, because they’re robots they’re not alive! So it was just kind of funny. So the most recent character we completed and got in was Valentina and so there was question: Was Valentina feminine enough? And what makes a robot feminine? Does she have a ponytail, I don’t know right? I suggested making her hat a little curvier, because I thought that was more of a female hat style. So that’s kind of just a funny discussion because they’re robots. But it’s part of being inclusive and trying to appeal to a larger audience so.  I don’t think anyone thinks twice about playing as a female character or a male character. Maybe that’s a result of Tomb raider breaking that ground a long time ago.

Personally I think it's the hips that give away the robo-gender

Personally I think it’s the hips that give away the robo-gender

APGNation: Any plans for bots or single player?

Matt Toschlog: Yeah…well so…So the bots thing comes up a lot. I think if we had a little more time and a little more money I think we would have done bots. I think knowing what I know now we might have done bots anyways or made decisions earlier in the process to do bots because I think it’s been a problem through our beta testing to get enough people online at once. And so that’s something we’ll continue to think about. I think we’ll find out in a week and day from now, we’ll know what our online community is like and we’ll start getting some real feedback from players and we’ll be able to look at the numbers and the analytics and find out what people are up to. I think if the game is successful and warrants additional work then I think that’s something we could do that would be a real value to some people.

APGNation: So you’ve had extensive experience in video games since way back when they first time, well not-

Matt Toschlog:  (Laughs) yeah, it was a long time ago!

APGNation: So how was your extensive experience having been brought to the team, since you’re working with pretty young guys how was that interaction?

Matt Toschlog: One of the things that I think is just impressive is just about the team, and Steve in particular is his incredible encyclopedic knowledge about every game that’s been released since he was like ten (laughs). So that’s been great, when we ever have debate about a design feature or the way a weapon should work or something. People are sort of able to draw upon that and say, there was this game that did it that way. And here’s how it worked out and here’s why it was cool in that game. Or like the controls, we went over the controls be. And we eventually decided it should be Contra style controls. Everyone knew how it worked in Contra, and we liked that game and that was a sort of a problem that had already been solved for us. And everyone who worked on the project is sort of a big game enthusiast and everyone who works on the project has spent a lot of time doing game stuff on their own even if they haven’t written a game professionally. And then two of the more senior guys who are on the project were John Lynch and Justin Crawford who were just sort of half time or something on the project so Jason and Steve were the primary programmers and John and Justin did certain things. Justin did the tutorials and John did the character controller and little bits and stuff here and there. And those guys have been around for a lot longer and worked on the other game projects including Red Factions Guerilla. John wrote the DirectX implementation of the graphics system for that and Justin did basically everything else involved in bringing it over to PC so they’ve had a bit more experience. I think the kind of stuff I can contribute in a situation like that is just knowing what the arc of the project is going to be like. A lot of times when you see beginning teams work on games the hardest part that they have is finishing. Because you can work on a game forever and there’s always more to do and more you’d like to do. And a lot of getting a game is just sort of knowing what to cut and what you’re going to get done and what you’re not going to get done. And sort of understand what the arc of the project will look like a year out and plan the thing and figure out what was important to get done first and what can get done later. So I think that’s where my experience was beneficial.

APGNation: So Rustbucket Rumble is a Steam title, it’s a PC title only.

Matt Toschlog: Well it’s PC but windows, Mac and Linux

APGNation: Right, so why did you make the choice to make it a non-console based game?

Matt Toschlog: We are actually seriously considering console versions and we’ll see what our initial reception is like. And it’s not a ton of work to do those versions. Obviously the online stuff has to change for Playstation and Xbox. I think the main reason was that we thought the PC community was just a little more open to new stuff and the kind of games, especially something like Team Fortress, they’re PC games we’re sort of modeling ourselves after. You know we do recommend you play with a controller so that’s sort of a very console like thing. And if we do a console game we won’t have to do stupid mouse support. So that would be a reason by itself, because supporting mouse and controller at the same time is a pain. We talked about Steam and Steam is a very easy and a large marketplace and so it’s a nice way to do distribution. I think the console stuff these days has gotten a lot easier too, it’s fairly easy now to get on PSN or Xbox Live. But Steam is certainly the easiest and it’s enormously large. Seemed like a good market to go for.

APGNation: In an interview in 2011, you mentioned that the mobile market was a really risky investment for gaming. Has your opinion changed on that since then?

Matt Toschlog: No, I think it’s totally true. I mean the problem with the mobile market is that everyone wants free or at most 99 cents, and nobody wants to pay for anything. So you’re stuck with some other kind of revenue model. Probably micro-transactions or something like that. I guess there are two things going on. First you have to know what you’re doing. People have been figuring this out for many years, some people have it down really well. And also some of this stuff that’s involved with that, the real micro-transaction stuff where you’re making all your money off of the whales, and you’re hitting them for all these little things, and there’s all this sort of addiction mechanics stuff. Some of that I just find personally distasteful, and I’m probably just a little old fashioned in that respect, but I feel if there’s a good piece of entertainment you plunk down your 10 bucks for a moive, you can pluck down your 10 bucks to play Rusbucket Rumble. We do our best to make it worth the ten bucks, but if not then by all means don’t play. But I think that’s a fine model, so it’s probably just me being stubborn, I would rather do that then feel like we were trying to hit you up for 50 cents all the time to upgrade your weapons or whatever it’s going to be.

APGNation: So you’ve been involved in the gaming culture and seen it shift from the 90’s to today. What are the kind of major changes you’ve seen since you were developing Descent and all the way up to now, and how do you think Rustbucket Rumble is going to fit into the culture as of now?

Matt Toschlog: One of the most interesting things I’ve seen over the years is the difference between the console community and PC community. So when I was a kid it was like Atari, really early stuff. By the time that the first Nintendo came out, I was probably in my 20’s already or there about. And that seemed like a real kids toy, it was like a kids machine. So when I was in my early 20’s and working on my 3D stuff and games it was like the stuff we were doing was more serious than the Nintendo stuff. But then when I was working with younger people who had grown up with Nintendo they had a whole different view of games because they were playing all these 2D games.  The stuff I was doing was much more sophisticated 3D stuff so there was a little bit of a dichotomy there and whatever. And we had weird things like we first did a PC version of Descent and it was Sony who said “your colors are all pc colors, cant you use console colors?” and we were like “what does that mean?” cause we had kind of a dark and shadowy atmosphere and that wasn’t the console vibe.  So I think it’s interesting that there was a real dichotomy then and I think it’s sort of changed now. Now you see like Medal of Honor or something, these games that are on the console that are really, they’re not console games in the old sense of the word but now you have a real dichotomy of that kind of game, and then like what happens on your phone. Because what’s happening on your phone is like match 3 or puzzle games or whatever. I think that’s interesting that the market fragments and shifts and moves over time . So part of what we were going for with Rustbucket Rumble was something that had some of the elements of a more complicated game in terms of the teams and different classes and how you mix and match your characters to produce interesting results. But to do that in a much more casual and friendly atmosphere and package. So brighter colors and you know, no blood, less serious and trying that way to sort of bridge those two separate communities.

APGNation: So what is your post-release hopes for Rustbucket Rumble?

Matt Toschlog: I just hope a lot of people play. Obviously we want to sell a lot of copies and make a lot of money, but the most important thing is getting people online to play. Even if we just get a huge number of free players and nobody buys the game at least then we have something to work with and then we can start pushing the game or offering incentive to people to buy or things like that. So the main thing is just getting people to try the game. I think we’ve had fantastic responses from people who’ve played it. Generally we get someone into the game, they play it, they have fun. So I think just getting enough people to try it and hop online and play it is the main thing.

Jason Mooney: I think it was funny when we were at PAX south and they get done and they’re like “wow, that was fun!” and they seem really surprised. I’m like, “it’s a video game, are you going to sit down and play the game and go oh that’s not fun.”

Matt Toschlog: I think there are more games that are more serious or whatever. I sent out an e-mail to a bunch of friends when I was promoting the game and I was like “This game isn’t really experimental or innovative but it is, you know, fun!” (laughs).  So I kind of like that, I think fun is good.

APGNation: So with the free to play model, you guys are hoping to just get people into it that way and get people involved enough to go with that.

Matt Toschlog: We figure there aren’t ever going to pay for the game. But if they like the game and want to play, they can still contribute value to us by making a vibrant community. So we wanted something that appeals to them but other people that like the game but don’t want to spend so much time, they have the option to buy the full option and get the full characters and only played every one in a while. So we’re trying to sort of get the right level of commitment for every different user group out there.

APGNation: Any closing remarks? Anything you really want gamers to know about your project?

Matt Toschlog: I just want people to play it. I think if people play it they’re going to like it. I just want people to give it a try and I think we’ve made it easy having a free version out there. So I’m hoping people try it!

It was a blast meeting with the Reactor Zero team, and Matt was kind enough to autograph my father’s copy of Descent. What a nice guy!

Looks like father's day came early this year!

Looks like father’s day came early this year!

Want a chance to game with the devs? Check out our Twitch Channel around 8:00pm EST on Thursday the 30th! We’ll be playing some games with the devs and giving out beta keys for gamers to join us! Tune in if you want to play a few rounds with the creators!

Nick Bayer
Written by
Greetings Nation! The name's Nick Bayer, I'm 25 and have identified as a gamer since my father brought home Commander Keen when I was 5. I currently work as a Medical Social Worker and spend all of my free time either gaming, spending time with my beautiful fiance, or gaming with my beautiful fiance. I gradated in 2013 from Grand Valley State University with a degree in Psychology, I currently am in my final semester at Grand Valley State University for a Masters in Social Work. I mainly use PC as my gaming platform of choice, primarily enjoying the genres of RPG, action-adventure, FPS, and strategy games (Including Grand Strategy!). I also play an unhealthy amount of Dota 2. My favorites include Max Payne 2, Bioshock 1, Crusader Kings 2, The Ace Combat series (4-6), and Spec Ops: The Line. My favorite games are the ones that excel at telling wonderful stories!

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