Metal Heads launched on Steam in Early Access back in March and has been gaining popularity ever since. The game has received “mostly positive” reviews on the platform and has been featured by a few big streamers, including Pokimane. I recently had the opportunity to speak to Nathan Francis of Otreum Games, creator of Metal Heads. In perhaps the most in-depth Developer’s Hideout yet, we discussed bug squishing, upcoming Metal Heads content, and more.
Pixel Hideout) For those who don’t know, could you explain what Metal Heads is?
Nathan Francis) “Metal Heads is a party game where up to 8 players compete in a whole bunch of mini-games, a board game mode and boss battle[s]. The mini-games are easy to play, but difficult to survive, however don’t aim to be so hard that it’s frustrating (although there still needs to be a little bit of balancing).Metal heads is primarily a local multiplayer game, however, online multiplayer is just as important, so Metal Heads has BOTH, and even includes drop-in/drop-out support so that the game doesn’t have to stop when someone else wants to join, and couch vs couch so multiple people on one PC can play with other players online. The best part about the game is that it is all to the tune of a completely original metal-infused soundtrack composed by Andy Gillion, the lead guitarist and composer of Mors Principium Est, and the creator/composer of his own solo album titled “Neverafter”.”
PH) You state on your Steam page that the game has a reduced price while in Early Access. Can you tell me more about how he price will increase during development? Will there be just one jump upon full release, or will the price increase incrementally?
NF) “I think that it would be a wise choice for me to increase the price to what I consider reasonable for the amount of content, as well as the quality of content in the future, but this price is something I will decide as it progresses through early access and closer to the full game launch. I’m leaning more towards one single price increase when it goes into full launch, rather than incrementally increasing the price, but there is a chance this could also change.”
PH) The Early Access has suffered a little with various bugs and latency issues. How soon can players expect a smoother experience?
NF) “All games, not just early access games suffer from these issues. And sometimes, not many of them change or get fixed. A lot of them are full-priced AAA games even with millions of dollars in budget and large teams. I aim to ensure that Metal Heads is as smooth an experience as possible, it is certainly a bumpy road, but I have been slowly ironing out the problems in the month since launch. Online multiplayer is where the majority of problems are, and thankfully there aren’t really many of these problems, as most mini-games work fine online, especially if the host and clients have good connections.
The online multiplayer lag is a difficult thing to deal with in Metal Heads since the mini-games generally consist of lots of moving parts on the level, and they are player-hosted servers, versus dedicated servers, so latency can be a big problem. Thankfully in the last 1.5 weeks, I have worked super hard to make the online experience much smoother, and have so far managed to eliminate almost all major lag in mini-games such as Blue Ballin’, Dodgy, Deadly Disco, Laser Lunacy, and Pipemare. While it’s still not perfect, and I’ve had to sacrifice the experience of a player dropping in mid-round (things are going to be out of sync for those players for now at least for the mini-game they drop into mid-round), it is significantly better for players who are already in the server and ready to play.
To give you an idea of how much more optimization has been done, Blue Ballin’ for example was trying to do over 800 network updates (packets) per second with 7 client players or even less than a second….which is HUGE, and terribly optimized. Not only was this a bad thing, but the time before an update/packet would reach the client (ping) would cause a delayed version of the ball and its’ components for the client, and as a result, Blue Ballin’ online just felt kind of pointless to play as a client player. To break this down into layman’s terms. If the server told the ball to start spinning, and a client had a ping of 500ms delay, the ball wouldn’t start spinning on the client for 500ms and thus be out of sync and laggy, then when you do that for roughly 100 different components on the ball every second or less than every second, then have to send that information to potentially 7 clients….it’s an absolute mess.
How soon can you expect this to be ironed out? If “ANTI-LAG” update isn’t out by the time this article is out, you can actually get the anti-lag update’s work in progress “experimental” version by going to the game in the Steam library, going to its properties, and choose “experimental” in the BETAS tab. Otherwise, I would like to get the ANTI-LAG update out by the 3rd/4th”
Update: The Anti-lag update was released on May 12th. The update was aimed at fixing lag issues but also included new content for the game such as board game items and other bug fixes. In the patch notes, Francis states that while there are more bugs to fix, he hopes that the next big update is focused on new content. As of the time of writing, there have also been three smaller patches released for the game.
PH) When can we expect the first content update and what type of games will be included?
NF) “I’m not 100% sure just yet, but the plan is to iron out these major bugs and problems as quickly as possible to secure a strong foundation, then I’ll be working additional mini-games, which thankfully don’t take long to make them work OFFLINE….but take potentially a long time to get working ONLINE. Content will keep being added to the game over time as I make new things, and I aim to add some more mini-games in May, as well as some new metal heads, and more features to the board game mode. I have some mini-games in reserve that used to work, such as “Buzz Kill” and “Knock-off” that I was in the process of converting to online multiplayer (it’s sadly not quick and simple to do), and I also have another mini-game tentatively called “In Shape” that I started working on, which is inspired by the “Booksquirm” mini-game in Mario Party, only it’s going to be way crazier.
There’s a few other mini-games that I have made working prototypes for that I need to remake now that I have better knowledge in Unreal Engine 4, and better knowledge with networking too. I think I’d like to work on a whole batch of mini-games in May, and just get them all working, get them all polished, and pump out a mini-game update in May to give people something fresh and new to try all at once, as people want more mini-games!
As for what those mini-games are so far. There’s:
– “Buzz Kill” – A randomly generated path is shown on a grid-like floor and players simply have to remember the path and get to the other side in the time given…the gameplay for this may change to make it fair for players who are far away from the start of the path, and to reward those who cross the path first.
– “Knock-off” – A flower-shaped platform with the “petals” kind of folding downward at random on the outside, with flippers on the inside that launch the player off if they are caught standing on one when it flips outward, but the main feature is 2 piston type of things that rotate around the arena within the sight of all players which will flash before punching across the arena, knocking players off that are caught in its path. This actually works fairly well online now but needs the gameplay to be overhauled as this was just a proof of concept.
– “In Shape” (tentative title) – Players are in a kind of cube-like arena, the sidewalls and ceiling have panels that have holes in them and lights behind the panels. The lights will turn on behind a panel that is about to slam into the opposite wall, and players just need to make sure they are in that light to stay safe as the panel crushes against the opposite wall.
Over time, the frequency of the crushing is increased and the “safe time” is decreased.
This is very much inspired by “Book squirm” from Mario Party.
I do have some other mini-games I would like to work on but I don’t want to discuss them just yet until I can get them working. I will say that one of them is potentially a really silly idea that may not work well at all, but I do want to experiment and see if it works. If it doesn’t, I’ll still keep it available, as I think I’d like to have a kind of “scrap yard” level where players can go into a kind of open-world and unlock these prototype and rejected mini-games by exploring and platforming in the scrap yard.”
Update: As per this Tweet the mini-game update has been delayed due to Francis dealing with personal issues.
I just want to touch on something. I'm currently in the process of renovating a house we're moving into in 1 week, so the mini-games may be slightly delayed. There's also some other serious complications with unexpected circumstances, but I'm hoping that pans out well.
— Metal Heads Game (EARLY ACCESS OUT NOW) (@MetalHeadsGame) May 25, 2021
PH) You’ve said before that there are over 100 games “planned and written”. Which as yet unannounced mode are you most excited to see player’s reactions to?
NF) “All of them! But one which is a technical pain to create, I spent 2 weeks on it already a while ago and struggled to get it working (at least in online mode), so gave up on it until I build my technical knowledge up. If I can manage to make this mini-game, I will be super happy! Andy even made the music track for it, simply titled “Train” in the official soundtrack, and it’s EPIC! I won’t go into any details right now as to what it is, but when it comes out, and is working properly, I hope it blows people away. There are a few different ideas I have for board game modes too, as I don’t want to just make one board game mode. Without going into detail, it will be inspired by actual board games, but twisted to work with this style of party game.”
PH) There is an in-game editor coming for the game. How soon can we expect to see that added?
NF) “The plan is to allow custom metal head creation, as I love character customization in games, so I’ll be working on that once there are a large number of mini-games available, and multiple board game maps. The editor will be one of the last things I work on before launching into 1.0 but not entirely sure when that will happen. However, the board game editor will be something I will most likely work on after the full game launches. I think that the party game genre has been lacking this kind of customization for the longest time, and I’ll be glad to bring something new to the table, it has been the plan to make a board game editor since the original conception of the game idea, but is far from simple to create.
If I can make the board game editor before the full game launch though, that would be INCREDIBLE! Originally I wanted to also make a mini-game maker, but the technicalities of that are just horrible to think about, there’s so much involved in creating an editor of any sort, so it’ll most likely only be a character creator and board game map creator.
When will it all happen? No idea, but again, it is something I will do, and want to do, but it also depends on the success of the game of course…and as an indie developer, it is extremely tough, especially without a publisher or crowdfunding etc, but I am totally and absolutely committed to making Metal Heads the best it can be, so won’t give up, even when things get tough.”
PH) You mentioned things can be tough without a publisher or crowdsourcing. Have you had any contact with publishers, either pre-Early Access or since the game has launched? Or are you planning to keep Metal Heads a personal project?
NF) “I never wanted to be affiliated with any publishers to begin with, I wanted to create Metal Heads all on my own and show other developers that it CAN be done as a solo dev.
The goal is to both create something I love, and to start my career in games development with something big, but to also inspire other people out there, and thanks to Unreal Engine, as well as Epic Games, the creators of Unreal Engine, they have not only enabled the creation of Metal Heads with such a powerful and versatile game engine, but they also created the Mega Grant program which awards indie developers a no-strings-attached grant to help them along with the development; fortunately, I was awarded a developer grant in 2020 which helped significantly, enabled me to quit my day job, etc and pursue the game full time. I think I may have forgotten to mention this rather large detail haha.
So yep, the plan is for Metal Heads, and future projects, [is] to be totally independent. I plan to eventually be able to set up a studio where I can facilitate the development of other games with hand-picked aspiring game devs who can use the studio to make their games, I want to be able to fund them as well so that they can leave their day jobs and pursue their dream career. This of course purely just a dream/plan, but I think it will happen, I am absolutely determined to make it happen. I strongly believe that I have a diamond in the rough with Metal Heads, but it needs to be cut and polished before it really shines.”
PH) Following on from that, what advantages do publishers bring to the table, besides the obvious financial benefits?
NF) “I don’t know a huge amount about the advantages personally due to not having ever partnered with a publisher, but having spoken to other developers out there, it seems that every publisher does things similarly, but with a different approach. Ultimately, the publisher is looking to invest in a project in order to make a return from it. It is a symbiotic relationship with developers that can be incredibly beneficial for both parties, which we have seen many times, for example with Devolver Digital publishing Fall Guys, which was developed by Mediatonic (a relatively unknown developer). They have great influence and reach, and are well known and trusted publishers (amongst many), so when gamers see a game published by them, they automatically trust in the game and are more likely to buy it, however a self-published title by an unknown developer is less likely to be trusted and thus not take off, even if it’s an incredible game.
Which brings me to the next point, and that is that the publishers, aside from the financial benefits, are marketing masters. They take the pain of marketing away from the developer, and let the developer focus on just making the game, which I think is super important, because the reason that so many AWESOME indie games out there just get buried…is because they don’t market the game well, or don’t market it AT ALL.
Aside from marketing, Publishers can do SO MUCH more to help a game along, and I think it’s a case by case thing, but I would imagine there would be QA testing available whenever I want (I kind of already have that haha), there’s localization/translation, accessibility (for example for gamers with disabilities), taxes and financial and legal business can be dealt with by the publisher [as well as] distribution and console porting. Pretty much everything that is tedious and frustrating for a developer, the publisher can handle, which is wonderful for devs who would much rather just focus on development.
So while I don’t want a publisher, I think for many developers, it is such an important thing. I am just a madman for not going a publisher really. But my goal ultimately is to learn as much as I can in my game development career so that I can continue making what I love. If [I] understand the ENTIRE process now, it’ll make my future as a game developer a lot easier as I’m in this for the long haul. I have been asked by some bigger publishing groups if I would like to partner with them, all of which I have respectfully said a tentative, or absolute “no” to, which feels kind of weird to do, as many developers would jump at the chance to have that opportunity.
[This] also brings me to another point, and one of which I want to put here as a warning for other developers, don’t jump at the chance immediately; Do your research on the publisher, do your research on the email address sent by the publisher, do a security check to ensure they are legitimate (asking them to get their publisher profile to follow you on social media is a simple one, just make sure they are not an imposter account).
There have been possibly over 100 emails claiming to be from publishers, that have turned out to be fraudulent, one example is one of which I declined and they asked for around 50 game keys for “their large team for internal research” despite me already having respectfully said no to them. They pressed the issue, and I blocked them, don’t be pressured. Ultimately if it FEELS like something is off, it probably is, trust your gut, and do the right thing by you. While it is exciting to be approached by a publisher, there are many who seek to take advantage of this, so make sure your guard is up. I’d also like to note that this warning applies to Steam Curators and reviewers asking for keys, do the research or you may find your game ends up on grey market key resellers such as G2A, Kinguin etc… In the first week of launch, I received over 500 emails from alleged Steam Curators, Twitch Streamers, Content creators etc. I fell for it at first with maybe 2 or 3 emails, but that amounted to maybe 15 keys total, all of which I banned immediately and reported to Steam. As a rule, I don’t invest much time in Steam curators, as sadly, the whole Steam curator system is now just used as a method to get free games, so unless you know the curator, don’t waste any time on them, as it’s likely someone wanting another free game.
Sadly, there are many great Steam curators out there who are buried in the pile of c****y fake curators out there, so don’t discredit them completely, as you may skip over someone who is worth your time and effort.”
PH) How smooth was operating the Steam Early Access platform for you? In what ways do you think Steam could help smaller developers?
NF) “HA! I wish I could say that it’s an easy process…but my patience has been very heavily tested when it comes to Steamworks, as it is very confusing, there’s menu’s everywhere, so at first, it’s extremely daunting. Over time, however, I have learned where various things are and can navigate it much better. It’s hard for me to really compare it to any other platform as I haven’t used any other platform yet, but I have read/heard about how confusing things [can be]. I guess Steam wants to give developers as much freedom of control as possible, but with that, comes confusion for someone that is new to Steamworks. That said, Steam have been working hard to improve the experience over time, and are constantly fixing issues, listening to feedback and improving the overall experience. Steam support have been fantastic, they have listened to my concerns and the concerns of others, and making improvements constantly. There have been many times where I get cranky at Steam, mainly due to Input related problems. [For example] last year, the gamepad input in the demo was super broken for about 8 months while using Steam due to the Steam overlay not playing nicely with the Input plugin I’m using, but I contacted Steam about this, and they eventually got to work. I put them in contact with the developer of the Input plugin (WM Input Manager) and they collaborated to try and resolve some of the issues…which they did, which was really quite incredible that they took the time to do that. It was when they fixed the issue and seemed so dedicated to helping, that I really put aside my doubts and put my full trust in the Steam team.
There’s still a long way to go, but from what I’ve heard from other developers, it has made a lot of progress over the years, so I’m confident that Steam will continue to make it better and better.”
PH) The music is clearly a big part of Metal Heads. How did you and Andy Gillion meet and how did this partnership come about?
NF) “I’m a huge fan of a band called Mors Principium Est, and a huge fan of Andy Gillion since he’s the composer and lead guitarist for the band….and pretty much the face of the band due to how good he is at marketing and publicity (as far as I’m concerned). I kept posting on his Youtube channel comments, then his Facebook, and one day I said to my girlfriend “Imagine if I got Andy to do music for the game, holy s**t that’d be awesome…there’s no way he’d do it, but I should totally try!”. So being the idiot that I am, I posted on his Facebook, jokingly about putting a weapon in Metal Heads which is a guitar that shoots bolts (like actual bolts, not lightning), as he had borrowed a guitar from his mate, and …well it broke, shot a bolt didn’t it? So he fired back with a cheeky comment, calling me out….I think it was something like “If you want me to work on your game, why don’t you just ask?” or something like that. I thought “oh god no, I screwed up and p****d him off….DURP”, but NOPE, we got chatting straight away, he was super funny, super-nice, it was like talking to a long lost friend, and not long after, I said that I wanted to [buy] him tickets to PAX Australia (since he lives in Melbourne, where PAX AUS is held, and I was exhibiting Metal Heads at PAX AUS), so he can come check out the game and see if he wants to help out.
A few months later, at PAX AUS in October, that happened, I met an idol of mine and showed him this stupid party game that had a booth with a giant crowd around it and he was sold immediately. At the time the music was just bought in music packs that can be bought on various game engine stores, but the problem is that the music used at PAX AUS can be heard in so many other games and I wanted an original soundtrack made by my favourite musicians/composers. I wanted to avoid having anything that could be found in any other games, like the “Synty” 3D asset packs that are super popular in indie games these days (the low poly style, no textures etc). [He] and I have developed a great friendship since then, and he has taken the game to a whole new level of awesome with a 100% original soundtrack, where every single mini-game has its own music track, and some even have survival mode/Sudden Death versions of those tracks that ramps up the intensity. Music aside, having Andy working on the sound-track not only made it easier for me to focus on the game. [It] not only brought the game quality to a much higher standard, but having a friend who is in the creative industry, who knows the pitfalls, the trials and tribulations of doing all of this kind of stuff, has been more valuable to me than any of the music, because solo dev is a very lonely road, even with family, friends, loved ones around you supporting you, unless they have done what you are doing, or unless they are working with you, they don’t fully understand what you are going through. So it has been great to have Andy not only on board, creating the kick-ass sound-track, but it’s also great to be able to call him a close friend.”
Post PAX developer log
PH) What were some of the biggest issues you faced during development?
NF) “At first it was my day job. It was a double-edged sword, I needed to rely on it for an income, but simultaneously, it was draining my soul every day that I went to work. I worked in retail/sales for about 12-13 years and in the last 8 years of employment, it was a job that was very competitive. It rewarded predatory sales tactics (“shark” salesperson behaviour), deception and lies, over honesty and integrity, so for me, going to that job almost every day, going against the grain (I refused to be a shark), not getting as much commission, being told constantly that I need to do better, while also being treated terribly by customers despite giving them so much time and energy to save them weeks or months of research…..it was the worst. But the positive here is that it taught me a lot and while it chipped away at me, it also strengthened my resolve. How did this affect the development of Metal Heads? Well, most days I would get home from work, and I was super depressed or anxious about something that happened at work, so I couldn’t focus on game development. So while the game was in development for 3+ years, it really only properly started in March of 2019 when I decided to give it absolutely everything I’ve got, plus more, so I could escape the hell that was my day job, and start living my dream as a game developer.
Aside from that, online multiplayer has been the biggest issue, along with input handling.
When I started the game, I had a fair bit of knowledge in Unreal Engine 4, even when it came to online multiplayer, but this game really made me go back to square one and relearn everything because it was an entirely different beast to handle. Because everything happens all on-screen at one time for servers and clients, everything has to be synced due to the game relying on platforming and precision movement to win, and this is tough. When you look at other party games, they generally don’t have too much in the way of moving parts [for] this reason, and they suffer the same problems that Metal Heads does, so they tend to stick with very simple mini-games. If I were to just make Metal Heads a local multiplayer game, this wouldn’t really be a problem, I could make the [craziest], complex level with moving parts that I wanted and still be fine, but online multiplayer is a whole different story. The biggest curveball here compared to other party games is that I need to not only make these mini-games synchronize for server/client, but I also need to make sure that it synchronizes for players who are dropping into the game at random.
No other party game features this to my knowledge, probably because it’s so painful to implement, and so I pride myself on the fact that Metal Heads allows for this as it’s no fun to have to sit and wait around while everyone else has fun because you’re late to the party.
The great thing about having drop-in/drop-out is that if a player crashes or disconnects for some reason, they can easily reconnect, and the host doesn’t need to go all the way back to the lobby to allow the other player to join, which I think is extremely important for consistency in gameplay as it doesn’t break everyone’s attention and focus on the game. It becomes a seamless experience. While drop-in/drop-out was working and the mini-games were all synching fine, there are some mini-games where currently, they will be out of sync of a client player joins in mid-round. But the drop in/drop out was really mainly intended for local multiplayer anyway, so if you arrive [at] the party and there’s a free controller, just plug it in or connect it, and simply hit START to join the game without interrupting anybody else, and when you’re done, either unplug or hold the back/share/special button. I would also like to implement server hand-off where if the host’s internet disconnects or the player rage-quits and ALT+F4’s, the server goes into a kind of limbo while it checks for the next best player hosting connection, then effectively hands over the server control to that client PC and makes them the host…while this is something I WANT to do, it’s not an easy thing, Unreal Engine 4 doesn’t support this by default, and from what I have researched, it gets incredibly complex. It’s not a super necessary feature either, so I think this would possibly be added post full game launch.
So in short, life, online multiplayer, drop in drop out…and player controller support, they have been holding things up significantly.”
PH) If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice before you began working on Metal Heads, what would it be?
NF) “I think I’ve done the best with what I’ve had to be honest, but if I had ANY advice…it would be to trust in my ability more and stop being so self-critical. Yes I am proud of the fact that I have made this all on my own (except the music of course), but I just have that horrible feeling of imposter syndrome constantly there in my mind, which is completely illogical, but ….it is what it is. I’d also tell myself to look after myself more, take more breaks, eat better food, exercise etc….I have been mistreating myself so that this game can come out, and also as a result, has had an on-flow effect to all aspects of my life.
Now that I know I’m not going to go broke anytime soon (thanks to the support of everyone who bought Metal Heads), I can be smarter about how I develop the game, treating myself better, but also treating my relationships better and overall, have a happier development, which will ultimately result in more productive development.
I intend to take Metal Heads beyond just a party game, and I’m SUPER excited for my career as an indie game developer, I want the world to enjoy my creations, and this is merely just a sample of what I believe I have to offer.”
Metal Heads is currently available on Steam for £10.99 GBP, $13,99 USD, or your local equivalent. The official soundtrack can also be purchased via Steam for £8.29 GBP or $10.99 USD.
Have you picked up Metal Heads? Has this interview changed your opinion of the game. We want to hear from you! Tweet your opinions to us @PixelHideout on Twitter, or post them in the comments section below.