Post-PAX Interview: GUTS Department’s Bryce Kho on Aegis Defenders

Aegis Defenders: An Eclectic Mix of Inspirations

With PAX West 2017 in the books, I wanted to catch up with some developers on their experience at the convention and to learn about their games as well. First up, Bryce Kho, Game Director and Lead Artist at LA-based GUTS Department, spoke to us about their upcoming genre mashup, Aegis Defenders.

At a top level, Aegis Defenders doesn’t make conventional sense. How can a strange mix of two unlikely game genres, Metroidvania and Tower Defense, work? After all, one genre pushes for dynamic exploration whereas the other worships static screens. It’s a great thing that Bryce and his team ignored such design worries as the GUTS Department’s upcoming game is a refreshing gem in an increasingly oversaturated Metroidvania genre.

At PAX West, another player and I got to run through an ancient forest-type level. Between taking down enemies, we picked up resources that let us build all sorts of gizmos, often explosive. The level was bookended with a locked-off area where our Tower Defense skills were tested as we constructed several turrets at key points before the first enemy wave. We triumphed there but fell to a hulking insect-like beast in the next level. While playing we both also noticed the witty tone of some of the dialogue options. Design-wise, the eye-pleasing characters, and lush backgrounds evoked Ghibli’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and classic Final Fantasy. Overall, I came away from the demo eager for its full release later this year.

To help soften the wait, I got to email interview Bryce to learn more about the game’s development and his PAX West experience too.

How was PAX West 2017 for your team?

PAX was great! It was my first time ever going to PAX and it was a super fun crowd. There was this one couple who played our demo co-op and I don’t think I could imagine a more perfect playthrough — they just understood the game so well and were able to pull off some advanced techniques even though they’d never seen the game before. It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had watching someone play our game.

This game got its start as a student project with hordes of eager playtesters. Since then, what were the proudest moments for your team?

Well, aside from getting into PAX, my proudest moment would have to be … something I’m not allowed to talk about yet haha. Suffice to say, as soon as we go this super secret thing working, it totally blew my mind and reinvigorated my excitement for this project. The thing is, it’s something I had some serious doubts about in the past but now that I’ve seen it working, I’m a huge fan. Sorry for being so vague!


“It’s always surprising to me how much of a difference there is between making a game fun and making it look fun.”

Conversely, this is the first major mainstream game for your studio. What were complications your team had to overcome?

I was just talking about this with our former producer Scott Stephan actually. He’s working at Fox now for VR and what they consider a small budget for a game is $3 million. We were extremely naive to think that getting $150k from our Kickstarter would be enough to fund development because it’s not. $150k is a joke compared to what you really need. That’s not to say it isn’t possible but anyone who does do it has a lot of family and friends to thank — ourselves included.

Similarly, how has marketing the studio’s first major release been?

Difficult! It’s a big hustle and I’m not sure how much more there is to say haha. Without a dedicated marketing staff, it’s hard to balance work and outreach. There’s honestly not enough hours in a day to do it all at once. As the Game Director and only Artist, I’m already juggling 3-4 different jobs at once so adding social media on top is a huge time sink. It’s always surprising to me how much of a difference there is between making a game fun and making it look fun.

You’ve transitioned from filmmaking to game development. In Vancouver, I’ve met a similar developer who said that indie game devs tend to help each other as opposed to the competitiveness of the indie film industry. How true was that for you?

It might sound harsh to say but you kinda have to be more of a mercenary to make it in the film business — there’s so much competition and you’ve got to find a way to nail a job if you want to put food on the table. You can’t just be good at doing something, you have to be good at selling how amazing you are at doing that something. Whereas with videogames, projects last a lot longer and you’re not trying to compete or network as hard all the time. I think this generally means a lot more collaboration can happen. We were really lucky in this regard — teams like Shovel Knight, Timespinner, Awesomenauts, Chasm, and many more were really helpful when we were getting on our feet.

You’ve noted in past interviews how some modern games feel smaller compared to classic games. Could you elaborate on that?

I’m definitely biased here but I think back when games had more limitations on their graphics, the audience had to use their imaginations a lot more and engage with the medium in a way where it felt more personal. It’s almost akin to reading a book, where you’re really only given a description and your brain has to fill in all the details. That version that you saw in your head was always the best version of what it could be and usually, that meant it was better than the glorified movie version.

The game’s lead, Clu, is a female protagonist. Thankfully, that’s becoming less radical, but how did you choose to approach her depiction?

Personally, I suppose I do delight a bit in those times when some stranger picks up our game, plays for awhile, and then has that “she’s a girl!?” moment. Because why not? Why not make the main character a funny and capable young girl with no caveats or conceits like big boobs or a scanty costume. Clu reminds me of some girls I know and they deserve to be in the spotlight too. I don’t think we have any agenda beyond that, other than we thought it would be a fun and interesting character to explore.

The co-op multiplayer mode is fun, but I heard it was accidental. What’s the story behind that?

Well, the initial goal of the game was to experiment with the idea of single-player co-op where the strategy of the game was about a single person managing multiple characters. After we had that down and after getting hounded with requests to make it actually co-op, we gave it a shot and were very happily surprised that the game still stood-up. I was initially worried that the game would be too simple or boring if you only had one character but it worked, so yeah, a happy accident. I should also plug that our game also now does feature four characters at once, so even in co-op there’s still a bit of that “single-player co-op” feel.

How did you decide on the studio’s name?

During lunch, we all like to work out. We pretend to be big body builders and just yell “GUTS” at each other. It kinda became our catchphrase so the name just stuck haha.

That’s the story our producer Max Palazzo thought of when he first heard the name and I like his version better. The real story is a lot more boring and has to do with a pun — “having guts” meaning being brave, which you have to be to make this sort of game, and also having to do with the “blood and guts” of slaying monsters… so let’s stick with Max’s story instead where it was just something we yelled at each other while working out. GUTS!

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What do you want GUTS Department games to be known for?
For making games that took a lot of GUTS to make! And by that, I mean MUSCLES.

Were you able to sneak away during the convention and see any panels or games? If so, what were some that you loved?
Monster Hunter is my favorite game franchise and you bet your butt I used my Exhibitor’s badge to get in early and skip those four-hour lines. Some guy got mad at us exhibitors for padding line at the start of the day but I have no regrets — that demo was totes worth.

Aegis Defenders is releasing later this year on PS4 and Steam.