ZOE Begone!: An Animator's Transition into Game Development

ZOE Begone!: An Animator's Transition into Game Development

People come into game development from many different routes, Graeme Hawkins (Retchy) started off as an animator with no coding experience. Armed with his visual expertise and inspired by early film animators, he created the beautiful hand-drawn game, ZOE Begone!

Retchy speaks about his transition into solo game development, how he went from concept to title, how he found his art style, and how he was able to fund this five year project.

First, can you tell us about your new game ZOE Begone!?

ZOE Begone! is a hand-drawn bullet hell that combines the shooting and looping arenas of Resogun/Defender, with the run 'n' gun mechanics of Metal Slug/Contra.

The game is about dodging attacks, dashing and pounding through enemies and managing your resources so you can remain airborne and keep killing stuff more fluidly - if you run out of energy, you'll fall to the ground where the mechanics become more run ‘n’ gun style until you can refill it and start flying again.

We're looking at a release window of summer 2024, and you can follow the progress of ZOE Begone! On X or try the demo on Steam!

How did you start making games?

My background is in animation - I'd been freelancing and working on personal side projects for about 14 years, but I started getting a bit dissatisfied and disillusioned by the work I was actually getting paid for, mainly corporate explainer videos for banks.

So, I started to think of other things I could do in my spare time that might give me a small chance of making some money from it. I've been a gamer all my life, so it seemed like the obvious thing to try out.

Initially I was trying to use GameMaker to make an animation engine that I could use to make films, initially focusing on bringing a little Robin to life, but pretty soon I was abandoning that idea and just trying to come up with game ideas.

Coming from an artistic background rather than a programming one, how was it getting started creating video games?

I didn't have a clue what I was doing at first, so I watched some YouTube tutorials and followed along with an Asteroids one which gave me some idea of the basics of changing sprites etc. It was all very simple stuff.

I’ve kind of followed the same pattern throughout the development of ZOE Begone! If I encounter something I want to do but don’t know how, I’ll check YouTube or the GameMaker forums, find something sort of related to the problem, then quite messily adapt it to my needs. Some programming concepts will eventually click for me if they keep coming up enough in my Google searches, so I’ve just gradually become more comfortable with it over time.

Robin Game Test, developed by Retchy

So how did Robin lead to ZOE Begone!?

Once I decided to focus on game ideas, I knew I wanted to make a shmup (shoot ‘em up) as I was a big fan of the genre, and I had an idea to tie in an element from some of my animation projects.

I'd been making these Zoetropes for quite a while in my spare time, so I thought it'd be fun to have a looping arena, like Defender or Resogun, where the player slowly builds up the Zoetrope style animation by somehow activating the frames in the background while fending off enemies. Then during the boss fight, the background scrolling would accelerate to the correct speed for the animation to come into effect, providing a lovely animated backdrop for the ensuing violence!

My first attempt at that was with pixel art and a weird ladybird concept.

Resogun, developed by Housemarque, and Climax Studios

ZOE Begone! has a beautiful hand drawn art style that is quite different to Resogun or Defender, how did you find your style?

Pixel art isn't one of my strengths, so although I was pretty happy that I'd managed to actually implement the Zoetrope idea, the next problem was to find an art style I was comfortable and happy with.

The next iteration I did was a silly idea that this alien character I came up with was trying to stop an invasion of it’s planet by activating a defence system that happened to work very much like a Zoetrope - it was a pretty bad idea but it got me thinking about different art styles, and I ended up just taking a frame from one of the Zoetropes I'd made and putting it in Photoshop with the other ideas, just to see how it'd look.

The frame was from this multi-layered thing which was basically 20 loops of acetate of various lengths that I'd drawn on and stacked concentrically - when the record player it's on spins at the right speed, the frames of animation lock into place when it's filmed and create the animation effect.

It occurred to me at some point that this was just like a blown-up version of drawing directly onto 35mm film, like some early experimental animators were doing in the 1930's and 40's, so I looked at some Norman McLaren films for inspiration, Boogie Doodle in particular.

It all clicked into place then and I kinda knew immediately that I'd found my art style - it was one of those very rare moments, for me anyway, where I get really excited about an idea and it all just feels right.

I quickly put together some mock ups and soon had a prototype of the character and some basic enemies in GameMaker.

Norman McLaren films, Boogie Doodle

Early Game Footage of ZOE Begone!, developed by Retchy

How did the game evolve through its iterations?

So from the point that I landed on the art style, the development process has really been one loooong series of iterations over about five and a half years now.

A large portion of that has just been about figuring out how to design new enemies for each level and how to make each level visually distinct, but before I could get stuck in to all that, I had to do a lot of thinking about the theme and context for the mechanics that I'd developed.

I've always been a fan of shmups, but can't say I've ever really got into their stories/lore - their appeal to me has always been their visual, visceral impact, but I soon realised that of course there always needs to be some sort of context or coherent theme to tie all of that together, even if it does end up getting largely ignored by the likes of me.

I knew early on that I didn't want to get into writing a story or characters or dialogue because I’d be really bad at that, so I needed to figure out how to do things purely audio-visually.

The drawn-on-film inspiration for the visuals seemed like the obvious thing to lean in to, so I think the first thing I tried out was the pause menu, where the camera zooms out a bit to reveal the film sprocket holes and the music slows down.

That led to the idea that the animator's brush should be involved somehow - that the enemies could all be drawn in by them, and that they're annoying the player character.

I thought that idea should be introduced from the outset on the title screen and should continue through the menus leading up to the start of the game, rather than playing out in a cut scene.

ZOE Begone! developed by Graeme Hawkins (Retchy)

I started trying to reinforce this context with my design decisions wherever I could and I came up with the 'Frame Trap' idea: when the animator attacks, the camera pulls out again and is locked in place so the player can move freely around the screen - emphasising the theme, but also mixing up the mechanics a bit.

This also happens in boss fights and plays into energy/health resource management. If you're running low on either when the boss warning countdown appears, you'll need to get to a part of the level that still has some left before the Frame Trap comes into effect.

I also eventually dropped the Zoetrope / animated background idea and used the button popping to just return the bg colour to the original blue, undoing the animator's vandalism.

Music and sound design were key in getting the game to feel right too - my friend Tom Pegg's music really helps to sell the old-timey animation feel, and the sound design, while sometimes maybe a bit more traditionally gamey sounding, is tied in to the film context with the changes in pitch that happen with certain player actions.

From there I decided that each level should have a different tool of the animator as the boss and mid-boss, such as a knife, marker pen etc. Naturally the visual design of the enemies had to match the tool that was being used, so here I am five years later!

How have you been able to fund your game?

It took a long time with multiple false starts to get a publishing deal, and I feel incredibly lucky to have eventually found and partnered up with PM Studios.

I must have emailed something like 150 publishers over the years and got maybe 30 replies, 25 of which were rejections (usually very nicely worded, sometimes very helpful), and 5 of which resulted in meetings or further discussions.

I'd say the key for me was to get the game looking as polished as I could, which enabled me to put a visually interesting pitch deck together. I emailed it to any publisher I could find that even remotely looked like they'd be interested in the game.

It can feel a bit spammy sending the same email to so many people, but it's not really. I really think being visually eye-catching was helpful though because publishers must get so many of these emails and they need something that grabs their attention.

ZOE Begone! developed by Retchy

Do you have any advice for other people on the similar path?

I never really planned to do this, it just kind of happened, which is probably why my development process has been so long-winded and rambling - I've really just been rolling from one idea / problem to the next over the years. But I think that's also how I've managed to keep at it for so long, there's nearly always some aspect of it that interests me at any one time, and I'm also constantly learning new things.

If I don't feel like taking on some technical problem, I can fall back to my comfort zone and polish the visuals or the feel of stuff until I'm ready to get stuck into coding again.

So it's kind of hard to give good advice to other people, other than try to find a way to keep it interesting if you can so you can stick to an idea - if your goal is to release something.

That being said, I'll definitely be doing things differently for the next game - I'll be prototyping mechanics and ideas without visually polishing everything for a start, now that I'm more comfortable with GameMaker.

Want to create your own game?

Why not try out GameMaker? It’s completely free to use and export, with a plethora of video and written tutorials to get you started, it’s time you let your creativity come to life.

Happy GameMaking :)

Written by Samuel Wain

Sam Wain is a digital marketer at GameMaker. He runs the YouTube channel, writes blogs, and leads influencer marketing. In his own time he's often found crafting stories, composing music, and implementing his sound effects into a new game or project.