Developer interview: Russian Subway Dogs (Vita)

We’re ending our week long coverage of the PlayStation Vita with an interview with Miguel Sternberg, the developer behind Spooky Squid – who last week launched Russian Subway Dogs.

What drew you towards Vita development? Your previous game, They Bleed Pixels, never made it onto the platform…

Unfortunately, They Bleed Pixels would have been a bit of a nightmare to port to PS Vita without a lot of compromises. Its base pixel art resolution doesn’t scale cleanly to the PS Vita’s so it would have had a lot of nasty looking janky non square pixels. The backgrounds use an unusual number of large, often semi-transparent parallax layers, something graphics hardware isn’t actually super well optimized for, so those may have needed to be reworked. It also used a custom engine which can create its own problems. A PS Vita version was definitely something we thought about but as a super small team you have to pick and choose which projects you can take on and that one would have required a pretty major overhaul.

That said, I’ve always been a big handheld gaming fan and the PS Vita is one of my favorites. During the early period where Russian Subway Dogs was a small side project I did some quick PS Vita porting tests and it played well on it. So when the decision to build Russian Subway Dogs out into a full sized game was made I specifically made sure the pixel scale we used would fit cleanly for both Vita res and 1080p. While it took several years to happen, PS Vita was always part of the plan for the full version of Subway Dogs.

What are some Vita-specific challenges in game development?

There are two general challenges I came across. The first is just optimization, code that’ll run lightning fast on even a very old laptop can occasionally chug on the PS Vita. So there will almost certainly be spots that need optimizing. Things that just weren’t obvious in the PC or console version of a game where you often have hundreds of extra frames to spare.

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The second challenge is that commercial game engines tend to be a little more janky when you’re working on less used platforms or features. This is just because there are fewer people writing games that use them and thus finding and reporting issues they find. For Russian Subway Dogs we were using an older version of Game Maker Studio (1.4), which is the last version to support exporting to the PS Vita. That meant that when we did find bugs, we couldn’t just report them and wait for a fix. I’d need to find a work around for them, which can be time consuming.

Russian Subway Dogs was announced for the Vita back in 2017 – what happened after that announcement?

We finished writing the game. Post release there was a good chunk of time taken up with localization and additional content. After that the last 2-ish years has just been me working solo, porting for PS Vita but also Xbox One and PS4. My background is actually on the art side (I’ve been a professional pixel artist since the old flip phone game days) and I wasn’t the programmer on They Bleed Pixels so this has all been a LOT of learning on the job. A big chunk of the porting for the PS4 and Xbox One has been getting Russian Subway Dogs’ online leaderboard and letter rank system working correctly on them, as each platform handles that stuff very differently so adapting to them while making sure they aren’t interfering with each other has been.. fun.

Where in development was the game when Sony announced they were shutting the store?

Roughly speaking I was at a point where the ports were basically feature complete and I was just going through the technical requirements for each platform. Stuff like what happens when there is no space to save, what happens if the controller disconnects, how do account logins work etc. This sounds simple but each platform has a 50+ page document full of detailed tests that may or may not apply to a given game. Before the announcement I was going through these in a sort of logical order. I’d do controller disconnects for all three platforms, then storage space errors etc. It made it easier to handle even if I was jumping between devkits constantly. When the PS Vita announcement happened I basically put the other two consoles aside and focused entirely on the PS Vita port, which is when I realized it needed some optimizing on top of finishing up the error tests. It was basically solid Vita porting from the original store closure rumors to the day of submission.

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How was the release process for Russian Subway Dogs, struggling against a very hard deadline?

It suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucked. With any other release you have options when things go wrong. It can suck a lot to delay a release because of bug, but it’s doable and the project doesn’t die. With this Vita deadline though, even a small setback could end up throwing the schedule off badly enough to miss the deadline and have to cancel the game. Just as an example there was an obscure memory bug that came up a couple days before submission that caused hard crashes and could have easily resulted in the game never shipping. I found a work around, but if I hadn’t, there goes five months of working to hit the deadline, poof! Not to mention time I’d spent on the port before the announcement. Hope to never be working under that sort of pressure for a game release again.

How did you experience last week’s release window?

It’s been surprisingly busy for a release on a “dead” console! Usually I can relax a couple days after a game releases but interviews, a reddit AMA and just engaging with players on Twitter has really kept me busy all launch week. Things have slowed down enough now that I can take it in though. I have no idea how well the game has sold, but I’ve been happy to see a bunch of new players discovering Russian Subway Dogs for the first time. Getting Russian Subway Dogs on PS Vita has been a long term goal for years and I’m really glad I was able to hit the deadline and make it happen.

Looking back at the Vita, what were some of your personal favorites?

I feel like there are so many I’m bound to miss half of my favs. It’s my go to device for playing a bunch of indies, especially the original Spelunky but also games like Knytt Underground, Everyday Shooter, Hohokum, Crypt of the NecroDancer etc. Add to those a lot of offbeat Japanese games, Gravity Rush, Persona 4, the Danganronpa, Zero Escape, and Yomawari series. I have a big guilty backlog of PS Vita games I’ve been meaning to play as well. Probably have a half dozen new favs if you ask me in a year or two.

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