"Growing up I'd read articles and see pictures in Nintendo Power about behind-the-screen game development," says Andrew Aversa, lead designer and programmer at Impact Gameworks, who recently released roguelike dungeon crawler Tangledeep. "I thought it was so interesting, but that fell by the wayside." Though games were his first love, it was music, specifically game music, that captured his attention in his formative years.
Aversa is best known as Zircon, one of the most prolific videogame remixers and professional game-focused composers in the industry. "In 2002 a friend introduced me to Music Maker 2000 Deluxe," he says. "I had taken piano lessons as a kid and liked it, but once I could make music on a computer I got really into it. Being able to adjust knobs and sliders to create different sounds—I couldn’t get enough of it."
The early 2000s were also the Wild West days of Napster. Aversa delighted in using it to find original remixes for some of his favorite games. "I was exposed to all new music and early videogame remixes," he says Aversa. "It was incredible to hear games I played growing up, like the Final Fantasy series, Castlevania, Mega Man. It was the coolest thing ever to hear the themes I knew well, and hear them transformed."
He began remixing videogame music in his spare time after high school and within two years he'd had first original remix accepted by OverClocked Remix, a community game music site that's been around since 1999 and now boasts over 3,000 songs.
Over the next several years Aversa went to college to study music and his pseudonym 'Zircon' became one of the most recognized names on OverClocked Remix. "It was my home online," he says. "It's where I met a lot of friends that I still have today; it's where I met my wife [vocalist and composer Jillian Aversa]. It can't be overstated how much OCR affected me. It was the outlet for my music for years."
Aversa's work in remixing game music led to a successful career as a composer and audio designer. His music can be heard on game soundtracks including Soul Calibur V, ReCore, Crypt of the NecroDancer, Fantasy Strike, and Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remake, as well as several original albums that have been licensed by television shows like Heroes and Chopped.
By 2016 Aversa had begun to feel fatigued. Though only 28 at the time, he'd been making music for over a decade. "I had done a lot with music, probably over 200 tracks, and doing sounds and virtual instruments. I started to feel, not that I was bored but not as much challenge and fulfillment,'' he says. "I had gotten into a routine. It wasn’t as meaningful to keep doing it every day."
He approached a friend, indie game developer Jim Shepard, whom he had met after scoring the soundtrack to Shepard's game, Dungeonmans, which launched on Steam in 2014. Shepard lived close to Aversa, and the two hit it off.
"I asked Jim if he could show me some basic stuff in Unity," says Aversa. "I was coming from no experience—I had taken exactly one computer programming course back in high school. He showed me how to put a sprite on a screen. I said, 'OK, this is pretty cool.'"
The same passionate drive that compelled Aversa toward music had now shifted into making games. "Each day I worked on this thing in my spare time," he says. "I had no plan or design document, and each day was more exciting. By the end of of 2016 I knew I didn't want this to be just be a hobby."
Aversa founded one-man game development studio Impact Gameworks, a play on his Impact Soundworks music studio, and in the fall of 2016 reached out to a friend from OverClocked Remix to ask if he could contribute pixel art. "We used a royalty arrangement," says Aversa. "At that point I didn't even know if this game was going to ever be finished." The artist, Andrew Luers, ended up doing all the environmental art for what would become Tangledeep.
Aversa then hired a character artist whom he paid out of pocket. "Once we started getting original art into the game that’s when the memories of the games I grew up playing—Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Lufia—began flooding back," says Aversa. "I decided to take this nebulous code and engine and make a game that looks like that, and mix in elements of the dungeon crawlers I've been enjoying over the years like the Diablo series and Shiren the Wanderer."
In early 2017, Impact Gameworks made the decision to launch a Kickstarter and switch to full-time development of Tangledeep. "Once I started working on Tangledeep in early 2017, I said to myself I don't want to spend years and years," says Aversa. "I need an end goal. Now that I'm raising money, it needs to have an end goal." He gave himself a hard deadline of December 2017.
Though it was his first game project as lead designer and programmer, Aversa was a veteran of Kickstarter through album releases, such as the Final Fantasy VI remix album Balance and Ruin. That taught him the valuable lesson physical rewards were more hassle than they were worth. "I remembered spending days packing boxes, and getting friends to come over and pay them in pizza to pack cars full of boxes to ship out CDs."
Thanks to Zircon's name and a solid playable early build of the game, Tangledeep's Kickstarter was a success. While parts of the funding were to pay artists and recoup expenses, Aversa also used the opportunity to collaborate with other videogame composers. "I just really wanted to work with some composers I admired," says Aversa. "I got Grant Kirkhope who worked on games I grew up playing, like GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark, and Hiroki Kikuta, who did Secret of Mana and Seiken Densetsu 3."
Aversa reached out to composers on Twitter, and Kirkhope ended up being a successful stretch goal for the campaign. "I wanted their signature on at least a little part of the soundtrack, and I think their contributions are great," says Aversa.
Without any feature creep or financing issues, Tangledeep's development went smoothly throughout 2017. Shepard was hired on as a writer, then programmer, and Tangledeep launched via Steam Early Access that summer. "People have been amazed how responsive we are to feedback, balance issues, and bug fixes and it makes me really happy," says Aversa. "We didn’t have to hire any QA, we couldn't afford it. That sounds bad but we made it clear on the Early Access page, and it's so valuable being able to constantly integrate feedback."
Aversa delayed the launch into 2018, mostly to avoid the crowded release window around the holidays, and finally released Tangledeep in February. "The response has been wonderful," says Aversa. "I wanted to appeal to people that would enjoy this kind of game: tactical, turn-based, dungeon-crawling RPGs. I realized this is not going to be the kind of game that gets a million views on YouTube, but as long as the people in my audience are enjoying it, that's what matters."
Tangledeep's pixel art and orchestral music strongly evoke the SNES era of RPGs that Aversa hoped to capture, while the combat is an interesting blend of tactical, grid-based dungeons and Diablo-style loot-fest, with the tension of roguelike permadeath. There are 12 different jobs to choose from, which can be freely mixed and matched. I'm enjoying a heavy pet-focused build using the full skill-set of the Floramancer, with a dash of Soulkeeper, which lets me gather a new soul resource from defeated enemies and reanimate slain foes.
Despite technically playing a new character after each death, and each job having a different outfit to go with it, the protagonist always looks the same. "I told the artist what I wanted the character to look like and he drew a girl," says Aversa. "When I learned how much time and money it cost to do the art and animations, I quickly realized we weren't doing male sprites."
Some drama unfolded on the Steam forums when players discovered they could only play as a woman. "I could not believe this," says Aversa. "I hesitate to use the word 'triggered' but some people got so upset about that fact that the character is female. It didn't make sense to me. I read things like, 'I'm a man and can't play this game.' Can they not play Horizon Zero Dawn either?"
A Nintendo Switch port of Tangledeep is in the works, due out in a few months, while Aversa is already working on his next game: a fantasy builder-sim that takes place in the same universe as Tangledeep. It sounds like an ambitious combination of SimCity, Stardew Valley, and Dragon Quest Builders.
"I don’t think I'll ever go back to being a full-time composer making music for others," he says. "I've really enjoyed doing this, and now I can't see myself not doing it." He even turned down a gig writing music for a first-party Xbox One game in order to continue working on Tangledeep.
"When I started this project it was just a fun hobby. Diving into it was the best decision," says Aversa. "You see a lot of people, whether musicians, artists, or writers, not sure if they can get into making music, or albums, or novels. My philosophy is rather than spending time planning and thinking about it—just dive into it, even if you don't have the best tools. I certainly didn't have the best music tools when I started making music. And now that I have the experience doing Tangledeep, doing the next game should be a lot easier!"