You may think of PopCap as just a happy, jolly place, where sunflowers and unicorns and chuzzles and bookworms frolic in perfectly G-rated merriment. And, indeed, it is. We here at PopCap love our G-rated frolicking. I’m frolicking right now, in fact. So it is particularly strange, when looking through our back catalog, to stumble upon Heavy Weapon, a 2005 side-scrolling shooter that puts you in control of an atomic tank charged with the grim task of destroying wave upon wave of evil communists. There is nothing cute and cuddly here at all, though, of course, the “violence,” such as it is, is cartoony, and the entire presentation, complete with fake “communist” countries like Frigistan and Antagonistan, is decidedly tongue-in-cheek. No one is going to mistake this for a serious military simulation.
The game is arcade-simple: You control an “atomic tank,” moving left and right, firing at enemy aircraft and ground vehicles as they enter the screen from both the left and right. Along with enemy aircraft, a white supply helicopter flies across periodically, dropping power-ups like shields and speed bonuses, as well as nukes that can quickly obliterate everything on screen. The game’s campaign has 19 missions of increasing difficulty, with an armory in between each mission where you spend points on permanent upgrades and power-ups for your tank. In 2007, PopCap brought the game to Xbox LIVE Arcade with 4-player co-op mode, and then later to Sony’s PlayStation Network for the PS3.
Heavy Weapon was, to a great extent, a one-man project, helmed by longtime PopCap veteran Josh Langley, credited with the programming, design, art and sound on the game. So rather than continuing to blab about the game myself, I thought it’d be fun to talk to Josh about it.
Jeff: Heavy Weapon seems so completely different, in every way, from every other PopCap game — how in the world did you get this approved?
Josh: I threatened to expose Jason Kapalka for the pinko Commie that I know he is if he didn’t approve my right-wing Cold War-era propaganda machine. Aside from that, PopCap was still relatively young, naïve and flexible… that didn’t come out right. PopCap was still small at the time, and our previous successes provided us with a generous cushion that we could fall back on if we tried something risky and it didn’t work. We’re always looking for ways to expand the business, and we figured it wouldn’t hurt to test the creative waters outside of our own pond to see if venturing in to other game genres might give us an opportunity to do that.
Jeff: Did you have any particular inspirations for the title? It’s got a great 80s arcade feel to it — were there particular games that you were thinking about, or modeled it on?
Josh: That’s probably because it was inspired by a game from 1988 that I played on my very first computer; a Tandy Color Computer 3. I had subscribed to a magazine that frequently distributed software to its readers in the form of page after page of code that you would then type in to your machine to “install” it. CD-ROM technology was rare and expensive at the time, and even floppies were rarely issued with such publications. One of these pieces of software happened to be a game that, at its core, is very much like Heavy Weapon. I believe it was called “Blitz”, ironically enough. The principle was the same; you maneuvered a tank at the bottom of the screen, while bombers passed overhead. I had always wanted to expand upon it with the typical tenets of 80s arcade gaming: stages, bosses, power-ups, etc. Seventeen years later, I finally did.
Jeff: It seems, from reading the credits, that this was almost all you — design, programming, art. So how long did it take you to put all this together? And who else should get credit?
Josh: It took me about two years, I believe. It was my first project utilizing the PopCap Framework. I had been programming for many years before, but I started at PopCap strictly as an artist. Certainly Team Brian (Fiete and Rothstein) should receive credit for creating the Framework that made the game possible to begin with. Also Walter Wilson, for creating some of the vastly superior background graphic elements that show up randomly. Finally, the unsung heroes of QA who made my life a living hell (rightfully so) during the last couple of months of development; guys like Isaac, Shawn, and even that guy with hair, what’s his name… Chad.
Jeff: I’d like to know more about all those fake communist bloc countries. Was there a lot more story that didn’t make it into the game?
Josh: Most of that came from Jason, who, as I mentioned before, is a closet Commie, so it came naturally to him. The XBLA version then came along, and Microsoft, who are also commies but like to pretend that they aren’t, made us change the names of the countries to dumb names. I’d love to go into detail regarding the 90-minute movie epic that we cut from the intro, but there wasn’t one.
Jeff: Was/is there any talk of a sequel? Or would that just get laughed out of the building?
Josh: There was, and the thought still crosses my mind once in a while. I learned a lot from the first one, and would like to think that I would be able to apply those lessons to a sequel. I think it’s the sort of project that everyone would love to see, but no one considers entirely practical, given our explosive growth and shifting focus over the past few years.
Jeff: The XBLA version came out in 2007, and my understanding is that it was super-popular, especially with the 4-player co-op. Were you also involved in that version? And are you happy with the co-op? It seems like now, something like this would be even more popular than it was four years ago…
Josh: Honestly, XBLA is where it should have started. I wasn’t directly involved in the porting, but I did provide feedback from time to time. Our friends from the former Soviet Union, CTXM, did a fantastic job putting it all together and adding those key co-op components. Stalin is rolling over in his grave, and that makes me happy.
Jeff: I may just be older and a lousier gamer than I was in 2005, but playing it again now, it feels kinda HARD to me. In your head, at the time, did you feel like you were tuning it to be tough?
Josh: Balancing the game was tricky, as there was both a desire to keep it PopCap-casual, and a desire to make it challenging, as that is what arcade gamers would be expecting. During development, I always felt that it wasn’t quite challenging enough, but it’s easy to lose perspective when I’m playing it day after day for months on end. Going back to it now, I do find it rather difficult in the latter stages; probably because I too am now an older, lousier gamer than I was at the time.
Jeff: When’s the last time you played it? Do you still like it? How does it rank on your own personal list of the games you’ve made?
Josh: I played co-op with my parents a few weeks ago when they were in town. My dad makes me watch terrible old movies when I visit them, so it’s only fair that I make them play video games when they visit me. Except I didn’t make them do it; my dad wanted to. I can’t say I’ve given much thought to ranking my own games, though I suppose I would have to say that playing Heavy Weapon ended up wasting a greater percentage of my development time than any other game I’ve worked on. I guess that’s saying something.
Jeff: What, if anything, would you change about the gameplay now if you could redo it?
Josh: First of all, I would go straight to console, and design it specifically to suit that audience. I would also implement a greater variety of levels, enemies, and vastly more powerful bosses. The challenge of being a virtual one-man team constrained the amount of content I could cram into the original game. I would want to expand the team considerably to make it the well-rounded game that I know it can be. I would also seek to make it less linear and more open-ended, adding some degree of exploration and making the upgrade path a deeper, more engaging experience.
Jeff: I’m assuming you are/were an expert at this game. So what are the “best” power-ups? Or were they equal in your head. Basically I’m asking you how I can finish this damn game.
Josh: I tend to favor the more direct offensive weapons; laser, rockets, flak cannon. They require more aiming, but they concentrate a lot of power into a small space, so I can dispatch the biggest threats on the screen relatively quickly. I’ve always felt that the best defense is a brutal offense, so I always save the defense orbs for last. On the last level, however, everything is maxed out, so you’re on your own by that point.
Big thanks to Josh for taking the time to reminisce with us. And if you’d like to talk about Heavy Weapon, or petition us to make a sequel, be sure to check out our forum!