DevelopmentExclusive InterviewsIndie

Headbang Club: Making Indie Games Metal

January 31, 2017 — by David Radd


DevelopmentExclusive InterviewsIndie

Headbang Club: Making Indie Games Metal

January 31, 2017 — by David Radd

Headbang Club are the creators of Double Kick Heroes. The indie game recently won two awards at Indie Games Play 7 including the Jury’s Choice Award; the event is designed to honor indie developers from France and the surrounding region. As winners, they have also been given the chance to compete again at Indie Prize which is part of Casual Connect Europe in Berlin.

“It was unexpected! Every time we win an award we are like WTF?,” said David “Blackmagic” Elahee. “There were so many good and very serious games beside ours!! Awards are an acknowledgment that we can stand our chance before the pros and the public. They gave us self confidence to dare more things. It’s a push to go further and better.”

“It feels incredible, like we have found a super weapon in a MMORPG!” added Guillaume “Gyhyom” Breton. “We can continue our daily struggle with more confidence! It means a lot because it’s both a public and professional award! That means the game can touch a really large audience!”

When asked about reaching this level of success, Blackmagic had a contemplative response, wondering if acclaim or sales is a better measure. “I don’t really know what is success. The same way people talk about good games when don’t know s*** about game design… I’ve met AAA game designers and they are not very satisfied because they know their games are barely interesting to their peers. We all chase the ghost of another one. So I don’t chase other people’s ghost. I don’t chase anything, I want to do my thing and want it to mean something to other people,” noted Blackmagic. “My only suggestion is to listen to your peers, your audience and know what you want to achieve.”

Not Just Another Brutal Legend

The characters of Double Kick Heroes

Double Kick Heroes, as a game where a band plays on the back of a truck to fight off the hordes of hell, clearly wears its inspiration from heavy metal music on its sleeve. While the team said they enjoyed Tim Schafer’s seminal Brutal Legend, they say it was not as much of a direct inspiration as music was.

“I’ve been a metalhead since my childhood, and Gyhyom listened to lot of metal too and our friend Elmobo badly wanted to make a metal game,” said Blackmagic. “When the occasion popped in at the Ludum Dare, we said, ‘ok, let’s do this gig’. Surprisingly, Brutal Legend is a minor influence to us, it’s production value is crazy but I haven’t played it much.”

“I am a big fan of Brutal Legend. Finished the game, and probably will play it again, but it’s not really what inspired us to make a heavy metal game,” added “Elmobo”. “I’ve been wanting to make one for years now and I’ve been a metalhead since I was 13. I’ve played in metal bands, went to hundreds of concerts, I’m recording metal bands in my studio, but in my 25+ years career in video game music, I made only a handful of metal soundtracks. I’ve been dreaming of doing a heavy metal game with a 100 percent metal soundtrack for so long now… The good thing in being indie, is that the persons you have to convince when you want to try something are your partners in crime and everybody in the Headbang Club is at least as crazy as I am, so I didn’t even have to ask to do a metal game!”

On the subject of being very evocative of a grindhouse theater, Blackmagic said, “What we shoot for is the subculture, zombies, sex, stylized violence, badassery. We are designing our own playground with that legacy. The question is too complicated. We just do our stuff and pour loads of love on it!”

A screenshot from the game

“Yeah, we have grown with pop and geek culture, it feels natural to pay them a tribute,” added Gyhyom.

There’s a definitely an old school vibe to Double Kick Heroes, but according to Headbang Club, it’s about more that just ’80s nostalgia. “It’s more about how a whole universe is a sum of many cultures. Our characters, like everyone, have idols, taste, favorite music and films,” said Yannick “Tavrox” Elahee. “It’s easier to write characters that look a bit like us, because they’ll be more natural and true to the player.”

One of the characters

“Of course, this game is not only a tribute to metal but also to the ’80s-’90s arcade games, this time when you insert one coin and had instant fun for some time!” added Gyhyom.

“I am not much of a ’80s nostalgia fan, I tend to think I make the games that should have existed at this period. But I don’t dream over oldies, they were fun but we don’t want to make them again, we try to bring something else missing,” noted Blackmagic, before adding about the retro pixel art style. “I have a deep love for pixel art, which cradled my childhood during the almighty 16-bit era. The second reason is more pragmatic – when you’re alone to do all the art for a game, you have to produce an enormous amount of work. When you have the experience, you can make the design and animation at the same time.”

As it turns out, the inspirations for Double Kick Heroes are vast and myriad. “My major influences for Double Kick Heroes are Stephen King, DOOM, Guitar Hero, Baldur’s Gate and Fallout,” noted Blackmagic. Of course, daily life and metal discussion brings their load of nice quotes that will get in the game.”

“Regarding marketing, I really like the music scene in general, and how they operate with characters,” noted Tavrox. “Based on the storyline, I try to push the characters and show they’re in a dangerous world but still alive and funny.”

Gyhyom said their inspirations were, “classic Romero, Carpenter, Tarantino and Rodriguez movies; old Capcom arcade games; and a lot of comics and manga…”

“Inspiration comes from my extensive metal CD and vinyl collection. That’s pretty much all I need!” added Elmobo.

Prison safezone

Four Man Indie Game Metal Band

While some studios are formed for esoteric reasons, Headbang Club indicates they founded their studio for practical causes. “First, we have to build a studio in order to publish our game,” said Gyhyom. “Second of all, when you’re working in another studio, you usually can’t make the game you really want to do, even when you’re in a small company. So yeah, we don’t offer anything more than any other studio, but it’s our own, just us four.”

“Most industry services, tax cuts and loans are not available to single individuals. Some people think that indies don’t need them but that’s false – many successful indies had access to funds or loans or peers or banks to fund their game. We are a gamedev band, so we needed that joint identity,” added Blackmagic “We are more or less based in South West of France. The studio is not physical – we work on Slack and Google Hangout. It’s a great region to live; we have sun, high bandwidth, awesome food, the finest wine, it’s near Stunfest and Hellfest. (It’s the) perfect place to rock on and we may establish an office if everything goes right.”

Blackmagic says that the work culture for Headbang Club is very loose, allowing a swing between 30 to 50 hours of work every week, depending on various circumstances. “Sometimes we are bored, we take a break from the project and go toy around,” said Blackmagic. “We communicate a lot and we see each other in the same place twice per trimester.”

“As indies, we try to have fun all the time while working,” added Tavrox. “Not everything is fun, but sometimes it can be interesting to do boring things in a funny way. For instance, for marketing I try to innovate and push some unexpected ways to show the game. There’s always aspects that involve safe, solid patterns to put in the game development, but there’s also a creative layer that will make the game better.”

“I try to keep a good pace with work, but like Blackmagic, I’m also a father, so I have to share my day between my work and my family. It’s very important not to forget to live,” noted Gyhyom.

Metal Jam Session for Games

Testing is always a challenge for indie studios, given limited resources and a general lack of available testers. Headbang Club takes the philosophy when it comes to testing, the sooner you do it, the better.

Double Kick Heroes was born during the Ludum Dare Gamejam, the first prototype was playable right after,” said Gyhyom. “We could already test how the game was received, and we already had good reviews. My advice for any game dev out there is do gamejams.”

“The game is continuously tested by the team, public playtests are regular at events every few months,” noted Blackmagic. “Features tested during events where we do interviews to ensure the mechanic is understood and loved.”

Screenshot of the map

“I was impressed by rhythm game superplayers from the Stunfest. Rhythm games are really interesting because there is a wide array of skills linked to it,” noted Tavrox. “You can be a total newbie but still love the atmosphere of Double Kick Heroes. You can also be godlike at rhythm games and think Double Kick is wayyyy too easy for you. That’s something we will challenge even further during early access.”

Development isn’t always chill, and Headbang Club works through various travails, be it testing or everyday development woes. “Maybe the hardest is dealing with performance optimizations – it’s a developer’s life struggle,” noted Blackmagic. “Something else is level design, because we can’t refer to any other game to steal the right tools and the right balance of gameplay. We really have to be creative to engineer fun levels and it’s highly taxing on motivation.”

Despite the hardships, it’s been worth it to produce some fun, even silly, content. “Every boss has two forms, and I’m very proud of the third boss. I think every player should see it!” said Gyhyom. “Oh, and the legged shark is another cool monster in the game! There will be a lot of surprises!”

“I can only speak for myself, but the funniest moment for me is the black metal song we have in the current demo,” added Elmobo. “It’s me singing on it, and believe me I’m no singer at all. I had a sore throat for a few days after recording these lines!”

Jawdropping Design

Headbang Club has a very modern organization for their team, which is mostly arranged online with a studio structure that is flat. While everyone has their own duties, no one is immune to the oversight of the other members.

“The leadership is split, everyone has a say and responsibilities are split between us, according to who has the strongest skill in the field,” said Blackmagic. “This ensures our actions or design are always optimal and exotic viewpoints can emerge.”

“We have Slack that allows leads to have feedback on everything,” noted Tavrox. “Everyone is responsible for something but also have a duty to make his work reviewed by other people. It’s important for a small team, because feedback is key for everyone.”

“We come up with an idea and talk about it amongst ourselves and with other people. If after some weeks the idea is still awesome and everybody loves it, we plan implementation and assign a priority,” detailed Blackmagic. “When it pops in the schedule, we refine until it’s near perfection. The idea can be tossed at any stage if it does not generate interest for us or other people. We could call it Jawdropping Design. If people (fans or team members) do not crave the thing, maybe we don’t need it!”

Never Create a Game You Wouldn’t Play

Headbang Club has explored a number of genres and platforms so far, even with the resources of a small indie studio. This can be a bit of a challenge, but it’s what the studio has done so far and what they would even do with a large budget.

“If I had access to greater resources, I’d still make the same games I make today: engaging, synesthetic, meaningful made by a small dedicated team and lot of love,” said Blackmagic. “I get bored very fast and I need to feel connected to my team mates hence long projects and large teams are not my kink.”

“I agree with Blackmagic, I think I’d like to do the same games that I’m doing right now,” added Gyhyom. “Nonetheless, with unlimited resources, we could spread the word anywhere on the planet! Haha, an ad just before every episode of The Walking Dead! That would be badass!”

“I think I’d just do Double Kick Heroes in VR, from the drummer point of view. It would be incredible!!” ventured Elmobo.

Garage safezone

The team has also used a few types of monetization options, though they expressed interest in the model where players pay a flat fee up front. “Monetization depends of the game, Double Kick Heroes will be Steam premium, because it better fits the mood and the community we want to build around online play and user generated content,” said Blackmagic. “Being premium allows us to be more demanding to the player and for a rhythm game, it is important because the rhythm game community has high expectations.”

“We don’t want to do free-to-play anymore,” added Gyhyom

When prompted for advice for indie developers, the whole team had their own individual pearls of wisdom:

  • “Never shy away from the truths of what you make and what you are,” said Blackmagic.
  • “Never think other games suck and your game is the best ever made,” said Tavrox.
  • “Never wait until the end of your production to show your work,” said Gyhyom.
  • “Never create a game you wouldn’t play,” added Elmobo.


David Radd

David Radd

David Radd is a staff writer for David loves playing video games about as much as he enjoys writing about them, martial arts and composing his own novels.