One of the many impressive demos featured at E3 earlier this week was Severed Steel, a fast-paced, single-player first-person shooter featuring bullet time and a variety of stunts players can pull off through the game’s mechanic “Stunt Mode.”
Stunt Mode allows you to chain stunts together and keep you invulnerable to enemy fire, encouraging you to play fast and stylishly to be effective. Severed Steel has you maneuvering around gorgeous levels disarming and dispatching of baddies, requiring you to analyze your environment thoroughly and prioritize your next action quickly.
Severed Steel also features a destructible voxel environment so the player can shoot holes in the walls with traditional firepower or an arm cannon that blows giant holes in geometry, opening up an infinite amount of possibilities for routing through the games 30 levels (of which only a few are available in the current demo).
A few days ago, I got the chance to sit down with the solo developer of this game, Mattwla, and ask questions about what it was like to develop a game with speedrunning in mind.
Developing a Speedgame
Matt has brought on a few people for some individual things like voice acting, music creation, and a friend to help with a little bit of the level design — but the majority of the work is being done by Matt alone, making the level polish on Severed Steel at this stage pre-release that much more impressive.
Relationships between game developers and the associated speedrunning community tend to be the exception rather than the rule presently. Hopefully, this will change in the coming years as speedrunning becomes more mainstream.
I bring this up because Matt seems to be one of the exceptions with Severed Steel. As far back as two years ago when the project was still named “Impact,” Matt held a closed beta and realized very quickly that this game could be popular amongst speedrunners.
Here’s what Matt had to say about it:
"The way I see Severed Steel and the speedrunning community is having conversations like this. And figuring out if I can spend an hour altering a feature that will make the entire speedrunning community love it that much more; it just seems like a smart way for me to spend my time. As far as content that speedrunners put out, it looks cool. Speedrun videos look great. As a game developer, you want people to make content on your game. So, to me, it seems obvious."
Matt credits multiple titles, primarily games he's enjoyed, for inspiring him to pursue his own ideal first-person shooter, resulting in his work on Severed Steel.
The overall game feel is inspired by games like Hotline Miami and Bulletstorm, in that Severed Steel is arcadey chaotic goodness with (skippable!) cutscenes told through comic strips, lots of colors, celebratory popups, and a familiar scoring system.
The combat is also inspired from games like Bulletstorm, but also a good mix of F.E.A.R and of course, Superhot — the game that comes to most people's minds immediately when they see Severed Steel.
When I asked about what specific elements Matt had looked to in F.E.A.R for inspiration, he said “The bullet time, for sure. The environments are kind of on the gritty side, the look of the enemies are definitely F.E.A.R-inspired. I actually asked the voice actor just to give me F.E.A.R voices, pretty much.”
Each move in Stunt Mode, those being the dive, the slide, and wallrunning were inspired from different games. Matt credits the dive to an old Half-Life mod called The Specialists, a title he cherished a lot in middle school. Right off the bat, Matt mentioned that the wallrunning and the slide were both inspired by Titanfall 2. He said the wallrunning definitely needs some tweaks before release, but considering how challenging it is for games to get wallrunning right, Severed Steel is doing great.
I noticed that each of the games that Matt mentioned as inspiration for Severed Steel’s stunts were from the Source engine (Surprisingly, including Titanfall 2) Source has some legendary speedrunning history, so I asked Matt if he'd drawn on Source movement for inspiration. He confirmed it:
Matt: ”Yeah. I grew up on Half-Life. Half-life and its modding scene was my life in middle school and in high school. So Source is there for sure. Honestly, I didn't really realize this until just now, but yeah. Cool."
Making games is hard, making a polished game is even harder. Making a polished game essentially by yourself? Well now, that’s just downright baffling. Matt and I talked about the challenges of creating such a fast-paced game.
Cam: How do you know when the pacing of the game is right? Because that's really important for a game like this. Did you ever feel like it wasn't fast enough? Or maybe it was too fast? How do you find that balance?
Matt: Yeah, there's also another layer because there's the game speed and there's the bullet time speed, different speeds to worry about. It's just kind of feeling, there's no math behind it. I just play it. Some days I'll just change the speed variable and see how it feels. It's like hitting a piece of metal with a hammer. Long enough and eventually it's smooth or something, right? Just testing and tweaking.
Cam: So it's an iterative process.
Matt: Oh my god, iterative. Yes. That's the perfect word for it. Constant iteration. Yeah.
I suppose at the root of game development, everything is iterative — a delicate balancing act. Even the game's title, and the name of the main character, have been iterated on. During the days when the project was titled Impact, “Steel” was actually named Eve. Down the line, another game came out with the name Impact, and so Matt needed to find a new name to stand out.
Eventually, Digerati (the game's publisher) came up with the name of the game we now know as Severed Steel. At the time, it meant nothing and simply sounded good because of alliteration. Matt wasn’t entirely sold on the idea, but couldn’t think of anything else and so he sat on it for a bit. He eventually decided to rename the character from Eve to Steel — without even realizing he just gave proper meaning to the game’s title. Seeing as Steel is a one-armed protagonist, the name Severed Steel ended up fitting rather well.
Where can I play?
On release, Severed Steel will be coming to Steam, Playstation 4/5, and Xbox One/X/S. For now, until June 22nd, you can play the demo on Steam and I HIGHLY recommend you do so because it’s a blast. Also if you’re interested in joining the community (especially if you’re interested in Severed Steel speedrunning), you should join the Discord server. See you there!