Interview: Xander Davis – From Triple A To Indie Gaming On Apple TV 4K (Part Two)


There is no shortage of Sci-Fi FPS games out there, what does VAST bring to the genre that sets it apart from the crowd? What would you most like to hear that people are taking away and remembering about VAST?

As mentioned above, on tvOS, there is actually a severe drought of FPS games at all, let alone Sci-Fi FPS games.  VAST is Apple TV’s first and only one from what I can see on the App Store.  So that was the main objective with the project, to fill that void, firstly.  But primarily, yes, it was also to think about how this isn’t just another generic one, instead one with its own voice.  One that does something different and special.  This really came through with the characters and designing this to be playable for generally all ages, to re-create the fun I had as a kid playing games like Chrono Trigger and Bungie’s original Marathon series, and to bring that to Apple TV.  Gamers have hit on this straight away, with some immediately comparing their experience to playing the original DOOM and Goldeneye on N64 both in the 90’s for the first time, to seeing Mario on NES as a kid in the 80’s for the first time, to it making them actually feel like a kid again.  I can’t imagine higher praise than that, really, and the game has only been revealed and launched for a few days.  The only complaint so far seems to be that gamers simply want more of this, and they will soon get that with the addition of new Episodes as free updates.

My creative direction for Astrogun as a studio at large is to create games that have a ‘Saturday Morning Cartoon’ vibe, that tap back into a wholesome, fun, imaginative, and highly adventurous feel.  That the characters and enemies all feel like toys you could also buy at Toys’R’Us.  This pure sense of wonder, awe, and fun that isn’t dark but rather very bright and colorful.  To me, it seems something like that is very compatible with Apple’s brand, so VAST could easily become a wholly unique gaming icon and mascot for Apple.

“…it would be my hope that the game offers a vast universe for gamers to explore, experiencing incredible adventures that form memories to last a lifetime.”

I can just as easily see this being a perfect fit for Nintendo Switch, and it has long been a desire and rumor that one day Apple and Nintendo might work directly together or Apple might ultimately buy Nintendo.  We finally got to see them collaborate with things like Super Mario Run and Fire Emblem Heroes, but that was long overdue.  I doubt we’ll see Nintendo games on Apple TV ever, though, because they would essentially offer the same experience as effectively both being living room game consoles.  So, to that end, bringing VAST as an exclusive to Apple TV would not only fill that void but hit that creative and branding tone.  The response from gamers so far seems to verify this is indeed the case, and I am so happy about that!

Like these classic games that influenced VAST’s design, it would be my hope that the game offers a vast universe for gamers to explore, experiencing incredible adventures that form memories to last a lifetime.  It would be great to do this for new generations of gamers, new kids new to games.  I had my 9-year old cousin play-test VAST early on and he had a blast with it.  Seriously, he was kind of going nuts with excitement playing it, and that was the most incredible thing to see.  For this to become for him and other kids and adults alike around the world what Chrono Trigger and Marathon became for me throughout my life now, that would be the ultimate.  That is precisely what I am working to achieve and bring to Apple TV with VAST: great child-like wonder and adventure that stays with you forever.


Earlier this year, I reached out to a bunch of developers and asked them what they were hoping to hear announced in the WWDC 2017 Keynote, regarding the future of Apple TV gaming. What would your thoughts be on that? What could Apple do to help the platform reach its full potential?

Frankly, Apple tripped over itself in several ways with the launch of Apple TV 4 and tvOS originally in 2015.  Why any Apple TV device didn’t also have tvOS from the very beginning is equally baffling.  But recently, an example of these stumbling blocks is the original requirement that all games must have worked with only the Siri Remote.  It was absurd and appeared very aloof to the current state of game development and the games industry at large.  In the era of twin-stick gamepads as standard, it was like Apple went back exactly forty years ago to the one-button Atari 2600 joystick and expected the likes of EA and Activision to start bringing original titles to their device.  When the tvOS Games App Store became essentially completely dead, it took them about a full year to drop that requirement.  At least they did, perhaps too little too late, but that and also that they now allowed you to require a game controller were actually the two main reasons why I decided to reconsider tvOS and develop VAST specifically for Apple TV.  It was morphing back to what I originally hoped it could be and what it absolutely should have been from Apple TV 1.

“The distinction between a proper major games console and Apple TV are blurring and overlapping fast.  But Apple needs to take the gaming end of it far more seriously.” 

Going forward, I think Apple needs to absolutely make their own MFi Gamepad that is branded Apple and release ATV bundles with that gamepad, as standard.  This would make the same price point more competitive too.  The Nimbus gamepad, which apparently was co-designed by Apple and Steelseries, is excellent.  I love it and have the Apple Store exclusive white versions too.  However, because it simply isn’t an ‘Apple’ gamepad, together with other issues, people don’t immediately understand that Apple TV even has games.  Currently, they have the Nimbus bundled with a digital code for Minecraft for less than the Nimbus itself.  However, the box is larger than the Apple TV or Nimbus boxes alone, so it vaguely looks like you’re buying an Apple TV with a Nimbus Gamepad and Minecraft included.  This is just what people would expect, like how consoles have been packaged and released as standard since the NES in 1985 with the reboot of the industry going on thirty years.  Like the issue with the Siri Remote, this is apparently a concept Apple either doesn’t fully yet understand or they don’t particularly want to do, fearing they will be compared to the other major consoles… which at this point is already inevitable.  That comparison was already the case in 2015 with Apple TV 4.  The question the market asks is “why buy this instead of a PS4 for about the same price?”  I’m still not sure Apple is yet effectively making the case for that.

Their strategy seems to be marketing this as a smart-TV box that also plays games, and while this competes with the likes of Amazon Fire and Roku, it does not effectively compete with the other Big Three consoles that are priced now at about the same, with sprawling libraries of multi-million dollar triple-A games and indie games alike.  I find at this point, this is all just an issue of marketing and perception, as the new ATV4K hardware is very capable.  The gap with it and the Big Three consoles has closed dramatically by now.  The Nintendo Switch, for example, is running on mobile chips and can play the new DOOM, released for it this year too.  So why not also on Apple TV 4K?  The next Apple TV in a couple of years?  And the next?  The distinction between a proper major games console and Apple TV are blurring and overlapping fast.  But Apple needs to take the gaming end of it far more seriously.  It is my hope that VAST is pushing it more into this direction, as can all other console-grade games that might come to tvOS over time too.  But apparently, that will rest on developers’ shoulders entirely.  When the other consoles actively participate in the launch of new product on their platforms, Apple needs to understand this is not iOS and they need to be more proactive here for their living room center-piece experience.  At least to build enough momentum for the device.  Until there are more ATV4K units installed by a huge margin than there are PS4s, Xbox Ones, and soon Nintendo Switches.  I have a lot of faith that VAST can help achieve this, but it will have a much harder time doing it without Apple on their own platform.


If you have any spare time to just game for pleasure, what’s your go-to game at the moment? 

To this day, I still routinely play Chrono Trigger and the Marathon trilogy.  On the new consoles, I have been a huge fan of last year’s HITMAN game, which embraced an episodic model that I loved.  It kept me interested in the game for an entire year, excited and waiting with baited breath for the next episode to come out, like experiencing Christmas morning every month with it, instead of blowing through the game in a weekend.  I loved the new DOOM that very effectively found a great balance between the classic gameplay design and current standards for first person shooters.  I’m also really enjoying Skyrim in PlayStation VR right now, a match made in a heaven.

“…what would happen if you took the fun and cartoony vibe and epic character-driven story of Chrono Trigger, in my opinion the best game ever made, and mashed it together with retro first person shooters like Marathon?”

All of these have been influences in their own way in how I designed VAST. I wanted to do a retro-style first person shooter like Marathon that featured non-linear levels and fast-paced run-and-gun gameplay, to bring things back to a more streamlined and focused experienced, to help make it more accessible as a ‘mid-core’ game for the tvOS market, and to create non-linear levels to build a sense of an open world.  This is even though the areas are divided in an episodic release model that works very nicely for my scale as a small mom-and-pop self-funded indie dev.  And for the game’s overall creative direction, I became very interested in the idea: what would happen if you took the fun and cartoony vibe and epic character-driven story of Chrono Trigger, in my opinion the best game ever made, and mashed it together with retro first person shooters like Marathon?  Could I take these two games I love from my childhood and somehow combine them?  That became a captivating concept that made me immediately drop another prototype I was working on and dedicate everything to this. VAST is the result of that and so far the response from gamers are directly picking up on this themselves instinctively.  I’m actually really surprised, but so thrilled.  From a creative direction standpoint, that feels like hitting the bullseye.  They completely get it.

So right now, I am playing VAST most as I develop it.  It’s going to be a wild ride as we now shift to adding new Episodes and expanding art throughout 2018.  I’m very excited, and, from what I’ve seen of the response so far, Apple TV gamers around the world are excited to dive into this too.  It’s off to the stars for some fun and adrenaline-pumping cosmic treasure hunting action.  Be sure to check often to stay in the loop on development and free update releases of new Episodes going forward!


We hope you enjoyed the conclusion to ATVG’s interview with Xander Davis of Astrogun.