Interview with Meher Kalenderian of KeelWorks, Developers Behind Cygni: All Guns Blazing
Cygni: All Guns Blazing is an upcoming twin-stick shooter developed by first-time studio KeelWorks, with Konami partnering up with the developers as its publisher. Little has been shown about the game so far, but one thing is clear: Cygni is aiming for vastly higher production values than your average arcade shooter, with impressive cinematics and gameplay graphics.
Upon finding out about it, there was so much about Cygni that immediately clicked with me. The first true next-gen arcade shooter was one. Having a big emphasis on storytelling while keeping the gameplay focused on arcade shootouts was another. Just remember how much we all like Star Fox 64 , for instance. Finally, partnering up with the publisher behind Gradius, Parodius, TwinBee, Axelay, and so many other space shooters from back in the day.
Despite not being playable at this year’s edition of BIG Festival in São Paulo, Brazil, we were able to have a quick chat with Meher Kalenderian, CEO of KeelWorks, regarding Cygni‘s developmental process, its main selling points, its sources of inspiration, and the team’s partnership with Konami.
WayTooManyGames: I would like to start off the interview by wanting to know a little bit more of what Cygni: All Guns Blazing is. What can you tell me about it in brief?
Meher Kalenderian: Cygni is a twin-stick shooter. We wanted to kind of take the good experiences we had as growing up playing arcade games in the 80s and 90s, games like Gradius, Castlevania, RayForce, among others. We loved playing those games, and everybody played them, regardless of trying to go for high score or not, whether you were a pro or not, you just played it had fun and that was it. Going to the arcade and the movies were the things to do.
So what we wanted to do now is to take advantage of the currently technology at our disposal, and our background in 3D animation, film and visual effects, to be able to recreate the experience from our youth on next-gen consoles and platforms.
Could you tell us a bit of the history behind the pre-production and the developmental process of the game?
MK: So, even before we started talking to publishers, we were doing a lot of pre-production work, as we didn’t have any track record with published titles. This is our first title, after all. We were learning how to develop with the Unreal engine. At the same time, we were also taking advantage of the skillset we’ve acquired from previous jobs in animation, in order to craft its CG cinematics. At this point, we all had full-time jobs, and developing the game on the side.
At first, we created a demo, a trailer, and put them out there, for publishers to see. A lot of them knocked at our door, which was amazing. One of them was Konami. I want to count the moment we signed a publishing deal with Konami as the moment when full production truly started. It’s been a year and a half so far.
What are your target platforms? Are you aiming solely for a PC launch, or are consoles being considered as well?
MK: We are targeting PC, PS5, and Xbox Series S/X.
You mentioned that the game is an arcade shooter, and it is being published by Konami, the company known for Gradius, Parodius, TwinBee and so many other arcade shooters from the past. Was this intentional? Did you want to partner up with a company with a track record in arcade shooters, especially probably those that influenced you in the development of your game?
MK: This is our first game, as a company. But we are also professionals in our own field. My brother, who co-founded the company, used to work for Pixar. I take care of the business side of things. We’ve done production before in the film industry. So for us, it was important to be picky.
We knew that we needed to do our research well enough, to target certain specific publishers that would be the best fit for both our company and also our game. We had a few deals on the table, but in the end we did decide to stick with Konami. They understood what we were trying to do with this game. We weren’t just trying to create another old shoot ’em up.
Konami, being one of the key creators and main names of this genre, understood what we were trying to do with Cygni and ended up being very supportive, they asked all the right questions, hit the right notes, and that’s why we went with them. And to be honest, we haven’t regretted since.
What differentiates Cygni from other arcade shooters? I’m asking this because there are a lot of them being released in this day and age, at an alarming pace, a good chunk of them mostly focused on nostalgia. By the looks of it, and by the looks of its production values, Cygni is aiming something different. Could you tell us a bit more about it?
MK: From the start, our strategy was to be to appeal to a wider audience. And that’s why I started off the interview by saying that, back in the days at the arcade, we played it for the fun, not because of trying to achieve a high score, everybody played it and they all enjoyed it, regardless of whether they were good or not.
We want to do the same. We want to replicate the experience of an old-school shooter but not simply make an old-school shooter. I believe that the gameplay has to be fun, and interactive, and immersive. The visuals have to be stunning and high quality, so that you can actually play it on a 65 inch screen and you’d still really enjoy and feel like you’re part of the game.
Music was also very important to us, and we even have an in-house composer (who happens to be my uncle), he is orchestrating music that isn’t traditionally common in a game like this. Also, given how we come from film and animation backgrounds, we wanted to incorporate storytelling in almost everything we do. So it had to have a story, but it’s important to mention that the storytelling shouldn’t distract the player completely from the gameplay. There has to be a good balance.
One more thing I will add is that Cygni is a 3D game. It’s not a traditional 2D pixelated game like the vast majority of shooters we’ve seen in the past. And it’s more difficult, artistic-wise, to creating something stunning, with polygons, with the camera pointing down at all times.
You’ve mentioned that Cygni has a big emphasis on storytelling, and it has somewhat big production values for a game in its genre. It has a cinematic approach, so I assume that there are influences that are outside of just shooting games. Were there any sci-fi franchises, or other franchises in general, that were an influence in its development?
MK: For us, making a great game is always more important than categorizing it. And sure, yes, we did play a lot of shoot ’em ups when we were younger, and we’ve always had a great time with them, they were also part of the influence. I cannot pinpoint one title. But I also have to admit that some other games, namely story-driven action titles and strategy games, have influenced our development.
Could you tell us a bit more of Cygni’s “crowd system”?
MK: This is not just an environment crop, it’s an actual crowd system that we have implemented that you can interact with. There is an actual battle going on while you are playing the game, and the crowd with react differently depending on how many of them are alive, how many are killed. You can actually help them and they can help you. They act cleverly. This is an element not seen in shooters. This is more akin to a strategy game.