There are plenty of nice people working in the games industry, but Spilt Milk's Andrew Smith could stake a decent claim to being one of the very nicest. His two permanent props, a broad, handsome smile and a half-empty bottle of beer that's always hanging from one hand no matter what time of day you bump into him, tell a little of how this former Realtime Worlds employee escaped from the misery of APB's development to a career in indie development - his easygoing, go-getting attitude helping his debut game Flock become part of the first wave of downloadable console games last generation before he helped make the sardonic, Snake-like Hard Lines.
So it's a surprise to find that, sometimes, he can be a little bit of an arsehole. "Well, I've been a dick on the internet!" he admits. "You know, it's just you get out of bed the wrong side, you stub your toe, or maybe you've hit a bug in a game you've paid for." We meet just 21 hours after Tango Fiesta, Smith's first game to find its way to the public in around two years, has gone up on Steam Early Access, and he's expressing some sympathy for the outpouring of anger that understandably accompanies the release of some games that go live before they're quite ready.
"The majority of people back down," he says. There are a few that really go for you and you just need to be aware you're not part of that vicious cycle, and some people will flip out entirely. And that's cool - you've just got to acknowledge that their opinion matters. If you're eliciting a reaction from someone, if they've seen your game and think it's one thing and it might not be that, that's fine - you've got them on the hook, and you just need to find the thing that convinces them otherwise. And whatever's annoyed them, you need to convince them you'll fix it."
Tango Fiesta's had it gentle in terms of vicious feedback so, and rightly so - with only three months scheduled for its Early Access phase, it's hit Steam in a more complete state than many other games. The closest there's been to a flare-up came when a handful of people accused Tango Fiesta, which leans heavily on 80s action movie tropes as well as on the thrill of a meaty, over-powered gun, of ripping off the similarly minded Broforce. That was soon defused, though, when the developers of that game propped up on Tango Fiesta's forums in Spilt Milk's defence. "I need to send them some codes or something," says Smith cheerfully. "It's just all been really nice. It was almost anti-climactic. It happened, and it's almost in the past - now we can breathe easily, and we get to make this game really good while everyone's watching, and that's really exciting."
Tango Fiesta is already used to the public glare, seeing how it was originally created at the Creative Assembly Game Jam at 2012's EGX Rezzed event. Together with friends Ewan, Andrew and Gavin, Smith decided the setting of a reasonably big jam wouldn't harm anyone when it came to publicity, and it provided the perfect excuse for his small team of freelancers to come together and work intensely on a single project.
"The night before, we went for dinner in Birmingham at Fiesta del la Sardo, an Argentinian restaurant, and I believe there was a tango class being advertised on the wall. So in a drunken stupor we said whatever happens tomorrow morning, we're going to call the game Tango Fiesta. Thankfully it's a good name, and it kind of works."
It certainly fits with what would become the theme of the jam, the loosely defined but oh-so-fertile topic of the 80s. There were a handful of interpretations that would come that brief, including a Cold War-themed puzzle game and a multiplayer disco extravaganza, but none had quite the joyous bound of Smith and team's Tango Fiesta, a top-down shooter channelling the spirit of the best that 80s action cinema had to offer.
More specifically, it's fundamentally drawn from one iconic moment: the point in John McTiernan's Predator in which the grief-stricken platoon blindly unloads an impossible amount of ammunition into the thick jungle. In the eight short hours provided by the jam, Smith and team delivered a co-operative top-down, twin-stick shooter that retained all the chunky bombast of that scene, even if it was understandably a little rough around the edges. But once the jam was over and the main prize - a staggeringly powerful laptop - was handed out, it didn't end there.
"It's funny - it came out of a jam, but I realised it's a game I've wanted to make for a really long time," says Smith. "It got a really nice reception at Rezzed, so we thought let's have another eight hours on it between the four of us and see what we can do with it. Every time we did it we'd show it publicly, at Loading Bar and elsewhere, and people would enjoy it more and more. And I thought maybe I know enough people to pitch it to some publishers."
The result was a string of maybes, but once Tango Fiesta's key feature - the drop-in four-player local and online co-op - was nailed, the answers began to become a little more positive, until eventually there was a yes. That came courtesy of veterans Mastertronic, a publisher whose legacy stretches back as far as some of the 80s classics such as Gauntlet and Smash TV that underpin Tango Fiesta, and now, a short four months later, the game's available on Steam Early Access.
The concept remains from the original jam some two years ago, even if the code's all been jettisoned - "You don't want to be building anything on code you've written in eight hours," says Smith, "it was a horrendous mess" - and Tango Fiesta is now a tightly made, instantly enjoyable shooter. A wider net has been cast when it comes to the 80s references, even if they've been switch up a little to avoid any messy lawsuits - Detroit's favourite law enforcer, for example, becomes Bionic Cop, an endearingly shambolic creation with shiny dustbin lids for shoulder pads, and it sidesteps the now-wearisome pixel art aesthetic for something more full-blooded, with a fittingly chunky character.
That chunkiness carries across to simple, handsome play with a sturdy, big-hearted style. It's the guns that are the real stars, all of which are culled from 80s cinema before being presented with a twist and a hearty punch. They kick back, too, and some of the meatier weapons require you to lean in lest they push you back across one of the procedurally generated levels.Emulation could kill the games industry Don't let nostalgia do real damage.
Tango Fiesta is a simple game, but knowingly so, and with a friend or two by your side there's a boisterous thrill to be had in tearing through its hordes of enemy soldiers. It's exactly the kind of mindless action that marked out its cinematic inspiration, of course, and also the kind of action that's perfectly suited to the couch as well as the PC. "Yeah, I'd love it on console," says Smith, who as we meet has just come from a meeting with one of the major platform holders. "We're showing it around, and we're being quite open about it. Even before it's come out, people have been asking when's it out on PS4, which is great."
It's a remarkable journey that Tango Fiesta's made, from game jam to Steam and quite possibly even further on from there. There's one small thing, though: back at Rezzed in 2012, Smith and his team never actually won the jam. Given all that's happened, is there some small element of belated retribution?
"Well, I saw him the other day," Smith says of the jam's eventual victor Robin Baumgarten, his trademark grin widening a little. "He's still using that laptop he won. He's still smiling."