How Samurai Punk’s lo-fi shooter KILLBUG buzzed into being

Born from creative restlessness, frantic first-person shooter KILLBUG continues Samurai Punk's penchant for never settling on just one idea.
Killbug by Samurai Punk

Killbug is the ninth title (in nine years) from independent Melbourne studio, Samurai Punk.

You play as a bug who kills other bugs. You have an uzi, a knife, and the frantic drive to survive for as long as possible, while annihilating as many aggressive insects as possible. It’s a game with an incredibly distilled and focused design, where a typical ‘run’ is over in just a few minutes, depending on the player’s skill. Ranking your score on a leaderboard is one of the main pulls.

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In just about every way, Killbug is the polar opposite to Samurai Punk’s previous title, the award-nominated Justice Sucks. This title is a sandbox stealth game, which had a relatively lengthy development cycle, and the backing of a boutique American indie publisher.

Where Justice Sucks had months of marketing behind it, including a bespoke installation at PAX West, Killbug went from its initial announcement to launch in just over 3 weeks. Where Justice Sucks leveraged the entire team through its development process, the bones of Killbug were entirely the spare-time work of studio managing director, Nicholas McDonnell, who didn’t originally intend for it to be a Samurai Punk game at all.

In the days following Killbug’s launch on Steam, McDonnell was extremely candid about the experience of developing the rapid-fire title in an interview with GamesHub.

>Justice Sucks by Samurai Punk

‘The Justice Sucks experience wasn’t super fun. Not from the development side, but from the response – there wasn’t a lot of coverage, and it didn’t do very well. There was this big build-up, and then nothing,’ he said.

Even before Justice Sucks shipped, McDonnell found himself growing creatively restless. ‘I was just frustrated… I was like, “I’ve done good work on this,” but I just didn’t feel like I was really proving myself.’

Beginning in August of 2022, he would spend his nights and weekends getting back to indie development basics. ‘I didn’t do any 3D modelling or texturing (on Justice Sucks), and I really wanted to do that. I picked up Blender and I started to practice. I wanted to do a really simple shoot ‘em up… I opened up Unity and started making a little playable [prototype]… it grew very organically.’

>Nicholas McDonnel's development notes for KILLBUG by Samurai Punk
McDonnell’s Killbug notes. Image provided.

‘I started to think, “Okay, what do I need to do to make this a thing I could release by the end of the year?” I don’t really have time to do “content”, I don’t really have time to do narrative. My music’s not very good, my sound design is not very good, so I just did what I could.’

For several months Nicholas worked on finishing what was then called A Bug’s Death’, all the while fully intent on keeping it a solo venture. But things quickly changed once other people got their hands on it. 

‘It was around December. I’d been doing a lot of play testing with it and people were saying, “What are you going to do with this?”‘ ‘I could have sold it in December – it would have just been quite clunky and ugly.’

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The Killbug prototype, A Bug’s Death. Footage provided.

‘I got talking to Winston (Tang) – our co-founder – and we were like, “we could polish it up a bit.” Mitch (Pasmans), our composer, really liked it. Callum (Williams, Samurai Punk artist) was like, “we could do these things with the art.” Everyone on the team was kind of thinking it could be the next Samurai Punk game. So around January, we made the decision to move it into the company, and we started full time development on it in February.’

Even with the additional hands on board, there was never a desire to scale up the design of the project according to McDonnell, for which he is thankful. ‘The team respected the intent and didn’t try to mess with it too much. So it stayed fairly true to that original design goal.’ 

‘The capacity for work went up by a factor of five, because there were about five developers working on it. It didn’t feel to me like we could do five times more though. I was always thinking it could just be five times better. And better for me wasn’t more content or more features.’

>KILLBUG Screenshot Samurai Punk
Killbug. Image: Samurai Punk

Speaking personally, I’ve been playing a lot of Killbug over the past week, and have been delighted by its refreshing simplicity. I’m utterly awful at it, but its rhythms are so wonderfully engaging that I continually find myself booting the game up for quick runs in between tasks. 

The next steps for Samurai Punk

In the week following the launch of Killbug, there’s definitely been a perceptible buzz building around the title, and McDonnell said that the team is feeling really positive. But even then, he’s quick to add caveats.

‘It’s not gonna set the world on fire, but people are responding to it… I don’t think we’ve got a single negative review yet.’

‘[Samurai Punk has] never really had a hit. I know, people think that Screencheat was a big hit for us, but at the end of the day, it just sort of kept the lights on for a long time. We’ve always been looking for something that allows us to focus and be like, “This is what we’re going to do for a bit.”‘

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Looking at Samurai Punk’s body of work, you’ll see that nearly everything the studio does stands distinctly apart – in genre, concept, and formats. Despite McDonnell’s clear desire for the financial stability that being a hit-maker brings, he and the team at Samurai Punk are not remotely interested in changing the way the studio operates creatively.

‘If you want to make money, you look at what genre is popular and you make a crossover game. We’ve done that process internally, because like I said, we’ve never had a hit, so we wouldn’t mind making something that was actually successful!’ 

‘We did a lot of contracting work to keep the lights on, but that process is so draining. It’s not fun. It’s not creative. Making something for the market is not as creative either, or it’s just not as personal. Personally, I do not find that satisfying.’

‘Inevitably, even if [Killbug] does well and we support it, we’ll still probably want to take things in a totally different direction. I think that urge to make something new and fresh is really strong.’

Killbug is available now on Steam.      

This article was originally published on 8 May 2023.

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Jam Walker is a games and entertainment journalist from Melbourne, Australia. They hold a bachelor's degree in game design from RMIT but probably should have gotten a journalism one instead. You can find them talking entirely too much about wrestling on Twitter @Jamwa