I recently had the opportunity to speak with the creator of Retro City Rampage, Brian Provinciano of Vblank Entertainment, who shed some light on the Grand Theft Auto style, 8-bit, retro parody mash-up that won Best Indie Title of the Show at PAX 2010. In this interview I decided to ask Brian not only about the game itself but what its like to develop a game from the indie standpoint these days. In this inspiring discussion he reveals a lot of tips for aspiring devs out there after getting our attention with this fun and nostalgic title Retro City Rampage heading for release later this year.
Jon Ireson (DualShockers): Now We’ve heard you describe the title as an open-world action parody, GTA on the NES, what types of things can we expect to see directly from the GTA-esque gameplay style?
Brian Provinciano (Vblank Entertainment): Well, like Grand Theft Auto you can steal cars, run people over, use tons of weapons, run missions which are jobs for other characters, so it’s pretty much got all of the GTA stuff in there. In addition it expands upon that by mashing things in such as jumping on enemies like Mario, and then picking up and throwing which is another big thing. There’s a mission for example where you’re picking up barrels and throwing it at the boss to blow him up and another one where you have to catch things thrown out of a window and toss them at a target.
There’s also a cover system, much like GTA IV, but it’s brought down to the 8-bits in a simple, elegant form. You just hit a button to take cover, when you are in cover you can move freely against the walls. As soon as you shoot, you automatically pop up for the duration of the shooting and then when you release you duck back into the cover. So it allows you to shoot and dodge in a really fun mechanic. And then to get out of cover you can tap the cover button again or just jump straight out, and that allows for really fast gameplay.
JI (DualShockers): Clearly we saw at PAX that you are very passionate about retro gaming, what are some of the titles that inspired Retro City Rampage?
BP (Vblank): So the first title which inspired it was of course Grand Theft Auto III, although I was a huge fan of Grand Theft Auto II as well, so definitely a lot of the top-down inspiration from that game. As for the rest of the game, a lot of inspiration from games like Commando and Metal Gear, Contra, and Super Mario of course.
JI (DualShockers): What other non-shooter games other than Mario can we expect to see throwbacks to?
BP (Vblank): One of them is Root Beer Tapper. Playing off of Ghost Busters, Monkey Island, and Root Beer Tapper you have to fill up your proton pack-like things which shoot ionized root beer. If people remember, in Monkey Island root beer is what killed ghosts, so in that you’ve got to catch and toss these barrels into the targets and it’s also on a timer so it really gives you an old arcade feel like the original game.
But that’s all in the open world with the open world mechanics which is something I’m quite proud of in the game where it mixes in these different gameplay styles which take from all aspects of video games, but they’re all in the open world. So the catching and throwing that you’re using in all these arcade style games, you’re also using in the open world. You can pick up and throw random pedestrians and things like that.
JI (DualShockers): While interacting with pedestrians and NPCs, is there a sense of right or wrong instilled upon the character or is it mainly freedom of choice?
BP (Vblank): When you attack pedestrians you will raise your threat level, much like Grand Theft Auto, and then you’ll become attacked by other characters. At first the police and they’ve got batons and they’ll get guns and later on the army will begin to attack you and then of course some even more special characters which you’ll find out about soon.
JI (DualShockers): Was the sense of nostalgia that will obviously be instilled in those who play this game intended? What were some of your favorite moments from 8-bit gaming that he used as inspiration?
BP (Vblank): It’s really focused on comedy and nostalgia, they go hand in hand. It’s definitely nostalgic for me, and it will be for others as well. Taking you back to the games the way you almost remember them but having to improve it along the way. For example the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles level that everyone hates and remembers with anger where you are swimming through the dam dodging coral that eats you and electric seaweed and all of that. So I threw that in the game because as much as I hated it, it really was ingrained in my memory playing NES. So I threw that in there, but I flipped the tables, since you are playing as a criminal this time instead of disarming bombs in the dam you’re arming the bombs. But also, in order to not make it painful like the original the player has a lot more power now and it’s not as tight, you won’t die as easily.
So kind of rewriting history a bit and taking inspiration from games that we loved and games that we hated but hopefully making them all something that we love now.
JI (DualShockers): As we know, the title was drawn, coded, and tested by you personally, just for our readers who might not know yet, how many people worked on the game with you? How much of the work was done on your own? And who are the rest of your staff?
BP (Vblank): I did pretty much the entire game myself. A lot of that was possible because I worked on it part time for many, many, many years. In addition to that I’ve got three music guys and one of them does sound effects as well. And I’ve got an additional pixel artist who’s actively working on the game right now. There was a second pixel artist I brought on to do some of the stuff as well, a small portion of it, but we currently just have one guy doing the work.
So in total it’s three music guys and one additional pixel artist. And I’ve drawn probably a good 95% of the art or more than that and done all of the coding and I’m also handling all of the business stuff as well which takes quite a bit of time actually.
JI (DualShockers): What are some of the advantages of working in a tight-knit development group such as Vblank Entertainment, and what are some of the challenges?
BP (Vblank): Definitely the advantage of working with a tight-knit development group is that we all feel like our input matters because it does. None of us feel like we’re just cogs in a machine where no matter how good we are at what our job is — when you feel like a cog — you just know that they could throw anyone onto there and if you think that some things could be improved on design or something like that you don’t feel like you could do anything about it. So definitely the creativity is there and the passion is there.
As for some of the challenges, I sure miss the ability to book time off (laughs). I work pretty much seven days a week. However, since I am doing programming, some art, and also the business I’m always doing something different so it’s always interesting. So it doesn’t really feel like I’m working long days as I would if I was just sitting at a desk somewhere programming for 12 hours straight. So it’s really an advantage too actually.
There’s a lot of weight on your shoulders of course when you’re running your own company as well. But the end goal and benefit that you are working on your dream game and that you’ll see all the rewards of it, definitely makes it worth while.
JI (DualShockers): What are some of the most important things you’ve learned heading the company and handling the business aspect to shipping a title like Retro City Rampage?
BP (Vblank): The biggest thing that I’ve learned is how much time business takes. It’s quite remarkable, a lot of people underestimate it. I mean, I expected to allocate a whole bunch of time for business and that wasn’t enough. I needed to allocate a heck of a whole bunch of time. Putting stuff together, getting the website put together, doing marketing stuff, dealing with the pitch, project pitches, business stuff, the office space, you name it I’ve had to deal with it and the only problem with that is that I can say I went two months straight where I was barely working on the game itself and having to deal with all of these mandatory things, and it seems like there’s just always something to do.
So now I’ve learned that the weekends are glorious, because the e-mail isn’t as busy and the phones aren’t ringing as much so I actually have time to just sit down and work on the game itself. And it’s really good, and I’m glad I didn’t announce the game sooner. A lot of people recommended that I should have and they had some valid points because you want to build buzz as early as possible however if I had announced it sooner I wouldn’t have had time to get it where it is today.
JI (DualShockers): How do you suggest aspiring game developers get their start on making their own games as you’ve done? What are some common misconceptions that you can enlighten hopeful programmers / artists on and / or tips you can give? How do you suggest aspiring game developers get their start on making their own games as you’ve done? What are some common misconceptions that you can enlighten hopeful programmers / artists on and/or tips you can give?
BP (Vblank): I don’t recommend people jump right into full time indie development, although I do know that it is harder now because there are less jobs available, but if possible try and get a job in the industry before. Continue to do indie games part-time, and of course before you start at a company you can declare them as prior works so that you can continue to work on them in general.
Doing indie games will get you noticed and will absolutely help you get your job because it will show that you’ve actually accomplished something and also that you have the passion and motivation to do it on your own. Because that’s a big thing they look for, they’re much more likely to hire some one that’s passionate enough to be doing these games for free, for fun, than some one who just treats it like a 9 – 5 job.
Once you are in the industry you’ll meet people, you’ll get the experience. For example once you can say that you’ve worked on a company for a year working on Nintendo games, or Sony PlayStation games, or Xbox games, then it’s a lot easier for you to get your own developer licensing if you decide to start your own company. And also, you learn a whole bunch of the soft skills which, again, people would underestimate. But learning how to work with a team and things like that are very important.
I can say for example learning how to be a programmer dealing with artists was eye-opening for me. Whereas I would say “Oh, just enter this in the command line in DOS”, things like that, and it seems so obvious to me being a programmer but it wasn’t obvious to them. What they wanted was just a single button that they could click on, and they were right. Because they’re an artist, that’s what they do amazingly well, and embrace that — let them be an artist. Don’t make them go out of their box and do technical things, just let them do what they do well. So these are things that were surprising and quite a learning experience.
JI (DualShockers): What are some of the investments they can expect to make, for example an estimate on time, money, etc.? Is it possible without outside investors? What are some of the investments they can expect to make, for example an estimate on time, money, etc.? Is it possible withoutoutside investors?
BP (Vblank): The first thing I recommend is to work on your game part time as long as you can. That way there isn’t really much invested other than your time. And when it is time to finally get your game out there one of the biggest expenses for me was the office space, because Nintendo requires you to have a legitimate office. Although, there are cases where you don’t necessarily need the office for Xbox or Sony, I’m very happy to have it because I prefer to work in the office. It helps you with the work life balance of it, although I still do some business stuff at home. It feels good to just go into the office, but it was very expensive. And also incorporating costs a bunch of money, and then there’s annual fees for that. Corporate accounting is much, much, much more expensive than personal accounting, and that’s just the business stuff.
When you’re talking about the actual development; paying contractors, it really adds up. And one thing that I recommend when you’re hiring people or finding people to work with it’s best to work with people that you’ve worked with before on other projects. It’s very difficult to find people from square one just looking randomly on the internet to try and find some one. All contractors in general will say from the get-go, “I’m so excited, this is the greatest project ever. I can’t wait to be working on it. I’m going to be delivering stuff early”, they’ll just be super-enthusiastic 99% of the time. Within a week most of the time they’ll fall through, there’ll be problems, whatever it may be. So I’m very lucky to have finally found some people that I hadn’t worked with before that were amazing but it was a process, there were many before them.
Stepping back a bit, I can also say that it’s really good if possible to do as much of the stuff yourself you can unless you’re starting from the get-go doing it in a team. And that means don’t worry about art. If you’re a programmer and you can’t do art then just have boxes moving around and things like that. And I know people have said this before but it is true, and it’s also important as I’ve learned from my experience as a developer. Where I was doing most of the art and the programming as well, there were times when I didn’t just throw in a box for that feature I would actually do the full blown piece of art because I figured since I would be doing the art anyways, I might as well do it now rather than later.
Because if you’re working in the industry, you’ll have so many people working on the project at once that the programmers need something to work with while the art is being done. And so the artist just gives them a box and they can work with the box, and when the artist finishes the piece they replace the box with the piece. Since I didn’t have to deal with that I just figured, well I’ll just draw the piece directly. The problem with that was that things change, and if you decide this needs to be wider or narrower, or just being a perfectionist you decide I’m going to change the face here, I’m going to change it again and again, it really eats up your time. So blocking things in and just getting the game playable with just basic graphics and once that’s implemented, doing a single pass over the blocks and replace them with proper graphics, that’s definitely something that I recommend.
JI (DualShockers): Taking it back to Retro City Rampage, How do you feel the focus on single player alone was able to enhance the quality of the game?
BP (Vblank): The story mode is something I’m quite happy with and it’s definitely something that’s been made possible by the single player experience. Players can just freely explore the city at their own pace, and there’s a lot to see and do, and things to interact with. And then of course the score based missions are fun too. You can just pick it up and play it for a few minutes and put it down. You don’t have to wait in any sort of lobby. In the time that you would be waiting in a lobby, you could have already finished a few rounds of the spree mode.
As a single developer though I can absolutely say not adding multiplayer was the right thing to do because as some one who’s handling pretty much the entire game, as well as the business, if I were to throw in multiplayer there I would be biting off way more than I could chew and it would be chaos. Not spending the time on the multiplayer also means that every minute up of development until the game is released increases the quality of the single player experience.
BP (Vblank): Absolutely, the game has well over 30 spree missions which are kind of like rampages in GTA. There’s no story involved, you’re just going around causing chaos or some specific task and getting a best time, getting a score and these are all repayable so you can play them over and over.
In addition to that there are some missions which aren’t required by the final story. There’s the big story arc where you’re collecting these time machine piece to repair the booth which you stole from Bill and Ted-like characters but some missions you do aren’t related to that and aren’t required but they’re just fun and you get to meet more characters in the city.
Of course there are also easter egg style things, some are more hidden and some are more obvious. Some of the more obvious ones are that you can take a vehicle to the junkyard, which is inspired by a few things (Space Quest and Earthworm Jim) and there you can bring a car to the launch pad and launch it. A big overgrown earth worm actually launches it by dropping a fridge down, so playing off of the cow launch from Earthworm Jim you can do a car launch.
So the city is full of things like that are just scattered throughout, interactive gags that are not necessarily required but are just fun and add character to the city.
JI (DualShockers): What are some of the moments in the title that you have revealed so far that you are most proud of?
BP (Vblank): Well, I’m glad that people have now seen the first 15 minutes of the game because it showcases the game’s humor and everyone’s been very warm and responsive to it. So that means that I’m on the right track. I just love the fact that I’ve got all those parodies in there, some of the Bill and Ted stuff. I took some risks when I was branching off to make this comedy game, some of the parodies that might not have the appeal that other things could have like having a super villain in the game. Comic book things are often poorly received by the mainstream, or at least they used to be. They aren’t very much anymore which is great because there are certain parodies in there that I just wanted to put in for my own personal passion for the game, but I wasn’t sure how they would be received.
It seems that everything’s been received very well so I’m glad I was able to do the things I wanted to do and not be swayed by the decision that they might not be received well by the public. And so it’s been great to do things that I wanted to do rather than be guided by marketing, or anything like that.
JI (DualShockers): How are some of the companies out there who created the IPs you are parodying reacting to the game so far?
BP (Vblank): I haven’t heard anything from any companies yet. I hope not to. Of course this parody thing can be a bit of a gray area. I’ve tried to make sure that for the most part the parodies are de-branded enough that there aren’t any issues. Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Matt Hazard, and Dot Heroes seem to show that it isn’t an issue because in many ways they are more blatant than my game.
The Mario pipes in Scott Pilgrim, the character select screen is like Super Mario Bros. 2, Matt Hazard and Scott Pilgrim both have the boxes that you can break for coins, and of course Dot Heroes – to anyone who looks at it they instantly think that it is a Zelda game, so I think that I’m okay.
JI (DualShockers): What games did you want to parody in Retro City Rampage but didn’t make it into the final cut, and will we see these in future releases?
BP (Vblank): There are a lot of really good things that I want to parody that I’m gonna leave for the sequel. And I was keeping them top secret to surprise people, but I will say that there’s gonna be some Bruce Campbell stuff in the sequel.
JI (DualShockers): :O 😀 — Okay well it’s been great interviewing you Brian, you’ve shed a lot of light on Retro City Rampage and what we can expect from it, as well as what it’s like being an indie developer. To leave you off with one last question, Many games from the classic era had a hard time making the transition from 2D to 3D. What do you think 3D might take away from games, and what is it that 2D can do better than 3D?
BP (VBlank): Well I’ll say the first thing that 2D can do better than 3D is create crisp graphics, even if it’s low resolution, that are very easy on the eyes. I find that 3D graphics age poorly. You can go back to NES games and play them and they still feel fun, they still look good enough to play. You go back to PS1 games for example, and most of them are just really hard to play, just from their visuals alone. But advantages from that as well come from the fact that the sprites are a lot clearer, more visible to see so when you’re shooting enemies it’s a lot easier to see them, shoot them, and just play fast paced gameplay.
A game like Chinatown Wars for example, the enemies blend into the background a lot more than this game. It’s not quite as easy to see them. A lot of games in general, 3D games on the current consoles, they use a lot of things like decals, big green circles, and things like that to identify the enemies, to make them easier to shoot, because everything is kind of brown and gray. So when you’re doing a 2D game that stuff isn’t needed as much if everything is vibrant and crisp.
No release date is announced, but Retro City Rampage should be out on multiple consoles including Nintendo Wii early next year.