For the past few years, gaming has seen a retro renaissance.
Games like Mega Man 9, Castle Crashers, and Sonic the Hedgehog 4 have shown that the old way of playing games is still very high in demand. However, before this retro renaissance began, developer Brian Provinciano of Vancouver, British Columbia was hard at work on the ultimate retro throwback – Retro City Rampage.
What started off as a homebrew NES game in 2002 known as Grand Theftendo, Provinciano soon blossomed this whirlwind of creativity into Retro City Rampage, a full, open world, 8-bit action game that pays tribute to the games and culture we adore from the 80s and 90s. The game has been in development for a decade now, with its release very close on the horizon.
I recently had the time to chat with Brian Provinciano, the one-man dev team, about his upcoming retro masterpiece.
Give us an explanation of the basic premise of Retro City Rampage and what people are going to be able to look forward to.
It’s a huge game. The core of it is like an 8-bit Grand Theft Auto, but it spirals way beyond that. It’s got over 50 story missions, over 30 arcade challenges, it’s got a free-roaming mode with multiple playable characters, over 100 character customizations, over 25 weapons and powerups, over 40 vehicles — it’s a huge game. It’s probably larger than GTA: Chinatown Wars, so people are getting a lot of bang for their buck.
How is development going?
It’s finally in the last stages, so it’s bug-fixing and some platform requirements and business that needs to be taken care of. But the game is now done, which is very good, I’m very happy about that. It’s been a long ride. And it’s going to be coming out on all the platforms now – that includes PlayStation 3 and Vita, as well as Wii and Steam [and Xbox Live Arcade]. So, excited about that. It’s running on all of them. It’s good to go, but each system has its own requirements for displaying the correct error messages and handling the system-specific features and what not. Still some of that to do, but a lot of that’s already done now.
Working with Microsoft, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with [Super Meat Boy developer] Team Meat’s story or [Braid creator] Jon Blow’s stories or post-mortems on it, but it’s not a good experience and there were a number of issues with them. It caused a lot of delays and stuff, but in the end the result of it is now it is coming out on multiple platforms at once, when before they were trying to force exclusivity. Now the plans have changed which has delayed the game!
You always hear about delays and the stories behind them, but this is an excellent reason for a delay.
Yeah, it’s been a lot of work, and as far as I know I’m going to be the first one-man dev in history to simultaneously release their game on all of the consoles. On top of that, it’s on Steam and Vita as well, so it’s quite an accomplishment that I’m quite proud of. It’s a lot of work but it was worth it.
Is this your job? Or do you have to do full time work to support this project?
I was working full time for a long time, and worked on this part time for most of the original development. But, two and a half years ago after saving up for a really long time, I quit to do it full time. When I was working full time, eight hours of my day were taken up by my day job at other game companies. And then I figured okay this is going to be great, once I quit my job I’ll be able to get so much done. But as soon as I quit, the reality set in that I have to make sure that this succeeds and makes money, all the business stuff, and as a result, the past year of development has been a good 70% business – PR, administration, all that other stuff. I’ve been working long days, seven days a week, for months on end, yet only 30% of my time has been working on the actual game itself. When you’re doing this thing as a one-man project it takes a lot of time to deal with all this other stuff. For example, the ESRB ratings, I had to fill out a huge form covering all the most minor details of the game as well as video clips for each of those which turned out to be over 100 video clips. It all adds up.
I definitely want this game to be out as soon as possible, but a lot of gamers are complaining, “How long does it take to make an 8-bit game?” Getting the game on consoles – pitching, documents, paperwork, porting console-specific requirements, meetings – it’s been a full year of work to do that including all of the consoles. But most of it was for Microsoft. Keep in mind that’s a full business year, but since I’m only one guy that’s me doing a full business year of work. Had I released the game just on PC, sure, it could have been out a year ago.
Though Microsoft is to blame for this final delay, once your game is done it still has to go into certification to make sure it fits all the platform requirements, and that takes about four weeks. Then after that you’ve got to wait for slot placement, which week your game is released, and THAT takes four weeks. So you’ve got this eight-week window where your game is completely finished, but it won’t be out for eight weeks. I’m at a point where, on top of that, I’ve got to deal with business stuff before it even goes into certification. I’ve been working so hard for all of these years to have this big, epic launch on consoles; I’m going to make that happen. There’s no point quitting now even if it’s going to hold things up a few months.
Do you have an official price point on it yet?
We don’t yet, but it’s definitely worth $15, so it’ll probably be around there. The thing is, some people may look at the retro visuals and think that it’s worth less, but GTA: Chinatown Wars dropped at $40 on the DS.
[Note: since this interview, it has been announced that the game can be pre-ordered on Steam for $14.99, implying, but not confirming, that it will be a cross-platform price]
Well this is definitely a game I’d pay full price for. I remember when Rayman Origins came out last year, everyone was asking “why should I pay $60 for this?” even though the game has SO MUCH to offer. It’s insane that people would think that the visual style would prevent someone from paying full price when so many of these big budget modern games last six hours and charge a full $60.
Well on top of all that, there’s a whole city you can explore. You can do all sorts of stuff. It also includes crossovers with some big indie characters, and that doesn’t just mean they are playable characters, which they are, but I went all out. I don’t know any other indie games that have gone this far, whereas for each of the characters – we’ve already announced ‘Splosion Man and Ms. ‘Splosion Man – they include their own games within Retro City Rampage. So we’ve got an 8-bit version of ‘Splosion Man that you can play, followed by a Ms. ‘Splosion Man boss battle, and there are two other characters we’re going to announce soon. One of them is another fully realized 8-bit version of that game, and the other is a pseudo-3D re-envisioning of a 2D game, so it’s really exciting.
And that’s the other thing about RCR – the missions themselves span all the genres, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s a bigger game than Chinatown Wars in so many ways, not just the amount of content but also the missions themselves. Some of them are drive from A to B shooting, but then other ones play like old 80s coin-op games, some of them are stealth, one parodies the old 80s Lucas Arts/Sierra adventure games, some go into the pseudo-3D like Rad Racer and Hang-On. They go just all over. So the mission variety in there is immense. But what I’m so proud of is that it all takes place in the open world seamlessly. So where a lot of games, especially on the Wii, games that are compilations of mini-games, what I’m striving for is mission variety without it feeling like separate games. So I’m pretty proud of that. It also stemmed from the fact that I’ve been a huge GTA fan since the top-down ones, but in time, my fanboyism has worn off a bit and I’ve been able to see the flaws. With this game, I’ve actively worked to avoid the mistakes that I feel the GTA games make – focus on the fun, add a lot of variety. I didn’t just want it to feel like 80 missions of driving from A to B and shooting someone. Which even the new GTA games kind of feel like that at times. I’m also cutting down on the grinding. If you ever have to drive from one place to another, that’s it, you get a save point directly after that. You can save wherever you want, so you don’t have to find a safe house. You can fast-forward through the cutscenes, which is pretty funny.
Basically the idea is to focus on mission variety. Which contributed a lot to the length of the development cycle, because every mission was practically writing a new game. It was totally worth it in the end, something I wouldn’t’ change. I wouldn’t have been happy with myself if I just released this 8-bit drive from A to B shoot stuff over and over 80 times for 80 different missions.
Everything flows into one another, which is absolutely stunning. As you point out, the missions are actually a part of the game world and not these separate entities. What did it take for you to map out this game world? What was that process like?
It’s definitely expanded a lot. I’ve changed or added areas based on certain mission ideas. There was always the plan to have a park that was kind of a Super Mario-inspired one with hills with eyes on them and stuff, and a cave that was kind of reminiscent of Zelda with bushes that you can slash with a sword and all that. There have definitely been changes and tweaks here and there. Definitely additions. There was a period where I was coming up with so many ideas and throwing so much additional stuff into it and ballooning the scope of the game. I really wish I had finished the game sooner and that it was out sooner, but everything that’s been added to it has been absolutely worth it. I’m so happy with the final game now.
It’s honestly amazing that this game exists. But what’s more impressive is that you are essentially the only developer on this. How much help are you getting from others?
I’ve got an additional artist now [Maxime Trépanier] and he’s doing amazing work. I originally did all the art myself, but I brought him on and he’s done a lot of the newer art. Other than that, it’s just him, music guys, and me. I’ve got three composers – two of them are here in Vancouver, British Columbia, which was crazy luck. And then of course I’ve got virt [Contra 4, Red Faction: Guerilla], who the whole world knows.
It’s a total mix of an original score and songs that reference classic tunes. It’s all about just keeping everyone happy, letting everyone be creative because I get to be as creative as I want. If I let everyone be as creative as they want, we get a much better product. With the music, there are certain songs that have been inspired by certain games, and there are certain songs that were made to just fit certain vibes for certain levels or certain areas. And then there’s a huge other chunk of songs that are basically just freestyling, so to speak, for the artists. I just said do whatever you want; we’ll throw it in. As a result, we’ve just got amazing music, over two and a half hours of music, actually. The thing about it, it’s all over the map. Some of the songs are nods to classic games; some are nods to classic genres. And then we’ve got other songs that are in other genres that didn’t exist back then, done in chiptune form. People are going to get to hear new types of chiptunes that they’ve never heard before.
This game is getting a ton of buzz and a ton of coverage. Were you taking fan reaction and reception into consideration during the development process?
For a long time I was taking a lot of people’s reactions into consideration, and that’s one of the things that made the game as good as it is. I actively sought out play testers – friends of mine, other developers, and other designers. I had them play the game with the disclaimer of being as honest and blunt as you can be. Tell me if something sucks, tell me if you think anything can be changed. That’s very important. I would rather hear them tell me something sucks while making the game than hearing it sucks from a reviewer after the game is released. That’s really important for all developers. I know a lot of developers that have yes men involved, and that’s bad. It’s definitely steered the game to be a lot better, listening to feedback. Your game is not going to be as good as it could be if you don’t listen to others.
The one thing that I did do at the very end was make the sprites larger. That was something that Maxime had done, some mock-ups of larger sprites. They look phenomenal but it really was “we have to ship this game, we have to finish it, we can’t balloon the scope,” so it was sitting on the backburner and I said if we can do this, we will. We’ll address it when the game is done. And when the game was finally done, I looked at it, and asked how much it would add to the schedule and decided let’s do it.
The sprites are bigger now, not HUGE, but it makes them a lot more animated. The original sprites I had done myself, and I’m not so much a classically trained animator so they were just kind of some pixels moving left and saying that looks like a punch. The reason why the sprites were so small to begin with was because of the NES – on the NES they couldn’t have been any bigger. The game was built as if it was an NES game, and it’s gradually evolved from that. Originally my engine just wouldn’t support the sprites to be larger and I had to break things a bit.
I’ve noticed a lot of retro style games still get things a bit wrong, things are off here or there because they would never be able to happen in the era that the games are trying to emulate. How have you been able to keep this game true to the spirit of the 8-bit era?
I still use the sprite tool that I had built for Grand Theftendo, though I’ve updated it since. For fun I exported a good chunk of the city in RCR as it is right now and injected it into the old Grand Theftendo ROM so the character was running around in the RCR city. I thought that was pretty cool. That shows how similar and how close to the hardware I’ve been building things. I have taken liberties for the sake of gameplay, like the amount of cars and pedestrians on the street, but a lot of people don’t realize that using less colors and things like that actually produces a better looking game. The easiest way to make a game look amateur is to use too many colors to make it look like a retro game.
The story is loaded with 80s and 90s pop culture references, but what is the game’s actual story? Is there an over-arcing story or is it just a series of one-off vignettes?
There is a full-arcing story, though there are some side missions that aren’t part of the main story, because I wanted people to be able to complete the game without necessarily completing all the missions. GTA does the same thing. The missions themselves are generally sets of two to five missions per act, each act generally revolving around a character who is a parody or nod to other pop culture characters. The arc of the story is that you are working as a henchman for a super criminal, similar to the Joker, and you find a time machine. You steal it, it malfunctions, and you land – luckily you run into this mad scientist doctor who thinks you’re a hero, so he vows to help you repair the time machine so you can continue your quest to save the universe. This naïve scientist is helping this super evil criminal, helping your repair the machine. But, in order to repair it you’ve got to find the time machine parts, like the “flax combobulator,” which the military base has. And there’s a bubblegum to repair the antenna, and that’s where the Saved by the Bell missions come in.
It’s pretty amazing how fast the missions just pile up when you start adding these parodies. You think of how funny it would be to parody a character and then you start coming up with ideas and then there are three or four missions revolving around that mini story arc, then you keep piling them up and you’ve got 50 missions! There’s such a huge chunk of pop culture you’re missing out on, but there’s only so much you can do when you’re trying to ship out a game within a certain scope.
What’s next for you?
I’ve had so many ideas, but have had to deal with so many long days for months on end, seven days a week. The focus is on shipping the game. Once it’s out there’s still going to be a lot of work with support and PR, so in the immediate future I won’t be working on other games, I’ll still be working on all this. But I’m really eager to do a 3D game, so one of my next games will be a 3D game. As much as I love this art style, working in pixel art for this long and feeling a bit of envy when I see other indie games that are so visually impressive, I just want to do a pretty 3D game. I’ve got lots of ideas for more 2D games and even some retro stuff but I definitely need a breather before I get back into that. I want to do something visually impressive – that’s my goal for the next game.
As you can surely see now, there’s a reason Retro City Rampage was one of my most anticipated games of 2012. It looks to be an absolute treat, as well as a thoroughly impressive effort given it was made almost entirely by one man. Retro City Rampage will be available on WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, the PS Vita, and Steam this May. It’s going to be AWESOME.