Steve Watson loves old games. He loves them so much that without any prior programming experience, he dove into the retro remake world and hasn't come up for air since. For five years now, he has re-produced classics such as TransAm2000, Monty on the Run, and recently Equinox, under the heading of his self-founded studio, Space-Time Games.
I managed to pin this prolific remaker to the wall for a few minutes in order to get his take on the world of retro remakes. Don't worry, I didn't hurt him, but I did get a nice interview for your reading pleasure.
What do you see as the difference, if any, between developing remakes, and developing original games?
In developing a remake you seem to have more of a responsibility to do a good job. I don't mean from a quality point-of-view, but you're dealing with something that potentially holds some very fond memories for someone. When you develop a new game, you essentially have a blank canvass with which to start, whereas when you re-create something that was a classic in its day, I feel you have a responsibilty to be respectful to the original game. In essence, not doing a good remake of a game would be rather like updating one of Picasso's paintings with wax crayons!
Would you consider developing an original game, or are you planning on sticking to remaking classic games?
Well in actual fact I HAVE developed original games....they just happen to be heavily based on some of the classics! My first game, Willys Miner Nightmare, was heavily based on Matthew Smiths classic Jet Set Willy, only not as good! It was my first attempt at remaking a classic, and I lacked the knowledge and ability to do a like-for-like remake, so I thought "Hey, why not do my own version?". I don't know what it is really - sure I'm capable of coming up with original ideas, but I'm too much of a retro-fan to move completely away from the games I used to enjoy as a kid. In short, I think the only semi-original games I will develop in future will be unofficial spin-off's of the classics!
Is there a remaking community (such as BigBlueCup/AGS for adventure games) that a remaker-in-potentia might be able to join to get some insights and tips on remake development?
Even though I don't associate with them any more as a whole for various reasons, I think I'd be an absolute fool if I didn't mention Retro Remakes. That site is pretty much the definitive hub for all things retro in the gaming world, with a VERY active forum containing some very helpful souls who would go out of their way to help people. Also, for general advice, anyone interested in remaking a game could always try emailing the webmasters of the various remakes sites out there. Most of us are pretty friendly :-)
Oh, and I supposed I'd better mention Abandonia Reloaded too. They've all been very good to me, and besides Taikara would kill me if I didn't give the site a big thumbs-up ;-)
What were your biggest obstacles when getting into the remakes scene?
Well, when I started, the scene was pretty much just starting. There weren't any REAL obstacles, other than my decided lack of programming talent! I am most definitely NOT a coder! I bought a program called The Games Factory back in 1996 which claimed to enable idiots like myself to write all these spectacular games etc...etc.......which was used once, then subsequently left on my shelf for 4 years. One day whilst surfing the net, I came upon a site called Retro Relavance which was run by a guy called Gordon King. Now, two things struck me about this site: 1.) Gordon had remade several games BASED on the classics that I remember playing as a kid, and 2.) He used The Games Factory to do it! I sent him and email basically saying "HELP!!!", and the rest is history!
How many remakes have you made, and which is your favorite?
Last count was 12, though this of course doesn't include the projects that never quite made it. Personally, my favourite is Equinox. It took six months to put together using Multimedia Fusion, and I was determined to make it the best game I had EVER developed. I think it paid off....its a rather large download (11mb) and even in these days of broadband, that still seems to put people off. But I really am proud of it, and I think Ric Lumbs lovely graphics give it a polish that makes it look almost professional and well made!
Why did you choose to remake Equinox? Is there something special about it, or was it just one of those, "Why not?" sort of deals?
Well, obviously I liked the original game which in my view was and has always been an under-rated classic. I had a Spectrum as a kid, and I think Equinox was more of a classic on the Amstrad, but nevertheless I loved the game.
As to why I chose to remake it....well....you have to understand that packages like The Games Factory, and Multimedia Fusion, whilst being brilliant tools for taking all the really hard graft out of remaking, also have limitations in what they can achieve. I usually make a list of the games I would love to have a try at remaking, and then weigh them up against the capabilities of Multimedia Fusion, and then against my ability of lack of such. Equinox fortunately fell into the "Yeah, I think that Multimedia Fusion could do that, and I'm pretty sure I could MAKE it do that".
So what was the process you used to decide how to "upgrade" the original game? Basically, how do you go about deciding what to keep and what to improve?
Oh wow....thats a tricky one to answer.
A lot of the decision making process is helped out by playtesters. There's a few people I send the game out to with and without certain features, and basically say "What do you think?". Your best critic is someone that is COMPLETELY seperate from the development of the game as they can usually spot flaws/bugs/mistakes that are right under your nose, but you don't see. Most of the time, I just experiement. For example, the original version of Equinox was a flip-screen (one room at a time) game, whereas mine was a scroller. I argued with one of the people I had playtest the game right up until the game was almost complete as to which was better - flip screen or scrolling - and in the end I stuck to my guns, and he was good enough to relent in the end and say, "You were right, it DOES look better as a scroller."
Unfortunately, this sort of thing is in the minority, and my bull-headedness has sometimes worked against me. For example, Trans Am 2000 was WAY too hard. I knew it, the guy that playtested it kept telling me that it was too difficult, and the game is actually not one of my best as a consequence.
What engine did you use for developing the game, and what do you see as its pros and cons?
My first games (everything up to and including Jetpac - PC Enhanced) were all written with The Games Factory. Everything else was done with Multimedia Fusion which is like an advanced version of The Games Factory. I think its great, and CAN produce good results, but at the same time it is very limited. It has NO hardware rendering capabilities which can make scrolling games run slow on older systems, and its in-build platform engine is "glitchy" at best. Still, until I can be bothered to learn Blitz Basic or something similar, it'll have to do for now.
How did you come up with the music and sounds for the game?
Well, it varies. Gordon King has written some music for me in the past (Jetpac, I think) and so has Mike Fraley (Equinox), but most of the time its free stuff found on the net. Same with sound effects. Google is a wonderful tool for finding both music AND sound effects!
I've heard a lot of praise for the graphics of your version of Equinox - how hard was it to improve the graphics to more modern standards?
For me, VERY hard! I do NOT do graphics! My early games had simple re-coloured versions of the original sprites, which was considered acceptable back then, but nowadays I usually tend to farm the graphical work off to a willing (or reluctantly willing) pixel/sprite artist! Ric Lumb has done some work for me in the past, and really helped me out with Equinox. He doesn't sprite for games any more as he's a very busy self-employed man, but he agreed to help me out with this game, and I was VERY happy. Ric has never done a bad job on any of my games.
What was the biggest annoyance about working on Equinox?
Well, there were several. The first version of the game was done using The Games Factory, which was great until I reached roughly Level 4. THEN the limitations of the package kicked in, and lots of wierd things started happening such as the players laser stopped functioning half-way through the level, and the aliens and collectable objects would vanish. More than likely this was just due to extremely bad coding on my part, but annoying nonetheless. A few years later I had another try at the game from scratch using Multimedia Fusion, and I think the results paid off!
Also, I had a lot of trouble finding a sprite artist who had the time and was committed enough to finish the job. I had several sprite artists let me down, in fact, the game was complete from a coding point-of-view about 2 months before it was released! This was all down to a lack of sprites. Sprite artists seem to be a rare breed these days unfortunately. Its a great shame.
And the best part?
Checking my downloads when it was finished and seeing that it was MUCH more popular than I thought it would be! Remakers don't get paid for this - its a labour of love, and to be honest the best reward is seeing your downloads shoot up, and of course getting the occasionally nice review! It makes it all worth it, and for me the biggest kick out of remaking is producing something that people enjoy again and again.
Do you have any famous last words for hopeful remakers?
Just try your best! Find a game you liked back in the day, and give it your best shot. Send it to one or two people that you trust to give you an honest opinion (rather than telling you what they think you want to hear) and take their criticism on board. Above all, stick with it. My games might not be anywhere NEAR the best you can get out there, but there is a definite trend - the ones nearer the top of the list are the better ones! You WILL improve as long as you stick with it.
Also, try and stick with a game that YOU like. Obviously if you choose to remake a game that a lot of people have heard of, and a game that a lot of people like, there's much more pressure on you to do a fantastic job. Take your time, do not be hurried along, and don't be disheartened if the end result isn't quite what you expected. The next one you do WILL be better.
Thanks, Steve! You're the man!
So there you have it, kiddies. All the proof you need that even someone with no programming experience can make awesome remakes that allow us retro-addicts to relive our alien-blasting childhoods in contemporary style.
So what are you waiting for? Go for it.