HBL Interviews: FrankenGraphics.

FrankenGraphics
We are back, after a few weeks away, the Homebrew Legends Team has reached out to interview FrankenGraphics, she is creating a fantastic looking NES game called Blue Project, so scroll down and enjoy, more from us real soon.
HBL

Thank you for agreeing to our interview, please take a moment to tell us a little about you?

Ellen

Hi! So i’m Ellen, or better known as FrankenGraphics in NES game and homebrew circles. I was born 1986 and my first and for a long time only console was the NES. The SNES was already out but my parents were of the “why pay extra for a prefix / marketing trick?” variety. While they might have been wrong, there are no regrets on my part whatsoever. ūüôā

HBL

What was the first game/demo you created?
Ellen

Back when i was a kid, i made a text adventure in qBasic for ms-dos about going into my friends’ house (as kids do) and pet their dog. That was the whole goal of it.

For the NES, It was together with nesdev forum member Rahsennor. I had only made concept graphics up until that point, but we set out to make the first 4-player version of the “bomberman” gameplay concept on the NES, which we called “Wrecking Balls” It is a conundrum if you know about the graphical limits of the system, hence only a 3-player version was officially released.¬† But we solved it by animating bombs and blasts on the background tile plane, which worked fine. The game was never finished though and it scored last in that years’ nesdev compo. It lacked a music engine, though i had written the music, enemy AI for single player sessions, and had a notoriously unfair bug. We never got around to finishing it even after the compo.

HBL

Who does the Graphics, Sounds and Coding and how do you bring all your creations together?

Ellen

While i’ve learned how to code in 6502 assembly and have my own (for now) private projects, it is more productive to divide the labour between talents and fields of expertise. Usually, i end up making assets while somebody better at coding does that. For PROJECT BLUE, Donny (aka Toggle Switch) did all the game coding (and in that a great part of the core game design), tool development, all the music and SFX but one short intro jingle, and about half the challenge / level construction. I naturally did the graphics and most of its associated assets, the other half of the level design, gave all of the levels a final coat of paint, and helped form the shape of game mechanics and world into something different from the original tech demo he sent me.

Our versioning system, or lack of, has seen us using everything between asana (a productivity webapp) to plain gmail attachments.

The level editor has this smart feature – while it can export raw text data to include in the source, it can actually also patch up a precompiled game copy right away – this speeds things up considerably!

HBL

What was behind the decision to create games for the NES?

Ellen

Honestly, it was always my plan, since the early 90s. Right from when i first played games like SMB, blaster master and castlevania, i knew what i wanted to do. I drew countless of my own level designs on paper, filled with details and notes. I was a nerd even back then. But the NES was vanishing from the shelves and i was too young. I started exploring level design software in 2008 and lurked on the nesdev forums, but decided to join in…maybe 2013?

HBL

What do you for a living away from game/demo creation?

Ellen

A little this, a little that. I do freelance work developing exhibition enhancing experiences for museums, and lately consulting on product development for a company (can’t go into detail because of an NDA, sorry). I also work in retail when i have time, which i’ve been doing all my life.

HBL

Can you tell us about the HALCYON game, how you came up with the idea and the design behind the game?

Ellen

Well it’s a 2-brain process. Nathan -the programmer- wanted to do something exploratory which was inspired by the in- and out of vehicle action of “Blaster Master”, while still doing its thing, and since “Blaster Master” was a game i drew dozens of my own level designs for as a kid, i immediately jumped bait. I started working out this sci fi theme with him where we started thinking a lot about how every place in the game should make some material sense, like, what were the ancient alien civilisation doing in this place? What’s the plant life in this humid region, and how did it get that way? What’s this weird critters’ role in the local eco system? Hopefully, this will provide a sense of depth in the end result on what’s primarily an action platformer on the surface level – all more or less told through wordless visuals.
Obviously, classic metroid games have always been a point of reference.HBL

Any thoughts about doing games on other systems like the Megadrive,Dreamcast or SNES?

Ellen

To be honest, i haven’t had the time. Just the NES is a full plate. But i’ve been eyeing Megadrive, SNES, Gameboy, and TurboGfx-16.

I think the problem with, say, SNES is that people have expectations of what a SNES game should be that doesn’t quite meet the time available to do this on a hobby or semi-hobby level. Though, it would be awesome to prove that theory wrong. There are further complications: the toolchain is a bit sparse and you’d need to build trust from the ground up because there has been new cartridges made with poor quality designs/components prior to our time. I don’t think the SNESdev scene has matured quite as quickly as the NESdev scene, but give it a few years and that may change. Let’s hope!

HBL

Are you surprised with the resurgence in retro gaming?

Ellen

Not at all. I’m more surprised people threw it away like trash at the first sight of a few scrawny polygons. I was happy though – Second hand NES games were cheap and plenty for a while. I didn’t get another stationary console up until Wii, which i got end of 2009 which is also sometime where you started seeing this resurgence, i think.

HBL

Which one of your games are you the proudest of and why?

Ellen

Most of my projects are in the woodworks, so for now i’d say Project Blue. It’s full-length, highly polished, and packs a lot of challenge variation in its levels for its pretty tightly defined, NES-typical featureset. Speaking technically, i’m very proud of the work Nathan Tolberts is doing to our game HALCYON, which is right in the middle of development. I keep throwing him these crazy animation schemes and ideas and he keeps implementing the better crop of it – and then some! All while having free moving scrolling. It is going to be a technically impressive and hopefully visually stunning NES game once it is done.

HBL

Which game caused you the most headaches?

Ellen

Project Blue. While our level format + the level editor developed for it together make it very easy to edit the levels, maxing out the maps with 64 screens on each of them means you spend countless of hours balancing memory resources between each room and trying to make them look their best.

We’re releasing the level editor for free so people can make their own stuff! And even patch them right into the game in a custom slot.¬† Which is wonderful, i think. But my first tip is: don’t set out making a 256 room campaign as your first project or you won’t have any spare time left for a year or two. It is much more effecient with the given resources to maybe halve that at the very least. It is exponentially easier! But negotiating memory restrictions is also half the charm of nes development.

HBL

Project Blue looks amazing, will you be releasing this game as a physical cart one day?

Ellen

It’s even live on kickstarter now!

Even better, it’s practically shippable right now, though we’ve allowed ourselves a generous fulfullment timeline of feb 2020, just in case something comes up. Between now and then, i’m still going to apply the minutest layer of polish to the level design just because we can.

HBL

What made you go down the Kickstarter route?

Ellen

I think it was mainly because it has become the beaten path for launching and spreading awareness about retro console homebrew, but also because of its way to help encourage personal expressions and authorship, whicch i care for a lot. There’s also the question of funding. Everything works better in quantities and gauging how much we need to order for making these cartridges is helpful and safe. People are also familiar with the platform, which helps. I know some people have had bad experiences and that it can be a bit of a wild west, but i’ve backed 15 projects now and have no regrets so far. I think it’s a good way to establish yourself as a DIY game creator, too.

HBL

Do you have any games that are just sitting on your drives unfinished that you may release one day?

Ellen

My biggest NES thing is probably a game our illustrator for PB called “totally-not-castlevania”, because it is a gothic themed action platformer. Noone has seen more than a screenshot or two, but for example the soundtrack has 25+ finished songs. The project file actually says 60 songs, but some of those are scraps, bad songs, jingles, variants, or songs that not quite fit the theme. I’m going to make a selection to see what songs fit what situation best once it gets somewhere.

I made an NES game for a museum called “garbage hunter” which mechanically and thematically works well with that exhibition, but outside its context it’s not big or varied enough to be a game you’d want to buy a copy of, especially given the cartridge prices. Plus, it’s sort of a point that the experience is unique to that local museum.

HBL

Can you tell us what prompted you to get involved in Retro Game Development?

Ellen

While i was testing the waters even back in 2008, i think it is simply because the scene has matured. There are plenty of tools, tutorials, people who are active, helpful and knowledgeable, and the infrastructure for making good quality cartridges has become really well-knit lately. It’s not least thanks to the efforts of InfiniteNESlives, memblers, and Broke Studio. It’s pretty much what Rachel Simone Weill (nes hacking veteran and femicom museum founder) said in a talk and i agree with all of it – including that we today have this radical opportunity to forever redefine what a NES game is and should be about. We’re not just mimicking old times. It’s getting to the point where we’re doing the opposite of that, and it’s exciting.

There’s also something enticing about the sense of authorship you feel when playing somebodys’ homebrewed retro game. It has a lot of personality and tone, which could also be found to some extent in old games but is much rarer in todays’ game instrudy, i think. So that’s another good reason to join in! You get to own your creativity and let it shine through.

HBL

What games at the time (and now) would you say are your biggest inspirations?

Ellen

Games that left me with an impression back when i was a kid and then a teenager were: Castlevania 3 (NES), Blaster Master (NES), Metroid (NES), Batman (NES), Solstice (NES), Diablo , Fallout 1, Myst, Realmz, Sim City 2000, Sim Tower, Civ1, Monkey Island 1 & 2, Myth 1 & 2, and Quake. Those are the greats from my youth. There was also this independent, simple and brilliant platformer game with great level design where you took on the role as a cartoony lesser demon ever hungry for new souls to swallow in limbo. Your worst enemy was your hunger meter, but also bigger bully demons. I can’t find it anywhere. If anybody knows something, please get in touch!

I think my interest in game design took an upturn with games like Knytt Stories. Although the mechanics are quite different, maybe the keen player can sense a vague echo of that in Project Blues’ level designs.. although our levels are not quite as deadly, or fast paced.

HBL

What is the biggest challenge you face with the limitations of the hardware, particularly as you continue to expand features title-to-title? (Memory? Graphical capability? Speed?)

Ellen

Oh, where to begin? I already mentioned the memory constraints we wound up with trying to maximize the size of the game (it can hold a total of 768 level screens across 3 modes, which is a lot. Compare this to castlevanias’ 100 or so screens with a less dense object population – but –¬† filling those screens up with the required dictionary compression scheme in mind is another thing). There are several constraints that are game design limiting in a fairly annoying way on the NES, and maybe especially the NTSC version where a countinous sprite refresh maintenance on every frame is mandatory so the sprites don’t decay from memory).

Because of the 8 sprites per scanline limit and there only being 2 palette attribute bits for sprites, the selection of 2- or multiplayer games on the NES is severely reduced to what it could have been. And all your features are always competing for bandwidth with all the tasks that need to be done on a frame to frame basis. Unlike with for example the Commodore 64, another 6502 machine, you need to cram in a lot of competing updates in the very limited period of time that happens between frames (the so-called vblank or vertical blank). Sometimes you need to construct levels in a way where what is the ideal or initially intended design is at odds with what the machine can present to the player in a palatable way.

-But all that’s the name of the game and also part of what makes it exciting, especially when you succeed overcoming obstacles!

HBL

Do you have timelines built into the management of these games?
Ellen

It’s not like when or if you would work on a big-scale commercial studio for a salary. You have to make do with the time available and understand that your partners also have private lives to manage, which competes for that time. But we try to keep goalposts and more general statements like “this should be out in 2 years” just so that the games eventually actually comes out.

I think it is what every game designer ever struggles with – how to balance “wow” against keeping a consise scope. And maybe even more challenging – how to get enough time to finish things. Your worst resource management challenge is time. If you factor in the time that goes with homebrew, it’s essentially a for-loss venture. I even live in a rather unusual collective housing arrangement to support this lifestyle. That’s why these crowdfunding campaigns are so important for homebrewers. Nobody’s getting rich from this (at least not in the NES indie scene) but if there is a bit of money left after everything has been fulfilled, that could potentially help you get a bit of compensation for taking some time off regular work to help you keep doing what you love.

HBL

Are you doing all the development independantly?

Ellen

Yes, and i love it! I would be open to other arrangements, but i think this is why even people involved in highly commercial game development sometimes gets drawn into hands-on, DIY, full accountability, and a bit punk spirit homebrew (or the middle road of indie games).

HBL

Which is the most popular game you have created?

Ellen

Since so much is still in the woodworks, there’s no question right now it is Project Blue. It is the first full-featured game i’ve been deeply involved with to see an actual release. But if someone has read this far in the interview, they should probably follow me on twitter to see what the future has in store:¬† https://twitter.com/FrankenGraphics

HBL

What is the retro scene like in Sweden?

Ellen

I’m almost tempted to say non-existent but that’s not true, haha. We’re just a bit sparsely populated so i don’t think we see each other as much as elsewhere. I think most people interested in retro gaming are unaware of homebrew, but games like battle kid and micro mages have helped change that a bit. I think a lot of people have especially fond memories of the NES and SNES era because Nintendos’ import partner in the scandinavia, Bergsala AB, was pretty ruthless in their quality / market viability control. They shielded us from a lot of the worse titles you can find the US, japan, or even the rest of europe. Sure, a few duds sneaked through the filter and i don’t think anyone appreciated the translations of Shadowgate or Deja Vu, but still.

We’re also affected like many other european hobbyists being a very fragmented scene language-wise. There’s not as much communication with gamers, creators and collectors down on the continent as i would like, but at least we’re trying to change that. Working together with Antoine of Broke Studio down in France to set up an inside-EU assembly and distribution line for our game is a great step in the right direction!

There’s this fairly big retro gaming expo in Gothenburg, but i’ve been tied up by work every year so far, sadly.

One great thing is that when you meet another person who’s into it as much as you are, it’s easy to become friends. I was doing a bit of freelance work for a museum right when retro game-related textile artist Per Fhager was doing an exhibition there. You should google his stuff, it’s crazy impressive! We talked about the repeating of patterns and the use of the the black colour in NES graphics as a method to suggest more than the system is capable of, and instantly found common ground. That eventually led to him doing a custom needle point canvas of Project Blue right when it was under development! Fhager usually only does needle points of historical retro games so that felt very special. I’m looking for opportunities to show it off, maybe in our next promotion video for example.

One unique Swedish retro game experience is the text adventure “stugan” (“the cottage”) which i think every other person of my generation has played. It’s this zany and 100% bedroom coded exploration of a house and its immediate surroundings with a confusing connection of scenes and rooms with a lowkey score system for collecting stuff. A memorable moment is that you can steal a medal, but if you use the standard action “eat”, on it you discover it is made of chocolate, and instead get points detracted from your score. I never figured out what to do with the telephone in a certain room.

Finally
A huge thanks to Ellen for taking the time to chat to us here at Homebrew Legends.

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