HBL Interviews Night OWL Designs

Night Owl Design

We are back, this time we are interviewing Night OWL Designs, they are a group of hobby game developers currently represented by the brothers Frank and Gerrit Wille. They restarted making Amiga games for the classic hardware in 2013, after already having done some, mostly unfinished, projects together during the years 1987 to 1994.

Read on and enjoy!

 

HBL

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

Frank

Hi, I’m Frank and I got into programming with my first computer in 1983: a Commodore VIC-20. First some BASIC, then followed by 6502 machine code later in the year. It became clear to me that programming is what I always wanted to do, so I studied IT and Physics at the University of Bielefeld from 1989 to 1994. Fortunately, this period matches exactly with the golden Amiga years, so I had a lot of time to intensify my Amiga knowledge. I made some tools (assemblers, linkers, utilities) and games for it, in C and 68000 assemblers, and never felt the need to have a look at any other system.

When the Amiga finally became unusable for daily work (for example web-browsing), with the beginning of the new millennium, I started to use NetBSD on more modern hardware, as I had some good Unix knowledge from my studies, where Sun-Sparc workstations were common. Later I even became a NetBSD developer (mostly for PowerPC architectures, but also Amiga). I have some PowerPC hardware (mostly Apple, but also a Pegasos II) running AmigaOS4 and MorphOS (an AmigaOS clone). And much more uncommon hardware like Silicon Graphics and Sun Sparc workstations – just anything else than a boring x86 Windows PC.

During all these years I continued developing and supporting Amiga software. The development tools I created need constant updates, of course. But at some point in the last decade, I was longing for some classic Amiga hardware coding, as we did in the 80s and early 90s, so the idea to start a game project was born. Gerrit was the first choice for it, because we already did game projects in the past and he is capable of doing pretty good graphics and music.

Gerrit

Hi all, my name is Gerrit. I’m the little brother of Frank. As a teenager, I got in touch with computer games in the middle of the 80s. I started as many others with the Commodore 64 and was fascinated by the Amiga a few years later. When the Amiga “officially” died in the middle of the 90s I lost contact with computers or games in general — for a long long time :). I’d like to concentrate on my apprenticeship as a bank clerk.

 

HBL

What was the first game/demo you created?

Gerrit

I tried my best to write very simple games in BASIC on the Commodore 64. The first game was very, very awful… It was an adventure called “Spukschloss” (“Haunted Castle”) – really terrible. At that time I haven’t realized that I’m not talented in writing computer programs. Regarding the Amiga times, Frank and I published our own Website a few months ago: http://night.owl.de/. There is an Extra-menu with a so-called “Museum”. There you can find all horrible attempts of the past for the Amiga. It has been a lot of fun to us to rediscover these old projects.

Frank

The first game ever created? That was certainly some BASIC game, a few days after I got my VIC-20. At that time I made a new mini-game nearly every day. Like moving a space ship left/right and firing on something. As Gerrit already mentioned, we did a lot of game projects together during the 80s and 90s, but we never released anything, also because there was no internet.

The first game released to the public, which was not a plain port, was Sqrxz in 2011 or 2012 (http://www.sqrxz.de/sqrxz/). I could convert graphics and music from the original C/SDL program, but I had to rewrite the code from scratch in 68000 assembler to make it playable. After Sqrxz1 I started to plan the realisation of Solid Gold with Gerrit.

 

HBL

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

Gerrit

I’m responsible for the Graphics and the Sounds. Because the daily work is very stressful I need — as a balance — something creative to relax. The idea of making games was initiated by Frank. As I told you, I was completely out of the Amiga-scene. When we were young and went to school we’d a lot of ideas — but nearly never finished a project. I guess it was because we were too inexperienced and wouldn’t have the staying power. Now we are very old, wise and know how to plan a project. But with the last games “Trap Runner” and “Celtic Heart” I took Frank by surprise. And I’m a lucky man that he’s able to fulfill all my wishes πŸ™‚

Frank

Yes, I’m doing all the coding. Nothing else. Not only because I have enough to do with coding alone, but also because I am not as creative and artistically skilled as Gerrit.

 

HBL

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

Frank

I was working as a programmer for Electronic Cash Registry software for many years. Since 2016 I am the IT department of a medium-sized family enterprise.

Gerrit

I’m working as a purchaser for a big wholesaler. If you need some screws or nuts – you could ask me about it πŸ™‚

 

HBL

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

Gerrit

I’d a lot of fun in making, “Solid Gold”. And I planned a successor for a long time. The name was, “Rayzor”. I’d done music and graphics — but the game would have been very, very difficult, with a lot of new elements. So I planned a shorter and easier game for warming up. And that was the start for Trap Runner. I’ve drawn the hero (Jay) and some easy background-graphics. In the beginning, there was no intention of making a full game. But with Retroguru and the Beta-testers, we got more and more ideas and the game evolved every week.

 

HBL

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

Frank

I never used any other system than the Amiga during youth, so I don’t have many fond memories of others, which is probably needed to do retro game development. I would also lack the experience.

Gerrit

I have completely dedicated myself to the Amiga πŸ™‚

 

HBL

Can you tell us about the idea behind the name Night Owl Designs?

Gerrit

We searched for a name, and Frank had the idea with Night Owl Design, because a night owl made up a good logo, Frank is a night owl (going very late to bed) and OWL stands for “Ost Westfalen Lippe” which is the region we live in.

Frank

It should also remind you a little bit about the famous Amiga developers of “D.M.A. Design” – or the owl in the Psygnosis logo.

 

HBL

Are you surprised by the resurgence in retro gaming?

Gerrit

Yes, I was very surprised. And I’m very sad about having disposed of all my old game magazines of the 80s. Shame on me that I lost all the Amiga Jokers and PowerPlay mags.

Frank

Not so much, as we have already seen a similar development in the C64 scene long before. I guess the Amiga took longer either because it is younger, and its users have to come into the right age for having the time to return to the hobbies of their youth, or because there were too many people who still hoped for further developments of the operating system and the hardware, or even hoped for a return to the market.

I have to say for myself that I’m feeling much better after having accepted that the Amiga is dead, and we can concentrate on having fun with a classic hardware design that was frozen in time while being at its best.

 

HBL

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

Gerrit

For me, it is “Solid Gold”. But Trap Runner and Celtic Heart are even better… But Solid Gold was the restart of making games. It was very hard… I did no graphics for about 20 years on a computer (and I’ve nothing to do with graphics). And at the beginning, I’d no idea how to write about 3 songs per stage with a limitation of max, 100 kb — and where I could get
samples for the music πŸ™‚ It was very hard and I’d to learn a lot. So I’m proud of having finished this game…

Frank

Usually always the last one. Every new game introduces new tricks and techniques I can be proud of as a coder. So the code base of a new game is always superior to the former as I’m still learning, even after more than 36 years.

 

HBL

Which game caused you the most headaches?

Gerrit

As I told you: For the game, “Solid Gold” I started with nothing and had to build up everything. But I’d the most headaches with Celtic Heart. I made some graphics and sounds without asking Frank before πŸ™‚ – and I made it in a very short time because I was highly motivated to do something without “cute/comic”-graphics. Frank was very fast and — I’m not sure — but the game was nearly finished in 3 months. Graphics for three worlds, level design, sound effects, 12 music themes… In the beginning, it was not intended to be released. So I had pictures for the title and the outro which are scanned from a graphic novel — with copyright I guess. But then there was a competition on EAB and Frank asked me if we want to take part in this competition — because the game was finished in this fast time.

Finally, I’d two days left to draw a new title picture, two outro pictures, and three pictures at the beginning of each world. And I’d like to draw them after coming back from work. That was nearly impossible πŸ™‚ – but we did it (which is why the quality of these pictures is not very well πŸ™‚ )

Frank

Yes, it was probably Solid Gold for me too. After the first Sqrxz- port, which was playable but technically rather sub-optimal, I had to learn and relearn a lot of Amiga hardware-coding tricks to make a decent 8-way scrolling platformer. The basis of the Solid Gold engine was later improved over Sqrzx3 and 4 into the Trap Runner engine.

Concerning the EAB-competition Gerrit mentioned I have to add that we decided, in the end, to withdraw our entry because other competitors didn’t seem too happy about such a late entry (and probably were afraid of it ;).

 

HBL

Celtic Heart looks amazing, will you be releasing this game in physical format one day?

Gerrit

Some times ago I composed the title song of, “Celtic Heart” without having the idea of making a game. But the atmosphere of the song was the determining factor for making this game. As I told you, the game was made in
a very short time. We’d no beta-testers, no clever new ideas. So it feels unfinished to me. There will be no physical format.

Frank

We won’t do it, generally have no big interest in doing physical releases of our games. We are only interested in the enjoyment of doing some classic Amiga game development, but not in a box or profit. Which doesn’t mean we would forbid a physical release of Celtic Heart. The game, the code and all assets are released as public domain.

 

HBL

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

Gerrit

Since Solid Gold, we’re lucky of having finished all games :). So there will be no unfinished game. But there is a lot of graphics and music for “Rayzor” – as we never started this project. Unfortunately, the graphics and sounds are now 4 years old and I’ve evolved. It will be too hard to make a new project with old files. I see no chance of making this game.

Frank

Neither do we plan to release any of our old games from the 80s and 90s. Most are unfinished anyway, and that would only be embarrassing.

 

HBL

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

Gerrit

It was Frank’s idea because of the good old time. It should be a creative fun project without any goal — and, I thought it was a single project and that’s it. But the Amiga scene is very polite and it was a very positive experience. I enjoyed the time.

Frank

After decades of mostly C coding, doing some direct hardware hacking in 68000 assembler appeared to be quite attractive to me. The M68k CPU and the classic Amiga custom chipset are the perfect combinations for having fun. I noticed the frequent homebrew game releases on the C64 and other retro platforms and wondered why there is not so much on the Amiga. Doing Solid Gold and releasing all the source texts was also done in the hope to get the momentum going, so other developers may be inspired by it. I think it worked. Now, seven years after Solid Gold, there are several classic Amiga game releases every year.

 

HBL

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

Gerrit

I loved platform games like Turrican, Great Giana Sisters, Rayman.

Frank

Yes, Turrican always impressed me with its perfect 8-way scrolling and I wanted to do that. For parallax scrolling, my inspiration is Shadow of the Beast, of course!

Not a game, but also reading Codetapper’s Sprite Tricks gave me some inspirations: https://codetapper.com/amiga/sprite-tricks/

And I still have to thank Georg Steger for his documentation of the perfect Amiga scrolling algorithms in http://aminet.net/package/dev/src/ScrollingTrick It inspired me to implement the 8-way scrolling in Solid Gold as
performant as it is.

 

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?)

Gerrit

Luckily Frank did a great job every time. Don’t know how it was possible to put all Solid Gold-data with short loading time on one disk… For me, it is very hard to make three songs (each song sometimes about 3 or 4 minutes), with all instruments and jingles with less than 100 kb. That’s every time hard. And luckily, because I’m no good graphic artist, Frank allows using 32 colors. Otherwise, it would be even harder for me πŸ™‚

Frank

Until now we are trying to make our games work with 1MB, where only 512K have to be Chip-RAM. The Chip-RAM limitation is probably the most challenging, as graphics and especially sound samples need a lot of it. Surprisingly CPU power was no issue in our last games, although we started carefully and then added more and more. The Trap Runner engine is so fast that rendering a frame only takes 50% of the available time. Which means we could double the action or run the game in 100Hz! And we are talking about a 7 MHz 68000 here.

On the other hand, the challenging limitations are also fun in it. I like it when there is a limit, and when you reached it then you know that you have done your best. With more resources, available game projects are in danger to take much longer or never be finished because there is always something to improve. Otherwise, people ask you why you didn’t take advantage of all the hardware’s capabilities.

 

HBL

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

Gerrit

We did it just for fun. When we’re close to finish Solid Gold, Frank announced that we’ll release the game at the end of the year. That’s the only timeline we had. It’s better to work on something which nobody knows. Then there is no stress.

Frank

Yes, usually there are no timelines. We never announce that we are working on a game. So there is zero pressure. I’m sure the Amiga community won’t disappear in the meantime. It is there for more than 30 years. πŸ™‚

As our games are family-internal projects it is easy to follow such a strategy. Everybody can take the time he needs and we are sure nobody disappears and makes the project fail.

 

HBL

Solid Gold is a great game, what was your inspirations for this game?

Gerrit

I guess I watched “Indiana Jones” again during this time πŸ™‚ And the graphics should be easy for the beginning — so I made them in a kind of comic style.

 

HBL

Which is the most popular game you have created?

Gerrit

The most playable game for me is “Trap Runner”. But today there are many new games for the Amiga. And we’d the idea to introduce new ideas with every new level — so a lot of players won’t see all these ideas :). So it as only one of many other games which were released. Solid Gold has the advantage that the number of new releases was very low at that time. That’s the reason why I think that Solid Gold could be the most popular game.

Frank

It’s a good question. We really don’t know for sure. We also don’t have any sales statistics for those games which had a physical release (as we don’t have anything to do with the sales). Maybe Gerrit is right and it was Solid Gold, which appeared at a time without many other new releases. Many people like Celtic Heart, even before Trap Runner, although the depth of Trap Runner is often overlooked. It develops over several worlds, where more and more game features appear. Unfortunately, not many players saw them. Celtic Heart is much simpler, with no extras or changes in later worlds. It’s probably the atmosphere, and Gerrit’s excellent soundtrack, which makes it attractive.

 

HBL

What are you guys currently working on?

Gerrit

We’d made four games till now. With Trap Runner (2018), Celtic Heart (2019) and Trap Runner in Black Strawberry Cake (2019) we released three games in a short time. Now we’ve to recharge our batteries. And if there’s a good new idea we’ll hopefully start a new project. But you can be sure that it won’t be a platform game πŸ™‚

Frank

Yes. Enough platformers for now! But I love scrolling – the Amiga is made for it! I would predict that the next game will be an 8-way scroller, although no platformer.

Finally

A huge thank you to the brothers for taking the time to chat with us at HBL.

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