It’s been a while since we’ve done an indie game feature to say the least! This project has us charmed, smitten, intrigued, erm, running out of adjectives… I caught up with Matt Phillips of Big Evil Corporation who is working on the brand new Mega Drive game (yep, I said it) Tanglewood!
UPDATE – The Kickstarter is now live! Check it out now here!
We’re big Mega Drive fans here so when we heard you were making a brand new MD game we simply had to find out more! Tell us a little bit about the concept for Tanglewood and how did this all come about?
Tanglewood was born from my love of dark and moody platforming games. Some of the ideas have been in my head for a long time, it was only a few years ago I pulled them all together into a feasible design. It’s set in its own world, a thick forest running hundreds of miles, and inhabited by several species of creatures. In one category is the daytime dwellers – they live normal lives, friendly and timid, and on the other side is the nightlife – vicious, snarling, nocturnal hunter type beasts and birds. The game’s protagonist is the former, but gets trapped outside his underground home when night falls. You play out his journey using evasion, tricks and traps to survive the night terrors and find another way back home.
It’ll be full of challenging enemies, puzzles, boss fights, chase scenes, hard to find collectables, and a day/night cycle which changes the creatures you encounter, all across about 12 levels of different styles.
How many of you are there in Big Evil Corporation (love the name!) and who does what?
It’s just myself at the moment, and I mostly do programming. The first goal was a prototype, so I’ve kept it a small venture so far. I’ve had a lot of help from others along the way – an artist helped out remotely for most of the prototype, and I’ve done focus tests with friends. The plan is to secure some funding, then build a real team!
We’ve had a go on the early build prototype and we love it! What games inspired Tanglewood’s look-and-leap platform feel?
The game wears its influences on its sleeves (and so do I; Sonic tattoos!), mostly Flashback, Another World and Abe’s Oddysee. I spent a lot of time lost in those worlds as a kid. The desolate lands of Paramonia, with its abandoned mechanical traps, pulley systems, flint locks and bell chimes is one of my favourite game settings. Limbo is another huge inspiration, probably my favourite platforming game post-PlayStation, and more recently I was introduced to The Swapper. I love the effects of loneliness, distress, and melancholy that get instilled into the player with these types of games – not because they’re particularly enjoyable feelings, but because the game has done its job of portraying the character’s situation onto you.
The pixel art looks amazing – how long did it take to create Tanglewood’s main character Nymn and the other sprites/backgrounds in the game?
Nymn has had four redesigns by three different artists, mostly to fix difficulties in animating him. It took a long time for his current form to come together. I think his earliest concept art dates back to 2013, but the idea in my head never changed – a thin and nimble, fox-like, meerkat-like alien creature who looks lost and scared. The final design absolutely nails this look! I remember seeing that version for the first time, and saying, “Yes! That’s him! That’s what he looks like in my head!”
The Djakk monster took ages, animating such a large character caused a lot of headaches for my artist. The level art wasn’t any easier, either, especially with the time of day mechanic making it awkward. I think it’s taken around 18 months for the first forest tileset and palettes to come together, but I guess most of that was spent creating the content pipeline. Figuring out the workflow was tricky with a platform architecture and set of limitations that none of us had ever worked with before. Tile count is the big metric to watch, you have to use every trick in the book to reuse tiles without making the level look bland and repetitive, and there was a lot of work on graph paper to design tree branches with as few as possible. The entire level tileset for the demo uses 900-ish tiles, and only 12 colours.
This was all whilst supporting a full-time job though, so it’s not a realistic time measure, really.
Creating a MD game cannot be easy! How have you done it and how many man-hours do you reckon you’ll clock up developing the game in total?
I started working on it in my spare time as far back as 2012. I’d started writing a blog about my learning process for the Mega Drive and the 68000 language, mostly to help me remember. Slowly I worked my way up from basic tests, to getting sprites on screen, to a working animation system, and on it went until it grew into a small game engine. Originally I used Sonic sprites for testing since I had no artist at the time, just to get the basics working. After I had a basic engine, a lot of time was spent writing a level editor, conversion tools, and creating a content pipeline and toolchain. I’m glad I took the time to get that bit right, or the game would have gotten nowhere. Now I can make changes to the level, sprites or animations very fast, then build and deploy to a new ROM in seconds. The most recent iteration of the demo was put together in a fraction of the time compared to my first attempt with freeware tools and a mess of batch files.
I suspect it will take a year from now to complete the 12 levels I have planned, especially since each requires its own tileset and custom mechanics. Then there’s polishing, bug fixing and publishing to deal with. I couldn’t put a man-hour count on that yet!
Was it tempting to ditch the Sega development tools and head to a simple game creator like Construct 2?
Nope! Quite the opposite. One of the reasons for starting the project in the first place was to learn how games were made back in the Mega Drive’s golden era. I’m fascinated by old development hardware, code, tools and processes, and I really wanted to recreate the experience and make a game in the same way. I’m committed to ensuring it remains a true 16-bit title all the way from the development process, to the equipment used, to the box and cover art. Unless I’m working on the train, it’s being made using a real Cross Products development kit, hooked up to a Pentium 133 PC running MS-DOS, and the assembly tools and debuggers from the early 90’s.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced using the Sega tools and 68000 assembly language?
Getting the devkit running for the first time was the biggest headache. It took years to gather the missing pieces, docs and software, and cost me a lot more than I’m willing to admit. The lack of resources didn’t help; I only know of one other working kit similar to mine, and the owner was facing similar troubles getting theirs running properly. Documentation was incomplete, I had parts and software missing, there were buttons and switches that continue to be misunderstood to this day, and SEGA certainly have no tech support department left! I don’t think this machine had been used since around 1996, either.
Thankfully the homebrew community was just as keen to see the thing running as I was, and through late nights, perseverance, and a few trips to some electronics specialists we managed to get it to fire up. I’ve never been so relieved and excited to see a single pixel on a screen! Unfortunately the problems didn’t stop there, the machine gave me a new challenge to deal with on a weekly basis. I think I’ve finally wrangled it into submission, though.
Are you tempted to make the SNES version of Tanglewood?
I’ve given it some serious thought. I have a friend at the National Videogame Arcade here in Nottingham who wrote some SNES demos, and she put the idea in my head a while ago. I started work on SNES support for my level editor and toolchain but got sidetracked, if that ever gets finished then the sprites, animation and level data can be ported over with a button press. The prospect of learning and mastering another assembly language makes me feel warm and fuzzy, but not until the Mega Drive version is out the door first. I’d also need some dev hardware… that’s gonna be tricky, and probably very expensive.
Sure! Why not?
We praise your commitment to making a game the old fashioned way. I hear a Kickstarter is on the way (it is! Check it out here). Why are you choosing crowdfunding? What bits need to be funded? And could you give our readers a sneak peek of the rewards on offer?
I’ll need a dedicated team to turn this into a finished title. I think I’ve hit the limits to what I can do on my own, or through favours and goodwill of my friends, this game is getting big now! The rest would cover advertising, cartridge test runs, and some bits of equipment. For a start I need as many different types of Mega Drive as I can get my hands on, from all regions, to make sure the game runs perfectly on every single one. I only get one shot at burning cartridges, no room for mistakes.
As for some of the rewards, there’s a hardback Making of Tanglewood book on the list, and some embroidered clothing featuring a cute little Nymn. I’m planning a collector’s box set with the game on a special edition red cartridge, and alternative cover art. They’ll be signed and numbered. I’ve also thought about a Developers Edition which allows backers access to our design docs and concepts repositories.
When can we expect the Kickstarter launch (you can count us in as backers!)?
Tentatively, mid to late October. There’s still a few bits and pieces to wrap up, and I’d like some second, third and fourth opinions from other industry professionals first. I have a slightly updated version of the tech demo in progress to make sure anything I show alongside the campaign is fresh, which will take me another six weeks at least. There’s also the prospect of a magazine ad, and I’m trying to ensure the timing of the two match up.
What’s your background and what games have you previously developed?
I got my degree in Computer and Video Games at the University of Salford, then started as a programmer at Traveller’s Tales working on engine tech, mostly audio and visual effects systems. I worked on 12 LEGO games over 5 years – everything from LEGO Indiana Jones II to The LEGO Movie game, and also worked on some of the special effects tech used to render the LEGO Batman movie. My last project there was a port of LEGO Star Wars Saga to iOS.
More relevantly, TT Games had its fair share of Mega Drive devs! Some of the staff there had amazing stories to tell from their time working on Puggsy, Mickey Mania, Toy Story, Sonic 3D and more. They offered advice on how to get started, and shared some awesome tricks you can do with the machine. It was one of the major catalysts for starting my blog.
After that, I moved to Crytek UK in Nottingham (ex Free Radical Design), working on Homefront: The Revolution. I’m now a Senior Programmer at the same studio, although it’s changed hands (again) and been renamed Dambuster Studios now. I also ported TimeSplitters 2 to Homefront’s in-game arcade machine!
Going back to 16-bit and before, what’s your favourite console and game to play on it?
The Mega Drive will always hold the top spot for me. Sonic was constantly in the machine, I loved trying to complete it faster, with bigger scores, more rings, all Chaos Emeralds, and never got sick of it. It was maybe over a year before I completed another game. I guess I’m not the first to claim Sonic as my favourite, but it was highly praised for a reason. I had a handful of others from day one – The Terminator, The Lion King, Micro Machines, and the Menacer gun with Toejam and Earl’s Ready, Aim, Tomatoes! shooting game – but none of them got anywhere near as much play time until I was shown Flashback.
Are there any other retro-themed projects out there you think our readers should know about?
I’ve been keeping a close eye on Fox ‘n’ Forests (we’re on it! – Ed) – a 16-bit style, high action platformer for PC, they were recently funded on Kickstarter. It looks drop dead gorgeous. If they want a real 16-bit port of it one day, they should get in touch!
If you could go for a drink with any video game character, who would you choose and why?
Victor Sullivan, from Uncharted. I know it doesn’t fit the retro theme, but it wouldn’t be a boring conversation, to say the least.
True that! Thanks so much for your time Matt – all the best with the project, needless to say we’ll be keeping an eye on developments! Readers, you can follow Matt on twitter @Big_Evil_Corp and keep on eye on Matt and Tanglewood at www.bigevilcorporation.co.uk
If you’ve missed the updates below the Kickstarter is now live!