Brandon Williamson, aka Nyarlu Labs (http://nyarlulabs.blogspot.com/), is an Australian coder who has created two retro styled mobile games. Magnetic Shaving Derby (available for iOS, Android and WebOS) is a bizarre game where your aim is to shave a dude’s head with a magnet and a razor (iOS link). As you do. Brandon’s most recent game, Forget-Me-Not (iOS link), is a brilliant game that can best be described as a Pac Man like dungeon crawler with shooting, interesting enemies, and some unique play mechanics. There’s a surprising amount of depth in what looks on the surface to be standard retro inspired fare. A quick poke about online will reveal almost universal acclaim by reviewers (Metacritic link). Download it. Now. No, not later, NOW! While it’s downloading, you can read this little (not really) interview I recently had with Brandon. It was quite interesting, and possibly might inspire some of you to start belting out some code.
Me: Tell us a little about yourself and your programming / gaming background.
Brandon: My name is Brandon. I grew up in Darwin. My earliest memories of computers and games are seeing an arcade board (PCBs + joysticks and buttons, on a bit of wood) my dad had out in the shed. I think he said it was Space Invaders. I never saw it in a cabinet or attached to a TV, never got to play it. He also had a Microbee computer built from a kit, with some games on tape, which again I never got to actually see in action. Some time after that we got a Commodore 64 which was pretty much my world until we got a 386SX in (I think) 1993 or so.
I was sort of in a computer vacuum until the internet came along (and the last days of BBSes). I had one friend who also had a C64, another who had a NES which I only got to play occasionally, but that was it. The only arcade machines I’ve ever spent much time on were Bubble Bobble and Snow Bros.
The C64 (which I think must have come from the classifieds in a newspaper) came complete with a massive box of disks, full of what I now know were pirated games. At the time I thought that’s just how games came – handwritten label (or no label), multiple games to a disk, some of them with little intros full of cool music and bouncy, rainbow coloured text. :) So playing games was a massive adventure for me, often I wouldn’t be able to find the disk I was after, and I’d always be coming across new games I’d never seen before (like one strange one simply called ‘ROTMC’).
I don’t remember how I actually started playing around with BASIC on the C64, probably via a book from the library. I never got very far with it. My friend and I used to make multiple choice, text-based adventure games every weekend for fun. I managed to get a sprite on the screen ONCE, but didn’t really understand what was happening.
When we got PCs we mainly played the unregistered versions of shareware games, and stuff from PC magazine coverdisks (PC Format was my favourite). I saved up for months to buy Monkey Island 2 but by then the shop had run out of copies so I got Darkseed instead. I also managed to get a copy of Borland Turbo Pascal somewhere, so I got back into programming again, but still only text-based stuff. I realised after making Forget-Me-Not, that that’s actually where it started. The games I was always trying to make (I never got any of them working) were full of tiny little critters running around large mazes blowing stuff up.
Then on later PCs, I messed around with various other languages: DJGPP C, BlitzBasic3D and then BlitzMax. It was always just a hobby, I didn’t actually finish or release any games until 2008, when I got a DS and thought I’d have a go at making homebrew for it.
Why did you start to programme for iThings? What are the pros / cons / other interesting aspects?
After making a couple of little DS games, I somehow got offered a small freelance gig doing some back-end coding on an iPhone game for a small company here in Melbourne. At the end of that I’d levelled up my coding skills a bit, and been able to afford a MacBook! Following that, I figured I’d have a go on the iThings.
I really like making stuff for them. It’s fun trying to come up with games that will work on a touchscreen without any buttons. I think the App Store is pretty great for the ‘bedroom coder’ type person – you can sell what you make, without having to know how to set up a proper website with a payment system, distribution, etc. I can just sit at home and make a game – which is the only part of the process I’m interested in – and most everything else is taken care of. Except for marketing. Don’t ask me about marketing, it does my head in. :)
I don’t mind the whole Apple review process at all. The only time it bothers me is when someone finds a bug in my game. But then I fix it, and it takes a week or more before the updated version comes out. I’ve heard of people having bad times with app reviews, but it hasn’t happened to me personally.
Releasing stuff on the App Store is interesting because of the wide range of people who end up playing it. Rather than just “gamers”, or people who follow indie game sites and such, you end up with all different kinds of people, from different countries, playing your game simply because it’s on a phone.
How have you found the iThing ‘community’? Is the immediate feedback you get a positive thing?
Yeah, I like it a lot. There are always some people who demand MORE of course, but I find it amazing how people will play my game and then email me to say they liked it, or they found a bug, or whatever. It sounds corny but it really does make it all worthwhile when someone takes the time to do that. I’ve ended up having ongoing chats with people via OpenFeint because I sent them a little message to say ‘nice score!’. I don’t know if this is a good, bad or neutral thing in general. I guess if you were someone who made a game which hundreds of thousands of people played it’d get slightly overwhelming! But for me, making my little arcade games, it’s lovely.
You’re based in Australia right? Where? Is there much of a local iOs coding ‘community’ that you’re in touch with, or does Internet-based communication render location a non-factor when it comes to getting advice and solving problems?
I’m in Melbourne now, but I don’t know many people here yet. I am in touch with a few local iOS devs, but even then it’s mainly online. This could just be because I’m such a hermit. :P I don’t really know how much of a local game-making community there is here, but I think it’s quite big judging by the amount of people who turned up at the Freeplay Independent Games Festival here in 2010. (Freeplay was awesome by the way!). So yeah, mainly online communities for me.
What were your favourite games as a kid? Why?
This is a hard one. So many, for so many different reasons…the ones I can think of right now would be:
Jumpman (C64): I like the sounds and the tunes that play when you die, and how when you die, your man tumbles down through the platforms, bouncing off them in a painful, higgledy-piggledy sort of way. Getting the last bomb (we called them ‘gold things’ at the time) and winning the level after having already died is great. I also love how Jumpman will climb up onto a platform if you just touch it with the upper half of his sprite… making some daring leaps and a sort of ‘loose’ feeling game play possible. And I love how almost every level has some different game mechanics.
Crossroads 2: Pandemonium (C64): This was a type-in game from Compute! Gazette magazine. My friend and I were given the mags when someone was throwing them out. This was the only game we ever actually finished typing in, and it turned out to be awesome. I love the way the enemies will fight each other, with some of them have alliances with others, and the way your shots will wrap around the screen and keep flying forever (sound familiar? :D) and the sheer amount of chaos on-screen.
Revenge of the Mutant Camels (C64): To my shame, this and Gridrunner are the only Llamasoft games I actually played on a real C64! I played the rest later on emulators. I had no idea what this was when I first loaded it (the aforementioned “ROTMC” disk), but I was immediately hooked. :D The title screen music still brings back really strong memories. Weird enemies, amazing atmosphere…the sound effect when your camel dies (and the painful looking way its sprite falls on its back with its legs all twisted in the air). I wish I’d had Ancipital at the time, that would’ve blown my mind.
Super Mario Bros (NES): I only got to play this rarely, when at my friend’s house. It had a sort of mythical quality to it. Everything about it is just perfect. Also, Yoshi’s Island is probably my favourite platform game, though that was later.
Bubble Bobble (Arcade): I love Bubble Bobble as much as Super Mario Bros. It’s so cute, and there’s something about shiny bubbles which pop, and masses of fruit, cake and treasure flying out and landing everywhere. I also love two player games. I love the tile graphics used for the levels, and the way some level layouts are pictures of things, such as screen wrapping, and how jumping on bubbles without popping them is sort of an advanced technique. Bubble Bobble is the best.
Llamatron (DOS): More Llamasoft. I got this on a PC Format coverdisk. Again, I was hooked right from the title screen. That phase shifting bouncy beast sine wave thing is amazing! And then I played the game. So good! I’d never played Robotron or anything else like it. One of my all time faves. Yay for Minotron on iOS!
Commander Keen 4 & 5 (DOS): Probably the games I’ve spent the most time with on the PC. Such large and varied levels, heaps of secrets to find…POGO STICK! More games need pogo sticks. It was really fun just bouncing around. The Shikadi look so cool all transparent with electrical outlines. I really want to play these again right now actually!
Haha, I could go on all night about games I’ve loved. I’ll stop now.
You obviously like Llamasoft games – what draws you to them?
I like how in many of them each level has a completely different kind of enemy – either different sprites, different behaviours, or both. I like how Jeff does interesting game mechanics e.g. 4-way gravity in Ancipital; controlling of multiple ships through different symmetries in Voidrunner; mouse-only control in Gridrunner++ – , and the Sheepie Save! That’s gotta be one of the coolest mechanics ever! Where you resurrect yourself after dying by manoeuvring the debris of your ship onto a powerup. Back to Ancipital – such interesting stuff in it. The rules of the game change each level; sometimes your own bullets become your enemy. Sometimes you have to do nothing. The 2D grid structure of the levels is ace.
Those are all specific things about specific Llamasoft games. It’s hard to say what draws me to them in general. A bit of craziness, a bit of trippiness and some really well designed interlocking systems of game mechanics is what they tend to have. I guess that’s what it is. Also his games are somehow really personal, you can feel how much love has gone into them. There are heaps of other people who make such games of course, Llamasoft just happens to be one I’ve known since I was young.
I read an interview with Jeff in PC Format in the early 90s some time, really liked what he had to say. And his lightsynth work is supremely cool. I like video games, but lightsynths are something beyond that. I have yet to play Space Giraffe or Gridrunner Revolution sadly.
What other studios / programmers / game music creators etc do you admire and why?
A bit shamefully, with a lot of games, especially console games, I don’t really pay attention to who made them. I’m hard pressed to name any music composers (except people I know personally). Which is a bit bad of me since music is my main love. Anyway, two people who immediately spring to mind are:
Shigeru Miyamoto! Like I said before, Super Mario Bros is completely perfect. I think it’s genius. Also the guy who made Bubble Bobble, Fukio Mitsuji. I admire these people for what they made, and for the things they’ve said in the small amounts of interviews I’ve read with them.
A studio who makes games I love is Treasure. I’ve nowhere near played all their games, but what I have played is really sort of innovative. Rakugaki Showtime, Gunstar Heroes, Bangai-O Spirits! (never played the first Bangai-O, but Spirits is amazing. It’s like, whoever came up with that is letting their imagination roam right outside the whole box that video games are in!)
I also admire lots of the game makers I’ve met online over the last couple years. There are some seriously lovely people floating around in the indie games communities. I love lots of them for different reasons. There are way too many brilliant projects being made to list them all now!
I’ll just mention Rob Fearon (Oddbob) and Stephen Lavelle (Increpare). Oddbob makes the best shooting, exploding, colourful games ever. Increpare has made many, many games. Some of them are bizarre, some are fun, some tell a story. And some of them open up web browser windows on your computer and google image searches for disturbing imagery. They’re usually a bit experimental. And he’s always making things. BUT, the reason I admire Increpare and Oddbob is because they are both so encouraging towards other people who make things. Let’s all make things!
Magnetic Shaving Derby is crazy! How did you come up with the concepts for the game?
The original MSD (DS homebrew version) was made for a coding competition where you had to use a random video game name generator to come up with a name, and then make it into an actual game. As soon as the name Magnetic Shaving Derby popped up I knew what I had to do. The extra stuff in the iThing version all came about fairly randomly, which is usual for me. Ideas pop up, they make me giggle, so I put them in.
Forget-Me-Not is a great little game that wouldn’t seem at all out of place on my C64 in the mid 80’s. How did the ideas for that game develop? Did you have it all mapped out beforehand or discover things as you went?
It was fairly haphazard. I decided to have a go at making a game in one week, as a little break from another project I’m working on. I know several people, like Jayenkai and Increpare, who make steady streams of quick games, and it seems like a cool thing to do. It didn’t work though, it ended up taking me four weeks! I didn’t start with any real idea. I always liked games set in mazes and procedurally generated levels, but I’ve never actually done either, except for my aborted attempts at maze games from back in the DOS days, so I made a little maze generator, put in a player character and some things to collect, and a couple of types of enemy.
I also really liked the feel of wall grinding from Pac-Man CE, so I nicked that and put it in, though it didn’t have a purpose yet. Then I remembered that C64 Crossroads game I mentioned earlier, and decided to try making something like that. I added shooting and 2-player mode, then a bunch more enemies, each with different behaviour. And that’s it. Not very exciting hey?
Almost everything I make comes under the ‘discover things as you go’ category.