Joe Granato IV Creative Director at www.thenew8bitheroes.com
Interview by Peter Ward
After officially deciding to move forward with this project, I reached out to the childhood friend who I originally conceptualized this 8-bit world with over 25 years ago. We hadn’t talked in decades, but ironically, even though life had led us thousands of miles from our native home, they had been thousands of miles in the same direction, and he coincidentally lived near enough to visit on a whim. We met up at Player1 Game Bar in Orlando, a great little ‘barcade’ near the parks. We drank copious amounts of alcohol until our speech and motor skills resembled our 1988 juvenile selves, and we played all of the classic NES games right at the bar. What type of game should Mystic Searches be? This quote from Matt sums up the drunken vision quite well.
Meanwhile, we also began to develop their world. Careful to observe things like sensiblegeography and relevance to our themes, the following became a rough explanation for the base of our world, Myrinda.
In the early ages, nomadic races from all over the world happened upon the mysterious continent of Myrinda. In this place, the basic building blocks that make up corporeal reality were malleable, and ordinary mortals were able to tap into supernatural abilities. When word spread of this, the immigration was overwhelming. Creatures came from all over the world to cheat death, or to cause it. They came to stoke passions, or to align their futures. They came for countless reasons, but their shared ambition to supersede their own mortality led to a catastrophic imbalance in the world’s spiritual center. The results were catastrophic, as the very nature of existence unraveled.
The few that survived were the ones that most strongly aligned with particular supernatural elements. Those survivors came together to establish a system of order to prevent future catastrophes. They created a paradigm where in successive generations, individuals showing strong aptitude or communion with these primary elements would be selected to be the custodians of the various types of wonder; one to regulate life, another death. One to regulate order, another entropy. And so on. These individuals are known as the Mystics, and it is there vocation to maintain balance. Since establishing this system, the mystical land of Myrinda has generally been a peaceful place.
However, not everyone agrees with this dogmatic system. Obsessed with the ancient, nomadic settlers’ ambition, a cult of rogue gypsies have tapped the power of void, the leftover waste matter from Myrinda’s past catastrophe. They seek to supplant the Mystics in order to free the supernatural elements from the interference of mortal regulation, even if it means once again allowing the world to unravel.
First of all Welcome to Retrogamesmaster.
What is your first gaming experience?
My *first* gaming experience. Well, there are a few ways I can answer that. The very first video game that I remember playing was the handheld Coleco Pacman tabletop arcade game. I must’ve been about three years old, gauging time by where I was living at the time. I remember considering my mastery of the game (evidenced by the fact that I could beat my older sister at it) a legitimate, innate skill. Haha.
However, to this day, my most formative young gaming experience, and probably the experience that first made me aware of what games could be, was the golden cartridge. A trip to Toys R Us, probably as a result of a good report card or some such thing, got me my own copy of The Legend of Zelda. I remember firing it up for the first time very vividly. All the lights were turned off in my family room…it was sort of like waiting for a highly anticipated movie to begin. Upon hitting the power button, the bright colors and gorgeous chiptune score filled the room. I was transported. That was probably the defining moment.
What got you into programming games?
Well, growing up playing the NES was more than a passive experience for me. It compelled me to want to create my own game worlds. Honestly, playing games opened up my imagination and creativity in ways that other mediums never did. I loved to read. I loved movies. I loved music. But those formative years playing those early games were directly responsible in me wanting to create. In elementary school, I used to doodle my own Super Mario courses on school notebooks or my own Zelda dungeons with sidewalk chalk. I wrote fan-fiction for school assignments before fan-fiction was a thing. It all culminated in setting out to design my own game world with a friend in 1988. Without a single shred of concept of coding or logistics, we designed a design document for a game Mystic Searches and sent all the plans into Nintendo of America, along with a two or three sentence letter that read something along the lines of “Please send us the stuff we need to make our game, like a blank cartridge and all the other stuff. Your Friend, Joe and Matt, age 8.” In retrospect, it was adorable. Of course, the plans were returned with a quaint form letter from Nintendo, crushing our ambition.
But as games continued to evolve, my desire to make games never dwindled. I used to play around on Hypercard (for an old Mac Plus), which was certainly not a game-development software (such a thing didn’t exist yet). It was a presentation software more akin to Power Point. I’d use it to create point-and-click adventure games that all germinated out of the ideas for Mystic Searches. Eventually, I learned other tools – some basics of scripting languages, RPG Maker, Gamemaker, Flash, Torque, Unreal, Unity…as a hobbyist, I kept pace with the growing ability for an average person to develop for a multitude of platforms, though my passions had turned elsewhere. I became a writer, studied film in college, and music really became my life. It was actually on a national tour with a rock band out of Baltimore back around the turn of the millennium when game development became more than a hobby. We were a band still pretty far under the radar, and to continue to make income, I was doing some freelance web development work out of the tour van. I had one client that wanted a simple flash game for their website (and this was in a time when this wasn’t all that common). They were willing to pay astronomically more for the site if it included the game. So, on a stretch between Seattle and Salt Lake City, I programmed them a flash game. It was the first time I was financially compensated for a game I’d developed. It was the first time I saw the cresting wave of the casual game revolution that was about to hit, where a return to simple mechanics and pixel art aesthetics would allow for games built by small teams to have a market again. So when we returned from tour, I really dove back into game development head first, and worked on a ton of small game projects. Eventually, I began teaching game development in formal education, and taught game design and development for 6 years.
Which one day led me back to my parents house in New York, where I happened upon an old, weather worn box in storage…which contained the 8-year-old-me’s plans for Mystic Searches. That led me down the proverbial rabbit hole I find myself in today.
What development tools or coding did you use?
Oh, as stated, I’ve dabbled in all of it. I do a lot of prototype work in Gamemaker. I know that many professionals regard it as more of a toy because of it’s very low entry level threshold, but I’ve found that if one knows its API deep enough, he or she can produce very compelling game experiences. It’s easy to learn, which makes it a great tool with which to teach game development…you get that sort of instant gratification which bolsters confidence that developing a game is a thing one can do…but then allows you to go much further and really learn logic. Most commonly, though, I work with Unity3d. I taught it for many years, and their team consists of a phenomenal bunch of people. The first thing about it that appealed to me was how easy the asset pipeline was. I could create an asset, be it a 3d model, a song, a video file, a texture…then just drop it into the correct asset folder, and it would just *work*. Back in 2008 or so when I was first working with it, no other 3d engine seemed to be as intuitive and asset-developer friendly. It’s only gotten better with time.
What hurdles did you have making your current game?
Well, the current project is a NES game. And by that, I don’t mean it is a retro-inspired game meant to kick up some nostalgia of a simpler time on one’s XBOX or Playstation or iPhone. I mean that it is an NES game. It doesn’t just have to emulate the constraints of the console, it is completely limited by them. The game is being coded completely in 6502 Assembly, which was foreign to me when we started. The good news is, because of my grasp on game logic and fluidity between languages, learning Assembly and its syntax wasn’t all that hard. The bad news is that learning how Assembly interfaces with the NES is incredibly unintuitive! This is the first time in my long history of developing games that I’ve had to worry about things like memory management. I had to unlearn the sort of protocols of working with a higher level language and completely relearn how to code. The benefit of this is that I think it has made me a more more efficient programmer, but the detriment is that it is a very, very, very long and lumbering process.
Another hurdle with this is public perception, I think. People have a new found understanding and appreciation of ‘retro games’, but their perception is sort of flawed. In the public’s perception, a ‘retro’ style game is something that has pixel graphics. But generally, even the graphics are well beyond even 16 bit console capability, and the actual programming logic is often as intensive as any level of modern game. So creating a compelling, authentic, 8-bit NES experience is an uphill battle. Even for those who are interested in the retro aesthetic, this game may appear overly simplistic, both graphically and in functionality…and it’s a challenge to make this truly 8-bit NES game a compelling experience when compared to the multitudes of options that the average gamer has access too.
After the completion of the game what game will you make?
Ha. Well…after this game’s creation is done completely devouring my soul, I may take a small break. I am also working concurrently on a true NES game that is a companion piece for Rob McCallum’s Nintendo Quest documentary, but after that, I may move out to the wilderness, far far away from any computers and become the wise old hermit laying in wait for some next gen hero who is seeking advice about developing an NES game game to find. Haha. In all seriousness, I’m trying very hard not to think beyond the current project, but I know my concept artist is dying to get cranking on something that is not bound by the NES limitations.
What other games have you made you made?
Oh, much of my career has been spent working on small client projects. I also helped spearhead the curriculum for game development in Baltimore City Schools and taught many of its instructors how to teach game development, so many of my projects have been education in nature. That’s not to say they’ve been ‘educational games’ at all…just that in the last decade I’ve done a lot more work developing tools and engines that were tools for analysis to understand basic game design than I have on commercial releases.
My favourite computer was my Amiga and console the Megadrive do you have a favourite?
Hands down the NES. And it’s from an objective standpoint, too. It’s more than because it was the console I grew up on. It was the launch point for games and how we think about them today. Almost all of the conventions we appreciate in games still to this day were birthed in that generation.
What is your favourite retro game?
Oh…that’s like asking me my favorite color…color for what? For painting my walls? To wear? For a girl’s lipstick to be? Such a difficult question. So many games for so many reasons. But if I could only choose one…The Legend of Zelda, because of it’s place in my formative experience as a creative.
Do you still game on the current consoles if so whats your favourite game?
As of this moment, I’m a bit behind. Mostly because I simply can’t afford to allow myself to get wrapped up in a 60+ hour adventure. Much as I want to – that would be time that I couldn’t spend creating. So as of right now, I’ve rid my house of just about everything post-SNES. I do have a MAME cabinet with all the classic systems, but I don’t even really feel like I *get to play* those games either. What I’m doing is more akin to research. Though I can’t wait to get back to playing when this project is over.
Whats the worst game you have ever played?
The worst game…hm. I’m not sure. I’d have to think about that.
Have you got demo i can try and steam key so can feature at later date?
Well, as of *this second*, the game will only be available ON cartridge for the NES. However, we are working on a clever way to also release it via modern consoles. It’s still a ways off from beta test level though.