Nick Robalik is an indie video game developer and owner of PixelMetal. His game Sombrero is a competitive local multiplayer game with a Spaghetti Western theme and is currently in development.
TechRaptor: How long have you been in the video game business and when did you start PixelMetal?
Nick Robalik: I wouldn’t say I’ve ever really been in “the business.” I’ve been in “the business” as much as I’ve been in the indie game scene: not very much at all, which is how I like it. Formalized cliques aren’t of any long-term importance or interest to me. I’m interested in making fun games that people want to play. That’s what I’m concentrating right now. Outside of a select few people, I only associate with those other two things when I have the need to do so. That being said, there are some pretty awesome people I’ve met through the NYC indie scene and it’s also provided me with the opportunity to reconnect with some people I interacted with online 20 years ago but never met in person prior to the last few years getting back into game dev stuff.
Most of the game projects I’ve worked on back then were shareware titles, and mostly in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. The first title I did any work on came out in ‘95 or ‘96, then one or two later in the ‘90s, and I think two or three in the early 00s. Some were pre-smartphone mobile titles that I did as contract work with a various mobile developers and publishers. One of those used the Babe Ruth license, which was pretty cool. Even though I’m not a big sports fan I get that can be considered A Big Deal. We had initially started out with the Barry Bonds license, but then the brouhaha surrounding performance-enhancing drugs started up. After some sprite re-working for the batting stance and a new, way less awesome menu screen that went from looking like an old baseball card wrapper (cool, though lacking rock-hard bubble gum) to a pretty boring, low-color shot of Ruth because of license holder requests, we switched licenses.
I remember meeting Ed Logg (ex Atari, designed or co-designed Gauntlet, Centipede, San Francisco Rush) around this time at GDC 2003 through the guy who did the programming on the Babe Ruth game. Ed was super excited about the level of quality in games being possible on phones because it reminded him of the old days. He was a great guy, and very nicely ignored my initial bout of being a little star-struck upon first being introduced to him.
The only shareware title I had any significant part of that’s worth mentioning was called Blast-O-Rama, which got a shareware award from the sadly defunct gaming site Adrenaline Vault back in, I think, 2002 or 2003. It was this fun little puzzle game with an SNES look and really nicely hand-painted backgrounds made long before postage stamp-sized pixels were cool again, and I wish the programmer would port it over to mobile because with a few tweaks I think it’d sell well. Maybe he’ll see this and finally get to porting it. While he’s at it, maybe he can fix the spelling of my last name over a decade later. Anyone interested in checking it out can find the demo still floating around out there, and it should run on almost any Windows-based PC, at least in Win95/98 compatibility mode.
There was also a 2D fighting game that I’d worked on when I’d started out as an intern while still in high school. That was where I first learned Photoshop, at a small indie dev in southern New Jersey. I ended up doing a majority of the sound effects after spending quite a long time separately scanning in a few hundred hand-drawn, hand-colored animation frames and cleaning them up in Photoshop for a dozen or so characters. One of the company owners did the MIDI soundtrack, and the company convinced Advanced Gravis (old school) to let us include the Gravis UltraSound soundcard patches with the game so even people on the much lower-quality Creative-made boards of the time had a solid audio experience. That was a nice win. The game itself was based on locations and characters from Norse Mythology, and was less of a Thor rip-off than that probably makes it sound. It never made it out the door unfortunately, as a DOS game in a newly-Windows 95 world has some issues to contend with. It was a blast to play and the programmer did some nice Samurai Showdown-style zooming while adding a slick parallax effect that looked impressive on the PCs of the time. Every once in awhile I still ask them to make it work on modern systems or mobile. They’re probably sick of hearing it after 20+ years.
PixelMetal itself was founded in 2011 while I was running a coworking space I opened in Brooklyn called Bitmap Creative Labs, which I’ve since closed and I’m now spending my time concentrating on my art/creative direction and indie game dev work.
For those unaware, “coworking” was, for a short time, a buzzword that basically means office space rental. Bitmap was geared more towards designers, developers and editors with more substantial job experience than your standard coworking space, most of which are targeted towards providing space to startups to potentially get some of that sweet, sweet venture capital money. Having already lived through one dotcom boom/bust cycle, I wasn’t especially interested in participating in that portion of the business. I didn’t really want to have to spend my days surrounded by a bunch of twentysomething startup “entrepreneurs” who are, more often than not, a bit too big for their britches.
TR: What kind of development tools does your team use?
Nick Robalik: “My team” is really just me for most things. I use a pretty wide range of tools for design & development.
For the past year and a half that I’ve spent working on Sombrero I’m usually working in Manga Studio, Photoshop, and Illustrator for asset creation: concepts, backgrounds, tile art, character art, etc. For 3D I use Silo and 3DS MAX for modeling, texturing & animation work. Even though the art for Sombrero is entirely 2D, some graphical elements start life as simple 3D models to use as reference for the final 2D art. I find it’s quicker to get camera angles or massive scenes roughed out in 3D to use as a reference for 2D work. Anyone into watching or reading about behind-the scenes stuff for matte paintings in movies or television has probably seen what I’m talking about.
All of the animation in Sombrero is created in either After Effects – mostly menu items and screen wipes are done in AE – or Spriter, a 2D animation package that’s proven to be flexible, user friendly, and available at a comparatively low cost. User support from the developers has been good, and they answer emails and forum posts quickly. I use Spriter for character and object animations. Thanks in no small part to Spriter I’ve been able to quickly add in close to two dozen characters without a ton of time or effort. The character animations are created using skeletal animation instead of sprites, which helps keep animations smooth and file sizes down.
The one part of Sombrero that I’m not working on is the soundtrack. That is being created by Nathaniel Chambers of Bubble Pipe Media. Nate is awesome. Everyone should hire him if they need music for their games, but not all at once. He is not a robot (so I’m told). He can jump between musical styles like nobody’s business. Also he’s really nice, and puts up with my shenanigans, which more or less makes him an official saint.
TR: What are the different phases for each game you create?
Nick Robalik: 1- Gameplay First
For me the beginning of the process is blind fumbling in the dark with mittens on. I mess around with different concepts both in terms of visuals and gameplay style. Usually I start a very basic gameplay mechanic – for me, games are all about creating engaging gameplay first. I work out from there, treating the gameplay as the center core of the experience.
Sombrero started life as a twin-stick overheard shooter with low-res pixel art styled after games like Total Carnage, Commando, Gun.Smoke, Ikari Warriors – those old school character-based arcade shmups. Most of the code that was used to create the vertical slice of that experiment is still alive in what eventually became Sombrero, which is most definitely not similar to those old arcade games, or even an overhead shooter.
I’m a big fan of those old arcade shooters – Smash TV is still, to this day, one of my favorite games – and that’s what I initially set out to make. After getting the code and art required to get a single stage up and running, however, I realized something: while it played well and had the kind of tight controls that seem to be missing all too often these days, it wasn’t very original. It didn’t really add anything to the genre and it wasn’t something people hadn’t seen a thousand times before.
I also learned, through much pain, that I’m not especially good at animating pixel art characters. I don’t think I have the patience for it. After spending 5 hours animating a single character’s 8-frame walk cycle, and knowing that I had 7 more directions to animate for the character in addition to having to go through the same process for every player and enemy character in the game, it was a point that drove itself home pretty hard. Good pixel art is hard.
2- Reality Check
I ended up going back to a game design I’d worked on years earlier, prior to the idea of couch/local multiplayer catching on again. Most of the design was sketched out on a stack of post-it notes I used to doodle on when I still had my studio space and would be sitting at my desk pumping out these little characters in-between work, waiting to hear back from a client, waiting for someone to show up for a meeting, that kind of thing. Just something I thought about on and off for a few months, never really thinking the idea would go anywhere past being a time-filler while waiting for other stuff to happen.
Much to my surprise, local co-op games started becoming popular again thanks to some great entries into the genre, so I pulled out those sketches and started messing around with designing what would eventually become Sombrero.
3- Tons of Boring Stuff (Read: “Work”)
Now that I’ve talked about the fun stuff, let’s get to the boring stuff – which there is far more of than the fun stuff. Games, at least from my perspective, are a series of barely-related functions duct-taped and bubble-gummed together to make a coherent player experience.
Balancing and keeping track of hundreds of game requirements and features can be an overwhelming task sometimes, especially if you’re not used to documenting everything and keeping those documents updated. It certainly wasn’t one of my strong suits prior to Sombrero, but I’ve done my best to accept the necessity of spreadsheets into my life and Google Docs has proven to be a great way to keep track of all the moving parts that, in the end, hopefully result in a game that’s fun for gamers.
It may seem like a bit of overkill for a mostly-lone developer to keep track of everything in such a fashion, but it makes seeing what needs to be done next more manageable and prevents a lot of feature-creep that would otherwise slow down the development. I’ve even got a full-on design document that I update once a week, and even though I’ve seen some folks who should really know better claim that they don’t use them for X reason “because art,” that comes off to me as pure laziness and an excuse not to think about how the game as a whole will be presented to the world.
4- Test, Tweak, Rinse, Repeat
The most valuable asset I have as a small game developer is the legion of people interesting in providing overall gameplay feedback at playtest events, so far mostly around NYC. Sombrero has evolved a lot since I first showed it to anyone in public about a year ago. I’ve consistently found the best way to tell if I’m on the right path with a new stage, a new gameplay feature, etc. is to see if people are actually enjoying those parts of the game.
TR: What type of tools do you wish you had as a game dev that are too expensive for an independent company to buy?
Nick Robalik: I’ve been using Photoshop, Illustrator, and the rest of the Adobe Creative Suite for around 20 years now, so I’m in a position where the tools I already have and use on a daily basis for my full-time job are also the more expensive tools I’d have to buy as an independent developer. If I didn’t already have them, those are the tools I’d pick up that would otherwise be out of the price range of a small indie dev.
While there are open source and free alternatives to most of Adobe’s CS product line, after having tried many of them I’ve found that nothing beats the real thing. That’s not to say software like GIMP or InkScape can’t be used to create awesome things, and it could be that I’m just set in my ways with Adobe’s tools, but I think overall there’s a reason Adobe’s products have been the industry standard for so long.
Those alternative tools are also getting better every day, so there’s always the chance that in a few more years everything I just said above will be entirely incorrect and they’ll have surpassed Adobe’s offerings. GIMP especially has evolved into a highly usable piece of design software since its initial development.
Most of the other software I use is extremely-low cost. I’ll mention that stuff below.
TR: Are there certain aggravating aspects to being a video game developer, such as do you run into continual bugs or issues in development?
Nick Robalik: I’ve had a few bugs pop up during Sombrero that have been frustrating to work through. My way of dealing with it is to rotate through cycles where I work on different parts of the game; it’s one of the benefits of being a sole developer. I can switch over to something else that needs to be done while I think on the issues I’m running into elsewhere. If nothing else is to be learned from games, nobody can deny the benefits of its training for multitasking.
I think about the issues I’m running into with the power-up spawn system (now fixed, thank Cthulu) or fixing a collision glitch on a new object type while I’m sketching out a new loading screen or working on character animations. On most bugs I’ve run into, giving myself time to work it out in the back of my head while I’m working on something else instead of trying to power through it when it’s already not clicking has worked out much better.
When I get extra-frustrated I just take a break for a day or two and usually figure it out when I step back into work mode. It’s hard to remember but sometimes it’s good to take a break from developing a game to actually play one, so you can remember why you’re making a game in the first place: having fun!
TR: Is Opeth the best band in the world?
Nick Robalik: This question, right here, is where I lose any bit of street cred I have. Despite my company’s name… I’m not actually a very big metal fan. I had to look up who Opeth was!
In fact, these days I tend to listen to more mellow stuff in general. Boring answer, I know. Sorry!
TR: As a personal question, you’ve been an avid supporter of GamerGate, what’s your opinion of it and where do you see it heading in 2015?
Nick Robalik: I’ve always been a big fan of art and speech free of any form of media censorship, especially censorship based on personal opinions, which is how I initially became aware of GamerGate. People finally calling out some of the gaming press for their bad behavior and complete lack of professionalism was kind of a bonus.
We’re well past the point where the questionable behavior of a few self-appointed game media royalty can be denied and well into the “it’s okay because they’re my friend” phase being right out in the open. It’s sort of a beautiful thing to see playing out in real time. Technology has sped things up to the point where it takes much less time for certain people to incite moral panic, even if they lack the ability to undestand what they’re criticizing. Their reaction, to abuse their audience in woefully research-free media by using personal connections, to get more clicks to serve more ads or receive more “donation,” is something I’d compare to a child throwing a tantrum and threatening to hold their breath if you don’t believe them when they tell you the sky isn’t blue, it’s bright purple, and you’re a horrible no-good person if you disagree and by gosh they’ll tell their parents on you.
In the end, it’s the usual tactics for those who’ve been caught being naughty and defend their conflicted interests or underhandedness as being done in the name of (insert topic of cultural relevance at this time, make opposition sound against it). This is often clearly not the case to anyone paying attention. The only people willing to pay attention are the gamers. After all, gaming brings together a massively diverse international audience that crosses both political and gender spectrums in a quantifiably egalitarian way.
Good for gamers for being among the first to stand up to the new batch of cultural censors and moral crusaders. Throughout recent history we always seem to be the art enthusiast people who do. It certainly won’t be the comics industry – outside of a few more strong-willed outliers they’ve reliably folded every single time in the past – and the larger game industry seems to be taking what I’ll diplomatically refer to as “a more measured approach in their reaction.”
It’s left to the fans who are here out of a love for the medium and its potential rather than how it can be artificially limited to suit small-minded people.
Works for me. People who love games are my audience anyway.
TechRaptor would like to thank Nick for taking the time to talk to us. You can find her on Twitter.
What do you think of Nick’s development process?