If there’s a sure bet next year, it’s Retro City Rampage. A brilliant mashup of beloved retro gaming tropes from Contra to TMNT to Sonic to Mario to Ikari Warriors, this game (which grew out of Grand Theftendo, an 8-bit reimagining of GTA) is destined to be more popular than ice cream. This postmodern masterpiece is the work of gaming’s first true auteur, Brian Provinciano, who took time out from readying RCR for its upcoming release to talk to GF about everything from salvaging old NES cartridges for parts to what it’s like being the Quentin Tarantino of gaming.
GFM: Let me start off by saying that I think Retro City Rampage is the game of the year, hands down. Why don’t you describe the game for readers, in your own words?
Thank you so much! It means so much to me to see the reception it’s getting.
Retro City Rampage would best be described as Grand Theft Auto mashed up with Super Mario and… well, pretty much everything else, too (laughs), particularly that of the NES era’s pop culture. From the world to the characters, weapons, vehicles, mechanics and gameplay, it’s a big nostalgia sandwich presented in an over-the-top cartoony 8-bit style.
Like GTA, you’ll steal cars, explore the city and attack civilians, but you’ll also be jumping on their heads like Super Mario, tossing them around with a bionic arm, shooting them with a light gun and collecting power-ups. The power-ups will have you flying around dressed like a raccoon and running around at “sonic” speeds with some shiny red shoes. Even stealing cars gets an extra twist. Hit the streets in a Delorean-esque car and step on it! At 88 mph you’ll be leaving a trail of flames, and pedestrians unfortunate enough to be in the way will be set ablaze. Those in front will be sent flying across the screen, leaving a shower of shiny coins. You’ll plow down dozens at a time and rack up a flashy high score.
RCR fuses modern and classic game mechanics to create compelling new experiences. Some missions are retro twists on modern games, while others are open-world twists on early ’80s arcade games. You’ll experience all of the combat, shooting, driving, stealth, strategy and exploration found in other open-world games, but filled with these twists, parodies and nostalgia around every corner. The world is a character in itself as well, and you’ll be compelled to spend hours just exploring.
GFM: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Education, where you live, how old you are. How’d you get into gaming?
I’m pretty sure the first game I ever played was Super Mario Bros. on the NES… and I suppose nearly as long as I’ve been playing games, I’ve wanted to develop my own. Funny enough though, in the beginning I thought I was destined to be a video game artist. I suppose I did eventually become one, a pixel artist, although more professionally I wound up a programmer. I’ve been drawing ever since I could hold a pencil, and that’s no exaggeration! My parents had enough foresight to hold onto my “historical masterpieces” (laughs).
One clear memory in the big bang of my game development roots was drawing mock-up Sonic The Hedgehog levels in MS Paint on my 286 PC. Skipping forward to a few years ago, to when I had the opportunity to work on two Sonic games for PSP, saying that I was living the dream would be an understatement! But back in the beginning, I was unable to find a programmer so I reluctantly grabbed some BASIC books from the library and began teaching myself. (Wait what’s that? Oh yes, a library! I haven’t been to one of those in nearly a decade, seriously! Thanks Internet!) I fiddled around with QBasic on DOS, typing in hundreds of lines of code then hitting RUN, all to find it didn’t work! Who knew those BASIC books were meant for the Apple II (laughs)?
In ’96 I got my hands on a game making program from Maxis (the company behind Sim City at the time) called Klik & Play. It was fantastic, and my big project was a Legend of Zelda-style game. Things were getting fancy since my school had a scanner, so I was able to draw a glorious title screen for it! Not long after that, I got back into the thick of things and grabbed a book on C++ and never looked back.
I took a couple of part-time programming courses at BCIT when I was 14, but am otherwise entirely self-taught. I do recommend that keen developers go to school, as they’ll learn a lot more in a lot less time, not to mention the oh so important terminology. However, I was too eager to wait until I finished high school, and by the time I started taking those courses, I knew most of what they were teaching.
As for the what and where, I’m currently in Vancouver, BC, a gorgeous city with a huge amount of talented game developers. As for my age, well, I’ll be 26 by the time everyone reads this.
GFM: Tell us about why you decided to make this game. What was your inspiration? Was there an “aha” moment when you just knew you wanted to do this?
Oh yes! Many “aha” moments!
I’ve always loved comedy, and although the game was always destined to have humorous elements, it did originally start with a more serious tone, like that of GTA3. It began to evolve when I thought it would be fun to add some buildings to the city referencing old games such as Leisure Suit Larry and Monkey Island. It was only natural to add characters playing off their protagonists as well, and in a true GTA fashion have the player running jobs for them. Still though, it wasn’t the goofy over-the-top atmosphere it is today.
After placing those first few buildings though, I realized how great it could be if EVERY building was some kind of reference, alongside even more characters, vehicles and weapons as well. The change wouldn’t happen immediately, as such an undertaking was going to be a lot of work, but the vision was set.
The first major “aha” moment happened when I was programming the jump collision code and needed to handle what happens when one character is on top of another. The common solutions are to either stand on top of them or slide off… but a third was much more fun – the character below would be stomped like a Super Mario goomba! I knew right then and there that to drive this reference in, a big “250 points” effect needed to emit too. Seeing that come to life set the direction of the game’s wacky over-the-top mash-up.
It was a big risk to change the direction of the game. I really questioned how the audience would react. GTA gamers were used to a more serious tone, and I was making this more and more like a cartoon. I had some fear in the early stages that it could narrow my audience. The feeling of risk in my gut got even stronger when I was compelled to add comic book references. Those can really knock games off people’s radars. In the end though, I stood my ground and ran with it anyway. I knew that it was what I wanted to do, and doing the game that YOU want to do is the only way to fill it with passion.
The most recent “aha” moment occurred with vehicle weapons. Generally in retro games, you can only have three shots on screen at once, for example. This was the plan, but I hadn’t implemented the cap yet. Watching someone drive the tank around and button mash to shoot a dozen rockets in a row and blow up the entire screen made me think twice. It was pure awesomeness, and that’s what it’s all about – rampaging and FUN! It was definitely more fun, so it stayed.
GFM: I’ve heard and read so many ridiculous apocryphal anecdotes about the making of this game. “Provinciano lived in a van under an overpass and ate out of dumpsters for ten years while making RCR!” Can you talk about the process of making RCR? How long it took, some of the adversity you faced…
Apparently I died at some point, too, so I must say I feel very lucky to be back from the dead! The reality is that not long after I announced the precursor to RCR (Grand Theftendo), I started a full-time job in the industry. The game was getting a lot of attention and the buzz was high, but with my limited free time (especially as I was thrown into crunch time nearly as soon as I started), I had no idea when it would be done. I made the decision to keep quiet and let the hype die down, as I didn’t want to constantly tell people over and over that it was “coming soon”… or as I used to say, I didn’t want to “Duke Nukem Forever it”!
I wanted to do my own GTA-style game ever since playing the original top down ones, but in 2002, while playing around with programming the original NES, the idea of doing an 8-bit one came to me and I was instantly driven to see it through. This initial game was an unofficial GTA3 demake, Grand Theftendo. I began by sitting in front of the TV and drawing sections of Liberty City on graph paper, then cutting out sprites to visualize it in action. It evolved into a fully running open-world on the NES hardware, although Retro City Rampage was born before the missions were finished.
GFM: How much help did you have on the game and how much of it is your undiluted vision?
I’ve done Retro City Rampage almost entirely by myself. I’ve had a bit of help on the art in the past year to get the game finished quicker, and I have three music guys, one of which does the sound effects as well. Other than that, it’s been pretty much all me. I’ve had a ton of playtesters, however, who have been instrumental in steering this game into the great game that it is today.
There was a time when I was thinking of joining forces to write the story alongside the lead playtester at the time, Frank Cifaldi. He’s hilarious, witty and an encyclopedia of video games, so to craft a story of references, there seemed to be no one better. Unfortunately our schedules didn’t work out, and when it was time to get down and do the work, he was swamped with his day job so I ended up doing it all. He did help the game a lot through his playtesting and feedback. He tossed some good ideas in there, even helping with a mission concept. “Throw out yer dead” evolved from an idea of his, and coincidentally, the improved throwing controls came from him as well (tap button to throw instead of holding it for a variable distance).
GFM: What did you do to pay the bills while you worked on RCR?
Well, I lived simply and saved up for years while working at other game companies in order to have the runway I needed to jump into RCR full-time. It was an incredibly hard decision to give up the steady income of my day job and take the risk, but eventually you just need to go for it. I knew that no matter what happened, it was something I had to do or I would regret it for the rest of my life. I felt a lot of pressure that the window of opportunity was closing.
I’ve had to cash in my retirement savings and borrow some additional money, but I kind of knew I would have to from the beginning. The thing is, sometimes you just need to go for it. All of the money in the world can’t buy back a missed opportunity.
GFM: I read somewhere that you used chips from Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse in making RCR. Where’d you get the games? Were you combing through flea markets every weekend? Ebay? Was it hard to reverse engineer the chips into something useable?
I used chips from Castlevania when developing Grand Theftendo, the precursor to Retro City Rampage. It was a completely different game and actually ran on NES hardware (whereas RCR does not).
I usually scrounged the cartridges off eBay. Many of the chips had already been reverse engineered by a homebrew developer named Kevin Horton (Kevtris). He was nice enough to answer the many questions I had, putting me on track to reverse engineer whatever else I needed, too.
GFM: As I played RCR, I found it hard to believe that this was truly an 8-bit game. It seems so much smoother and faster and richer than the NES games I remember. Can you talk a little about how you got the most out of limited resources?
Grand Theftendo was an actual 8-bit game, but RCR is not. However, as far as I know, it’s still the most authentic 8-bit style game out there. The only concessions I made were for the sake of gameplay. Most hardware limitations are strictly enforced, and the core of the engine operates almost identically to an NES. Essentially it’s an NES game with more active sprites and more processing power underneath.
The biggest thing about its 8-bit style are the 2-bit graphics. Sprites in NES games can only use one of four sets of three colors. This is why many characters have pink and blue faces, but it adds to the authenticity. The size of the sprites was also driven by the hardware –they are the exact size which allowed it all to work well on the actual NES with enough of a view ahead when driving fast.
GFM: RCR is heavily influenced by GTA, of course, but as I played it, I was never sure if you thought GTA was the greatest game ever or the stupidest game ever. Comment?
Finally, I’ve wanted to answer this for a long time, but no one has asked yet! I can tell you that this is, then, the greatest question ever (laughs).
The short answer is that when I started the project, I was the biggest GTA fanboy imaginable, and all of that passion and love for GTA went into RCR’s roots. However, as the years went on, I became more and more critical of the series and shifted my focus to avoiding everything I’d grown to dislike about GTA games. The extraordinary situation that RCR is a single person’s vision, yet has had both extreme perspectives driving it, is probably one of the keys to its success. Another benefit of the long development cycle, I guess.
As for what I’ve grown to dislike of the GTA series, number one is the grinding and filler. At the end of the day, other than the exciting cover-laden shootouts, GTAIV still feels to me like I’m just driving from A to B over and over. I grew tired of failing a mission, then having to do another five minutes of mindless driving just for the sake of the game’s story (i.e. can’t use a taxi), then reaching the destination only to be slaughtered yet again. This is why in RCR I have a retry option (upon failing a mission) to continue from the last checkpoint. I’ve also put a lot of focus into mission variety so each mission isn’t simply a variation of “go here, shoot this, collect that.” The variety has increased the amount of work by about 20x, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
GFM: Your story has a happy ending, of course. Can you talk about the business side of how you got your game out there, for the benefit of any other solitary visionaries who might be reading?
Absolutely. I love to help and guide aspiring developers to keep on track and get their foot in the door.
Contrary to what I’ve done, I recommend that aspiring developers design small games within a scope that can be completed in their spare time. Keep your day job, at least until you’re fully prepared to live off these side projects. The reality is that very few indies will make more than their salary at another game company without working seven days a week around the clock, at least in the beginning. You need to do it out of passion, knowing well that you’ll have all of the extra weight on your shoulders and likely be making much less money. When I quit my job to work on RCR full-time, I did it knowing full well that (at the time) I might run through all of my savings and fall flat on my face, but it would still be worth it. Finishing the project and having it in other people’s hands would be all of the reward I needed. I did of course become determined to make profit and be in a position to continue developing games in the future, which is why I spend so much time on the business side, something which I’ll explain later.
I recommend all aspiring indies to work for another studio before going on their own. You’ll learn all of the vital skills that you never knew you needed, get a grasp of how the production process works and meet many people. The best teammates on your future projects will be those you’ve worked with before. It’s 10x harder to successfully build a team that can see a project all the way to completion from scouting the net. In addition, by having commercial console titles under your belt, it’s far easier to become a licensed console developer yourself.
If you’re having trouble getting into the industry, then continue your homebrew indie developments, as they will then be your key to standing above the rest and getting your job. They prove your passion and skill and that you’re in it for more than the nine-to-five.
Now as for going indie, the business side was the biggest shocker. You will never believe how much of your time it consumes until you’ve experienced it. I work seven days a week and sometimes only have one or two of those days to work on the game itself. I’m glad I waited so long to announce RCR, as before I was actually able to do the development full-time. Of course if you have a team, these other roles can be dispersed. Many of my days are spent writing emails, spreadsheets, documents, contracts, interviews and PR.
Being able to develop much of the game while retaining a day job was very valuable, as I had no financial risk. The only downside was that it consumed a lot of my free time and eventually was too much to tackle while putting in another nine hours or more on another game. Near the end, before I finally took the leap jumping into it full-time, I was completely drained, void of energy. My passion was as strong as ever, but my body couldn’t keep up. I had to give up one of the games, but it wasn’t going to be RCR. As mentioned before, the solution is to pick a project that won’t require years of work to complete; pick something that you can be passionate about, yet still have the free time to keep a work-life balance. Note that you should declare a list of prior works when starting at a studio, unless the studio explicitly allows you to keep all of your works during your employment.
In order to jump into developing your own game full time, you either need enough money to build it, or to build enough of it in your spare time that, without question, you know it has promise and can be easily finished. Next, you need the awareness that if you want to be the next Castle Crashers or Braid, you’ll need to spend 70% of your time on business and marketing. This has been the most difficult part for me, as it’s a constant distraction. I’ll sit down to write some code only to be bombarded with emails which need to be immediately addressed.
As I also mentioned, you will be working more than you would at your previous day job. The benefit is that you’re working on your dream game and by wearing so many different hats, it won’t feel so repetitive or draining.
As for the game itself, playtesting is also incredibly important. Without playtesting and constantly tuning and improving the game based on feedback, all you may have is a checklist of features without any fun or any “game” whatsoever. I know this because that’s exactly where Retro City Rampage stood a few years ago. Now that everything’s been adjusted over and over to ensure the driving feels “just right,” the targeting feels tight, jumping solid, etc., it’s now an award-winning title. This is something that is difficult to estimate for in the schedule, but perhaps the most important part of development.
As for which platforms to release your game on when starting out, you’re best bets are the iPhone, XBLIG and PC. For those who wonder why it took me so long to announce the Xbox 360 version of Retro City Rampage, it’s because it took THAT long to go through the process from pitch to greenlight to signing the final contract. It’s a very long process and a very competitive space, even when your game has many awards behind it. It also costs upwards of six figures to get your game out the door on the platform (even when it’s already finished). Although the publisher can front this, you will need to pay it back. This cost doesn’t even include office rent (as Nintendo, for example, requires you have an office), corporate accounting, incorporation costs, insurance, development hardware, and… well, the list goes on. These costs can be handled by a publisher if you can successfully pitch your game, but you will earn significantly less of the revenue, and I do emphasize “significantly”. However, they will assume all of the risk, so in many cases it is a viable option.
In the end, passion is the key. Passion is all you need. It’s the fuel that will lead you to excel in everything else – your programming ability, creating fun game experiences and pitching the game to publishers.
GFM: RCR seems to me to take an almost literary approach to video games, in that it pays homage to the past, to history. It’s full of allusions and references, and yet it always seems new and fresh. Most games are still relentlessly looking forward, making things newer, shinier, bigger, louder, but often come off as sterile and underwhelming. Do you consider yourself to be an artist? Where do you stand on the “games as art” debate?
I’ve usually stood clear of the games as art debate, taking the “I don’t really care what people think” approach. However some games ARE art, and the rest still contain at least some artistic elements. There is more to it than that of course, but once a generation passes, I don’t even think it’ll be a question anymore. I know Ebert’s reasoning about it not being a passive experience, however games are more complex than movies and have many layers, many pieces that comprise them. Some layers can be art, while others, or even the overall game, are not. I think the other key argument against games as art comes from the reality of big budget game assembly lines and their design by committee and seemingly mindless sequels. And you know what? They’re right. Overall those games aren’t art, but there still might be a passionate artist in the trenches getting creative with how they texture the basketball player’s socks, or a programmer implementing a groundbreaking shader to render a basketball net like nothing else before it. These people are passionate about their craft, and isn’t crafting something art? So that’s one layer. There’s also the message of the game, and everything else which can be a form of art.
Retro City Rampage is absolutely art, without question. That’s a bold statement, but let me just say that some of the top layers could be debatable, I admit, but below the surface it goes deeper than you might expect. It’s a huge game with so much going on, so it’s easy to only notice the mainstream pop culture references on the surface, but what’s underneath is truly personal. Parts of RCR are no different from the words of a songwriter or a poet expressing their life stories.
Let’s cover the gameplay. Another part of RCR that I’m incredibly proud of is what I call, “Fun from Making Fun.” With Retro City Rampage being a parody, I took a number of things people hated from other games and retooled them to be fun. The most infamous is the TMNT water level with electric seaweed and coral that eats you. One that I’m most proud of is the car tailing mission. Let’s face it, even in GTAIV, car tailing’s not fun. The improved physics and graphics don’t change a thing. In a standard car tailing mission, you need to follow a car but not get too close or they’ll see you, not get too far or you’ll lose them. Simple enough, but when you’re waiting at stop lights constantly, it’s even worse. A lot of games like GTAIV get away with things like this because they’re ingrained in the story. But games are supposed to be about fun, not working for the next cutscene.
My solution was to set the mission up so the player character would fall asleep if he didn’t constantly get coffee. Now you needed to juggle getting to a coffee stand before you fall asleep without losing the car or getting too close. This extra ball to juggle made everything so much more fun, and quite intense. I’m quite proud of it!
One of the layers to RCR which I’m definitely proud of is creating fresh new experiences by mashing up the existing, whether it be purely in the story or within the gameplay as well. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but one of the newest takes the ridiculous ’60s Batman two-part episode deathtrap concept and turns it into a couple of missions, glaring campy absurdities and all. Using Saved By The Bell as an inspiration for GTA-style missions feels really fresh to me too, and I use it to poke at “Zero Tolerance” policies, hot coffee and and a heck of a lot more along the way.
I do so many things in it that have never been done before, as far as game stories go. In a recently added mission following a hot coffee parody, the player is confronted by the woman and given the news that she’s pregnant. He denies responsibility and demands a paternity test, telling her that he’ll see her on a talk show and let them pay for it. She then calls him a pig and shoots him as he’s leaving, which then leads to a mission where he’s dead and plays as the grim reaper. Oh and by the way, who’s the grim reaper playing off of? Bill Cosby, of course. The whole mission idea spawned from the fact that I wanted to tie in the grim reaper segment into the story and reference the movie Ghost Dad. With that, everything else fell into place. Not only could I not stop laughing the entire time I made it, where else has a game ever created such a scenario? I just love it. I’m very proud of the fun (and funny) game which has evolved from all of this, whether it’s combining the wacky weapons with two characters who would never otherwise seem to fit together, or the funny dialogue comprised of glued together references and puns. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it all, and it’s been a great creative outlet for me. But still, the layers go even deeper.
What’s gone into parts of RCR have been truly no different from songwriting or poetry. As musicians sing stories rooted from their good times, hardships and love, Retro City Rampage emits stories rooted from my life, ingrained in parts of its story, world and characters.
RCR is full of references to things I loved growing up, things I love now, things I’m patriotic about, nods to friends and family, subtle highlights of social issues here in Vancouver and even things only myself and an ex-girlfriend would catch (no, not the hot coffee or grim reaper scenes!). Life experiences during its development, good and bad, they made their way into the game. A chunk of Retro City Rampage has been my songwriting, my poetry, and those who know me will get to know me better through playing it. Of course, the majority of the game riffs on the mainstream, as I must admit my life wouldn’t make an entire game quite so entertaining, but I feel very happy to have put a bit of my soul into it. The open-world mash-up comedy genre couldn’t have been a more perfect outlet for it. There were actually a number of missions which I kept on the cutting room floor that did revolve around my personal life, much like song writers dump their emotions into their songs. In order to keep the game’s focus, I steered more towards the pop culture references, but hey, maybe if game developers wind up on the celebrity gossip papers one day, there will be a market for it.
GFM: What are some current games you like? What are you playing now? What are your favorite platforms?
I really should play more, all work and no play… As much as I love consoles, handhelds really fit into my lifestyle better so they’re usually where I get my fix. Since most of my time’s spent developing games, most of the games I play these days are in quick two minute spurts on the iPhone, one being Angry Birds (I know!). Super Meat Boy is incredibly addictive though, and led me to log more hours into my console than I had in over half a year! I finally finished GTAIV earlier this year as well, although I had a lot more fun with the first Crackdown. I do try a lot of games for research, but usually only spend a few minutes on each. I hope after RCR ships that I can let myself play more games again.
GFM: You seem to be a connoisseur of the obscure; what are some little-known 8/16/32-bit games that you hold dear? Me, I still beat Guardian Legend (criminally underappreciated Zelda/shooter hybrid, light years ahead of its time) and Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom (surreal/melancholy proto-RPG) for NES every year like clockwork. I’m also a big believer in the hangover-curing powers of ToeJam and Earl for Genesis.
Princess Tomato! Ha ha, I remember that one. One of my all-time favorites is Commander Keen, although I don’t think it’s that obscure, it’s an IP that hasn’t seen much light since the early ’90s. I would love to bring CK to modern consoles after Retro City Rampage. Send me a contract and I’ll sign it pronto! Kabuku Quantum Fighter on the NES was great too, mainly because it felt almost like a sequel to Batman on the NES, one of my favorite games.
GFM: What about movies? In my GameFan review of RCR, I compare you to Quentin Tarantino. Are you a fan of his work? What kind of movies do you like?
That was an incredible honor to read that. I’m definitely a fan of his. We definitely both take an over-the-top approach to presentation and carry the drive to put a lot of ourselves into the work. We also both mash up genres, for sure, to the point where people might need to see it in action to believe it will work. Finally, I think he and I are quite critical of both our own work and the work of others in a way to strive to be better. As for the movies I usually watch, always love a good comedy. When it comes to action, I’m a huge Jason Statham fan. He’s the best action star out there right now, in my opinion.
GFM: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I’m still working on Retro City Rampage. We’ve made a decision to add a number of Xbox Live features which will delay the game’s release, but will result in a much more social game. These features include a character creator in which players can share their creations with their friends, the ability to record and share replays, and challenge friends’ scores throughout the game. With the additional development time, I’m also adding a number of missions which I had hoped to fit in before, but was unable to due to the previously tighter schedule. We’re also adding some fantastic cameos in the vein of Super Meat Boy.
After that, there are plans for Retro City Rampage spin-offs and sequels, but one step at a time. We also have our eyes on a number of other games with current-gen graphics, as well as stylized artsy ones. Thanks for the fantastic questions!