Recently I got the chance to interview Gwénaël Godde, head of the independent design studio WaterMelon Games and the lead programmer of their upcoming side-scrolling beat 'em up Paprium. We discussed remaining independent and the challenges the studio faces developing a game for the Sega Mega Drive in the 21st Century.
Can you give me some background into WaterMelon Games? When was the studio formed and how did you all come together?
WaterMelon was created in 2009 in the USA to support the release of Pier Solar on Mega Drive. The game was announced in 2008 and released in 2010. We needed a structure to secure the copyrights, support accounting and so on. I originally thought about setting up the company in France, but there is no way to create a company like this in France. So, we set up the company in the USA, where my partner then was living.
The idea for Pier Solar had originated from Eidolon's Inn, a website that had a message board named the "tavern". Back in 2004, we wanted to make a game for the Sega Mega CD; it was just a fan project to begin with. It later evolved into Pier Solar, an original RPG for the Sega Mega Drive.
Pier Solar has been a great success for the studio, have the sales and revenue from the game allowed the studio more autonomy and independence?
The "studio" has always been independent and Pier Solar allowed us to continue that. Due to the nature of the project, we sold quite a lot of copies at a loss for the first year or so. In addition, lots of people that worked on the project were volunteers and we did not want to make profit on the game.
To be honest it was an extremely low budget project. Everything was created in our own personal time and with our own money. What made the studio really independent was the launch of WaterMelon's Magical Game Factory and the Kickstarter for Pier Solar HD. From then on, we decided to increase our workforce and take on a more professional attitude. WaterMelon's Magical Game Factory went live in 2011 and the Pier Solar HD Kickstarter went live in December 2012.
How easy was the process on Kickstarter? Did you have any issues working with them?
We decided to create a Kickstarter because people kept requesting porting Pier Solar to modern gaming platforms. It was very successful and we didn't have any issues with Kickstarter. In fact, the only trouble we had was with Microsoft & Sony. They were very dodgy with their support of indie companies and Microsoft dropped support for the original Xbox during our initial development cycle. So, we moved development onto Xbox 360 and then Xbox One. Many of our fans were not pleased about this. As for Sony, the Vita version was dropped, because they didn't send us back our dev kit.
Also, Sony (keep) keeps doing firmware updates that somehow mess with the games. This means we have to keep constantly creating updates after every firmware update. All the updates and fixes mean that you may not be able to play Pier Solar HD as we intended after a few months. The original Mega Drive release along with the Dreamcast release are still the best. Bug free too on the Mega Drive.
This is why I'm refocusing the company on doing solid games and not chasing after those companies anymore. It is a waste of time!
It is a shame you have had such bad experiences with the larger companies, will this affect your sales figures going forward?
Not really actually, because making a game multi-platform really weakens the game design. As crazy as it sounds. Paprium will remain a Mega Drive exclusive for the foreseeable future. It's 100% tailor made for the system.
We can actually have much greater success doing a good Mega Drive game rather than releasing a new game on PlayStation 4/Xbox One and Wii U. That's the truth!
Our goal has always been to deliver the best game for whichever system we develop for. I believe it's quite "possible" to make a great Mega Drive game, one of the best for the system, with some luck. It's going to be very tough to make the best PlayStation 4 game we can with such a small studio and a limited budget.
We are really focussing on trying to deliver a great game for the Mega Drive. That's all that matters at the moment and that goal gives us extra motivation.
Can you tell me how designing for multiple platforms affects the actual design of the games? Obviously, different systems have different specs but what other issues do you encounter?
Well, on the programming side, all the systems available nowadays are more or less the same; you could say there should not be many limitations or differences between them, unless you really do very badly optimise things.
You could say the limitations are more pernicious. For example, you need to have lot of menus to associate controller or save slots data. That's extra menus that are totally useless and do not allow you to design your own customised layout for the menus. Also, those menus tend to change with firmware updates and create bugs that require fixes.That's one little detail. We like to make completely custom menus and save processes for each game, we create to fit the look, feel and mood of the game.
Then comes the problem of censorship. For example, in Paprium we would need to remove quite a lot of content if we wanted to be published on the bigger platforms. We publish our own games, so we can put whatever we want in the game. It's little details like we would need to remove cigarettes, drugs, and other content. We didn't want to feel limited regarding that with Paprium. When we make a game, the last thing we want to think about is having to comply with policies that change all the time. Nintendo did have a nice policy for the Wii U to start with but then Nintendo changed the policy on "mandatory features" and required that we also use the tablet screen on the Wii U. They shot themselves in the feet with that idea! We had the same issues with IOS.
Your latest game is Paprium, a side scrolling beat 'em up with RPG elements, when and how was the decision made to create a brawler?
The game has been made through WaterMelon's Magical Game Factory. We have a system in place that allows our most hardcore fans to vote for what game they would like us to make next. The fans voted for the system (Mega Drive), then the style of game (beat 'em up), the sub genre (RPG) and finally the setting (post apocalyptic / cyberpunk).
We then worked on concepts to develop a full game. It was an experimental way to make a game to be sure and we stopped the fan input after the voting process. At some point, votes need to stop and you need to have some in-house thinking. You can't have votes deciding everything!
Has making a side scrolling beat 'em up been something the studio has always wanted to do?
Yes, we are all fans of side scrolling beat 'em ups but it was mainly the fans that decided it was going to be a beat 'em up.
To begin with, the scope of the game was quite a small. So, I wasn't too concerned about the game style. We expected to make a small beat 'em up, like River City Ransom, with super deformed sprites and simple gameplay at first. However, the fans always expect the best and kept asking to have something like Streets of Rage or Final Fight. When the fans said they wouldn't accept a game with super deformed sprites, I knew it would become a project of much larger scope. When it became clear that the project was going to be larger we tried and failed to recruit a programmer and secure a good art team. Eventually we were able to solve that problem.
What is interesting is that creating full size sprites in original specs is a lost art. It was a major challenge to find trained pixel artists and to train other artists. We really did our best, but we are still far from SNK quality still. Unfortunately, it's no longer possible to match the quality of the old SNK sprites today, no matter how many millions you have. There is just nobody who can do that anymore. Let's be honest pixel art is no longer pixel art it's more like HD art scaled down and repainted!
There is a large pantheon of famous side scrolling beat 'em ups such as Final Fight, Streets of Rage and Alien vs Predator to name a few. Which beat 'em ups have inspired/ influenced the design of Paprium?
In terms of creating the story and universe, we tried to take as little inspiration as possible from existing games. Having said that given the system, the technical limitations, the gameplay, pixel art of course the game will resemble other 16-bit beat 'em ups.
We tried to bring as many fresh ideas as we could but still there will be similarities. The character designer, Luis Martins, is big fan of the arcade game Cadillacs & Dinosaurs. I myself am quite the fan of Golden Axe 3 and Streets of Rage. Of course, various elements from those games have inspired us as well as some Data East games like Crude Busters and Bad Dudes vs Dragon Ninja.
Paprium has been in development for around 5 years now, the mechanics, enemy placements, AI scripts and level design are very different from an RPG like Pier Solar, can you tell me about the challenges you have faced creating the game?
Yes, of course! There is not a single asset from Pier Solar used in Paprium. Paprium has been developed from the ground up, it is a totally new game, with a new engine, art and so on. The big challenge we face is that we wanted the game to be well above any other beat 'em up that exists on the system. Because no matter how good it will be, people are still going to compare it against their old memories. So we have to be one step ahead in order to impress.
The main issue is that the Mega Drive already has lots of damn good beat 'em ups already. So I did a lot of research and preparation to study every single way to increase the graphical power of the system. Once we had nailed the specs, we could start working on the graphics themselves, they must be to the exact specifications of the system. If they are too demanding they can't fit the memory. If we don't push the system enough, then it will be a wasted opportunity.
Ultimately, the game has tons of features exclusive to the Mega Drive but what's very interesting is that when you code for a system from the 90's, you can implement your own really customised techniques that will work forever.
We have spent hundreds of hours fixing and optimising the pixel artist's work so we could cram more and more details into the game. You also have to remember the Mega Drive has a 7 MHz CPU so you need to find a lot of tricks to make the gameplay feel more advanced than the games from the past whilst also having no slow down. It's a lot of work, I'm still reworking & optimising code to gain a few extra percent of CPU power. But yeah, making sure the assets match the specifications, that's the most challenging part!
Can you explain about some of the level design, enemy placements and enemy artificial intelligence?
We have implemented some RPG elements. The RPG elements mostly reside in the branching levels of the game. To be clear, the game has 24 levels but they don't play from 1 to 24. They are arranged so one play through does not exceed 7 levels like most games back then. The level design has been focussed on arranging all the levels together so the city of Paprium feels like a city that makes sense. Also each level has it's own little idea or extra gameplay element which I can't talk about yet!
The enemy placements, they are mostly set up in the "classic" way. Depending on difficulty setting and amount of players, the waves of enemies varies in both quantity and "on-screen" action. You could say it is quite "classic" in that sense.
However, we have pushed the AI to be a tad more advanced than the AI in the original games like Golden Axe or Streets of Rage. Of course, it's no fun to have enemies that are too smart . They are just dumb punks and you want to beat the hell out of them! But there are a few extra things we have added that I can't disclose yet that bring some extra fun.
Also, our enemies can't fall into pits like enemies Golden Axe and Streets of Rage. Our enemies have very "advanced" AI because we have programmed them to look at their feet! (laughs) Enemies can tell the difference between male and female characters. So the pervs are more prone to attack females for example. The enemies are also members of various clans and will quite often start brawling with each other. If a cop punches a perv or tramp by mistake, they will all end up fighting. It's lots of little details that add to the context of the post apocalyptic world and game universe.
The game comes on an 80 meg cartridge, runs at 60FPS, supports two players cooperatively, has large well-animated sprites and looks like a Neo Geo game. How has this been possible on a Sega Mega Drive? Is this Witchcraft?
I took a lot of time to study the system and made a couple of prototype demos to figure out the best way to display large amount of sprites with minimal amount of video memory used. I also crammed in quite few more tricks in order to increase the amount of sprites the VDP (GPU) can display. Such as adding more scrolling layers for example. A lot of work went into picking the colour palettes, so they feel vivid and not ultra greyish and limited like many games from back then. Hopefully all the hard work pays off and the game looks great!
I was shocked to see it was on the Mega Drive to be honest.
It was because the sprites are so much bigger than usual beat 'em ups on the system.
Yes, for sure! There are lot more sprites, they are much bigger and there are no particular limitations. If you remember some games could only display two different enemies at once!
The characters are very striking and well designed; can you give some details on their individual design and movesets?
The characters have been designed by Luis Martins. Each has their own concept of course. We later made pixel renditions and kept tweaking them over & over so they look varied enough. As for the move sets, it's like a 90's beat 'em up. Each character has their own move set, speed variety and the move sets are very big. Don't forget people expect characters to be able to pick up weapons, ride vehicles and so on. That's a LOT of extra animations to do! Again, if we stuck to a very simple beat 'em up design then we could have designed like 10 animations. However, we have got over 150 animations per playable character! The more abilities the more animations, its exponential.
The soundtrack to any side scrolling beat 'em up is very important. Legendary composers such as Yuzo Koshiro have created hugely memorable scores to games like Streets of Rage 2. Can you tell me how the soundtrack has been composed and which soundtracks, if any, have inspired the composition?
The soundtrack has been composed by two people, David, Groovemaster303, Burton and Trevin, Jredd, Hughes. Again a major challenge thanks to Yuzo Koshiro! The score for the game has over 60 tracks, a lot of work there, so we can pick very precisely which track to use for each level. We also developed our own audio tools to compose music.
We had to do same for Pier Solar, since no audio tools were available back then. We developed a special chipset inside the cartridge to add extra channels of digital audio therefore the only real limitation now is the composer's ability.
Are there any plans to release the soundtrack?
We will look at that later, like with Pier Solar, we need some time to figure out whether people enjoyed it or not, feedback is important, so we can then make the best OST arrangement. I can't promise anything yet but we will work on it. We also want to have very high quality recordings from the original system so we have implemented true FM / PSG recordings.
Getting the right exposure and marketing is very important for independent studios and for niche titles like Paprium. Can you tell me about the creation and inspiration behind the awesome 80's inspired trailer for the game?
Haha! Glad you liked it!
We wanted to make something a bit special for our latest Mega Drive game. Something like the old 80s and 90s Sega adverts mixed with influences from the old Japanese ads combined with the European and USA styles. It was a good opportunity to have a bit of fun because the theme of the game is cyberpunk/post apocalyptic, as you know. The golden muscle guy in the advert is actually a character of the game!
Pier Solar HD was released on all major consoles and PC. Are there any plans to release Paprium on the current generation consoles and PC? Maybe with online cooperative play?
For cooperative play, the game runs at 60fps and it's definitively not possible to have online gameplay that does the game justice on modern systems. To try to get the same results we would need to deploy the various techniques/approximations used on other modern online games. That would require us to tone down the gameplay speed & reactivity.
Currently the game has a 16ms delay from pressing the button to seeing the action happen on screen, that's already much faster than most modern systems. If you add an online gameplay layer, we would need to compromise elsewhere. Currently we have no interest in porting the game, we are focused on creating the best Mega Drive game possible, that kicks big ass, it's already enough work!
Where can gamers purchase a copy of Paprium if they live in Europe or North America? Do you ship worldwide or are there any restrictions that gamers need to be aware of?
The game can be pre-ordered now on paprium.com. We ship worldwide of course and worldwide shipping is free.
For our European customers, we will arrange the shipment to come from France. For customers in the USA, we will arrange the shipment to come from the USA. The rest of the world, varies depending on our stock, but shipping will remain free for everyone. Any version of the game is compatible with any Mega Drive from any region in the world. There are no lockouts. The game won't run on pirate systems or those bad clones released lately. They are just hacked emulators, not the real hardware, so they won't be able to run the game. The game should run on the clones from the early 90s though as they contained the real hardware. We also have a custom arcade stick for Paprium so go check out the pics!
What other games does the studio currently have in development and what are the plans for the future?
We have a couple of projects in the pipeline; some are on hold until Paprium gets released. But I can't give more details at the moment!
Also, people should stay tuned because we have got some amazing news soon!