Last year whilst attending the 2015 Play Expo in Manchester:
Among the many independent game developers I had the pleasure of conversing with at the show was James Monkman; director at Retro Gamer CD, who have released over 30 indie games on PC as well as across various different retro platforms, such as Commodore 64, Atari STE and the Atari Jaguar. James was at the event showcasing the studio’s upcoming arcade title an-Dimensional Conga Combat, which he co-created along with fellow coder Jamie Howard and the rest of the staff at RGCD. I recently approached James again to see if he would like to answer a couple of further questions I had about his latest development outing, as well as about the studio in general. This is what James had to say:
What were the influences behind Pan-Dimensional Conga Combat?
Conga is actually the second game that Jamie and I have worked on together (not including Commodore 64 releases), and until recently he was primarily in charge of the code. Despite my history of already programming and releasing a game on my own (Robotz DX), there was a lot of stuff that I was doing wrong/stupidly, so over the Christmas holidays back in 2014 we decided to spend some time focused on improving my ‘skills’. Rather than sit plodding through tedious tutorials, I decided that my solo project should be to remake a simple game from around 10 years ago; a simple avoid-’em-up called ‘Mini01’ by Japanese indie developer Buster. Mini01 shares the core mechanic with Conga (bullet tail used to kill enemies), but it is incredibly simple. There are only two enemy types, and they just fall from the top of the screen. It took us a couple of days to complete the remake, at which point Jamie and I decided that we’d push the design a little further and see what we could make of it. First of all we added full 8-way movement and the enemy spawning portals, then came the waves, geometric patterns, mesh-distortion, rhythm-synchronised action, the evil X and the lazor.
What has the developmental process been like?
SLOW. To be honest, if Jamie and I didn’t have full-time jobs, we could have knocked the game out in less than a month. However, with only occasional weekends together and one or two evenings a month, well – there’s not been much time spent actually punching the keys. 2015 was a really busy year for us both (IRL). We’ve been lucky in that from the offset we had outside help with the artwork and music. Folmer Kelly (the ‘Wrassling’ guy) provided us with 99% of the artwork and a lot of valuable feedback and design tips, and regular RGCD collaborator Ilija Melentijevic gave us permission to use his alien freak-beats and reNoise experiments for the soundtrack. Jamie and I have learnt a lot of valuable lessons developing this game – more so than with our last (r0x EP) – so despite taking forever, Conga’s development has been a positive experience. We’re not expecting it to set the indie scene on fire, but we’re hoping a few people out there enjoy the game. However, ultimately it’s not *that* important for us to make a profit – the experience that we’ve gained from its development has been priceless.
How close are we to seeing the finished product?
Soon! Apart from a few tweaks to the AI and rating system, we’re happy with what we’ve created. The only jobs remaining are the options, stats/achievements and credits screens – all of which will share similar code. We’re currently saying ‘Beginning of March 2016’ for the initial itch.io release.
What has been the most exciting aspect of development?
Probably watching other people play it at PLAY Expo last year. Exhibiting an unfinished game is both a terrifying and super-rewarding experience. In hindsight, the game really wasn’t ready for public exposure – despite our efforts with the tutorial it was not at all obvious to a lot of people ‘what you had to do’. We had to intervene a LOT. However, we were pleased that when people started playing they were reluctant to put down the controller and walk away. One guy initially complained that the game was too hard – and then after 10 minutes or so he smashed my all-time top score! Whilst watching people play, Jamie and I both filled our notebooks with feedback and issues that people faced – and we’re pretty sure that we’ve now rectified them all.
What has been the most challenging aspect of development?
Getting the difficulty right! Jamie and I like classic coin-op style *hard* games – which is why we are fans of one-hit kills and perma-death. However, with Conga we wanted to introduce a ‘fair’ difficulty curve. Conga has two modes – a classic endless ‘survival’ mode where you eventually get swarmed by the invincible evil X’s, and an arcade mode in which you jump through the four themed dimensions, with the kill quota to open each exit portal increasing every time. In both modes, progression unlocks dimensions to be replayed in survival. We ended up adding an armour pick-up that effectively offers players an extra hit-point for the current stage. Getting this isn’t too easy; you have to first fully charge your lazor by grinding your tail against the purple cross enemies, then fire it and kill one of them (they drop the armour when they die). However, with all that said, I’m personally still not happy – it currently feels too easy, so we’re going to tweak the AI to make the enemies more aggressive.
How well has the game been received so far?
Conga has remained pretty much under the radar – apart from PLAY Expo, it’s received little to no exposure. People get excited on twitter when we show off the mesh effects as animated .gifs using the #screenshotsaturday tag, but that’s pretty much it – until now.
Prior to Pan-Dimensional Conga Combat, what has been your favourite game to develop so far?
RGCD has been involved in the development of LOTS of games. Over 33 for the Commodore 64 alone and several for the PC and other obsolete platforms like the Atari ST and Jaguar. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but the one we are most excited about currently is Blastard Squad – our work-in-progress, squad-based sequel to Robotz DX. We’re hoping that one will be our break-through release.
Where do you get ideas for the conceptual design of your games?
It’s no secret that Jamie and I look to the past for inspiration. I was a huge fan of public domain and shareware games back on the Amiga and Atari in the 1990’s. Much like today’s indie scene, there were loads of fresh ideas there that offered completely different experiences to what was commercially available. However, a lot of the designs were constricted by the platform limitations of the time – which is not a problem we have today. Jamie has been playing a lot of PC-Engine stuff lately, and some of the weirdo games that came out on that console would be perfect to lift ideas from and evolve. So that’s what we do; borrow a bit from one game, take some inspiration from another, then mash it up and make the best that we can out of it.
What platforms are you looking to bring the game to?
Conga will be released initially on PC via itch.io, followed by Android release (we already have some touch control in there) and very-probably console afterwards (via our friends at MixedBag Games). Amusingly, we’ve been using an old OUYA for testing the android builds, so we’ll release that build as well. We’ll hit Steam Greenlight when it’s out on itch.io and see what the response is like. Conga is definitely a game that would benefit from integrating online leaderboards.
Do you have any advice for aspiring developers that may be reading this?
The more simple the design and scope of your game, the more likely you’ll finish it! Even tiny games take a LOT of work to complete. Start small and build up your skills with each game you make. Don’t be dissuaded from using ‘n00b’ tools like GameMaker, Construct or other high-level development environments (we use GameMaker Studio and it’s fab) Most importantly, if the driving force behind you making games is ‘for fun’ rather than ‘for money’, you’ll never be disappointed. People like Locomalito (who makes games primarily for himself rather than for ‘the market’) are hugely inspiring to us.
Where about on the Internet can people find you?
Our home is at www.rgcd.co.uk, but we can also be reached at Facebook (/rgcd.co.uk) and Twitter (@RetroGamerCD).
Do you have anything else to add?
Thanks for the interview! 🙂
I would lastly like to take the opportunity to thank Jamie for agreeing to our question and answer session and for showcasing Pan-Dimensional Conga Combat at Play Manchester last year, and wish the studio the est of luck with the game. Many of RGCD previous works are also currently available for free download from their site via the link below. Look out for reviews of these games from me coming soon: