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Interview: WaterMelon Games (Pier Solar)

Have you ever seen the great movie called The Butterfly Effect? I was reminded of it while doing this interview. You see, a simple post by Fonzie at our forum made me do a large write-up about his magnum opus, the Mega Cart, which led to an interview with him. During our chat, the topic of this interview was mentioned, and as a result our dear Daniel Horvath (also known as 108 Stars on the forums) joined the team of Pier Solar (editor’s note: The game originally had the working title of Tavern RPG. It has since been renamed). After PMing each other now and then we came around to talking about having him writing something for Sega-16 to promote the team so they could recruit additional talented members. It turned out that I did an interview with the team, but it’s cool, since I only came up with the questions, so they had to do the dirty work of answering them (haha). This is where the butterfly effect has taken me thus far. And here is the interview, hopefully bringing it further. Answering questions are Tulio, 108 Stars, Fonzie, and Alianger.

 

Sega-16: How did this project get started?

Tulio: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there was Eidolon’s Inn. I am a member of Eidolon’s Inn since 1998, and as every Sega fan knows, that unique place has hosted some of the most interesting conversations around the Sega and emulation scenes. The Tavern, as Eidolon’s Inn’s message board is known, once hosted a conversation about creating a game for the Inn. Most people wanted a RPG game with the Tavern members as the characters of the game.

Unfortunately, the site went down for a while and the message board was plagued by spam everywhere. After some time, when the Inn was reborn as a Wiki page in 2004, someone brought up the topic again. Out of my creativity I wrote what would be a movie trailer for Tavern RPG. People liked it so much and suggested that I come up with a plot for the game. I of course accepted the task. Metalix started guiding me to create the game’s page on Eidolon’s site and soon I would meet Fonzie, which made all of this come true.

Sega-16: Who are in the team right now and what do they do?

108 Stars: I started after some Swedish guy interviewed Fonzie about the Mega Cart. Fonzie mentioned that Tavern RPG was not dead like it seemed, so I asked him immediately if I could join. I began with background-graphics, later I helped with character design, animation and cut scenes too. That’s how it works at the TRPG team: everybody helps with everything they can. In the graphics department we have two other Sega-16 forum members too: Mendicant and Alianger. The story is written by Tulio and Phyu, while Fonzie is the coder. That would make us six people actively working on Tavern RPG right now. And it’s a very international team; thanks to the Internet it is possible for people from France, Brazil, Bangladesh, Sweden and Germany to work together on a typical Nippon-RPG…without a single Japanese member (yet?)!

Tulio: The team are: Fonzie (France) – game engine programmer, graphic artist, mapping, conversion tools developer; Tulio Adriano Cardoso Gonçalves (Brazil) – support tools developer, plot writer, music composer, game script developer; 108 Stars/Daniel Horváth (Germany) – graphic artist, Mendicant (Bangladesh) – graphic artist, and Alianger (Sweden) – graphic artist.

Indirect members: Phyu Win (Myanmar) – plot writer, Wanderson Rodriguez (Brazil)- music composer, and Gustavo do Carmo (Brazil) – music composer. (Phyu is a story writer. She agreed to review and rewrite the new plot along with me. The composers were composing for the project before Zable joined. After he left, I called them again and they agreed to compose for the project again.)

Former members: Metalix (England) – game engine developer, Zable Fahr (Sweden) – graphic artist, music composer, plot reviewer.

Sega-16: Who has left the team and what did they do? Is their material still used in the project?

108 Stars: Lately the designer of our main characters, Zable Fahr, has left the team. He was also responsible for sprites and the soundtrack. It was truly a great loss for the project and threw us back quite a bit; he was a hard worker and invested hours and hours of work in the game. Thankfully we are free to use everything he has done to this point; I guess if we couldn’t use the stuff former team members did we would never be able to finish.

Tulio: I just listed them above, hehe. I don’t remember if there was any practical contribution from Metalix. Zable, on the other hand, drew around ten sprites, did some background art, and composed around twenty-five tracks for TRPG.

He authorized the work to be used in the game, however. For the music, if the new compositions didn’t match the style we would be forced not to use them to maintain consistency.

Sega-16: How much of the project has been done, and what is left to do?

Tulio: I guess Fonzie can more accurately answer that. As far as I know plot writing is at 100%, script writing: 0%, graphics: 10%, music: 35% (if we use Zable’s work, 2% if we don’t), engine programming: 95% (there may be minor tweaks), and support tools development: 90%. I have to deliver the monster editor for Fonzie.

Fonzie: On the tools side: 90% (we’re just missing the monster editor), on the story side: 75% (?), on the graphics side: how about 10%? On the music side, either 50% or 0%, depending of what will be chosen. On the programming side, lets say 90%. I’m pretty proud to have come up with a stable engine (thanks a lot to TascoDLX, Steve and MOD for all their advice).

This engine, along with the tool suite, can run the game’s files from both disc or cartridge… This means that all the work we do is immediately portable to both forms of media. It took us a while to design all the file system, file structures, and conversion tools. Looking back, perhaps making an RPG was probably the worst choice possible for a homebrew game. There was lot of bug fixing that was done using Kaneda’s GensKmod.

Sega-16: What programs have been used for programming, graphics and sound?

Fonzie: For the pixel art, I used PaintShop Pro 6 along with Pedit… Then I had to code something like twenty tools to convert the bmp data to immediately usable files (in editors and the game engine), so you can see the result of your work on the game in a minute instead of after two hours of various tweaks (and its not a joke, fear the Mega CD, fear!) ^^.

For Windows programming, DevCPP was used and for the Mega CD programming, it was XGCC (GCC built for 68000).

108 Stars: I can say for my part that I only used Paint Shop Pro 6 and MS Paint for the graphics.

Alianger: I’ve used Photoshop, Fonzie’s tools, and MS Paint. I recently got a drawing board which should speed things up considerably.

Tulio: On the Mega Drive/Sega CD side there are custom drivers for PCM Music and FM sound FX.

On the PC side, where we develop the graphics and music, I guess it is mostly Paint Shop Pro for pixel art. For music there are several tools involved, but it is 100% digital music, no actual instruments have been played yet.

Sega-16: What kind of setting does the game have – fantasy, sci-fi, or maybe a universe like our world?

Tulio: I believe it is the traditional medieval fantasy, imaginary world.

108 Stars: It’s based on fantasy, but with some mechanical and technological influences.

Sega-16: How does the music sound? Is it comparable to any Mega Drive game?

108 Stars: For what I can say, the soundtrack is pretty awesome in the Mega CD version. I was surprised since I imagined composing music would be a huge problem, but we have some truly great tracks; however, we are still missing a sound engine for a cartridge version.

Tulio: For now we have PCM music, which the Mega Drive is not capable of doing. Comparing to Sega CD, it can match or beat the Lunar 2 soundtrack. You’ll see in the demo that I am very demanding when it concerns to music.

1. – Battle Theme 1 (MP3, 1.30megs) 2. – Home (MP3, 1.69 megs)

3. – The Evergreen Fields (MP3, 1.26 megs) 4.  – Into the Dark (MP3, 1.23 megs)

Sega-16: If the game ends up on a cartridge, how about releasing the original music on a CD as a bonus for the hardcore fans?

Tulio: That’s definitely possible. It would be a waste if all that work would fade out in a simple FM synthesizer with PSG for instruments such as strings (like in Shining Force II). Maybe we create a Deluxe Edition, ha ha ha, who knows?

Fonzie: Everything is possible, let the project finish first.

Sega-16: Considering the Mega Drive is almost twenty years old now, pushing its limits shouldn’t be very difficult with the right people these days. Will we see anything like that on the Tavern RPG?

Fonzie: The engine supports so far:

  • Never seen imperial-sized maps.
  • Tons of various NPCs on screen (amounts probably never seen in a Mega Drive RPG either).
  • Infinite game size, multiple discs are not a problem ^^
  • Hi quality audio streaming (Lunar 2 quality).
  • Dynamic file buffering (to speed up map loadings, especially on villages when going in/out of houses).
  • Lots of ambient effects like wind or snow…
  • Advanced scripting system (with tests and labels) for unique animations and challenges.
  • More! More! More! (laughs)

108 Stars: Well, I think compared to other MD-RPGs Pier Solar will look really good. I’d say that at the moment, the game looks a bit like Final Fantasy VI in terms of the maps, but with fully animated monsters in battle like in Phantasy Star IV. We try to make good use of the colours with lots of shading, and there’s small details like leaves blowing in the wind… We’ll have character-portraits with different expressions shown in dialogue, like in Grandia, too. In the battles Fonzie has made some cool effects I cannot describe.

Tulio: That was one of my biggest wishes. Unfortunately there is something that is a big weight against this: This is our first full game. We still have a lot to learn in regards to programming and by our machine standards nowadays, it is very hard to work with the Sega CD or Mega Drive memory. All the features we want for the game makes it hard to deal with the memory, so some things must be dropped off. Who knows, in the next game we will be able to push all the limits we want?

Sega-16: What I am referring to is using more than sixty-four colours, great lines of speech like in Pulseman, transparent effects, scaling & rotation… Stuff that puts the 68000 heart on fire. But getting a game that looks like a late standard SNES RPG would be more than enough, and judging from the very little I have seen, I believe you will reach it.

Fonzie: About the effects: since there is not much room in the Sega CD’s RAM for such zoom/rotation effects, there will be some (unseen) Plasma or/and Raster effects during battles… The game itself will feature incredibly detailed backgrounds, be rich in color, and in the pure 16-bit tradition, stay tuned! I would say that the only limitation now comes from our drawing skills… because the hardware is really optimized for maximum display power.

108 Stars: Please do not judge the game’s graphics entirely by the screen shots you’ve seen; they will get a lot of polishing. What you see right now is what we have done without seeing the actual map and how it looks and works. After seeing this, we are of course editing the graphics still to be even better. Then we test them with the map again and again, until we are satisfied.

Sega-16: What games have influenced you most in making this game?

108 Stars: A big influence was Lunar, being the RPG that came closest to our imagination. The animated monsters came from Phantasy Star I think, and the rest was probably SNES-RPGs such as Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger. Visually we want to reach the quality of such later SNES titles – lots of details and gimmicks to make a house seem like there’s really someone living in it, for example.

Tulio: On my side, these were the main games that influenced me: Lunar (SS and EB), Phantasy Star IV, Shining Force II, Albert Odyssey, and Chrono Trigger.

Sega-16: Tell us about the story and the characters.

Tulio: So, you want some spoilers… let’s see… Everything starts in a peaceful day and you end up having to save the world. Is that it? (laughs). I’d say that we came up with a pretty complex story for at least forty hours of gameplay, hopefully more. We don’t have a big character turnover, it is more like Lunar in this aspect. But thanks to Zable’s review we were able to develop a deeper story and personality for each character.

Actually, when I started writing we were on the fun idea of bringing a game with the Tavern members. That idea died since it wouldn’t be that fun for the rest of the world. Then we came with the new story which is now finished. We expect a one hour demo soon.

108 Stars: The main characters are three youngsters. They are the center of the story, with some more characters coming and going. I would not want to tell too much of it at the moment (I don’t know the complete plot myself yet), but as you can probably guess, they stumble across something huge going on and have to deal with some ancient evil. I can say there’s a lot of humour as well as drama going on in the game. The characters are designed with plenty of fantasy in mind.

Sega-16: How is the battle system? Does it have any innovations unique to this type of game?

Tulio: With so many RPGs in the world, it is hard to come with something unique these days. What I can think of is that we combined some elements of interesting gameplay of some games and the result is something that I have never seen for any Sega CD RPG so far.

As far as I can tell the battles are turn-based, so, no annoying time bars like in Final Fantasy.

108 Stars: Basically the battle system is turn-based and viewed from the side. You have all the standard commands like “attack, magic, item and run.” The party consists of five characters at a time, probably some of those will be AI-controlled during battle. For unique special features, nothing is decided yet; we’d like to have something… we have talked about it… but Fonzie must see if he can get it done with the memory limitations we have.

Sega 16: People with a Mega CD aren’t many these days, and those who also own a 32X are on the IUCN Red List. Wouldn’t a 16-bit cartridge be the best solution if you seek any form of profit in this game?

Fonzie: In the case of a good sound solution, there will be a cartridge release as well. There won’t be any profit on the game sales, nothing outrageous, at least…

108 Stars: Well, I am one of those people without a Mega CD, so naturally, I’d prefer a cartridge version myself. There are many more Mega Drive owners than Mega CD owners, and the Mega Drive seems to be quite a well-built device; many of them are still around and working fine while it gets tougher to get your hands on a functional Mega CD. Also cartridges survive for an eternity, while CD-ROMs begin to die after five years sometimes. The big problems with cartridges are that they are more expensive than CDs. We do not want to make any profit, but the game will probably need much MEGA POWER. The more MEGA POWER, the more expensive the cart gets. And we need a good sound engine. Even the pros back in the days had problems getting descent music out of a stock Mega Drive. There are ideas how to solve the problem, but again, the price is an important matter. We must have a reasonable price or people won’t buy it. There’s no use in having a 64MB cartridge with special chips if nobody can afford it.

Tulio: We don’t seek any profit, actually. It is obvious that as soon as the game is released someone will copy the ISO or dump the ROM and publish it on the Internet. We do hope that people would want to own the game, and that would be awesome since any money that we can raise with it could be used for the research of resources for another game. Who knows? We could even use the money for proper publishing or for acquiring a license to develop games based on our engine for more modern consoles such as the Dreamcast. There are infinite possibilities.

Back to the media discussion, I’d say that both should be available. I myself own the whole Mega Drive set but my Sega CD lens is dead. I have no other choice for now but to play through the emulator. I guess most Mega Drive fans nowadays do use emulators, since the emulation is so accurate that it is much easier and has better image quality than the old composite video output of the console. For that reason, I believe that a CD version would be widely adopted by Sega and 16-bit game fans.

Sega-16: Will you try to obtain a license from Sega, like Super Fighter Team is doing currently?

Tulio: I hope so, but that is something that you never know how it will end up…

108 Stars: I doubt it. Like I said, we aren’t working for profit, nor are we a company with money. Sega probably wouldn’t give us a license for free. So I guess we’ll just have to take the usual homebrew route of unlicensed products.

Sega-16: When can we expect a playable demo?

108 Stars: That is hard to say…it could happen in as little as a month if all goes well, but it could also take longer… We want it to be as bug-free as possible. At the moment we only have three different sprites integrated for a whole town, for example, and some of the placeholders for story-relevant characters. The monsters are still missing (though they are already drawn), and there are some glitches in the maps… We want to deliver something that gives an impression of the final product, so we will sort all those problems out before the demo gets released. Then the player can really play a small portion of the game.

Sega-16: How about putting up a website for the game?

Fonzie: Sure, as soon as we feel required to have one, I’ll make a website and buy a domain name (editor’s note: the website is live!).

108 Stars: Tavern RPG is just a working title based on Eidolon´s Inn’s board “the Tavern”. Calling it Tavern RPG could lead to some misunderstanding. I have some great titles in mind: Phictional Star, Last Legend, Greatia, Bum King or Hentai RPG… just kidding.

Sega-16: What kind of people do you seek for the team? What knowledge and talents are required?

108 Stars: We prefer sexy women in underwear to join us as personal assistants. If you are not, talent and the will to take part in something big would be just as good. We need many people to do pixel artwork; not an easy task, but if you have ever seen RPG Maker stuff you know the deal. We do not demand you to start like a pro, just give your best in creating great tile sets for the backgrounds or draw cool monsters in 96×96 pixels max… or you can draw and animate character sprites to fill our game’s streets with life.

We help each other all the time and edit each other’s work to make it even better. None of us knew what this was all about, but we learned by doing it. So don’t be afraid; nobody will push you. We are very few people at the moment, and every helping hand is welcome! At the moment, everybody is involved in just about everything. For example Fonzie would have enough to do with just finishing the programming part, but he has to help out with graphics too. Additional help is essential to get this project done soon.

Tulio: First of all, someone who is a 16-bit games fan. Then this person should be interested in game development, be patient, dedicated, capable of working in a team, and have a good amount of time to work on the project. As for talents, we are seeking people to develop graphics, write game script, assemble maps and dungeons and some other work with the tools. For graphics we need people to draw conceptual art, monsters and game cut scenes. The engine can support FMV (Fonzie can confirm), and if a flash artist can work in animations we could even use those on the game. It would also be nice if the person is used to work with 16/32 color palette and very low resolution. For script, it must be someone used to programming or HTML coding. No programming skill is directly needed, but the script language is not very friendly to people with no programming background at all.

Sega-16: What would be the best way to get in contact with the team?

Fonzie: By contacting any member on the boards they use (Sega-16 or Eidolon’s Inn).

108 Stars: Yeah, Fonzie, Alianger, Mendicant and I are all registered on Sega-16. Just PM any of us!

Sega-16: Is there anything you would like to add?

108 Stars: I thank you, Zebbe, for interviewing Fonzie some time ago…if you hadn’t, I would not be in the team. I’d also like to thank Sega-16 for helping us with this and future articles. It is a wonderful community and it enflamed my old love for the Mega Drive anew! And I thank Fonzie, Tulio and the rest of the team for taking me in. This is such a great and friendly team that I’d never want to miss it again!

To all Sega fans: Please expect the best possible result from us! We want to make a true jewel among 16-Bit RPGs, and we will definitely see this through! This is a gigantic project for a homebrew title, but we will put lots of great stuff into the game! We promise to use not a single ripped element of any kind from other games, but to instead deliver an all new, epic, self-made RPG!

Tulio: I would like to thank you for this wonderful opportunity. I hope that this game can be as fun for everyone as it has been for us. I am realizing my dream of writing my own RPG and it would be awesome if everyone could enjoy this work as much as I do. Developing a game is far more complex than I ever imagined, and we are close to reaching three years on the project. So much has been done yet so much still remains. I appreciate the support, and I hope we can gather more members to speed up the process. Thank you very much.

Fonzie: I’m so happy to be a member of the team too. So many things happened in the last three years, only the crazier people are still here, it seems ^^… Now, we can imagine finishing the game. It wasn’t really the case some months ago. It will be very crazy when we’ll have to design the packaging and run the production and all the goodies, I can’t wait to see that. Thanks to Tulio, Daniel, Zable and all our friends – motivation is really the most important part of the thing. 2008 being the 20th anniversary of our dear system, it would be giant to finish the game by this period.

 

I’d like to thank the Pier Solar team for taking their time in answering my questions as well as making a game in my favourite genre for my favourite console! I hope and believe you will make a landmark in Mega Drive history. Never let dreams die!

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