Red Crest Studios Interview

Here’s an interview with Michael Ventnor of Red Crest Studios, who released Hyper Button and Bonded Realities this month. Read on to find out his thoughts on Nintendo, enemy design, and why he doesn’t like Pokémon.

First, tell us about yourself and your gaming history?

My name is Michael Ventnor, living in Brisbane, Australia. Up until the Xbox 360, I was exclusively a Nintendo gamer and fanboy. However, last year I discovered the Indie Games service, where Microsoft allowed pretty much anyone to develop games for sale on the 360, which is a dream come true for me.

The reason I originally wanted to get into programming, as a bright-eyed primary school student, was to make video games. Unlike others in my class, though, I found I easily understood and sometimes enjoyed learning the maths and logic involved in order to understand programming languages and algorithms. Programming stuff was something I really enjoyed in my spare time. I graduated BSc in Computer Science at University of Queensland.

Bonded Realities

What made you want to make this game?

Truth is, I have many ideas for game mechanics all written down, but I selected my RPG idea because a) there are not enough on the Indie service, and b) I thought making an RPG would be easy. A turn-based RPG is just fancy packaging around logic and what we in the computer field call state machines. This sort of stuff is what programming languages do best.

Surprise, turns out that arrogant assessment was wrong after all! Now I see why there are so few RPGs on the service. I wanted to release by September 2010, then November 2010. It was a tough lesson for me.

A third reason I wanted to make RPGs is because I enjoyed them while growing up. Like I said, I was a Nintendo child, so I enjoyed lots of Nintendo RPGs like Earthbound, Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi. Indie RPGs are frequently compared to Earthbound and Im sure Ill be moreso, but this is because Earthbound has so many qualities of an indie game. It takes risks. It has a charming style to it. Its funny. It strives to stand out from the other RPGs. I seem to enjoy RPGs, and games in general, if they have a unique spark to them and if theyre happy and light-hearted (which probably explains my Nintendo allegiance). Hence, when you play Bonded Realities, youll see lots of one liners and self-deprecating humour.

I already likened your game to Earthbound without even playing it, probably a bit presumptuous but it does have that vibe about it. I can’t think of many better influences, though. What else have you learnt from those games that youve been able to use to make your game as good as it can be?

I asked myself what did I enjoy? and what did I find annoying? Why did I find Earthbound fun? For one, there were lots of interesting enemies, and I was always curious to see what the next area and the areas enemies looked like. I tried to replicate this feeling in Bonded Realities, every enemy is heavily characterised and has unique attacks. Secondly, and this could also apply to Paper Mario, it felt like a giant vaudeville show. Lots of nonsensical non-sequitur stuff happened, so I tried to include the same feeling in my game.

Why did I find Pokémon annoying? As I was walking through caves, I had to deal with wild encounters too low level to bother. How to stop them? I had to use Repels, which only worked a limited number of steps. Dont have Repels in your bag? Tough. This led to the idea of the Smoke Ball in game. When you use it, encounters stop, and you can use it whenever you want. I found theres no reason to put a price on this for the player, since not getting enough experience to beat the boss is payback enough for using this item too much.

Bonded Realities

I think your stance on random battles will make a lot of people happy! Sounds like theres a great balance between having enemies that players will want to see, and letting them see them at their own pace.

Tell us a bit more about the game, what can the player expect from it?

These are some goals I set myself when I made Bonded Realities:

1) Funny, moreso than any other RPG Ive played.
2) An interface that felt great to use and never became overwhelming.
3) Lots to do, especially adding things that break up the monotony and slow pace.

For 1), I tell a lot of jokes, and Im Australian, so those things really help when thinking up humour. I dont have the burden of publishers paranoid of PR, so I used some quite shocking humour by RPG standards. Jokes only went in the game if I laughed at it myself when I thought it up. The innkeepers one-liners about the awful conditions of your room are my favourites.

For 2), I wanted an almost Apple-like devotion to a good interface. My desk was littered with mock-ups of everything from the battle UI to the shops to the pause menus. I asked myself what needs to be displayed on screen?, how long will it take the players eyes and brain to process all this? and most importantly, what can I remove? You watch the trailer, and youll notice in the battle UI things like each ally being assigned a different colour, or how remaining HP is graphically signified with your stat box draining, thus removing the need to display max HP on screen.

For 3), I thought up lots of little ways to add challenge if you ever got bored with the game as it stood. Finishing battles quickly (by wall clock time) results in bonus experience points. Defending will recover a random amount of PP. Find all the treasure chests, including the very-well-hidden ones with super-powerful equipment, and you get a big reward from a character called the Treasure Oracle. Theres techniques you must use to avoid one-hit KO attacks (or the final boss, who has the ability to send your whole party to sleep at once).

I already mentioned the wide range of enemies. I just hope it lives up to expectations, since there are some very good RPGs on the Indie service developed with more resources than I, and I hope it isnt received poorly because of that.

It sounds really streamlined, I dont see why gamers wouldn’t take to it if they try it!

Maybe the biggest hindrance is the old nobodys trying problem, what are you planning to get peoples attention?

I plan on contacting as many sites as I can, but theres no way Ill get the attention of IGN, and Id have to be exceedingly lucky to make Kotaku or Joystiq. So the sites I plan on contacting are smaller news sites but still have a respectable readership. RPGamer has been fantastic in this regard, and Ive also got the attention of RPGFan, XBLAFans and some others. Once lots of smaller sites pick it up, Im hoping for a trickle-up effect where bigger sites will want to see what the fuss is about.

Writing good press releases, and getting a trailer on GameTrailers is also important.

I think the way your game has an Earthboundy kind of feel could really help with sites like Kotaku, actually.

What was development of Bonded Realities like? Did you do everything yourself?

The programming I did all myself. I wrote the engine from scratch. Its quite powerful, actually, since I had other uses for it besides RPGs in mind, but thats not going to happen for a long time yet. The art I did all myself. Im not as good a drawer as some may think; I helped develop my drawing skills and the art style used in BR, by drawing my own political cartoons. Doing that also helped develop a good wit, which I put to use writing BRs jokes.

The music is all licensed. I cant write a song to save my life.

Development had its ups and downs, as it always does. Designing and coding the engine was my favourite bit, since I enjoy problem solving like that. The most mundane bit was writing the level data. Imagine playing a text-prompt version of Command and Conquer. I had to write the level data by hand, but I think it wouldve been less work than if I wrote a graphical editor. Writing a graphical editor wouldve made implementing levels more fun, but it wouldve sucked a whole lot more time from the project and I dont think I couldve afforded to do that.

Bonded Realities

What are your thoughts on XBLIG in general, prior to releasing your first major game?

Its great, even if too much attention has been put on the crapplications. Lots of people dream about selling games but dont know where to begin, and its wonderful that Microsoft, Google and Apple, among others, are making it easy for indie devs to reach a huge audience on their respective platforms. Crap will always be made for these sorts of markets, so just ignore it, and give the attention to those who deserve it. If those developers make enough money and fame, theyll keep making games for you, so I hope the media will give more attention to good XBLIG titles and not maintain the impression that its 100% crap.

Finally Im Bobby Kotick and Im very busy, those sequels arent going to churn themselves. Youve got 15 words to tell me why I (and everyone) should be interested in Bonded Realities!

A summary for a busy person, how about this: Longing for good old-fashioned RPG gameplay in a funny world? Nows your chance! Thats 14 words, but add sex in there somewhere and its bound to get peoples attention!

Bonded Realities is out now and can be yours for 80 Microsoft Points.