Interview with Ryan J. Bury (RJB Software) - 23/08/2019
Ryan is a british game designer who has been making games since about 1998. His works include such games as the "Afterlife" Series, "Orbital Snake" and the newest one - "Evowok Breeder".
rjbsoftware.uk rjbsoftware.itch.io twitter.com/rjbsoftware
1. How did you get into game development? What were your earliest games?
I've always loved videogames, of course. I grew up in the 16-bit era, and I guess the tail-end of the 8-bit era (my first proper console was a Sega Master System). When I got my first desktop computer (with a dial-up modem!), I started to explore the dark corners of the mid-90s web, and I found all these neat little hobbyist games that were really cool.
I was in high-school at the time, and I knew that some of the guys who were into programming often hung out in the school library, so I went to them one lunchtime and asked if they could give me some starters. They showed me some rudimentary coding techniques and gave me a floppy disk (!) with a Microsoft QuickBASIC 4.5 compiler to take home, and I went from there.
When I came back to them a few weeks later, it was to show them my first attempt at a game, a platformer called "Stick You". You played as a stick (yes, as in a bit of wood) called Twig (because a single brown line is about the easiest thing to procedurally draw on the screen and calculate collisions for). It was pretty funny because the physics were so weirdly coded that it turned out Twig's jump height was higher on faster machines, so we found that some levels were easier or harder depending on which computer you played it on.
But it was a complete game, with quite a few levels, an end-boss, and even a cheat-code that let you play against the boss while on the title-screen (using the game's logo text as platforms!)
Sadly I no longer have a copy of the game or the source-code though, which is a shame, because I'd love to see how high I could jump on a modern CPU!
I went on to release quite a few small games on the QB scene that still existed as a little niche part of the web back then, and eventually transitioned to the wider freeware games scene that was at its strongest around the end of the 90s and the early 00s. My first few games at that point were kinda bad space shooters, but some people seemed to like them, which was really encouraging, and it all went from there.
Little fun note: some of the level designs in Afterlife: Rickard's Quest are deliberately a sort of memory-homage to what I remember of the levels from Stick You, so it does live on in spirit, in some way at least.
Stargun Academy - An old RJB Game
2. What do you like/hate the most about game development?
As with any creative endeavour, the feeling of transferring something that only exists in my imagnation to a format in the real world that can be directly experienced by other people is pretty magical.
But of course there's a lot of process in between those two things, and while some of that is great fun, a lot of it is endless hours of staring at code trying to work out why it doesn't do what it's meant to do, which is about as fun as it sounds.
3. Many of your games still receive updates despite being released many years ago. Do you think developers should always seek out ways to fix bugs and improve their games, no matter their age?
Absolutely, if they have the time, and if it makes the game that little bit closer to how it was originally intended and maybe even a little more fun. I love to see it as a player, too, because knowing that I'm playing something that's still in the developer's heart somehow makes it more special for me.
4. It has been 2 years since the release of your latest game - Evowok Breeder. What can you tell us about it? How long did it take to make? Has the general reception been good?
It's slightly funny to me to hear Evowok Breeder described as my latest game, because it's actually one of my oldest projects!
The concept came from playing one of the original Pokémon games when they first came out in the UK, and being struck by the thought that by shifting away from the usual storyline-centric approach of most traditional adventure games and even having the player take a back-seat in combat, the premise could actually allow for a very free level of interaction with its setting while still keeping the central gameplay intact, which was a possibility that I thought had the potential to be really interesting but which Pokémon's designers hadn't chosen to explore.
I'd also been playing the original Fallout games around the same time, which were pretty revolutionary for the level of roleplaying freedom they allowed, and I remember chatting to a friend about it in school and mentioning that I thought it would be cool if there was a game that combined the two concepts somehow. "Why don't you make it?" he asked.
At that point, I was still just starting out at making games, so it was quite a complex project to take on, but I ended up making a little DOS adventure game based on the idea, and called it Evowok Breeder. It had full conversation trees, and it was very text-heavy - there was probably more reading than gameplay! But it was the biggest thing I'd made until then, and I was quite pleased with it.
I never publicly released the DOS version, but I made a full (somewhat scrappy) port of the game as my first foray into Windows development, and put it on my website. Some people really liked it, and a few very nice people even offered to collaborate on future versions, so I decided to finally have a real go at remaking the game as it should have been, and started on the project that ended up becoming the game I released about fifteen years later!
Actually, all of my other current games happened alongside working on Evowok Breeder. Making the first Afterlife game was the result of a decision to take some time out to completely rethink the project because I felt like the direction I was taking with it just wasn't working. I'm really glad I did, not just because Afterlife turned out to be something I'm really pleased with anyway, but because I was right: that aborted version of Evowok Breeder would have been just awful to play, for all sorts of reasons.
Making that first Afterlife game took me about a year, and I started on the fourth and final rewrite of Evowok Breeder just after it was released in 2004.
I couldn't really tell you how it's been received, because I don't think enough people have even played it to really give an impression! But I'm pleased with how it's turned out, and I've had a few really supportive forum messages from some people who've enjoyed the game, so that's lovely. I'm always aware that the games I make are very niche, so anytime even one person lets me know they like something I've made, that's really special.
The Original Evowok Breeder
5. Are there any new games coming soon?
I've spent the last year working on the big content expansion for Evowok Breeder that I released last month, so that's taken a lot of my time recently!
I don't have another active work in progress yet, but as for the future, who knows? I have a lot of ideas in note form for at least one more Afterlife game - I even got as far as mocking up a title-screen for a fourth instalment in that series a little while ago! - but the development of Evowok Breeder has encompassed all of my other projects for the last fifteen years, so a part of me feels like finishing that game finally brought that chapter full circle.
I'd certainly like to continue to release occasional updates to my existing games when I can, but I think the next thing I do should be something at least a little different from my previous projects. I do have some ideas. We'll see!
The Aforementioned Title Screen
6. What do you think is a secret to making an excellent game? And what mistakes can ruin the player's experience?
Honestly, the thing that really makes any game special for me is simply being made with real love and attention by its developers. That might sound trite, but it really shows, no matter the successes or failures of any other part of the game.
I think that's a quality that even most commercial games had in the 90s, but sadly (with a few notable exceptions) isn't so common in most mainstream games more recently, and it's one of the things that really makes a lot of freeware games shine for me, because they're almost exclusively made with love in a way that's very hard for most big-budget studios to match.
As for mistakes ruining the player's experience, I'm probably guilty of a lot of those myself, so I don't know if I'm in any position to criticise! There are plenty of design choices that will instantly switch me off a game, but of course that's often a matter of personal taste and other people would certainly disagree.
One thing that's maybe pertinent to my games is that I really don't like games that are too easy. Overcoming challenges is a big part of the joy of games for me, so if I start playing a game and I don't feel some level of difficulty fairly early on, I usually get bored and give up quite quickly.
As a result I tend to aim to make my games challenging right from the start. Someone once described one of my games as having "a Mario level of difficulty", which I was pretty happy with! I love that sense of excitement from finally making it through a hard level after countless tries and getting to see a completely new level for the first time, and that's really something I try to create in my games as much as possible.
7. You have been around (or should i say "making games"?) since early 2000s. How has the gamedev scene changed over the years?
The main paradigm shift I've noticed in that time is that when I started out, there was a really strong hobbyist freeware games scene, with some great sites supporting it. The bar for entry to making games was quite high, because it required some level of programming ability as well as a lot of hard work, so the quality of games being made was generally very high.
That changed when platforms like Game Maker and Multimedia Fusion became popular, because they lowered that bar for entry considerably. That was a great thing for the accessibility of games as a medium of course, but it also meant that the web was suddenly flooded with hundreds of small free games with quite poor quality and stolen assets, and that made it much harder to find the real gems that were still being released. I think that's a big part of what killed off the freeware scene at that time, and one by one the main sites gradually died and vanished.
Of course the upshot from that was that a lot of really amazing and talented people were able to get into making games because of those platforms, and I think the modern indie games scene certainly owes a lot to that transition. Having said that, the indie scene now has an inherent commercial aspect in a way that the preceding freeware scene obviously didn't at all, and that does make a difference to the types of games that it produces, in both positive and negative ways.
8. Which games do you like and would recommend us to play?
That could be a big list!
One recent indie game I'd highly recommend for anyone who hasn't played it yet is Darkest Dungeon from Red Hook Studios. That's a great example of a game that's built on quite a simple concept but made absolutely gorgeous by the obvious love and attention its developers have poured into it.
As for older freeware titles, a couple of slightly more obscure picks that I'd definitely recommend would be Diver Down by Grenideer and The Cleaner by Darthlupi, which is a really unusual but beautiful game. Yahtzee's Chzo Mythos series and 1213 trilogy are great too, and of course Daniel Remar's Iji, and pretty much anything by Locomalito. Miran Amon is another developer whose games are worth checking out, particularly Peace Fighter and a little game called Unborn which actually influenced the design for one of the bosses in Afterlife 2.
Oh, and one freeware game I really loved from a very long time ago was called Shadow Of Power by Master Creating, but sadly it requires Windows 95 or 98 to run, so that's a little harder to play these days!
9. What inspires you?
I suppose that just like anyone, anything I make is in some way a product of my influences. I grew up in the 90s, so the 16-bit era Sonic The Hedgehog games were a really big part of my childhood, as was Mario 64, which was absolutely groundbreaking in terms of game design when it came out. I think it's possible to see some influence from games like Quake and Tomb Raider in the Afterlife games as well.
Often though, I find that the most inspiring thing when making a game is the game itself. When I first have some kind of working engine and I'm starting to play with the possibilities, it often feels that the game starts to write itself (or at the very least make some strong suggestions). That was certainly the case with the first two Afterlife games, both of which ended up being quite different in some respects than I'd perhaps initially envisaged when I started working on them.
10. And here is the tricky one! Imagine if you were Rickard Bronson himself. Which balloon would you choose for your adventure, and why? Which realms would you wish to avoid, and at which you would happily rest for a while?
Haha! That's a pretty great question. Despite coincidentally sharing a couple of initials with Rickard, putting myself in his place is perhaps a little unrealistic. I can't compete with that level of moustache, for a start.
If I had to pick a balloon from Rickard's arsenal, it would probably be Rainbow, because it's the one I'm most familiar with from testing those games, and its abilities in the first game are well balanced for any hazardous circumstance I might encounter.
I'm not sure that any of the Realms of Hell would be especially pleasant to visit, but I'd probably do my best to avoid the Realm of Melys. I suppose that somewhere in the Realm of Anghorn might be the best bet for pitching a tent for the night, but I'd have to be wary of constructors...
Afterlife: Rickard's Quest
11. What music do you like to listen to?
Music has always been a huge part of videogames for me. For one of my early games, I actually composed the music first and then made the game to fit the soundtrack! I've always been a fan of the music from the 16-bit Sonic The Hedgehog series (which I think is perhaps obvious from some of the music in my own games), and I love the subtle, dark ambience in Worms: Armageddon, which was a big influence when I was writing music for Afterlife 3.
12. What's your catchphrase/motto?
"An evowok is for life; not just for wintertide."
13. And now, for the final question! What would you tell to the young game developers, and to the ones of the past?
Make everything with love, and make the games you'd want to play (even if it means that nobody else does).
Thank you Ryan!
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