“Choose your lizard carefully. You can find six different ones scattered across the land, each with its own special ability.
You'll need these abilities as you make your difficult journey through many dangerous places. Carefully hop your way to the top of an active volcano. Surf down a surging river. Swim an underwater lake. Ascend a snowy... Read All It’s a pretty special time when a new Nintendo games comes out and Brad Smith has something with his latest entry to the NES lineup with Lizard. After reading about the game, playing the demo and quite enjoying my time with it I decided to reach out to him and ask him a few questions about the game and his process of creating it.
“Choose your lizard carefully. You can find six different ones scattered across the land, each with its own special ability.
You'll need these abilities as you make your difficult journey through many dangerous places. Carefully hop your way to the top of an active volcano. Surf down a surging river. Swim an underwater lake. Ascend a snowy mountaintop. What kind of strange creatures will you meet? Can you unravel the mysteries of Lizard?”
jdodson: Why create a new Nintendo game?
Brad Smith: I got interested in NES development first through a music program called Famitracker. I've always had an interest in video game music, but I found this program (more than 10 years ago now) that allowed me to write music for the NES, and I thought this was great. A few years later I used it to make an NES cover of the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon, and from public response to that I found my way to some chiptune communities. The more I worked with it, the more I had questions about the NES hardware, and finally I bought one and a PowerPak flash cart so that I could write my own programs for it and answer those questions.
The more time I spent with this machine, the more interesting it became. It's got a great balance of being just powerful enough to be versatile, but it's still very limited and something you have to constantly design your work around. Some aspects of the machine seem very simple, especially compared to modern computers, but in a lot of ways the simple premise will turn out to have very complicated consequences. There are also a lot of dark corners of the NES hardware that are very intriguing, things that are subtly broken, or didn't turn out to be useful in the way their design intended. It's an extremely fascinating machine, and all of its quirks really put their mark on every game that came out for it.
I very much feel like the machine becomes a partner in design for an NES game, in a way that stops being true when you have more computing power to play with. I liked having to deal with its limitations, and the end product is a game that really belongs to this console. The other aspect of it being so limited, is that its games are just small enough in scope that I can handle one on my own.
People often ask about nostalgia, and there is some of that too, but I never actually had an NES when I was a kid. A few of my friends did, but I grew up with an Atari ST and Sega Master System, and then a long string of others. While I have fond memories of those other systems the NES is the one that stimulates a creative urge in me.
jdodson: Now that Lizard has launched, how do you look at how the project has gone from the initial concept to Kickstarter to launch?
Brad Smith:Well, I am satisfied with the finished game. It very much is the game I set out to make, and while the specific details of what the game is were gradually decided as the project went along, it definitely fits within my initial plan for what it was supposed to be. It's a game I wanted to see, and I'm glad to have made it.
On the other hand, I am disappointed in how much time it has taken me. I have spent too many months, and too much money working on it. It's too early to see how well it will sell, but it seems unlikely that I will break even on it. It was more important to me that I finish the game I wanted to make, than to ensure it was profitable. I'm more disappointed in just the time itself, it's been years of my life of doing this one thing instead of many other pursuits I'd like to try. For that reason I'm extremely happy to be finished with it, finally.
When I ran the Kickstarter, I had been working on Lizard for about a year, and I was confident that I could finish that version of the game as it was going in another half a year or so. When the Kickstarter finished, it had raised a little more than I had asked for, and at the same time I had an opportunity to cut down my cost of living, so I decided to stretch it out. The demo version I had for the Kickstarter felt too small to me, and I decided then that I should double the size of the game, both the literal physical size of the ROM data, and the breadth of the game's world. I drastically underestimated how much extra work this would take to accomplish. I don't regret it, because it resulted in a much better game, but it cost me so much time.
jdodson: What are your top 5 NES games?
Brad Smith:In no particular order here are five current favourites:
StarTropics - The strange grid based action scheme of this game is really amazing to me. I've never played anything quite like that. It has some interesting puzzles, and a very charming theme as well.
Battletoads - I love how much variety this game has, every level is something new. Great tunes. It's notorious for its difficulty, but I think it's for the most part very fair difficulty, which is hard to pull off. When I die in Battletoads, I can usually blame myself for it.
Super Mario Bros. 3 - Another one that has incredible variety. The levels are small, but each one has something unique to it. Not like Battletoads where ever other level is almost a completely different game, but just a new novel situation created out of the existing blocks and enemies.
Mr. Gimmick - This is a fabulous platformer made late in the life of the NES. Gorgeous art and music, very well put together, and has a very solid gameplay mechanic of throwing a star that you can also climb on.
Sweet Home - A fantastic survival horror RPG only released in Japan. Has a very interesting story that is slowly revealed as you play. You have five characters and any of them can die before the end. It has standard JRPG random battles but the main difference is that healing is very limited; grinding won't help you, more battles will wear you down!
jdodson: What’s been the hardest part of launching Lizard?
Brad Smith:The launch part is a lot easier than everything that came before. Self publishing in itch.io is not hard at all. Steam is more tedious but still pretty straightforward, and mostly self directed. Marketing is harder, and that's an ongoing challenge. I'd like to see Lizard make it to some other consoles, but all of them require significant financial investment, so I have to wait and see how Lizard sells in its current form before I can take the risk elsewhere.
If I take the question to mean everything before the launch as well, the hardest part of making lizard is the design. I don't mean the high level ideas, like "what lizard powers should I have?" but the small details I have to work through day to day. Should I make this platform 4 or 5 tiles wide? Which of those is more fun? Should I make this crab jump higher, or faster? After making 200 other rooms, how do I make room 201 interesting? Is it better for this frog to be here, or 3 pixels to the left? Will this frustrate players? How much frustration is too much? Which combination of enemies or items fits the NES colour restrictions for this room? These are often subtle, but usually tricky and subjective questions, and there is an endless supply of them every day.
The big time sink here is that most of these questions have to be answered by building different versions of the game and trying them out. I test and test and test a hundred versions of every room. I shorten a platform and then try jumping off of it 20 different ways to try to get an idea of whether it's better or worse than it was before. All this testing takes more time than any other part of game development. A lot of the design difficulty is trying to find useful changes that don't have a large global impact, or just weighing how much work various ideas require. Changing how an enemy behaves will affect every instance of that enemy in the game. If there's 100 frogs, that's 100 things to test and re-evaluate if I ever make a change to how those frogs work.
After testing and design, programming is also difficult. Writing a program is like making a machine with a hundred thousand moving parts. When it takes 100 lines of code to make a dog jump, there's a lot of room for mistakes, and even if you write exactly the code you intended, there's a lot of room for unintended consequences. Think about kicking a koopa turtle shell in Super Mario Bros. What happens if it hits a block? What happens if it hits a goomba? What about falling off the bottom of the screen? What if it hits a springboard? A flagpole? A fish? A vine? A mushroom? Mario's foot? Mario's head? A block that's been bumped from underneath? When you have systems of things that can interact with each other there's A LOT of combinations to think about. This is not easy to manage. Complexity grows exponentially, and problems in programming can be extremely unpredictable.
jdodson: Creating a platformer requires lots of attention to how the gameplay feels. How did you approach getting it right for Lizard and when did things seem right to you? Were you taking inspiration from other platformers in terms of getting the game to feel at home with them?
The way a character moves in a game has a lot of components. There are a lot of decisions to make here: whether to include slopes, whether blocks are completely rigid or have "soft" edges that push you out, how fast to accelerate, how fast to slow down, how fast and how high you jump, how much control you have in the air, whether you lose momentum for pushing against a wall, whether you can release the jump button early to jump lower, is there water, is there ice, yada yada yada. Some questions are at least fairly binary, so you only have to try a version with it on or off, but a lot of these factors are quantitative... when it's a matter of how much you have to try a lot of different versions to answer that for yourself.
For Lizard, I made some rooms to test, and put together the character controller with the elements I thought I'd want. I experimented jumping over obstacles with different shapes and sizes, and tried a lot of different settings. I eventually narrowed toward something that felt good to me, and I went with that. Basically from that point on the character physics were set, because the design of nearly everything else in the game is dependent on them.
At the very end of production, when I began beta testing I was unsatisfied with how many people were reacting to it, and I decided to test an alteration to the character physics at that point. I won't go into all the details on this, as I'm planning to write an article about it, but I wasn't expecting to use this alteration. I just wanted to satisfy my curiosity. When I tested it, though, I was surprised by it. I had found a very low impact change that I think significantly improved the feel of the game for a lot of players. After a couple of complete playthroughs and some review of its design consequences, I decided to keep it. I didn't think I could mess with the physics without having to redesign the whole game, but it turned out I could, at least a little.
jdodson: How did you get into game development?
Brad Smith:I found a book on beginner BASIC programming in the school library when I was a kid. There was a whole series of these by Usborne, colourfully illustrated, and they got me started. Computer magazines used to have code listings in them too that you could type in and run. I learned a lot from reading and experimenting with others' code this way. I really liked video games, and I wanted to make my own, so I did. I made lots of very small video games growing up, and slowly learned more and more about how to do it.
When I was a teenager we got the internet, and suddenly I had access to some amazing information that I could never find at the public library. There was a set of documents called the PC Game Programmer's Encyclopedia that were shared on various FTP sites back then that I learned a tremendous amount from. At that point I was very interested in JRPGs, after having played Final Fantasy IV and some other Squaresoft games. I was determined to make one of my own. I also found an RPG engine community called VERGE, and hung out on IRC and forums with other people where were trying to make RPGs with that engine, even though I was trying to make my own from scratch.
Eventually I went to university. I got a bachelor's degree in music, and also in computer science. Between what I'd learned on my own in years prior, and everything I gained at school, I thought I was ready to apply for a programming job at game companies. I was hired by Obsidian Entertainment as a junior programmer. I moved to California, and worked for them for a few years, mostly on an Aliens RPG that would be cancelled, but I still learned a lot.
After a few years there, my dad died unexpectedly and I wanted to move back home to Canada to be nearer to my family. I left Obsidian, but I had a few friends who were trying to start a game company of their own, and they were willing to let me work remotely from home. For a few years I did that, until the company eventually fell apart (long story I won't go into). We had many dead end projects, but released one game at least (Yar's Revenge, 2011). After this I became a contract programmer for a game engine company for a few years. When that contract came to an end, I decided I'd had enough of making games for other people and wanted to make a game for myself. That's when Lizard began.
jdodson: Now that Lizard is released and the NES carts are on the way have you thought about what project might be next?
Brad Smith:I actually have enough game ideas to last the rest of my life, I think. I keep a lot of notes about these.
I want to make another NES game, but one very different from Lizard. I don't forsee myself ever wanting to make a Lizard 2, but it's not an impossibility either. I don't have too much to share on this future project yet.
The other thing I want to do is make a BASIC programming environment for the NES. Something that's free and open source, and good for learning. I've already begun work on this, and I'm hoping to be able to sustain myself through Patreon or proceeds from Lizard, but it remains to be seen whether this will be feasible.
I have a few other projects I'd like to continue as well, such as the NES music emulator NSFPlay, which I've been promising to update once Lizard was done.
jdodson: If you didn’t have an idea I have a free game suggestion you can use for your next project if you want. A Super Nintendo game about a family of Super Nintendos where one Christmas they all decide to take a trip to Paris. That night one of the Super Nintendo kids gets dumped on and sort of yells at everyone and is sent upstairs early. That night a power outage resets the Super Nintendo parents alarm clocks and they are late for the airport. In a scramble every Super Nintendo makes it to the airport minus the one Super Nintendo kid who is left behind. Anyways, i’m thinking in the game other Super Nintendos might want to rob him and the kid can build traps and stuff to mess them up but not quite kill them. Anyways, one working title for the game could be SUPER DOMICILE UNATTENDED!
Brad Smith: Heh, well I'll say this about game ideas: the overall concept and idea for Lizard took maybe minutes or days, depending on what you consider the "full" idea. Building that idea took 4 years. There's a 1000:1 work to idea ratio here. Game ideas are really fun to come up with, but also not very hard to come by.
jdodson: Thanks for taking the time to do this, anything you want to say before we wrap things up?
Brad Smith: Nothing more comes to mind, but thanks for the interview.