Sunday, 26 July 2015
RGCD: From Mags to Riches – The Evolution of a Software Publisher
[This article was originally written by J. Monkman for issue #64 of the world-famous Commodore 64 disk magazine Vandalism News, and has been reposted here with permission from the editor. If you wish to read it in its original form, download Vandalism News from CSDB].
One of the things I have discovered over the past few months is that it is really hard to write about something you're both really passionate about and directly responsible for without sounding like a complete asshole. The chances are that I've probably failed here, so you'll just have to take my word that I'm actually an 'OK' guy, and not an egotistical, deluded idiot who believes he has single-handedly saved the C64 gaming scene by selling cartridges and running a game development competition. The part I play in all of this, although significant, is actually pretty small. To give a terrible analogy, much like a frontman of a typical rock band, without the rest of the musicians I'd be nothing - just a guy strutting about and shouting on a stage. So, the main kudos of course goes out to the large and ever-growing family of sceners I've collaborated and worked with since starting out on the C64, and regardless of how many interviews or presentations I'm asked to give about RGCD, this is a fact that I will never forget.
It's probably worth mentioning that I actually wrote the bulk of this article back in 2012 for a papermag version of Propaganda that sadly never materialised. Because of this there's a big chunk of the RGCD story missing that has been covered elsewhere in other interviews and blog write-ups (the release of Super Bread Box at GameCity 2013 in particular). Instead, I've decided to focus on the previously undocumented origins of RGCD, as well as briefly covering our present day activities and the future.
My involvement in the C64 scene started back in 2006 whilst browsing through pouet.net for new games to review in a discmag project I was working on. That's not a typo by the way - RGCD ("Retro Gamer Compact Disc") started off as an auto booting CD-based magazine that focused on reviewing new games for old hardware and retro-style PC indie games and remakes, all written in an html-based framework and complete with the featured games and emulators included on the disc. Starting out on my own, it was a ludicrously over-ambitious project, so it is no wonder that the magazine only lasted for five issues. However, at the time the 'indie-retro' crossover was a novel concept, and those early days of RGCD introduced what was pretty-much an exclusive phenomenon of the demoscene to a wider gaming audience, resulting in me suddenly (and unexpectedly) receiving acclaim and praise from people at the forefront of the indie scene. But I digress...
Here's a fact that you probably didn't know - Aleksi Eeben is actually the first true forefather of RGCD as it stands today. Despite the fact I'd been following new releases on the C64 for a while (playing games and demos through VICE), Greenrunner was the game that resulted in me buying my first C64, seducing me with its sexy vocals and insane, arena-shooter game design. It took me a little while to get it up and running on real hardware - involving the purchase of an MMC64 from Individual Computers - but the moment that the game first booted up and the familiar intro sample blasted out of my KRK speakers I fell completely and hopelessly in love with the Commodore. Emulation is really fantastic, but nothing beats the experience of playing on the real thing.
I was at the time (and I suppose I still am today, comparatively speaking) what many CSDB users would describe as a 'lamer' - I have never coded or pixeled or composed anything on the C64. In fact, I acknowledged this even then, but nonetheless I was desperate to give something back to the scene. So whenever an issue of RGCD was released, I sent a physical, jewel-cased and professionally presented copy of the CD magazine complete with fan mail to the developer of every single game reviewed. From this simple initial communication blossomed long-lasting friendships (many that would later become working relationships) - and it was this that introduced me to the second forefather of RGCD, Jason 'TMR' Kelk.
Jason and I already knew each other vaguely from the forums over at retrogamer.net, but after establishing contact with a guy called Tim Harris on eBay regarding his DIY cartridge kits I dropped Jason a mail suggesting that we work together on making a cartridge version of one of his 8KB games - Kikstart C16. Well, I say 'work together', but really it was Jason and Tim who did all the work, I just organized things, paid for materials and nagged until it was done (a skill that I would later hone to perfection). Anyway, after a few weeks we had a stack of 20 or so boxed Kikstart cartridges, all of which were sold (at cost price) over the Retro Gamer forum in a matter of hours. Jason, who'd previously thought we'd end up with a nice collection of Kikstart-branded paperweights, was genuinely shocked at how quickly they sold, so we agreed to make some more - and again they sold out instantly. Neither of us made a penny (I think I actually lost money), but it was a really fun experience and turned quite a few heads in the retro gaming community.
We did the same for a couple of his other games, Invasive Action and Block Frenzy, and I also worked with Geir Straume on a multi-game 16KB cartridge. None of these were quite as popular as Kikstart C16, and they were all still sold for non-profit. Then (suddenly!) my wife gave birth to my first of three children, and everything went on hold.
Well, not quite on hold. The magazine development stopped completely, but I continued with a few non-C64 projects (the Atari STE game r0x and PC release Robotz DX came out between 2009-2011, as did a number of Amiga CD32 compilations, GBA game cartridges and other fun stuff). Also, it was during this C64 cartridge-hiatus period that I built up a friendship with Dr. Martin 'Enthusi' Wendt, Sven 'ptoing' Ruthner and Ilija 'iLKke' Melentijevic - and it was this friendship that would later result in the rebirth of a more serious (and undeniably cooler) RGCD.
NOT EVEN HUMAN AND TOXIC PAINT
Sven, Martin and I talked for hours about the possibility of releasing an enhanced version of Not Even Human on cartridge to relaunch RGCD, but real life commitments resulted in a lack of time for Sven to draw the box artwork he envisioned for the game. After a year of waiting, I thought 'fuck it, let's do this' and went ahead and restarted RGCD in a less time-intensive format - a news and reviews blog. Ilija provided some new artwork (all of the new RGCD logos in use today are his work), and it was this that prompted Martin and I to commission him to design the long-awaited box art for NEH. We devised a fair method of distributing the agreed (small) profit, opened up sales via the blog using simple paypal buttons, and the rest is history.
Actually, let me talk about the boxes a bit before moving on. Did you know, the early boxes used for Kikstart C16 through to Edge Grinder were hand sprayed black, and then covered in stickers? Real homebrew stuff, and man, that paint gave me a headache every time I used it - there should have been health warnings issued with those bulky-box versions. I have to apologise to anyone who suffered those monstrosities – just drop me a line and I'll replace the boxes for standard cartons free of charge!
HEY! HEY! 16K!
Time for another previously unpublished RGCD fact; Jason Kelk is the man responsible for our 16KB game development competition. Jason and I had been discussing the differences in the ZX Spectrum and C64 game development scenes and concluded that the reason why many C64 games never progressed past a preview or prototype stage was because the designs were simply too ambitious for a single-person or part-time small teams. In contrast to the more simplistic games coming out (on a weekly basis) for the Sinclair, C64 game development seemed to be slowing down despite loads of promising previews. Where is Enforcer 2? Brickout? Ultimate Newcomer? Hawkeye 2? M.O.O.D? Pinball Dreams? Pushover? All of these titles make 8-Bit games on other machines look totally crap, but regardless - without the games ever reaching completion or release, all the effort put into them has essentially been in vain. We wanted to change this.
Jason suggested that by launching a competition with a sensible size restriction, we could encourage new games to be developed within strict limitations, therefore resulting in them being more likely to be completed. Of course we needed an angle, and that is where the cartridges came in - RGCD would send every participant a cartridge of their game for entering the competition, saving the main prizes for the best entries. In short, in our compo, everyone would be a winner - no-one would go home empty handed.
So after relaunching RGCD and (finally!) releasing the cartridge of Not Even Human, announcing the 2011 competition was the obvious next step. Frustratingly, it wasn't as easy as I'd hoped to find people willing to help with prizes and taking part. I was more or less completely unknown in the C64 scene - and even with Jason releasing Edge Grinder as a demo 16KB game, people initially didn't take me or the competition seriously.
I had no choice but to send begging letters, something I'm really not proud of. I trawled through the CSDB archive, mailing everyone who'd released a game in the past few years, pleading them to take part. Again, I'll use this article as a platform from which to say sorry to all you people I sent unsolicited mail to - and of course to thank those who responded.
Despite the rocky start, we got there in the end. On the 1st of December 2011, 11 new game releases appeared on CSDB, followed by a flurry of cracking activity.
THE CLONE WARS
One of the unexpected outcomes of the first competition was the number of clones and conversions of games not previously released on the C64 - the most obvious example being Paul Koller's C64anabalt, an official port of Semi-Secret Software's iOS and web browser-based indie hit Canabalt that Adam Atomic himself was directly involved with. When later released on cartridge, C64anabalt went on to sell over 300 copies (and I still send off a few of those dove-grey carts every month even now, years later).
I almost considered quitting after C64anabalt came out - on release, Adam Atomic tweeted several thousand people about the game and my email box was immediately flooded with orders. It took me weeks to get them all sent out - each and every game, box and manual is hand-assembled, packed and posted by Tim and I in our limited spare time. It's a laborious process; in total it probably takes in the region of 30 to 45 minutes to produce each game. This time includes building, casing and testing the pcb, printing, cutting out and stapling the manuals, sticking labels on the carts and boxes, packing contents, wrapping and labelling each parcel and updating the RGCD accounts.
With most games selling 50 copies in total, neither of us were prepared for over 100 orders on the first day, many of which were bought by people without a Commodore to play it on! It was a glorious, yet incredibly stressful time - neither of us slept much, and I was really worried that the amazing initial flood of sales would continue endlessly.
You may have missed the key point in that last paragraph, so I'll say it again. About 20% of those initial C64anabalt cartridges were sold to people who didn't have a Commodore 64 - and that figure is simply based on the number of people who wrote to me telling me not to worry because they 'haven't got a C64 yet' following my panicked email report about being snowed under with orders. So that effectively means at least 20 people bought a C64 as a result of that single game release. So, in a way, RGCD was therefore responsible for bringing new people into our weird little scene in much the same way that I had been by Greenrunner five years earlier. How poetic.
C64anabalt wasn't universally loved though - in fact the game was the cause of some controversy and drama when the results of the competition were announced. Many were unhappy that such a 'simple' game had been awarded a higher place than the technically outstanding full-screen, all borders Jars' Revenge by TRSI or hugely fun Space Lords by pixel.net. In hindsight, despite being awesome, it probably didn't deserve second place - but I'm not personally responsible for the actions of the entire judging panel, of course. Few could argue that Fairy Well by Wide Pixel Games didn't deserve to take the crown though - that game is an epic achievement for 16KB. Mix256's game design and pixeling skill is sadly missed in the world of C64 game development - I wish he'd give up toying around making shmups in Java and come back! (EDIT - it appears that he has!)
AN ALLIED FRONT
After meeting in person with Jason 'Kenz' Mackenzie at the Replay Expo that same year, RGCD formed an alliance with Psytronik Software whereby we'd handle cartridge releases and they'd manage the disk, tape and download versions of our joint-published games. RGCD was at the time all over the indie gaming press regarding the competition, and of course Psytronik already had a loyal following and were widely respected by the retro gaming community, so working together and pooling our collective resources and skills made perfect sense. The first fruit of this relationship was of course Soulless, a game that until the release of Bomberland years later, held second place in terms of RGCD sales, with over 150 cartridges sent out all over the globe.
To be fair, the part I played in the development of the game was small. Georg 'Endurion' Rottensteiner and Trevor 'Smila' Storey had started working on Soulless after meeting on lemon64, and I think my only real involvement aside from testing was in encouraging Mikkel 'Encore' Hastrup to join the team. Working with Kenz has been a humbling experience - he is really professional, yet also incredibly likeable and enthusiastic about pretty much everything C64 related. He must be a little bit mad too; after all, he is the 'proud' owner of a Commodore USA C64X! Regardless, from a publishing perspective our two groups compliment each other really well, and as it's always been about the games rather than the sales figures, there's no competitiveness at all.
Following Soulless, we've gone on to co-publish several other games, including Trance Sector, Get 'Em DX, Sub Hunter, Assembloids, Greenrunner/Redrunner, The Mojon Twins compilation, Guns 'N' Ghosts, Sheepoid DX/Woolly Jumper, The Vice Squad, Darkness and Phase Out. As the cartridges are considerably more expensive than the tape and disk versions, wherever possible Enthusi has tried to squeeze in little improvements and hidden games as easter eggs that are later announced via our newsletter mailing list, facebook page and Twitter account. In some cases this encourages people to collect all formats of a release, which makes us sound like brutal businessmen, but really it's just for the challenge and the fun of making sure every last byte of space is used.
ROUND TWO - FIGHT!
Before long, it was time to announce the second RGCD competition. I knew that something would have to be done in order to award originality over copied designs, but it was really difficult to know where to draw the line. After all, surely having exclusive games from both modern and retro systems ported to the C64 was a good thing? In the end I decided to ask the judging panel to award originality foremost, followed by games that were new to the system, then games that used a known design but added a new twist, and finally instructed that 1:1 clones of game designs already common on the C64 should receive the lowest score. Of course, this was for 'concept' only, one category out of five that each games final score was calculated from.
Again, the competition results caused some controversy - with the top two entries being ports of games not previously released on the C64 (Assembloids and Super Bread Box 16KB). I suspect the reason why these two established designs surpassed other original competition entries was purely because they are both really good, immediately accessible games. Sure, they both feature kick-ass music and graphics as well, but the key question still remains unanswered - should they have succeeded over new, original designs such as Wonderland and the innovative Match Buster, both of which doubtlessly offer greater gameplay depth?
Leaping forward to present day, 'RGCD.DEV' is now - somewhat unbelievably - a registered limited company, co-directed by myself and Jamie Howard (aka the 'Hyper Viper' guy).
Following the release of Hyper Viper (Psytronik, 2012), I dropped Jamie an email to arrange a review and it soon dawned upon us that we actually both lived in Exeter - quite a coincidence! We arranged a real life meet-up at a local bar, and a few beers later Jamie was signed up as an RGCD team member with his first project being the development of the Super Bread Box website and encrypted online highscore system. Around the same time we also worked on a little C64 game called Reactor Rescue (initially planned for released as a contender in RGCD's third 16KB competition), although sadly that one still remains unfinished.
However, the next game we worked on together did see release. Every year, Ruiari 'RC55' Fullam hosts 'Sundown' in a sleepy little village 10 miles outside of Exeter, and Jamie and I decided that we'd have a go at creating a game for the wild compo. We both took a week off work, locked ourselves away in my attic office, and seven days later we had a prototype of r0x (Extended Play) up and running - a multiplayer remake of the simple Atari STE avoid 'em up I co-developed back in 2009.
We didn't want to worry about supporting multiple system configurations, so we decided to develop the game initially for the Ouya microconsole; a low-powered Android device that supports physical controllers. It's a shame that the Ouya failed to make any impact on the scene, because it was extremely easy to work on a device with locked-down and universal system specifications (of course, for the post-party release we created a Windows build and added support for multiple resolutions and control types).
In addition to being a hit at Sundown, r0x made a few minor ripples in the indie gaming press and later ended up greenlit on Steam. At the moment the game is available for PC (on itch.io), Ouya and Amazon Fire TV, and we're planning on porting it to Linux as well for the (eventual) Steam build. For now though, we're concentrating our efforts on finishing our wierdo little multi-player, arena non-shmup rhythm game, Pan-Dimensional Conga-Combat.
Although our main focus today is game development for modern platforms, the C64 side of RGCD is still incredibly important to our 'business' model. Despite the limited company status, we're still very much a low-profit margin operation when it comes to the retro stuff. The £50-100 profit per month that comes in from C64 cartridge sales and itch.io donations might not sound like a lot, but having a constant source of income really helps with funding our other projects - especially when you consider the timescales involved with the development of our own in-house games. It's a bit of a juggling act, but we've no plans to abandon RGCD's roots for the foreseeable future. In fact, if anything we're likely to be increasingly active on the C64 front over the next few months, with Gravitrix, p0 Snake, Jam It, Pixel City Skater, Monster Buster, Moonspire and others planned for release.
On average, we've added at least one new game to our online store every two-months since releasing Not Even Human, and cartridge collector extraordinaire Matt 'Mayhem' Allen recently pointed out that RGCD has already surpassed the number of C64 cartridges released by every publisher bar Commodore themselves. We're nothing if not prolific.
In fact, the most common question I'm asked in interviews is how RGCD has achieved and manages to maintain this relentless output, and the answer is simple - I sleep as little as possible, shoehorning in at least four hours of RGCD related activity every midweek night (after work). Likewise, I know Enthusi spends hours of his working week at University coding and fixing games, and Jamie is often bashing away at the keys at 6AM before leaving the house. I suppose we must be addicted to the sense of achievement that we collectively feel when an RGCD review/article is published or a game is finally complete, boxed, uploaded to the store and ready to sell. It is a real buzz when games that the developers have worked on for so long are sent out and the feedback starts rolling back in.
It's this kind of energy and enthusiasm that the modern day C64 scene really needs if it is to continue maintaining its momentum. With each generation of youth looking back to the past for inspiration across the entire spectrum of arts, 8-Bit consoles and computers are considered by a growing number of children, students and young adults to be a cool underground alternative to their modern day, soulless equivalents. Retro gaming is big business. The internet has made it possible for these people to connect with us and learn from the archives of information that have been digitally preserved. Their enthusiasm should be welcomed with open arms (even if they are in some cases really annoying) because amongst the hordes of romz-kiddies there will be the occasional enthusiast genuinely interested in learning the dark arts of 6502 assembler, or perhaps in using the C64 as an interesting art or musical tool. After all, it is these people that will develop the C64 games, demos and hardware of the future.
I'm not an idiot, I don't believe for a second that the C64 will live on for ever in people's hearts. Ultimately, like us and everything else, it will eventually be forgotten and crumble to dust. But until that time I cannot help but feel some responsibility to share the same joy that I felt when I first discovered the modern day C64 scene. It is absolutely incredible that people today are still playing, pixeling, composing and coding on a 30 year old computer. Long may it continue.
(End note: I was going to type a greets/thanks list here, but it would literally run on for pages. So instead, mega-thanks and huge props go out to everyone involved in any of our game projects and digital-hugs to all those that I've interacted with over CSDB and Lemon64 since starting RGCD. I love you all!)