Developer Interview: Brian Provinciano on Retro City Rampage for 3DS, WiiWare Misunderstandings and Wii U

"NOA and NOE, the people at both feel like family"

Brian Provinciano, the founder and main man of Vblank Entertainment, has had an interesting one-game history with Nintendo. The original form of the Retro City Rampage project was a technical challenge to push the boundaries of what was possible on the 8-bit NES. What became the full game was ultimately done from scratch, but that fan-project aspect meant that its announcement for WiiWare back in 2010 was no surprise. And yet it didn't arrive on WiiWare until earlier this year, after almost all other platforms had received the title.

The issues with Nintendo's WiiWare service ultimately drove the circumstances, as Provinciano explained to us in our previous interview; the biggest issue was that the infamous sales threshold on the store made profit unlikely — the loss of momentum of the Wii Shop in all likelihood exacerbated the problem.

Somewhat surprisingly, to us and the developer himself in terms of its timing, Nintendo announced that Retro City Rampage is coming to the 3DS eShop. While the title has already appeared on the PS Vita handheld and a host of home platforms, the portable's store seems like a good fit, especially as it's part of a system still very much on the rise.

We've caught up with Provinciano to talk about the 3DS eShop release, while also discussing topics such as the WiiWare version and subsequent issues with aspects of the gaming public (thanks to misunderstandings on social networks), and the developer's view of the Wii U.

Nintendo Life: Retro City Rampage is making a bit of a surprise appearance on the 3DS at PAX Prime. When did the wheels get set in motion for this release?

Brian Provinciano: It’s been on my mind for a while but I actually didn’t get started until this month. I was pretty exhausted from the previous ports, and also more interested in working on new games. However, I did always feel like part of the market was missing by not having it on 3DS, especially with the success on PS Vita. Things finally just lined up and it felt like a good time to do it.

NL: You released this title on WiiWare, of course, and last we heard it had, perhaps as expected, failed to meet the sales threshold for you to get a return on investment. Are you able to clarify whether that's still the case?

BP: Correct, it never came close to hitting the WiiWare sales threshold. I still haven’t made a penny off of it, but I’ve made more than enough from the other platforms to balance it out.

There was some confusion after an article hit online with vague sales numbers based on an undetailed chart of gross revenue. This led some to believe that it’d made money even though it hadn’t. It sparked an internet mob attacking me, claiming that I called it a gift to the fans yet made a bunch of money, which I hadn’t actually made.

It was very unfortunate because I’d invested a lot of money into releasing it, purely out of goodwill for the fans, only to have that goodwill completely erased and become a victim of attacks after a misunderstanding. That’s how the internet works these days though. I see it more and more every day with things such as Twitter. Something gets taken out of context or misinterpreted, then a mob blows it out of proportion and everyone loses. In this case, a post mentioned the gross revenue per platform to the nearest $100K. Wii was listed as “under $100K” (in reality, this was closer to $15K). All of a sudden people who don’t understand what gross revenue means simultaneously round it up and think I made $100K off of it. As I said, I still hadn’t made a cent on it, not even that $15K. Even if it had hit the threshold, it’d still need to generate more than $20K of revshare for there to be actual profit. It’s very unfortunate how people who don’t understand how things work can create such a stir.

Something gets taken out of context or misinterpreted, then a mob blows it out of proportion and everyone loses.

Regardless, I’m happy to have kept my word to fans and working with Nintendo’s been great, so I’m happy to continue supporting both the fans and Nintendo.

NL: With that in mind are you still pleased that you released RCR on WiiWare, or are there any regrets about the time involved to make that release happen?

NP: I’m happier to have released it at a loss than left it collecting dust on my hard drive for no one to play. My biggest regret though is simply the misinterpretation which caused the internet mob attacks towards me afterwards. I invested a good amount of money into releasing it to avoid being attacked by an internet mob, only to be attacked anyway. Those are the breaks. That’s why Phil Fish left the industry.

NL: While the Wii Shop's model had its issues, much has been made of Nintendo's improved policies on the eShop platforms. Can you share your perspective on this now that you've been working on the 3DS eShop?

BP: They’ve made a lot of great improvements behind the scenes as well as on the eShop. I especially loved logging into the 3DS eShop to see Jools Watsham’s “Pro Picks”, for example. A selection of featured games chosen by an indie.

The main thing is that it’s easier for them to make improvements to current and newer platforms than older ones. There aren’t a ton people working at Nintendo so they only have a finite amount of time to address things and must prioritize. With the amount of work Dan Adelman does, I’m happy that he still gets time to sleep!

NL: In terms of the development itself, you've explained in your blog that this wasn't as simple a port as was perhaps possible on other platforms, can you explain that further?

The 3DS version’s required more work than previous versions, primarily because of there are so many differences. The game screen needs to be cropped much more to fit the screen without the characters being too small. This means tweaking/tuning every single mission/cutscene to account for less of the screen being visible. I also needed to move the HUD and UI elements to the second screen and reformat text and fonts. Finally, it’s required a fair bit of RAM and CPU optimization work specific to the system. Writing cross platform code sometimes means writing code that isn’t as optimized as it could be, but which guarantees pixel-for-pixel consistency between systems. The reason you do this is because the more code that’s the same between platforms, the less testing you need to do. You can assure that if a bug doesn’t occur on one that it won’t occur on the others, or if it does occur on one, it can be reproduced and fixed on another. In the case of the 3DS for example, I had to write a new renderer that used less CPU, and a new shadow renderer which used both less CPU and less RAM.

NL: RCR will be on 2D on 3DS, so what were the challenges of producing autostereoscopic 3D visuals?

BP: Correct. While some minigames may be 3D, the actual game itself will not. The reason being that with a top down perspective, the game’s art would need to be redrawn in 3D, and I’d need to implement a 3D rendering engine, a camera which players are happy with (as you see so many people complaining about cameras in games, this isn’t an easy feat), and I’d need to further optimize things. With sidescrollers for example, foreground and background layers can simply be distanced apart and BOOM, you’re 3D. With a top down game, once cube-like objects are involved such as buildings and vehicles, it’s not so simple.

NL: Will you be utilising any StreetPass or other 3DS features, and can you outline plans for the touch screen?

I haven’t nailed down any other features just yet but will be adding touch screen functionality for sure. I’m exploring using it as a right stick for dual stick shooting, as a weapon select and for an interactive minimap. We’ll see what makes sense. I’m not a fan of flow breaking minigames, such as the carjacking in GTA: Chinatown Wars. To me, those don’t make the game more immersive, they make it less. They feel like annoying commercial breaks.

NL: What do you think of the 3DS hardware, from a developer's perspective?

BP: I love playing games in 3D, it’s really great. I just wish the viewing angle was better. Hopefully they release a 3DS XL Lite which addresses this!

NL: Have you played much of the 3DS and its games library? If so, what do you think of these and the system's current position in the market?

BP: The games I’ve played the most are Mario 3D Land, Kirby’s Adventure (with the 3D enhancements) and BIT.TRIP Saga. All great games. The hardware sales have been incredibly healthy, but I’m not entirely sure how that relates to eShop sales, or sales of this genre. It’s worth the experiment, although I wish Nintendo was more transparent about numbers.

NL: What do you think of the 3DS eShop at this stage, in terms of its presentation and games library?

BP: Overall the eShop’s fairly good, but the load times are still slow for browsing games. It’s a huge improvement over DSi, but thickening the pipes with more bandwidth for customers would help. When it’s faster to go to the computer and google hot new games than it is to browse the eShop directly, that’s a problem. They’re in a good spot as this flaw is simply in infrastructure, not UI design or anything, so it’d be a seamless fix if they chose to address it.

NL: How would you summarise your experience, to date, working with Nintendo on this 3DS eShop release?

BP: Nintendo’s always been great. NOA and NOE, the people at both feel like family. They’re responsive and on top of things, so zero complaints from my front.

NL: Do you currently have a Wii U, and can you share what you think of the platform's concept and games library?

BP: The Wii U is a great step up from the Wii, purely for its ability to deliver games like Super Mario in HD. However, they need to take more steps in convincing average consumers to pick it up. Many still mistakenly see it as the DSi was to a DS and don’t quite grasp that it’s a new system. I often wonder if calling it the “Wii 2” would’ve significantly increased sales.

NL: With the branding as it is, what would you say is the biggest challenge for the platform?

BP: I think the biggest thing holding the Wii U back right now is simply the number of systems sold. Nintendo needs to take more steps to compel players to buy it. With the PS4 launching at $399, I don’t think the Wii U can be sold at any more than $299.

NL: Is there any chance of RCR on the Wii U eShop specifically, or is the 3DS the only other Nintendo system to get a dedicated version?

BP: Only 3DS. I bought a Wii U devkit and explored it for a bit, learned about how the system worked and so forth, but will not be bringing Retro City Rampage to it. Possibly future titles, but because the WiiWare version’s available for purchase on both Wii and Wii U in Wii Mode, the low sales numbers don’t put a native port on the to do list. Even with the extra steps required between purchasing WiiWare games on the Wii U, I feel that if players truly wanted it on their Wii U, they would be buying the WiiWare version. It doesn't give me the confidence that a native Wii U port would all of a sudden cause a flood of new players.

NL: Much of your time in the past few years has clearly been dedicated to RCR, but have you started development on the next Vblank game?

BP: Yeah, I’ve been working on some new games, but simultaneously continued tinkering with RCR updates, and now this port. It takes a lot out of you to jump into a long project, so mixing in some short term wins such as this port keeps me satisfied.

NL: Do you have any thoughts or plans yet on bringing future projects to Nintendo's system?

BP: I definitely want to continue supporting Nintendo systems with future games. It’ll come down to which systems are the right fit on a per-game basis.

NL: Are you able to reveal or tease anything about your new projects at this stage?

Things are still early for the other projects. I'm careful not to reveal things too early anymore as it can be a big distraction allocating time to continue the PR push while working on the game itself. Additionally, most fans don't understand how much is involved with making a game and how many man months of work it can be just for the business and paperwork side alone, so when a game takes a while to be released, they can get increasingly aggravated and take it out on you, the developer, making both of your lives unpleasant. I always share a link to the video of my GDC talk to help raise awareness among players now.

We'd like to thank Brian Provinciano for his time. We also recommend that you check out the video presentation linked in that last answer, and would love to know what you think of Provinciano's comments in this interview.

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