Intervista ai Night OWL Design (Eng)

Jman: Who is Night Owl Design and what's your background?
 
Frank Wille (code and level editor): Using Amigas since January 1987, without a break. Started assembler coding on a Commodore VIC-20 in 1983, which was followed by a C-64 18 months later. Switched to 68000 and C coding during 1987.
We had the privilege to grow up during the golden age of home computers with its rich palette of fascinating 8- and 16-bit machines.
Owning a VIC-20 meant that there was nearly no software, except a few simple games on tape. You were forced to write everything yourself and to type in listings from one of the early magazines. A perfect start.
 
Night OWL Design is a new label, which Gerrit and I created. It has an ambiguous meaning: most of the time we worked in the night on our project, so we are definitely night owls. And OWL is a shortcut for the region where we are located: OstWestfalen-Lippe (between Hannover and Dortmund).
 
Gerrit Wille (music, sound fx, graphics, level design): I guess it was 1987 when Frank and I bought a Commodore Amiga 1000. In the following years I was excited of Karsten Obarskis Soundtracker. I tried some tracks - but they did sound really awful... It was the same with Deluxe Paint.
I liked the program but it was only a hobby. And when I take a look today at some old graphics I did I know why we haven't had a chance to publish anything... :)  In 1993 we started a really nice game called "Warzone". It was the first attempt which seemed to be a good job. We had an intro with real spoken vocals while the intro pictures were shown.
But the game was getting very complex and during this time I started my apprenticeship and had to focus 100% onto it. This was the time where I lost contact to the Commodore Amiga (completely...).
 

David Steves (beta testing): The first time I've heard of Solid Gold was in the German Amiga Board "A1k.org". They were looking for some volunteers. The game was ready to enter the beta-phase and more people should get involved to find bugs and add their opinion about the level design and balance in general.
I didn't know Frank, Gerrit and Pierre before. I met Marcus the first time a few weeks ago on a nice event where we build the "Protein", an Amiga 500 turbo board. It was a funny coincidence that we met again in this project! ;)
 
Marcus Gerards (beta testing): I fondly remember testing Frank's AmigaQuake/Quakeworld clients in the late '90s. Last year, he had sometimes discussed game coding, especially scrolling on A1k.org. So we knew he was working on a game and when he asked for Beta testers, I volunteered immediately.
 
Jman: When did you start the project and why? Frank may be known for his great Amiga background (with the vb- series of developer tools, to SQRXZ and much more), but we'd like to get to know a bit more about the other members'  background. Are you retro-computing enthusiasts since long time? What are your preferred machines, which are the home computers you first cut your teeth?
 
Frank: Since the early Amiga years I had the dream to write a technically demanding game on the Amiga's custom chipset. After many years of tinkering with C compilers and NetBSD servers I wanted to go back to the past and do some real low level assembler programming and hardware hacking, as we did more than 20 years ago. So I started to rewrite SQRXZ for the Amiga 500, an SDL-game, which I just ported to MorphOS, AmigaOS4 and NetBSD before. It should also prove that a version written tightly to the target hardware can be as playable on a 7MHz Amiga as on a GHz PC running SDL.
 
Unfortunately some constraints in the original game made me refrain from implementing a high-end scrolling algorithm, so SQRXZ-OCS didn't reach 50 fps. But now I wanted to do something with perfect 50 fps scrolling, so I asked Gerrit whether he was interested in joining a new game project. This was important, as I'm unable to do any graphics or music.
In this constellation it became even more like 20 years ago, where we often worked on (never finished) game projects together. Fortunately, 20 years of collected experience later meant that we worked in a more structured way and we really had a chance to finish it this time. 
 
Gerrit: Honestly, I had no contact to the Amiga scene till the end of 2012. I don't know anymore how it started with Solid Gold. But because in the 80s we never finished a game, Frank asked me how about making a game for the Amiga (and finish it). In the beginning I thought it was a joke - but a creative work could be very nice. So we made some brainstorming about the game. And then it started...
In the last 20 years I haven't seen any graphics program (I guess Frank became often bored when I had to ask him how some functions work..). On my PC I sometimes made some music in the last years (only for privateuse - nobody ever heard it...) using "RENOISE" and it islooking like Soundtracker. When I started with Amiga music again it was very hard, because I had nearly no instruments, and to make music with only 4 voices was a strange feeling...
 
David: Well, my first contact with computers was in 1990. I was ten years old and my parents gave me two big presents for Christmas: a brand new Commodore Amiga 500 and a 1084S monitor. At this time I was addicted to this computer and spent a lot of time with it. A few years later I got an Amiga 1200. I upgraded it with a Blizzard 1230 MKIV turbo board from Phase 5, a quad speed cd-rom drive, a 120mb and  a 200mb HDD, and of course a second floppy drive. Everything was put into a big tower case. I used that machine until 2004 for just everthing (music, gaming, early Internet experiences, text processing, video editing, little programming stuff with BASIC etc.). Since then it was stored in the cellar.
Last year I tried to revive it, but the ATX power supply was somehow broken. After the replacement everthin went perfect and it was a real time travel back into my youth. ;) Today it has been  rebuild into a desktop case and I use all the nice extension, that are available like e.g. an Indivision MK2 flickerfixer and a compact flash hardrive. The opportunity to help Marcus and Frank with their great game was a superior experience and of course a good reason to switch on my favorite computer even more times! ;) 

Marcus: The Commodore C64 has been my first computer, which my father bought in  1984. There was no money left to buy a floppy, not even a tape drive at  first. So I'd type in small games every evening which would be gone an hour later when the machine had to be switched off. That got me started  on programming back then and I'm still considering to give my son the  same treatment (on the exact same C64, of course). Problem is, he's already learned to use a mouse with an Amiga 600.
I switched to the Amiga 500 in 1988 and wrote some (never to be released) assembly demos for it. The Amiga 4000 I bought in 1995 was my main computer till about 1999 and because I never sold the old stuff, I was able revive all my machines about two years ago, when "rush hour of life" finally passed. Since then, I've contacted and even met some really nice and nerdy people, took over the development of "boards.library" on the Amiga in assembly language and started programming in C.
For me, retro computing is not only a travel to the past, but a motivation to get new knowledge, which often is quite useful for my job. And I mean it, that's not an excuse.
 
 
Jman: What's Solid Gold about?
 
Frank: Solid Gold is a Jump'n Run with 8-way scrolling. It's written for the classic Amiga hardware and designed in the style of the early 90s Amiga games. The game features ten levels spanning four worlds, with different graphics and enemies. Each level's goal is to find an artefact which will lead the way to the next world. 
 
Gerrit: In the beginning of the 90s I loved Turrican. Different music themes for each level, very good playability. The playability should be the most  important feature for this game too.
I have a XBOX360, but I don't spend a lot of time with it. Most games need 5 minutes or more before you can start playing. And to control the game you have to be an acrobat. You  have to move the analog pad and press two buttons in the front and in parallel a "x" or "o" on the right side! Very frustrating for a guy  who plays not too often. Our project should be easy to control. Just playing and having fun. Nothing else...  
 
Jman: Looks like the games' focus is on "old school" playability, where reflexes and visual memory makes the difference, rather than tricking the player into a false sense of achievement with many QTE (Quick Time Events) and "awards". What kind of gameplay do you prefer?
 
Frank: We didn't really think much about the kind of gameplay. We went back in time to what we did in the early 90s, and the result was very similar to that what we would have done then.
 
Jman: What hardware and software are you developing on? I can make an educated guess about the compiler :-) but you tell a bit more about the other sofware packages/tools mentioned in the README file? It looks you did use much self-made tools instead of relying on software packages.
 
Frank: Most of the coding was done on a Pegasos2 under MorphOS, using the CygnusEd editor and the portable vasm assembler. By using portable tools it was possible to build a new ADF from the source on any platform.
 
Gerrit: I used GIMP for graphics and MILKY TRACKER for the music. But since it was more comfortable, I made the music with RENOISE first. 
 
Jman: Do you take advantage also of emulators?
 
Frank: Yes. I used E-UAE a lot for quick testing and especially debugging. Some bugs would have been really hard to fix without the possibilities of UAE's internal debugger. I also tested on real Amiga hardware every two or three days (mainly my high-end A3000/060 and a minimal A500). 
 
Marcus: I rarely used emulators when testing the game, but I prefer using WinUAE when it comes to writing software myself.
 
Jman: The importance of developing on real hardware, why?
 
Frank: In the end the real hardware is the reason why we are doing it. So the priority was of course that the game runs perfectly on physical hardware, not on virtual.
But the process of development doesn't have to take place on a real Amiga anymore, thanks to cross-development tools and emulators. Modern hardware may be faster and more comfortable, which can only be an advantage.
 
Marcus: Apart from possible technical differences, of which Toni Wilen is doing a great job of ironing out, the real machines just make you feel  differently. And that's a good reason. :-)  

Jman: Speaking of hardware, the catchy music tunes have been composed using any additional hardware or is it pure sample composition? Do you have your own sample library and start a concept from that?
 
Gerrit: I have a very old keyboard from Yamaha (CS1x). On that keyboard I started composing and tried to create the main theme and chords of each song. After that I use Renoise, a tracker for the PC, and convert the theme  into tracker format. After that I try my best to convert this version to  MilkyTracker, obeying Amiga's hardware restrictions (AmigaFormat MOD).
The biggest problem is that I have only a very very small library. But I have a couple of old MODs from myself. From these MODs I saved the samples and used them for Solid Gold. But I guess that 90% of these samples come from the old ST-01 - ST-03 Samples Disks of Soundtracker.
If I could turn back the time it would have been better to ask the Amiga  scene (or Frank - he has the connections) for some help. Perhaps a kind  user would haven given me a link to a good Amiga sample library. 
 
Jman: Which are the biggest challenges had to face?
 
Frank: The interaction of soft scrolling, copper background and moving objects on the screen. In the beginning of the development there have been some really hard to find scrolling bugs.
 
Gerrit: I had to learn GIMP and I had to learn to make animations for the first time. It was hard to make music for 3 levels per world with nearly no instruments and with about 100kb available. In Renoise a good sample is about 1,000 kb and more :) - but it made a lot of fun to realize it.
But the biggest challenge was the level design. I had no idea of it.  When is it too easy? When is it too hard? Therefore the Beta Testers did  a great job!
 
Marcus: I refused to use any cheat codes until the end. So Solid Gold in its current form became quite a challenge for crappy players like me. ;-)
 
Jman: Speaking of challenges, Frank provided a custom tool to write level maps. Which parameters are to be considered when drafting a level? How do you target and increase the difficulty curve of the game in order to offer a constant increasingly challenge to the player without getting him frustrated or annoyed?
 
Gerrit: This was the biggest challenge, because at the beginning I had no idea about it. The first level I've designed was Level 2-1 (first Maya Level). I had no concept and designed the level without a plan :) That's the reason why you start on the top (because I didn't know how big the level will become). For the other levels I made a small drawing on a piece of paper. After I finished it in the level editor I placed traps, monsters and so on.
And to have the right difficulty you had to test and test and test. Fortunately we had some really good beta testers! Now some players found the game too easy and others said that they didn't complete the first level.

Jman: Any particular achievement you felt realizing while working on this game? A moment in which you said to yourself "yes, I did it!". Or the process went pretty straightforward?
 
Frank: Certainly the moment where I sent Gerrit the first demo which could scroll a map and drew a non-animated hero object in the middle of it. From there on we knew that the game could technically be done and it is just a matter of time and endurance to finish it.
 
Gerrit: I think there were two moments where I thought: "OK, we probably have a chance to make a playable game": When Frank sent me the first version of the level where some monsters moved (without animation). It was the moment where you could imagine how the game would work.  The second moment was when all components worked together. That means: you could control the hero, see all the graphics (this time animated) and be able to listen to the music.
 
Jman: The devil often is in the details: while the development took a year, how much time (in %) did you spend beta testing, bug fixing and balancing the game?
 
Frank: Usually bug fixing takes about half of the development time. The real beta testing phase started end of November, when David and Marcus joined the project as testers. From there on nearly all of our time was spent on improvements and fixes. This had been a quite intensive phase.  While in the months before often several days passed where neither Gerrit nor me did anything for the project.
 
Jman: Minimum requirements?
 
Frank: Any OCS-PAL or ECS/AGA Amiga with a minimum of 1 MB RAM (512K Chip RAM required) will do. The game will also run on high-end Amigas but does not make full use of their capabilities.  It also works on Minimig and emulators. Minimum OS version: Kickstart 1.2.
 
Jman: Why not targeting an AGA machine? May I assume that the only advantage could have been better graphics? Did you encounter any technical limits for the OCS/ECS target configuration?
 
Frank: In the past I never did any low level programming for AGA. When I got my A4000 in 1993 I didn't do much hardware programming anymore, so there wasn't anything which was worth to be remembered now. As a consequence I also lack experience with AGA.  Also I think the motivation is much higher to do an optimized game for the lowest Amiga configuration possible.
 
Jman: Did you plan a boxed version too? Any additional/premium content?
 
Frank: We never thought about a boxed version. It was suggested on several forums and we also have some offers to get them produced. After the release there have been only few demands for a boxed version, so I guess that it won't happen.
 
Jman: The game is entirely written in MC68K Assembly language, aside from some ancilliary tools. It is a labour of love and strong motivation, like it used to be "back in the day". What's your estimated gain in performance using Assembly language instead of C? Would you recommend this approach to software development on this platform? 

Frank: That was my choice in the beginning. I wanted to make a game in optimized 68k assembler again, without using the operating system for anything. The authentic feeling of game development like in the good old days. On a low end Amiga you will never reach similar results with higher level languages.
 
Jman: The loading pictures really look like digitized photos. How did you optimize the images to reach the 32 colours of the BMP?
 
Gerrit: Yes, the graphics in the levels were pixeled. The loading pictures are digitized photos. At first it was only a try how GIMP would convert photos to a pixel sheet with only 32 colours. The first try was awful and I wanted to discard the idea of using these photos. The only chance was to change the colour palette, before you copy the picture in it. If you have defined the right colours the pictures would become acceptable, or even good. But after that you have to edit the picture manually...
 
Jman: Also the level palettes look thoroughly optimized (I counted from 120 to around 140 colours): did you have any particular constraint? Sometimes the gfx+sounds artists whine because the almighty coders in the other room didn't leave enough RAM for them :-)
 
Gerrit: I guess that 80% of the 32 colours are the same in every level.  That's because the hero and the font must have the same colours in every level. Besides, you always need  yellow, red, green and blue. So most colours were fixed.
No whining :) Perhaps I'm wrong, but I thought that in the 80s action-games sometimes had 16 colours only. So I was glad of having 32 colours.  For the sound I thought Frank told me that I have a maximum of 100 kb per level. But in the end he granted me up to 120 kb (and 20 kb are track-data of the whole song). So I had more than expected :)
 
Jman: It was a really great surprise that you have released the complete source code and assets of the game: a true gift to the community. What's the reason behind this?

Frank: I planned from the beginning to release everything into the public domain, so I wrote many comments into the source text.  In the last years I sensed a rising interest in old Amiga hardware and low level programming in assembler, so I thought it would be a good thing to have a similar development as on the Commodore 64, where we have much more homebrew games as on the Amiga.
The source of Solid Gold hopefully contains some useful routines for new game developers.
 
Jman: What's your opinion of the Amiga community? In other words, do you see the it as a crystalized lot of people having fun fiddling and learning this great machine of the past, or do you have some interest in the new evolution steps of the Amiga platform (sofware and hardware wise)?
 
Frank: It seems the phase of constant shrinkage is over. Now since most community members are between 35 and 50 years old, their children have become old enough to have some more time for hobbies again. Many people have fond memories on the computer and games of their youth. Also most of them are now financially capable to buy Amigas and new expensive hardware developments, which they couldn't afford 20 years ago. Unlike some others, I always regarded Amiga as a hobby, similar to somebody who likes old cars. It's just about having fun.
I don't think that any piece of new Amiga hardware or software will ever be noticed again by anybody outside our community. But this is no problem for me.
 
Marcus: If such a thing as "the" community exists, it has become a lot more relaxed than it was back in 2000 when I left. The funny thing is that we seem to have more evolution on the classic platform nowadays than 5-10 years before. We also see rising prices for classic hardware, which is indicating that more and more people are rediscovering their once favourite computers.
 
Jman: What do you think of "The Three Musketeers", like I jokingly like to call them: AOS4.x, AROS and MorphOS? Did you have a chance to evaluate or play a bit with them? I know that Frank ported a lot of software to AOS4.x and MorphOS.
 
Frank: I was one of the first to get a CyberstormPPC accelerator card for my A3000 and I was quite interested in the evolution to a PowerPC-, PCI-based machine, but I already knew that it will never become the same like before again. The feeling of the real, classic Amiga with its custom chipset was special.
I'm using MorphOS daily for development and e-mail, and I even was part of the AmigaOS4 development team for some time. But, although the operating system and the graphical desktop still reminds me on an Amiga, it is no longer the same. I think that with standard x86 hardware and cheap, faceless tower cases the Amiga would finally lose the last bits of its unique fascination.
 
Marcus: I test out AROS every few years. AmigaOS4 is tempting, but the hardware platforms are too expensive to "just have a look at it".

Jman: What's your opinion on modern gaming? What are your likes/dislikes when speaking of hardware and software platforms (in the widest range you can think of: PC, console, mobile, ...)?
 
Frank: I'm stuck in the past. Besides my old Amiga games I'm only playing some open source games on NetBSD, like Battle for Wesnoth or Jagged Alliance.
I never owned an x86 PC or a games console (my NetBSD hardware is mostly PPC, Sparc or Mips based). I hate joypads, so most modern games would only frustrate me. I need to hold a CompetitionPro joystick in both hands to be happy. :)
 
 
 
Gerrit: I think that when you're young and have a lot of free time the modern PCs and consoles are a blessing for every gamer.  For me (old man with family and a garden :) ) the past times were even better. The new games are endlessly long and sometimes too complicated to control (yeah, I'm really too old :))
 
Jman: Any past Amiga realizations done by someone else that you sincerely admire?
 
Frank: Turrican, especially part 2, was a milestone of Amiga gaming. Also some of the later jump'n runs like Lionheart, Mr.Nutz, Kid Chaos were technically impressive, but not so much fun to play.
 
Jman: Do you have other ongoing projects? Will you evaluate other new Amiga or retrocomputing projects? Maybe a sequel to Solid Gold? :-)
 
Frank: I promised the Retroguru team to work on Sqrxz3 for the Amiga 500. In the future I might do another game with Gerrit. But nothing is decided yet. A sequel would probably be not so much fun. Maybe something different, like a scrolling shooter? In any case it needs to have something to do with scrolling, as the engine is now working so nicely. ;)
 
Gerrit: Pierre wrote the text for the end sequence with the possibility of a sequel. But it is very hard to make a sequel. In a sequel everything has  to be brighter, more spectacular and better. And this could produce  stress. But the intention of Solid Gold was to have fun (and no  pressure). At this moment we will rest a bit. But: why not? If it brings fun again we could think about it...
 
Jman: I think we're done. OGI would like to sincerely thank Night Owl Design for this nice chat. Anything you would like to add?
 
Frank: Have fun using your Amigas and care for them (replace old capacitors and batteries!), so you can live the Amiga dream for the next 30 years. :)
 
You can reach out for Frank Willie at the following address

Amiga amanti tutti sull'Ogi Forum

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