June 17, 2009 8:00 AM | Simon Carless
[In this interview conducted by GameSetWatch contributor Stace Harman, developer Hucast.net's Rene Hellwig shares his studio's challenges with self-publishing shooter DUX for Dreamcast, predictions for the PS2's potential as an open platform, and advice for other independent developers on where to start with their projects.]
As the diversity of the video game market continues to grow, It's little wonder then that some tiny independent developers have looked to forego a publishing deal altogether and have instead chosen to do things differently, even at much smaller 'homebrew'-style size and for game hardware that no longer sees development from conventional teams.
One such developer is Rene Hellwig of Hucast.net. With NG:Dev.Team, Rene and his brother Timm released the well-received Last Hope, a 2D side scrolling shooter for Neo-Geo and Sega Dreamcast. Now, a little over two years since the release of Last Hope on Dreamcast, René has just shipped DUX for Dreamcast, an unofficial non-Sega-approved release and his second side scrolling shooter.
With DUX soon to be released, what have been the biggest challenges in preparing this title for launch and what lessons from your first release, Last Hope, could you carry across to DUX?
Rene Hellwig: The biggest challenge was to get the game done, of course, and the main lesson I learned was that a publisher isn't necessary with independent Dreamcast games. Self-publishing games is pretty do-able, especially in conjunction with open-minded video game retailers. So, the important thing isn't the publisher, it's rather about the distribution side of the game in these regards.
Do you feel the retailers you’re in partnership with share your vision for DUX and independent titles in general? I spoke with Giulio Graziani of VideoGamesNewYork, and he is very enthusiastic to be distributing independently developed titles.
RH: I'm glad most of them have an open mind for independent video games, further to this some of them just as Giulio Graziani from VideoGamesNewYork and also Lee from Videogame Imports do have a vision for this kind of venture.
With Giulio [as a] distribution partner for U.S., my games can reach a broader audience, especially since DUX is going to be presented at games and anime conventions like the Anime Central and Anime Boston conventions.
Such events are a good way to reach more people, I just hope most of the anime fans know what a Dreamcast is, and in the best case, they own one or know someone that does so they’ll speak to them and say ‘Hey, I saw this cool Dreamcast game at the anime convention‘, but I'm pretty confident about this as anime and gaming fans share many interests.
Art work, sketches & story boards are perhaps obvious examples of these shared interests, how much of this concept work goes into your indie titles?
RH: Most of the sketched stuff I do finds its place in the game, however with DUX, I haven’t actually done that many sketches as I’ve tried to streamline the development process as much as possible. I know this sounds a bit odd given the extended development time for DUX, but really it’s been time spent working on other aspects of the development.
However, with my next HUCAST.net game, I already have many sketches, which is important because of the nature of the game. It's going to have a pretty methodical scoring system that needs quite a lot of balancing, but still I hope it’s going to be accessible and free enough to let the player create their own way of playing. It's meant be a bullet spray type of shooter, by the way, and like DUX, it will be developed for Dreamcast.
So you’ll be developing further titles for Dreamcast, but what about other platforms? How about PS2 in light of Sony’s recent decision to ease difficulty of the certification process for PS2 software in Europe?
RH: I’ll definitely develop more titles on Dreamcast, for sure. PS2 is interesting as well since it’s an open platform now, but I'm unsure, especially given it‘s only open for Europe. For me it's important to make my games accessible for a worldwide audience, and that's a reason why I‘d rather consider platforms like WiiWare, etc. in these terms.
Platforms like this are a step into the right direction when it comes to making a system as open as possible for independent developers, and they also offer a broad target group. However, this also means that as a developer, you are dependent on the service and a lack of a physical disc, and that's why currently, Dreamcast is the best choice for my games.
Do you envisage Sony‘s decision to remove certification as having the same effect as your ability to publish freely on Dreamcast without Sega complaining?
RH: Sega abandoned the Dreamcast and left the console market. As Sony knows there's still a market for PS2, so it makes sense for them to allow unverified games on their system.
My assumption is that they‘re also trying to get more eastern European developers to make games for PS2 to raise these low budget companies up with the hope that at least some will become capable of developing software for PS3 at some point, kind of like cutting their teeth on PS2. At the very least I don't think Sony has done this purely out of kindness, but instead it has a business purpose too.
Given Sega don't intend to do another console, they couldn't benefit much from removing certification processes for Dreamcast anyway. Even when they do with their consoles, then I'm sure it's only limited to countries like Brazil because there the Mega Drive (Sega Genesis) and maybe even Dreamcast have a market.
Actually, the Dreamcast is already an easy and pretty much open platform to develop for, and it’s well documented too. The only difference is a lack of approval form Sega, which isn't a problem for me.
The most casual of glances at Last Hope and DUX highlight some of the inspirations for these titles, the R-Type ‘Force’ weapon is an obvious one. How much do you set out to refine the ideas of 2D shooters and, perhaps, pay homage to them and how much do you attempt to create from scratch?
RH: R-Type is a classic of the strategic shooter sub-genre, so naturally Last Hope and DUX are inspired by it -- quite simply the R-Type series has set too many standards to ignore. Many people call a game which uses an R-Type force-like weapon an ‘R-Type Clone‘ but I disagree with this. In games of this kind, some sort of defence is necessary to highlight the potential for strategy.
In strategy games of any kind, you need some sort of defence, just like a knight character has a sword and a shield time and time again in various titles, but you wouldn’t claim that something like The Behemoth's Castle Crashers is a ‘Zelda clone‘ just because the protagonists have the same default weapons. With DUX, however, I just took the ideas of these kinds of games and combined them with modern standards to give a retro-like yet modern gaming experience.
To be innovative with shmups (shoot ‘em ups) isn't very easy anyhow, since it is a highly developed and sophisticated genre. Many people call Ikaruga innovative, but I see it as borrowing elements of an existing game, in this case the game of chess with its set patterns of movement and striking two-tone colour scheme, and making it a shmup. So, for me, innovation in shmups is mainly in the details.
What advice could you pass on to those who may want to get in to indie development? How do they start and what are the must-haves before starting development?
RH: Start at the beginning. Most beginners try to make a sequel to their favourite game, or they attempt too much complexity and extravagance, and in this way, they overburden themselves and then they fail. I'm sure that some of them have the ability to make good games, but often they set their expectations too high.
So, make a Space Invaders first, finish that game ,and then try to do a fan sequel to Radiant Silver Gun or somesuch. When I started out, I found that the feeling of accomplishment was more important than the quality of the product ,and this is what many beginners are unaware of or lose focus of.
Must haves are talent and a lot of time, naturally. A proper dev environment is necessary as well. On the Dreamcast, you can use the accessible KalliOS, which is pretty fine but still needs an update and bug fixing. So, the Dreamcast is a good thing when it comes to homebrew development on consoles, and I think that more independent developers should consider it.