[With retro spoof Dark Void Zero coming to iPhone and PC, Other Ocean's Mike Mika gave our own Brandon Sheffield the fascinating rundown on the original DSiWare game's creation -- hinting at future collaborations with Capcom for similar projects.]

Dark Void Zero is the DSiWare companion to Capcom-published Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 title Dark Void. Originally, it was pitched to audiences as a game planned for an ancient two-screened arcade system, the PlayChoice-10, which had similar architecture to the NES.

An elaborate backstory was created, and Capcom and Other Ocean, the developer of the game, stuck to it carefully, going so far as to add talk show host Jimmy Fallon’s name to the game, indicating he won a contest when he was younger.

In reality, Other Ocean created the game specifically for DSiWare, and is now porting it to iPhone and PC, after its success on Nintendo’s platform. The new versions promise achievements, leaderboards, and "a few extra secrets," including an alternate ending for the PC SKU.

In this interview with Other Ocean head of development Mike Mika, the true background of the game is finally revealed, and we discuss what it takes to create a retro game title in the current era. Notably, with the PC and iPhone ports behind them, Mika has indicated that the team is ready for more similar collaborations with Capcom, something that VP of strategic planning & business development Christian Svensson also hinted at in an interview in March:

Origins of Dark Void Zero

Did the idea for Dark Void Zero come from the marketing side at Capcom, or was it you guys?

Mike Mika: Actually, it was last year, 2009, at GDC, where Adam Boyes from Capcom and I were kind of hanging out at one of the bars after a long day. I was essentially picking his brain as to what Capcom had planned for DSiWare.

For us at Other Ocean, we had a situation where we could actually fund our own DSiWare games, and so I was just looking to see what they were thinking about doing, and it turns out they didn't really have much planned at that time. And so, it was just perfect timing. This was right after the April Fools joke that went out on Capcom Unity's site about Dark Void and the 8-bit game.

Bear McCreary, who did the music for both games, the console and the DSiWare game, he had done an 8-bit rendition of the Dark Void title track, and it was amazing. And I didn't know anything about this. Adam had to tell me about it, and I had to go check it out later. And at the same time, a colleague of mine, Chris Charla, and I had created this fake game that was called Vavatron, which was released on IGN for April Fools.

It was a story written by Steve Kent, who did the History of Video Games, so we did this really fake history about Will Wright and Chris Taylor and those guys, who created an arcade game back in the 80s that never came out, and for the first time ever, you were able to download the fully playable version of this arcade game that's emulated.

And it went on for a week, where everybody just thought this was actually this old arcade game. It was probably one of the longest running April Fools game jokes out there after a while. And, so when Adam and I were talking, it was a little bit like Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. We had the chocolate, we had the peanut butter, and we were like, "Why don't we just do this now for Dark Void, and it will be our first DSiWare title?" So, that's how that got kicked off.

We had a lot of laughs that night about things we could do with it and what direction we could go with the game and that sort of thing. The game didn't actually get started for a couple months after that because getting the paperwork and everything underway, and also, we had to see what the full-on game looked like and get a big dump on all the story for that game and how we could place this as a prequel. So, there was a little bit of time before we actually started creating the game.

And who came up with the backstory after that? Was that you guys at Other Ocean?

MM: Yeah, pretty much since we were pretty much left to run with it. So, the backstory, as far as the history and how that all started, it all came from us. Actually, there was a little bit of brainstorming with Adam and Shana Bryan, who was the producer on their side, to kind of concoct this really robust... actually frighteningly robust backstory. I don't know why we went so far.

We had a backstory of what hardware would actually facilitate it, and why it would be on DSiWare. So, we had kind of the epiphany of, "Well, there's the PlayChoice-10 with two monitors." We went so far as to think, "Okay, could those two monitors communicate? Well, the 2a03 chip couldn't communicate with the Z80 too well, so there would have to be a network cable." So, we went real deep into that. But when we started putting it all together, we were actually kind of scaring ourselves.

It was definitely impressive, and it shows a lot of knowledge of history. I saw a couple people online posting that they were kind of upset that they didn't know if it was real, and they felt betrayed, or something. I wonder if that will happen when people find out.

MM: It's kind of interesting because I think at this point everybody knows it's kind of a tongue-and-cheek effort, but we made a commitment at one point that we were just going to run with the fake history with the little wink-wink-nudge-nudge, that anybody who was playing the game at CES before launch, we just kind of gave them every clue that it was fake.

And then the imagery and stuff we would concoct would always have clues in the image as to why that's fake. Like there's an image where it shows some game posters from an old 80s flyer, and the game posters are actually upcoming Xbox Live games.

So, like there's all these things we're putting in as clues just to make sure that those who are really paying attention would realize it's just one big joke. And we're kind of looking back on things like Spinal Tap and movies that were just like fun rides, where if somebody who was uninitiated were to sit down and start watching it, they'd probably think for a little while as to whether or not it's real.

It’s definitely a good example of a coordinated marketing and development effort. I heard more people talking about Dark Void Zero than Dark Void.

MM: Well, this kind of goes back to something I learned probably five or six years ago in the game biz, just kind of a cheesy formula where if you can create something that people will enjoy talking about, than you've won half the battle. It can be things like "Halo is actually a great game that plays on console analog sticks, and doesn't need mouse and keyboard," those kinds of things that are like really worth talking about in a game.

So, this backstory, whether it's real or not, we thought it was something we could run out there with. We have a lot of knowledge about that era and what we can set this in and really kind of root it into that era. And we just started pulling in things to help prove that this thing was something that could have potentially existed in '87. That's where the connection to like the way the music was created and the marketing push to even television and all that sort of thing kind of came to be.

Right, so what's the Jimmy Fallon connection?

MM: So, I was sitting here trying to think of ways to make this game seem legit, and if I had just said, "Oh, it's a game where Joe Schmoe in Wisconsin won a contest and had the only known cartridge with a ROM still left," it'd be harder to get people to believe it. But when you think of somebody who's in the media spotlight or that everybody can recognize, and they say it's real, then you can make it feel more legitimate.

So, in this case, we worked on a game a while ago with Jimmy Fallon back with a company I was working for before Other Ocean. He's an incredibly smart guy who knows a lot about games. He knows a lot about computer engineering. And he had this game that he wanted to get made that was actually fantastic. And I've been to a lot of meetings with like celebrities and like... Well, I shouldn't name them at all.

But meetings where you go into a room and you're just listening to this thing and you're saying, "There's no way. These guys don't even understand what a game is." But Jimmy Fallon, when we first met him, he knew everything about games. He knew the Konami code. Like he could rattle it off if you quizzed him. He knew a lot about the history of games. It was the first time we'd ever run into somebody who had celebrity status and just knew so much about games. And he was really smart when it came to game design.

So, we tried to get this game off the ground for a while, and it just never happened for various reasons, but we kept in touch. And I know he was a big NES fan, so when this opportunity came up, I was trying to find a way to legitimize the game a bit. I just emailed him and just said, "Hey. Do you want to be in an NES game?" I told him kind of what I wanted to do with it, and he totally went with it.

That's pretty awesome and could make people feel even more betrayed later.

MM: I feel kind of bad because we're looking at some of those things. We've had people email us. One question we got was whether or not we'd be able to release the ROMs to allow emulator authors to emulate the game for the Playchoice-10. It's just kind of like what do you do? I tried to uphold it there.

I felt really dirty doing this, but I was kind of like, "Actually, Capcom owns the rights to this ROM, and to do that while they're making money off it right now would be illegal," and just try to hold this like line that I didn't want to give away yet. [laughs]

Modern Retro

When you're making a retro game like this, design-wise, what do you keep and what do you throw out from the old days of the NES. I mean, people could pretty easily point to the tenets of design back then.

MM: So, the greatest thing about the group at Other Ocean is a lot of the guys were making games back in the old days, like the NES era and Super Nintendo. So, for the people that signed up for the work here, they came from that era, so they made a large number of games back in the days that fit this mold. So, it was just exciting for everybody because you rarely get a chance to go back and build the games that you loved to build when you started your career. Back then, if you look back at the 80s and 90s, side-scrolling platformers and shooters were all the rage. And they kind of disappeared obviously with 3D and everything coming in.

It was just something that was really a treat to work on, so the guys that jumped in, we had old tools that we could use that we could count on. For instance, the pixel art in the game, it's kind of a lost art, but we've had people who've done that for a long time. And for our company, which has done a lot of handheld for so long -- we've worked on the Game Boy Color, which is very much like the NES -- it was just natural.

So, it was this really comfortable thing to fall back into. And then when you think about the controls, we wanted to keep the NES controls... The simplicity was working to our benefit. We didn't have much time to build this game, so to build artwork in 8-bits and design a game that had two buttons really shaved off the amount of time we had to put into it as far as production goes.

And we could just focus on just the core game design itself. We wanted it to feel good when you're flying around and shooting things. We wanted it to actually be rewarding to interact with the game rather than figure out how much we can cram into it.

When playing it, I noted that the buttons were actually reversed from what they would normally be on the NES game.

MM: It's probably a lot to do with half the people on the design team were English, and I think the button configurations were different when they were growing up? I think that's what it was. But also, if we could do it all over again, we'd put in some customization for that. If we get a chance to do any updates, I think we'd support that.

And so in terms of like the actual design of it, like you know, the punishing difficulty or the kind of... I mean, how far do you go with, "Yes, the screen will start to flicker when there are too many sprites" or things like that.

MM: We started out planning and doing all the sprite flicker and doing everything that we could to make it as authentic as possible to the NES, but it kind of got to a point where if you go down that road, it's a fine line. If we go down that road, there were things that we would do in the gameplay that would be a lot more limiting than what people today would expect in a game.

So, for instance, we actually wanted to have far more enemies on screen than what you would normally get on an NES. So, we kind of quickly threw away the notion of sprite flicker and all these things that would be very problematic or limits that we'd have to impose on ourselves for gameplay.

And then we just basically wrote that off in the fiction as there was a special chipset, the System Zero chipset, that would be included in each cartridge like the FX chip that Super Nintendo would use and eliminate sprite flicker and that sort of thing.

It's funny that you felt you had to work that into fiction as well.

MM: Yeah, we just had to stay legit. [laughs]

In terms of color palettes, how about that?

MM: We stuck to the 52 available colors that would be on the NES typically. The amount of colors at the same time, we broke the rules on, but not much. We would only do it where it would really make sense. We didn't want to introduce that challenge to our artists with the time frame that we had to make sure that they had certain colors and certain amount of tiles that were available on screen at a certain time.

So we opened up the color palette just a little bit. We allowed more colors on the screen at any given time just to make more appealing art and not have as much challenge in the production process.

Dream Team

How long did you actually have, and how many developers were working on it?

MM: It was probably... I'd say the core of the work was done... Like when it really, really started to take off was probably three and a half to four months. And then there was a lot of pre-production that was just very casual before that. And rolling into the final 2.5 months where the full team just jumped on it and got it all sorted out.

But the benefit of the time frame for the game was that we quickly determined how much content we could put into the game. It's three Metroid-ish large levels, and we knew that if we went any further than that, it would compromise the amount of time we would be able to spend on polishing it, so we really stuck to the three levels and threw everything we could at those.

How many people total?

MM: About six, and there would be a few of us coming in and out of it.

How much did you take from the original Dark Void?

MM: We took as much as we could. Like, Rusty is a character mentioned in the game, whether or not he survived. He was the predecessor to Will, who's in the final game.

So, that was kind of our opening to create any kind of fiction we wanted to within that realm. So, the Watchers and other creatures you encounter are based on the story of the full game, but we tried to backpedal that a little bit, and we based it solely on Rusty and his relationship with Nikolai Tesla. It gave us a lot of breathing room. But wherever we could, we would try to allude to things that happen in the console game.

Any more plans for future tie-ins like this?

MM: Absolutely. When we were doing this, about halfway through we realized that this was actually turning out to be something really fun and that other people would enjoy it. For a while, we just though, "Hey, this is satisfying our geeky needs, and we don't know how many people out there would really like it."

But now, it's starting to look like a lot of people like this sort of thing. And the response we've gotten is so positive that it's going to be hard to think that we wouldn't follow up with something along these lines.

People seem to have responded well.

MM: It's one of these things where... [laughs] The response is a little bit like... It's so surprising to us actually. You get these things done, you put it out there, and you kind of watch what's going on online. You just hope that somebody picks it up and says something nice about it, but the reviews so far have actually been... It's humbling, that's for sure.