Nintendo DS

Developing For A Portable Nintendo 64: A Renegade Kid Interview



In 2007, new kid on the block, Renegade Kid, wowed critics with their debut survival horror title Dementium: The Ward for Nintendo DS. Since then, the company has experimented primarily with first-person games of sorts on the system, with varying results. The one thing all of their games have in common, however, is that they they fill an empty gap in the DS library.


Following the release of Dementium II, Siliconera caught up with Renegade Kid co-founder Jools Watsham, to discuss the hurdles of being one of the few ambitious independent western developers on the DS.


To begin with, could you tell me a little about how Renegade Kid came about?


Jools Watsham, Co-Founder: Renegade Kid was founded in early 2007 by myself and long-time friend and colleague, Gregg Hargrove. At that time, Gregg and I had already worked together on many video game projects in the 12+ years prior to forming Renegade Kid. Our focus was very pure and simple at the beginning: make a first-person survival horror game for the Nintendo DS. With our previous experience working on the Nintendo 64, we were confident the DS could handle it.


We did not have any outside funding or a contract with a publisher. Gregg and I worked freelance gigs during the day to pay our own bills and employ the super-brain power of our genius programmer, Bob Ives. The three of us worked for many months to create a vertical slice of what was called The Ward at the time. We showed it off to publishers in the hope that we’d find a home for it and a channel to get it onto store shelves.


About 2/3 into the development of the game, we partnered with Gamecock Media to publish it. We changed the name of the game for its release to Dementium: The Ward. Our debut title won numerous awards and the hearts of many demented fans.


Iggy's Reckin' Balls

It sounds like you had a laser-thin focus right from the get-go. Which N64 game did you have the most involvement in back in those days? I know you were part of Turok’s development on some level. Is that what drove the desire to do a first-person game on DS?


I only worked a little on Turok 2, mainly on multiplayer level designs. Most of my N64 experience was on Iggy’s Reckin’ Balls, which couldn’t be further from what Dementium is in terms of theme, but it gave us insight into the technical limitations in regards to graphics and such, as it is similar to the DS in that regard. The desire to create a first-person game on the DS was mainly due to the fact that there weren’t many first-person survival horror games, and it also allowed us to focus on the controls and not worry about a third-person camera, which can be a huge undertaking.


Did you approach development of The Ward any differently from a design standpoint than you would have any other game because it was a portable experience or was the goal to do a console game on a portable system?


No, we didn’t approach Dementium any differently due to the fact that it was on a handheld platform. Our goal was to bring a more console-like experience to the DS. After all, the DS is basically a portable N64.


Dementium II for DS Fast-forward three years. It’s 2010, and Dementium II had ten people working on it as opposed to…three? You’ve published three games so far and have at least four active projects in the pipeline. I know it’s still early in Renegade Kid’s history, but what’s the journey been like? How has being an independent studio affected you?


The journey has been incredible. Even though I had over 12 years of experience prior to starting Renegade Kid, the day we started felt like my career had just begun. It has been a tremendous amount of work, risk, and play. I have enjoyed every moment. I don’t think being a part of an independent studio is for everyone; it can be tough at times. But, for us it has also been very rewarding in terms of what we have managed to achieve with our games and the reception they
have received.


Was there ever a time when you thought things weren’t going to work out? Not just the ups and downs that come with being an independent studio, but a time when you seriously thought to yourself, “Okay, we need to be more stable or this isn’t happening.”


Unfortunately, that happens more frequently than you’d think. We are a very small studio, so if a project gets canceled or a major issue arises mid-project it can be, and has been, very difficult. We don’t have an investor, and we don’t have huge piles of cash stuffed under our beds, so we’ve had to dig into our personal resources to keep things rolling.


For example, we finished Dementium II in November 2009 and had no paid projects lined up after it. I had been meeting with publishers since June 2009 in an attempt to secure a project for us after Dementium II, but no luck. Even though our game proposals were all received very well, if publishers aren’t convinced they will make a good profit from it, its not going to happen. 2009 was especially hard for that; I think everyone was feeling the financial pressure.


So, we decided to start developing a new game in the hope that a publisher would partner with us, and we eventually got it signed in March 2010. In fact, we were fortunate enough to sign two projects in March. For me, the enjoyment and fulfillment of having your own studio are so great that I will put every effort into making it through the hard times.


It sounds like 2009 was an incredibly rough year. And yet, you continued to update your blog and hammer away at your projects. So, how different is it when you’re working under those conditions? Do you view it as an opportunity to cut yourself some slack and catch up with life outside of work or is everyone working twice as hard to try and have as many different projects bubbling as possible?


It is certainly a case of working just as hard, if not harder, during the hard times to try and secure projects and get some money coming in.


Can we talk a little bit about the post-June 2009 period? Why do you think publishers backed off? Was it just to do with the state of the economy or do you think it’s also the nature of the games you try to create and the platform you work with?


It is a bit of both. Proposing any kind of original game is risky for publishers. The types of games we were pitching weren’t all Mature games either, we also had cartoon style games and other genres than first-person. Due to the fact that we’re nearing the end of the DS’s life, the number of original third-party games will reduce while the number of licensed titles, such as movie licenses, will increase.


This has happened with every console. And, we’re not opposed to developing licensed titles. However, publishers are more inclined to use developers who have already produced licensed games rather than go with a developer who has not. It’s all about mitigating risk. Oh, how I love to hear those words from a publisher. : )


But two of your games eventually did get picked up! They’re the ones codenamed “Spirit” and “Face” I think? Without getting into too many details, what do you think was different about those? What made it happen?


Yes, they are code-named Spirit and Face. The difference with these games is that they’re filling a void in the market where either the quality is not currently there or the genre does not yet exist. Spirit, for example, required us to create a substantial portion of the game ourselves, before any publisher signed on, to prove what we wanted to achieve could be done on the platform. Sometimes you just have to put your money where your mouth is and allow publisher to play it rather than imagine it.


We’re fans of games as well as developers of games. Both Dementium and Moon were created because we love games like Silent Hill and Metroid, and both of our games filled a hole in the market that wasn’t being filled by anyone else.


Moon for DS Resident Evil was the closest you could find to a survival horror game on the DS in 2007, so we made Dementium to provide something we personally wanted to see and play on the platform. It was the same with Moon; Metroid [Prime:] Hunters is an impressive game, but we felt that it did not deliver the Metroid experience we wanted, and there was no sign of Metroid 2 for the DS.


So, in the case of Moon, for instance, what did you take away from its performance? Dementium is now a game that’s on people’s radars. Moon didn’t quite hit that spot. What did you learn from it?


It confirmed my belief that when a game is not advertised, it does not sell. : )


Fair enough! Then, you believe Spirit and Face are both going to be treated better by their publishers? Is that something that’s up for discussion — advertising, a push at retail, how to handle PR — when you sign a deal, or do you have to take what they give you?


Yes, I do believe both Spirit and Face will work out better than Moon. But, you never know until it comes down to that time. Anything could happen, which can affect the original plan. For the most part, publishers have a certain way they approach marketing and PR so there’s little room for change. It depends on the publisher though.


Do you think publishers will be more willing to fund original games on the 3DS? Obviously, there’s a lot we don’t know about the device, but there’s been a lot of talk about addressing the piracy issue from Nintendo. With E3 right around the corner, what’s the general consensus so far among the people you talk to?


Everyone seems very excited about the 3DS. I know I am. I think the beginning of any new platform’s life is the best time to release original games. They have a much better chance of selling due to the limited selection of games available. And, if you manage to release a good title, there’s the chance of releasing a sequel and a new brand is born.


Do you think the upgrade in hardware is going to catch the interest of third-parties in North America more than the DS? With the exception of a handful of developers — you guys included, of course — there aren’t too many companies that really excel at making good “core” portable games, or even try to, outside of Japan. Do you feel like a more powerful system would make them feel like it’s worth their time?


Yes, I think the number of US developers supporting the 3DS is going to be larger than it has been for the DS in terms of teams who are focusing on creating original so-called “core” games. I think we’ll see a lot of the current Wii and iPhone developers adding the 3DS to their development plans. However, I don’t expect many 360/PS3 teams to move onto the 3DS due to what is assumed of its graphical power not matching that of the 360/PS3. But, for us the upgrade in graphical power is awesome and exciting.


Do you think that it will be able to set itself apart from the iPhone as its own device in the digital space? As you pointed out, iTunes is a growing market and that’s where the majority of the talent seems to be developing. But DSiWare, for instance, has a much stricter approval process. Do you see people just porting their stuff over or will we see, perhaps, a more “fleshed out” library focused on quality?


Nintendo isn’t going to want a series of direct ports from the iPhone, so in regards to digital titles I expect we’ll see a more robust library of games available for the 3DS. This will be Nintendo’s next iteration on their on-line system, so that should be interesting. If it’s anything like the growth of Xbox Live from the Xbox to the 360, then we’re in for a treat.


So, headed into this new generation of portable systems, what are your goals, both creatively and financially?


Our goal is to make both original and licensed games that make loads of money.


When you’re an independent studio, a large number of concerns such as working hours or quality of life tend to slip under the radar. Do you try to accommodate those in any way or is that a far-off concern?


In my experience, long working hours and negative impacts on the quality of life happens at large studios as well as small ones — if not more so in fact due to the extra craziness of a large studio. I think any creative industry experiences these things due to the nature of the work being somewhat unpredictable.


However, we approach the development of each game from a practical perspective to try and minimize the need for working overtime. This isn’t always achievable, but we do what we can to avoid it. One key aspect is to scope the game to the time and team that we have. To do this we spend the first phase of the project challenging the game design against time. We do this by listing every art, design, programming, and audio task needed to accomplish the project and put a day count next to each task.


This gives us a much more realistic view of what is needed to get the job done, and also shows dependencies between the different disciplines. If the tasks do not fit within the time allotted for the project (which is controlled by the budget) we have two choices: 1. Change the game content, or 2. Work overtime. That choice comes down to a discussion with each individual and what is best for the project and their quality of life. We go through this process for each task until we’re all happy with the result and then we go for it.


It is important to be working with people that are developing games for the right reason: because they love it. Honesty and hard work go a long way. The next important step is to keep track of each person’s progress throughout the project and update the schedule accordingly so we know whether we’re on track or not.


Do you track projects by day or do you break tasks down by the hour?


We break tasks down into day counts. If we have a bunch of little tasks then we try to group them together to make a single half-day or a full day task. I think it is simpler to block everything into days. In some cases you may have a little extra time in a day if a task doesn’t take all day, which is never a bad thing.

Ishaan Sahdev
Ishaan specializes in game design/sales analysis. He's the former managing editor of Siliconera and wrote the book "The Legend of Zelda - A Complete Development History". He also used to moonlight as a professional manga editor. These days, his day job has nothing to do with games, but the two inform each other nonetheless.