Super Retro Maker aims to give players the ability to make stages straight out of eighties sidescrollers like Mega Man, Castlevania, and Ninja Gaiden. Offering a variety of visual styles, enemies, playable characters, and more, the game means to help players create their own intricate stages without requiring complex programming knowledge.
Siliconera spoke with Dan Beenfeldt of Digital Dominion, developers of Super Retro Maker, to learn more about how they made level-creation tools accessible to players, and what made them want to help players explore their creativity with video game creation.
What drew you to create a game about having other players create a game?
Dan Beenfeldt of Digital Dominion, developers of Super Retro Maker – I’ve been making tools to create video games for decades, starting out as a hobby as a kid, and then professionally at Neversoft Entertainment. However, these were tools that were aimed at developers and were quite complex. It wasn’t until I played Super Mario Maker that I realized the potential of making tools that feel more like games than tools. I remember playing SMM for the first time and immediately wanting something similar for all my other NES favorites. When SMM was so successful, I thought the floodgates would open and there would be all kinds of other official Maker games, but they never materialized (Maybe somewhere at Nintendo they’re hard at work on Zelda Maker? Please?). Eventually I realized that if I wanted this sort of thing, I would need to make it myself.
How do you make level-making tools accessible to people who’ve never made a game before? What thoughts go into making stage creation accessible to people?
That really is the biggest challenge. A lot of the internal tools that developers use to make games are complex, unfinished things that only a developer could love (or more likely hate). Many game tools grow organically, adding options as needed until the game is done and wind up with a huge UI with all kinds of settings and features that weren’t planned from the start. Figuring out how to make that all accessible and simple but still be powerful enough to make a complex stage is really tricky.
My approach is to go with a few naturally intuitive features, and then try to get the most out of every feature. This means carefully selecting a feature set that can be applied to a wide variety of situations. For example, everyone knows how to control the main player with the gamepad, so why not let them control all items and enemies in the same way? If you want an enemy to do something specific, you can take control of it, do what you want, and Super Retro Maker can record and then later playback that action in your stage. With that one intuitive feature, we open up a lot of possibilities, from simply timing turret shots all the way up to creating in-game cinematics.
What sorts of tools can players expect to mess around with? Can you walk us through a bit of the typical stage-creation process?
The basics will feel very familiar to anyone who has played Super Mario Maker. You draw the level using tiles to make the overall structure, and drag and drop enemies, items, power ups, traps, doors, etc… to create the level. As Super Mario Maker has shown, you can do a lot with just that, but we needed to expand on those basics to make other game styles possible.
The first thing we’ve done is to support Metroidvania style gameplay by allowing enormous levels with in-game maps. You could literally fit a game the size of Super Metroid in a single level. And we’ve given each main character upgrades that help them get past different obstacles, so it’s easy to create levels focused on exploration. We also let people tie levels together with hubs (think the overworld in Super Mario 3) to make full game experiences. Even if you suck at designing levels, you can pick your favorite levels that other people have made and link them together to make them more than just a standalone level.
I touched on the record and playback functionality in the last question. The next big addition we’ve made is a full physics sim. It’s very simple to learn, since we all have an intuitive understanding of physics. Maybe not the equations, but we can all predict what will happen if you put a large boulder on a ramp and toss some enemies in the way. Taken a step further, this allows for puzzle mechanics and incredible machine style contraptions.
Finally, we’ve got our event triggering system, which allows you to visually set up “circuits” that control game logic. For example, if you want a switch to open a door, you simply drag a wire between the switch and the door. It’s simple and intuitive, however you can also setup very complex systems with it and do basic programming tasks visually.
Super Retro Maker features visual styles similar to many classic games. What did you feel defined the looks of games like Castlevania, Mega Man, or Contra. What essence was important to capture to convey a similar look?
Resolution gets you back to the right era, but when you look at games from the 8 bit era, you can often tell what system it’s from just from a screenshot. I think this is largely due to the very limited and different color palettes available on each system. It gets less noticeable in the 16 bit era, and by the 32 bit era it’s quite difficult to tell what system a game is running on just from a screenshot. The palette on the NES was really limiting for artists , but those who could work with it were able to create amazing work that had a very distinct look.
Of course the other major restriction was the number of colors per sprite and tile. We’ve argued a lot as a team about how best to capture the look of the NES. In the end, we wound up sticking pretty close to the palette and color limitations, but overall I think the important thing is to make the game look like how people remember NES games looking, rather than how they actually were.
What do you feel appeals to players to create a stage for these classic games? Why do we want to go back and create our own Ninja Gaiden-like stages?
Maybe to get rid of the damn birds? Seriously though, I think people have an innate desire to create, and starting with something familiar is a natural place to begin. For me, I started programming so I could try to recreate my favorite games. But creating an entire game from scratch is a really daunting challenge, and something that few people can do on their own (I sure can’t, Super Retro Maker has a team of talented people working on it). Most people can’t make pixel art or create chiptunes or program, and hardly anyone can do all three well. But we can all imagine a level, and given the right tools, make it a reality. So there’s that, but also the damn birds.
Can you tell us a little bit about the game’s campaign? What will players be working through to unlock the various game creation tools?
The campaign is there for people that want a more traditional game experience. It will also serve to introduce people to the various game styles and the types of levels you can make with the editor. The campaign is made in the same editor that players have access to, so anything we do in the campaign, you’ll be able to do in your own levels. It’s still a work in progress, but the plan is to have each style have its own set of levels that work together to make a full size game. We’re aiming to have 3 different environments for each game style, with several levels for each environment. As you clear the stages, you’ll unlock new items in the editor and learn a bit about each characters backstory.
As a developer, how do you feel when you give someone the tools to create their own game? To make that accessible to people who may be afraid game development is too complicated for them?
One unfortunate thing about developing a game is that it’s often not very fun to play your own game. When you’ve been playing the same, unfinished game over and over for a year (or years), it gets old, and since you know the game inside-out and backwards there are no surprises. But when you give people tools to modify your game, they surprise you, and that can make a game feel fresh again.
For example, I worked on the livery editor in Forza Motorsport, and at least in the early versions it was very primitive, yet people made absolutely amazing things with it, stuff I wouldn’t have thought was even possible. That’s what I’m most excited to see in Super Retro Maker, the things that people will come up with that will surprise me. I think there are a lot of people out there with a lot of talent that will never have a chance (or the desire) to make an entire game from start to finish, but given one small piece they can really dig in and do amazing things. As a developer, it’s really great to see that. And hopefully for some people it will be the start of a career in game development.