Critical's Josh Hallaran on 8-Bit Adventures and Tales Across Time - Interview


After recently taking a first look at 8-Bit Adventures 2, we had a chance to talk to Critical Games on what they've done up to now and where they plan to go.
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Hi Joshua, thanks for taking the time to chat with us! To get this ball rolling, what made you jump into the wonderful world of video game development?

My pleasure – thanks for asking me to chat! I’ve actually wanted to be a video game developer since I was about 5 or 6 years old, thanks to games like Mario 64 and Zelda Ocarina of Time. I specifically remember running around the lobby of Peach’s Castle for the hundredth time, and suddenly noticing that the walls were decorated with painted on clouds (from the original Super Mario Bros.). I asked my Mum who’d painted them there, and she said it would’ve been the people who made the game. That was the first time I realised that there are people who actually *create* video games as a job – and that’s what I’ve wanted to do ever since! Nowadays, though, my motivation is pretty simple: I want to make people happy, and create games that connect with them in the same way that so many classic games have connected with me.

The original 8-Bit Adventures was just about as retro at it gets. How hard did you find it to keep to that style?

As I imagine Jerram (artist on 8-Bit Adventures 2) or any other pixel artist would tell you, I did a pretty abysmal job of keeping to the 8-bit style in the first game haha. Originally, I did all of the artwork for that game – and I’m not an artist, so it looked pretty terrible. I didn’t have much money, but I was able to hire Jerram to create new character sprites for all of the various people in the game. I also found a lot of free-to-use assets with an 8-bit aesthetic. However to make those assets fit appropriately into the game, I often needed to manipulate their sizes, which gives a lot of objects completely different line widths. And even after all of that, there was still plenty of my own artwork in the game, such as the monsters and several tiles (although I did my best to improve them).

So my biggest regret with 8-Bit Adventures 1 is the visual presentation. However, the fact that you’ve asked that question means that it at least evoked the spirit of classic 8-Bit games, and that was ultimately what I was trying to convey...so thank you! And we did get some things right – I used the NES colour palette on all assets, and all of the music and sound effects were NES-accurate!

With 8-Bit Adventures 2, we were really inspired by Shovel Knight’s approach – which captures the spirit of NES games, but isn’t bound by all of their limitations. So we’ve taken a much more accurate approach this time, and there are set rules I try to follow (regarding colour palette, pixel alignment, transparency, etc.). Although it sometimes requires a lot of extra work to stay within those rules – more than I would’ve thought, actually!

On the subject of your original title, what spawned the idea of the pure RGB? Not only did you visually style everything with those three colours but also designed the combat elements around it.

Funnily enough, 8-Bit Adventures 1 didn’t originate as an 8-bit game – or even necessarily an RPG! I was thinking about a concept for a game where all colour was drained from the world, and the player had to restore it. While it started off with a weird Mario 64-style structure (a hub world had lost its colour, and you’d restore it over time by travelling to different colour-themed levels via ‘doorways’), I thought a lot about how to make the colour restoration effect happen, and reasoned that a more limited colour palette would help with that. So I ended up deciding to use the NES colour palette, and from there came the decision to make an 8-bit game. I’d been playing several NES RPGs around that time, and given my familiarity with that genre, I decided it was the way to go. Of course, restoring colour is only a small part of the final game (mainly because I didn’t think the black and white looked very good haha). But it ended up having a massive effect on the combat, as you said; forming a very Pokemon-esque element system that was (relatively) easy to remember and prevented the player from button mashing their way through every encounter. Which was *mostly* a positive thing!

While I was very happy with the direction and style that you took with your second title Tales Across Time, what made you go that direction instead of a sequel to 8-Bit Adventures?

Well, thank you! 8-Bit Adventures 2 was actually already in pre-production before I even considered making Tales Across Time. I wanted 8-Bit Adventures 2 to be a much bigger and better game than its predecessor. However, it takes time to build up a pool of assets near the start of development (and we were still finding our ‘look’), so while Jerram was working on some graphics, I decided to use this time as constructively as I could. Tales Across Time was made because 1) a palette cleanser is always good when you’re working in a creative medium and 2) I needed more money to fund 8-Bit Adventures 2. At the time, there was an indie game competition being held, where you had to make a game in a month. So Tales Across Time was my entry - developed in just under 4 weeks. In fact, the entire 2nd and 3rd chapters of that original version were only made in the last 4 days of development! While it didn’t win the prize money, I thought the concept of designing a game as a series of short stories was a worthwhile idea, so I took the foundation and built upon it for several months leading up to the final release.

Tales Across Time was well paced but "unfortunately short", my words in the review as I wanted more with it clocking in at three-ish hours. That said, any longer than that and the experience would not have been what it was. How hard was it to write three individual "non-connected" stories that systematically built upon one another?

That was honestly the hardest thing about it. You have very little time to introduce, develop, and conclude your characters (especially when you add gameplay into the mix), and that means you have to make several concessions in your writing of those characters – which is the most common criticism I’ve seen of the game. I tried to incorporate the traditional RPG cycle of ‘Town > Dungeon > Town’, so that provided a semblance of structure for the story as a ‘game’. But I knew that, in addition to the individual characters’ stories, I needed some sort of side-narrative which could tie all of the eras together and give the player a pay-off in the end – rather than just concluding each story separately. So once I figured that out, it helped a lot of things fall into place.

Just in general, the animated series Samurai Jack was a big inspiration for that game, because it is excellent at telling very stand-alone, separate stories in a very stylistic way, and in a very short amount of time – while also having a central narrative thread through the protagonist and his mission. While I couldn’t do much in the way of subtle facial expressions or unusual camera angles, it teaches some universal lessons about framing, timing, using music, building tension, and choreographing action. The battles and action scenes were very heavily inspired by it (for example, the silhouette battle in the desert at the end of the first story).

When you reached out to us about 8-Bit Adventures 2 I remember telling you that I had been wondering when we would be seeing something new. How long has your sequel been in the works? Had this always been the plan or did you think of something else first?

Yes, I’m sorry it’s taken so long! 8-Bit Adventures 2 started pre-production a couple of months after 8-Bit Adventures 1 released on Steam – so probably around May 2015. I already had a basic concept before the first game’s release, but I never thought I’d get to use it. However, the positive response I got after releasing the game really made me think it could be worth pursuing. So I turned that basic concept into a full outline for the game (story ideas, environments, character progressions, new characters, the new battle system, etc.) and did some early tests using assets from the first game. Then I contacted Jerram Fahey about doing the artwork, Carfonu about returning to compose a new soundtrack, and programmer Doctor “ibolt” Dhoom about bringing the battle system to life. As I said, I then spent several months on Tales Across Time, but since May 2016, I’ve been working full time on 8-Bit Adventures 2.

Like most developers, I have ideas all the time – most of which sound really good on paper, but don’t pan out when you start thinking about them haha. One of my pie-in-the-sky ideas while working on 8-Bit Adventures 1 was to work on a Doctor Who RPG – because that series hasn’t had much success with video games, and I think there’s a lot of potential there. It’s very unlikely, but maybe one day!

Is there anything you've learnt over time that you wish you had known when you started?

Uh, can I say “everything”? Because pretty much everything haha. I suppose I wish I’d been a bit less naïve at the start about what I had the ability to make. I was too ambitious, and that lead to a lot of unfinished projects early on. I also wish I’d focused on what I was good at. The first commercial game I released was a fairly standard RPG with a few interesting ideas called Path of Thanatos, and the audience to which I released it were very positive. However, from there, I tried to go in a fairly different direction, and when that failed I attempted to make phone games for a couple of years – one of which was successful in terms of download numbers, it just didn’t make any money. So I wish that I’d buckled down and focused on the RPG niche earlier than I did, rather than taking a scatter shot approach. However, I did learn a *lot* about making games in that time, and ultimately that experience paid off in 8-Bit Adventures 1 and Tales Across Time.

So my general advice to new indie developers would be to keep your expectations and ideas in check. And when you find your strengths, keep developing them, rather than trying to expand too early in your career. Facing an unsuccessful project is tough, but the experience and understanding you gained from creating it is always worthwhile.

Because you can't be working on your project all the time, what do you like to do in your off time?

Heh, I’m not always so good at this part. I do often play video games - particularly a lot of RPGs (surprise, surprise). Beyond that, I try to keep up with various movies and TV shows, I enjoy video editing and sometimes make Youtube videos (I have a collection of retro games, so I’ve done a lot of content based on that), I read, do a bit of exercise, and do all the usual stuff with friends and family. Nothing too exciting, but it all keeps me sane when working on a long-term project like this haha.

Finally to wrap this up, is there anything in particular that you've enjoyed playing lately?

Absolutely! I’m a bit behind on releases, but Zelda Breath of the Wild was utterly amazing. And Persona 5 – that game singlehandedly restored my faith in the JRPG genre on console, for the first time since Dragon Quest VIII on PS2! And not only was it excellent mechanically and in terms of its characters; Persona 5’s ability to tackle very dark, mature topics while remaining such a bright and hopeful game was incredibly impressive to me. The ending honestly left me feeling uplifted, like ‘Yeah, I can make a difference in the world too!’ and I think that message has a lot of value – at any time, but especially at the moment. So I highly recommend it to everyone =)

Thank you for taking the time to chat with us and we look forward to seeing the release of 8-Bit Adventures 2 early next year!

Thank you so much! I’m doing my best to get it finished ASAP. And if anyone would like to try the game early, there’s currently a First Look demo available on Steam or DRM-free at: www.8bitadventures2.com
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