Brian Provinciano of Vblank Entertainment

2011 Independent Games Festival award nominee Retro City Rampage started out as an 8-bit demake of Grand Theft Auto III. Titled "Grand Theftendo," the hobbyist project was written entirely in 6502 Assembly Language, aiming to recreate (in the style of an NES title) the Portland city location of Rockstar's open-world game.

The results of Brian Provinciano's pet project were technically fascinating, but surprisingly less fun than the source material. Rather than scrap the project outright, the programmer and game designer decided to utilize his build as the foundation for an original virtual environment. Retro City Rampage would derive its missions by parodying a recklessly violent game world built from the bricks and mortar of 8-bit sprites and squarewaves.

You've been working on the game that eventually became Retro City Rampage since 2002. Were you interested in your Game Developers Conference presentation providing an overview of how the project has evolved since that time?

Brian Provinciano, Vblank Entertainment: Definitely, and something that I wish I had more time to talk on was the transition from programmer to designer. Everyone seems to think they are already a designer, but there's a lot to learn to really become one. It was quite a journey for me to move from thinking technically to thinking more creatively. The whole checklist approach I had as a programmer--implementing all the features that Grand Theft Auto had--didn't end up with a fun game. It took a lot of playtesting and iteration to make it enjoyable.

What were some of the game design elements that originally drew you to Grand Theft Auto III as the subject of an NES game?

I've wanted to create my own version of pretty much any game I've liked. When GTA III came out I was so blown away by the open world. It let my imagination run wild. Being familiar with GTA II, I had seen it in the context of a top-down and knew it worked. It proved to be a great avenue, being such an open-ended title, in allowing me a framework to cram all my favorite games into it.

In building Grand Theftendo, what resources were useful in acclimating yourself to the hardware specifications of the NES console?

There was a bunch of documentation from back in the day that I looked through. I went on IRC and chatted with a lot of helpful people that were willing to answer my questions.

In particular, a guy named Kevtris (Kevin Horton) does a lot of hardware development and he helped me out a lot. He built the first homemade devkit called CopyNES.

What were the most significant changes that took place in the programming as Grand Theftendo started to become Retro City Rampage?

It was the end of the summer of 2008 when I began building the new city and it became its own game. Up until that point I had been designing original missions and things like that.

You're emulating the feel of the NES but diverging from the hardware limitations where it benefits the play experience?

A lot of the quirks that NES games had were the results of limitations. The reason why dialog in NES RPGs generally appeared on the screen character by character was because you could only draw a certain amount of tiles per frame. You were really forced to design your game to keep the framerate at 60 frames per second.

Originally my hardware limitations on the PC were as rigid as the NES, but yeah, eventually I got more flexible. There were certain changes I had to make for the sake of gameplay. One of those things was the aspect ratio, which on the NES is kind of 1:1. On the TV, it's 4:3. For that reason, NES games are all stretched horizontally. For a game where you're moving up, down, left and right it can feel like you're moving at different speeds horizontally versus vertically.

You can do a whole bunch of work to create your art squashed so that it works, but I ended up adjusting the aspect ratio so that it even has a widescreen presentation. Another big thing that I had to deal with was sprite flicker. That's something that I had implemented into the PC build originally, but it just wasn't fun. That led me to expand upon the sprites and take out the flicker.

Slide from the 2011 Game Developers Conference presentation

What are some of the design elements of Retro City Rampage that players might not be expecting from its thumbnail description as a retro GTA?

There are missions like in Grand Theft Auto, but some also play like coin-op arcade games. There's one where objects are being thrown out of a window and you have to run underneath, dodge dangerous ones and catch others and throw them into a possessed car. There are missions playing off Root Beer Tapper and Ghostbusters.

Others play like Smash TV, where you're facing tons of enemies moving from room to room. There's a Paperboy-style mission where you've got to drive a bicycle and throw magazines, as well as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-style sidescrolling water level.

You've mentioned that there are references to classic game characters like Guybrush Threepwood, as well?

One thing I've tried to do is make references that aren't just tacked on, but are actually ingrained in the story. Like for example, you've got to take the DeLorian-like car and charge it up by going 88 miles per hour and causing collisions. Some of the missions are less tasteful than others, but it's all done in a comedic manner.

In your talk you stated that the debugging features you've implemented have sped up areas of the game's development. What are some of the benefits that have resulted from these features?

Those have been very useful. Something I haven't talked with anyone about yet is that the missions are designed in scripts. I can also reuse these scripts for other purposes such as automating testing. It's all about being efficient. In fact, I re-purposed my old NES assembler to become the script compiler for the game.

The missions are all scripted in text, so while I'm playing it, I can drag around sprites and click on them to get their coordinates. That way, as I'm scripting, I can drag around the sprite and put it in the right spot. That's as opposed to compiling the script, seeing if that was right, changing the text to move it a few pixels, compiling it again, and so forth. It's significantly sped up development.

You're also able to take gameplay movies while debugging your game?

Right, and I'm even able to reuse these tools for a few of the cutscenes. I'll record three replays, one for the player's car and two for the police cars, and the results are something that looks like a really dynamic car chase.

The "Devtendo" homebrew devkit for Grand Theftendo

Do you see Retro City Rampage as lampooning the debate on violence in games, perhaps in the way that A Modest Video Game Proposal challenged the assumption that gaming causes violent tendencies?

Yeah, it's definitely poking fun at the debate. I made it so ridiculously over the top with really cartoony graphics, so that when you hit someone with a car, even at low speeds, they go flying across the screen. It's so unrealistic that it would be hard for anyone to believe it could cause violence. I think that violent people are drawn to violent games, but I don't think that violent games create violent people.

How recently has the creation of chip music entered into this project?

I started talking to Len and Virt in early 2008. I was amazed to get both those guys. [Leonard J. Paul] has been doing games since the Sega Genesis and is an instructor at the Vancouver Film School.

Previously I worked with him at Backbone on Sonic Rivals for PSP. I was like, "Do you know anyone that might be able to do this," because I didn't think I'd be able to get him. Sure enough he was interested. It's great to have him in the city because he's done all the sound effects as well, hundreds of variants.

Virt is a leader in chiptunes and I didn't think I would get him either, but I thought it was worth a shot. The other great part of the story is that Norrin Radd is also based in Vancouver. His inspiration was Virt, so he was already composing hours of music in that style and file format (Impulse Tracker IT files). We were able to plug his music right in and he's since written a lot of original music. It steals the show.

Norrin did a great Paperboy-style tune. Len's done a fantastic Batman-style tune. Other compositions are just free range, experimenting in all sorts of genres. Some tunes are so good that they inspire me to create missions to go with them.

What brings you to the Game Developers Conference? Have you encountered anything here that makes it worth the trip from Vancouver?

The sessions are fantastic, but it is kind of expensive to come here. It's the whole experience of meeting everyone and talking with developers in person that makes it worthwhile. The media is also important: because of GDC last year, I got that awesome Nintendo Power coverage.

Retro City Rampage is planned for release on Xbox Live Arcade and later WiiWare. Programmer Tommy Refenes was saying that developing Super Meat Boy for two platforms nearly killed him, so would it be at all realistic to consider other consoles in addition to these two?

I think we're in the exact same situation because while I got my game up and running on the Wii in a couple days, leaderboards and front end menu stuff, all these little things add up. It's weeks, if not months, just to handle all of that. If I were doing that on all of the systems at once it would be pretty crazy, so the plan for this year is to only ship on those two consoles. Every minute I'm spending on stuff like leaderboards leads to fewer missions and less polish that the game can have.

Screenshot from the TMNT-inspired mission

In closing, do you find Vancouver to be a good place for game development? Hothead Games and Klei Entertainment are based in the city and have quickly attracted attention as dev studios.

I know those guys and they're fantastic. It's a great place to work in that there are many talented developers. Unfortunately big studios have been laying people off and shutting down, largely due to the fact that the Canadian government is based in the east of the country, while Vancouver is in the west. Pretty much all decisions made are in favor of the east, because they are looking out for where they live, while Vancouver gets the shaft. As a result, I think commercial studios in Vancouver are probably half the size they were previously. Our indie scene is huge.

Less than a year ago we started doing a monthly meetup. [Full Indie] has quickly expanded to a turnout of over a hundred people a month, all indie developers. Chevy-Ray Johnson is there, along with Jake Birkett, formerly a director at Big Fish Games, recently gone indie again. Hothead and Jamie Cheng from Klei stop by sometimes. It's a fantastic community. You learn stuff and make connections, while any questions you have about your game can be answered by someone at the meetup. It's only one day a month and afterwards you feel invigorated to work on your game.

For more information on Retro City Rampage, see the official website. GDC photo by Jeriaska.