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Interview: Mark Johns (Space Barnacle, Rotrix)

APRIL 24, 2008

A friendly chat with Mark Johns, developer of Space Barnacle and Standard Bits.

Hi Mark, let's begin with a little introduction of yourself.

My name is Mark Johns. I'm 24 years old, recently graduated with a bachelor's degree in Math and Computer Science from a state university in Illinois.

My background is from the Macintosh, where I've released small shareware games off and on for around ten years, and only recently ventured into doing indie games for the PC, when I discovered the wealth of stuff going on in the last year through sites like TIGSource.

There used to be a decent community site called iDevGames, which would host Mac-based game development competitions, but the scene is not as active as it once was. If you're familiar with David Rosen (the Wolfire guy, who did Black Shades and Lugaru), he came out of that community as well. He's a really talented guy, but yeah the Mac scene is not as thriving as what you see on the Windows side now.

Once I discovered TIGSource and finally got a machine running XP, I went through and downloaded all the stuff on the recommended list. And it was really inspiring, and led directly into the stuff I've been doing recently.

Is there a central repository for all of your games?

Everything I've done in the last year for Windows is available on my blog, Doomlaser. A lot of my older Mac stuff is on Those are more earlier works, and are all really clones.

Nothing for Windows on Anything you'd recommend Mac users to try out?

Ha, not really. I did this game 10 years ago that was a very B-gamish combination of Pong and Star Wars which is kind of awful and kitschy.

So you're saying you'd rather be known for all of your releases since Space Barnacle then.

Yeah. Space Barnacle is just the kind of game I'd always wanted to make. Violent, 8-bit styled, and ridiculous.

What exactly inspired you to create Space Barnacle?

One night a friend and I were brainstorming about creating the most ludicrous possible game, and we basically fired up Photoshop and produced three 16 x 16 sprites, one of which ended up being the hero in the game. And I tried to think of a title appropriate enough to match the characters and came up with "Space Barnacle". The rest of the game kind of grew organically from there.

And I like the idea that you're this kid, lost and avenging your father with a terrible twist at the end.

Any plans for a sequel?

I'd like to revisit Barnacle at some point, because there was a lot left unfinished that I wanted to add to the game, so I won't rule it out. I could also do a prequel where you play the father in his younger days...

How about Standard Bits then?

With Standard Bits, I really wanted to abstract and pull out all the standard elements of a game and explore what was possible, with this minimalist aesthetic. So the main character is just a pixel, and joystick or cursor keys is the only control.

Is the game just about exploration, or was there an end to achieve?

When I was working on it, I thought about having a set of goals that you'd want to do in the world, but I thought it might be more compelling if the game was just about exploration and learning how things behave in the environment. There's no end state. Just hopefully a lot to see and do.

Number of rooms in Standard Bits?

70. I had more planned, but I was literally working on the game until the Gamma event started. I swapped in a fresh build on the projector machine as people were walking in.

Is there an alternate title for Shit Game? I wouldn't mind using the name, but it really isn't that bad at all. Far from it.

Shit Game was really a fun exercise in making a terrible, terrible game, with as many cliches in the indie game scene as I could think of. I started it as Shit Game, and all throughout the short time making it I tried to think of alternate titles, but I couldn't think of anything more potent, so I just released it as that. Think of it as an endearing nickname. :)

Part of the idea was to make a glitchy game where the glitches became gameplay elements that you had to master.

How long was it in development?

About a week. I spent six weeks couch crashing with friends out in San Francisco between Macworld and GDC. And I made some of it in San Francisco, and some of it at a friend's place in San Jose over about a week.

Tell us something that we might not know about Shit Game.

In Shit Game, the last level is scored with a terrible standard MIDI cover of the U96 techno cover of the theme song to Das Boot. And at the top of the last level, there's a hidden submarine.

Among everything you've released, what was your favorite?

Whatever I'm working on at the moment invariably ends up being my favorite project. But looking back, I think Standard Bits is the most unique thing I've done so far.

What's the best response or comment you've received for a game of yours?

I think getting the opportunity to see so many people play and have fun with Standard Bits at Gamma was an incredible experience. Also, Cactus told me he loved the game which is great, since I have so much respect for his work.

What do you code with?

Games like Knytt and Lyle in Cube Sector inspired me to see what was possible with Multimedia Fusion. And I did Space Barnacle with it. MMF has been fun to take a game from concept to execution and completion really quickly, but I'm open to using whatever tool is right for the game.

Do you recommend MMF for budding game developers? It depends what kind of game you want to make and what your background is. Owl Country is written in straight C and OpenGL. I will say there's been this stigma against rapid development game making middleware that you often see in the game development community.

I did Standard Bits in MMF, and at Gamma, Jason Rohrer was kind of egging me on about not writing it from scratch. But then a few months later he e-mailed asking about rapid development tools, and he's doing all his Escapist games in Game Maker, so you're starting to see the stigma start to fade.

Have you read his Escapist column?

Yeah, I like it. He's trying to do some interesting stuff. I still haven't played Gravitation or his most recent game.

But you've played Passage.

Yeah, at Gamma 256. We rock paper scissored for screen placement there. :)

When I first saw it, I only played for a couple minutes, and didn't understand the point.

Have you played Passage since then? And has your opinion about the game changed?

Yeah, during the show I was watching a friend play, and I was genuinely surprised and shocked when the wife died. It was very effective. Another great thing about the game is it's a very simple example that you can relate to people about the power of games to be more than just shallow entertainment.

And I would like to say something about the indie community, because it's really fantastic and supportive. Kokoromi's Gamma 256 gave me a taste, and it was great meeting Heather Kelly, Phil Fish, Jason Rohrer, Matt and Steve from Flashbang Studios. And GDC was really amazing. The indie games scene is full of so many passionate people, and they're fun to hang out with.

Are you the tallest in the crowd?

Jason Rohrer is freakishly tall and towers over me. But at GDC, I may have been. :)

What are you currently working on now? When is your next release? Are you going to do shareware next, or anytime in the near future?

I have a large game that I've been working on for awhile. It's an abstract 3D platformer with radial gravity. As you move left and right, the world rotates around you. I've been talking to publishers about it at Macworld and GDC, and I'm still in the midst of that. Depending on how publisher stuff goes, I may or may not be releasing some form of teaser trailer for the game. But yes, I'd like to go full time doing indie games if at all possible.

You don't seem to keen on referencing your game by its name yet. Are you still deciding on it?

I don't know if I like the name. Rotrix has been the dev title. It's ok, but I'm not sure if I'm going to stick with it.

When can we expect the release of this game? Are you planning on putting out anything in-between?

That game I can't give any release date, but I do plan on doing some smaller stuff in between.

Any specific platforms you're developing Rotrix for?

I'm developing it in OS X, but it's OpenGL/C++ cross-platform. It may end up on another platform. A couple publishers want it on the iphone, and then there's xbla/psn talk but we'll see. It's all in flux. The game also has a ways to be finished.

Percentage completed?

Can't say. The first eighty percent is always the easiest in game development.

What have you been playing lately? Any all-time favorites?

At the Art of Play, I spent some time with the Cactus Arcade, and I recently downloaded that. It's a great way to dive into the diversity of cool stuff he's put out.

I think Knytt Stories is a beautiful game.

screens from Rotrix

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