The Official Tanglewood Game Q&A
Tanglewood is an upcoming game for the Sega Mega-Drive/Genesis which may generate a rekindling of interest in such well respected games consoles for gamers (and developers alike), perhaps even for a whole new generation of retrogamer? Today we catch up with owner of ‘Big Evil Corp’ and it’s developer Matt Phillips. Welcome to the Tanglewood Game Q&A.
His website TanglewoodGame.com describes the game as:-
“a brand new and original game for the SEGA Mega Drive, to be released on physical cartridge in spring 2018.
Set in the realm of Tanglewood, the game follows a young creature, Nymn, separated from the pack after the sun sets. Unable to get back to the safety of the family’s underground home, Nymn must find a way to survive the night terrors and get to morning. TANGLEWOOD’s world is a dangerous one after dark; guiding Nymn you must use your skills of evasion, traps and trickery to defeat predators.
TANGLEWOOD is a platforming game with puzzle elements, and can be described as a mix of the Mega Drive titles Another World and The Lion King”.
- Hi Matt, we have spoken many times but today I’d like to begin with some basics and start off by asking where in the UK you are from, your age and how you came from that background to become an independent developer for a console that most mainstream public may have long since discarded.
Hi! I’m currently living in Sheffield, although I’ve resided in Nottingham, Manchester, Salford, and North Shropshire – I get around a bit! I am 32 and a half. I’ve always been a huge Mega Drive nut since around the age of 9. At the time I had both a Commodore 64 and a Mega Drive, and the two loves of programming and gaming came together very early on in my life, and I’d always wanted to make my own game for SEGA’s machine. My proper games dev career started after a Computer & Videogames degree at University of Salford, I was snapped up by Traveller’s Tales to work on audio and visual effects systems for the LEGO franchise. It was there I met some of the veteran Mega Drive programmers who started putting ideas into my head about realising this life long dream of making my own game for my favourite console! I started with some basics, learning how to initialise the machine, and how to print HELLO WORLD on screen, whilst documenting my progress on a blog (mostly to help me remember). I’d always intended to work my way up to a complete game, but my initial ideas didn’t have the scope or complexity of what it actually became. After 5 years of TT, I moved to Crytek – which then became Dambuster Studios – to work on the streaming world tech and gameplay for Homefront: The Revolution, plus its TimeSplitters 2 Easter egg arcade! During my time at Dambusters, in my spare time, I was finishing off a small demo of what was called Project Watershed for the Mega Drive back then. It was supposed to be a dark and moody 2D platformer with silhouetted graphics, LIMBO style, where everything was calm during the day but after dark (the “Watershed”) everything turned ugly and the monsters came out. A few demo videos of it exploded all over social media, and I was convinced by some friends to continue with it and get it funded on Kickstarter. TANGLEWOOD was born from that demo, and the Kickstarter was a flying success! I quit my job at Dambusters, and threw everything I had at TANGLEWOOD in late 2016.
- It’s a very bold move to quit a day job and try to fund a Kickstarter. Did you use any techniques on Tanglewood you can offer up for others with similar dreams? It could have gone completely the other way but we’re so glad it didn’t. As the learning curve progressed, is there anything you would have done differently?
Yeah, don’t do it without something to fall back on, and prepare to lose a whole month of sleep! My employers were fantastic about the whole thing, very supportive of what I was trying to do and said I was welcome back if it all went wrong. I guess without a boss like that, it’s going to be a real struggle. The game would still have continued without the funding, but it would barely be a shadow of what it is today, and would have taken three times as long. If I could have done anything differently, it would be to launch at a different time of year. November-through-December was a tough sell with Christmas around the corner, but I’d put the launch date back and back several times for various reasons, and decided for my own sanity to finally press the button. Even then, it took half a bottle of whiskey to pluck up the courage. Another difficulty we had was the Dreamcast version. The plan was to have a Dreamcast option from the start, but I was having problems with the dev hardware and without a prototype to show I didn’t feel comfortable launching with it in tow. Don’t announce Dreamcast half-way through your campaign, and have a demo already working, kids! Thankfully the devkit is now repaired and the DC version is up and running.
- Staying with the game designing aspect, is there a way for people to develop games that would work on such ‘retro consoles’ without the need for an expensive Dev-Kit? I imagine item’s like that are few and far between with a matching price-tag? How effective could that be done, if at all, in your opinion?
Yes there are plenty of ways, I even ran a workshop last year at the National Videogame Arcade in Nottingham teaching people how to get HELLO WORLD on screen with nothing but Notepad, and assembler and an emulator. There have been other homebrew efforts using emulators, some go as far as to write their own tools, too. An actual devkit is far easier, since it’s designed for the job and most allow source-level debugging, though. I’m working with a guy to create a new Visual Studio-like IDE for the system, which has an embedded assembler, emulator and source-level debugger, which should massively shake things up and help people get started with Mega Drive homebrew far easier. There are a few projects to create new dev-kits for the system, such as the UMDK project, and I think newer Everdrive cartridges have a USB port now, perhaps the plan is to allow for debugging there, so the situation is getting better over time.
- So TangleWood Game has moved forward towards Beta, what can we expect to see at that point? What does Beta mean for Big Evil Corp exactly and who will be involved?
Beta means no new content will go into the game – we’re happy with all the graphics, audio, level design, and the overall experience of the game, and the only changes we’ll be making are bug fixes, small tweaks within reason, and anything necessary for publishing. We’ll also be running closed beta tests, as an absolute last minute test to check people still enjoy the game after our previous round of changes. From there, it enters the dreaded QA loop (test, fix, test, fix, test, fix…) until it’s in a state we deem ready to burn to cartridges. We’re only weeks away from hitting Beta, it’s been very exciting seeing the last bits of the game go in and my TO DO list shrink down to a single page!
- I was lucky enough to get a first copy of Tanglewood from you whilst at PlayExpo Manchester 2017 and was also blessed enough to try the updated 0.6 Alpha cartridge at home (on the Retro-Freak) which you kindly donated. I found the difference between the two versions meant the game had become incredibly hard. Would you go as far to say that everyone will need to bring their ‘A-Game’ on release? Just how hard would you class the game is going to be on a 1-10 scale – with 10 being ‘throwing a controller at the wall’.
It’s “90’s hard” and I am not sorry about that! The jump in difficulty between those two versions wasn’t intentional, more a byproduct of fixing things like monster chase velocity and colour power times, as well as changing some level design to fix exploits. We ran focus tests to make sure it was still challenging yet rewarding, without being frustrating. We’re about to begin our last round of focus tests to make doubly sure the game isn’t overstepping its boundaries here before we start locking down for beta. It also depends who’s playing – I’ve seen seasoned pros struggle with part of a puzzle for 10 minutes, only to have an “ahah!” moment when it finally clicks, but at Play Expo this year an 11 year old girl blasted through the entire 3-chapter demo without breaking a sweat. All the puzzles need a bit of thinking, some intuition, and occasionally quick wit, but I wouldn’t say it’s the Dark Souls of the Mega Drive. Let’s mark it a 7!
- I’m an old-time gamer and totally understand what you are trying to achieve by keeping it true to it’s heritage and as mental health week just passed, maybe you can explain some of the pressures involved with developing the game on your family life and with budget or promotion so far?
It’s been tricky, very tricky. After the sleepless nights of the Kickstarter, there was an initial honeymoon period where working from home was the greatest thing ever; managing my own time, no public transport, nobody to answer to and pure Mega Drive development fun, but it wears down into loneliness pretty quickly.
It’s important to look after yourself and your living environment in a job like that – make sure you have a comfortable desk and chair, take regular breaks, take up a hobby that requires you to leave the house, keep on top of housework, and visit friends regularly. I fell out of the pattern a few times and suffered for it.
My family and friends have been absolutely superb throughout the whole thing. They’re incredibly supportive despite the radio silence for long periods of time.
Working through the night for several nights a week upset my girlfriend, and in particular, those bad weeks I was constantly tired and not up for doing anything social, playing games or watching shows with her, but I think I’m getting better at managing the time. I owe her one hell of a holiday once this ordeal is over! Not to glorify the whole “work yourself half to death” mantra that seems to plague the indie games industry, though. It’s a very, very bad idea and your game will suffer for it if you don’t snap out of it and start scheduling properly.
I’ve fallen into the trap of working 16 hours a day several times, in the name of “getting the game finished”, and every time, I’ve made things worse rather than better. Budget wise, that’s been tough, too.
Arranging for physical manufacture of this thing has been a monstrously complex and expensive challenge, and that’s on top of software development costs, such as art contractors. I also had an emergency house move to deal with, plus several car repairs, which certainly didn’t help matters. I took up some contract work to top up the funds, though, but it cost some time. It’s a tricky thing to juggle.
- It sounds like you have had to learn the hard way without a doubt, but I have seen your partner support you at events. Is it a good thing to get out and meet people in that situation.. or does it feel more like a burden? Maybe we can get both your partner and your own ideas of expo’s?
If you do meet someone, make sure it’s someone supportive of your dreams! I guess that’s a general rule for relationships regardless of whether you’re an indie dev, an aspiring fire eating performer or a trainee horse whisperer, really. It’s still up to you to balance work and home life in a healthy way, though. Everyone has their limits. The last expo we attended went above and beyond our expectations, both with regards to the amount of attention the game would get, and how much we’d enjoy ourselves doing it. My partner was very worried in the days leading up to it, since she can get overwhelmed around large crowds of people, and if I needed to leave the stall for a few minutes she didn’t know how to answer questions people had. What actually happened was she turned into a PR pro on demand, rounding people up to play, teaching them the controls and explaining about its development history to each and every person, for hours at a time and without breaking a sweat, and made some new friends along the way. I was so proud of her. I even managed to get a cheeky hour of pinball in.
- Impressive and if you mean PlayExpo Blackpool, I was rather surprised how much she embraced it too – maybe it takes a while to sink in. So once the Beta is ready, the Quality Assurance is complete and the cart goes to programming, what’s the plan? I’ve read other interviews that mention more than just Dreamcast…
Once the gold build is sent to the factory, there’s around a 6 week lead time until I get my PCBs back, so I’m going to cram as much time as I can into preparing packaging materials, the Collector’s Edition boxes, and gearing up the PR campaign before assembly and shipping. At the same time, I’ll be preparing an emulated version for Windows, Mac and Linux, to be released alongside the ROM on our itch.io store, and possibly Steam. After that, it’s full speed ahead on the Dreamcast version. Most of the engine has been done already and we have a demo of the first level running, so I don’t foresee many problems there. We’re going to look into ways to upscale the graphics without draining the rest of the budget, and some things like widescreen support and some VMU interactivity featuring a Fuzzl! I’ve been talking with a publisher about bringing it to PS4 and Xbox One, too. This all depends on the reception of the initial release, so we’ll see! Those talks happened before the Switch was a thing, I guess it’ll be a good fit there, too. Some other goings on – I have the engine building on Raspberry Pi, so that’s a possibility. I’ve also been talking with some people from the Amiga demo scene about a port to the A500. One contact has a framework ready and is experimenting with converting our sprite format, if all goes well I’ll hand over the source code and start looking forward to an Amiga release!
- We took the time to try to give fans of the game some merchandise they could buy – with the profits going towards your campaign (with your permission of course) on our current store ( yes I said – with all profits going back into further development). For those fans out there, how important is it to your project to get extra money where possible? Maybe we can extend the range into toys too? What would that additional support mean to you?
Every tiny little bit counts in a project like this. A few t-shirt sales means a new VGA converter or a new Mega Drive gamepad, a handful of game sales means another obscure console to test on, there are so many tiny bits and pieces we need to test and big fix the remainder of the game that we didn’t account for, from the start. It’s also really nice to see the game’s logo out there on people’s clothes. Seeing the game being supported in many ways is a real morale booster, especially in this difficult phase of development! I’d love to see some more merch, I might experiment with a few ideas.
- If there was any game you could have developed in the history of gaming, what would it have been and why?
Playdead’s INSIDE. Its every single thing I want in a game – dark and moody puzzle platformer, silhouette art style, grim story, loneliness and despair, moment-to-moment gameplay, plot twists, chase sections, and a confusing ending which nobody has properly figured out yet – all rolled into one giant ball of beautifully executed mess. Pun very much intended.
- Thanks for answering our questions, it’s been a blast, it sounds like you need to stream that INSIDE now God damn it. Your random bonus question is quite simply this. Do you have any shoutouts or credits you would like to give out to those that have supported you through to development. Show the love!
How many pages do you want to run for this? The list is longer than my arm. To name a few, I guess my girlfriend Lauren and her very loud sister, and best friends Janine, Holly and Kt. Oh, and Sik – some guy I’ve never met in person, but has been a reliable constant throughout the whole thing. That only scratches the surface. Friends, family, co-workers, contractors, the 900-or-so Kickstarter backers, every commenter on every YouTube video, every tester, every interviewer, it’s an absolutely enormous list and I don’t think I’d ever complete it. The game wouldn’t have enough cart space left to list even half of them in the credits!
Well dear Sir, it’s been a pleasure and I’m sure those mentioned will appreciate the love. Little doubt, there is so much more to come from the project and we look forward to seeing it unravel in the most professional manner possible. When we start seeing Nymn shaped plush(ie) figures in gamer’s collections, maybe the hard work will hit home and you can reflect on what has to have been an incredible task? For now, keep that schedule limited and we can’t wait to see the Beta.
For the reader’s – all I can say is well done for supporting this amazing project and we hope you become as enthralled as we have become intrigued. Tanglewood game due for release soon, on the Sega Mega-Drive and Genesis 2018.
Shout out to Lauren for PlayExpo Blackpool, met a new friend that day.
Win a Signed Limited Edition Red Version of the Game
Yes it’s properly exciting to run our first Sega Mega-Drive brand new game giveaway but IT IS HAPPENING. Matt Phillips Developer of Tanglewood is providing 2 red cart copies of the game, signed.
To enter, all you have to do is show some love to various social accounts by following them and please, don’t forget to say hi.
The competition will appear below when we announce it on our social pages but we will also post a separate competition page which will also show the same Gleam competition, so you will have plenty of places to enter including our Facebook.
Competition start time is 1PM GMT 18/03/2018
Competition end time is 12.00PM (Noon) BST 16/04/2018 (due to UK Daylight Savings Time Change)
You can check out our other giveaway here.