When you think of retro games, you’re probably picturing a pixelated 2D platformer or JRPG. That’s starting to change and Alec Stamos is among the next generation of indie devs aiming to shake things up.
Stamos is one of a new breed of indie devs that have an appreciation for the game industry’s earliest attempts at action and 3D gaming. He explores a world where textures warped along the edges of CRT monitors, polycounts could fit on two hands, and controls were as strange as the games they were built for.
Alec has crafted everything from a Metal Gear Solid-meets-Contra tribute Venusian Vengeance to exploring whole new approaches for traditional genres, such as his third-person shooter Cold Vengeance. I sat down with him to discuss looking into this period of the past for inspiration, why pixel art has dominated the retro landscape, and how the need for shorter games drives his designs.
Elijah Beahm: To start, what drew you to game development?
Alec Stamos: It’s been something I’ve almost always been interested in. I remember in third grade talking with friends about what we would do if we could design games for Nintendo. It became a serious thing for me, and I actually started to learn how games were made, how to program, and so on. I spent lunch and recess in fifth grade sitting in the library making games in Games Factory, which was a precursor to Multimedia Fusion. Then I went to study game development at college, which was when I learned about and fell in love with the Indie Game scene.
EB: So it’s been with you all through your life.
AS: Pretty much, yeah.
EB: Why retro games? Everyone has their own reason, be it nostalgia, or the challenge of working within those confines. What drew you to the genre?
AS: There are a few reasons. One is because it’s what I grew up with. My first videogame systems where the GameBoy and the Nintendo 64, so I started out both with low-poly and 8-bit games. I also sought out old systems like the Super Nintendo and NES, so grew up both with games that are now considered retro, as well as with games that were already retro at the time. But, another element is that game design philosophies have changed over time, and often without fully exploring the potential of old ideas. I think a lot of the retro movement in indie games isn’t just an attempt to recapture or recreate old games, but also to pick up on creative threads that got dropped at some point when the industry moved on to the hot new thing.
EB: Highlighting new possibilities.
AS: Exactly. I’ve never personally been that big into imitating design constraints of old hardware, although I respect those who do. I think there are reasons to explore aesthetics like pixel art and low-poly aside from technical limitations. One of them being that those aesthetics are pretty uniquely videogamey. They were created to convey the information you need to convey with a videogame, and not necessarily to perfectly imitate real life or another medium.
EB: Almost sort of an interactive take on cubism.
AS: I wouldn’t necessarily go that far, but that could honestly be a pretty cool aesthetic for a game. But I feel that these aesthetics have a certain quality in common with pieces in tabletop games — they’re meant to represent something, and to a certain degree look like something, but they’re also meant to stand in for something in the game rules. Your brain fills in the gaps and imagines the scene.
EB: Most developers stay wide of 3D retro titles. Every now and then, you see one, but many focus on the 2D. What is it about 3D that you feel turns so many away, and what keeps you coming back?
AS: Well, I think a big part of it is that low-poly 3D had a fairly short heyday, whereas sprite art has been made in an unbroken chain since the start of videogames. We think of pixel art mainly in terms of the 8-bit and 16-bit era, but by the time the N64 came out, we also had the GameBoy carrying that torch. Then there was the GameBoy Advance which had a lot of games whose sprite art put the Super Nintendo to shame. And before the GBA’s lifespan was over, Cave Story had come out, which helped popularize sprite art with the indie crowd, who is still using it. Sprite Art was a matured medium before it became big in the indie scene, so there was a lot of best practices and reference material for indies to build off of. Whereas low-poly 3D (aside from some rare early examples of vector-based stuff like Battlezone) entered into the mainstream for the Saturn/N64/PS1 generation and was already going out of style during the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox generation. 3D came hand in hand with the rise of “AAA” development, and studios saw 3D as a way to push towards photorealism and games that looked like movies. In addition to not having as much time to develop the style, most developers saw low-poly as a limitation to their goal of photorealism as opposed to a style worth exploring in its own right.
EB: Which, with you exploring it now, falls right in line with your goals of experimenting with what most of the industry left behind.
AS: Yeah, definitely! And I think another part of it comes down to age. People who grew up with 8-bit want to make a kind of idealized, memory-improved version of 8-bit. Same with 16-bit. So you’ve started to see more people recently getting into a low-poly style. Aside from me, there’s also Ethan Redd and Kenny Backus (who put out Skyrogue), just to name a couple.
EB: Oh yeah, I’ve been keeping an eye on Skyrogue.
AS: You can throw Kyle Reczek (3…2…1… Grenades) and Delko Duck in there as well. But I think there’s still this perception that low-poly’s only reason for existence is technical limitations that no longer exist. It’s a hurdle that pixel art overcame a while back, and which I think low-poly will also soon overcome as more games start coming out in that style
EB: Speaking of more titles in that vein, you’ve even got an anthology of short 3D games in the works. Short-fiction style games is something we’re seeing more and more with game jams, but anthology collections are still a rarity. How did you come around to the concept?
AS: Well, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’ve always been pretty influenced by pulp science fiction and fantasy, so a good portion of my games have had an aspect of short or episodic fiction to them. But games have this perception surrounding them that they need to be long for them to be worthwhile. That’s starting to change as people are looking at their backlog and realizing they’re never going to finish all of those 80 hour epics, but it’s still a tough sell for games in the 30-minute to 3 hour range. Arcade games used to be able to be that long since they were meant to be played in one sitting at an arcade, and it used to be you could make money off of flash games that were around that length, but both of those markets have kind of died out. However, I think it’s a really worthwhile format. So I decided to take the format that short stories were sold in, and try to apply that to games. And, of course, I want it to be successful so that these short games I’m working on sell well, but I also want to push this as a format so that other developers can see short games as a viable way to start making money as independent game developers. We have these bundles selling 10-15 games for just a couple of dollars. Those games are full-length projects that the developers pinned their hopes on and are now selling for basically a few cents a copy. And how many of these full length (and, lets be honest, a lot of the time fairly rough and unpolished) games are the purchasers going to play all the way through?
EB: So rather than put all that time and effort into several large but middling titles – make several small yet poignant experiences.
AS: yeah, exactly. I’m making Inedible Pulp entirely with my own games both because I happened to have multiple short-game projects that I’m working on, and because I don’t want to have to try to coordinate a bunch of other developers to take this risk with me, but if Inedible Pulp Vol. 1 were successful, I’d want Vol. 2 to include games from other developers. I’d want to live in the world where the game bundle format operated like the pulp magazine format. And the fact that UFO 50 got announced by some very talented developers shortly before I announced Inedible Pulp makes me think that I’m on the right track with this.
EB: Indeed. itch.io offering bundles is also helping matters, I’d imagine.
AS: Yeah, I hope itch.io continues to gain traction.
EB: Speaking of digital platforms – how has your experience been selling games online as a one-man operation?
AS: It’s an uphill battle. It’s also changed a lot in the past 8 years. When I first tried selling a game online, I basically had to sell off my own website using a digital payment service. Then came indie digital distributors like itch and, before them, Desura. Plus the fact that Steam has become easier to get on to has given me a lot more opportunities. I’ve earned the majority of the money I’ve made off of games through Steam.
EB: Any lessons you learned along the way that you wish you had known beforehand?
AS: If you ask me that in five years, let me know what I say.
EB: Okay, deal. Though I should warn you that my time machine’s in the shop for repairs at the moment.
AS: Fair enough. I spent about a year and a half a few years ago on an overambitious project, but I already knew not to do that back then, and I did it anyway. I think most of what I’ve learned has just been gradual stuff. Learning what I’m good at, and what I’m not as good at, learning how to set up a workflow plan and finish a game. Actually, if I could go back in time, I’d probably teach 2009 me color theory. One of the games in Inedible Pulp is actually a remake of a game I made back in 2010 or so. I decided to actually take a look at the old game to do a comparison. I was fairly proud of the game when I first made it, and, to a certain extent, I still am, but it sure did look like a mess.
EB: Is there anything that you miss about the old days with indie games, before the Steam boom? Or do you feel they’re headed in a better direction now?
AS: I definitely miss the old freeware scene of the late 2000s. You got so much cool stuff coming out, and people could afford to experiment a lot more. And there’s certainly still a lot of freeware coming out, but there seems to be less of a community around it, and fewer ways to build a reputation off of it. Or get feedback. A lot of those developers are huge now, but it doesn’t seem to have lead to their old stuff being rediscovered by a wider audience, which is a shame.
EB: Sort of like how everyone knows Ed McMillen for Super Meat Boy, but no one remembers Aether.
AS: Yeah, exactly. Or look at cactus or jwaaap, now of Dennaton and Vlambeer respectively. Cactus used to be the master of the quick jam game. He had upwards of 50 small games under his belt before Hotline Miami, but Hotline Miami didn’t bring a lot of people back to play Psychosomnium or Mondo Medicals.
EB: Which is a curious thing, since dovetailing is a method other independent media, such as books, tends to prove favorable. Do you think it’s more a structural shift in where people’s attention are drawn? Are gamers more drawn towards looking forward? Or something else?
Alec Stamos: I think that’s a big part of it. There’s a culture, that I think comes largely from the tech and business side of games, of wanting the new big thing. With AAA games it’s represented in technological advancement and sheer scale, but even in indie games, it’s the new innovative mechanic or the new twist on the old thing. Games culture tends to canonize a few things and forget about the rest.
EB: This brings us back to you with your own efforts. Are there any titles in particular you look towards, when going through gaming’s lengthy backlog of titles?
AS: Honestly, there’s a lot. I’ve been delving a lot into the early-to-mid 2000s, both on consoles and handhelds. There are a lot of games on the PS2 and Gamecube that I think typify the sort of gameplay style I’m interested in. The games that tried to for photorealism have aged horribly, but the games that were stylized still look great. Also, the great thing about the PS2 library is that I’m still regularly coming across stuff I’ve never heard of before.
EB: Yeah, it cleared close to, if not over, one thousand titles released in total.
AS: And I’ve also recently been on a early dungeon-crawler kick. Stuff like Wizardry and Might and Magic. It’s a really different ethos to how games are made today, although their fingerprint can still be seen across the RPG genre. But back then, they were still just trying to figure out how to convert D&D into a computer format, but there’s an entire lost history of games in those old PC RPGs between Wizardry, Might and Magic, Ultima, the D&D Goldbox games, and countless others. And they’re very immersed in 60s-80s fantasy and speculative fiction that inspired D&D, a lot of which has been filtered out of fantasy in games over the years in favor of straight Tolkein-inspired stuff, maybe with a bit of Song of Ice and Fire grittiness thrown in.
EB: What advice then do you have for those wanting to delve in as you have? Obviously, there’s services like GOG, but is there any other way they can appreciate gaming’s history?
AS: I think the main advice I have, as with exploring the corners of any medium, is to look stuff up and look for things you haven’t heard of before. So, this isn’t games, but it’s a good example of what I mean — I got into one of my current favorite authors when a friend and I were digging through the 25 cent bargain pile at a comic book store. I found a bunch of comics based on the works of someone by the name of Michael Moorcock. Later, we decided to look him up online, only to discover that he was a highly influential fantasy and science fiction author (and pulp magazine editor) who had been an influence on basically all of our favorite comics authors. So I decided to start buying his books. Look for stuff you’ve never heard of before, and look it up.
EB: Alright, thank you so much for sitting down with me Alec. This has been very insightful. Where can people find you and your work online, and are there any current projects you’d like to mention?
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