Dan Potter interview

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This interview with Dan Potter was taken by MetaFox for the DreamOn magazine #1, which was released at the Midwest Gaming Classic in 2004.

How did Cryptic Allusion begin?

To start all the way at the beginning, I was going to do some web consulting for a company I was interning with for the summer in Dallas, TX. They advised me that tax-wise, I'd probably end up doing best if I formed a company to do the consulting through. My task then was to come up with a unique name that someone else wouldn't have already taken, and Cryptic Allusion was it. I'm still not 100% sure where those specific words came from, but that's what I came up with.

Cryptic Allusion didn't do any more web consulting after that, and in fact it didn't do much of anything business related for a long time. It sort of morphed into a label for me plus any current group of friends that were working on something interesting. The membership of that group fluctuated over the years.

During my years at the University of Texas, I was approached by a group of starry eyed game industry hopefuls trying to draft me into their game making effort. This included a number of people who are some of my best friends now, including Roddy. The original plan was to do a shooter type game for the PS2 (not quite out yet, at that time) and move on from there to an RPG project. We would get some basic stuff worked out and then hunt for funding, which was a pretty sound idea back in those days.

The long and short of it is that after a very exciting start, the group more or less melted away. But I was too obsessed with the idea of starting a game company at that point, being as how it had also been my goal (little did they know) since I was about 6 years old.

When I started getting into DC homebrew, I saw an opportunity arise for such a project. I emailed up Roddy and said: How would you like to work on this DC project? I probably can't pay you right now, but it might be a good way to get yourself out there. He responded back saying that he'd pay ME to work on a project, any project. Apparently Roddy felt the same way about all this game stuff.

Our goal was to produce Tryptonite, the originally planned shooter game, for E3 and pass it out there as a way to get started. For various reasons we had some organizational and communication issues between ourselves and third party guys we'd pulled in to do parts of the game, so it was morphed into DC Tonic by executive decision about a month before E3.

This turned out to be a good deal, as I believe DC Tonic still stands as one of the cornerstones of the DC homebrew scene's accomplishments. It also (along with some contacts of one of our members) got us into the invite-only Sega booth (score!)

I'll continue this below in question 2...


How did the idea for Feet of Fury materialize?

After E3 we were sort of basking in the glow of the press and industry attention we'd attained with DC Tonic. We had also been infected by Dance Dance Revolution at A-Kon shortly after E3 (I use the word "infected" here because it's the most accurate -- once you catch DDR, you feel the compulsion to play day and night until it's out of your system a few years later). Roddy's a musician who makes some good dance/techno. The wheels started turning -- maybe there's some way we could put Roddy's music into DDR. I said, hey, I've got this nifty DC homebrew stuff sitting here, why don't I see what I can whip up?

Well, the momentum generated there was a lot more than we expected. We were playing DDR and talking about the possibilities of making our own and such, and someone (can't remember who, might have been me) said, why should we make a DDR clone? Why don't we go way beyond DDR and make the game into something new and interesting instead of the same-old-same-old? We'd also been playing a real load of Puzzle Fighter, so the obvious idea was to combine the two and allow players to "attack" by throwing "arrow bombs" to the opponent when they were doing well.

During our testing it became apparent that the idea of arrow bombs was not enough to make it more interesting than DDR. It needed more. A weird combination of "eureka!" and a mis-communication with one of our artists was what spawned the idea of having lots of different types of attacks. We knew we were on to something there and had to pursue it.

Later on we realized also that if we actually finished this thing then we might be able to sell it and make money, and that meant a real business structure. So in November we filed for an LLC in Texas, and Cryptic Allusion, LLC was born as a "real" company at that point. All of FoF and all of our future productions are now under that banner.

Every time Feet of Fury is shown at game shows it gets a rather large presence of people around it. Do you feel Feet of Fury stands up well in arcade like areas with the likes of DDR?

Well, as you probably know, a creator of a work is never entirely pleased with the results. :) I think FoF could have been more than it is.

Even so, ignoring the new features we've added that have made FoF a different game from DDR, I believe the "feel" of FoF is actually better. As a long time DDR player, I prefer to play FoF at this point, and given the self-criticism I mentioned above, I think that's a pretty important statement.

I won't name any names, but we had some serious interest from a big-name company in an early publishing deal on FoF and they did some testing of the game with some of the DDR scene's biggest players. They were dubious at first but played for quite a while and liked it.

I believe if we were able to go back and make FoF arcade machines with real, industrial-strength pads, and tons of music, we could take on DDR any day. Especially if people could bring their own Swap CDs to the arcade and play their own music, or arcades could provide their own Swap CDs to diffrentiate themselves from competing arcades (we had the competing arcades a lot in Austin). People love DDR but they are tired of Konami delivering the same game over and over with small tweaks in each edition, and increasingly annoying music. I know people who like the DDRMAX series, but most DDR people I know talk about the "good ol' days" of 4th and 5th mix. People are itching for something new and I'm sad that we can't provide that with our current operation.

Is there anything that you wish Feet of Fury could have had if it had a bigger budget and a longer development cycle?

I think Roddy covered this pretty well in his interview, but basically we would have liked to have had more music and better graphics (the part I worked on; our character artists were FANTASTIC). We would have liked to have actual animated characters with voice acting, acting out their fight in the background just like Puzzle Fighter or Puyo Puyo. We'd have loved to have an anime intro sequence encoded in high quality Ogg Theora. Most of all I would have liked more time to do several rounds of play testing to flesh out what works well and what doesn't in the gameplay. I think some of that is fairly rough still. I'm somewhat unhappy with the cleanliness of the code as well, but I ended up refactoring a lot of it about 10 times, which resulted in some nice free libraries like Parallax and Tsunami for all KOS users.

It could have been a lot worse, so I think we did quite well within the constraints we had.

How did you come up with the idea for the Typing of Fury mode?

The real origins of ToF are somewhat apocryphal at this point -- I searched our email list archives and I honestly can't find the email that started it all, but I know the idea was first presented around the end of September a little after IGF. I think I originally proposed it. It's the sort of twisted thing that would come out of my head.

Typing of Fury was one of those "nooooo freaking waaay" additions to the game that happened kind of late, but I'm very happy we included it because it's extremely original. It really sets us apart from the other rhythm games. As far as I know, no one has ever made a typing rhythm game before.

I am actually happier with ToF than the main FoF "item battle" mode because we got to do a few rounds of tester feedback and improve the gameplay dramatically before it became a huge investment to redo it.

As an aside, an excerpt from our mailing list that I can't avoid throwing in from my friend David, rejected announcer voice ideas:

"YES, my PRECIOUSSSSS... DANSSSES IT DOESSSS, YESSSS!"

What are your thoughts on the commercial future of the Dreamcast in the homebrew realm?

There are some really fantastic possibilities there, but there are definitely some stumbling blocks.

I think a lot of it's going to depend a great deal on whether people can feel good sticking with it instead of heading to the "next big thing". By that I mean, do you feel good continuing to make 100% legal and sellable games for a slightly dead system, or do you have to have the newest, like Xbox or PS2? And I think it depends too on whether people continue to buy new homebrew Dreamcast games even though the system isn't commercially produced anymore. I have actually been fairly baffled by the lack of interest in this so far, compared to bigger homebrew scenes, considering that authors are still making loads of cash on very old systems like the Vectrix and Atari 2600.

I can tell you, anyone who is out there thinking about making a DC homebrew title, if you complete it and it looks professional, there are several people who'd be happy to publish it for you. The market is starting slowly and small but it is there.

Another big stumbling block is one that is present in any sort of creative undertaking: deciding when enough's enough. A group of four guys plus a handful of outside musicians produced FoF in our free time, and it took us several years. And FoF isn't such an amazing product for several years' worth of work; we vastly underestimated the required effort. So many DC homebrew projects are started with HUGE ambitions like "create a full RPG". That's a really noble goal, but it's simply not possible, especially as a first project. I think DC Tonic and FoF were way beyond where Cryptic Allusion should have been at the time, and the only way we finished them was by putting in an incredible amount of obsessive effort, lost sleep and sanity, etc.

Developers are going to need to get their teams going reliably and start kind of small. The most important thing is to _finish a project_. Your first completed project is not going to be a masterpiece; it doesn't have to be. The goal is to get momentum going for yourself and your team so that you can work up to greater and greater things, attract more talent, get contacts, and ultimately make that really awesome game you want to make. And hey, who knows, maybe you will have gotten enough attention then to get published on a still-active console.

I urge anyone who's seriously interested in all of this to contact me at dpotter@cagames.com, and I'll be happy to discuss it with you.

Do you think that shareware can work in the Dreamcast market?

Absolutely. I believe shareware is the way to kickstart the DC homebrew market. I think that what we are really going to have to work on, to make it work right, is the delivery.

There was an argument about this on our forums, but there are essentially two types of shareware:

  • 1) Download and try a demo; if you like it, send money and you get a full professionally pressed CD and manual in the mail like a "real" game;
  • 2) Download a limited version; if you like it, send money and they'll send you more levels, a code to unlock new areas, etc.

The first one is easy, but it requires some manufacturing costs up front, which make it kind of less attractive for smaller developers (which still mostly includes us). FoF is proof that the first option is quite feasible if you have some investment.

What you really want for kickstarting the market is the second option, so people can sell little one-off puzzle and fighting games for $5 a pop or something. These make great impulse buys, and you're supporting the game makers you like directly. The problem there is that the decent communications peripherals for the DC are rare, and there was no real persistent storage produced. So you'd need a very reliable and uniform way to burn the games to a CDR on a PC. And as we probably all know, that just hasn't happened.

What it's going to have to happen is that someone needs to make a delivery mechanism that is extremely easy and transparent to use for buying the games and burning these games to the customer's CDRs. Self-Boot Inducer (SBI) and Dream Inducer (DI) are a great start there, but I think there needs to be a more polished and integrated package to handle the whole task, and it needs to support all platforms (PC, Mac, Linux). Ideally something along the lines of iTunes(tm), but for DC games: browse the store, check out preview videos (and maybe demo versions), add the games you like to your cart, and then check out to get your "game bundles". Insert a CD and select the games you want on it, and tell it to burn. Out pops a bootable CD with a professional quality selection menu (or no menu perhaps if the user only burned one game to the disc).

Once you have such a system, the "option #1" games will follow as the most popular authors get a following and earn enough money to fund better games and manufacturing.

Any insight towards what Cryptic Allusion has planned for the future?

First and foremost, we are planning to continue to make DC homebrew titles for as long as we can stand it. :) Another project is now in the works which will probably be announced officially by the time this magazine is published.

Second, I am going to continue to maintain and improve KallistiOS for the community as long as I can, and through me CA will be contributing a lot of code to the community from our projects. Numerous improvements to KOS which have become quite important to the community now (such as the new PVR system, KGL, and the new Maple system) were started so that we could write FoF. Much code has been contributed directly from FoF as well, such as the Parallax and Tsunami libraries. We plan to continue this trend with future projects and eventually release the full sources for all of our game projects under a free license somewhat like ID with the old Wolf, Doom, etc.

Third, we plan to continue our market building strategies for the DC homebrew community. This involves making and selling more games of our own, and perhaps some of the infrastructure support for the shareware model I mentioned above. I'm convinced that approach would make things really take off, and I'd like to help jumpstart it.