Johannes Graff Interview

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A brief history of Duranik

German Indie studio Duranik is composed of brothers Roland & Johannes Graf. The studio derives its name by combining Dürrsoft + Meranik. Elder brother Roland is the lead coder while Johannes is responsible for the graphical work and level design.

While Duranik might seem like a new name, especially for the Dreamcast scene, the brothers have been part of the video game industry for decades. Their debut Dreamcast title Sturmwind is actually a spiritual successor to 1997's Atari Jaguar Freeware game, called Native.

One of the reasons why the dev team has gravitated towards the Dreamcast is because it was possible to publish games on it without buying expensive development systems. The bulk of the game is made with a standard PC and a highly customized version of Cryptic Allusion's KallistiOS, the free and open source Dreamcast SDK now maintained by Lawrence Sebald, as well as other free tools.

When not making games, Roland works as a Network Administrator and resides roughly between Stuttgart and Munich. His younger brother works as a Graphic Artist for a video game company in Vienna. The pair's top 5 Dreamcast games are Under Defeat, Soul Calibur, Crazy Taxi, Ikaruga and Rez.

Interview Part 1: The Early Years

Before we start the interview can you please tell me a little bit about the Etymology of the name Duranik? What were Dürrsoft & Meranik? Does it mean anything?

I can´t exactly remember why we came up with the name "Duranik". I think it is a pure fantasy name without any deeper meaning. Maybe this Dürrsoft and Meranik came from my brother. Its really a long time since we use this name. I think probably 20 years or more.

Duranik has a rich history that spans 2 decades. So let's turn the clock back before we talk about Sturmwind. Can you recall the moment when the Graf brothers decide to be game designers and not just game players?

We got an Atari ST around 1986 for Christmas. Our friends had the Amstrad CPC so we played a little around with these before we got our own computer. Back in those times it was always special to see something new for your machine.

So we were typing in listings from the computer magazines, sometimes taking hours and days for a little program or game. To get this running after many hours was something very special. Downloading megabytes of data these days - you can´t even imagine how great it was getting something new for your machine every couple of weeks or even months.

The ST was a great computer to start programming on your own. Easy to pick up and the hardware was simple and clean to begin with. At the beginning we did simple games in GFA Basic and later in STOS, non of these stuff was ever released though ;).

1986 is almost 30 years ago, you must have been like 10 years old when you bought your first home computer and you had been playing around with a friends computer before you had yours. Wow, you guys were born to be programmers but was it simply the love of mathematics and calculations that inspired you to tinker with code or was it some video game?

It was just fascinating, something you had never seen before. One of the first things I saw in terms of computer games was summer games running on a C64 somewhere in school. The animation, the graphics it all looked awesome. And the best of all: it was a lot of fun to control the player sprites on screen.

Being a Sega Aficionado I have to ask what was your first Sega experience?

The first time I heard or saw something from Sega was the Sega Master System. It was sold in Germany also around this time. The computer and video game magazines also wrote previews and game reviews for it. I have to say I was not terribly impressed with it. The computers at that time seemed to be much more interesting and it was very expensive and if you bought a couple of games with it even more.

A couple of years later the Mega Drive was much more popular and we bought it very early.

Any good memories with the MegaDrive? What did you think of all the accessories and upgrades?

Off course. The Mega Drive is a great machine back in the 90s and still today. We bought it with Castle of Illusion and Revenge of Shinobi. Lots of fun.

Editor note: Fun fact. Before Dreamcast Duranik considered MegaDrive as a possible platform for Sturmwind.

The Mega CD looked very interesting but it was very expensive and it had a bad reputation because of all these grainy FMV games. With the CD add on they did a bad job with the marketing in my opinion because it had some great hardware with a very good blitter. Most of the magazines did not mention these additional pieces at all. The MEGA CD was a very complex additional console on its own. The still only 64 colors out of 512 out of the box certainly had a big impact on the machine. For the 32x, well it was just to late and to expensive. A simpler addon cart with something like the Virtua Racing DSP 2 years earlier would probably been enough to get some more eye-candy games with lots of scaling and rotation effects.

That is a very interesting point. But it is all in the past now and Sega fans do wish a lot of things would've been done differently between 94 - 98. I supposed they couldn't handle being thrust into the top spot. Started acting like cocaine addicts. But let's circle back to Duranik. What was your experience with 5th Generation console? The big 3 were not for you. Which is probably why you upgraded to Atari Jaguar?

Well the Jaguar was available before those other machines, it was released end of 1993, the same year as the 3DO but 12 months before PSX/Saturn. As we had other Atari machines like the ST and Falcon it was just natural to be interested in the Jaguar. Later we modded the machine to transfer and execute code.

Personally I didn't like this generation that much. At one point we had a PSX but it wasn't used all that much, we played a little with it but no comparison to the Mega Drive or SNES days. Never had a Saturn back in the 90´s but we bought a couple of them some time ago. For me the N64 was one of the most disappointing machines of all time. It was hyped beyond anything seen before and most of the games looked really bad, muddy textures, the polygon count and frame rate were below the old PSX and all covered in fog. The gaming magazines printing all this glossy SGI rendered pictures and claiming the game looks exactly like this was very funny ;)

A single level demo of a shooter similar to Sturmwind was made for it. It was released as freeware though, how come Duranik did not continue development on Jaguar? Jaguar is free to develop for unlike Dreamcast which legally requires a license.

Native for the Jaguar was developed in 96/97, at this time it was not easily possible to release games for the machine. Like most consoles the Jaguar has a security encryption to ensure only software developed with a license could be released. This encryption key was not available and we didn't want to risk to develop a game for a long time without the possibility to release it. Years later these keys were released to the public, so today it is easy to create new Jaguar cartridges and Cd's. I See, I always thought the key was released fairly yearly.

So after the native demo you guys disappeared for a very long time. Resurfacing in 2004 with Alpine Games; A game inspired by Winter Sports. Was this your first commercial release?

Alpine Games was also developed over a couple of years. This is only a hobby for us like for others playing with toy trains or model planes. We don't have the pressure to release something every year. Alpine Games was the first game that was a commercial release, as it is released on a cartridge, there is no other way around it. If you have developed something over such a long time you just need to release it as a physical release these days because a huge part of the fans are collectors and you can not collect a download.

True. I am fascinated with the fact that it was released on Lynx cartridges.

I can understand indie developers releasing games on compact disc's. The whole reason the indie DC scene still exists is because of Dreamcast's ability to play CD-R's. If the DC was only compatible with Giga Disc's, it probably wouldn't have existed. Even then developers have a hard time releasing games. Can you talk about how you went about releasing multiple games for Lynx?

You are right, if it would have been GD-Rom only it would have probably been impossible or at least very difficult for post Sega releases, look at the Saturn, is there any unofficial CD release for this machine? And it doesn't even have an exotic disc format. On the Lynx we only released Alpine Games, the other cartridge is called "Alpine Games Bonus Cartridge", it was created for the hi-score contest and later also sold as there was constant requests for it. It consists of a couple of demos and not included events. There were only 512kb memory available so we had to cut some stuff out of the game to make it fit. So how did you go about producing cartridges? Can you discuss the technology employed in order to release Alpine Games?

The cartridges are produced by a German Lynx fellow, he did all the PCB design and produced some custom flash carts for us to finish the game. As we are not hardware guys it would have not been possible to do this on our own. The fanbase consists of a couple of hundred people, so its possible to do this stuff "by hand". The Lynx itself is a simple 8 bit machine with a beefed up blitter and sprite logic to allow some fancy zooming effects, the hardware itself is easy and very programmer friendly, in fact I would recommend it to everyone who wants to get his feet wet with some old school console programming. So these cartridges were made from scratch by some German fellow? 'How about giving a shout out to the guy who made the cartridges? Lars Baumstark is doing the cartridges, he created the first open Lynx Devkit with Bastian Schick, without their work the new games would be very hard to create. They did this to create a kit as an aid for driving schools, the Lynx was used as some sort of teaching device, but that was many years ago.

I am a Millennial so through out my life I have seen Sega and Nintendo duke it out and now I am seeing Sony and Microsoft go toe to toe. I always viewed Atari as a long forgotten relic and it is absolutely amazing to see that it holds such a strong place in the hearts of Gen Y. Do the Graf brothers have any plans to continue working on Atari hardware? Have you check out Skunkboard V3/Ghostboard by Harmless Lion/Goat Store Publishing? We have some dev devices for various machines, also some Skunkboards but as we just finished Sturmwind it is not likely that we start something new right now, we are currently just looking around for interesting ideas and machines.

Interview Part 2

So when did development formally resume development for Native?

Development never did resume. It was stopped after the demo was released. Sturmwind is a completely different game, well the same people developed the game and it shares the same genre. There was no code or art assets reused, everything was started from scratch.

So I guess the more appropriate response question would be when did work on Sturmwind formally start?

Where any other platforms considered for the game in pre-production?

We started working on Sturmwind in the end of 2006 beginning of 2007. The first couple of months were just for creating some test graphics. Real programming started in 2007. At the beginning we were looking at the Mega Drive as a possible platform. Production of cartridges seemed to difficult and Mega CD to exotic so we went with the Dreamcast instead.

Now we all know that Max Scharl publicly revealed the game on German National Television show Neues in December 2010. When did you start approaching publishers? Did you consider any other publishers such as Hucast, Goat Store Publishing or self publishing?

We talked to Redspotgames about two or three years before release. They heard somehow that we were developing a Dreamcast game and told us they would be interested in publishing the game. We did not talk to any other publisher as far as I remember. The only other option we considered was publishing it ourselves but as it seemed to be to much work to send and handle all packages and payment we went with the publisher option.

3 years before the release? Sturmwind was released in April 2013. So basically Redspotgames contact you approximately 6 months before the Neues reveal?

No it was much earlier, more like two years before the "Neues" Show. But as we knew it would still take a lot of time to finish the game there was no need to sign a contact with any publisher.

March 2011 was a very significant month in the history of Dreamcast. Sturmwind was showcased on a Destructoid Live Show by Fabian Dohla, a representative of Sega of America. This was the first time in almost a decade Sega promoted a new Dreamcast, and an unlicensed game! This was a phenomenal mile stone for indie games in general. Can you talk about how you or Redspotgames managed to get Sega to promote the game?

Redspot asked us to create a one level demo version a couple of weeks earlier. I don´t know how they were contacted or who exactly asked them. This was a demo of Level 1.2 if i remember correctly.

I See. Well it was great that Sega finally acknowledged the existence of Indie Developers on Dreamcast.

So a couple of months later around July 2012 Sturmwind was pushed from a Q2 Release to a Q4 Release of 11-11-2011. The most epic feat during the delay was the initiation of a Fan Only: Beta Testing Program. The final build of Sturmwind has over a dozen testers credited. What I found very interesting was Senlie Team's Roel and Jeroen Van Mastbergen were on the list as well!

Who came up with the idea of such a liberal beta testing approach?

Well i think its only normal to spend a lot of time in beta testing. In the end we spend almost 1.5 years testing and improving certain aspects of the game. It's also important to sometimes get new feedback from people who have not seen or played it before to check if you're on the right path. We also got a lot of helpful feedback from the previewers who got a early version. Of course you can't make it right for everyone so you have to simply make a cut at one point or you would do this in an infinite loop.

Can you talk about the insights collected via the beta test?

Most focus was spend on playability and difficulty, as the tester scale was between "pro" and "barely played anything the last 15 years". Of course this gave us some very mixed results. Something between "I can not make it through the first level" to "walk in the park".

We had a forum where all beta testers could contribute but looking back now, I think this was not a good idea and we would handle that different for another project.

So time for the tough questions. Positive hype was building up for Sturmwind, until rsg's disc printer went belly up and the release date was moved to TBA.

The months that followed were extremely confusing and Redspot was receiving some harsh criticism from the community. Over 6 months later, on 30th June 2012 redspotgames finally announced that the game is delayed because of on going development.

Why didn't either party announce earlier that the game was resuming development?

Well the game was released in the end, I don't want to go into all details because I won't even remember them, there were a couple of issues but the biggest problem were the so called magnetboxes used in the special edition.

It took much longer to get these boxes delivered than expected. We sent RSG the final version when it became clear the delivery problems were solved and worked on improvements till the last minute.

After resolving all the production complications Sturmwind was formally given a released date for April 24th 2013. Though consumers and even distributors most notably Play-Asia had not received their orders. To exacerbate the situation customers who did receive Sturmwind started sharing pictures of how their Spaceship or casing had been broken in situation.

Duranik and Redspotgames did try to resolve complaints publicly on their Facebook page and by July, it appeared most of the complaints had been resolved.

Could you please elaborate on how Duranik worked with Redspotgames to address these complaints?

Well, if we heard about complains or problems wee tried to point rsg to those forums to find a solution with those costumers, as all the shipping, publishing etc is done by Redspotgames, there is nothing else we can do about this, but as i said before, we heard only of very few complains about broken goods and we replaced them as far as I know. You will have to ask Redspotgames for more details.

So post release how has your over all experience been interaction with the Dreamcast-Scene and RedSpotGames?

Well we got a couple of emails from Dreamcast fans and try to answer all questions we find in forums or our facebook page, it seems that the Dreamcast scene is scattered all over the place with lots of different forums and blogs, there is not a central hub like Atari Age for the Atari Scene.

Sturmwind is the first commercial Dreamcast game to be compatible with an SD-Card Reader. Can you talk about how it works with the game and are there any plans to release new downloadable content?

There are a couple of things available if you use a SD Card Adapter with Sturmwind. You can save screenshots, replays, high scores on the SD Card. Sturmwind also supports downloadable content or DLC how you would call it on a modern console.

We are currently working on "Sturmwind - The Doomsday Chronicles". This is a free 3 level bonus content.

Hopefully we will be finished for the holiday season end of December.

Wow, that is some epic news! Any other future plans for Durnaik?

We are currently working on the Doomsday Chronicles addon. What we will do after that I don't know, we have done some work on the engine and a little prototype, but not decided if we will continue this route.

Thank you very much for taking the time. We wish you the very best!