It gives me great pleasure to announce our lastest interview with Ed Magnin, Ed is the founder of Magnin & Associates, has been actively involved in the video game industry since 1979. Magnin & Associates has developed handheld games for 20 years, iOS games for 5, with over a dozen games in the AppStore. Magnin & Associates is an authorised Nintendo DS and iPhone developer who have been in business since 1993 specialising in handheld games. You can look at his website's Past Projects for a full list of the games Ed has worked on.
RVG would like to thank Ed for taking the time to speak to us and please take a look at his website for more information on his projects.
Tell us a little about yourself and how you first got involved in the development of video games?
I bought an Apple II computer as a hobby in 1978 and by 1979 realized I knew as much about it as anyone else. I quit my day job and stated programming full time.
You've worked with a variety of gaming systems over the years. Which one has been your favourite to work with? Is there one that you consider to be most challenging to work with?
Favourite — iPhone. It has given us new freedom to self-publish, reach larger audiences than we ever did before, and provided us with an excellent and always improving platform on which to work. Any of the Nintendo platforms before the Nintendo DS were challenging to say the least. We had limited memory, slow processors, limited graphics, had to swap banks of ROM. And speaking of ROM (read only memory), you can’t make any mistakes. You can’t update or patch a ROM. It has to be right the first time.
You've written games of various genres. Do you have a favourite genre?
Since I am older, I tend to prefer more realistic games — simulations, fps, and puzzles for example. I don’t see myself riding some dragon like creature to fight someone else in a different world.
You programmed two versions of Prince of Persia, GameBoy and GameBoy Colour. What was the process for upgrading the title from the original system to the Colour system? Was the original code used as a base or did the differences in the systems require programming from the ground up?
Good question. Since the Game Boy Colour was an afterthought and tried to be reverse compatible, the pictures got their colour half from the old memory banks and then the other half from the new ones. It was a pain to deal with. We had to store the graphics a certain way and write new routines to load the graphics. Most of the non-graphics code could be reused. It was nice to have colour after almost 10 years on the platform. We actually had a game that looked better than the one that was released but Nintendo’s Cub Mario made us change it, to add more colour. I asked them “Do you want it to look good or do you want obvious use of colour?” They said “obvious use of colour” so I lost that argument. Ours had very dark but richly collared dungeons and subtly collared rooms. One other funny thing was our art department put the Prince jumping through flames on the box — which doesn’t occur anywhere in the game. If they’d only showed that to me earlier, we could have easily add a flame hazard to jump through.
You have several cool games for iOS. Any plans to bring some or all of those titles to Android?
We have been gradually releasing games for the Android and Windows Phone. I think we have 5 games on each right now. Even though there are supposedly more people with Androids they just don’t spend as much as those with iPhones. Perhaps it’s easier to get pirated copies from your friends. Eventually we have to say that making a version that we only sell one tenth as many copies of the same games isn’t really worth the extra effort. The Windows Phone sells even less copies, but that is probably more due to the low installed base and perhaps a bias to business (non-gamer) customers. Now if we the Unity game engine it allows near simultaneous release on multiple platforms, but at the end you still have tweak the game for each platform and install features that are already included for free on the iPhone.
Are you aware of the homebrew community for the retro systems you worked with in the past? Have you seen any of their work?
I’m sorry I used to keep better track of it. I can see how some people that never worked on those older platforms might get excited about it, but to me I’d rather work on the iPhone then have to refight some of those sold issues — limited memory, limited cartridge size, limited processor speed, and graphics processing limited to the vertical blank, Of course I can understand the thrill of seeing something you created show up on the screen of your GameBoy!
What is your opinion on the state of the current gaming industry?
I like the idea of self-publishing. We can make the game we want to make without a publisher telling us to make changes we know that will make it worse instead of better. Some of our stuff doesn’t fit into nice neat little AppStore categories. We have some that are more “magic tricks” like our “Call in Sick” or our “Brain Meter”. There really isn’t a good category for those, just like there aren’t any national chains of stores that sell magic tricks in every mall. Of course we make the games anyway, because they’re fun. We also have to remind ourselves that we’re making a $1.99 game and not a $30 cartridge. On the other hand, we actually make more on a $1.99 games than we did on a $30 Nintendo game. To date we’ve had over a million downloads — something we never came close to on the GameBoy.
Unfortunately the mobile game industry has a serious dependency problem — it is addicted to freemium games. None of us are looking at the banner ads. We might notice a full-screen ad between levels, Once the marketers realize that, it will then force us to go back to make games that people are willing to pay for. If I can’t make a game you want to pay one, two or three dollars for I should pick something else to do for a living.
Do you still own any retro systems?
Yes, although we may be donating some to the Video Game History Museum.
Did you find it technically challenging at anytime porting or creating graphics for the Gamboy Colour games you've worked on?
It was a challenge working on any Nintendo pre-DS platform. The DS actually is closer to the iPhone, in terms of being able to use higher level languages like C or C++, and having a faster processor, not having to worry about bank-switched memory, and so on.
With been in the industry for so long now, We see you never did any games for the 8-bit range of computers other than for the Apple IIgs, was the Apple IIgs a preferred system for you to work on?
Actually I worked on the 8-bit Apple II before the quasi 16-bit Apple IIgs. The Apple IIgs promised improved graphics and sound. It had excellent sound if you had a headset or good speakers. Most people played multichannel stereo through the single monaural speaker, built into the bottom of the mother board. Despite multiple graphics modes, the best of which was only 320 x 200 and took five frames to completely refresh the entire screen, allowing only 12 frames per second. We got faster rates, but making sure we didn’t change everything on the screen at once.
On to the next part, the 16-bit range computers, the Atari St and Amiga, never seen anything from you either, care to elaborate on this platform to why you never worked on them?
I guess I got typecast first on the Apple II and then on the Apple IIgs. I was familiar with the others and even helped new programmers working on those other platforms, but was never assigned a project on them. Of course we used Atari ST for a short time, then switched to the Amiga, and eventually to the PC to develop and edit the graphics going into all the other platforms.
Wings of Fury was a classic game from Brøderbund Software, and you did an incredible port for the gameboy colour, did you have to research the Amiga version in check with the porting of wings of Fury? was there any technical challenges with it?
Actually I worked from the PC and original Apple II version. Steve Waldo, the original programmer/designer, sent me a video of him playing the Apple II version, so I could make sure ours worked the same way. I asked him why he never made another game. A lot of people have ideas for games, but don’t know a publisher. Here he had an “in” with a publisher but never made a second game. He said it was “too much trouble”. It’s that old joke about the first 90% take 90% of your time, and the last 10% takes another 90% of your time.” It reminds me of a marathon runner, running 26 miles around the city but stopping before finishing the last 385 yards.
We see you've done 2 Casino Games for the Nintendo DS platform, did they send you off the Las Vegas to all those big Casinos in the name of research for that real life casino experience?
Actually the Nintendo DS casino games are the same — one is the European title and the other the North American. I did go to Las Vegas when we did Caesars Palace on the GameBoy and met with the VP of Technical Slot Operations. They gave us artwork, payout tables, and even the glass front of a machine which I have framed in my office. Since it was a licensed game, we incorporated their artwork on the reels, and on the “top” and “belly” glass.
Now the Gameboy Colour version of Moon Patrol and Spyhunter, did you play on official vintage arcade machines to allow you to have the conversion as accurate as possible for the Gameboy Colour?
I had a PC emulator version of the coin-op which I believe used a Z80 processor (similar to the GameBoy). We treated the two games differently. Moon Patrol we replicated and scaled the scrolling background graphics. We included invisible flags for when to start the flying saucers and when to tell them to leave. Spy Hunter we actually included a large data chunk from the original game. It used that to figure out what to draw on the screen. For example, if you went left and then right and then left, you might end up in the desert. We then designed scaled graphics to draw based on that data chunk.
With only one Super Nintendo game under your belt (NFL Football), why didn't you work on other Super Nintendo games, any reason for this?
I actually worked on a cancelled project or two for Virgin Games. One was Dinoblaze about roller blading dinosaurs (think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). It was one of those “let’s put two popular ideas together” things — Dinosaurs were popular and so was rollerblading. Unfortunately after the game was mostly done, they decided not to ship because they couldn’t sell enough in Europe. They realized that roller blading hadn’t caught on as much there. The next game was Spot Goes to Hollywood. That one I completely finished, including making last minute requested changes before submission to Nintendo. When I got back from a short well deserved vacation, I asked if it had been approved — “No, we decided not to submit it.” They did sell the Sega Genesis version, but didn’t think they could sell the minimums required for the Super Nintendo. I think they though they were saving money by cancelling it prior to approval, where I would earn a bonus. What they didn’t realize, I was entitled to the payment anyway, in the event they cancelled it. Of course, we never saw any royalties, just the money we billed them during the development cycle.
How do you find working on IOS these days with over 1 million apps available, is it difficult for you and team to get your product to your target audience?
With so many apps available it is hard to rise above the clutter. Hopefully by making quality products, players will appreciate it and return to try our other games. The AppStore is like what Churchill said about democracy being "the worst form of government, except for all the others”. Apple has made some great strides at improving the information available to the consumer when browsing for a game. There are additional sub-categories for games, and the ability to include a short demo video. Now if we can only get rid of all of those companies that offer to sell us fake downloads of our apps in order to put is in the top seller lists.
Have you any stories from your creative past while working within the industry that were most memorable for you or maybe some antidotes you could share with us?
I don’t think most people realize the amount of time and energy that goes into making a good game. When I would visit a grade school, I would ask the students how long they thought it took to make a game. “Two hours” was the common response. I spent about 9 months on the first game on a new platform, and then maybe 6 months on the second, and possibly a little faster on subsequent games, depending on their complexity.
What was it like making games for the original Gameboy? Did the lack of colour mean less time coding, or was it labour intensive trying to turn the sprites into recognizable characters and objects in black and white?
It was fun, because it was my first time on handheld games. I could take my work with my anywhere and show it to people. If you want to E3 and tried to show a game to a publisher they would be too busy to invite you into the back room, and then you’d have to either bring or borrow their console and display and hope everything worked. I could carry my game and show it to someone in a booth at E3 and they’d go grab their boss to come look at it. Looking back, it did take less time to do the black and white GameBoy but we didn’t know that at the time. The character graphics background and sprite systems on the early Nintendo platforms have always been a problem. Also the ability to place enough sprites on the same scan line of the screen was also a problem we had to work around.
Did you ever do any work on the Konix Multisystem?
No, but it looks interesting. When you work for publishers that have connections with the big-3 console manufacturers you get the luxury of working on the well known hardware. I guess if I didn’t have that luxury I might have had to work on other platforms.
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