Scott Cartier is a mobile games developer from California who cut his teeth on the Net Yaroze with a great little physics-based space game called Decaying Orbit.
1) How did you first get into gaming as a young man? What were the first consoles you owned, what games did you play etc.
Definitely going to show my age on this one. My first console was the Atari 2600, which my parents bought. Needless to say my young mind was BLOWN. My next console was the Sega Genesis, but in between I was gaming on the Atari 800 and my friend's Commodore 64. He and I gravitated towards games where you could make your own content. Adventure Construction Set, Gary Kitchen's Game Maker, and the like. But really I wasn't too picky back then. New genres were being created left and right and I loved it all.
The Genesis was the first console I bought with my own money. Sonic, Toejam & Earl, Herzog Zwei, Master of Monsters, Streets of Rage. So many great titles. I really do miss cartridges.
2) How did you get into games development?
I made games as a hobby from a young age. My first finished, original game was called Snowball Fight and was written in BASIC for the Atari 800. It involved you being chased by a bully around the screen while you tried to pelt him with snowballs. I submitted the game to Antic Magazine, but alas was not accepted.
After that I worked on games as a hobby in my spare time. Lots of projects in various platforms/environments. I really didn't like the idea of dealing compatibility issues brought about by different hardware configurations so I never did much with the PC.
When Sony announced the Net Yaroze I knew it was something I had to jump on. Programming for a mainstream console was just too enticing. And it was a fixed platform. No compatibility problems there.
It wasn't until much later that I started working on games professionally.
3) How did you find yourself developing on the Net Yaroze? I know from the DSI website Decaying Orbit wasn't your first project. Tell me about some of those early ones.
While it's possible I had other early prototypes, it has been so long that I don't remember anything other than Decaying Orbit!
4) Tell us now about the development of Decaying Orbit - you said it took two years. That's a lot of dedication, especially for a hobbyist! What hurdles did you have to jump?
Dedication. Tenacity. Stubbornness. Getting too attached to a project and not knowing when to move on. I probably have a couple of those things.
Decaying Orbit (originally called Escape Velocity until I found out the name was already taken) was my only finished project on the Yaroze. It grew organically from my tinkering around with the Yaroze and prototyping an idea I'd had for a while about an artillery-like game set in space. You know, pick an angle and power and try to blast the other player. My idea was to have full 2D gravity instead of only a single direction. You would launch a probe, try to anticipate how it would interact with other planetary bodies, and hit the target. It wasn't very fun! Turns out that extra dimension for gravity made it basically impossible to predict a flight path. To address this I gave the probe a small fuel reserve so that you could slightly course-correct along the way. That was the slippery slope to just making a full blown gravity-based space shooter.
Not knowing how to program sophisticated, gravity-aware AI, I elected to start with stationary enemies. This worked out pretty well, but I did eventually want to get flying enemies in the game.
Decaying Orbit was planned as a five-part game, of which the released version is the first. Each part would take you through a different enemy's galaxy. In my design notebook I have a rough outline for the overall plot, enemies, bosses, and set pieces. I know exactly what the final battle will look like and how the game will end. Just thinking about it makes me want to jump back in and finish it!
From a technical level, by the end of development I was starting to hit some limitations of the Yaroze. Each planet was comprised of several frames rendered out from a simple texture mapped sphere in 3D Studio. By using a color look-up table (CLUT) I could play tricks with having multiple CLUTs, allowing for several color variations for each planet.
Using individual 2D frames occupied a lot space in video ram. We only had 1.5 MB of VRAM to fit all of our game assets - the Yaroze libraries couldn't stream from disc like a full-fledged PSOne game. When I released Decaying Orbit and started on part two, I had to think of some way to reclaim some of that VRAM. I started writing a tool to compress/decompress the texture images in real-time. I also played with switching the planets to be full 3D objects with a single texture map. This would probably have been the best solution.
As an aside, debugging on the Yaroze was painfully slow. The unit was connected to your PC via serial cable and, despite running that interface as fast as possible, it took a minute to download a build to the system.
5) Tell me a little about getting Decaying Orbit out into the wild. How did it feel? What was the reception like?
On a personal level, it felt great to just get it done. Game development is hard! It take a long time, and requires a massive attention to detail. This gets compounded when you are doing everything yourself. To paraphrase, once you've finished the first 80% of development you still have to do the second 80%.
Reception was positive within the Yaroze community. And once the game was published on the Official PSM cover disc I got some feedback from non-Yaroze folks that made me happy. I even heard from someone that was making a game inspired by Decaying Orbit!
6) How would you describe the Net Yaroze community as it existed in the late 90's?
Sony did a pretty good job at creating a community for Yaroze members. There was a secure member website where we were given some space to create our own individual pages. Some used it as a blog. Others just had links to their projects.
The only part I felt was lacking was how support was divided between Japan, Europe, and the US. Each region had their own member site and forums. It wasn't until well into its life that I found out that the newsgroups for EU Yaroze members was much more active than the US. You'll need to ask someone on the other side of the pond to figure out why, but I suspect it was because several European universities picked up the Yaroze as a teaching tool.
I made several lasting friendships through the Yaroze program. I have even met a couple UK members as I've taken trips to Britain or when they've traveled here for GDC.
7) What were the limitations of the Yaroze? I'm talking both from a technical standpoint, and a holistic one. I know a lot of people, for example, had a problem with the extremely limited distribution channels for their finished projects.
The main technical limitation was how your entire game had to in RAM. While there were methods to stream files from your PC via the serial cable, this was mostly for debug since non-Yaroze members wouldn't have that capability. I don't think the limitations stopped people that much, though. The creativity was just astounding.
Distribution-wise, I knew this would be an issue going in. When the UK Official PlayStation Magazine started putting Yaroze games on their cover disc it was like Christmas! Finally a way for people outside the Yaroze community to play our games!
8) Tell me more about how your career progressed after the Net Yaroze days. What other projects have you worked on?
When I started with Net Yaroze I was working as a hardware engineer at Intel. After that I moved on to VM Labs, creators of the NUON DVD+game platform. I was again in a hardware role, but was happy to be closer to the game industry.
My next job was at NVIDIA as a software engineer - closer, but still not gaming. While there, and despite VM Labs going into bankruptcy, I continued to support the NUON homebrew community where I could. I ported Decaying Orbit and a few other Yaroze games to NUON.
Once the iPhone App Store phenomena hit, I bought a MacBook and started teaching myself Objective-C and the iOS SDK. After yet another round of interviews at game companies unwilling to take a chance on me, I decided to just go out on my own. I quit my job at NVIDIA, founded my own company, Order of Magnitude Games, and started full-time work on my first iOS title, Mother Lode.
Development took longer than expected, but Mother Lode was released in early 2012. Alas, it was a financial failure. With money running out I eventually had to look for full-time work once again. However, this time I had an iOS title on the App Store to put on my resume.
I was ecstatic when I scored my first full-time professional game dev job at DeNA in late 2012. I worked on Transformers Legends for a year, followed by the movie tie-in game Transformers Age of Extinction.
In late 2014 I left DeNA to start at Playfirst, which had been recently bought by Glu Mobile. When I joined, Playfirst was just about to launch their updated version of Diner Dash. It was super fun to be around for that! I helped out a bit with some post-launch updates for Diner Dash before moving onto a new title in early 2015.
9) What are your thoughts on the state of the gaming industry today?
I am loving the rise of the indie developer. I'm kind of burned out by the typical genres and am drawn to game experiences that try to break the mold. Mobile has really opened the door to development by smaller teams. Even if the trend for mobile games is free-to-play, I hope that the market for niche premium titles never goes away.
10) What advice would you give to any young indie developers today? On a side note, do you envy the huge range opportunities afforded them these days?
My advice is to MAKE GAMES. Seriously. Just do it. You will realize how difficult it is to actually complete a game, which will either turn you off the profession or make you fall in love with it even more.
During my initial career in the hardware industry, whenever I made a job change I would try to make the jump into game development. I got interviews with game companies, largely I think because of my work on the Yaroze, but despite being an experienced software engineer, nobody actually took the chance to hire me. It wasn't until I quit my job, did my own thing, and released a game on my own that I finally landed my first gig at a studio.
In some ways I do envy the availability of they tools and platforms for creating games. If I were in college today I would be spending my free time making something in Unity, UE4, Cocos2d-x, or any of the other tool kits available.
11) Favourite PSX game? What games from the more recent generations do you rate?
Standouts from the PSOne era include Carnage Heart (programming robots to fight in an arena), Tobal No. 1 (fighter with great animations), and all the packs of emulated arcade games from the 80s. Of course MGS and Wipeout 3 are great.
More recently, I've been playing Don't Starve since it was given to PSPlus users on the PS4. That and Spelunky are my two go-to games when I have a spare hour.
12) What projects are you working on now and in the future? Tell us about them.
I work for Playfirst, which is owned by Glu Mobile. We released the updated Diner Dash last year and are furiously working on our next title. I'm really excited to see how people will take to this one.
On a personal level, I have a few games in my head that I want to eventually make. They range from simpler mobile titles to an epic scale adventure game. It's really difficult to find time to work on my own projects while maintaining a full-time job and having a family.
I am currently trying to polish off a mod for Don't Starve. I had worked on it last year and put it on hold once I got to the point where I really needed an artist to make progress. I'll either do it myself or reach out to try to find help.
13) A recent article on the Konami / PT-pulling fiasco suggested that, unlike Hollywood and other mediums, the games industry suffered from a 'preservation problem' with relation to the previous generations of games. Do you agree?
I strongly believe in preservation of our gaming history. I'll admit, when I first found MAME and other emulators I mostly considered them convenient ways to play games I remembered from the past. Now I totally understand their preservation aspects and believe they are valuable to keep games from being lost, especially prototypes and rare titles.
The more recent MS-DOS game emulation by archive.org caught me by (awesome) surprise. It makes me happy that there are advocates out there for historical preservation.