While the vast majority of studios are focused on the current generation of consoles, a team of unpaid developers which hail from around the world have been toiling away making a cartridge-based RPG for an obsolete Sega console.As the Mega Drive nears its twentieth anniversary, a relatively young studio called Water Melon is preparing to launch Pier Solar – a fully-featured RPG that pushes the boundaries the console.
The independent studio has gone way beyond delivering a simple ROM - it is set to release a fully-boxed cartridge game, that comes with a glossy booklet, a poster and a world first in the form of a Mega CD expansion.
With the members of Water Melon spread all over the globe, and most of the staff having to work around day jobs with the likes of Fed-Ex and a care home, this dedicated collective must be one of the most atypical sets of developers in the world.
Develop has been speaking with Brazilian project leader Tulio Adriano Cardoso Gonçalves, and main programmer (and resident of France) Gwénaël ‘Fonzie’ Godde, about a game that started life as an idea on Sega development community Eidolon’s Inn.
Develop: Tell us about the community roots of Pier Solar.
Gonçalves: In 2004 when Eidolon's Inn was revived, we brought up the idea of developing a game with the message board members. It had been already discussed but nothing had been started. Then we started some discussions about writing an RPG, a few people joined the idea, and among them was Fonzie, who decided to start the development.
Originally the project would be for Mega CD to allow for easy distribution, but technical difficulties with the platform made us decide to move all of the development to the Mega Drive. Once the project started taking shape, more people joined to help with graphics, music, etc., and now we're very close to the project completion.
Godde: It all started back in 2004, when members of a famous Sega website named "eidolon's Inn" discussed about making a video game about their community.
Develop: Mega Drive SDKs must be fairly thin on the ground. How easy was it to begin development for the Mega Drive?
Godde: Because discs were easy to burn, the project started as a Mega CD game. There is/were no SDK for Mega Drive or Mega CD so all was written from scratch for the game. The Mega-CD hardware is a nightmare to code for, especially if you want to load content in real time from the disc. Later, because of the Mega CD memory limitations, we moved to cartridge + disc format.
Gonçalves: The Mega CD is not very well documented on the web, and without Sega support, many solutions are reached based on trial and error. All tools and libraries were developed by us, so it provided us absolute control over the SDK; still, technical barriers were there every day.
Develop: How did the decision to create a physical product come about, and how has the process of creating the carts been?
Gonçalves: Our engine explores hardware techniques that were discovered only after the Mega Drive was obsolete making our game incompatible with emulators. This was the main motivator for a physical release.
Godde: Seeing the work accomplished during more than four years, we found that releasing the game as a simple ROM would not do it justice... Our goal was to finally release the game, as if it were the final Mega Drive game with a real cartridge with real packaging. We found a lot of tricks to make the product as cheap as possible keeping the quality everybody is waiting for. It was fun to find a company to produce the hardware.
Develop: Aside from the development process and cart creation, what have been the main challenges in creating Pier Solar?
Gonçalves: I think it's the fact that each developer is in a different country (except for two in Sweden) and the team have never met personally. If we were all present at the same place with conventional work hours, this game would have been completed by 2006.
Godde: The main challenge is making a product that stands out and maximises the strength of our small team... It’s not always easy; especially considering it’s an unpaid hobby for all of us.
Develop: Have Sega shown any interest or support at all?
Gonçalves: No. Even though they were very kind in their contact with us, they made it clear that Mega Drive is a dead platform and they don't support or license for it.
Godde: No, not at all.
Develop: It’s great that you've got a world first with the simultaneous Mega Drive/Mega CD use. Why did you decide to implement that?
Gonçalves: Well, we were very sad to drop the Mega CD version but Fonzie said he knew a way we could enable the Mega CD from the cart, and it would be possible to play streamed or CDA songs from a disc. Doing this we wouldn't lose the hi-fi soundtrack already being composed for Pier Solar in PCM format.
Godde: Because the game started as a Mega CD game and ended as a cartridge game, we wanted to keep the best feature from the Mega CD (the music) in the cartridge version so as not to deceive anyone and allow them to enjoy the very best from their Mega Drive setup with or without a Mega CD.
Develop: Any plans for any other physical releases for 'obsolete' formats, or is Pier Solar a one off?
Gonçalves: We have a lot of "maybes" but right now we won't think of anything until Pier Solar is released and shipped.
Godde: We can't announce anything yet, sorry.
Develop: Did all of the development team work unpaid, and if so, what kind of developer decides to take on work unpaid?
Gonçalves: Yes, basically all work done was volunteer work. The reason is that everyone knows we're not profiting on the game, it's all being sold at production price. Even so, we had to hire a few people to cover for the team member that left. Thanks to posterity donators we've been able to cover all project expenses without having to get into financial trouble.
Godde: Big Sega fans only – and it’s hard to find Sega fans nowadays as they’re as rare as their games.
Develop: What are your hopes for Pier Solar, in terms of its impact?
Gonçalves: We hope that this project may inspire more people into taking their projects out of the drawer and turning them into reality. The resources for development today are very easy to reach and all it takes is a lot of will power. Once again, thank you for the support.
To read more about Pier Solar, visit the official website.