Richard Lowenstein is a journalist, publisher, and tireless programmer. It's in the final stretch of the Reshoot Proxima 3 development, certainly a great shoot them up, that he gives us his vision of the video game industry, the Amiga... As well as many anecdotes.
1. Introduction: a stunning comeback, after a quarter of a century!
Hi Richard, thanks for accepting this interview! Our readers may know you as the editor-in-chief of the Amiga Joker magazine in the early 90s and for developping games in the late 80s (Persian Gulf Inferno in 1989). Can you tell us about what happened between those early "Amiga days" and your recent successful endeavour in Amiga shmups?
Quite a lot. I went to write about games for a number of mostly german media outlets and founded a couple of magazines: Cube and 360 Live, for example. Also co-published the german edition of gamesTM.
How difficult was it to get back to coding 25 years later?
Not difficult at all. The basic principles of coding have not changed that much. Also, coding is a learning process, all the time. What has changed though is my way of coding.
2. Technical considerations: a very qualitative third iteration
There has been a resurgence in the past few years in terms of "AAA" Amiga gaming - we used to be enthusiastic with a new simple but polished game every now and then. Now it's about pushing the boundaries again. Flash in the pan, or new hayday?
I would hope that the Amiga gets a few polished games of AAA-quality each and every year. If some of them push the boundaries, great. I do not expect too many games of very high quality though. Truth is: Developing such a game on Amiga is very time-consuming, much more so than on modern platforms. Not many people out there can afford to spend months and months of time, while managing their daily lifes.
(Editor's note: Richard actually unveiled one of his crazy secrets in the first Reshoot booklet. He actually gets up in the middle of the night after a first restorative sleep cycle, works for a couple of hours, gets back to bed, wakes up again to get the kids ready for school and then... Goes to work! Is that sustainable in the long run without sacrificing his health? Will you think about it when playing his games? :-) That's a good illustration of the guy's willpower!!").
The first Reshoot (2016), punitive but already technically promising
Good question. Actually I enjoy both. Playing on Switch has the power to surprise me, playing a game on Amiga has the power to wake a cozy feelings - and some adrenaline too.
As proven numerous times by the demoscene and art in general, technical constraints both reduce the scope of what is achievable and fuel creativity. With the third iteration of your game engine (with Reshoot Proxima 3), did you attain your vision with more or less compromises, or on the contrary, did it take you to directions you didn't expect?
Developing within technical boundaries is always an act of balancing ressources. One of these ressources is the vision of how the game should feel like; another ressource is the technical platform; a third ressource the quality of the team and their spirit. My approach with Reshoot R and Reshoot Proxima always was to develop games which are entertaining in the first place. In order to be entertaining, a game has to be well-crafted and that includes taking into consideration the features of a platform. I´d like to think I know what the Amiga can do, and therefore try to design my games in such a way that they use Amiga power as well as possible. Of course, I am learning new things every day. Therefore Proxima 3 does thing which I would not have thought are possible when I coded the first Reshoot-game.
Reshoot R (2019), very balanced and rich in content
Figures? 128 bullets on screen at once. 90 degrees change of scrolling direction: from horizontal to vertical. Upto 40 enemy objects onscreen. Retaining a framerate of 50 Hertz, all the time. 8 stages. 1 ingame soundtrack per stage. My pleasure.
Could you explain to what extent your engine progressed from Reshoot to Reshoot R and then from Reshoor R to Reshoot Proxima 3?
Too many to name. In fact the engine changed to much with each game, that they hardly share a single line of code. May I give you an example: The first Reshoot game is using a rather simple "moving object" controller which could push around objects and not do much more with them. Reshoot R works with a much more advanced version. It can handle pairs of objects and events, which is useful to orchestrate boss fights.
Reshoot Proxima contains many further enhancements. For example it has some very simple means of editing landscape map and object behaviour waves, which makes it very fast and very convenient to alter each and every attack wave - a necessity if you want to tweak gameplay pixel by pixel, so that it becomes not only a showcase but a real entertaining "waste of time".
Reshoot Proxima 3 (2020?), with digitized dialogs loaded in real time
Reshoot Proxima 3, test showing numerous sprites during an optimization phase (article on Patreon)
Too many to name. When Reshoot R was close to the finish line and I could not get it to work properly on 68060, I almost threw the towel. Also, I had some rather unpleasant discussions with members of the Amiga community, regarding the quality of the game, pricing and stuff like that. When I realized that some haters get their kicks out of bashing and confrontation, destroying our small community with mindless arguing, this really pissed me off. A lot.
The very first Reshoot was kinda hardcore and maybe had less success?... I completed the second but never managed to get far into the first. Did you hesitate before beginning to work on the second Reshoot?
Of course I listened to feedback, especially when I show my game at community events. I think you can feel that in Reshoot R. With Reshoot Proxima 3 I will try again to implement some of the positive suggestions and feedback from players. For example many told me that the loved Martin Ahman's music, but there should be more than just one ingame track. There you go.
3. An invigorating community: the influence of the demo scene
The Reshoot Proxima 3 team has grown significantly from threemembers (a coder, a musician, a graphic artist) to five (three musicians instead of one). The first audio track was unveiled at the Revision 2020, which was unfortunately held online only due to the Covid-19. It was especially good and composed by Jochen "Virgill" Feldkötter.
The team was much bigger for Reshoot R already. Ingo Siebeck for example helped getting the highscore ranking website to work. Oliver Lindau put his magic on some the ingame graphics. Many, many people helped developing the game by sharing their knowledge on a1k.org or the English Amiga Board. Same is true for Reshoot Proxima 3. It´s a community effort.
Can you tell us about your relationship with the demoscene? Is it even more intertwined than before with the Amiga community due to the size of the latter nowadays?
I love demo productions since the early days. In fact I established a two-page-regular in Amiga Joker, as I and many readers adored this art and loved to write/read about it. Also the guys behind these productions deserved a stage. Never was a member of the scene myself though. I think the demo scene is very important for the love the Amiga gets nowadays. It´s this scene that keeps on producing state-of-the-art-software which sometimes makes you forget how old the Amigas hardware actually is. Have you seen Eon from The Black Lotus-crew? This is a piece of art. It´s made on Amiga and therefore proves that creative minds can ignite inspiration, regardless of the age of the platform. Same is true for games.
Can you tell us about the back-and-forth artistic creation process with Kevin Saunders, who has drawn the graphics of all three Reshoot games?
My answer would probably be too long and boring. Let me tell you this: We usually email or do videocalls and exchange visions and ideas. Then Kevin sketches something, sends it to me, so we have something in front of our eyes for further discussion. After that Kevin usually attaches more details to an object, renders or draws while keeping an eye in each and every pixel. I then try to implement his stuff with a number of conversion tools, of which Pixelmator, Deluxe Paints, Xn Convert and PicCon are the most important ones. Sometimes I add details or change colors, sometimes stuff fits, a lot of times it does not and we have to throw it away or keep modifying until it fits.
4. The future, always relevant!
What is the future of the Amiga? On the one hand, current AAA games target "bare" Amigas (1 MB A500 or 2 MB A1200). On the other hand, "Next-generation" PowerPC OSes like MorphOS and AmigaOS 4 have been around for two decades (for the former); AROS is still being brought forward with a 68k port; FPGA Amigas are replacing and expanding the Amiga chipsets (68080/Pamela/SAGA on the Vampire)?
The Amiga can have a bright future if people can buy new Amiga machines which play the old software, out of the box, without any headaches. That´s what Amiga is all about. That means the ongoing copyright issues need to be settled, so that ROMs can be included with such machines. As soon as this happens, I am happy with any additional ideas. Vampire for example looks very promising, I just don´t feel it needs some tweaking before it´s a good product - and original Kickstart-ROMs onboard!
I reckon you initially didn't expect to write three games in a row! How did you keep motivated? Were reception and sales figures good enough?
Reception was great for the most part, even though some feedback on social media channels was hard to live with. Sales? Well, they were okay I suppose, considering the small size of the market.
In an interview you granted to the Amiga Future magazine last year, you mentioned the idea of setting up a game studio specialized in retro platforms. Can you tell us more about it and about your future plans?
If I were 25 years of age and had to take care only of myself, I´d dedicate myself 130% to that idea as I still love it so much. Looks like it does not fit with my daily family life right now though. I am working on it, but the idea needs time to grow.
Any piece of advice or pointers for people who would like to get into Amiga games development in 2020?
Get yourself a book. Use two weeks of holidays and dedicate at least three hours a day to coding. Try AMOS or Blitz Basic first. This way you will see results fast and harvest the great emotions that coding can give to you. Do your first steps on an emulator, as cross-developing on PC/Mac and testing code on the emulator is much faster than coding on Amiga itself.
5. Video games today: a mass entertainment activity, pampered players. Without conscience?
May I ask you a couple of questions beyond the scope of our "Amigan niche", about the videogames industry in general? On one side, indie devs have been struggling since the 2010s in an era we call "Indiepocalypse": hundreds of innovative new games on a weekly basis, ridiculous prices. On the other side, the AAA industry has taken over the movies industry in terms of financial weight with teams on the verge of exhaustion (for instance, Ubi Soft). Are players acting against developers?
Without players, there would be no industry. But I am not sure if the industry acts with the integrity that I would love to see. For example, I don´t like flatrate ideas like Microsofts Game Pass though. These enable people to access dozens and hundreds of games each month. They lack focus therefore, and tend not to play one of all these games thoroughly. Reminds me of piracy in the Amiga days. Gaming flatrates devalue the art and creative talent that developers put into their games.
It seems players got accustomed to mechanisms that extend the time spent on a game thanks to RPG elements spanning all genres, achievements, procedural generation, DLCs, online gaming, hunt for dopamine fixes. Your games are rewarding by nature and stick to classic paradigms, requiring focus on a short time frame. Do you think videogames got too ubiquitous or is that just a matter of taste?
I think it´s great that some games allow you to spend days, weeks and months in their universe. If you do not have that much time to spend, like me: Other games, like mine, give you the kicks within minutes. It´s great we can now have both, on retro and modern platforms.
I was stricken by the concomitance of Simone "Retream" Bevilacqua's demo, entitled "The Cure", and you recent Patreon post in which you demoed a very nice menu screen for Reshoot Proxima 3. It featured messages, not related to the game itself but to the essential issues of our time, such as climate change and social justice, as an echo to #BlackLivesMatter. How can games raise consciousness despite their inherent recreational dimension and sometimes despite the contradictions?
I think the best way to achieve this is by telling emotional stories, which interweave with the gameplay. A shmup like Reshoot Proxima 3 cannot hope to play in the same league like e.g. Through the Darkest of Times regarding its narrational quality. But I still would love to make people think about tolerance, climate protection and other desirable values of our society, at least for a short moment within the title screen.
Thank you again so much, Richard, for your time, passion and commitment to the platform!
Thank you very much for these interesting questions, and for your ongoing support!
Editor's note: you can support the development of Richard Lowenstein's games on Patreon.