Retro/Grade: If I could turn back time

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Matt Gilgenbach burned through his savings, went into debt, and — by his own admission — didn't give his new wife the attention she deserved, to make downloadable shooter Retro/Grade.

Even if you don't believe people are "born" to do a certain job, it's hard to deny that the signs of Matt Gilgenbach's destiny were clear pretty early on. His father, a programmer, always had a computer in the house, and the younger Gilgenbach would spend hours playing a Frogger clone that replaced the titular amphibian with a donkey. At the age of nine, he started making his own games, utilizing a QBasic world builder that would let him craft his own limited text adventures.

The man that boy grew into co-founded studio 24 Caret Games, and is just about to release his first independent game, Retro/Grade, after four years of development. It has not come cheaply. While working on the game, he's burned through his savings, gone into debt, and — by his own admission — not given his new wife the attention she deserves.

As his debut finally makes its way into the hands of gamers, there seems to be some part of Gilgenbach still wondering if it was all worth it.

24 Caret Games history

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Retro/Grade - due out on PSN soon - is by no means the first project Gilgenbach's had a hand in. After getting his degree from the University of Michigan, he left Ann Arbor in 2003 and headed for Los Angeles where he found work at Heavy Iron Studios. After helping to translate Disney films like The Incredibles and Ratatouille into games, he moved in 2005 to High Impact Studios. There he took on the role of lead gameplay programmer on Secret Agent Clank and Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters, both on PSP.

He liked learning the basics of the business and knew friends in the industry, but he had an itch to strike out on his own.

"I WANTED TO MAKE ALL THE WILD AND CRAZY GAMES THAT I'VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT FOR SO MANY YEARS."

"I wanted to make all the wild and crazy games that I've been thinking about for so many years," Gilgenbach said in a recent interview with Polygon. "Most larger companies play it safe because the budgets for games are so high, so there isn't a lot of room to experiment and innovate. Being able to control my own destiny and make the games that I always dreamt of making is why I chose to be indie."

In 2008, Gilgenbach decided the time was right. He joined up with two other High Impact staffers, artist Jeff Parrott and programmer Justin Wilder, and the trio formed 24 Caret Games.

The fledgling studio wasn't greedy; it didn't expect to jump right to making its own game. No, it was decided the three entrepreneurs would work with existing developers, picking up support jobs until they had filled their coffers. Video game budgets were up and most major publishers were expanding however they could. How hard could finding work be?

Pax_2011_with_guitarMatt Gilgenbach with Retro/Grade at Penny-Arcade Expo 2011

The only problem? This was 2008, and the bottom was about to fall out of the American economy.

"When the recession hit in 2008, publishers took a careful look at their financials and said, 'This isn't working,'" Gilgenbach said. "So they cut down the number of games and the number of projects. We were working with someone for business development and she basically said, 'Given the current situation with the recession, you're probably not going to be able to find a project.'"

With the decision to create something of their own basically made for them, 24 Caret started searching for right idea. Before long, Wilder recalled a temporary feature that Gilgenbach had inserted into a scrapped rail shooter project.

ROCKET CAN BE STEERED BY A TYPICAL CONTROLLER, BUT THE GAME CAN ALSO BE ENTIRELY PLAYED WITH A GUITAR PERIPHERAL LIKE THOSE USED IN GAMES LIKE ROCK BAND OR GUITAR HERO.

"In order to tune gameplay I had a debug mode where time would back up - you could back up time and then repeat a section, if you [wanted] to tune a particular gameplay setup," Gilgengenbach said. "Justin mentioned, 'Hey, it would be cool if we had that in the game.' So when we were brainstorming ideas for a small-in-scope indie sort of game we went back to that. We thought it would be an interesting idea, playing a game in reverse."

That germ grew into Retro/Grade, a side-scrolling shoot 'em up that's played in reverse. After one of his space battles accidentally destroys the universe, pilot Rick Rocket must undo it all, sucking up all the bullets he fired to trigger the end of everything. Rocket can be steered by a typical controller, but the game can also be entirely played with a guitar peripheral like those used in games like Rock Band or Guitar Hero.

It's an intriguing concept, but this is not the story of how Retro/Grade was conceived or even the story of how it made it to the PlayStation Network on Tuesday. It's the story of what Gilgenbach had to trade to get it there.

A four-year journey

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2008-igf-submission Retro/Grade, under development in 2008 2009-onps3 Retro/Grade, under development in 2009 2010 Retro/Grade, under development in 2010

Retro/Grade was never supposed to take this long to complete. Four years is above average for a AAA retail release and Retro/Grade, a downloadable rhythm game, is nowhere near that scope. The big problem, according to Gilgenbach, was that publishers with a lot more money to spend ramped up the expectation for what $10 or $15 would buy you on the digital marketplace.

When development started, Retro/Grade was a far smaller scale project than it is today, something much more arcade-like. But then games like Castle Crashers, Braid, andShadow Complex came along and changed the whole downloadable landscape on consoles.

"PUBLISHERS WERE SINKING MORE AND MORE MONEY INTO LIVE ARCADE AND PSN TITLES [AND] WE COULDN'T REALLY KEEP UP."

"At several points in development, we looked at the title and said, 'Our product is not really competitive with what other people are doing - we really have to spend more time on it.'" Gilgenbach said. "So the problem is that publishers were sinking more and more money into Live Arcade and PSN titles [and] we couldn't really keep up."

Even after bringing on another artist (Joe Grabowski, who filled in after Parrott stepped back to a consultative role on Retro/Grade) the small squad at 24 Caret had to work hard to keep up with the big devs.

Of course, the tiny team had its roots in large-scale development, which Gilgenbach admits may have caused some of the problems.

Industrial0 Retro/Grade, finished in 2012 "SOMETHING THAT I REALIZED LATELY IS THAT IF MY GOAL IS TO SUCCEED AS AN INDIE DEVELOPER, A LOT OF THE WORK ON DETAILS HAS DIMINISHING RETURNS."

"We approached developement ... not in the best way for an indie. We came from the big budget, AAA ... I don't even know what 'AAA' means anymore, but we came from large teams and teams that valued polish," Gilgenbach said. "So we spent a lot of time polishing the game of details on little details, [and] some of them we ended up scrapping because we had to change the way we did the graphics in order to stay competitive."

Gilgenbach gradually admitted that even the industry's evolution and his team's AAA pedigree wouldn't fully account for the long development time. Gilgenbach has obsessive-compulsive disorder, and he said that sometimes made it tough to leave well enough alone.

"This was my baby and so it was very difficult to not worry about the details," Gilgenbach said. "I spent a lot of time on the little details, the little polish items that I love them to death. But something that I realized lately is that if my goal is to succeed as an indie developer, a lot of the work on details has diminishing returns. It's not going to noticeably affect sales and it's something that takes time and effort, and if you're looking at it as a business then it's not a good investment."

He spent four years, 80 hours, and seven days a week working on Retro/Grade. He not only burned through the nest egg he saved during his AAA work but had to rely on loans from family members. You'd be forgiven for mistaking this for a inspiring, harrowing story about an obsessed man driven by a singular passion. Only Gilgenbach is not that man. Because three years ago, Matt met Joanne.

The game gets personal

But it hasn't been an easy road, by her own admission.

"In the beginning of the marriage you have this mindset like, 'Oh, I'm going to get married and then we're going to get a house and watch TV at night' and stuff like that," she said. "But we weren't very traditional. I would say that the first year of the marriage was very tricky. I have to keep an open mind all of the time. I have to think that what he's doing is for our future."

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For the entirety of their marriage, the Gilgenbachs have tried to make at least an hour to spend together each day - typically between 10 p.m. and midnight - but that's been the extent of the quality time. Gilgenbach says it took him too long to realize exactly the toll that was taking.

Before his most recent trip to demo the game at PAX East, Joanne made what, for most other couples, would have been a benign request. She wanted the two of them to get away for a few days (though he eventually talked her down to 24 hours). The two planned to spend a whole day and night at a bed and breakfast, though Gilgenbach timidly admits that he doesn't recall exactly where.

"It was either Oxnard or Santa Barbara," he said. "I feel bad saying this ... I really wasn't paying much attention to what she wanted to do and so I didn't really commit to it because of course getting ready for PAX East is a lot of work."

Joanne got her day off with her husband, but he wasn't prepared for exactly how much it would mean to her.

"When the day was over my wife looked so happy and she said she had such a great a time; it was eye opening." Gilgenbach's speech slows as he starts to choke up. "I'm sorry ... but it made me realize that I am not the husband that I want to be or the person that I want to be. The fact that my wife was just so thrilled to spend a day with me, really showed me that my priorities are kind of wrong."

Gilgenbach became despondent, struggling daily with depression. He was frustrated not only with the toll Retro/Grade had taken on his life, but the idea of game development as a career.

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"I felt so burned out," Gilgenbach said. "I just wanted to do something completely mundane and nothing technical at all. I didn't really have any good ideas, I enjoyed the forklift driving minigame in Shenmue so I thought 'Maybe forklift operator? Maybe that's a good career path for me?' I didn't know."

In the end, it was the support of Joanne and Retro/Grade's other early supporters that forced him to push forward and finish the project with Wilder.

"I feel like I owe it to them," he said. "I think the best thing during development was that someone came up to me at PAX and said, 'This is the best game I've ever played,'" Gilgenbach recalled. "And yeah, maybe he was exaggerating. Maybe he says that to everyone. But to me as a developer it was very validating. When you lose all confidence in yourself and what you're doing, having someone say something like that to you really makes a huge difference."

Finally, development on Retro/Grade came to a close. Ask Gilgenbach what he's doing next and he'll just laugh - he's too burned out to think that far ahead. He knows that Retro/Gradeneeds to be a success for 24 Caret to remain an independent entity, and for the company to keep making the small, quirky games it likes.

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Joanne worries too, not for her own financial future, but for the toll failure would take on her husband.

"I know how the pressure is on him," she said. "It's four years of his life and ... it's judgement day. Sometimes, I try to tell him that it's not the end of the world and that we have to keep an open mind. I just try to be supportive and be behind him and just keep him going, because it's really tough, the last four years for him, personally."

Through so much uncertainty, what Gilgenbach seems sure of is that he's got to make more time to be a husband. He may not be able to reverse time, give himself and Joanne all the moments they missed out on together in service ofRetro/Grade. But he's trumped his hero Rick Rocket in one important respect: He managed to stop himself before he destroyed his world.

"I'm beginning to realize that - and honestly I really should have realized this a long time ago - but I had my head down for so long that it was my life," he said. "I didn't realize what life was outside of working."

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