Two men, eight years, one dream. How one game company works to manufacture memories in real time
This is a story about watermelons. It's about how they taste: juicy, plentiful and fresh. It's about how they look: big, colorful and alive. It’s about what they’re like: plain, familiar and yet, when truly savored, heavenly. Watermelons aren't complex or epic or irrational. They're simple. They're earthly. And sometimes, they can satisfy a hunger better than any full-course meal — and taste pretty damn good while doing so. This is a story about a video game company that built itself and its products with these kinds of watermelon tenets in mind. Its name is WaterMelon.
Thousands of miles apart
WaterMelon Co. is sort of a tough company to describe, if only because it's been so malleable over the roughly eight years since the studio's inception. It's seen literally hundreds of members drop in and out of its ranks in this time, some of them volunteering to help the small-scale developer only to bail within a matter of days. At its core, though, WaterMelon revolves around two men who have always lived thousands of miles apart.
Tulio Adriano Cardoso Gonçalves is, to put it simply, exactly what you'd imagine a video game developer to be like. He's a transplanted Brazilian, an average-looking guy with an average-looking haircut. He seems pleasant and nerdy, but his words give off an air of decided confidence. He believes in what he likes, and he seems to genuinely want to share his passions with the rest of the world. There's an undeniable risk taker lying beneath his regular exterior. He's the president of WaterMelon.
not just anyone can say they've made the best RPG specifically designed for the Sega Genesis in 14 years.
Gwénaël Godde is, to put it simply, also exactly what you'd imagine a video game developer to be like. He's a Frenchman who used to get by in a small flat in China. He has long, flowing brown hair, and a thick, bushy mustache that has to be seen to be believed. He speaks bluntly, talking about things like "maintaining awesomeness" and "having the balls" to do what needs to be done to succeed in the game developing world. He goes by the nickname Fonzie, because, y'know, why not? Look at him; it just fits. He's the co-founder and art director of WaterMelon.
To date, WaterMelon Co. only has one finished video game to its name. It's a retro-style RPG called Pier Solar and the Great Architects that harkens back to the 16- and 32-bit days of yesteryear. It was the result of eight years of chaos, ambition, failure and love. Tulio, Fonzie and the rest of WaterMelon's eight core members (plus 12 freelancers) are proud of it beyond words. Considering only Tulio knew anything more than a smidge about programming when its development process began, I'd say they have the right to be. After all, not just anyone can say they've made the best RPG specifically designed for the Sega Genesis in 14 years.
A good time to be there
Pier Solar began as wishful thinking. It was a pet project at first, something that a community of gamers figured they could try their hands at and see if it stuck. More specifically, that community spawned from a website called Eidolon's Inn, a place where lovers of classic and homebrew Sega titles come to discuss their favorite Sega consoles, share a Sega ROM or two and read up on the history of the Japanese publishing behemoth.
Tulio landed at Eidolon's Inn in 1997, a young IT intern and avid gamer in search of a Genesis emulator he could toy around with in his free time. He quickly found himself hooked.
Tulio landed at Eidolon's Inn in 1997, a young IT intern and avid gamer in search of a Genesis emulator.
He remembers it well: "Lucky me to find that place. It had not just what I was looking for but it also had the most incredible message board: The Tavern. In there the actual emulator authors actively discussed their emulators' development and collaborated through their achievements and discoveries. It was definitely a good time to be there."
Tulio always had the passion aspect of being a game designer down pat. His youth in the mid-'80s was shaped by his Atari 2600, which he specifically remembers playing up until 1993. It was around that time when he and the rest of his young Brazilian pals were bombarded with an aggressive marketing campaign for the Sega Master System, followed by the Sega Mega Drive. Tulio eventually got his hands on a neighbor's Master System, and, in his words, "pretty much lived" at the neighbor's house for a good while, "enchanted" by the magic he could control with his hands.
Then came his inspiration — whether he knew it at the time or not.
"That was when I was introduced to Phantasy Star. That game changed everything. I got immediately hooked into RPGs and from that point on it became my favorite style. Then I finally got the Mega Drive. By then I was a RPG digger.
"I played through all Phantasy Stars, LandStalker, Light Crusader, Shining Force II and others. Those games spoke deep into me. I had friends with Super Nintendo and with them I had the opportunity to play Zelda, Final Fantasy VI, Secret of Mana and finally Chrono Trigger, my favorite RPG of all time," he says, rattling off one beloved favorite after another.
"Then I got a Sega CD and my first game was Lunar: The Silver Star. Another love at first sight. That was followed by Lunar: Eternal Blue, Popful Mail, Vay and Snatcher … so many great games."
Tulio's experience with retro RPGs as a youth had given him the knowledge of how to build a classic game in modern times. But only when he found an equally passionate community like the Tavern did he realize that he could act on that knowledge. Luckily, that community would provide him a team worthy enough to do the job.
It certainly didn't come quickly, though.
Every last bit
This all happened over a long period of time. Pier Solar was not life and death for these forum members — not yet — if only because it couldn't afford to be. Tulio was continuing along up the IT ranks, serving as a programmer and an enterprise applications manager for a handful of companies. He was the drummer in a rock band at the time. He got married ("She wanted to see the game done as much as I did," Tulio says). He always had his heart in the retro RPGs of the '80s and '90s, but he didn't let Pier Solar consume him entirely. He was determined, without a doubt, but this was still supposed to be fun.
Fonzie was oceans away, working on his degrees, later shifting from engineering over to graphic design studies. He landed a gig with a design agency, but, in his words, "it became clear that [working there] wasn't going to work out." So he quit. This Frenchman in China put all his time and effort into working on a game for a Brazilian man he had never met in person. Fonzie wanted this — the chance for Pier Solar to be remembered as something worth doing was all he wanted to focus on. He led what he calls "a simpler lifestyle," to put it modestly, in order to survive until it was done. He was working hard.
The rest of the WaterMelon team was still scattered across the globe, communicating through phone calls and emails about how to get their baby out the door. Two members were together in Sweden, but the rest of the future studio would not meet before the project was finished. They were pumping their game out as fast as they could, but when you’re working on something for free, there’s only so much you can be asked to do.
Yes, WaterMelon made Pier Solar voluntarily. Their team relied on day gigs and odd jobs to keep themselves afloat. Even after it was completed, nobody was compensated for his or her work. By default, that sucks.
"All money came back to pay the debts and then it was reinvested in the company itself. I had my daytime job let me get by and used my nights, weekends and holidays … every last bit of free time to dedicate into it," recounts Tulio.
"The only people who got pay from Pier Solar development were the freelance pixel artists that we had to hire to cover the pixel art lost when one of our volunteer artists left us and took his work with him."
"We all invested a lot of our personal money to make sure the product would be the best, until the very last second," adds Fonzie. "I recall spending thousands in [express mail company] DHL to make sure games would be delivered before Christmas, but even that didn’t matter.
"That's why it hurts sometime when you get criticism about a selling price that's too high or whatever; people have no idea how much things cost. And we weren't paid!"
"In the end, lots of blood, sweat and tears — but it was worth every effort."
You can probably guess how much unnecessary difficulty all of this added to Pier Solar's development. Hundreds of people would volunteer to contribute, and since it wasn't like WaterMelon was in any position to deny potentially capable help, the loosely-maintained studio brought in enough (often useless) hands to cause Tulio and Fonzie to lose count of them all.
Fonzie recalls: "The most hilarious time was when we had 250 testers supposedly motivated to help and less than three played the game for more than a few minutes! Working with the internet is a mess. You never know who is up to the challenge. When I say hundreds, I'm not kidding. We spent months just trying to teach people about our game engine and script so they could then help. But the same story would repeat over and over again."
The delays and periods of prolonged development took their toll on the people behind the product. An original release window of Christmas 2008 was initially scheduled, but was soon missed by a mile. WaterMelon had gathered a fair share of media and eagerly nostalgic internet attention by this point, so the pressure to finish their fun pet project only got more intense as the months passed.
"I admit that during certain times it was hard on me emotionally, to know that we had to fight so hard to get this game done," says Tulio. "But the desire to see this through was always stronger, and we had pre-orders to add to the motivation factor. So in the end, lots of blood, sweat and tears — but it was worth every effort."
WaterMelon threw enough darts at the wall to hopefully land a bullseye or two. Luckily for them, in Tulio's words, some "very committed and very talented people" stuck around long enough to get the game out the door.
And when Pier Solar did get out the door in December 2010, it was pretty impressive. On a technical level, it was the largest title ever released for the Sega Genesis, using a 64-megabit cartridge in order to wring every ounce of life out of the old hardware. As a result of its transitioning from Sega CD to the Genesis, Fonzie found a way to intertwine the higher-fidelity audio from the remnants of the CD version with the finished product of the Genesis version — the first time this had ever been done.
The media and public received the game warmly. Sales expectations could inherently never be high, but then again that wasn't ever all that important to WaterMelon anyway. Nevertheless, the team managed to sell out their entire first run through pre-orders alone, prompting them to issue a second one, which was even more successful despite being fairly pricey.
Tulio is relatively tight-lipped about specific figures, but at least 6,000 copies were sold in all. This was a Sega Genesis game, remember. In 2010.
It's the little things that make Pier Solar so endearing to most. Its plot — about a group of young friends in search of a magical herb to save a dying father — is a clear "wink wink" to the games that inspired a generation of players years ago. Its music, battle system and art direction are, too. WaterMelon took the time to translate the title into five different languages, and released it in three different regions. Then there's the packaging, which WaterMelon designed in-house. It contains original artwork, a companion soundtrack CD, a full-on instruction booklet and other such goodies.
This attention to detail was important to Tulio.
"If we want a Genesis game to feel authentic it has to come with a packaging equal or better than what we use to get back then. But one thing that I definitely considered is the fact that I still buy games today. And I can't hide that it always disappoints me how game packaging gets poorer by the day. Manuals are getting more and more superficial, and there's no value added to anything you buy aside from expensive collector’s boxes.
"I'm always filled with joy every time I read or watch an unboxing review of Pier Solar and the reviewer mentions having had that magical moment of opening a box and getting surprised by its contents, and by the quality of the materials used. That's exactly what we aimed for, to exceed the expectations of our customers, to bring more than just the game, but a whole authentic experience of enjoying every bit of the product."
"Regardless of it becoming a big thing or not, we always had set in our minds that we wanted this game to be commercial-grade," he adds. "We wanted to be able to put it side by side with all the games that inspired us in first place; that's what pushed us to make Pier Solar a game to be remembered."
Games to bring people together
By 2011, the game had been finished, the second prints had been shipped and the dream of creating a modern retro RPG had become a reality. The deed was done. But WaterMelon wasn't.
It soon set its sights on four new projects, including two unnamed titles currently being referred to as "Project N" and "Project Y." Those can be contributed to through the studio's "Magical Game Factory" crowdsourcing service, in which the WaterMelon community — much like the one WM came from itself — can pick and choose which titles they want the company to focus on most. Tulio and Fonzie decline to share details about them, but they can say that they'll continue their nostalgic ways by making them for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, respectively.
Conversely, WaterMelon is also set on porting Pier Solar to modern consoles after a successful Kickstarter campaign. You may have heard about it. By the end of 2013, Pier Solar looks like it will be the only game to have ever been released for Xbox 360, PC, Mac, Linux, Android, Ouya, Wii U, Sega Dreamcast and Sega Genesis. Not bad for a forum based project.
Tulio and Fonzie aren't stupid. They realize that they’ve tapped into a wonderful and growing market with their retro shtick — and they'll strive to maintain what got them noticed in the first place — but they also know that malleability is key to a young developer's growth.
"The fact that WaterMelon began out of a Genesis game doesn't mean that there aren't other things going on, or that we are stuck to that," Tulio says. "Technology changes, gameplay changes, new consoles come and go, new companies rise and others fall.
"The 16-bit age marked a new era where games could explore a great potential without having to become the super massive large industry it is today, when there was more room for creativity than simply making games just because they make money. But I think that the '16-bit' concept will soon disappear, and we'll be left with 'Hollywood-like' games and others that rely more on unique ideas and fun gameplay. Games to bring people together, rather than keep them apart."
But the question will always remain: Why the hell would anyone develop a Sega Genesis game in 2010, on a whim, for free, without any guarantee of even moderate financial success and without a stable development team on the same continent as each other?
Well, because. WaterMelon could make it, they wanted to make it and they wanted to share the joy and wonder they experienced through classic games in their formative years by replicating (and hopefully, surpassing) them on their own.
"The best reward we could get is to have the game being played and talked about all over," says Tulio. "I think we accomplished that. The project wasn't originated on the intention of becoming a business so this was never a point that would have made us turn to another direction or cancel the game. Getting it finished was a personal challenge and honestly a dream of mine.
"I never had any doubts that people would play the game, although we also had in mind that collectors would want to have it sealed for eternity. What a waste. … Still, I ask all who still have their boxes sealed: Rip the seal off and go play the game. If it was to be just a box in a shelf then we could have spent only three months to do the boxes and blister, rather than the six years to develop the game that goes inside the carts themselves."
Adds Fonzie, "When you start something, then find out that nobody is up to the job, then keep having people leaving for no reason, it sort of strengthens you to the fact the game better be released — and it better be the best game ever. Even though, in the end, it's probably not that, I believe we have no shame to being compared to any '90s AAA title. That's a big reward."
But perhaps more significantly, WaterMelon struck the right chord at the right point in time. Nostalgia is power; it moved WaterMelon to create games in the first place, and it moves even more gamers to form relationships with old titles that shape who they are as people. Modernity may have advanced in theory and on paper, but, for some people, it just can't compete with memory.
"There"s some magic about these games that's hard to describe," Tulio says. "But most will agree that many of us eventually got the sensation that the games were better when we played them back in the day than when we do today on PC or modern consoles.
"I believe that this is due to the nature of the consoles of that time and their limitations. My theory is that our brains help fill in the gaps that those limitations left behind and we get this better-than-reality memory of how those games were. The current generation of games comes 'eye ready,' leaving no gaps to fill. I think that, although they can be very beautiful and pleasant and sometimes a bit overwhelming, they don't stimulate as much as those games did back in the day.
"You know, in a game, fun matters more than graphics."
WaterMelon has, as Fonzie puts it, "no disdain for the modern gaming scene." Modern studios have their place, and WaterMelon has theirs. But the goals, attitudes and circumstances feel a little different.
Tulio, Fonzie and the rest of WaterMelon wanted to make a game. So they did. They want to make more. So they're going to, and now a sizable group of people will pay them to do so. They're driven by a shared passion to just do what they feel like doing. And like their game, the people behind WaterMelon are simple, colorful, familiar, yet different. They're acting on their desires. They're thriving. And, in a market where many games feel like they are made just to exist, they do things naturally. They're refreshing.