Here we interview Roman Werner about his time in the gaming industry, about Traps 'n' Treasures and much more. Enjoy.Zapiy
Thank you for agreeing to our interview, please take a moment to tell us a little about you?Roman
Hi. My name is Roman Werner, I am from Switzerland and was lucky to experience my teenage years in the 80’s, the time when the Arcade and home computer era was in its full glory. From the beginning with a Pong console I was hooked and since then passionate about computer and video games. I made one of my biggest dreams become true by having developed my own Amiga game in the early 90’s called Traps’n’Treasures. It’s an action adventure platformer - including nice underwater music and a pirate knocking at your screen if you don’t play.Zapiy
What was the first game you created?Roman
Actually, Traps’n’Treasures was my only commercial game so far. I know now that I should have started with a smaller scale project, collect experience and build a solid code foundation with every next game. But somehow, I felt ready, ambitious (and probably naive) enough to make a game that was greater than any platform games I have played on the Amiga before – one that I wanted to play myself. I loved 2d platformers at the time (also on consoles) but missed the puzzle and adventure elements in most Amiga games of this genre, so I decided to create my own. But if I knew at the beginning that the development of Traps’n’Treasures will keep me busy over the next four(!) years, I would probably not have started that journey. I was very fortunate to have some friends with advanced game developer experience who I could ask when I got really stuck. That was a huge help.
Before I started with Traps’n’Treasures I have been composing music with sound trackers. As part of this I contributed some songs to the two Amiga games «Leonardo» and «Clown-o-Mania» (both Starbyte Software) and «Championship Shooting» (a game for the Golem Light gun). All three of these games were made by Swiss developers.Greyfox
Tell us about your time working for Starbyte Software?Roman
With Starbyte it was a freelance situation. My other developer pals from Switzerland had already made their experience with contract deals (good and bad) but for me it was all new. I didn’t have contact with Starbyte Software headquarter in Bochum (Germany) until I met them on November 20th, 1990, the significant day when Starbyte’s Christmas party took place and when I showed them a very early demo of a pirate themed game I made. A few hours later the contract was signed.
After that I worked on the game from home - bedroom coding as its best. During development I had a few phone calls with Starbyte every now and then (most of them arguing about «when is it finished»). I met them a second time in Bochum, but I think that was it more or less.Greyfox
Do you have any anecdotes you can share from those days?Roman
The one thing I remember as if it was yesterday is the way how the amount of money was negotiated for Traps’n’Treasures at that Christmas party. After about 30 minutes we reached a stalemate owing to different price expectations. Upon my vision of the final game I was hoping for more. The managing director got tired of this and took a dice out from a drawer and told me to choose between even and odd numbers. If I won then my asking price counted, otherwise his. All the people from the party gathered to see what was going on. I was quite shocked and under pressure but felt exhausted after a long day’s drive and I wanted to have the deal settled. The dice rolled and... I WON. Just crazy. At this young age this was a key moment in my life. I remember how I walked back that night to our hotel, with a contract in my pocket, big snowflakes were falling from the sky and I was completely flashed from this event.
Another personal anecdote for me was when Starbyte invited us Swiss game developers the following year again to their Christmas party. The original contract for Traps’n’Treasures was settled to give me only 8 months to finish the game (haha, what a fool I was). So, I already joined the party with a bad conscience, knowing that I did not fulfil my part of the contract but at the same time was proud to show them all the new features I had implemented in the game (nightmare for every publisher). Anyway, they liked what they saw and didn’t really put pressure on me regarding breach of contract. I guess it helped that Starbyte just had a successful year of good releases like Rings of Medusa II, Rolling Ronny, Spirit of Adventure, Winzer and Starbyte Super Soccer. Later all the developers got a little gift. I got one as well and it turned out to be a nice-looking pen. Although the inscription on the pen said «LAMY». I couldn’t help it but take that as a devious hint to say, you are late with your game – a lamer - you failed. At that moment I didn’t know that «LAMY» simply is the name of a German pen manufacturer but for me the rest of that Christmas party was rather painful not knowing what I should make out of that «message».
Only a few weeks later I found out. I received a letter from Starbyte saying that they want to sue me for 200'000(!) Deutsche Mark if I don’t deliver my game immediately. Bamm! I mean they saw at the Christmas party that it was far from being finished. This is how they treated us freelance developers at that time.Zapiy
Tell us about Nightingale Productions?Roman
I worked on Traps’n’Treasures with my best friend Ruedi Hugentobler who is a talented musician. He had this great set of synthesizers and sampling equipment at his place and he has always been a mentor for me regarding harmonics and music composition. For the game we thought we needed a proper name as a developer studio and Ruedi came up with «Nightingale Productions». I felt that music should always play a significant part in our productions and so we went for it.Zapiy
Did you work for any other software houses back then?Roman
Not really. I had enough to do with my one game and after all the legal hassle with Starbyte, I needed a break. Although before I got into coding, I earned some money with music I made for «Linel», a Swiss game publisher at that time. Chris Haller’s sound tracker clone «SoundFx» for the Amiga was planned to be published soon and I was asked to provide a demo song for it - which I happily did.
Later I contributed an additional intro song (also composed with SoundFX) to the Amiga release of Hewson Consultant’s Eliminator because it was a 1:1 conversion from Atari ST - done by Linel - and the music was far from Amiga standards. A bit of a shame that Jeroen Tel himself wasn’t involved in the 16-Bit conversions – his C64 tune for Eliminator was excellent.Zapiy
Who in the industry from those days and now most admire and why?
There are a lot. Generally, I admire game designers who don’t copy but create something new and who make the best out of the limits they have. Just to name a few of those great influencers I look up to:
David Crane (Pitfall, Little Computer People, Ghostbusters) – great feel for intriguing game mechanics at the time. Helped to define the side-scroller genre.
David Braben, Ian Bell (Elite) – The original Elite is pure magic (22kB!!!). This game on the C64 made me want to become a game developer.
Andrew Braybrook (Paradroid, Uridium, Gribbly’s day out) – a big idol in my C64 times and such a gift that he shared his Paradroid developer diary with us (Zzap!64).
Ron Fortier, Kelly Day (Bruce Lee) – Fantastic game play and great design. And they earn my highest respect for the original version on the Atari XL where they had to be really innovative to overcome the technical boundaries.
Jordan Mechner (Karateka, Prince of Persia) – Great atmosphere and a very elegant visual design. The body animation in these games were so beautiful and aesthetic. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Karateka on the C64 for the first time.
Ron Gilbert – helped to make point & click-adventures a new thing (Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken, The Secret of Monkey Island, etc.) and he has such great humour.
The Bitmap Brothers’ graphic artists Dan Malone (Cauldron, Sacred Armour of Antiriad, Cadaver, The Chaos Engine) and Mark Coleman (Speedball, Magic Pockets, Gods, Xenon2) – they set a new standard what can be done with coloured pixels.
The musicians Rob Hubbard, Ben Daglish, Chris Hülsbeck, Jeroen Tell, Tim Follin, Martin Galway, Matt Gray – Their music compositions will follow me a lifetime.
Legendary cover artist Bob Wakelin who made you buy products just simply because of the intriguing art on the box or tape cover.
…and of course, last but not least Shigeru Miyamoto (Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda, you name it…) – a game design god with a heart.
Nowadays my admiration and respect go to any people who still contribute great new games for our beloved 8- and 16-bit computers from the past.TrekMD
Which one of the games you were involved in are you the proudest of and why?Roman
Obviously Traps’n’Treasures. Because I put all my heart and soul into this. My greatest wish always was to make an «off-the-shelf» product and when I saw my game in the shops - that was just unreal. On the other hand, I was so relieved for everybody who supported me in making the game that Traps’n’Treasures was received well in computer magazine reviews. And when I discovered the «Game of the Month»-award in the German «Amiga Magazin» I was over the moon. After four years of intense work and many sacrifices that was one of the happiest moments in my life. It actually was worth all the effort.TrekMD
And which game caused you the most headaches?Roman
Also Traps’n’Treasures. When I received the threatening reminder letter from Starbyte in December 1991, I thought that was the end. Neither did I receive any advance pay nor had Starbyte invested any money in the product by then. It was simply unfair business practice. Maybe from their point of view it was just a bit of sabre-rattling but I was not prepared for that.Zapiy
Was it hard adapting to the changing hardware over the years?Roman
The jump from 8-bit to 16-bit was more a relieve for me than a burden. For example, the need of 2-byte pointer addressing (little endian) on the C-64 to access any address over 256 was a pain. Well, almost everything was a relieve changing to the Amiga: Using a mouse, a better keyboard, higher resolution, a text editor where you could easily copy/paste - my god, that was such a leap forward. But on the other hand, dealing with the complexity of the custom chips programming had to be learned first. I was lucky that I had good friends who were happy to share their tips and tricks with me.Zapiy
Have you thought about getting involved more in Retro Game Development after your couple of dev comp games?Roman
Absolutely. I started again tinkering with 6510 assembler some time ago and my big goal now is to convert Traps’n’Treasures to the C64. Not a 1:1 conversion but a loose rendition of it. Hopefully we will see some first results in the near future.Zapiy
What games at the time (and now) would you say are your biggest inspirations?Roman
Then*: Space Invaders (Arcade), Elite (C64), Ghosts’n Goblins (C64), Bruce Lee (C64), Paradroid (C64), Metal Gear (MSX2), Wibzall (C64), Turrican II (Amiga), The Secret of Monkey Island (Amiga), Castle of Illusion (Mega Drive), Quackshot(Mega Drive), Son Son II (PC Engine), Mr. Heli (PC Engine), Super Mario World (SNES), Super Castlevania IV (SNES), Super Metroid(SNES), The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES), any Legend of Zelda game actually. But there are too many to name them all here.
Now: Any new C64 game that has that «Wow»-factor and a good feel about it, e.g. Sam’s Journey, Shadow Switcher, Galencia, Steel Ranger, and the recently published Petscii Run and Gunner «Digiloi» to just name a few.
*The titles I listed here are just a compilation of games that I have some fond memories of at the time when they came out. They are not all inspirations, but they remind me of key moments in my life.Zapiy
Have you ever been involved with the creation of games on systems like the Gizmodo, Konix Multisystem or any of the other less known or unreleased systems?Roman
No. I am loyal to the Commodore universe.Zapiy
Are you surprised with the resurgence in retro gaming?Roman
I am sort of surprised about the magnitude the retro game development scene has grown just over the last two years. It was pretty crazy. Although, I can imagine there are other veteran developers like me who grew up in the eighties but had to take a break from their game development hobby in order to work on their career, raise a family, etc. Now that the kids are older, our generation has a bit more time to continue where we left off. A wonderful hobby to revive.
Besides that, emulating the original hardware has improved a lot. And there is now so much information and many great tools available on Internet - it was never easier to start cross development.
Where I am not surprised is the desire back to more simplicity and purity in-game design. There were so many great games developed in the early days of computer history where one button was enough to have fun. Unlike today with modern games where your brain is completely overstimulated after a short gaming session.Zapiy
Have you got any old unreleased designs/art that you would be willing to share?Roman
Let’s see… No digital art but I found some early sketches for the Traps’n’Treasures island and some level design pen and paper material.Greyfox
When you first started, did you ever think that the video game industry would become as big as it has and still be going strong all these years later?Roman
No, otherwise I would probably have continued that track. At that time video games and game development was only for nerds and nothing you could gain points with in public society.
In the Zurich’s University of Arts (ZHdK) you can now focus on the subject area «game design» where you can do a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Something I would have loved to do if it had been available in the 90’s.Greyfox
Are you a gamer yourself? Do you own any retro systems? Modern systems?Roman
Oh yes. I have been playing and collecting games all my life. Except for a Nintendo 64, Collecovision, Intellivision and Vectrex I probably had (and still have) all other classic consoles from the 80’s/90’s. If there was an exclusive game on a system, then I bought the console just to play that one game. For that reason, I also once acquired a Philips MSX 2 computer just to play a new military themed stealth game by Konami called «Metal Gear» (unaware that it will grow into a big franchise). Today I am very grateful that I have kept this early masterpiece by Hideo Kojima as part of my retro game collection.
And yes, I also have modern systems. For example, a Playstation 4 and a Nintendo Switch.TrekMD
What games company back in the day did you most admire and why?Roman
Hmmm… just a few names that spring to my mind:
Activision (1982-1988) – A team of great entrepreneurs that shaped the future gaming industry.
Brøderbund - Their name stood for many great products (Loadrunner, Choplifter, Castles of Dr. Creep, Spelunker, Karateka, etc.). No game looked like the other. And they all grew into classics.
LucasArts – Legendary for their wonderful point-and-click adventures (e.g. Maniac Mansion, The Secret of Monkey Island, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, etc.).
Konami – They used to have many cool and original arcade titles (e.g. Frogger, Scramble, Gyruss, Time Pilot, Gradius, Hyper Sports, Contra). Also, most home computer conversions were of high playability. Apparantly they even had a look at Traps’n’Treasures once.
Nintendo – Because from the beginning their name stood for well-balanced game design and quality.Zapiy
Traps'n'Treasures is a beautiful looking game, a game that is surrounded in mixed fortune, there was the mixed reviews that it received and the well documented issues you had with the publisher, tell us about this game, what was the inspiration, your thoughts on the reviews and the issues with the publisher and how you feel about it these days?Roman
My aspiration was to use my gaming experience from the many platformers and action adventures I have played so far, take the best elements out of it and make a new game that combines jumping action with exploration fun and puzzles. When I started the project, I didn’t have a clear idea what the game should look like in the end. It was more a clear policy that whatever happens in the game has to feel good. Moving your hero, picking up a coin, hence any little action and reaction should be fun to experience.
I think it all started with finding the right look for a hero - the one element in the game that you stare at the whole time. Probably influenced by the success of The Great Giana Sisters I originally started with a female character called «Scooter» (that name actually remained as working title in the source code). Only over the following months the blond heroine changed into Captain Jeremy Flynn as we remember him from the game.
For the graphics we used Deluxe Paint in combination with an animation tool made by my developer friends. For the level design I coded a custom level editor on the Amiga so that we were able to build the tile-based maps and rooms. For the music and sound effects we used the MED (a popular sound tracker by Teijo Kinnunen).
While I focused on programming and some of the graphics, Ruedi was taking care of the music and level design. Orlando came a bit later into the team to provide the major part of the pixel art. Both Ruedi and Orlando did such a fantastic job!
Here is a picture of my original A500 where most of Traps’n’Treasures was developed on and some magazines with references to my game. The purple «L» folder contains my first ever contract I have signed - with Linel (it was that moment where you have to figure out how your signature should look like that will then remain like that for the rest of your life).
When Traps’n’Treasures finally appeared in the various game magazines I was very happy with the ratings, most being in the 80%. After 4 years of intense development one really doesn’t know anymore if the game is actually good or bad, too short or too difficult.
Regarding the legal issues with Starbyte I can say yes, I was disappointed. Not only with them but also for me to realize I could not make a living out of this. As a result, I gave up my short endeavour as game developer and started a more traditional job.
But what an experience that was. Would I do it again? Yes. Anytime.Zapiy
What are you up to these days?Roman
I now have a family with two kids and work for a global insurance company as IT specialist.Finally
A huge thanks to Roman for taking the time to chat with us.