Today the RVG Interview is with Pond Software, the team behind Hibernated 1: This Place is Death, Petunia Pickle’s Pumpkin, The Bear Essentials, Super Ski and Spaceman Splorf: Planet of Doom. As you can see they have created some fabulous games and many more on the horizon so sit back, relax and enjoy our interview.
Thank you for agreeing to our interview, please take a moment to tell us a little about you and the team?
Graham – We are a group of individuals from around the globe that are passionate about computers and games from days past. Our team members are Vanja Utne (Norway), Andreas Gustafsson (Sweden), Stefan Vogt (Germany), Anthony Stiller (Australia), Tom Roger Skauen (Norway), Craig Derbyshire (England), Graham Axten (England) and Roy Fielding (England) who has recently decided to leave Pond, but still joins in on the forums as our consultant / advisor!
What was the first game you created? (each of you)
- Stefan – Hibernated 1 actually was the first game I created. Since it has been praised by both critics and the community, it’s probably not a bad start.
- Graham – I made a couple of games for the C64 back in 1996, Worm and RockMaze, which stayed hidden away in my loft for years. Discovering that old tape again was one of the things that brought me back to the C64 after many years away. For Pond my first game released was the 4k game Bonkey Kong.
- Ant – My first actual coded game was Attack of the Mutant Cabbages which was for the RESET magazine 4kb game competition way back in 2016 (it came 7th place, I think). Vanja asked me if I’d be interested in joining Pond after the competition. Before Cabbages I made a few Shoot ‘Em Up Construction Kit games: Sopwiths & Pterrordons, and Abyssonaut (which won the SEUCK game competition in 2015). I like making games with odd names.
- Andreas – I still remember the first C64 game I made, coded in BASIC when I was 12 in 1988. You played a big ape that had to jump over barrels, and it was just as good as you can imagine a BASIC game written by a twelve-year old is… Then decades passed, I made some games on other platforms, but my first “real” C64 game was actually Spaceman Splorf.
Can you tell us about the how’s and why’s Pond Software was created?
Vanja created the Pond name for her and Andreas’ game Spaceman Splorf, and it grew from there really. She invited more of us to join and set up a forum for us all to chat together to discuss ideas and show each other our progress. That has been a really important part of Pond for me, the ability to communicate with a passionate group of people really keeps me motivated.
What do you for a living away from game creation?
- Stefan – I’m a sales professional.
- Graham – I design / build user interface for mobile apps and sometimes games.
- Ant – I’ve been working in data warehousing for finance companies for what seems like forever.
- Andreas – I’m a software engineer for embedded systems.
What’s the reason behind the name Pond Software?
It’s a tribute to the old software house Ocean. They released some really incredible games and were one of the biggest publishers in the 80s – they were a great big ocean, we are a tiny pond.
What’s your mission statement at Pond Software?
- Graham -I don’t think we have one yet! I think ultimately we just enjoy tinkering with old computers in our spare time, and are very keen to help keep them relevant by creating new content for them. But we do this as a low pressure hobby. At the end of the day, other things in life take priority.
- Ant – Honestly, Graham has captured this perfectly.
Are you surprised with the resurgence in retro gaming?
- Stefan – I for myself am not too surprised to be honest. I think it has to do with the whole process of getting older. You walk down memory lane and remember some of the greatest moments in your life. For me these were in my childhood and in front of a Commodore 64, later on an Amiga. The pop culture of the 80s formed me like no other decade. Cheeky fashion and all kinds of technology. Who wouldn’t want this back? The scene is so vibrant these days and that’s a good thing.
- Graham – Many people I speak to are surprised when I talk about making new C64 games, but I completely agree with Stefan that you always look back on things from childhood fondly, and with eBay and stores like that growing, it gets easier to get hold of stuff from your childhood and reminisce.
- Ant – I feel that we’re actually in a second of wave of resurgence, which I genuinely find quite amazing. Thinking about it, I guess it does make sense: a lot of people into games back in the 80s and 90s got into well paying (often IT) careers and now they’ve got disposable income and, hey, who doesn’t love reliving fond parts of their childhood?
Do you have any games that are just sitting on your drives unfinished that you may release one day?
- Graham – I think everyone who has attempted programming at some point has at least one half finished project just sitting around. Trouble is you lose interest when a project takes a long time to develop because a brand new, better idea comes along.
- Ant – Oh! I like this question! When I was a kid I tried prototyping some games on the C64 in BASIC and I’d love to resurrect these now that I have half an idea of what I’m doing. Cabbages was actually one of these and I only recently found the tape it was on! Anyway, there’s a Bard’s Tale-like RPG but with more tactical combat that I made some mock-up screens for back in the 80s. That’d be a neat thing to do.
- Andreas – I have lots of half-finished projects. The biggest is probably the candy-themed platformer.
Can you tell us what prompted you to get involved in Retro Game Development?
- Stefan – The wish to create a text adventure, in my humble opinion the most sophisticated form of a game in the 80s, dates back to my childhood. I adored adventures and I loved diving deep into the stories they told. Back in the day I was not experienced enough to create something good. With the return to retro computing, also becoming a collector of classic home computer hardware, the desire to create a text adventure came back very quickly.
- Graham – I always wanted to make a platform game, and I had a good few attempts at modern stuff on iOS with Unity. I found it too difficult though, and when I had a go at C64 programming again after many years I found that the restrictions actually helped me progress. This is how The Bear Essentials was born.
- Ant – When I was in high-school I dreamed of writing computer games, especially for the C64. As I got older, real world responsibilities kicked in and my dreams had to go on hiatus. What I see now is a wonderful opportunity to live out some of those dreams, maybe not to their full extent but enough to feel happy and proud and maybe a little more fulfilled.
What games at the time (and now) would you say are your biggest inspirations?
- Stefan – Text adventures in general. The most important creators for me were Infocom, Level 9 but also Lucasfilm with it’s amazing point and click adventures. I guess the black humor in Hibernated comes from my Lucasfilm roots. The adventure I love the most is probably Starfall. A modern inspiration definitely is “Life is Strange”, which I think is the evolution of the adventure genre. It’s all about telling a story.
- Graham – I played a lot of platform games, hence my wanting to make my own. It all started with Manic Miner on the Spectrum. Then came Jet Set Willy 1 and 2, Creatures 1 and 2, Turrican, Toki. When it comes to modern games, I always try and play through the big titles on the latest Nintendo system as the amount of care and polish that goes into those games is just unreal, and that sets a good standard to work to!
- Ant – Definitely games from authors like Andrew Braybrook, Martin Walker and especially, Jeff Minter (these are my “Big Three”). Specifically, games like Morpheus, Citadel, and Iridis Alpha where they’re highly polished, bursting with gameplay, and slightly quirky. I also get a lot of inspiration from what the other Pondies are doing: Graham’s Bear Essentials, Vanja’s 4kb games (I loved Goblin, the winner of last year’s RESET 4kb competition), Andreas’ Spaceman Splorf, Roy’s Paperplane (which Roy very kindly gave me the source code for to help me learn when I first started) and, more recently, Stefan’s Hibernated text adventure.
What is the biggest challenge you face with the limitations of the hardware, particularly as you continue to expand features title-to-title?(Memory? Graphical capability? Speed?)
- Stefan – For me it’s all about the memory.
- Graham – I always start with thinking about speed – can the C64 pull off this idea I have at a decent speed? Then comes thoughts about the graphical style and what would look best, and then once the game has started developing I start to panic about memory usage!
- Ant – Currently it’s a constant battle between memory (I love animation so I like lots of sprites), speed (getting those raster interrupts nice and fast), and maintainability of my own code (note: use more comments, Ant).
Do you have timelines built into the management of these games?
- Graham – You mean release dates and development milestones? I think because we chose to do Pond as a hobby project, it’s important to not pressure yourself into hitting strict deadlines. But I think we all give ourselves rough dates now and again that we would like to hit.
- Ant – What I love about Pond is the low pressure. Vanja never sets us deadlines so all my own deadlines are self-inflicted (I currently missed my last one, but that’s ok).
13: Any thoughts about doing games on other systems?
- Stefan – Hibernated has been published now for C64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Amiga, Atari ST and MS-DOS. I’d say there is not much left to expand to. Generally I love all those platforms and I’m happy that the game is available for nearly every favorite home computer of the 80s, resulting in an impressive target audience.
- Graham – Stefan has done really well by covering all the bases here! I would like to make a game for the Spectrum one day. I was thinking that maybe my 4k C64 game Dustin’ would make a good starting point for that.
- Ant – I absolutely plan to make a game for the Speccy, Atari 2600, and the Videopac.
- Andreas – Absolutely! Spaceman Splorf will be appearing on the Atari 2600 and the Videopac G7000 soon for example, and I’ve also released a game for Luxor ABC80, and I have some things for other platforms cooking as well!
What projects and games are you currently working on?
- Stefan – I’m currently working on “Eight Feet Under”, a quite big, standalone Hibernated 1 addon that comes with the physical release (for all platforms) in December.
- Graham – I’m working on A Snail’s Tale, another platform game which I started pretty much straight after The Bear Essentials, but for one reason or another hasn’t progressed very fast!
- Ant – I’m still beavering away on Petunia Pickle’s Pumpkin Peril. The end is finally in sight!
- Andreas – Getting Spaceman Splorf released on Atari 2600 and Videopac G7000.
Will there be physical copies of all your games?
- Graham – The Bear Essentials was released as a physical edition on tape and disk by ourselves. We have just partnered with Poly.Play to make some more copies of it, and also they will be releasing Stefan’s game Hibernated before Christmas.
- Ant – Gosh, I hope so!
Which of your games has been the most successful? (digital and physical)
- Stefan – Hibernated had thousands of downloads since it was put on 8bitgames.itch.io and it got an outstanding 87% score in Zzap!64. I believe though that Bear Essentials is our most successful game. It has a great reputation and it is well-known in the scene.
- Ant – I had a lot of really positive feedback from the Pumpkins preview last year.
HIBERNATED 1, tell us about the game, how the idea came about and why a text adventure?
Stefan – The world needs more text adventures and we are keen to revive the genre. Protagonist Olivia Lund has been sent on an exploration mission by the Terran Alliance She wakes up too early from hypersleep due to an extraterrestial incident. The idea surfaced pretty fast after I made the decision to write a science fiction game.
What was the hardest part of HIBERNATED 1 to create?
Stefan – The hardest part was actually finding out how an adventure could work these days. People tend to idealise their memories. A game they liked in the 80s might not work anymore. Not because the game changed, it’s because you changed. You’ve been formed by modern gaming. People don’t want to die in an adventure anymore and they don’t want to guess a verb. The focus is on experiencing a story, while on the other hand the nostalgic feeling shouldn’t come too short. To sum that up: the real challenge was finding a good middle course that resulted in a classic adventure with a lot of modern era thoughtfulness. I also remember that I really struggled with the first port of Hibernated 1 from C64 to ZX Spectrum. The C64 version used nearly all of the 64k memory. I wanted the game to be available for 48k machines, too. Getting something from 64k to 48k sounds like a big challenge, and it was. In the end I was able to achieve my goal by using text compression routines. I was not willing to delete a single word from the database as I found it very important to offer the same experience on every supported platform.
Bear Essentials is one of the finest C64 games ever, how does it make you feel to know you made that game?
Nervous but proud!
What was the inspiration behind The Bear Essentials?
The original goal was to make a game like Manic Miner but with the cartoon C64 style graphics of Creatures. Like I said before, playing many platform games over the years inspired me to want to make my own.
Which one of your games are you the proudest of and why?
As myself I would say The Bear Essentials. As a member of Pond, I would say Spaceman Splorf for it’s addictiveness, excellent graphics and music and also now Hibernated has been released and reviewed it had been credited for reviving the text adventure genre – something to be very proud of!
Which game has caused or is causing you the most headaches?
I’m finding A Snail’s Tale very challenging for a few reasons. It has a scrolling screen which I have not dealt with before. I’ve been busy with other life matters. Also now that I have made and released the game I wanted to make for so many years, my motivation and drive has dropped slightly. So that is all adding up to make development somewhat challenging!
What was the inspiration behind SPACEMAN SPLORF: Planet of Doom?
Splorf actually begin as a small demoscene intro with a space-theme that I was coding. Vanja drew some wonderful sprites – some asteroids and a little green astronaut among other things. When I saw it I got inspired and thought it looked like graphics for a game, so I did a quick test of an avoid-the-asteroids game, and the basic gameplay was in place rather quickly. I showed it to Vanja and she liked the concept, and from that, Spaceman Splorf grew into the game it is now.
What is the inspiration behind Petunia Pickle’s Pumpkin Peril the new game your working on?
Back a few years ago I decided to fulfill a lifelong dream of writing a C64 game in assembly code by creating a game for the RESET 64 magazine 4kb game contest. Unfortunately I decided to do this three weeks out from the closing date of the contest and I’d forgotten one important factor: I didn’t actually know how to write a game in assembly code. Somehow I managed to cobble together a game about giant mutant cabbages (and had a lot of fun doing so) and submitted it just in time. At some point afterwards I believe it was Vanja who suggested doing a reskin of the game for Halloween. Petunia Pickle’s Pumpkin Peril was born! A lot of scope creep later and here we are.
A huge thanks to the guys at Pond Software for taking the time to chat with us, some of you eagle eyed people would have noticed the the founder of Pond, Vanja Utne is not involved in out interview, Vanja is currently taking some time away from game development, we aim to do a retrospective on Pond in the near future too, if you want to get involved with us here at RVG please join our forums and let us know your interested.