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Pier Solar: Rebooting the Warhorse

When I was 14, I embarked on a long term mission to write a science fiction novel. I had only recently discovered my obsession with words, graduating from a nose deep in books to frantically scribbling a pen to paper. Thoughts would constantly run through my head, from possibilities for plot lines to the dark secrets hidden within the disturbing backgrounds of lead characters. Eventually my ambitions grew, and I decided that my novel should graduate from book to game. I was an enormous fan of adventure titles, and one day decided that I wanted to create my own based on the world I had created. Along with another creative friend, we sketched and wrote storyboards, dreaming of birthing the next Day of the Tentacle . But like most long term creative projects, it eventually fizzled away from my creative opus, eventuating into nothing but a silly teenager s fancy. Yet many find themselves in situations where such ideas evolve beyond rough scribbles on a notebook. Where the aim of the project moves beyond money, acclaim, or success; it becomes a labour of love. In 2002, a group of Sega enthusiasts mused on the Eidolon s Inn home brew forum about the possibility of creating a brand new JRPG from scratch. Many of the site s members were heavily involved in the console emulation scene, and as a result had worked on previous projects involving the reverse engineering of obsolete 16-bit operating systems, graphics and sound hardware. Eventually, the conversation moved towards a forum-wide volunteer development of a homebrew title for the much maligned Sega CD; an add-on for the Mega Drive that, in its day, arguably failed to make any significant inroads. The idea was to develop an RPG that was about the forum itself, and the relationships between the participants. Everyone would have a character, and the title would play on current JRPG conventions. The project bubbled along for a couple of years before some major roadblocks popped up. As the development team grew, so did the scope of the game, creating problems with the limitations of the 15 year old hardware. The idea was floated to switch the bulk of the title across to the Mega Drive, and then to use the Mega CD as a secondary (optional) content store; something that had never been done before, even by Sega themselves. It was in 2006 that Pier Solar was born, and the rag-tag group of developers became Watermelon Development , headed up by writer and project leader Tulio Goncalves alongside programmer and map designer Gwenael Godde. The team moved from the forums to IRC, email and a dedicated project site, and started production on the title with over 100 volunteers. Much of the initial expense was covered by the team s own funds, and for the next 4 years, the project would take over much of their lives as well. The team had an almost impossible task ahead of them. Unlike the consoles of today, there was no SDK (Software Development Kit) available for either system, so everything from the game engine to the map editor had to be written from scratch. Developing the extraordinary music score for the title was just as difficult, since there needed to be two soundtracks; one mandatory to exist alongside the cartridge, and the other optional high fidelity to sit on the Mega CD.

But game engines and music composition do not make an RPG special. Any JRPG worth its salt needs a good story to be successful, and PS was no exception. An initial draft for the game was developed in 2006 by Tulio, but spent the next 2 years being shaped and evolved by two other writers. Another volunteer wrote all the dialog for every one of the NPCs in the game, and yet another team of volunteers translated the title into five other languages. What came out the other end is a traditionally apocalyptic drama with strong characters and great plot. So the work began. Egged on by the growing community of fans, the PS team spent a whopping 6 years from conception folding the various areas of the title together. But developing a title for a dead console across a global team doesn t exist without problems, and there were many. Many financial woes, overworked and stressed out developers and a loss of limited stock in the factory were just a number of the challenges faced over the years. As a result, both of the team leaders took extraordinary measures to make sure the project would reach completion. Gwenael moved to China for an entire year to create and oversee the production process, from screws to chips. Both leaders also locked themselves in a house for an entire month to expedite the development at a crucial moment and guarantee the project s completion. But the fans weren t sitting docile either. After approaching serious financial ruin in 2008, punters were asked to buy pre-orders of the title, with the possibility of the game never actually making it to production. Fans responded, selling out all of the pre-orders within a year. Select members of the community also participated in a closed beta process, highlighting not only bugs but improvements to many parts of the title, many of which were taken on board and implemented. What eventually arrived as a finished project in January, 2011, is one of the most impressive independent feats I have ever witnessed in gaming. A glossy box and manual accompany a professionally printed and designed CD, alongside the largest and most complicated Mega Drive title ever developed to date. The game runs flawlessly on my 20 year old MegaDrive/MegaCD, which is a testament to the days spent on hardware testing; there are eleven combinations of compatible hardware. But the most impressive component of this entire project is the dedication from the team to completing not only a finished project, but one that will stand the test of time and rival any professional effort to date. Over 100 volunteers poured time, money and thousands of man hours into Pier Solar, for almost zero financial gain. If there was ever an example of the gaming community s strength, ambition and camaraderie, this is it.

Hyper: How did the creative process take shape and evolve? Gwnal Fonzie Godde: The creative process was split into three parts. Story, Graphic, Audio. The story had huge refinements made during the three first years of development, so we had to constantly rework / adjust everything so it kept matching.

Since the story was written as a theatrical piece, it did not always fit the template for a game. A lot of the creative engineering involved developing solutions so the Pier Solar world could fit the story, considering the game engine limitations.

Hyper: How did you get around the distance barrier? Gwnal: The internet. By the end of the project, around 100 people had participated. Without the net, none of this would have been possible. Tulio: Our sessions together had to be planned ahead, if it involved multiple members of the team. The main graphic artists (Fonzie, Daniel), the composer (Zable) and our Map Designer/NPC Writer (Zebbe) were on the same time zone, so that helped co-ordinate any artistic details. Fonzie and I were 7 hours apart so by the time I get home, he's off to bed. After Fonzie went to China (to sort out the manufacturing) it began working for us, since by the time I got home, Fonzie was waking up so we could spend about 5 - 7 hours together every day. Phyu and Sean (writers) didnt have much of a time gap, so that made it simpler for them to spend their time discussing the details of the story. Hyper: What were the biggest risks taken by the team? Tulio: The biggest risk we took was selling the game at the production cost. Originally we were unaware we were even doing this, but the first time someone ordered the game we noticed the PayPal fee. It had immediately delivered a negative balance. If that wasnt enough, for every improvement we planned carried yet another delay, which, thankfully, our customers were very patient with. But a major issue the improvements brought was the extra graphic development they required. This resulted with us having to hire extra artists to relief the already overloaded artists, and they aren't cheap. Seeing how deep in the hole we were financially, Fonzie proposed the bold move of producing the game all by ourselves. That was the riskier part, but in the end it was worth it. Gwnal: After all the delays and extra expenses, it came to a point we couldn't pay for production anymore if we wanted to finish the game without cuts. The solution was to go in China and produce all by ourselves. That process took a year of preparation; more than 10 different factories were used to produce the parts for the game. That move alone split the production price by a third, and as a result we could hopefully see the benefits after the reprint edition sold out. Hyper: What systems did you put in place to keep the game on track and focused over so many years? Gwnal: We had developed our own system, similar to a forum, where everyone could upload files and discuss various topics. Instant messaging was also used. During the last two years, the remaining tasks involved mostly execution so we used emails instead. We also used a standard message board for all the beta testing bug reports. Tulio: On top of that we tried using dotProject tool, which is essentially a free and bumped up online version of Microsoft Project. Unfortunately it wasn't implemented at the right time (that is, in the beginning of the project) and it wasnt very well adopted. In the end, Skype was the main vehicle of communication between Fonzie and I, given the fact it was not blocked at my workplace, it enabled us to discuss the game development day and night. If one of us was unavailable files were exchanged using Gmail.

Hyper: Were there any falling outs or disagreements? Gwnal: There have been many disagreements that stemmed from the lack of a hierarchy set up at the beginning of the project. That lack of "decisional" power really hurt / delayed the creative process. Tulio: Yeah, we had disagreements like all super long projects would have, but we were able to resolve all of them. The hierarchic problem that Fonzie mentioned did exist at times; because of the buddy-like way we dealt with all people involved, sometimes it was hard for them to accept some authority. But still we were able to work around all the problems and the game was completed. Hyper: Would the team work together again? If so, what's next for Watermelon? Gwnal: Many ideas are being discussed at the moment. I cannot reveal anything at the moment. Tulio: The possibilities exist. It will depend on many factors but I suppose it could happen. For now the only next thing we'll do is deal with Pier Solar sales and supplying the insatiable demand!

BOX OUT: Is it any good?

In a word? Yes. It s brilliant. The many years of deliberations, re-writes, and re-engineers have produced the most impressive looking, sounding and playing Mega Drive game I ve had the pleasure to enjoy. A special emphasis has to be handed to the composers; the score is fantastic, erupting during the intense battle scenes and mellowing to accompany the emotional moments. If you can get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend it.