Interview: Pier Solar
As praise rolls in for the unlikeliest critical darling of the last year in gaming, Drop-d speaks to Fonzie and Zebbe, two of the heads behind Pier Solar and the Great Architects, the first newly-developed Mega Drive game to see release in over thirteen years, to discuss the Internet, part-time games development, and where exactly you can still get MegaDrive cartridges made…
Congratulations on the development of Pier Solar, and its release, how have people found it? How have the reviews been?
Zebbe: Thank you very much! Most people have enjoyed the game a lot. Many mention the custom made packaging Fonzie has made, with the numerous details and high quality. People enjoy the game itself too, graphics, sound, gameplay and story all get mentioned, but some have troubles with the difficulty. If it is too hard, you can grind or ask on our forum for help. If it’s too easy… we can’t help you! It was intentional to make the game challenging, in many different ways and not just the battles. I read all reviews I see, which have only been about 3-4 when this is written. Their scores have ranged from “very good” to “fantastic but not perfect”.
How did the development of Pier Solar come about?
Zebbe: It started on Eidolon’s Inn, a fan site dedicated to homebrew, emulation and modding. Its forum members wanted to make a RPG starring themselves. As development progressed, the project became even more serious and evolved into a real 64 mbit cartridge game with a soundtrack disc. But the forum members do not star in the final version of the game, well, except for one guy…
Fonzie: I was reading time to time the “tavern” forum that Zebbe’s mentioned above. Then few months later, Tulio Adriano posted he was looking for people to get the thing started and I joined him. We worked several months before other people join. Then the project took more than four years to “take-off”and turn into an actual RPG.
Was there a concern that, given as how the last few Megadrive limited releases were also RPGs converted from Chinese, that retro gamers would think “more of the same”?
Zebbe: Never. It was always clear when the word spread around about Pier Solar: this is a NEW Mega Drive game, completely made by the team from their bedrooms. I’m very glad for that.
Fonzie: Pier Solar was started before those releases, so it’s just coincidence. It’s always funny to see mis-informed people saying “another RPG” while Pier Solar is the only new release since more than 10 years (laughs).
Explain the development process, then, of Pier Solar. Was it hard given everyone had jobs/college, etc.?
Zebbe: It didn’t make the development harder for me, it just took longer time and demanded the sacrifice of my social life. What made the development process hard was the different time zones we live in, people who joined but didn’t deliver any goods or even say “sorry, I’m busy, bye!”, and the constant loads and loads of work that you never saw coming until it was there. A thing that bothered me a lot were the many sacrifices of game content that had to be done about a half year before the game was completed. In the end, I think it was necessary though, because we had worked on the game for too bloody long and kept customers waiting for years. For the next game, I hope even more talented and dedicated people join us so the development process is shorter and the game even better.
Fonzie: We developed the project part-time. Some people only a few minutes per day, some a few hours per day. In the last two years, when it became sure we couldn’t finish the game without major effort, I switched to full-time, the last year being focused on bug-fixing and planning the production of the game in China. We had eight core members, but if you add the translators, testers, beta testers and other freelances, its almost a hundred of people who “did something” in the game.
Was it difficult to find a plant to manufacture the carts and cases/manuals? Where in the world still makes them?
Fonzie: At one point it got clear that given all the money invested to finish the game, the production price had to be cut by several times. It meant production in China, meant direct contact with factories. The process took about six months of research, four months of adjustments and two months of actual production, more than 10 factories involved. Since I lived in China back then, it made everything easier. The main challenge is that we made everything from scratch, firstly because some parts are not available anyway and secondly, because the rare available parts are garbage quality. Every single element of the game, from the protective blister pack to the screws are 100% made for the game, it’s a challenge not even SEGA faced back in the days and I’m very proud we could make it!
From what Drop-d has seen of the game, it’s certainly an impressive feat of storytelling as well as programming. Is there a fear of that getting lost in the novelty of it being the first new game for the console in nearly 13 years?
Zebbe: Some very harsh critics may say so, but the game is great enough to stand on its own. I don’t think people would have enjoyed it as much if it was only 8 megs for example, the huge cartridge delivers quality content and not just quantity. There are many homebrew games which are just “new games”, and they don’t have any special features like our game and don’t sell as much, obviously.
Fonzie: We made a RPG in its most classic form so it starts in a very classic way. However the way the story unfolds and all the additions make it unique and enjoyable to be played. Just try to play a classic RPG today, like Phantasy Star 2... You will likely find it unplayable, ugly and insanely difficult. It’s one of the biggest challenges we had to face… Make it feel like a classic and playable by today’s standards without any previous reputation.
A nice touch as well is that the game works with Sega/Mega CD to boost the audio and processing power required to run the game. Explain how that came about.
Fonzie: The game first started as a Mega CD project, because we imagined back then that disc were easier to copy. But the Sega/Mega CD has a lot of limitations in term of memory and makes RPG very hard to implement. So we switched to cartridge. We wanted to keep the soundtrack that was made for the Mega CD, so came the idea of the Enhanced Soundtrack Disc. As a sad side note, the sprites are small in the final game because htey were drawn with the megacd limitations in mind.
Where can we get the game, and how much would it be to get to Ireland?
Zebbe: You can order the game at our website, www.piersolar.com. It costs, same as anywhere in the world, $45 (€32), including shipping.
Any more projects in development?
Zebbe: Yes, we are always working! Maybe on several things, even. But as of now, we have nothing to announce yet.