Larva Labs Interview

Larva Labs Interview

Larva Labs Ltd is a company that specialises in design for Android, and indeed has produced a number of applications for that market across multiple styles including ‘PhotoWall’, ‘AppChat’ and ‘SplinterNet’ as well as ‘WordPops’ and ‘Boo!’ For those in the know however, they also produce a series of the most authentic retro-inspired 8-bit RPGs that you’ll ever encounter. It is on the subject of the Gurk series that Larva Labs representative, John Watkinson, speaks to us today.

MBU
Obviously I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a big thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule today. For those who are unaware of Larva Labs, could you tell us a little about the studio?

JOHN WATKINSON
We are a small development shop based out of Brooklyn. It’s basically a two-person company, founded by Matt Hall and I. There are a few other devs and designers we work with now and again, depending on the project. We do some contract work, and we work on our projects. Most of the work we do is on mobile, but not all of it.

MBU
What is your specific role at Larva Labs?

JOHN WATKINSON
I’m a co-founder and developer, and Matt is the same.

MBU
Can you introduce Gurk as a series for people who aren’t aware of it?

JOHN WATKINSON
The Gurk series consists of retro-styled RPGs that are inspired by some of the famous 8-bit RPGs from the 1980s. They are turn-based and optimized for “one-handed” mobile play, which makes them great casual games for when you are on the go and just want to kill a little time. These games subscribe the “big, open world” philosophy, where there is a central quest driving you forward, but you can also walk around and get lost, do certain things out of order, etc. That comes at the expense of strong, linear story, with cutscenes, etc. You won’t find any of that in the Gurks.

Gurk 1

The 9 Button user interface is optimal for this game.

MBU
Most people will have started with Gurk III, which feels like it got the biggest (or most visible) push of the three titles, what with an additional release on iOS. Did you find that sales of Gurk 1 and 2 increased in the wake of 3 as people doubled back to check out earlier entries in the series?

JOHN WATKINSON
Definitely not, ha! In fact, all the Gurks are labours of love. They earn very little money, but were fun to make and have a very devoted cult following. So that makes them worthwhile.

MBU
What is your personal history with the RPG genre like? Do you have any specific favourite titles?

JOHN WATKINSON
I played Dungeons and Dragons on paper, and absolutely loved the CRPGs as a kid. In fact, I rarely played computer games that weren’t RPGs. My favourites at that time were Ultima series (IV and V), the Bard’s Tales series (I, II and III) and Pool of Radiance. I played those on a Commodore 64. Later on, I got into Nethack on the PC.

MBU
Which games acted as inspiration for Gurk?

JOHN WATKINSON
Ultima IV and Bard’s Tale II were probably the biggest inspirations. I loved the music in those games. The sense of adventure was great in Ultima IV, as you could just go anywhere and get into trouble. Bard’s Tale II (and III as well) had a satisfying system for levelling and gearing up your characters. That probably provided the core values for the Gurk series.

MBU
What drew you to create the original Gurk?

JOHN WATKINSON
Well, as a kid who loved RPGs and also had an interest in programming, I dreamed of one day being able to make my own RPG. But, by the time I had amassed the skills necessary to make one, it was the mid/late 90s, and the world had moved on. Real-time RPGs like Diablo were popular, and I had no interest in those. MMORPGs were just getting started too, which also wasn’t my thing. So I kind of forgot about it and moved on.

However, in the early 2000s, mobile phones came along. I had one of those little Nokia phones with a tiny 128×128 color screen, and you could write apps for it using J2ME (Java 2 Mobile Edition). I looked into it, and found out that the apps were not allowed to be larger than 64K in size. As soon as I saw that number, a wave of nostalgia washed over me. This was like the 8-bit era all over again! So, I set about making an RPG that could somehow fit into this tiny footprint.

MBU
How long was Gurk in development?

JOHN WATKINSON
The original development of Gurk didn’t take longer than a few weeks. It worked and Matt and I enjoyed playing it while commuting to work on the subway. We decided to take it to the next level, so we set about compressing the game down further and further so it could deliver the maximum amount of fun in 64K. This involved some crazy tricks. For example, there are no world or dungeon maps in the game. Rather, there is a simple algorithm for creating random maps. We generated hundreds of maps, chose the best of them and then simply stored the corresponding random number seed for each in the game. This allowed for a surprisingly huge world while using a tiny amount of data. We also reduced the color palette of the graphics down to just 20 colors. Every time we found savings that would get us back below 64K, we would add another feature. All those improvements took another month or so. The final size of the app only had about 30 bytes to spare.

However, back in those days, you couldn’t just release a mobile app the way you can now. You had to pitch it to the companies that managed catalogs for the various wireless providers. We hit a real brick wall there. They were just not set up to work with small companies like us. We would have had to pay thousands of dollars just to sign up as developers, and even then have no guarantee that our game would be released. So, we ended up completely stuck; we couldn’t get it released. It sat around for about 4 years.

When Android came along, it had a Java-based SDK as well. I realized that I could write a simple translation layer to convert the J2ME code into Android code. I was able to convert Gurk into an Android app in basically a single day. The game runs as a “brain in a jar” that thinks it is still on one of those old Nokia phones. The reason Gurk has that grid of nine buttons is because that corresponded to an actual telephone keypad. I released it for free and it clocked in at mere 96K (the extra 32K being the translation layer and the app icon). Because the game was designed under such tight constraints, it is extremely simplified. So, I was surprised at the amount of positive feedback it got from old-school RPG fans. That’s what convinced me that I should take the plunge and make Gurk II, which had many of the features I was forced to leave out of the original, especially music.

Gurk 2

Some of the most charming sprite work you’ll ever see.

MBU
What were the gaps like between Gurk 1 and 2, or 3 and 4? Did development pause for long periods or was it a smooth transition between them?

JOHN WATKINSON
There were gaps, yes.This is because the Gurk series has always been my own evenings and weekends side project. Matt helped with the compression of the original Gurk, but the rest has just been me.

MBU
As retro-inspired games go, aping the Commodore 64 era systems is quite niche, with many people preferring to target a SNES/NES feel. Did you ever consider this?

JOHN WATKINSON
I didn’t play a console growing up, and I didn’t much care for the step-by-step story style of RPGs like Final Fantasy. Real-time action in RPGs doesn’t really interest me, either. So, I just made what I loved, especially once I saw that there was a fan base out there who dug this style of RPG.

MBU
Who is responsible for the excellent sprite and music work on the series? They serve to offer a lot of character using very little by way of resources.

JOHN WATKINSON
It’s all me, and I think that contributes something to the series, even if having these tasks broken up between specialists would probably have yielded a more professional result. A lot of the classic C=64 titles were the work of a single person (I’m thinking of, for example, Paul Norman games like Aztec Challenge and Forbidden Forest). There seems to be a kind of intimate charm to games that were all the work of one person. A lot of the Gurk II music I had lying around from the mid-90s. It was written for a failed RPG endeavour of a university friend. They are just MIDI files, so each phone model plays them a little differently. For the Gurk III music, I actually used synthesizers that simulate the sound chips of the C=64, NES, and other classic systems. The graphics were a challenge for me, but it helped enormously that each sprite is only 16×16 pixels. At that size, it becomes more a puzzle to figure out how to get the idea across rather than a wide-open art project.

MBU
Are there plans for a fourth Gurk title?

JOHN WATKINSON
At the present, there is not. Gurk III was an enormous amount of work! But I can’t rule it out completely. If I catch the RPG bug again, I won’t be able to stop myself from making another one!

MBU
Why isn’t the Gurk series visible on your official website?

JOHN WATKINSON
It’s a good question! I guess because it’s not really core to our business in any way, we just left it out. Players who are into these kinds of games seem to find them without our help anyways. The Gurk series does need a decent website, though, it’s a problem!

MBU
Overall, how successful has the series been?

JOHN WATKINSON
I would say that it has been modestly successful. It has not earned much money, but I’ve had lots of emails from devoted fans. So, it’s definitely been worth it, especially as it accomplished that childhood dream I had to make RPGs!

MBU
Is there anything you’d go back and add/change in the existing titles?

JOHN WATKINSON
Gurk III was actually a bit of a disaster from a tech point of view. My goal was to make it cross-platform so I could release it on both Android and iOS. And because the games have so little technical requirements, I thought I could just write it in Coffeescript (really just a thin layer over Javascript) and then make an app out of what was essentially a fancy web application. However, it just has never worked that well on Android, which was where nearly all of fans are. And considering that it required a complete rewrite of the game engine, it was a wasteful pursuit with a negative return! To do it over again, I would have just continued to target only Android and write the game in Java. This would have made development much easier and left even more time for content, music, art, etc. I did open-source the game engine, though. Check it out HERE (including a playable mini-Gurk game in the browser!)

MBU
Do you consider them a trilogy or three separate games?

JOHN WATKINSON
I guess I think of them as a loose trilogy, in that it is satisfying to play them in their original order, and enjoy how the game engine expands with each one. There is no story that threads them all together. But, I never liked that in other trilogies, because it reduces the sense of adventure. For example, I was very disappointed as a kid that Ultimas V and VI had the same world map as Ultima IV. I wanted to explore new places!

Gurk3 2

Gurk’s faux-handheld HUD gives the game real charm.

MBU
The 9-button user interface is excellent and distinctive to the series. Was it a result of initial development for phones with physical keypads and why stick with it through later instalments?

JOHN WATKINSON
Yes, it was an artifact of that original Nokia version, which used the phone’s actual number pad. I stuck with it because I felt it actually worked surprisingly well, and contributed to the ultra-casual “one-handed” playing style. In fact, many modern turn-based mobile games have very frustrating touch-based interfaces. It’s hard to do that really well, in my opinion. For a good example of that, try playing Civilization Revolution on a Nintendo DS, then compare to playing it on an iPad. Somehow, the DS is far more playable, even with simplified controls.

MBU
Some of the game’s elements are quite original. Do you have a favourite spell, item or monster in the series?

JOHN WATKINSON
I like monsters that don’t seem that powerful, but then can cause a lot of unfortunate mayhem. In Gurk II, the “Ravenous Slime” were individually easy to kill, but you had to take them seriously or they would multiply out of control. For items, I liked when a single item could really transform the character and its strategy. My favorite item is probably “Gorba’s Cloak” from Gurk III. It allows the mage who wears it to summon a bodyguard in every combat, and was probably a bit too over-powered. But it is usually the first legendary item that a player receives, and I like how it shows off the new item engine of Gurk III early in the game.

MBU
What advice would you give to budding game developers?

JOHN WATKINSON
The main advice is to start with a small project and get something done! Then learn from it and build another. The 64K limitations that I had imposed on me in the original Gurk eventually led to a pretty large and complex Gurk III. But if I hadn’t that initial limitation, the whole series would likely have never happened.

Gurk3 1

The worlds of Gurk are brilliantly open and huge in scope.

MBU
Thanks again for your time today. For those interested in learning more about Larva Labs their website can be found HERE, and Gurk can be downloaded HERE, Gurk II HERE and Gurk III HERE. We highly recommend that players with an interest in classic games of the Ultima mould check these titles out.

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