Interview with Ted Sterchi: Orange Island

Interview with Ted Sterchi: Orange Island
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We’ve done a fair bit of coverage of Ted Sterchi’s Orange Island over the past week or two with our Kickstarter Project of the Week series and a review of its pre-alpha demo but today, we actually had the opportunity to ask Ted a few questions about his love letter to the NES days. Enjoy:

Please tell us a little bit about Orange Island and yourself.

I’m Ted, a digital designer based in London. I grew up in a small town outside of Rochester, New York. As a kid I loved video games but I equally adored art and music. I’ve played piano since I was 9 and my grandma (one of the stars of the game!) was an art teacher so both of these things influenced me heavily. When I was roughly 15 I discovered a piece of software called Klik & Play which allowed for the creation of games and that’s where Orange Island began. Back then, it was called Orange Hunt and it was a single-screen arcade platformer. At one point there was an endless runner sequel called Lime Hunt! I’d stay up until 4 or 5 in the morning working on games to show my friends. My mom wasn’t a fan because I’d sleep in so late. It’s been years and years, but the idea for Orange Island has stuck with me and evolved over time and now I feel fully equipped to make it happen.

Please tell us a little bit about the game’s characters and their unique abilities.

  • How does each character’s unique stats affect the gameplay?

The main cast includes four kids in their early teens, a grandmother, and even a slime boy who we’ve just revealed! One of the kids, Theo, is visiting his grandparents Mary and Russell with his friends in tow. Needless to say, everything goes a little crazy once they arrive. Theo is the joker of the bunch; Azure is the brain; Kira is young and shy, and loves animals; Ami is slightly aloof but actually a big softie; Ren the Slime Prince is curious and kind; and Mary has become a bit hardened over time and the game’s story may just reveal why. Every character has their own stats for range, jump height, and strength. Jump height probably impacts the moment-to-moment gameplay more than anything else: it directly influences which areas you can and cannot access with any given character. There will be upgrade items that will augment some of these stats (high-jump boots, for instance). Not all characters will be able to use every item so you’ll have to use everyone’s unique traits to your advantage!

What was the inspiration to make an authentic NES game in 2019?

The idea to go 8-bit has been brewing for a while now. Over the years I’ve been playing with a bunch of visual styles (even 3D!) but something simply felt right about NES graphics. Before I knew it, I’d redesigned all the characters and started designing level graphics. I can’t put my finger on when exactly I decided to pursue a full NES port, but I guess I just loved the idea of being able to play something I made on a piece of hardware that I spent so much time on as a kid – also, I’m stubborn and a masochist, apparently. I would never say that 8-bit graphics are easier; they have their own challenges (especially if you’re trying to be fully authentic to the hardware), but it does put a restraint on things like the number of tiles, colours used, and animations. Trying to convey emotion and action with 16×16 sprites is hard! And readability is an issue: it’s quite easy to misinterpret such small characters. At the same time, the amount of assets I personally have to create now has a limit. So, as a mostly solo dev it just makes the scope of the project more manageable.

I hear you have a well-known music composer working on a few of Orange Island’s tracks, who are they and how did you manage to make this happen…?

  • Have you planned out where Kikuta’s tracks will be in the game’s story?
  • And who’s composing the rest of the game’s music? The tracks featured on your Kickstarter campaign are beautiful!

Thanks for the kind words! I’m composing the majority of the tunes myself – some of them are up to 19 years old. However, I’m working with Mark Sparling on audio production. It’s really fun working with him, I’ll send him my song demos (sometimes they’re very nearly finished and accurate to the NES, sometimes quite rough) and he brings them to life in FamiTracker so that they can actually be played on NES hardware. Sometimes he’ll add a bridge or tinker with a melody. As time goes on I’m trying to give him more autonomy and that’s fun because it allows me to hear my songs with fresh ears. I’d love for him to write some original tunes too. I have a couple more guest composers on board but it’s still early days.

The Kikuta-san collaboration came about when one of his representatives wrote to me after seeing Orange Island on Twitter. I really lucked out! Long ago I made a list of my favourite songs of his, and I definitely have an idea of where they’ll fit into the story. We haven’t chatted properly yet but I’m so excited to work with him. I still can’t believe it’s happening!

We’d like to acknowledge everyone working on Orange Island, please tell us about your team.

I’m aiming to create the majority of the game by myself to keep the budget down, but I’m working with specialists from a few fields to make Orange Island really soar. I’m working with Mark Sparling on audio production as mentioned previously, Salman Shurie has helped with dev work when I’m in a bind (he’s a Construct 3 genius), and Sarlis has been my key art illustrator for quite a while now. I’ve also had some help with pixel art: Skydevilpalm and LuckySW have helped me improve my enemy sprites and Moawling revamped my UI portraits and created new avatars for cinematics (and a shoutout to Midio who made the grass tile in the beach area). I also have someone onboard managing much of the social media and helping me a bunch with project management and copywriting. We’ll be working together on the script – the overall story is locked down, but I don’t trust myself to write convincing dialog and motivations. Hana from Humble Grove and my friend Yota Okuyama have both helped me with Japanese translations.
Also, Broke Studio will be handling the NES port which is obviously no small task!

From the Kickstarter trailer, there seems to be a wide variety of genre inspirations… I even saw a SHMUP level! Can you talk more about this?

I would say the vast majority of the game will be side-scrolling exploration, but it’s true that there is a SHMUP level! I’m also adding some RPG and even survival elements to add depth and give the game a unique feel. I’m trying to make sure that all of the different systems work together well and nothing feels tacked on. To be honest, the SHMUP level was a last-minute addition inspired by my love for the genre but I think it’ll slot nicely into the rest of the game and I intend to introduce some SHMUP bosses as well.

The pre-alpha demo showed us the general feel of the game, but the final version seems to be a lot more ambitious than what the demo proposes. What other features can we expect in Orange Island?

Yes indeed, the final game will have so much more complexity than what’s found in the demo! I think the core gameplay loop is kind of long-form so it was hard for me to create a “vertical slice” for Orange Island – the demo is really condensed and missing a lot of the gameplay systems that will be present in the final game. The final version will feature towns, people to talk to, side quests, inns, shops, hunger and sleep meters to keep an eye on, fun status effects, consumable items (for instance, food to keep your hunger meter up), and a handful of ability upgrades and armour for each character. There’s also a day / sunset / night system which was inspired by Castlevania 2 and Goemon’s Great Adventure. I love working on the palettes for each area and time of day.

In regards to the story, a bunch of kids on an epic adventure that may seem colorful at first but will slowly reveal a more touching story – I’m getting some real Earthbound vibes here! What were some of your past inspirations for this game?

A lot of the story was inspired by my own life, but I’ve augmented a lot of the events to make them more interesting or strange or moving. I appreciate the Earthbound comparisons! I wouldn’t say there’s anything I’ve directly referenced from Earthbound, but the general idea of having this world somewhat based in reality, kids on an adventure, and peeling back layers to reveal something a bit more bizarre is there. I’ve also been influenced by Studio Ghibli films (I love that they can balance cute and uplifting with heartbreaking), song lyrics, and even the 80s movie Cocoon! Usually, I know an idea is good if it brings a tear to my eye.

Please tell us a little bit about the game’s development, its challenges and the progress as it stands in mid-2019.

The game as it stands is in pretty good shape but I definitely have my work cut out for me. I’ve designed everything in a fairly dynamic way so adding rooms, items, and upgrades isn’t a major ordeal. The core engine is all pretty much there. I’ve designed the graphics for many of the areas in the game, we have 16 or so songs on the soundtrack (with more to come), and the story is in good shape. Now that we’re funded on Kickstarter, I’ll be able to take the time that the game needs to build out levels, think about puzzles, and just add fine detail to the framework that I’ve built.
I’ve started work on the time of day system already, but the status menu is pretty early. Obviously, making sure that things are within NES restraints is a constant challenge but at this point a lot of it comes naturally.

Were you surprised about the runaway success of your Kickstarter campaign?

I’ve been very surprised! Going into the campaign, I was prepared for any outcome; I think you have to be. I researched success stories, failures, even campaigns that succeeded in their funding round but were canceled or abandoned further down the line. All I knew is that I’d worked extremely hard on the campaign and put a lot of heart and soul into it, and I think that’s resonated with people.

Your Kickstarter campaign will be wrapping up soon and it seems to have been a tremendous success. Is there anything you’d like to say to your backers or to those who are still on the fence about backing?

To the backers: you have my endless thanks! I’m probably sounding like a broken record, but I cannot thank people enough for trusting me to deliver on my dream. For people on the fence, I hope you give me and the game a chance. I’m trying to make something a little different but I think the game can appeal to a broad range of people. I see Orange Island as a big balancing act: cute, but occasionally challenging (in terms of gameplay and ideas); inspired by old games, but with an injection of modern sensibilities; happy, sad, strange…I think there’s something for everyone!

You are also doing a special physical edition, can you tell us some more about that?

  •  Also, will these be available for purchase after the Kickstarter has ended for those who miss the boat to back it?

Yes! Well, we reached our NES port stretch goal so it’s actually going to be available on a physical cartridge. Depending on which tier you pledge, you could also receive stickers, pin badges, a commemorative coin, an OST on vinyl, and much more. I’m a designer by day so I always love creating all the things that surround the actual game too.
I believe Broke Studio intend to make the game (complete in box with manual) available post-campaign on their shop, but some of the rewards are exclusive to our Kickstarter campaign.

Orange Island

The game’s box art is quite unique, actually reminding me of 90s cartoons. Will this artwork be reflected in the final version of the game?

  • Also, will we get a physical manual that shows off more of this artwork?

I’ve not done any of the game’s promotional illustrations myself and that’s by design: I wanted to embrace the idea of the in-game art being mismatched from the box art. You can look at many NES games for examples of this, Mega Man being a famous one. So, Sarlis has done all the main art but we’re also working with Andy Pants, Mason Dickerson and more surprise guests to be announced. There will absolutely be a physical manual featuring this artwork! I love what Mason Dickerson has done for the enemy illustrations so you’ll hopefully see more of that going forward. We’re also offering a digital artbook to certain reward tiers for people who want all the artwork in one place.

When can we expect to play Orange Island on our NES (I may need to blow the dust off of mine) or if the stretch goal is met, Nintendo Switch?

First of all, we’ve reached the stretch goal for Switch! It’s still sinking in. But you can expect to play Orange Island next summer (UK) on PC / Mac / Linux, with ports to NES and Switch to follow. It’s hard for me to say when the ports will be available because, in the instance of the NES version, Orange Island will be rebuilt from the ground up; it’s not a matter of simply moving the codebase over! I’ll be working closely with Broke Studio on the NES version, feeding them assets as I go along so that hopefully they’ll never fall too far behind my PC development. I think the Switch version will be more straightforward and we’re working with someone who’s handled this before so perhaps that could be available somewhere around Autumn (UK) of 2020?

Have you thought about any Switch exclusive features if all goes according to plan (e.g. HD Rumble, touch screen)?

Rumble could be really fun! At the moment I’m aiming for parity between the versions, so I’d like even the PC and Switch versions to be extremely (if not completely) accurate to the NES hardware. However, we’ll likely have different saving methods for console and PC versions so that people don’t go crazy typing in passwords.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?

Just that I’ve been blown away by the response. I’ve shown Orange Island at three expos in the UK now and there were points where I doubted myself for sure. At one of the of the expos in particular I was getting the occasional confused glance, but then other times I’d see someone’s eyes light up and they just *got it* – I think it’s these people that really encouraged me to keep going. I know my game is a little bit niche, but if you’re working on something similar don’t let that discourage you. There’s a lot of room for unique perspectives and ideas!

Where can readers go to find out more about Orange Island and keep up to date on the game’s progress?

I’m often posting updates on my Twitter or the game’s official account, but if you’re more interested in behind-the-scenes stuff, you can stop by our Discord server. I’m trying to be really transparent about the whole process.

And lastly, why the love for oranges?

In my teens I barely ever drank water – it was strictly orange juice or milk for me – so I think it stemmed from that. Shocking. I still drink a pretty hefty amount of orange juice. I virtually never drink milk nowadays.

We wish to say a MASSIVE thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. Please check out Orange Island on Kickstarter where you can download the pre-alpha demo and visit the official website.

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