Fan-made: when gamers become developers

By Jack Yarwood. Posted

For most players, their experience ends once a game’s finished. For a small but dedicated minority, however, completing a game is simply the end of one phase and the start of another, as their passion drives them to roll up their sleeves and create something of their own.

From fan games and mods to officially released homages and ageing classics, these projects all demonstrate an individual’s desire to express their appreciation of another developer’s work; some go even further and attempt to add their own bold and original ideas.

Though most publishers will generally discourage fan projects through cease and desist letters or legal action, not all companies are as strict on the practice, with some even giving individual projects their blessing as long as they aren’t monetised.

Meanwhile, other savvier creators will instead try to legally distinguish their work from the source material, creating their own characters and story, while attempting to capture the spirit and feel of the original.

Melkhior’s Mansion is an upcoming, not-for-profit project for Windows PC, ZX Spectrum Next, and ZX Spectrum 128, created by a small but enthusiastic group of fans. It’s a tribute to the work of Ultimate Play the Game – the British studio that would later become Rare – and draws inspiration from their classic library of 8-bit games, such as Knight Lore and Atic Atac.

You choose from a cast of characters including Sir Stamperlot the Knight, Lester the Serf, Zouch the Witch, and Princess Ashby, with the goal being to guide them around the labyrinthine home of the evil wizard Melkhior. Much like Atic Atac, the aim is to find the hidden pieces of key spread across the many hazard-filled floors, unlock the main entrance, and escape to freedom.

A RARE CHALLENGE

For lead designer Richard Jordan, Melkhior's Mansion was an opportunity to try something new – namely, build an isometric adventure in MonoGame – and also pay tribute to some of his favourite childhood games. “I discovered Ultimate’s games through playing them with a mate on his rubber-keyed Speccy,” says Jordan. “We mostly played Atic Atac and Underwurlde, two of my favourites from their awesome list of Speccy titles.”

After Jordan started the project, artist Craig Stevenson helped create the colourful, retro visuals of Melkhior’s Mansion, while musician Alberto J. González volunteered to work on the music. Kev Brady from the Spectrum Next team has also begun making a Next version of the game, and developer Bob Smith, who made SokoBAArn on the ZX Spectrum, is squeezing a version onto the ZX Spectrum 128.

Enemies will populate each room the player enters. They’ll have to bide their time before making for an available exit.

That’s a lot of work for a project being released for free.After receiving a positive response from his Twitter followers, Jordan contacted Rare to see if he could use the Atic Atac name. The studio was happy for Jordan’s team to proceed – albeit with a few conditions.

“They see it as a fan project which they’re cool with, as long as the name Atic Atac isn’t used, and no profit is made,” says Jordan. “They don’t want any confusion over what is, and what isn’t, an official Rare release. They wished me good luck, and I’m more than happy with that.”

LOVE AT FIRST BITE

Simon Quest: Transylvania Adventure is another fan-made project inspired by an existing IP. Developed by Travis Adamczyk and Jordan Chewning, the game’s both a homage to and parody of the NES game Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, a somewhat controversial title among fans.

“While I did enjoy the game in spite of its flaws, I’ve always thought the premise was a bit silly,” says Adamczyk of Konami’s Castlevania sequel. “[But] Simon’s Quest is a good base, because it was way ahead of its time in terms of progression, and that formula has since been improved ten-fold.

There are so many ways to take the core of that game and improve on it – add quality of life features, and help it flow better. It also came down to it having the easiest name to spoof. We thought, ‘Well, our hero can be named Simon Quest.’”

Simon Quest puts players in control of the titular vampire hunter, who arrives in Transylvania to find his rival Stan Helsing has already slain his arch-nemesis, Dracula. In order to reclaim the glory for himself, Simon must journey across Wallachia to gather what he needs to resurrect Dracula – and then kill him all over again.

Understandably, Simon Quest doesn’t reuse assets from Castlevania, and also ignores the series’ lore in favour of using characters from the public domain. Far from a fan-made Castlevania remake or sequel, Simon Quest is an approximation of the original game, wrapped up in a new adventure.

Players will have to travel across Wallachia to find the tools necessary to revive Dracula and protect their fragile ego.

For instance, the game keeps the villagers’ cryptic hints, but adds such improvements as include save points, a wider variety of movement options like backflips and slide kicks, and also a form of fast travel.

“The goal from the start was to make it look as much like a late-eighties Konami NES game as possible,” says Adamczyk. “When I was making Simon’s animations, I was watching a long play of Simon’s Quest on my TV while working on my laptop, and tweaking my sprites until they looked and felt right.

“It’s important to me that a lot of these graphical assets would work in those [older] games as much as they do in this one… I feel that’s something that Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon also tried to do, and it worked well.”

When Adamczyk announced Simon Quest on Twitter, fans soon voiced their concerns about a potential cease and desist order shutting down its development. For Adamczyk, this is definitely a worry, given how often similar projects are shut down, but he thinks he’s done enough to distinguish the two games.

“It is definitely on my mind, for sure,” he says. “The goal has always been to [make a game] that’s not owned by Konami, while still looking like it could have been. One thing to always remember with Castlevania is that it’s built on other people’s work: Bram Stoker, all of the Universal Monsters, religious texts… if it comes to Konami [shutting down] this project, I guess my first response would be figuring out what exactly they can claim, and changing it to make it legally distinct.

“This is my Nosferatu to their Dracula.”

A SPIRITUAL SUCCESS

Like Melkhior’s Mansion and Simon Quest, Hyper Sentinel also started out as a bit of a test for its creator. Wanting to learn the Swift programming language, Jonathan Port, lead designer at Four5Six Pixel, came up with the idea of creating a homage to the shoot-’em-ups of the past, with the main inspiration being the Commodore 64 title, Uridium.

Like Uridium, Hyper Sentinel lets players control a spaceship that can flip horizontally to glide either left or right across the screen, with the goal being to destroy stationary targets and waves of enemy fighters.

“The first time I played Uridium was at my friend’s house after it was released in 1986,” says Port. “I didn’t own a C64, but my friend did. I went around after school and he said, ‘Come and look at this new game, you won’t believe it!’ So, I sat down and was immediately drawn to this super-smooth ship sliding in from the left, and then the Manta space fighter popping out and zooming across the screen with the giant dreadnought moving into view.”

Hyper Sentinel may be a riff on Uridium, but you wouldn’t get these effects on a C64.

While Hyper Sentinel’s core mechanics owe a debt to Uridium, it also has a few tricks of its own. It adds power-ups to the existing formula, for example, and borrows additional flourishes from other classic arcade shoot-’em-ups.

“The back and forth ebb and flow of the game is heavily influenced by Defender,” says Port. “I also liked the little flying saucer bonus ship in Space Invaders, so the idea for the bonus Alienoids that pop up in Hyper Sentinel were a tribute to that – right down to having a trigger sound effect as they come into view. There are also many little special effect influences from games such as Robotron and Llamatron.”

NEO-RETRO

What’s interesting about Hyper Sentinel, in contrast to the other games mentioned so far, is that it’s a full commercial release. Its publisher, Huey Games, is in its own way a successor to Hewson Consultants, the original publisher of Uridium.

Rob Hewson, son of Hewson Consultants’ founder Andrew Hewson, started Huey Games with his father – and business partner John Ogden – back in 2016. A short while after Huey Games was founded, Hewson encountered Hyper Sentinel when talking to OAOA – Off And On Again developer Tim Keenan at an indie developer meet-up in Manchester.

“I watched a video and immediately recognised the influence of Uridium,” Hewson recalls. “[Tim] convinced Jonathan to come along and meet me and yeah, he brought along an iPad with a build on it, and I sat down and played it and gave him some feedback…”

Melkhior’s Mansion ditches the top-down perspective of Atic Atac for the isometric view of Knight Lore.

“Just after Christmas,” recalls Port, “Rob gave me a call and asked if it would be okay if he, John Ogden, and his dad, Andrew Hewson, could come over to my house. I remember the day very clearly. I was a huge fan of Hewson’s games from the 8-bit [era], and I was both thrilled and nervous at the thought.

“Can you imagine one of the gaming legends from your childhood turning up at your house for a chat? We talked about Hyper Sentinel, I showed the game to Andrew, and opened up the code so that John could take a look. We decided to work together and have been ever since!”

For Rob Hewson, his interest in the game stemmed from the idea of releasing a retro-themed arcade shoot-’em-up with modern conveniences. He nicknamed this style ‘neo-retro’. “The idea was to make people who play Hyper Sentinel go, ‘Oh, wow, this reminds me of X, but actually it’s throwing around so many more spectacular effects and modern animation,’” Hewson says.

MODDING MARVELS

Away from the fan games and homages, there’s the modding community – a group of people committed to adding everything from new items and characters to existing games, to complete overhauls that change the base experience almost beyond recognition.

Mods often require the original game to run, and most studios are fine with them as long as they aren’t using additional copyrighted material or breaking any internal policies.

Some of the most impressive and prolific modding communities are the ones that have grown up around large RPGs, like Fallout: New Vegas and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. These groups have given us such impressive delights as New Vegas expansion Fallout: New California, and Beyond Skyrim, which aims to create the entire continent of Tamriel in The Elder Scrolls V, complete with additional quests, voice acting, and music. For many of the people working on these mods, the goal is simply to get experience in the games industry.

Beyond Skyrim: Morrowind will feature new quests to embark on, including fully voiced characters.

“There’s a large block of people who want to break into game development and other creative industries,” says Linton Ineson, writer and quest designer on Beyond Skyrim: Cyrodiil and casting director for Beyond Skyrim: Morrowind.

“But it’s difficult to do that for most people. And one of the things that is often suggested by people in the industry is to create a portfolio of work. One of the ways of doing that is modding – I think you get a lot of people joining Beyond Skyrim to get a foothold and develop a portfolio of work to get into the industry. It’s like a bike with training wheels.”

REIMAGINING TAMRIEL

Beyond Skyrim is the work of multiple teams, each responsible for delivering a separate region of Tamriel as a downloadable mod. The project has been in development for several years now, predating even the release of Skyrim itself.

“It was technically formed very shortly before Skyrim was released through discussions on the Bethesda forums,” explains Ineson. “There’s a history of similar projects springing up for Bethesda games. So people were discussing plans for a similar project for Skyrim, and it was suggested to form a confederation for modding projects, rather than them all be independent.”

Beyond Skyrim has evolved somewhat since its initial conception, with members coming and going and the standards gradually rising to meet the professional quality of the base game. Not just anyone is allowed to contribute to the project, either: those who lack the necessary skills are directed to the Arcane University, the project’s own educational resource, to train up.

Players will get to explore the strange Sadrith Mora (it means ‘mushroom forest’), as well as volcanic ruins.

“We probably take it more seriously than people would think,” suggests Liam O’Donnell, 3D artist and technical director on Beyond Skyrim: Morrowind. “A lot of the time, people would expect that on a modding or volunteer project, you wouldn’t take it that seriously, or that quality isn’t important.

“But we’ve made a really big point over the last couple of years to hammer home the idea that we need to maintain a professional level of quality. Because a lot of us want to get into the games industry, and showing we can maintain that level of quality and standard is, I think, very important.”

KEEPING MOTIVATED

Keeping Beyond Skyrim on track has been one of the major hurdles so far. Given the mods are volunteer-led and require a tremendous amount of work – which includes asset creation, quest design, voice acting, and more besides – it’s easy for contributors to slow down or lose interest.

“One of the biggest challenges is just keeping motivation up with the team, because things take a lot of time,” says Kate Landels, Beyond Skyrim: Morrowind’s artistic director. “People have lives, so it’s just making sure everyone is still on board.

“And a lot of that is pushing towards things like trailers. We released the first trailer for The New North, which is our Morrowind pre-release, at the beginning of January this year, and before that there was a huge push of activity and… then it kind of died down for a bit. So it’s just mitigating those ebbs and flows.

“Productivity, I’d say, is the biggest challenge.”

Luckily for the different teams, though, they’ve had the benefit of Bethesda’s current release schedule, which means there’s been time to get their work developed and released. “I think Bethesda kind of helped us out a lot,” Ineson says.

“Because, generally speaking, these Elder Scrolls mod projects lose a lot of popularity and momentum when the sequel releases. And obviously, Bethesda is taking its time with The Elder Scrolls VI.”

Fan games will always be on a bit of a knife-edge, subject as they are to takedown notices from IP holders, but it’s hard not to admire the effort that goes into them. With their homages and mods, these communities are supporting the titles they love most, and expanding their lifespans long after their original creators have moved on to new creative pastures.

Each level is capped off with a boss fight in Hyper Sentinel.

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