Brian Provinciano is not built like a stereotypical video game developer.
On paper, he would seem to check all the boxes: bespectacled, clad most often in a pair of blue jeans and a loose-fitting t-shirt, and rarely seen without a baseball cap emblazoned with comic book superheroes.
It’s his arms that make you stop and take notice. Disproportionately thick and strapping, they stand out in sharp relief against the rest of his frame, giving the soft-spoken Provinciano the top-heavy profile of a body builder. The best way to describe it is that he appears, quite literally, to carry extra weight on his shoulders.
And regarding Provinciano’s past decade? Perhaps no truer words have been spoken.
Provinciano is 17, and he’s just graduated from Earl Marriot Secondary School in White Rock, British Columbia. Most of his contemporaries are knee deep in either college preparations or illegally acquired booze, but what tickles the synapses the average teenager does not seem to entertain Provinciano. After all, this is someone who attended the rigorous British Columbia Institute of Technology for Computer Programming…while he was 14, and still taking classes in high school. Bored, and hungry to tinker, Provinciano constructs a custom Nintendo Entertainment System for which he can “homebrew” new content, and embarks on a quest to apply an 8-bit coat of paint to one of his favourite titles at the time: Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto III.
“Brian Provinciano, whether he knows it or not, is working on the idea that will change his life.”
Appropriately codenamed Grand Theftendo, the project starts as a test more than anything — a challenge from Provinciano to himself to see if he can surmount the technical limitations of the NES, and cram into it the sprawling open-world of Rockstar’s blockbuster franchise. In a move as cheeky as you would expect from someone who attended university part-time before they were old enough to get a job, however, he soon starts to experiment with more than just the visuals. A voracious consumer of movies, comic books, and video games, Provinciano takes on the role of media mixologist, coding into Grand Theftendo characters and settings from the nostalgic staples of his childhood.
In brief, homebrew game design is the process of programming for more restricted platforms that are often handicapped by limited storage capacity and outdated technology that is no longer accessible. To oversimplify, homebrewing is the process of creating a new game for a much older system. It’s an undertaking that often involves getting access to original “development kit” hardware, or even breaking out the soldering iron.
In the case of Grand Theftendo, Provinciano did just that. You see, developing for the NES originally required programmers to write code in the now-archaic “Assembly” language. To that end, Provinciano programmed his own tools from the ground up, allowing himself to code in a way that the NES would understand. From here, he soldered the necessary components together to allow his custom-crafted Grand Theftendo to play nice with the 80s hardware. The result? What’s old becomes spectacularly new again.
Slowly, steadily, as he continues adding to his pet project, a rabbit hole opens. The concept of “indie development” doesn’t have nearly the cachet it does today; Kickstarter is just a twinkle in the internet’s eye. But Brian Provinciano, whether he knows it or not, is working on the idea that will change his life.
Five years have passed since a curious, young Provinciano asked himself what it would look like if Grand Theft Auto had existed in the 80s. In the time that’s elapsed, he’s cemented a place in the Vancouver video game industry as a modest, consummately qualified coder, free of ego and full of raw talent. Backbone Entertainment, where he works, focuses almost exclusively on creating licensed games in service of larger publishers. Since having started there three years ago, Provinciano has plugged away diligently, living out a teenage dream come true: working on entries in major franchises like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mortal Kombat.
All the while, he’s labouring amid the game industry’s notorious “crunch” conditions, sometimes sleeping overnight at his desk or on a company couch to ensure he meets project milestones. It’s tough work, but he loves his colleagues like they’re family, and doesn’t see the harm in a few extra-long days. At least not yet.
Meanwhile, any spare moment he can find is spent fleshing out the world and gameplay of Grand Theftendo. Gone are the replicated missions and maps from Grand Theft Auto III; in their place sits a crime-filled metropolis coded entirely from scratch on PC. What began as a teenage flight of fancy is quickly becoming something much more epic in scope. He even incorporates under the name Vblank Entertainment — a callback to the ‘vertical blank interval’ of time between the display of images on an old CRT TV screen, commonplace in games on the NES. Who knows? He might do something with it one day.
It’s June 2015.
Brian Provinciano and I are sitting on the couch in the living room of his apartment in downtown Vancouver. Located on the 17th floor of a building in the city’s downtown core, Provinciano’s unit is emblematic of real estate in the city. That is to say, it’s smaller than it has any right to be for the amount that it costs, but my, are the views spectacular. Ironically, I’m here to talk about life after the release of his magnum opus, but invariably, that involves the story of how it came to be. And right now? He’s telling me about the moment six years ago when he became his own boss.
“One day, while sitting at his desk, he had an epiphany.”
At the time, he was working for the now-defunct Propaganda Games, on the wildly ambitious, eventually cancelled Pirates of the Caribbean: Armada of the Damned. Think of it like the massively popular swashbuckling simulator Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, set in the universe of Disney’s popular piratical film franchise. His role? AI Implant Integration and Miscellaneous Tools. If it sounds confusing and nondescript to you, don’t worry: you’re not alone.
Provinciano had transitioned to Propaganda from Backbone in July of 2008, eager to challenge himself yet again, this time in the world of big-budget “AAA” development. For a while, though, he tells me it had felt more like he was “programmer #100 on a small aspect of a massive title.” Adding to his restlessness, the project that began its life as Grand Theftendo was now decidedly a beast all its own. Even before touching down at Propaganda, in fact, Provinciano had the bare bones of an original, playable satirical story finished.
Then, one day, while sitting at his desk, he had an epiphany.
“I looked around, and I saw everyone at their desks in this big room – essentially cubicles you could say – and I looked at the lead programmer, and I just thought to myself, ‘okay, well, in a few years I could be the lead. In a few more years I could maybe be the technical director, and he’s got an office over there next to the cubicles…but he’s still just working in his office. It’s like…ten years from now do I still want to be in this same room?’ And I just realized, no, I feel like I’ve accomplished everything there is to accomplish here, and if I go any further here, it’s just going to be Groundhog Day.”
Shortly after that reflection, in June of 2009, Provinciano decided that he could no longer keep his passion confined to the sidelines. Making the difficult choice to abandon a stable salary and healthcare benefits, he hired himself on as employee #1 of Vblank Entertainment. I can’t imagine the interview process was too hard.
In today’s video game industry landscape, there is an undeniable appeal to the notion of ‘going indie.’ Breaking free from the constraints of the soulless 9-to-5, and making games on your own that have real meaning, for more than just a paycheque. Make no mistake: independent game creation has been around as long as the medium itself. Hell, the first Pong arcade machine was cobbled together by three people, in part using a black and white TV from Walgreens and the coin mechanism from a laundromat. Since the advent of digital distribution platforms like Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade and Valve’s Steam in the early 2000s, however, it has become exponentially easier to create and release smaller-budget titles outside the walls of a major studio.
Hugely successful one-man releases like developer Jonathan Blow’s Braid — now representative in many ways of the ‘indie scene’ — have become symbols for the idea that anyone with a great idea and enough talent can create something millions of people can play. The outright explosion of smartphones as a gaming platform and storefronts such as Apple’s App Store have further perpetuated the idea that there’s no better time than now to quit your day job and make a video game. And that’s to say nothing of popular crowdfunding platforms, which have allowed even well-known creators to reinvent themselves as underdogs, asking for fan support to stick it to mean old publishers and make their dreams become a reality.
“I had saved up for years and years to start my own company…and here I was with a hole in the boat”
It suffices to say that now, more than ever, striking out on your own to become a video game developer is encouraged. Romanticized, even. For Provinciano, however, the reality of going indie was anything but romantic. In fact, trouble began the moment he sat down to code.
“The week that I quit my job to go indie, and do this game full time, start my company, [and] get an office, I pulled my back,” recalls Provinciano. The niggling back and neck issues that had begun to emerge as a result of his unhealthy work schedule at Backbone had started to deeply affect his body. “I’m just sitting at the computer working, and then all of a sudden, ‘oh jeez, my shoulder blade!'” It’s safe to assume “jeez” here represents much more colorful language, retroactively scrubbed from Provinciano’s recounting of the tale. At first, he says, he tried his best to ignore the pain. He’d just given up a reliable income to work full time on a self-funded project, and wasn’t about to let a few aches and pains derail things.
A few months later, however, while doing “seemingly nothing,” he began to experience unbearable strain on his neck. This time, ignoring things wasn’t an option. Provinciano, defined by a self-professed obsession with “starting and finishing things,” heart-wrenchingly put further development of Grand Theftendo on hold temporarily.
“I had saved up for years and years to start my own company and fund this game, and here I was with a hole in the boat, just draining the wallet on treatments and chiropractic and massage just to get back to ground zero. And so, about six months after I went indie to do this game, I had to take some time off to just deal with the exercises to try and rehabilitate and it drove me nuts and that was when was I really very, very worried and…” He trails off. Reviewing my tape later, he never does finish that sentence, but it’s far from difficult to fill in the blank. Provinciano is worried that a mere half-year after he had thrown caution to the wind in order to pursue his dreams, everything had already come unceremoniously crashing down around him.
Thankfully, a rigorous treatment schedule seemed to alleviate just enough pain for him to get back to work. By the time he was done with rehab sessions and back in the office, though, deadlines were looming.
“I had to scramble to get things ready for GDC because that was a big announcement,” recounts Provinciano of preparations for that year’s upcoming Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. “There was a lot of chaos surrounding that, but I pulled things together and got things ready for GDC. That point was very, very rough.”
The announcement in question? A little game called Retro City Rampage.
“Super Mario meets GTA.”
Such was the elevator pitch for Retro City Rampage as he showed off a playable demo to journalists in San Francisco. Positioned by Provinciano as an “open-world action parody,” the game that was once a playable shrine to Grand Theft Auto had now emerged as an over-the-top lampooning of it. Set to release digitally on multiple platforms, the game would cast players in the role of the appropriate named “Player,” traipsing around the city of Theftropolis, meticulously styled after the classic games of yesteryear.
Everything from the storyline to the weapons would be a loving reference to the comic books, movies, and games that were so formative to Provinciano all those years ago. Yet, if Grand Theftendo had been Brian Provinciano the high school graduate asking himself, “can I put Grand Theft Auto III on an NES?” then Retro City Rampage was Brian Provinciano the now-seasoned game developer adding, “can I also make it better?”
“The point of it [Retro City Rampage] was that there were a lot of games up to that point, GTA-style games, where, if you boil it down, it’s a beautiful game with great physics and action, but…it’s just going from [point] A to B and shooting things,” explains Provinciano. “I didn’t want that. I wanted a game where you’re going to be stopped in your tracks at some point unless you stop and think, ‘okay, how do I approach this? Which weapons do I use? Which weapon do I switch to for this enemy type?’ There was a whole new layer on top of the [original] game that I designed.”
“Super Mario meets GTA.”
And design truly is the optimal word in this case. Beyond the core programming, Provinciano took on the role of artist and designer, leveraging his not-inconsiderable talents to wear multiple hats, while filling in any blanks he came across by putting in 18-hour days teaching himself new skills. (Later in the game’s development, Provinciano would split the art load with little-known Quebec graphic designer Maxime Trépanier to preserve his sanity.) Music is the only place he truly relented, deferring to the talents of veteran “chip tune” artists Jake “Virt” Kaufman, Matt “Norrin Radd” Creamer, and Leonard “FreakyDNA” Paul to craft over two and half hours of signature bleeps and bloops that would take players on a trip through their childhood gaming library.
Fittingly, Retro City Rampage’s soundtrack is composed entirely in “chiptune” style — a niche subgenre of electronic music in which tracks are produced using classic game consoles or arcade machines. In this case, it is (of course) the NES’s three-channel sound chip which plays the role of orchestra for the voltron of talented composers assembled by Provinciano.
Like a quilt made out of pre-millenial childhood, the soundtrack is stitched together with a cavalcade of sounds and musical queues which pay reverent, tongue-in-cheek homage to games from Nintendo, Konami, Capcom and more. With that said, cutesy references a full soundtrack does not make, and Kaufman, Creamer, and Paul’s massive talents are on display throughout each of the 24 tracks which comprise the game’s album.
Filled with ceaseless energy and surprising variety, Retro City Rampage’s music crosses genres as easily as it spans generations. It’s like That Friend Who Wants to Stay Up Late Reminiscing About Your Childhood: The Album.
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On the point of going it alone, I have to ask: was it a matter of insularity? Had Retro City Rampage been Provinciano’s baby so long, in various forms, that he didn’t trust a small team to see it through exactly as he envisioned? His answer is a heartbreaking Catch-22 which speaks to the often unpublicized reality of independent development.
“It was primarily financial. I had saved up for years to do the game, and especially after having to pay for all those treatments, the money was just draining.” Provinciano’s time in the industry meat-grinder had put him at a handicap from the outset, but a stark reality was starting to sink in: his health may not be able to afford to go it alone, while his wallet most definitely couldn’t afford to hire a team. It didn’t help anything that another one of Provinciano’s primary traits seems to be stubbornness, either.
“I also had to borrow some money up to that point, and I didn’t…I just don’t like borrowing money. I don’t like having that burden on my shoulders,” he elaborates. Of course, opting to work within a tighter budget only consigned him to more and more 18-hour days, but that’s the kind of prescient observation only one’s future self can make. “Again, in hindsight, I should’ve borrowed more money so I could’ve hired someone, but at the same time, it’s one of the hardest things for me to do, to borrow money. I like to be self sufficient, self reliant.”
With blinders on, Provinciano continued work on Retro City Rampage, concocting new ideas, adding in content, and creating custom tools and software engines from the ground up to assemble his open world (existing options did not meet his exacting standards). On August 19th, 2010, exhausted and feeling the end was in sight, he uploaded a video to YouTube. Titling it “Retro City Rampage OFFICIAL Trailer,” he hit publish, giving the world a look at how far Grand Theftendo had come.
Despite showing off just a small part of the Provinciano’s pastiche, the trailer was filled with madcap action, and more retro references than you could shake a (joy)stick at. Gritty sewers still recognizably straight out of Super Mario, dimly lit dungeons reminiscent of the adventure of a certain tunic-clad hero, and, of course, open-world chaos. From the looks of it, players would have the chance to cause mayhem with everything from vehicles to bionic arms. And as the titular “Player” drove his truck unwittingly into a street lot full of explosive barrels, disappearing into a smoking crater, the title flashed across the screen:
“Retro City Rampage. Downloading to your console in 2010.”
The game would never make that release date.
In retrospect, Provinciano chalks it up to naïve enthusiasm. When he added the 2010 release date to his debut trailer for Retro City Rampage, he wasn’t trying to trick anyone into getting excited prematurely. He truly, genuinely thought the game would be hitting digital store shelves before the year was out. Of course, he’d had plenty of warning to the contrary.
“I had a lot of experienced people telling me, ‘man, it’s going be so much work, you need a team,’ and so on.” Again, present-Brian is reflecting wistfully with me on past-Brian, discussing the dangerous cocktail of talent and conviction.
“I believed in myself so much that, for example, they would say, ‘it’s going to take you this many months just to get some contract signed to come out on this platform.’ And of course, I was like, ‘oh no, that’s not going to be me! Because my game’s really far along and it’s already running on that platform! There’s no way it’s going to take me that long, don’t worry about it!'” He pauses deliberately before continuing, as if he’s about to deliver a punchline.
“…And then it takes you that long.”
Ultimately, the problem was that for every role Provinciano willingly took on – artist, programmer, designer – there was another that fell to him by necessity, eating up vast swaths of his time.
“Once you announce your game…the floodgates are open, and you cannot close them.”
“I was the sole programmer, and doing some art as well, and doing all the design, but also, the marketing and PR. And so, when it came to the business side, and marketing and PR, the biggest challenge was that I’d also have a big to-do list of missions to design, or missions to make, or code to write,” recalls Provinciano. “At one point, there was a one month span where I would go into the office every single day ready to tackle that to-do list and write some code, and then I would get more e-mails, have some paper work to fill out, people wanting to do interviews, and it was very hard to juggle that.”
Where this last point was concerned, it seemed maddeningly to Provinciano like he was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t. On one hand, he was well aware that a crucial part of his game’s success depended on his “hustle” — his ability to pound the internet pavement, talk up Retro City Rampage to anyone that would listen, and keep his game top-of-mind for fans. Conversely, any time spent talking about his game was invariably time he wasn’t spending finishing it.
“There was a time at one point where I just didn’t ever want to turn down an interview, because I didn’t want to seem ungrateful,” he recounts. There is a 24-page long list of results that come up when you search Google for “Brian Provinciano Interview” that can attest to this. Admirably, it seems filled in equal parts with staple publications like IGN and Gamasutra, and much lesser-known blogs and podcasts. A set of results like that doesn’t come without a cost, however.
“It just sucked up so much of my time…but once you announce your game, and start the press push, the floodgates are open, and you cannot close [them],” he says. “So if you were to try and work 40 hours a week, you’re all of a sudden going to be working 60 hours a week once the floodgates are open, if you still want to do 40 hours of a week of development and code.”
And perhaps surprising no one, that’s exactly what he did. By the time December of that year rolled around, however, an increasingly beleaguered Provinciano had to come to grips with the fact that the game would not be shipping in its promised window. Attempting to continue his transparent approach to fan interaction, he reached out to as many press outlets as possible and conducted a series of interviews that explained the game’s delay on Nintendo’s digital download platform (then-called WiiWare), and set the record straight about plans for a staggered release in 2011. Due to the behind-the-scenes bureaucracy, the new roadmap would have Retro City Rampage hitting Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade in Summer 2011, and WiiWare in Fall of that year.
To the denizens of the internet, though, it was all too much information. It sounded like excuses. They smelled blood in the water, and lashed out.
“A lot of fans don’t understand, and it’s not their fault,” he adds gracefully. “They don’t understand exactly how games are made, and so they get very, very impatient. And it’s easy to look at it glass half-full, where you think, ‘oh, well, they’re being really rude to me, demanding the game be done, and for it to be in their hands, but they mean well…the root of is it that they’re excited and want to buy it.’ However, when you’re really, really stressed, and on death’s door, constantly reading things from fans that are just really rude, outright insulting you, swearing at you, demeaning you, personal attacks…” He seems lost in thought for a moment. For many of us, I imagine it’s hard to even conceptualize the idea of the thousands of anonymous, vitriolic comments he’s read over the years. Snapping out of it, he finishes.
“That’s really, really, really rough on you.”
As hard as it is to hear him recount the intensely negative, personal fan reaction to his game’s delay, the phrase that takes me furthest aback is “on death’s door.” It’s the first time in our interview that Provinciano has referred to his health in such dire terms.
It isn’t, however, the last.
It’s October 8th, 2012. Tomorrow, Brian Provinciano’s game will come out.
If you’re wondering where 2011 went, then you have something in common with Provinciano. Excitingly, the past year has been packed with attendance at developer conferences and fan expos, more press for Retro City Rampage, and even a cavalcade of awards and accolades. Something exceptionally important was notably absent, however: the game’s release. In part, an ever-increasing tangle of business complications are to blame. With that said, Provinciano’s pesky perfectionism has also played a part. On this point, his summary is perhaps the most succinct and accurate I’ve ever heard.
“I feel weird calling myself a perfectionist because I see so many flaws in my work.” Whatever the specific term, he is in part responsible the game’s still-unreleased status. Wanting to deliver a Retro City Rampage that expectant fans deserve, he has expanded the scope of the game immensely since his announcement of the unfortunate delay in December 2010, including a planned release on PlayStation platforms.
“For Provinciano, going indie was more Faustian bargain than hero’s journey.”
Alongside over 50 main missions, players will now have access to in-game “Secondhand Sprees” that task them with accomplishing outrageous tasks like running over a certain number of pixelated pedestrians in under a minute. Results will be tied into live “leaderboards” on each platform — it’ll be like setting a high score in a classic arcade game. Speaking of which, an in-game arcade previously housing a few novelty machines is now stocked full of playable parodies of popular indie games such as Super Meat Boy and Bit. Trip Runner. This is to say nothing of the unwieldy roster of unlockable characters, paying homage to everything from popular franchises to well-known game journalists.
Amidst chaotic preparations for the game’s long-awaited launch, Provinciano has spent the last few weeks in and out of the hospital. As it turns out, a furiously busy 2011 filled with feature creep and contractual hoop-jumping wasn’t the best medicine. Sadly fitting, perhaps, that in a long decade filled with many ups and downs, the worst down period of all is happening right now.
“The roughest period was absolutely launch…at launch, and leading up to launch. I was actually going to the doctor and the hospital, and just…just feeling so ill. Feeling like I just physically couldn’t couldn’t carry on. I just felt like I was almost on death’s door.” There’s that phrase again. A stark reminder that creating something meaningful can often come at a massive cost, and that for Provinciano, going indie was more Faustian bargain than hero’s journey.
Retro City Rampage launched on PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Windows PC and Steam on October 9th, 2012. By then, it had been a full decade since a much younger, much less battered Brian Provinciano brought home a Nintendo Entertainment System and asked himself if he could use it to recreate the world of one of his favourite games. A decade filled with debt, debilitation, and massive expectations for a project that had come to consume him physically and financially. Ideally, here is where I’d type the sentence that would shift the tone of this paragraph to tell the uplifting tale of a long struggle handsomely rewarded.
This isn’t an inspirational story, though. It’s a true one.
“[Retro City Rampage] wasn’t the overnight success. And it was really surprising, and contributed to stress around launch,” details Provinciano. “It had so many awards, and so much hype leading up to launch, but when it finally launched, there were a lot of factors. It wasn’t launching on all the platforms at once; it came out the same day as the two biggest games of that year [2K’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and Arkane Studio’s Dishonored]. It was just so much chaos, and it didn’t do nearly as well at launch as I had expected it to.”
So much chaos. I’ve typed over 5,000 words by now to tell the story of Brian Provinciano, but suddenly it feels like just those three will do. Continuing, Provinciano reveals a raw, honest sentiment often swept under the rug among more highly publicized stories of rags-to-riches success.
“It wasn’t worth it…based on the toll on my health. At the time, it wasn’t in my mind a success, and that was very hard on me.”
“It didn’t feel worth it. It was one of those things, where I felt like, ‘okay, I’ve turned down salary at other companies for all these years to do my own game,’ so if I look at what I could’ve made working for those other companies with no risk, not working 7 days a week, not working 18 hour days…it wasn’t worth it. It needed to be multiples of that to make it worth it based on the toll on my health. And so, at the time, it wasn’t in my mind a success, and that was very hard on me.”
With the weight of his own lofty expectations bearing down, Provinciano turned to the verdicts of others: reviewers, friends, and most importantly, the fans for whom he had been building Retro City Rampage.
“As drained as I was when it launched, when reviews were coming in, that were 9.5, 9, 8.5, and I was seeing people playing the game on YouTube, it was that nice moment like in the movie,” he says, referencing an emotional sequence from popular video game documentary Indie Game: The Movie. In it, the creators of indie hit Super Meat Boy watch fan-made playthroughs of their game, awash with joy. More sombrely, Provinciano finishes his sentence.
“…And then the IGN review came out, and that just destroyed everything.”
Published a week after the release of the game itself, on October 15th, 2012, then-staff writer Greg Miller’s review of Retro City Rampage scored it at a 5.3, earning it the site’s “Mediocre” moniker. In his evaluation of the game, Miller said that while “there’s plenty to like about Retro City Rampage…the story…just doesn’t stand up,” adding that “Player’s quest is just an excuse to get to the next reference, the missions tend to be cheap, and checkpoints aren’t forgiving.” Provinciano was devastated, and more than a little angry. As someone who’s seen more than his fair share of games through to release, though, I hazard to ask him if he mightn’t have been wading into dangerous territory, getting upset at a reviewer for a bad score.
“You’re absolutely right, with most other reviews, whether they were good or bad, it’s like, ‘that’s their opinion, fair enough,’ insists Provinciano. With IGN’s assessment, though, he’s convinced there was more at play than a simple difference of taste. “There were so many glaring problems with [the review]; there was evidence he was playing on a portable version without the audio on,” he says, implying that a play session with the soundtrack present would have created a whole different ambiance and allowed Miller to catch important audio queues.
In addition, he strongly believes Miller went in with a stubborn insistence on “shooting stuff, just shooting stuff,” without paying attention to the goals of each individual mission. Suddenly, however, he stops himself from listing specifics, perhaps fully aware that he’s verging on revisiting years-old controversy.
“I’m getting into semantics, but there was evidence that his review was unjustified, and for him to just disregard it and to say, ‘oh, it’s just my opinion,’ is disrespectful.” Here, Provinciano can’t seem to avoid flaring up again.
“I said, ‘no, it’s not your opinion. You represent the number one gaming publication in the world, the number one visited gaming site in the world, [and] one of the biggest websites visited in the world, that to so many people is the word. They don’t see any other reviews, they don’t listen to what anyone else says. They just see what you say, and that’s the word to them. You represent the biggest gaming media presence in the world. So it’s not just your opinion. You have a responsibility!”
“The IGN review came out, and that just destroyed everything.”
On the subject of that responsibility, I reached out to erstwhile IGN editor Greg Miller to discuss the review and Provinciano’s reaction to it. Chatting via Skype a few weeks after my discussion with Provinciano, Miller offered his own take on the situation.
“I don’t know where he’s coming from with [assertion that] I wasn’t playing with the audio on,” he counters from his San Francisco apartment. Along with three former IGN colleagues, he left the site in early 2015 to begin producing independent, fan-funded video content under the banner Kinda Funny. “If you read the written review, the only time I talked about the audio is when I complimented how great the soundtrack is, so I’m not sure where that assumption is coming from.” His claim here seems to bear out, with “Great Music” being listed prominently in the end-of-review summary under the “+” column. Further still, Miller insists that if he took a “spray and pray” approach to the combat, it was a result of the game’s structure at the time.
“I approached the game the way the game wanted me to approach it,” he maintains. Broadening the subject beyond granular details, he reflects on what he feels might be at the core of Provinciano’s anger. “Listen: I understand pouring your heart and soul into something and having it not be appreciated. I totally get that, I know how much work goes into video games, and I know that Brian has more talent in his pinky finger than I have [in my whole body], because I just talk about stuff on the internet…[so] I get where he’s coming from in terms of how much this sucked. The biggest video game site, the one that everyone goes to…had to be the one that said, ‘no, no, this isn’t good.'”
This, ultimately, seems to be something Miller and Provinciano agree on: one poor review score from a big enough publication can put a serious damper on a game’s release. Indeed, combined with lacklustre initial sales, Provinciano felt the 5.3 from IGN would form the one-two punch necessary to knock his game into obscurity. And so, dropping everything – including nascent plans for a party to celebrate his decade-long effort – Brian Provinciano set to work making sure that didn’t happen.
In the weeks that followed the game’s launch, Provinciano set himself on a course he retroactively calls “crazy dangerous for [his] health.” He was singularly determined to do whatever it took to “tell the world: ‘no no, don’t listen to that review, these issues aren’t present, and they’re dealt with.’ Despite ultimately disagreeing with Miller’s assessment of the game, he hunkered down and delivered a rapid-fire series of tweaks to vehicle speed, tutorial clarity, and checkpoint frequency. As soon as they were integrated into the existing versions of the game, he set about making sure upcoming platforms benefited from the facelift as well.
By the end of March in 2013, a couple of very important things had happened. At long last, Retro City Rampage had been released on every platform Provinciano had intended to hit during the game’s arduous development, with the Xbox Live Arcade version seeing the light of day in January and the WiiWare version capping things off at the end February. Meanwhile, the December prior, he had worked with Sony to secure a spot for his game as that month’s “PlayStation Plus” title. Suddenly, the day before Christmas, a massive audience of hundreds of thousands would be able to download Retro City Rampage for free on their PlayStation 3 or PlayStation Vita, and, presumably, spread the word about it friends and family. Inarguably most importantly, it had become clear that Retro City Rampage was actually, truly, a hit.
After the self-described “cloudy period” following launch had passed, and the dust surrounding IGN’s review had settled, concrete numbers began to emerge. And for once? They were the stuff romantic stories of “going indie” were made of. In a talk at that year’s Game Developers Conference entitled “One Man, 17 SKUs: Shipping on Every Platform at Once,” Provinciano broke down his sales to that point. 35,000 paid copies had been shifted across all PlayStation platforms, 40,000 were sold on PC, and even the troubled XBLA release chipped in at 15,000 units. It had taken 5 months to accrue, and a terrifying, deflating false start, but for all intents and purposes, Retro City Rampage was set to pass 100,000 copies sold later that week.
“By the end of March in 2013…it had become clear that Retro City Rampage was actually, truly, a hit.”
And yet with all of these life-changing numbers in front of him, Provinciano, true to form, still saw flaws.
“It’s interesting because…my original goal was, ‘if it sells 100,000 copies, I have done it, that’s my dream, that’s the only dream I have in the world,'” he says, almost reciting rhythmically for me like a mantra that had been living inside his head. “But I have the problem where the moment [these goals] are past, I just have a new goal and they don’t seem that exciting and amazing…from an outsider’s perspective, I can see [that] a lot of these things feel like such accomplishments, but I’m just constantly never satisfied…I don’t take enough time to reflect on the accomplishments because I’m always just shooting for the next big thing.”
For many, the “next big thing” after a decade like Provinciano’s would be a long vacation. For Provinciano, who had poured “everything, physically and financially” into the game that he loved, this was about far more than the bottom line. He saw the potential for Retro City Rampage to reach many hundreds of thousands more people. Millions more, perhaps. And if and when it did, he needed it to be wearing its Sunday best.
Combing back through his to-do list, he quickly identified areas ripe for improvement. What if he added a “zoom” option to bring players closer to the action? What about a new Retro+ mode that preserved the nostalgic feel while adding modern shadow and lighting effects? Players seemed to love the original title’s novelty borders, which allowed them to replicate the experience of playing the game on an old game system or TV. What if he added in lots more of those?
Item by item, he made his way through the list of things he’d always wanted to do in the first place, if only he had had the time or the money. Now, he had an abundant supply of both.
On February 6th, 2014, Brian Provinciano released Retro City Rampage: DX. Even to a perfectionist like him, it was as close to his original vision for the game as he’d ever come. Fitting, then, that he debuted it on the 3DS: a system made by Nintendo.
It’s June 2015.
Brian Provinciano and I are sitting on the couch in the living room of his apartment in downtown Vancouver. Since the release of Retro City Rampage: DX for the Nintendo 3DS, he has retroactively DX-ified the game on every one of its available platforms, ensuring that no one playing his game is getting any less than his best. As of his last public statement on the matter, the game has sold 400,000 copies. He’s even allowed himself to make a few splurge purchases, he tells me, citing the colorful boxed set of the original Adam West Batman TV series below his entertainment centre as an example.
There’s a lull in the conversation, as a breeze blows through his open apartment windows, sending thin translucent curtains tumbling around us. Provinciano looks tired; no small wonder considering he has taken an anti-inflammitory pain releiver from his rheumatologist — one of a battery of specialists he sees on a regular basis. These days, he says “basically every part of [him] aches” all the time. Breaking the silence, I ask him a question I half-worry will offend.
“Do you feel like you might be close to putting Retro City Rampage to bed?”
He doesn’t miss a beat.
“I’m absolutely done now…” he pauses, long and hard, as if struggling to give himself permission to leave Theftropolis. “I’ve had so many amazing experiences that were goals of mine for years and years, that have come true, and many that I never even imagined…[but] I’m now at that point where I think, ‘hopefully my health doesn’t get much worse, hopefully it gets better. If it does get worse, though, do I really just want more game updates to show for it? No.’ So now that’s where I’ve prioritized. No more ports, no more updates, I’ve got to do something new.”
“I don’t want to be a one hit wonder.”
What that is, he won’t say, beyond that he’s started development on it, and that it will also be set in an open-world. He’s long-since learned his lessons about getting ahead of himself and opening those floodgates. In some ways, though, this leaves him feeling almost purposeless.
“My biggest problem now is, that I don’t want to be a one hit wonder, and I’m almost tired of talking about RCR…I want people to be talking about something new that I’m doing, but I don’t have something far enough along to talk about…it’s just one of those things where I want to be known as a guy with a library. A catalog of things that I’ve done.”
It dawns on me just then that after more than ten years, I might be having one of the last interviews about Retro City Rampage. I try to think of a question that’ll shed new light on Brian Provinciano’s long decade, and botch it. I end up asking him if there are any ways the game has changed his life on a daily basis. He thinks for a minute, and chuckles.
“It is pretty weird when someone comes up to me and asks for my autograph. It’s a weird feeling because I don’t feel like a celebrity or anything. I don’t feel any different. And some people do say that to me, like, ‘wow, it’s a developer walking down the street!’ And to me, I’m just a regular guy…just a regular guy with back pain. I almost don’t have words, because it’s so hard to describe. I guess you almost feel like a false idol. Because to them, they ask, “can I have your autograph?” But to me, it’s like, “what have I really done? I just made a game.”