Homebrews in Focus 003 - The Assembly Line Podcast
In this episode we will be covering The Assembly Line Podcast, a podcast series that looks at the homebrew community, current events, and features a homebrew game each episode with the addition of interview(s) with the development team.
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2. Origins (NESdev, ROM Hacks, and Homebrews)
3. The Assembly Line Podcast (with listener interviews!)
4. Host Interviews (Kevin Hanley and E.B.D. Holland)
@Scrobins (Sean) and I collaborated on the subject from different points of views and decided to do duel blog episodes. See his episode, from A Homebrew Draws Near, here. Homebrews in Focus will be doing a slight detour on this entry, from our normal format and analysis, as we will be relying on some first hand accounts during the period of the podcast premier, as well as this entry being paired with another blog, so make sure to check out Scrobins’ episode as well.
The following individuals graciously provided some first hand accounts and we will be quoting them throughout the episode.
As well as, the following individuals assisted on the origins section with their accounts during the time period leading up to the podcast.
Tomas Guinan “Toma / Spoony Bard Productions” @toma
[Image from visual6502.org]
(This origins section is pieced together from several first hand accounts, as the documentation is difficult to sort though, decades of forum posts, or is lost, IRC chats. This is not an all inclusive summary either, as it is beyond the scope of the episode. However I hear there is a history book in the works. If you have a correction, send me a PM)
[NES Console and controller]
NES development never really ended after the lifespan of the Nintendo Entertainment System / Family Computer. Unlicensed development continued with pirates, releases on the Famicom Disk System, modification of existing games (ROM hacks), and eventually new games by small groups or individuals (homebrews) after Nintendo had ended it’s support. This was not a smooth line of progression. In between the pirates and homebrews, there was a lively scene on NESDev to figure out both the hardware of the console and of the cartridges (mappers). During that time, there were many prominent figures that emerged in the community, including people such as Kevtris, who was a member involved in documenting and reverse engineering the console (which was a large group effort, many were involved), and later Memblers, who was a member documenting hardware variations and pushing for new cartridge development. Even after these efforts, other people continued projects such as Brian from RetroUSB and Paul from InfinteNESlives publishing homebrew and developing new hardware. And in-between, many more people. More plainly put, figuring out, reverse engineering, and new hardware support was a massive undertaking from a large community over a large span of time.
[Diagram from 8bitworkshop.org]
Going a bit further into the development before homebrews emerged, as the existing system and its cartridge mappers were more understood, due to both disassembly and reverse engineering efforts, there were more projects started to use this new information. Such as software emulation, with Nesticle, or programming such as, new games on donor boards, with Garage Cart or even hardware to dump the cartridge contents (called ROMs), with CopyNES. These hardware and software efforts, really brought to the table a treasure trove of understanding and documentation, allowing for homebrews to be possible.
[NESDev and NintendoAge logos]
Going forward, websites such as NESDev and later NintendoAge became the community hub during this period. NESDev continued with hardware documentation and NintendoAge became a landing place for game development, with the Nerdy Nights (NES 6502 tutorial series) and with the sale of physically released homebrews. For much of the public, this period of time went unnoticed until they saw many more advancements in emulators, flashcarts, and exposure on social media platforms. As they say, the world kept turning. As the general public moved on to new console generations, these projects kept advancing.
Some people within the larger community were modifying existing games, called ROMhacks, and others were developing brand new games, called Homebrews. These two different endeavors caused some confusion in the public, which is directly related to the creation of the podcast, but we will get into that later.
With ROMhacking, projects became more ambitious over time. Some were graphic overhauls, which in a way was more accessible than in other systems, since NES games splits programming (CPU) and graphics (PPU) on two different chips. As the coding became easier to approach through documentation and hex editors, people started to modify the existing hex codes to change the gameplay. Some of the key early projects were translations, such as RPGe’s Final Fantasy V, Demi’s Final Fantasy II, and AWj/SoM2Freak’s Final Fantasy III. As the community grew, Level editors were developed to more easily edit game levels, such as an early key Super Mario Bros. level editor, YY-ME. RomHacking projects continued down these paths, with additional translations and additional edits. Others brought complete overhaul projects, including new graphics, new levels, and sometimes even new features.
[NES motherboard closeup]
With homebrews, after the release of Garage Cart (the first physically released NES homebrew), and then Sudoku (the first physically released homebrew using all new parts), as well as the Nerdy Nights 6502 tutorial series, you saw a much faster pace of advancement and quantity of homebrews being released as parts and coding tutorials were now available. Notable releases were Ultimate Frogger Champion (the first homebrew released using the Nerdy Nights tutorial series) and Battle Kid (the first highly successful commercial homebrew). Projects became more ambitious as additional hardware and development support became available going forward. You saw high profile releases such as Micro Mages, Super Russian Roulette, and Project Blue as of late.
Going back to the period after the Nerdy Nights, NintendoAge became both the hub for development of projects and also the sale of them in the early days. As a large majority of the userbase on NintendoAge were collectors, this caused friction between people buying to play and people buying to collect. Collectors saw homebrews, with their limited releases, as a market to speculate on and prices soared. Some developers sought to take advantage of this, releasing projects just to make money, similar to the early famicom market. Other developers released projects for more noble reasons, and you therefore saw a large range in the quality of releases. During the 2013-2015 period a market bubble occurred and eventually it subsided as collector's left the market and became more dominated by players.
This range in quality of homebrews, and the misunderstanding about what a homebrew actually was, due to mislabeling between pirates, ROMhacks, and homebrews, became the genesis of the creation of The Assembly Line Podcast by Kevin Hanley and E.B.D. "Beau" Holland. Kevin and Beau decided to bring about public awareness about what a homebrew was, what was happening in the community, and also about what high quality projects were out there.
3. The Assembly Line Podcast
[Image Credit - ???]
Once Kevin and Beau decided to start the podcast, they recorded three episodes before announcing the Assembly Line podcast. On 7/20/2017, The Assembly Line Podcast was formally announced on NintendoAge, with the three recorded episodes covering Battle Kid, Tailgate Party, and Star Keeper. These three choices were a great decision to premiere with, and I am not sure if the podcast duo planned it this way, but these three titles showcased the broad range of homebrews at the time. Battle Kid was the most successful and acclaimed homebrew, Tailgate Party showed the ingenuity of homebrews, using the power pad to play corn hole, and Star Keeper was an extremely collectable and polished title.
[Left to right - Battle Kid, Tailgate Party, and Star Keeper]
I was not yet active in the homebrew scene as a player or collector at this point, but instead became more interested as a result of listening to the podcast, along with reading websites like NintendoAge, NES World, Retro Game Network, and playing NESDev compo entries. Luckily, several people agreed to speak with me and offer their accounts during the time leading up to The Assembly Line premiere. Let's introduce the listeners being interviewed before we get to what they have to say.
Bradley Bateman, known as “NESHomebrew”, “Other Brad” online, and “Strange Brew Games”, has been involved in homebrews for many years. As a beta tester, running the NESDev coding competition since 2014, as well as playing and developing his own games.
Justin Orenich, known as “Neodolphino” online, started as a homebrew player in 2013, then beta testing, and then diving into publishing. He has published titles such as UXO, Free Cell, Haradius Zero, and is working on bringing over Japan homebrews to the USA under the Neodolphino Productions banner. Justin is also on the Homebrew Team Staff with Sean (Scrobins) and I (Chris / Deadeye).
Nathan Tolbert, known as “Gauauu'' and “ Bite the Chili Productions” online, came from developing homebrews on the Gameboy Advance and Atari 2600 before moving to the NES in 2016. He has entered many submissions to the NESDev Compo and is currently working on Anguna and Halcyon.
Michael Chiaramonte, known as “Clearvus” and “Xelius” online, became aware of the homebrew community as a result of the podcast and is now developing his own game. You will see him active on the Brewery Channel on VGS Discord and on his YouTube channel, where he streams homebrew development and hosts NES Development tutorials (Zero Pages).
Assembly Line Listener Interviews
Thank you all for joining me and discussing the impacts of The Assembly Line. I’d like to start by talking about what the representation was like before The Assembly Line. Was there a lot of confusion or misrepresentation out there about homebrews?
Brad: “For me, homebrew on the NES was my world, so whenever I would come across a post on social media/forums of people shocked that new games were being created for the NES I was always taken aback. I would say that has mostly changed. I think there still exists a lot of confusion over what homebrew games are. With the rise of retro styled indie games, and official ones like Mega Man 9 it's easy for them to be dismissed as one of these. It didn't help that popular online influencers in the retro gaming community often spread misinformation by referring to them as "hacks" and "repros" without first doing their homework.”
Justin: “Within the scene on NintendoAge and NESDev, I feel like -most- people understood what a homebrew was and how it fit in next to hacks, repros, etc. Beyond these immediate domains, I think homebrew was still very much an unknown, or an enigma to most people. Though misrepresentation has significantly improved, it’s still not uncommon to see people unfamiliar with the scene (some of which would even call themselves avid gamers) either be surprised that new games for the NES are being made, or write something off as just a hack of something else.”
Nathan: “I wasn’t very aware of what was actually out there before late 2016. I wasn’t very involved in NintendoAge, and the NESDev forums, (while having a lot of info about the technology) didn’t have a lot of information about actual _releases_. I probably would have if I had been involved in NA, but somehow that site never really felt welcoming to me.”
Michael: “I honestly can’t say because I didn’t really know what homebrews were. That said, I think after the podcast was started, Beau and Kevin have done a great job of spreading the word of homebrew and what homebrew really is.”
What about after The Assembly Line began and was releasing episodes. How did it feel to suddenly have a podcast representing homebrews, discussing them, and interviewing development teams?
Brad: “I was pumped when Beau and Kevin started up the podcast. I was a big fan of the Dogs Cast by Rob Bryant, but that faded away long ago. I'm sure it didn't help that his release schedule seemed pretty much unsustainable. Burn out was inevitable. With the Assembly line, it seemed pretty organized and planned out ahead of time which was great! It was awesome to finally put some voices behind these mysterious user names I've been following for years.”
Justin: “It felt pretty great, especially knowing the guys who were putting it out there - made it even more rewarding to root for their success. It was nice to hear them lay out and reinforce what homebrews were, and what they were not. It was also great to get a lot of the historical background injected into the narrative, and finally -hear- from some of the developers out there.”
Nathan: “It was great, since the podcast started soon after I joined the scene. (just a few months after I had met Kevin and Beau at PRGE). I think it really improved the sense of community (which is one of my favorite parts of the NESDev scene), by getting to hear from people that you’ve read about online. Instead of wondering “who is this person that made this Owlia game?” I got to hear him chat about it. I think it really fostered a better sense of community.”
Michael: “It was surprising and exciting! I went from having no idea to becoming really excited about and interested in all things NES homebrew.”
Oh, this is great to hear that many of you felt the same as I did listening to the podcast. I want to hear some more about the podcast and yourself. Can you let me know what kind of impact the Podcast had on you?
Brad: “To be honest, the podcast has been very motivating for me. It came out at a time where I was questioning a lot about the decisions I had made, and other than the yearly competition, I wasn't really contributing much to the community. I used to try and be involved with every new homebrew project I learned about (mainly beta testing), but I wasn't really reaching out to new devs like I used to. I used to work shift work, so the long form podcasts were a great way to pass the time. I would listen to them all in order, then start over again at the beginning. I never got bored, and I was always entertained and excited to hear from the devs again. Many times throughout the podcasts I would find myself daydreaming and designing games in my head. I had to start a journal to keep track of all the ideas inspired by the podcast.”
Justin: “It made me excited to see homebrews being put out on a medium to reach a larger/new audience, but overall, I don’t know that it specifically impacted me - well, other than gaining some additional knowledge. It -did- provide me with a lot of good listening on long commutes, so I guess maybe there’s the potential it kept me awake/alive!”
Nathan: “It made the people seem a lot more “real” and helped the community feel connected. It also inspired me to keep working, after hearing interviews with folks about their completed games, and daydreaming of eventually having my own finished game to talk about on the podcast. Hearing Derek, or Rob, or Tomas, etc, talk about their games has been incredibly fun. That combined with the #brewery discord, has been what has made nesdev so much fun to me.”
Michael: “It did a few things. It encouraged me to check out homebrews and start playing and buying more of them, which was awesome. It also encouraged me to make my own homebrew, which is currently in progress. And finally, because I got involved in homebrew and the community, I’ve made some really good friends.”
Wow, overall a positive impact in many different areas. A grounded sense of members in the community, bringing exposure to homebrews, and inspiration to start or keep working on your own games. I agree on all these points. I can listen to the Assembly Line episodes over and over. It inspires me to one day work on my own games and I do feel the community became more approachable for me. I could connect projects with their creators and understand the logic and drive of their passions.
Let’s keep this going. What about the podcast overall, I’d like to get more of a feel of what you think of it. Can you share some more?
Brad: “At this point, I'm sure it is fairly obvious that I'm a huge fan. I knew Kevin and Beau prior to the podcast (so maybe I'm biased), but it's been great to hear other people who are just as passionate about homebrew as I am.”
Justin: “I think it is well done and brings a lot of great information to the table. It has also continued to improve despite being so cool from the get-go. Anything that gives good exposure to homebrew is good in my book, and this does it in a robust and new way. My only complaint early on was hearing occasional negative bias/low blows or avoidance of some areas in homebrew due to those biases - perhaps unintentionally. This has all but disappeared, and each episode is very enjoyable.”
Nathan: “I love it. I just need more episodes I like the combination of discussing philosophical ideas about homebrew, interviewing game creators, and providing general news about the scene. All of those are great. (I don’t care as much about the game music portions, but hey, that’s fine!)”
Michael: “I think it’s great. Kevin and Beau have great “on-air” rapport and do a really good job of communicating information about what’s going on both with their own projects and within the community. I wish there were more episodes!”
We are synced on this as well. The rapport and structure of the podcast make me keep listening and wishing for more episodes.
We covered how the podcast impacted you; what about the impacts the podcast had beyond you, in the greater community or the public. Do you think the podcast has informed and expanded the reach of homebrews?
Brad: “I think the podcast has definitely impacted the greater community. I just bought a CIB homebrew release the other day from a professional developer who heard about NES homebrew through the podcast, and now he has his own game, and is working on another! I have no idea how many people subscribe to the podcast, but I'm sure there are plenty of people who are interested in the NES that organically come across it and check it out.”
Justin: “I think it has provided those new (and even old) to the scene with additional info and insight into homebrews and those who make them. It’s a great companion to the world of NES homebrew.”
Nathan: “I don’t have a good sense of the reach of the podcast beyond the core community of people already doing nesdev (the people that I chat with in discord or nesdev forums, many of whom I also see at conventions, etc). Does it inform or expand the reach of homebrews? I have no idea, to be honest. To me, the big impact is the fun it brings within the community itself.”
Michael: “I think it helped spawn the popularity of homebrews that we’re seeing right now. If the podcast hadn’t been there to make it more accessible, I think we wouldn’t have things like NESMaker and the communities of people we’re seeing playing and making homebrews right now.”
It does feel as though the community has grown a lot since The Assembly Line debuted. You see much more discussion on social media, in chiptune circles, pixel artist circles, and elsewhere. I want to hear more about what you think, what about the progress for homebrews since 2016 / 2017? How has the last few years been for homebrews?
Brad: “It's been a really interesting three years… I can honestly say I'm not 100% in favour of every direction homebrew on the NES has gone. Maybe I'm just old and grumpy, but I miss the small passionate homebrew community we helped build on Nintendoage. I don't have the energy these days to contribute to forums. I spend most of my time on discord and twitter, but you have to do a lot of filtering on those platforms. I find it really interesting that homebrew development in Japan seems to be ramping up. Either that, or I am finally being exposed to it (via twitter). I just wish I could read Japanese so I could better appreciate what is going on over there. It's pretty cool that there have been a number of games commissioned by celebrities, which has probably led to the highest level of exposure the community has seen in a long time. Overall, I'm excited for the future, and as always am highly anticipating the next episode of the Assembly Line!”
Justin: “I think overall, the creativity, quality, and breadth of the games has increased significantly in that time. Sure there are some classics made a while back that are, and always will be great games, but the talent that has been drawn into the community over the past few years is amazing.”
Nathan: “When I first started, it seemed like licensed-quality homebrews were pretty rare. There were a lot of smaller or experimental games, but not as many of the quality of Lizard, Trophy, etc. I’ve been amazed at the progress in the last 4 years. Game after game is high quality. It’s amazing. Some of the recent stuff coming out has been incredible.”
Michael: “I believe we’re seeing bigger and more ambitious projects than before. More people are making larger, commercial quality games despite being small independent development teams. This seems to be in direct contrast to how it had been before, where bigger games were a rarity and mostly people released tech demos. It’s been really great to see the change since 2017 and I’m glad that I got involved at that time (even if I really wish I had known about it waaaaay sooner).”
I can’t argue with that. There have been more and more ambitious “licensed quality” homebrews that have been both critically and commercially successful. You see more people discussing them, whether on their YouTube channels, speed runs on GGDQ or just discussing them in general video games circles rather than just within the homebrew central community.
It was great to talk with all of you! Thank you for answering my questions and sharing your thoughts.
We got a bit of everything from that listener panel, but let’s move back to talking about the Podcast. So where has The Assembly Line gone from its three episode premiere? Well, we are at 22 episodes and 2 bonus holidays episodes at the time of this blog episode publication. Beau and Kevin have covered great games:
Episodes to date:
01 - Battle Kid (6/3/2017)
02 - Tailgate Party (6/15/2017)
03 - Star Keeper (7/13/2017)
04 - The Mad Wizard (8/10/2017)
05 - HBWC 2012 (9/6/2017)
06 - Alter Ego (9/25/2017)
07 - Spook-o’-tron (12/4/2017)
08 - Haunted Halloween '85 (12/17/2017)
XX - Bonus Holiday 2017 (12/23/2017)
09 - Quest Forge (2/25/2018)
10 - NESDev 2017 Part 1 (3/14/2018)
11 - NESDev 2017 Part 2 (6/5/2018)
12 - Lizard (7/24/2018)
13 - Micro Mages (9/12/2018)
14 - The Incident (10/10/2018)
15 - The Legends of Owlia (11/26/2018)
16 - 8-Bit XMAS 2018 (1/2/2019)
17 - Eskimo Bob (2/18/2019)
18 - Candelabra Estoscerro (4/13/2019)
19 - NEScape! (10/17/2019)
20 - Nebs n’ Debs (2/5/2020)
21 - Trophy (2/29/2020)
22 - The Tale of Two Thomi (10/7/2020)
XX - Bonus Holiday 2020 (12/23/2020)
Besides the homebrews covered, entertaining format, and endearing hosts, I think the podcast has really delivered on its core mission. It has helped dispel misinformation around homebrews and delivered on bringing exposure to quality homebrew titles. Besides it’s core mission, the podcast shines in the interviews it has done. Developers, chiptune artists, and graphic artists have been on the show to discuss their projects. We get to put a person and personality with these projects and at the same time, glean information about their creative processes in getting the idea to completion. It is not only inspiring to look at a completed homebrew, but even more so to hear about it from the developers themselves.
Well enough about what I think. How has the podcast done in the broader realm compared to all other podcasts, regardless of topic? Listennotes sets The Assembly Line as the “Top 5% most popular shows out of 1,850,442 podcasts globally”.
Another, more focused review, by Dougeff, stated, “The Assembly Line discusses all aspects of NES homebrewing, and live interviews with homebrewers. I’ve listened to them, and rate it a “must listen” broadcast for anyone programming the NES, or just anyone interested in games and game production.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
I think Kevin and Beau waited long enough, let’s hear from the hosts.
4. Host Interviews
Kevin Hanley (KHAN Games)
Kevin, thanks for joining me to talk about The Assembly Line. I have a list of things to discuss with you and Beau. I thought it would be interesting to hear what each of you have to say independently. Let's dive right in.
You have touched upon the origins of the Assembly Line during the span of the podcast, (summarizing) that it spawned during a roadtrip to MAGfest one year while listening to another podcast, adding that you two could do that. Can you expand a little bit more about how that spur-of-the-moment comment, that could have been just a fleeting thought, actually became the podcast? How did you go from two people sharing a car to producing a show?
Well, to be fair I think Beau likes to say that's how it originated. And of course he tends to have a better memory than me, but I recall pitching the idea of a podcast to him before that roadtrip happened. But Beau, as he likes to say, hasn't listened to any other podcasts and doesn't even really know how any of the other ones are structured, so I wanted him to hear something on that road trip to give him an idea of how podcasts worked. The podcast we listened to, of course, had nothing to do with video games, so it wasn't a very good example, but it probably gave him a decent idea of how the format could be used.
Speaking of Beau, the two of you work well together, bringing both a contrast of ideas and also personalities to the table. How important do you think this contrast is to the show’s success?
I honestly think it's crucial to the success. I've listened to some podcasts that have a single host, or a series of revolving hosts, and the dynamic between the people leading the podcast really do make or break it. I think Beau and I balance each other out pretty well. Even outside the podcast realm, just personality wise, we have been able to bounce things off one another and if one of us has a bad day or a bad encounter with someone or something, the other person is there to put things in perspective and help quell whatever drama is building.
But in regards to the podcast specifically, he is a huge research person, a huge philosophical person, constantly analyzing features of games and seeing what they mean in some grand context and I'm more of a simpleton. "This is good. This makes me happy. This is fun." Since we come at things from completely different ways I think it keeps things fresh. And we're so at ease with one another at this point that it's just fun, you know? We can be ourselves and I think our admiration and respect for one another shows throughout.
I can’t agree more. The dynamic between the two of you brings multiple sides to an issue or the conversation at hand and honestly, makes for a very entertaining listen. It also adds more personality to the show and the material being presented. I am a fan of this style podcast.
Before we talk a bit more in depth about the podcast, I have another question regarding you and Beau. How has your friendship with each other evolved over time? From Beau being a fan of your work, to friends, and then to podcast partners?
Well, it's hard to really take a step back and see how it's evolved because even from the first time we met right outside Canada at a video game store, I asked him if I could hug him or something weird like that. I don't know what it is, but I've always had an affinity for him. He puts me at ease and I feel like we understand one another pretty well. He's my best friend, so it's nice that we continue to share this passion and can constantly see what the other person is working on and encourage and support one another. We've been close for many years now and really only had two serious fights. One of which was in regards to a podcast episode. Good times.
That is heartwarming and I am glad to hear you get along so well even outside of the podcast. I am a bit interested in the disagreements, but I’ll leave that alone.
Fast forwarding a little, you hit the ground running and begun releasing episodes. If I recall correctly, eventually you wanted to enhance the quality of the audio, which required more space and bandwidth for hosting the podcast, which needed monetary investment for equipment and hosting. The two of you ended up going with Patreon. How did you approach the idea for community support? Was the amount of backers surprising?
Well, neither of us really wanted to "source" any sort of money from the community for the podcast. It just seemed like begging, or like it would come across like we were asking for handouts, so we were both pretty opposed to the idea for some time, but we had a number of listeners constantly reaching out, basically volunteering to send money when we weren't even asking for it, so I took it upon myself to just create the Patreon and give them an outlet to show support. When it started I figured it would just be those few people and I would take whatever they pledged and put it toward the annual SoundCloud charge for hosting the podcast MP3s, but every month it seemed to grow larger and larger. The amount of backers really is truly surprising. Especially because after Beau moved into his house and his internet became spotty our episodes started becoming more and more infrequent, but still people haven't canceled their pledges. It really does help a huge amount! The SoundCloud charge has gone up to close to $200 a year at this point, so having the money set aside to put toward that really does help us out tremendously!
There are costs for doing a podcast and I don’t see it as begging. As a supporter myself, I am happy to continue support.
Let’s dive into the podcast and the episodes. After working together for a few years, you have interviewed many people and looked at many projects. Has researching and interviewing different developer’s approaches and challenges impacted your own work?
No, I've always sort of done my own weird things. I can't really say that it's been influenced by the podcast.
Looking at the planning of episodes, how do you choose the next episode’s topics and which project to cover?
We actually put a lot of stock into what game we're going to be featuring. If we've featured a number of new games, we try to pick one that is a bit older so they aren't all from the same time period, hopefully from a developer that we haven't touched on a lot. The more variety the better, as far as I'm concerned. But our criteria always only consists of the games that we think are truly noteworthy in some way, that we really want to feature. Even if some of those early games that came out in the 2000s aren't nearly at the level as some of the more recent stuff, they really did lay the groundwork for what is happening now, so it's nice to touch on those so people who weren't around back then can really get an appreciation for how things happened and maybe even why they happened. It's easy to judge all games equally, but a lot of times contextualizing some of the older stuff really does help put things into perspective.
I do appreciate that mix of different periods of homebrews and creators, it does add that context like you said. Another large portion of the episodes is the interviews. How do you approach that part? I imagine you plan your questions and have prepared follow up questions based on an expected interviewee answer. How do you handle the curveball answers that take you possibly off the tracks you had prepared? Are you suddenly doing improv?
We are doing improv in that situation, yes. We typically both write up individual questions ahead of time and then before the interview we will create a Google doc with both of our questions. We eliminate any duplicates, but we don't typically have follow up questions based on what we think someone might say. After an answer is given if we want to ask follow up questions or go on tangents, that's all off the cuff. I think we've both gotten better over time of taking things that someone answers and using those as a related segue into another topic we had planned to talk about. Sometimes it's really seamless, and when that happens it's always a good feeling.
Detouring away from the podcast for a moment, you and Beau are very approachable online to talk to about homebrews, development, video games, or just shoot the breeze. Is being open to community outreach important to you?
It's become more and more important over the years. I think I've told this story a number of times by now, but one night Rob from Sly Dog Studios and I were up late chatting. I think back when AOL Instant Messenger was a thing, actually, so that probably puts into perspective how long ago it was. But it was early on in the scene and there weren't a lot of people involved in the creation of homebrews. We were emphasizing to one another how incredible it was that we were making games for the system we grew up loving. It's still insane to think about! But we were wondering why more people weren't doing it, so right at that moment was when I wanted to put myself out there and see if I could somehow be a catalyst to help more people become involved. Plus as the years have gone on, I've thought of myself more and more as a figurehead of the scene. For whatever reason people have looked toward me as a sort of authority figure in the scene, so I've taken that more seriously the last few years. Especially with the podcast now. I feel like what I say has a little bit of weight and I try to be conscious of that and try to use my platform in ways to benefit us all. And if that means being here to answer questions and try to help others get involved, absolutely, I love it.
Being involved in homebrew development and doing retrospectives on the games, it puts you in a unique position with both first hand experience and a journalistic separation. How has it been seeing the evolution of homebrews and where do you think they are going in the future?
It really has been amazing to see how far we've come! When you think back to some of the early "production" homebrews, like Tic Tac XO and Sudoku 2007, they were really basic games in graphics, features, sound, etc. As more and more games "broke through" to mainstream gamers, it seems like more and more accomplished programmers found out that we existed and decided to give NES homebrew a shot. With games like Battle Kid and Micro Mages more and more people are seeing what we are doing and they're coming to add their unique perspectives and expertise to the scene and really propelling us further and further. It's really hard to guess where we're going in the future, but my hope is more and more great games. I think at this point we are beyond "licensed quality" and we are creating amazing games. Not "retro games." We are just creating amazing games that are fun to play that don't have to be categorized. They stand alone as works of art with tight controls, great stories, amazing music. Let's keep it going.
I agree with that. I see more and more homebrews that are beyond licensed quality and going mainstream. And it is exciting to see projects get announced. Speaking of going mainstream, how has it felt seeing NES homebrews being ported to current gen consoles? Think this market will continue to grow and see future releases?
It makes me proud, for sure. It just further proves my previous point that games aren't just "retro homebrew games" anymore. These games are just good games that need to be enjoyed by as many people as we can get them in front of, and the logical next step was definitely bringing them to modern systems so a whole new audience can experience them. I definitely think the market will continue to grow and see future releases, but I'm curious to see how the market actually is for them. I haven't heard any numbers as far as how many units Haunted Halloween is selling on the next-gen systems, but my hope is that even if it's starting slow, just like the scene itself, it will continue to grow.
It seems you have your hands in many different projects. How do you find the time to balance your work life, homebrews, the podcast, and your personal life?
The secret to me, personally, is not to have a personal life. Also, I am very fortunate to have a job where I can work on homebrew and podcast stuff on the clock. (Don't tell my boss). It doesn't become overwhelming too often. The hardest parts are the nights when we actually record the podcast, because some of those sessions go 3-4 hours for multiple nights a week, as we record segments, do interviews, etc, so you just have to pretty much shut off whatever else is going on in your life and focus on that and just knock it out.
Before we close, I wanted to ask a question for the aspiring developers or podcasters out there. Any pointers or advice for them?
Well, the easy answer is to ask questions, but I know when you're just getting started it's hard knowing what to even ask or how to ask it. I guess just follow your desires and focus on the things that interest you. Find others who share your interests and you'll be surprised to find years later that some of those same people have become your best friends.
My life definitely wouldn't be the same without NES homebrew (I actually have no idea what I'd be doing with my life if I had never gotten involved) but I am truly happy to be here and I want to thank everyone who has supported me or the scene in any way. Hopefully we can continue doing this for years to come.
Thank you Kevin for the time and conversation.
Let’s see what the other co-host has to say. Beau are you there??
E.B.D. Holland (Sole Goose Productions)
We have Kevin’s side of the podcast. I want to hear your side and opinion. Let’s get into it….
Listening to the podcast, the origins of the Assembly Line has been touched upon before, (summarizing) that it spawned during a road trip to MAGfest one year while listening to another podcast and that it was commented that you two could do a podcast as well. Can you expand a little bit more about how that spur-of-the-moment comment, actually became the podcast?
Credit for that all goes to Kevin. It was something that he wanted to do, and he made it happen. He said that he’d make it easy on me too, offering to do all of the editing (ha!), and even sending me a mic in the mail. I had no excuses to not get on board. We discussed the format together, and I based most of what I wanted to do around a zine that I had drawn up plans for back then. At the time we had zero clue about how long talking over issues would take, and I ended cutting up tons from those early episodes due to detailed overplanning. The idea as a whole, though, transferred well to a live chat. Other than that all credit goes to Kevin.
One of the components to the show is a contrast of ideas, but also opinions and personalities. How important do you think this contrast is to the show’s success?
If it works for friendship, I guess it must work for the show. Like anything in life, agreement can be boring. You need some differences to keep things interesting.
I can understand that point of view. It does keep things interesting.
After working together for a few years, you have interviewed many people and looked at many projects. Has researching and interviewing different developer’s approaches and challenges impacted your own work?
Most definitely. One of the most pivotal was interviewing Derek (Gradual Games), and seeing exactly how he built the massive work that is Trophy. On the drive back from his house I got to thinking about how I was really going to build my dream RPG, and I hashed out an idea for an NES-based level editor. I guess I had already done that with Spook-o’-tron, but this project required it to be on a much greater scale. Derek’s methods had a direct impact on what followed (see future blog post on the making of The Convention Quest for details).
Very interesting. I hoped that not just the listeners were inspired by the interviews, but also the hosts. Excited to see and learn more about your RPG in the future.
Let’s fast forward a bit after you kept releasing more episodes. How did you approach the idea for community support through Patreon? Was the amount of backers surprising?
All credit for that again goes to Kevin. He has taken care of it all to the point that I can’t even tell you how it works. I don’t think that I have ever even looked at the Patreon page.
What about the episode content.. specifically the planning, how do you choose the next episode’s topics and which project to cover?
The podcast exists because it is fun for us to do; if it was not, we simply wouldn’t do it. That’s the philosophy behind what games we choose as well. We play what we want to play! The show is an excuse to dust things off that have just been sitting on the shelf, and really spend the time diving into them. Indeed, I do not even play most games anymore until we are ready to do an episode on them, which is always awkward when someone asks if I’ve played their game yet since that answer is usually no. I like to go in fresh and share genuine feelings about what I have just played.
The one exception to that philosophy is that we try to mix up the genres some. With the NES it is all too easy to play platformers one after the other, and that would make for both boring episodes and a boring gaming life.
I can understand that, I hear that often: content creators that start a YouTube or blog series to play through their backlog of games or to research them. Beyond that, the Assembly Line takes it a step further and does interviews with the development teams. How do you go about your interview? Do you plan out questions and have prepared follow up questions based on an expected interviewee answer? If so, how do you handle the curveball answers that take you possibly off the tracks you had prepared? Are you suddenly doing improv?
After the first few heavily planned interviews we decided to plan less, and it has yielded better results. We each come up with a list of 5-10 questions, I put them into some sort of coherent, alternating order, and we do it live as they say. Our only goal is to get the guest comfortable and talking, and we design the questions around that. This also allows the guest to take things in the direction they want, and if they go too off of the rails that’s ok. We do a lot of editing to make it listenable in the end, but we want people to show up and just be themselves. 10-20 questions can easily become two hours of conversation, and we want the interviews to be 20-40 minutes in the end, so lots of editing happens in all cases!
Detouring away from the podcast for a moment, you and Kevin are very approachable online to talk to about homebrews, development, video games, or just shoot the breeze. Is being open to community outreach important to you?
Hahaha, I wouldn’t phrase it like that, but sure. I have no goals for “outreach” or whatnot. We’re just people who enjoy other people. Homebrewing might be the initial common interest, but talk quickly turns to life things when discussing even the simplest of gaming related events.
Haha, yep the conversations happen to do so. Well, speaking of common interest, with you being a homebrew developer and doing retrospectives on other homebrews, puts you in a unique position. How has it been seeing the evolution of homebrews and where do you think they are going in the future?
I got into the scene rather late, or so it felt at the time. As I see it there have been three major movements: the early exploratory years that primarily resulted in ROM releases, the transitional period of “brewery” physical releases, and the push toward licensed quality games. Each of those has existed at every time, and will continue to do so, but the tone of the community as a whole has shifted. There was a time when physical releases were looked down on, whereas now people will not play a game unless it is released physically!
As for the future, who knows? Hobbyist communities grow and die (see the early aughts GBA community, for example), but as long as people are taking the time to learn how to program we’ll be here for a while. The cry of “homebrew is dead” that we heard a lot around 2015 has all but vanished as things have become more mainstream and new people have joined.
I find it interesting that you see yourself as a late arrival to homebrew development, whereas I see you as a link between all those movements. I can reach out to you to discuss or verify information, as you were there during it.
Let’s look at the present and future for a moment. How has it felt seeing NES homebrews being ported to current gen consoles? Do you think this market will continue to grow and see future releases?
One hopes! It allows for bigger and better homebrew projects due to the community support (motivational and/or financial), but these are also the types of games that I personally want to play. I don’t really care for 3D games or 2D games with silky smooth modern art, so keep those pixels alive and well!
So you develop, write, podcast, and have other endeavors. How do you find the time to balance your work life, homebrews, the podcast, and your personal life?
Frankly, I don’t. For better or worse, I have a bit of a one-track mind and I tend to be involved in things in an all-or-nothing fashion. If I read a book, I want to write books. If I play a game, I want to make a game. I have a desire to create things, and it flows from whatever my interests are. Thank goodness I don’t know how to play any instruments, or I’d never get anything done!
My goal in life was always to do what I loved work-wise, and homebrewing has allowed for that in more ways than I could have expected. That is probably why it is about more than just the games for me; it’s the people, the events, the process, the struggles, and more that make it interesting. That also allows me to ping pong around to different aspects and find a certain sense of refreshment. If I’m tired of thinking about making games myself, there is usually something happening in the community that can attract my interest. It is funny too, since when we do have gatherings of people, the last thing we tend to talk about are games!
Very true. Before we close, I am wondering if you have some advice or pointers for aspiring developers or podcasters out there?
Do what you love, and do it because you love it. Setting some sort of end goal other than self-satisfaction either won’t see a project through to the end, or it will lead to distorted results. It’s pretty easy to see when someone has ulterior ends in mind, and passion projects shine like beacons in the night. Sales or listeners are nice, but would you still be doing it if they were not around? These are the questions I ask myself often, as I reflect on different things.
Thank you Beau for the insight and advice, but also for your time.
There you have it. Some origins of how we got from the early days to the podcast, but also first hand accounts and answers from the co-hosts of the podcast itself. I’d imagine if you are reading this, you were already a listener and fan of The Assembly line and are looking forward to more episodes. If so, hopefully you walked away with some new information. If not, check out an Assembly Line episode.