A Homebrew Draws Near!
A blog series by @Scrobins
Special Episode: The State of Homebrew 2022
The evolution of homebrew has collected an enthusiastic mix of developers and gamers, all of whom draw on the love of something meaningful from their pasts to dream of what might be possible in the years to come. Though we may bring to bear the skills we have cultivated as adults, in this realm it is done to feed our inner child. Homebrew has come a long way across several decades, with the past few years witnessing an exponential increase in the number & scale of games made, the technology that supports them, and the size & reach of the community that enjoys them. There have been growing pains, a perhaps inevitable rise of difficult questions and personalities. What is homebrew? Is it a monolith, or a loose assembly that falls across a broad and malleable definition? Who represents homebrew? What lessons have been learned, and what cautionary tales should be remembered?
There is no definitive answer to any of these questions; there probably shouldn’t be. Instead they present an opportunity for us to lift our heads and consider where we are at this moment in time. To look back, to look forward. To ask where we are, and where we want to be. To measure how much has changed since the last moment marked and assess the state of things. But by any measure, one thing on which we might agree: the state of homebrew is strong!
Homebrew’s origins, both in terminology and community, trace back to 1975 when Gordon French and Fred Moore founded the Homebrew Computer Club, initially meeting in French’s garage in Menlo Park. Attracting such future luminaries as Jerry Lawson, John Draper, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak, the club would trade parts, circuits, and knowledge in DIY personal computer construction over its 11-year run. Over the ensuing years, homebrew came to encompass a number of subcultures including video games, where curious hobbyists traded knowledge of coding and circuitry to program new games for their favorite old consoles, and even transform their work into tangible, playable cartridges.
Gordon French, Co-Founder of the Homebrew Computer CLub
Since joining the staff at VGS on its homebrew team, I wanted to organize a symposium on homebrew. I wanted to ask questions about the community and spark conversation between several prominent members, hoping a lively, ongoing discussion might ensue from their varied perspectives. Perhaps if this piece is well-received and becomes a regular tradition, some future iteration might include a live online panel discussion. In the meantime, I am excited to sift through the thoughts of more than 20 people throughout the homebrew dev community who took the time to share their insights.
When deciding which questions I wanted to ask, two categories came to mind: questions that take a snapshot of homebrew, how far it’s come, and where it seems to be going; and questions that I personally wanted to ask based on moments I’ve observed, or debates (even arguments) I wanted to unpack without reigniting any antagonism. Rather than directly ask questions that might imply an effort to provoke, I sought to ask the question behind the question and contextualize the responses with why I wanted to ask it. Whether you agree or disagree with the responses, the questions, or my overall approach, I hope to see how these conversations continue.
Nonetheless, not every question was answered by every respondent, and on a few occasions I was chided for missing the point. I welcome better, more probing questions to build on this for future years. My hope is to foster conversation that members of this community feel has value, and may help them articulate their own thoughts. It’s also worth noting that this article and the survey responses that inform it are heavily oriented toward NES homebrew. Though I shared this survey across the forums and Discords I am involved in, my own engagement in communities for other consoles such as those surrounding the Atari and Sega is limited and thus the responses to my outreach were likewise limited. I aspire to be more informed of the wider scene but want to recognize my limits and biases for the sake of being forthright.
There are some very compelling thoughts shared in the responses. More than once I have rewritten several sections of this blog post because something I read among the surveys had such a strong impact on what I thought I wanted to say. The arena of public discourse is a powerful thing, not because it is some combative venue for intellectual gladiators, but because taking the time to hear others can further color our opinions with the nuance afforded by other perspectives and thus collectively evolve.
So to begin the discussion on the state of homebrew, a good starting point is its underlying definition. What is a homebrew game, and has that definition evolved over time? Have new developments challenged our understanding of what a homebrew is, and have these developments necessitated the use of updated or additional terms to define what exists? DefaultGen made an excellent video breaking down what, to him, constitutes a homebrew as a subcategory of aftermarket games, similar to but distinct from bootlegs, reproductions, and hacks.
DefaultGen’s Diagram of Aftermarket Games
When I first watched the video, I disagreed with Tyler over a point that focuses on who is a homebrewer rather than what is a homebrew game: namely that I would include larger publishers such as Mega Cat Studios more solidly within homebrew, since I think the nature of the game as a homebrew is not negated because it was developed or published by a company with staff and resources. But the fact that the boundaries of homebrew are so fluid and subjective is exactly why this conversation is interesting and worth having. Homebrew began with a mystique of curious programmers and engineers tinkering in their garages. Does the arrival of professional developers with backgrounds working on AAA games and the promise of big(ish) bucks through Kickstarter broaden what it means to be homebrew, exist in contradiction to it, or simply create a new category?
Damian “Tepples/PinoBatch” Yerrick pointed me to some interesting early discussions of this question. In a thread on Slashdot, one user noted homebrew “generally refers to software for systems that do not provide any kind of native programming capability, i.e. games consoles.” Meanwhile a conversation on BootlegGames Wiki distinguished homebrew from bootlegs, arguing: “homebrew games aren’t published by other companies like bootleg games can be. They usually don’t infringe on copyrights in an attempt to make a profit off of them either. They’re usually games that are made just for fun with programming on the console.” The amateur aspect was regarded as especially important by some brewers. When NovaSquirrel observed that “keeping things unprofessional is really important to me”, Sumez and Antoine “FG Software/Vectrex28” Fantys agreed wholeheartedly that the homebrew spirit comes from “fun one-man projects where I have complete creative freedom over it.”
Respondents were generally in agreement in their definitions of a homebrew, emphasizing that it be: 1) an unlicensed game; 2) developed for a closed system; 3) by an individual or small team; 4) in a hobbyist/amateur setting. Some people were quite adamant about the setting, insisting a homebrew had to be made at home. Most weren’t nearly as strict but touched on the sentiment that a homebrew should be developed on a small scale, without corporate backing, and wouldn’t be the dev team’s primary source of income. In this way some facets of a working definition are focused on the game, while others center on the developer. This can create some interesting gray areas, such as Tomas “Spoony Bard Productions” Guinan’s self-observation that “Eskimo Bob would be properly defined as homebrew, while Mall Brawl is better described as an indie game.”
When asked how their definition had been challenged in recent years, several points were raised. One respondent noted the release of retro homebrews on modern platforms, such as Haunted Halloween ’86 on the Nintendo Switch. Originally a homebrew release for the NES, does the game’s appearance on the Switch mean it is also a Switch homebrew? At the very least it provides a bridge across console generations, allowing the work of retro devs to reach a wider audience, and showing off what is possible with actual 8-bit games that work within the limits of the original hardware rather than merely be 8-bit-inspired.
Another interesting point someone raised reflects the closed system criteria several brewers noted. The rise of the PICO-8, an open hardware console has sparked an explosion of creative games, including several ports of NES homebrews such as The Mad Wizard and Alter Ego.
A homebrew port of a homebrew!
The creative opportunities that surround developing within the limitations of a fantasy video game console aligns with the hobbyist spirit of homebrew. When the PICO-8 appeared it was like the announcement of a new game jam, but instead of a prompt based on a genre or narrative theme, the challenge was a new set of graphical and sound specifications.
The two most common challenges that were discussed however were the rise of professionally developed & profit-oriented homebrew games, and the development & release of tools, especially NESmaker and GBStudio, which lowered the barriers to entry of retro game development. These advances highlight the expansion of the homebrew community from both ends of the skills continuum as industry veterans and newcomers joined the scene.
In its earlier days, developing homebrew games was notoriously difficult: brewers noted how the work on their own games moved in tandem with their education in learning how to program for the NES. In time, Brian “RetroUSB/bunnyboy” Parker’s Nerdy Nights Tutorials, Shiru’s neslib, and Stef’s SGDK, among other tools, would provide the means to make developing games more accessible. With each new tool created and shared, homebrew’s momentum increased from a walk to a sprint. As the barriers to entry lowered, more people with the ambition and creativity to make their own games were able to bring their ideas to life because the inability to code was less and less insurmountable.
And NESmaker pulled down those walls exponentially faster. As they worked on their own game, Mystic Searches, Joe Granato, Austin McKinley, and Josh Fallon collaborated to develop a tool that would facilitate testing without diving back into the code to make every single revision. Recognizing the commercial potential of this tool for other aspiring brewers, this tool, dubbed NESmaker launched on Kickstarter and received more than $250,000 from more than 2,500 backers (with even more support after the initial campaign concluded).
Mystic Searches Title Screen
Whether it serves as the primary tool of game development or a sandbox to play in and eventually explore beyond, NESmaker has had the biggest impact on NES homebrew development since the Nerdy Nights Tutorials. These programs have become important flintstones to spark the imagination and allow more people to put pixel to palette and share the stories they’ve held onto since they were kids dreaming of making their own game. The tool has brought great talents into the community, including Jordan “Raftronaut” Davis, Dale Coop & his son Seiji, and incredible games like Dungeons & DoomKnights, Doodle World, and someday soon the game NESmaker was originally created to help develop, Mystic Searches.
And it’s important to note that NESmaker in many ways mirrors the Nerdy Nights in its value as an educational resource that runs in tandem with its role as a development tool. The conversations found in its dedicated Discord revealed that as often as not, NESmaker devs find the software useful as an onramp to learning how to code, bumping up against the tool’s limitations, and using its framework as a structure on which new code can be customized and added, like working on a hot rod piecemeal in your garage.
This feels like a return to homebrew’s roots as a tinkerer’s pursuit, in a very rock ‘n roll way. A lot of new people are entering the scene, and we are watching them grow through their efforts to express themselves. But support can take many forms, and we can be welcoming and inclusive, and still be discriminating in our tastes, discerning what is worth our money without rejecting a segment of games wholesale. I will confess that in buying every physical release I can in order to be a good patron of homebrew, I’ve grown disappointed that I’ve paid the same amount for unpolished first efforts as I have for more carefully crafted releases from established devs.
But anything that might serve as a “game changer” will come with its share of controversy, and that’s especially true in the gaming community. NESmaker sparked fears of a wave of shovelware that would saturate the homebrew market, either crowding out games developed by more familiar names or leading less-informed players to paint all homebrew with the same brush and cause all homebrew to rise or fall with the reputation of NESmaker, regardless of whether a game was developed with the tool or not. Several rebuttals in the homebrew community argued that NESmaker was merely the newest among a multitude of tools and shouldn’t be the reason a game is judged one way or another. Instead each game should be considered on its own merits, and to dismiss an entire generation of homebrew because of its association with a particular tool constituted unfair gatekeeping.
Did these fears come to pass? It depends. Have we seen shovelware games made with NESmaker? Sure, but there was shovelware homebrew beforehand, and a surge of inferior games made with NESmaker hasn’t saturated the market. Have some gamers had a knee-jerk reaction to a new homebrew game, dismissively asking whether the game was made with NESmaker? I’ve read some anecdotal evidence of this happening when NESmaker was new, but it doesn’t seem to be a widespread problem as much anymore. Instead, like homebrew more generally, NESmaker games have stratified as some games ride a virtuous cycle of support that encourages devs to create more, while other games have given the impression of low-effort cash grabs by opportunists who took their money and seemingly vanished, or who found the weight of criticism discouraging and quit developing. But its potential continues to attract new people and ideas, such as ManiacBoyStudio which is considering developing its NES iteration of Skeler Boy with NESmaker. NESmaker has also generated its own devoted communities, with outlets for engagement through a dedicated forum, Discord, and Facebook group where devs and fans can share their work, collaborate, and help each other. Amidst these outlets Joe and Austin continue to evangelize NESmaker games through their annual Byte-Off Competition.
Mockup Image of Skeler Boy for the NES
Now that NESmaker has been around for a few years, are there still concerns? The success of a number of homebrews on Kickstarter has led to a surge of homebrews seeking funding through crowdfunding campaigns. This in turn has created a saturation problem specific to Kickstarter in an area with higher mainstream exposure, risking backer burnout with “new games for old consoles” that are not all necessarily going the extra mile to ensure the satisfaction of its backers. Instead, Ellen “Frankengraphics” Larsson noted: “following the wave of NESmaker users, right now we’re seeing a bit much of ‘my first game’ games posing as market-ready releases.” Case in point, when backers received their copies of Ooze Redux, many knew before even opening their packages that they had received a crushed product inside their bubble mailer. Upon opening the package, supporters found a flimsy, uncreased box that was too long to fit into standard box protectors. Manuals were printed on generic printer paper and folded unevenly. Cartridge labels were also cut unevenly and then affixed crookedly. While the homebrew vibe rests on amateur production, even the earliest homebrewers made sure that physical aspects of their releases had a level of polish that justified the cost.
Meanwhile, sometimes devs revisit their work to add polish, incorporate new ideas, or even show off how much their skills have improved in the interim. It’s sort of the Star Wars Special Edition treatment of homebrew. Remasters are nothing new, KHAN Games released the Engagement Edition of Larry and the Long Look for a Luscious Lover about 6-7 years after the original edition’s initial run. The newer edition changed the graphics in a few places, input new music in others, and added new animations and cutscenes. Fans who missed the game the first time around and variant collectors gobbled up copies.
Working Title: Larry and the Even Longer Look for a Luscious Lover
Demand reflected a degree of support and trust in Kevin Hanley, based on his overall body of work as well as the popularity of the first edition of the game from several years earlier. In 2020, Spacebot Interactive developed Dragonbourne for the Gameboy. The following year, Incube8 Games announced Dragonbourne DX for the Gameboy Color, taking advantage of the console shift to update the game with enhanced graphics, improved gameplay, and remastered the soundtrack. Aside from the compatibility with the Gameboy Color, how did all these advancements come to pass in barely a year that the developers couldn’t put this content in the original game? More recently CrazyGroupTrio announced their intention to rerelease Shera & the 40 Thieves, which Kickstarter backers received last fall. When asked why they would make a remaster of the game instead of a sequel, CGT replied: “because I always hated the original and it deserves better.” My question then is, if you hated your original work so much that you’re taking another crack at it less than a year after delivering the original, why did you release that first version at all? Plenty of homebrewers choose delay and would suffer the inevitable criticism in order to release something they were proud of, as we are seeing with highly anticipated games like Full Quiet, Orange Island, and Mystic Searches. As an investor in Shera & the 40 Thieves who pledged $80 for a copy, how am I supposed to feel that I paid a premium for a game which the developer “hated” and will soon release a “better” version? At the end of the day, it’s the dev’s game and they should be able to do what they want with it. My objection stems from what to me feels like too short a period of time between original and remaster. There is no bright line that marks the ideal amount of time before a remaster is appropriate, however I think support indignation is understandable where a “definitive version” comes out so soon that it makes me question backing any future game from the dev, since a better remaster may be just around the corner. But if all fans adopt such a wait-and-see approach then that first version will not garner enough support to be released and potentially discourage the developer from finishing the game at all.
How then does the homebrew community overcome these concerns in order to be welcoming and inclusive, but also put its best foot forward at every step? Jordan “Raftronaut” Davis” recognized the balance to be struck: “I understand the fears of established developers who are worried about the market flooding with shovelware, but also understand the importance of 1st time developers opening the doors to new audience[s] for homebrew. I can tell you firsthand that my dumb game resulted in quite a few record nerds getting introduced to homebrew and starting their own collections. Which means more interest in the overall community.” Nonetheless Jordan notes his biggest concern in homebrew today is a lack of beta testing and quality control. He offered a recommendation that would perhaps be a rising tide for homebrew: “It would be nice if there was a normalized routine for community games to go through. It’s obvious that this gets leveled at NESmaker games most often, but these are usually people making their first games, who don’t have a regiment for debugging and testing, or even making proper changes based on beta feedback. It would be nice if there was an unofficial seal of approval awarded to games that have been rigorously vetted, maybe also give insight to first timers in order to encourage improvements.” Such a space could provide any interested devs with a ready-to-play team of testers to improve the game, as well as mentorship from more experienced brewers who could guide newcomers through their tried-and-true processes and connect them with other valuable resources which would take the guesswork out of consistent, high quality physical production. However a seal of approval may be a trickier prospect, as we’ll discuss later.
As homebrew has grown and gained wider attention, it has attracted the interest of veteran developers and large companies eager to create, produce, and distribute new games. In the past, referring to someone as a veteran in the homebrew community meant someone who had been a longstanding and engaged member; including well-known developers and collectors like Kevin “KHAN Games” Hanley or Christian “Ferris Bueller” Deitering. Similarly, early companies that developed some of their own games yet were largely known as publishers for others may have pushed the boundaries of what made a game a “homebrew”, nonetheless stood with both feet firmly in the homebrew scene, such as RetroUSB and InfiniteNESLives. However respondents noted that being a “veteran” in the community is growing a second definition: professional game developers trying their hand at creating games for older consoles. Recent examples include the SNES game Unholy Night: The Darkness Hunter, developed in 2017 by a team of former SNK members, or Orange Island, an upcoming game (that will include an NES port) by Ted Sterchi, who is a former designer for Sega. Likewise, retro gaming behemoth Limited Run Games has leveraged its publishing muscle and massive following to bankroll and release a handful of homebrew games alongside its modern and retro-rerelease offerings, including Alwa’s Awakening, Jay & Silent Bob: Mall Brawl, and Witch n Wiz.
Screenshot from Unholy Night: The Darkness Hunter for SNES
There seems to be some consensus among respondents that these arrivals challenge the hobbyist aspect of homebrewing, introducing a level of existing skill to a place where people were previously using their projects to develop themselves and learn over time. This prompted the sense that passion and personality were being joined by a new quality: profit. While no one spoke negatively about the arrival of industry vets and corporate backing, other than to say that these projects may not technically be homebrews, there is a tension to this trend: will these developers and companies, with their larger mainstream followings, bring more attention to homebrew as gamers get curious to see what else they can play, or do these names become monoliths eclipsing hobbyists and leaving gamers to wonder if a game is worth it if it isn’t associated with these larger brands? These questions are hardly new to the community, the same conversation referenced earlier on BootlegGames Wiki noted how “the lines can blur a little bit when homebrew game makers start selling their games on cartridge,” feeling that selling a handful of carts at a convention was still a hobbyist having fun, but wondering how many copies sold marked the line between the hobbyist’s homebrew and a professional’s unlicensed game.
Or perhaps this niche of retro gaming has simply grown so much that different terms are necessary to conceptualize it all accurately. So far, I’ve been using the word “homebrew” and its fluid definition, but other words might be more illuminating. “Aftermarket games” has proven to be a useful umbrella term that includes homebrews, hacks, bootlegs, repros, etc. The word “indie” has appeared with increasing frequency to promote new games for old consoles. Can/should “indie” and “homebrew” be used interchangeably, or should the former refer to more professionally developed games, while the latter is reserved for hobbyists?
I wanted to ask this question based on a conversation in VGS’ Brewery Discord in March 2021, in which Jared “jekuthiel” Hoag stated that he "take[s] the term 'homebrew' as an insult, given what [he] is trying to do" in reference to his project (the upcoming Former Dawn), noting the size of his team and the intention to release the game on modern platforms as well as the NES. My initial reaction was defensive: how can you enter a community, engage with its creators and fans, share your work with the goal of marketing your game to this demographic, and be insulted that your game would be associated with the terminology the community uses to define itself? To me, it implied a sense of superiority over those who were comfortable applying the homebrew term to their own work.
Image from Former Dawn by Something Nerdy Studios
This is another point where reading survey responses added some nuance to my feelings and helped me broaden my understanding. I can appreciate how other terminology might be more fitting. But I personally think it’s insulting to other devs and the community at large that one might react so strongly that their game would be called a homebrew while simultaneously promoting their game throughout the homebrew community. This is the terminology that the wider community has evolved for itself, can someone be a part of that community while rejecting the term as beneath them? Perhaps that is a reflection of the gray areas at the edges of the definition of homebrew. Sumez made an interesting point how a game came be a “product of the homebrew community, even if it maybe can't really be defined as a homebrew product.”
The sentiment returned in a post to the NESmakers Facebook group in which the publisher of Cool Sh#t Magazine stated his dislike for the term “homebrew”, writing how he felt it cheapened the work of those he considers “indie developers.” At the end of the day, our feelings about proper terminology in contexts such as this may say more about what we individually bring into the conversation than reflect any real argument, but I do think it odd (and off-putting) for someone to enter a longstanding community and reject the terms it has used to define itself for years, making normative judgments about the implied quality associated with particular terms compared to others.
The vast majority of respondents felt creators should be able to categorize their work however they want; that “homebrew” or “indie” or some as yet uncoined term is a matter of self-identification. Several excellent quotes emerged in response to this question. Nathan “Bite the Chili/gauauu” Tolbert felt there was “no need to draw lines as a community…but we should respect everyone’s individual interests,” expressing less interest in a game with substantial funding behind it. Nicolas Bétoux of Morphcat fame believes homebrew is perhaps “a word that we maybe lost the initial sense [of]” as it has become blended with the larger concept of a “neo retro game,” of which “homebrew” is a part of it as much as “indie.” Ellen “Frankengraphics” Larsson believes “homebrew encompasses all levels of skill and previous merit. It’s more about the authenticity of the thing which often gets lost in too big teams.” Donny “Toggleswitch” Philips doesn’t believe someone who considers themselves an industry veteran or is well-funded should be called a homebrewer, but “if somebody takes issue with being called a homebrewer, then in my opinion it’s up to them to push the quality of their project in a way that stands head and shoulders above the rest.”
Turning now to a thought exercise that emerged on the VGS forum several months ago, a member asked how NES homebrew today compares against its licensed forbears. As subjective as that question is, I asked the community where they thought the homebrew scene right now matched the licensed era. Many respondents rejected this question as superficial, silly, and uninformative. Nonetheless 5 people felt homebrew is currently on par with the 1987-1989 segment of gaming, while 5 others believed homebrew reached equivalence with games from 1990-1991.
Two prominent games from those respective time spans
Other interesting ideas argued that homebrew has passed the original NROM era, as well as the first wave of Capcom and Konami games. But the truth is, with the benefit of being influenced by all that has come before, brewers are able to make games that capture the essence of a particular moment in time. While their skills match one era of licensed gaming, their passion delivers games reminiscent of another, which will color our perception and blur technical ability with intentional aesthetic. Adam “Artix” Bohn proposed a better question: where are the top homebrew games compared to the 1985-1995 range? Brad “NES Homebrew” Bateman also offered a more meaningful metric: that we should compare each dev’s releases over the years against each other, to truly observe a dev’s progression.
A question asking if there is a benchmark at which homebrew has “made it” and whether that point has been reached was similarly panned. Most respondents felt that the spirit of homebrew cares little about mainstream appeal, so “making it” is an irrelevant consideration. However, some noted a few developments which have marked meaningful growth in the community. Lower barriers to entry have been facilitated quite well by NESmaker and GBStudio. The expansion of homebrew’s reach onto PC and Switch releases, and the growing assortment of Evercade compilation carts has carried homebrew onto modern platforms. The scale of the Micro Mages Kickstarter’s success represented an explosive epiphany regarding the demand for homebrew games. For all this success, one respondent continues to look over the horizon, feeling the benchmark for him will be the arrival of a game on par with Super Mario Bros. 3 or Kirby’s Adventure. A day hopefully not too far off.
Perhaps rather than focus on amorphous notions of where homebrew stands as a whole, we can marvel at the new places homebrew is going, and where it might venture next. I asked what is on the cutting edge of homebrew right now, and what is capturing the community’s imagination. Answers spanned a host of specific games as well as more general developments. Among the games that have caught the community’s eye, Astro Ninja Man, Alwa’s Awakening, and Micro Mages stood out as impressive recent releases (with Micro Mages getting plaudits for its incorporation of modern gameplay attributes). When considering games in-development that has fans salivating, Former Dawn, Orange Island, Halcyon, Full Quiet, Space Soviets, and Rally Rally Rally Rally were front of mind. Respondents expressed enthusiasm for upcoming new hardware such as the Rainbow Wi-Fi cart, and the MXM cart, while continuing to sing the praises of music carts, flash save memory, and expansion audio. One respondent shared their anticipation for homebrew’s expansion to the N64, raising the prospect of more 3D homebrew. But above all, what is fascinating devs and fans is seeing more people pouring their love and creativity into games.
Broke Studio’s Rainbow Wi-Fi Cart
With the myriad new games and developments to hardware that have come or are visible on the horizon, I also asked where respondents want to see homebrew go in the next few years. Glimpsing what soon will be, what long-term aspirations do we hope will emerge in the distance? One grand ambition shared by multiple respondents was recognition from Nintendo itself, alongside more mainstream attention. This might seem to conflict with the previously mentioned feeling among devs that mainstream popularity is an irrelevant consideration to homebrew. But part of this hope may emanate from the longstanding existential fear that Nintendo or Sega might quash homebrew with cease & desist orders. So while larger appeal isn’t top of mind for devs in how they measure the success of their games, there is a certain security that devs want that would make them feel able to continue to create. But with the arrival of homebrew games like Haunted Halloween ’86 and Battle Kid to the Nintendo Switch, devs can breathe a little easier.
Another common sentiment was that we might simply see more of what we have: more games and more devs, especially in areas ripe for growth such as the SNES. Observing a sort of generational gap, M-Tee issued a challenge to veteran brewers, wanting to see them rise to the quality we’re seeing from newer devs entering the scene. Hoping to foster more cohesion and echoing Jordan Davis’ attitudes, Adam Bohn would like to see more support between veteran and new devs, enabling a passing and preservation of knowledge will be the catalyst for a virtuous cycle.
But speaking of inclusivity, an anonymous respondent expressed hope that the homebrew community will become more accepting of marginalized communities. It’s no secret that the homebrew community isn’t particularly diverse, overwhelmingly populated by cis white men. That’s not to say the community is devoid of women, people of color, or people from the LGBTQIA+ community, but, as in so many other areas of life more could be done. In an un-diverse space, sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia can easily take root. In un-diverse spaces, the majority can lack empathy for the marginalized in favor of their own comfort. I’ve noticed strong defenses of “free speech” on forums and Discords in response to criticisms of slurs and offensive jokes, and a disrespectful refusal to gender people in accordance with their identity. The lawyer side of my brain bristles at such widespread misunderstanding of the First Amendment. These are not public spaces and moderators are not government actors; the freedom of speech is not unlimited here, and in order to foster a wider, more inclusive community, one in which everyone feels seen and safe, we must realign our priorities and prove it every day by protecting the security of the few over the entitlement of the many.
Because respecting people is a matter of human rights
Which leads me to my next big question, asking what concerns respondents had about the homebrew community. Some concerns grew out of recent phenomena. The pandemic’s effect on supply chains generally, and chip shortages more specifically have hampered physical releases. Its inconsistent impact has allowed some games to move forward, while releases such as Action 53, Volume 4 remain delayed. Hopefully the restoration of global commerce to its pre-pandemic state will slowly unclog these backlogs, though the marketplace’s fragility will always find a new problem. Meanwhile the large-scale adoption of Discord revealed new concerns over the accessibility and attention of the homebrew community. As developers seek to cultivate devoted followings and promote their work, they’ve noticed that the multitude of Discord servers has fractured the community and exhausted fans as each additional server becomes a burden leaving fans hesitant to join. The knee jerk solution was to suggest consolidating Discords or designating one as a hub to others, but to point to any one server and say “this is the Discord” would be obnoxious and presumptuous. What do we do then?
Much of what has been voiced previously continued into this portion of survey responses: the insularity of the community itself, fears that Nintendo or Sega will use litigation to collapse homebrew, concerns that shovelware on Kickstarter will diminish homebrew in the eyes of the larger gaming community that is less familiar with the homebrew subculture, and whether tools making game development easier are diminishing the sense of accomplishment that comes with releasing a game. With regard to the latter, my observations suggest that is a concern we need not worry about. The sense of accomplishment derived from making your own game is a personal feeling and shouldn’t be threatened by what might allow another to obtain that feeling for themselves. And if a dev worried their own choice of tools would ruin that sense of accomplishment, they can simply follow their own heart and preferences and use whatever tools will preserve that feeling they seek. More importantly, I feel that so much focus has been placed on tools like NESmaker and GBStudio as a means to develop games, and not enough on their value as educational steppingstones to learning how to develop games “from the ground up” if that is something the user aspires to. The Nerdy Nights Tutorials and existing literature, fantastic resources that they are, can be indecipherable if you don’t already have a passing familiarity with coding in C or 6502 Assembly. Exploring the NESmaker Discord revealed illuminating discussions that many users found the tool helpful in learning to code in a defined sandbox, but quickly found themselves bumping against its limitations. The evolution of several rising brewers can be found in their popping the hood of NESmaker and learning to develop beyond what the tool itself provides. Much like Chris “Optomon” Lincoln’s description of learning to code through his hacks of existing games, a number of brewers learned and grew through figuring out how to make something specific happen in their game that the initial set of tools could not provide. Perhaps then a better conceptualization is not whether a game is lesser for what helped make it, but an outward-looking sensibility: who is rising to prominence thanks to their start with these tools? As Yoda observed: “we are what they grow beyond.” May we appreciate this tool through the lens of the talented people it has forged.
Jordan Davis and others noted their concern that the homebrew community lacks access to efficient beta testing and quality control resources. On the other hand, created a centralized hub of willing beta testers and devs interested in providing close mentorship would foster community among its members while increasing the quality of any game that participated. Some advocated for a substantive seal of approval to denote a sense of objective quality. Two lively debates emerged on the subject at NESdev and on the NESmaker Facebook group, weighing the general value of a special mark, the considerations behind any standards that might be created for its use, or even whether a mark that would be freely available had value. Ultimately the homebrew community, which generally lacks the funds to establish, nevermind defend a registered trademark, would be ill-served by a logo that at best would be widely stolen without repercussion, and thus rendered meaningless, and at worst serve as a gatekeeping stamp that would amplify polarization among brewers.
Matt Hughson’s (left) and Yan Ian Hook’s (right) homebrew seal designs
In thinking of ways to expand the community, I asked if there were any roles or services beyond traditional game development that respondents felt could be an asset to the community. Admittedly there was a degree of self-interest in this question. As a practicing attorney who will probably never learn to code, I was curious to know if the community thought it could use the skills of someone like me, but also anyone else whose day job and skills could be leveraged in service of homebrew. The question first popped into my head a few years ago during the debate over who held ownership rights over Black Box Challenge. I would rather not relitigate this matter, but interested people can find one segment of the argument here on the VGS forum, and other relevant information on Jeffrey “Hagen’s Alley” Wittenhagen’s podcast here (around the 20-minute mark). At this time Rob “Sly Dog Studios” Bryant has deleted his Twitter account and therefore his posts on the subject are not available. In response to the ensuing argument I wondered if homebrew had outgrown handshake agreements, even between friends. Was there demand for someone to draft contracts and agreements so every member of a project was on the same page regarding expectations, and could point to the same document to resolve disputes or ambiguities? Although I’ve gotten some work drafting various agreements for homebrew, the jury is still out whether the larger community has any interest in my skills, though I’m loathe to be too aggressive in advertising myself.
But enough about me! Respondents offered a plethora of suggestions for roles that would make homebrew development more robust and facilitate their own efforts. One role that has been requested already here is game testing. Devs are eager to have an army of beta testers who might identify bugs and offer feedback that will elevate the game when the time comes for its release. A reliable source of available and genuinely interested testers would offer fresh eyes for anything devs overlooked or wouldn’t think to poke at. I say “genuinely” because I’ve noticed in some Discord channels people eagerly sign up to beta test a game or proofread text, only to note afterwards that they never had the time to contribute anything (if they say anything at all), or people who try to join after the fact, but whose words imply their interest is more in getting a free rom. The latter reeks of piracy while the former reminds me of those people who spam YouTube/Twitch streamers to be moderators despite not knowing the person and demonstrating limited engagement with the channel because they like to feel important and collect titles. A ready-to-play reservoir of reliable beta testers would be a boon to homebrew’s efforts at quality control. The question then is what standards to set to ensure only reliable people are recruited.
The most common stated need from respondents was for marketing and promotional assistance. Just about every dev who has sought crowdfunding for their game also lamented how exhausting the promotional work can be in order to build, and maintain hype for their game. In the same way many devs were happy to delegate publishing their games to companies like RetroUSB, InfiniteNESLives, Broke Studio, and Mega Cat Studios, brewers are expressing an interest in finding people who are willing to take responsibility for marketing their games, creating promotional content, and engaging with fans to maintain excitement until the game’s release.
Among the other roles respondents said would be valuable, several highlighted the difficulty of finding people to collaborate with, as well as resources for obtaining physical materials. Respondents noted the need for help publishing their games, including identifying box and manual printers. Although options exist, such as Frank Westphal who is well-known for his box production work, he isn’t active in major homebrew spaces and therefore can be hard to find if you’re new to the community. So what is the best means for getting in touch with him, or anyone else who providers these services? Is there a menu of products and costs people can consult ahead of time? Similarly, respondents mentioned how hard it can be to find pixel artists, illustrators, chiptune musicians, and other programmers who are available, or they know a few places where collaborators can be found, but the culture seems hostile and cliquey toward newcomers. It makes me wonder how many great games may be languishing because the team to bring it to life is having trouble getting assembled. This sounds like a great opportunity for VGS to help. In response to concerns that conversations and opportunities to showcase their work were getting fractured, we created additional channels in our Discord, adding #brewery-graphics and #brewery-music to the mix, while the existing channel was renamed #brewery-general. In a similar effort to help brewers highlight their portfolio and collaborate, we are creating a new subforum on the website: Brewer Portfolio/Help Wanted. Members can create their own threads as a sort of profile to highlight their work and advertise their availability to work on new projects. Members can also make job postings, soliciting others to reach out if interested in collaborating.
Beyond some of these deeper conversations on the future of homebrew and working through questions that might be provocative, I also wanted to ask if the community itself wanted to recognize any of its members and celebrate them. Not everyone responded to this section, leaving me to assume there was reluctance to single anyone out and stoke tension and competition. It is not my intention to make anyone feel less than, but to celebrate the wide array of talents and styles this community is blessed to include. To that end I asked who is the best programmer, pixel artist, and chiptune musician? Who is underrated? Who is new to the homebrew scene that everyone should be paying attention to? Who has been dormant that you would like to see active again? Is there a shelved project you want to see return to active development? I tried to include real names and well-known handles where possible, but was unable to learn both for everyone.
Starting with the community’s overall favorites, those for whom we are always drooling over their latest update, Julius Riecke (Morphcat) was voted best programmer, Frankengraphics as best pixel artist, and Tuï as best chiptune musician. They are each known for a host of games, both released and still in progress, but worth highlighting is Morphcat’s work on Micro Mages, Frankengraphics’ upcoming “Project Borscht”, and Tuï’s work on From Below. Other programmers recognized by respondents include Damian Yerrick (Thwaite), Zeta0134 (RusticNES), Brad Smith (Lizard), Bitmap Bureau (Xeno Crisis), Dustmop (Star Versus), Łukasz (Gruniożerca), Valdir Salgueiro (Roniu’s Tale), Dale Coop (Zdey: The Game), and Fernando Fernandez (Chaos Between Realms). Other pixel artists who were recognized include Surt, Nicolas Bétoux (Morphcat), Fernando Fernandez, and Clarion (Dungeons & DoomKnights). I made the mistake of getting ahead of myself and posted on Twitter that Ellen was the only pixel artist named in the survey responses, when it would be more correct to say that she was named by every survey I had read so far. I apologize for my incorrect statement. Other chiptune musicians recognized include Richard “Kulor” Armijo (Alter Ego), Julius Riecke, Thomas “thehumanthomas” Cipollone (Unicorn), Chip Jockey (Gruniożerca 3), and Thomas “Zi” Ragonnet (8-Bit Xmas series).
Kudos to Miau, Frankengraphics, and Tuï!
When asked to name an underrated member of the homebrew community, Joseph “Yoey” Provencio and Pubby stood out, known for Project Chocoblip and We are Hejickle respectively. Others recognized for their talents include Kasumi (Indivisible), Jordan Davis (Space Raft), Chris “Dullahan Software” Cacciatore (Nebs ‘n Debs), Valdir Salgueiro, RetroSouls (Misplaced), Antoine “Broke Studio” Gohin (Twin Dragons), M-Tee (The Cowlitz Gamers 2nd Adventure), and Adam “Second Dimension” Welch (Eyra-The Crow Maiden). As the underrated talents of the community, you should look into each of their portfolios now and get excited for what they have brewing.
Cheers to Yoey & Pubby!
As the community grows, new talent continues to be attracted to the scene, and their fresh ideas fire our imaginations. Asked to identify their favorite newcomers to watch, Matt Hughson was the consensus pick. Matt has been exciting fans with his work on Witch n Wiz as well as Blades of the Lotus for this year’s NESdev Compo. Other recent additions to the community who have gotten people talking include Wendel Scardua (Fire of Rebellion), Alastair Low (Tapeworm Disco Puzzle), Fernando Fernandez, and Skyboy (Fire and Rescue).
Great to have you Matt!
But for all the people who are sharing their work and whose games have excited us lately, we also want to recognize those people from the past who inspired us, and who for one reason or another have gone quiet. Some have taken a step back to focus on their families and primary careers, others are coping with hardships, and some have moved on to new challenges. We don’t mean to pressure them to return but want to offer tribute to those from yesteryear whom we miss dearly. Respondents shared how they are pining for news from Joe “Memblers” Parsell, Tim “Orab Games” Hartman, Derek “Gradual Games” Andrews, Shiru, Rob “Sly Dog Studios” Bryant, Frank Westphal, Neil Baldwin, Alp, and Sivak. We miss you and hope you’re doing well.
Not only do we wish to express our love for dormant brews, but also several specific games we hope will rise out of limbo. If Kickstarters were announced today for Dimension Shift or a completed Super Bat Puncher, respondents might empty their bank accounts on the spot. In a wonderful bit of self-deprecating humor, a number of devs voted for their own games when asked what shelved projects they wanted to see resume development. But also included among their answers were Celestar, The Gift of Discernment, Eskimo Bob 3, Isolation, ROM City Rampage, and SNESmaker.
Since joining VGS’ Homebrew Team I have enjoyed playing around with the kinds of projects that were important to me. I already had my Homebrew Almanac and Homebrew on the Horizon threads, I developed my blog about new games, I helped organize a homebrew leaderboard competition with Chris/Deadeye, and I try to connect fans with games on their wish list. I’ve even launched a collaboration with Mega Cat Studios to release homebrews on cartridge, starting with Diamond Thieves (and launched a blog to cover those new games as well). But this survey felt like a meaningful opportunity to ask the community what VGS could do to serve as a worthwhile platform and resource. We don’t want to replace or disparage existing outlets, but we do want to fill gaps and be of value. The consensus among respondents was that we should try and build something unique that doesn’t try to replicate NESdev, but then again most felt we couldn’t if we wanted to anyway, since VGS is more a platform to connect with fans. However we received praise for our Discord becoming one of the go-to places for homebrew discussion. We are happy to have this space which has fostered community. Recommendations included developing a space where devs could share progress on their games and engage with/market to players. Sumez requested dedicated spaces where devs could show off their work, such as a revamped profile page that could be a mix between existing profile pages and something informational like LinkedIn. We have also been asked to work to be more inclusive and protective of marginalized communities, respond to bad behavior, and remove bad actors. The staff has tried to be more active in curtailing prejudice and casual slurring, but as always, we need your help in spotting it so we can be as responsive as possible.
The last question on the original survey asked the tongue in cheek question whether the homebrew bubble had yet burst. Most respondents either answered “not yet” or made a much-appreciated Böbl joke.
I tried to pick a screenshot that would really pop
But as with the rest of his responses, Jordan Davis offered a wonderfully insightful answer I want to share. Reflecting on the longevity of the homebrew scene, and the particular appeal of coding for the NES over other consoles that came before or since, Jordan observed: “Video games themselves are a young medium, going backwards for inspiration into a young medium is a rare phenomenon. Imagine if film directors of the 30s and 40s decided to go back and start making silent films, just because they saw Dr. Caligari in junior high or something. There is an appreciation of history of the medium that goes along with the homebrew and retro game scene, it’s often very academic.” For all the advancements in technology and storytelling we have seen as video games evolved from the 80s to today, there is something persistently fascinating about the nostalgia that drives us to reach back to collect these older games, but which also inspires some to create new games reminiscent of that time.
In the time since I sent out my initial survey, new questions came to mind. As homebrew sporadically gains mainstream attention, how does the community feel about engagement with the media? Should journalists observe from a distance, like a documentarian covering wildlife, or should they engage the wider community so when their article comes out, community members aren’t wondering where this person or their impressions came from? What can devs do to promote engagement? In response to this question, the consensus was that while there is an expectation that journalists writing a piece on the community are talking to its members, no such responsibility exists when the written piece is merely the author’s observations or is simply a review of the scene’s offerings. Nevertheless, M-Tee noted that as members of this community, we have a responsibility to each other to be ambassadors who do not present this community as a hostile environment to anyone. If anything, engagement should be encouraged and where possible aided by searchable and digestible information, ideally generated by the non-developers of the community (to, in his view, minimize pulling brewers from their dev work).
As homebrew draws larger audiences, should homebrew be guided by the passion and preferences of creators, or should the interests and convenience of customers prevail? And given players’ desire for convenience and ease of access, what are the ethics surrounding pirated roms and repros? Should players respect the publication choices of creators if a game they want to play is not available through their preferred mode of play or is too expensive, or in the absence of a legitimate option, may they turn to illegitimate ones to play the games they want to play? The consensus on these questions reflected a sense that players can express their preferences regarding homebrew games that appeal most to them, whether that’s a matter of favored genres or the availability of released games on physical cartridges, digitally available as roms, or made compatible with mobile devices. However at the end of the day, because homebrew is at its core a hobbyist passion, it will always ultimately be creator driven.
Despite this dynamic, the ethical questions surrounding player access to rarer homebrew games persists. A handful of VGS members have made clear their beliefs that if they want to play a particular game and cannot obtain it legitimately, illegitimate means are acceptable, and it is the creator’s fault for not doing enough to make it so that player could have the game. Rejecting the creator’s preferences and pointing to the admittedly opportunistic greed of some resellers with no connection to the original developers, these players justify using pirating roms and repros because they feel they shouldn’t have to pay a premium or go without if they don’t want to. M-Tee noted that social acceptance of pirating creates an uphill battle for establishing and respecting creator rights. Spacepup echoes the importance of respecting the devs’ wishes, and those players are not entitled to content just because they want it. Just because a game’s sale no longer connects to and benefits the creator, doesn’t mark its entry into an acceptable pirating free for all. Considering the nuances of this issue, Nathan Tolbert feels that while honoring a developer’s wishes regarding distribution is ethically correct, it is up to the individual regarding the download and use of pirated content, but that selling and redistributing it is unethical.
In an October 2021 conversation in VGS’s brewery Discord, several people shared their opinions on the dumping, reproduction, and sale of pirating homebrew games. Specifically, community members wondered what (if any) amount of time was enough for it to be acceptable for someone to share a rom they have? What if, at some point in the future, someone wants to play a play that is unavailable and they are unable to reach the creator to get permission to reproduce a copy despite a good faith effort? From her perspective, Ellen Larsson felt that “not as a homebrewer, but as an author. It doesn't matter if I write a novel or make a game. Hands off unless it's the intention to distribute it freely or if the author decides to change the license.” However she adds that she would make an exception for the preservation of otherwise endangered files or if something made was freely distributable. Sumez believed it is “super disrespectful towards the author to just throw their stuff out as piracy no matter how many years have passed, 1, 2, or 60, but if they are genuinely impossible to get in contact with or in any way warrant any kind of new release of authorization of free distribution, then I guess fair. But no matter how much someone can go ‘gee, it's an old game, it should be free, because people deserve to play it’, it's up to the author. If it should be free, let the author give it out free.” Nathan Tolbert emphasized the point about being unable to reach the creator: “Personally, if I've disappeared from the scene for a few years (3?), and nobody knows how to get ahold of me, I'd be fine with folks releasing dumps of my games. But that's definitely not what I think everyone has to agree to.” Brian Parker agreed, noting that if “a few (3-5?) years after honest contact efforts get zero reply, do whatever. If its legit preservation (VGHF) take everything at anytime.” Meanwhile NovaSquirrel had a more open stance, believing “if someone doesn't want to give me the ability to buy a game anymore then it's on them.” Josué “Trirosmos” Oliveira disagreed, believing “that the free sharing of files and information are and should be central pillars of the internet. I'm not necessarily gonna make it easier than it has to be to get access to things I've made that I'm trying to sell... but if you go through the trouble and literally spend your own time and money so that other people can freely access it, I'm not gonna stop you.” Josué expanded on his position, noting that without piracy of PlayStation games, the Brazilian gaming and dev scene might not exist. That said, he does believe there are behaviors which are relatively more/less acceptable, feeling the “selling of bootlegs of homebrew games feels a lot worse to me than just having the ROM on some website.” The variety of opinions on this subject are as numerous as the number of people in the community, given the different backgrounds, cultures, experiences, and motivations it encompasses. Perhaps a deeper conversation will be a good place to ground another survey next year.
I’ll just leave this xtreme PSA as a placeholder
Homebrew has come a long way. It’s come so far and evolved to such heights that the word itself has begun to give way to other terms that describe related spaces of this ever-growing community. It is not without its growing pains though, as the community encompasses more people and raises new questions, some of which are likely unanswerable. The point is not that every question be put to rest, but that asking it yields a worthwhile, respectful discussion. This discussion aspires to bring as many perspectives as possible into an open space where the community can witness the diversity around them and understand the variety of experiences which give rise to the games they enjoy. Such is the marketplace of ideas. I hoped the surveys supporting this piece could generate a sort of symposium on the state of homebrew, sourced from a variety of creators whose talents have built this scene. This community is in many ways the literal stuff dreams are made of, and the imagination on display with each new game inspires the next person, and so with each passing moment the possibilities are somehow even more endless. This place isn’t perfect, but by understanding and appreciating what brings us here, and creating the infrastructure that safely enables us to create or support these games is what makes this space great. The state of homebrew remains strong! So I hope you continue to love these games, and tune in to this blog because when you see each post, you know that…