SEGA Forever: Rich Karpp on VectorMan
A year into SEGA Forever, and we’re excited to have VectorMan joining the line-up on iOS and Android!
To celebrate the return of this 1995 classic, we got in touch with creator of the game, Rich Karpp. As both a designer and coder on VectorMan, he has a fair few stories from the game’s development that we’re sure you retro SEGA fans will love to learn about.
First things first… is it Vectorman or VectorMan?
It’s meant to be spelled VectorMan. We knew that using strange capitalization would be a problem from the beginning because people were always getting BlueSky wrong, but we did it anyway. Vectorman probably makes more sense since it’s similar to Superman or Batman, so I’m not sure why we chose VectorMan.
VectorMan’s environmental theme may have been somewhat incidental, but with climate change impacts already noticeably affecting us (and VectorMan’s gloomy predictions for 2049 seeming all the more likely) are you happy you went for that angle?
I’m happy we used an environmental theme in the story because it’s easy for everyone to relate to: the cleanliness of the environment is something that affects everyone and no one wants the earth to become unlivable.
Since we didn’t have a lot of story setup in the game, it was easy for us to quickly communicate why there would be an earth with no humans on it. As a kid in the U.S. in the 1970s, I saw a lot of media imploring people to stop polluting and to take care of our environment, and I think the trashed Earth was the logical conclusion of the types of images we were seeing back then.
BlueSky Software were prolific during the Genesis years. How has development changed over the past 20-odd years? What was it like working in a studio in the ‘90s compared to now?
Things have changed a lot over the years, of course. Development team sizes have varied quite a bit. In the ’90s you could build a AAA game with 10-20 people (maybe fewer) but the number grew pretty steadily over the years and it’s not uncommon to see 100 or more people on a AAA team. But the accessibility of development tools and platforms has opened up the opportunity for independent developers to make games with teams of 10-20 again, even if they aren’t quite AAA games, and I think that’s great
For me, a team of 10 or so is the sweet spot where there’s a good feeling of collaboration between everyone without a lot of management overhead; it feels like each person on the team contributes something substantial at that size.
It’s also nice to see support among gamers for a huge variety of genres, platforms, and styles now, so there’s a lot of demand for independent 2D platformers as well as big-budget story-driven cinematic action/adventures. A small team can create a 2D game now and it can be successful and sustain the team financially.
It sounds like the development process for VectorMan was on point thanks to good planning. In this new age of bedroom coders, do you have any advice for budding game designers?
At BlueSky we had already worked on several Genesis games before starting on VectorMan, so we had most of the tools and processes in place to get a high quality game done in a reasonable time frame; it was mostly a matter of refining our existing processes.
As for bedroom coders, I think it’s great that there are so many game creation tools that are either free or extremely affordable. It still takes a great deal of dedication, though, to make a game from start to finish. If someone is interested in making games, my advice is to start out by learning what you don’t know: make a complete small-scale game from start to finish.
That’ll teach you how all the disciplines fit together and it’ll also give you some practise estimating the scope of your work. If you can make a full game, no matter how small, then you’ve accomplished something most hobbyists aren’t able to do and you will have the confidence to make something more elaborate.
Thanks to his gestures and voice clips, VectorMan comes across as a character with a personality that really fit with SEGA’s cool image. How closely were SEGA working with BlueSky Software on the character design and the game in general?
There wasn’t really much involvement from SEGA until the end of the project, but of course we were all aware of the image and attitude that SEGA projected at the time. We wanted to create something that would fit with the image and also live up to people’s’ high expectations of a SEGA game.
VectorMan really broke the mould for what could be achieved on 16-bit hardware in terms of lighting and shadows, parallax scrolling techniques, audio, and graphical fidelity. It beggars belief how you managed to squeeze it all into a 2 megabyte cartridge. Which technical feat are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of the basic animation technology which let us run animation at 60fps and blend smoothly between animations. I think that gives the game a unique look and smooth controls. We did try to use all the unique effects we could think of so the levels wouldn’t get too repetitive, and I think we came up with some interesting stuff, but the animation system was the most fundamental piece.
Several of the bosses had very different stage mechanics and backdrops. Were there any ideas that you simply didn’t have the time to implement?
There was a level that had VectorMan riding on a horizontal wicker rocket that was rolling on a track, presumably headed for takeoff. It used scrolling columns to make the rocket rotate as it followed the terrain, which looked pretty unique. There wasn’t much for VectorMan to do because he was stuck riding the rocket; there wasn’t room to maneuver so it was tough to line up shots at the flying enemies.
We also did some experiments with a 3D presentation of VectorMan where the camera could rotate around the character. There wasn’t any gameplay involved, but we were thinking of using 3D animations to convey the story between levels. Originally, the characters were composed entirely of spheres, and it’s easy to use a few pre-rendered circles to show different-sized spheres from any angle, so these 3D sequences looked like the game characters. When we ended up building the characters from shapes other than spheres, we couldn’t make the 3D sequences look good so the idea was scrapped.
You weren’t involved with VectorMan 2 or the Saturn and PlayStation 2 sequel concepts, but have always shown a fondness for the franchise. What would your ideal VectorMan game look and feel like today?
I’d be torn between wanting a 2D throwback to the original games (but with modern conveniences), similar to Sonic Mania, and wanting a more modern 3D game like the latest Ratchet & Clank game. In either case, the game would have to run at 60FPS, feature improved animation blending and IK, and have some unique special effects to set it apart. Also, it would have to have more effort put into its story; I find myself drawn to games with more narrative content these days.
VectorMan remains one of the games SEGA fans remember most affectionately, even though it was released so late into the system’s lifecycle. Is there anything you’d like to say to fans?
I’d like to thank everyone who has played either of the VectorMan games over the years, and I hope they had an enjoyable experience. We had a lot of fun making the games and characters; I know I tried to capture the joy I had playing earlier games and I hope that shows in the final product.
Nostalgia seems more powerful now than ever before. What do you miss the most about “the good ol’ days?”
As a programmer, one thing I miss is the excitement of learning about a new console generation. In the old days, each new console that came out was very different, with a different main processor, graphics processor, memory layout, etc. These days things have converged to the extent that the main consoles and PC platforms are very similar, which makes it a lot easier to make multi-platform games, but also makes it harder to create unique tricks and techniques to make a particular piece of hardware stand out from the others. In the old days, it was always exciting to look over the documentation for the next generation of hardware and to come up with brand new things that you couldn’t achieve before.
Finally, what are your favourite SEGA titles (from any era, on any SEGA system), and why?
SEGA has published so many great games over the years that it’s hard to choose only a few favorites. My first experience with SEGA was with the arcade games, and I loved games like Zaxxon, Space Harrier, and Out Run, but I think Sonic The Hedgehog probably impressed me the most. I remember seeing it at CES and being blown away by the art design and the way it used the Genesis/Mega Drive to full effect. Then when I finally got to play it at home it was tremendously fun and exciting.
VectorMan is available to download for free (ad-supported) as part of the SEGA Forever collection on mobile.