Developer Spotlight: Antonio Savona

As a teenager, Antonio Savona long had aspirations of creating the next smash hit for his favourite home computer system, the Commodore 64. Teaching himself the ins and outs of assembling language, Antonio became somewhat proficient at coding for the Commodore before realising that he just didn’t have focus required to finish off his projects and postponed his dreams…for 25 years. 

Moving across to live in London, being involved with the News function within Microsoft’s Bing search engine and then moving on to the exciting action (ahem) of the reinsurance industry in a data analysis role, one might be surprised to learn that that Antonio yearned for something more. To this end, he filled the void by going back to his former love, programming for the C64, and in 2014 he finally got around to complete his first gaming project, P0 Snake, for the beige machine.

RGN spoke to Antonio about his upcoming game, l’Abbaye des Morts 64  back in November and we wanted to get him back again to cover his broader (though brief) C64 programming career.

RGN: Thanks for taking the time out to talk to us again. You have quickly become one of the leading programmers of the current C64 gaming scene with your work on P0 Snake, Planet Golf 64 and L’Abbaye Des Morts 64. How did it come about for you to want to start producing modern day titles for the Commodore 64

 Savona: It’s something that I wanted to do as a Kid, when of course it wouldn’t have counted as retro. Back them, I was surprisingly good (for my age, at least) with assembly and I could get some pixels lit, but I lacked discipline and focus and I had no idea what game design even meant, so I failed repeatedly. In fact, I started countless games but I never got even close to finishing one. Some 25 years later I decided to teach my young-self a lesson in never leave things unfinished, so I started coding P0 Snake and managed to complete it. It should have been a one off, but I liked the experience so much that I’m still developing games in my spare time to this today. It’s still as difficult as it was 25 years ago, but the good thing is that now there’s a very vivid community helping you around with feedback, hints and pats on your shoulder, while back then it was just me in my bedroom having no clue whatsoever.

On the left is Tony back in 1990 and on the right Tony of the present, complete with devious smile as he unleashes his challenging games on us poor unsuspecting players

RGN: Both P0 Snake and Planet Golf 64 appear to be ‘simple’ games that are easy to pick up and play but have some devilish levels of difficulty associated with them. Why do you hate us gamers so much?

Savona: Ah Ah Ah. I once joked with someone on Twitter who was cursing me for some levels in P0 Snake that players’ imprecations are the fuel that keeps us programmers going. I said something like “I grew up with Ghosts ‘n Goblins, why would you want an easy game now?”. To which of course he replied with more imprecations!

Well, truth is that P0 Snake and Planet Golf don’t really follow any schema, therefore they require some time to learn the controls and the strategy. Every time you start a new Shoot em up or a platform game you somehow re-use the experience and the skills you have developed playing other games of the same kind through the years, but this is not the case with P0 Snake, for instance, which is a bit a of weird/unusual concept. You have to start from scratch there, and this makes things a bit more difficult. In Fact, we shared beta versions of L’Abbaye Des Morts with some testers and they all found it well balanced or even quite easy as a platform game. But a colleague of mine, who has never played videogames in his life, finds P0 Snake much easier than L’Abbaye des morts because to him every game is new concept.

For Planet Golf I guess it’s because it’s a simulation: it can’t be easy or the replay value would be non-existent. That said, I’ve seen videos of people playing (and cursing me) but doing something like trying hole in one at every shot, like 50 times in a row, then getting mad at the game saying that it’s too difficult. Once you understand that, like in the real game of golf, beginners should try to get closer and closer to the hole in baby steps, it becomes immediately easy to at least complete all the courses. Then doing so with good scores is a different story, but that’s also where the replay value is, I think.

Tony’s first game for theC64, P0 Snake – the winner of the RGCD C64 16KB Cartridge Game Development Competition 2014

RGN: A signature feature of both P0 Snake and Planet Golf 64 are that they both feature digitised speech. Did you set out to include speech in either game as part of the original scope for the game. What attracted you to included this feature?

Savona: As a kid I was fascinated with speech in games. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world, and I thought that should I ever make a C64 game it would have had speech. So I’m just fulfilling that dream, now.
I guess it also has to do with the compression challenge which I particularly enjoy. Speech is cool but, while some games benefit from speech, some are better left with just music and sfx. I think L’Abbaye des morts belongs to this category:  The intro is chatty, but, other than that, there’s no in-game speech. I think it would have spoiled the atmosphere.

RGN: Planet Golf 64 seems to have attracted a cult following in which you have opened yourself up to interactive with. Was this intentional on your behalf? What have been the benefits of being able to interact with people who really appreciate the game, despite its difficulty setting?

Savona: Yes, I enjoy interacting with players, getting feedback, constructive criticism or just chatting about all things C64. I think that “cult following” is a bit of an overstatement: I’m just a C64 coder I’m no rockstar. But the small size of this “club” also makes it possible to interact with all the people who have something to say about my games, whether good or bad. This is the part the I love the most about this hobby. The Commodore community is so nice and and collaborative that I made good friends around the world just chatting about Planet Golf. It’s the case of this rivalry that started with an Australian guy I met on Twitter, Jacko25, who was beating me at my own game, humiliating me with scores I struggled to even get close to. He ended up showing me shots that I wouldn’t think possible. During one of our conversations I mentioned my new project, Guy in a vest, for which I needed some some FMV footage. To cut a long story short, he is now filming those sequences for me! That’s how wonderful this community is.

This game is evil…Planet Golf 64

RGN: Now that L’Abbaye des Morts 64 has been released, what would you like gamers to specifically pick up on with your version of the game?

Savona: I hope they’ll engage with the controls which I invested some time in tuning, or at least this is the feedback that I got from testers. The level design is the same of the original, which plays great, and it was very difficult to go wrong with it, I just had to copy it. But when I first approached the conversion, I noticed that all the other ports of L’Abbaye des morts had some issues with controls coming from the fact that they were ported straight away without taking into account the features of the target platform. Therefore, for instance, the Megadrive version, which runs at a higher resolution and lower frame rate than the PC version, ends up being too slow. The Commodore 64 version would have suffered a similar faith, so, rather than just increasing the speed of the main sprite, I implemented sub-pixel accuracy for the main character and added a subtle acceleration which makes sure that controls stay responsive but also tight. I didn’t really invent anything, though: this is a lesson that is taught since the times of Donkey Kong, and has been passed on by the great programmers of the 80s, such as Jeff Minter whose motto “First: Get the controls right” never ceases to inspire me.

That said, it is much more likely that they’ll pick up on Saul Cross’ outstanding visuals and music. Saul is the real start of this production: I think this is some of the best art he has ever delivered and I’m so lucky that I had a chance to work with him on L’Abbaye des morts.

L’abbaye Des Morts – Pure Art on the C64

ViNTO: Looking to the future, you are teaming up with Saul Cross to produce a 1980s action hero themed platform fighter ‘Guy In A Vest’ which you recently announced would be published by RGCG and Psytronik. What direction are you looking to move this game into, game play wise?

Savona: The game is a homage to the action movies of the 80s, and it should hopefully play like Duke Nukem 3D but… in 2D. Or, if you wish, you can also see it as just a simple run and gun platform game with a lot of enemies. There will be power-ups, End of level bosses and the usual things you’d expect from this type of games. Going back to your previous question about difficulty in games, this time I would like to do something that players can pick up in no time and have fun with straight away shooting at everything that moves. That doesn’t mean that it’ll be very easy, but hopefully it’ll be immediate.
It’s also by far the most demanding game I’ve ever coded, that’s why I’m taking my time to work with it and it’s something that I’ve kept in the background for quite some time now. I just don’t want to rush it out and I only write some code whenever I feel like doing it. It might even end up not being the next game I release, if some other easier project comes along.

Guy in a Vest

RGN: What is your personal view on the current C64 gaming scene? Some may say that there is too much focus on platform games.

Savona: and I would agree. Having just coded a platform game, I know that they are actually quite easy to pull off, so it’s no surprise that this genre gets so much love from the programmers. It’s also the type of game for which you can invest in building up your code base once and then you can pretty much reuse a lot of it for other platform games. Now that I’ve developed L’Abbaye des morts and that I have my own version of such routines, I know that if I had the graphics and the sound ready for another flip-screen platform, it would only take me few weeks to code it. I’d jump on this chance myself!
With this, I don’t want to imply that today’s coders are lazy, it’s just that nowadays you don’t code C64 games for a living so it’s understandable that you try to take shortcuts whenever you can, or with real life getting in the way, you end up not releasing anything at all. But yes, this also means that platform games just keep coming. Hopefully in the future we’ll see more and more sceners taking their time to experiment with different genres, maybe as a secondary project to be developed with the philosophy “ready when it’s ready”.

RGN: To finish up on. What would be one or two of your favourite C64 games produced in the 21st century that you have not worked on?

Savona: Everything that Lasse Öörni does, because he really pushes the envelop both from the technical point of view and that of game design. His games have an incredible depth and are among the few modern games that, I’m sure, would have been critically acclaimed also in the 80s, when the production was so vast that a game was not considered good just because it existed, which is the case in today’s market. Lasse is in a league of his own, he is by far the greatest C64 game coder of the modern era. If I had to choose one of his games I’d say Steel Ranger, which is more immediate and easy to pick up than his previous production without sacrificing depth. What a masterpiece!
Then I guess Sam’s Journey. It’s not necessarily a game that I’m in love with or that I play a lot, but the execution is impeccable and I admire it purely from the point of view of the implementation. 

We’d like to thank Antonio for spending some time with us again. I think you can agree that he has provided some very interesting insights. If you haven’t done so already, you can purchase physical editions of P0 Snake and Planet Golf 64 from the RGCD shop, while digital version can be found from RGCD’s page. L’Abbaye des Morts can be ordered from Double Sided Games or Psytronik Software

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