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Keeping the Dream Alive: The Men Behind Dreamcast Homebrew

Sega's final console may have been discontinued in 2001 and had its very last official release in 2007 -- many years after software from big publishers dried up -- but dedicated developers are still supporting the system with unofficial releases. Gamasutra finds out how and why.

[Sega's final console may have been discontinued in 2001 and had its very last official release in 2007 -- many years after software from big publishers dried up -- but dedicated developers are still supporting the system with unofficial releases. Gamasutra finds out how and why.]

To many people, the thought of "homebrew" game development -- as opposed to "indie" -- is equated with the practice of making new games exclusively for dead platforms. While that's not an entirely accurate thought, it's not so wrong, either. Plenty of new games have been made by dedicated people for long-gone systems such as the NES or ZX Spectrum, and most easily playable through emulators on the PC.

What's curious is that some of these homebrew creators, especially ones in the most active communities, are devoted to systems that just didn't die, but were all but hated by the general public -- Atari's ill-fated Lynx and Jaguar, for instance, have seen a relative flood of software created by diehard fans more than a decade after those systems became obsolete.

Sitting alongside the well-loved systems, and the mostly forgotten, is the Sega Dreamcast. There's something utterly unique about the Dreamcast and what it created; Atari may have birthed a respectable cadre of obsessed enthusiasts, but Sega's short-lived successor to the Saturn commands what can only be called a cult following.

Its best games were innovative, wacky, and indelible, and the system continued to receive official game releases some years after Sega stopped manufacturing the console in 2001, a time many of those followers considered to be far too soon.

Just a few years after that, the Dreamcast formed its own definition of "homebrew," one that may not have a micro-nation of hobbyist programmers for it, but rather a few small teams that want to recapture the Dreamcast's uniqueness in their own ways, even if that means putting it all in a jewel case.

Redspotgames is a German game publisher that began packaging and promoting unlicensed Dreamcast games in 2007 with Last Hope, a shoot 'em-up that was a port of a homebrew NeoGeo CD game, and which released in the same year as the last official Dreamcast releases in Japan -- years after U.S. games dried up.

Later Redspot releases were the puzzle game Wind & Water Puzzle Battles and Rush Rush Rally Racing, a top-down racer. Max Scharl, Redspotgames' CEO, told Gamasutra that the company attempted to release its Dreamcast games officially, but to no avail.

"The first time we asked for a license for a new game was in 2003, but Sega of Europe had no interest in new titles, and we could not release [games] officially," Scharl said. "We tried a couple of times to do the same in Japan, but Sega of Japan does not give licenses out to non-Japanese developers or publishers -- even though we have tried several times and even gave them a visit."


Rush Rush Rally Racing

Redspot has recently expanded its publishing efforts into the digital market, releasing titles for the Xbox Live Indie Games platform, like the space shooter Solar Struggle, as well as WiiWare.

"When the first Dreamcast indie games [were] released, there was no such thing as digital distribution among the current systems," Scharl said. "Also, those were productions that primarily came directly from the Dreamcast [homebrew] scene, and most were actually started on this very console as well -- some even without [a solid] concept before contacting us."

Regardless, having only started a few years ago, one might think it's a bit backwards for Redspot to go from posthumous Dreamcast games to just now joining the digital bandwagon, but Scharl sees it differently. "After comparing both platforms... somehow the Dreamcast indie games [seem like] an unknown parallel universe of indie game distribution on current platforms, yet even more independent."


Publishing is only one part of the equation, though. NG:DEV.TEAM, the developers behind Last Hope, soon decided to publish their games themselves. Last Hope was quickly by a revised "Pink Bullets" edition, and then a spiritual sequel called Fast Striker.

Timm and René Hellwig are the sibling co-founders of NG:DEV.TEAM, and it was SNK's NeoGeo system that inspired them to produce arcade action games of the high quality the system was known for. "Initially we started as a hobby project; two brothers who wanted to make quality games for our beloved NeoGeo," says Timm. "But later on, with the... success of Last Hope for Dreamcast, we started growing to become full-time game developers." From one passionately-loved system to the next.

The Dreamcast offers more for hobbyists than just nostalgia, though. Practically all Dreamcast homebrew development is accomplished through KallistiOS, an open source development environment with the express purpose of making Dreamcast games without Sega's official tools, which sidesteps copyright issues and other legal concerns (versions of KallistiOS also exist for the PlayStation 2 and Game Boy Advance).

It's what Redspot's developers and NG.DEV:TEAM use for building their games, and it seems to have worked out, although the OS is not exactly on par with Sega's in terms of tapping the maximum potential of the hardware. Still, KallisitiOS is unique in the way it fills the void left by the lack of an official dev kit.

For the homebrew scene, making games for much older systems usually necessitates a wide variety of separate tools and utilities. A one-stop option is very nice to have -- especially for a system from the post-16-bit era, when venturing into development without a comprehensive dev kit can be daring, if not crazy (though Scharl noted that a few indie Dreamcast games were written in pure assembly language).

And certainly, when you're not only developing Dreamcast games after its death, but also turning them into physical products, support for all this has to come from somewhere. The men behind both Redspotgames and NG.DEV:TEAM funded their companies out of their own pockets on the sales of their games, and remain private entities.

Independent publishing on marginalized game systems is inherently risky, but NG:DEV.TEAM recognizes the challenge.

"Nowadays we don't see much future in these niche systems, as the markets are [steadily] declining," said Timm Hellwig. "We still love them, but we're a business that makes money to fund our projects, after all. To date, Fast Striker only sold 60 percent of what Last Hope sold on Dreamcast, which is kind of disappointing [considering] the quality of the game... we also try to expand to more active and profitable platforms like iPhone and WiiWare."

The lesson might be, then, would be to seek diversity, to prevent a niche from turning into a rut. But Scharl disagrees with NG:DEV's assertion that things are declining, noting that the Hellwigs "rarely do promotion for their titles," and that Redspot's next Dreamcast game, a striking shoot 'em-up called Sturmwind, quickly gained nearly as many pre-orders as Last Hope.

Regardless, it helps that both companies' games are appealing to the type of super-hardcore players that kept the spirit of the Dreamcast alive in the first place, are passably playable at worst, and can get a fair amount of publicity on the web when a new one is announced -- just by virtue of being the potential last Dreamcast game, yet again.


But one question still looms: Why the Dreamcast, anyway? While both NG:DEV.TEAM and Redspotgames have already discovered the potential of digital distribution platforms, they have also expressed an intention to continue making Dreamcast games. Redspotgames, in particular, "still [has] a very strong connection to this scene," said Scharl, likely referring to the upcoming Sturmwind as proof of that.

"Making games for modern platforms sounds easy at first, but [then] you need to find a publisher that has faith in the quality of the product, and then we need approval by the hardware manufacturer which takes time," explained René Hellwig. "On the DC, however, we don't need to go through these hassles, which makes it easier for us get a game on [the] system quick."

Timm adds, "Its best advantage is the fact that you don't need a license and the tools are fairly modern -- for instance, you can upload your game [via] ethernet without the need to burn test CDs or anything like that."

And as Timm also notes, there's something to be said for the new kids on the block. "We found an awesome system that's perfect for our needs -- the iPhone [and] iPod Touch. Vertical shooters play perfectly on them, if done right. Apple is very open and doesn't have many constraints when it comes to game content."

Of course, there are sentimental reasons to stay with the Dreamcast, too.

To Max Scharl, the Dreamcast always cultivated a loyal following, "And a very unique scene of many different people, from demosceners to indie game developers to modders... [Comparatively,] Xbox 1 and GameCube are long gone, even though they were more successful than the Dreamcast [in terms of] commercial success."

And who can forget the games? Classics like Jet Grind Radio, Shenmue, Sonic Adventure, and for René Hellwig, Phantasy Star Online. "For me, it's the best Dreamcast game ever -- I spent half my youth playing that game."


Sturmwind

It can be difficult to figure out where some hobbyists dedicate themselves to systems that didn't have many great games (if any at all), but when you look at the history of the Dreamcast, it's easy to see why talented people would want to recapture some of the magic.

Redspotgames continues to release games on Xbox Live Indie Games, including a "Survival" edition of Solar Struggle, and is working on a WiiWare version of Rush Rush Rally Racing. Its aforementioned Dreamcast shooter Sturmwind is set to be released in the second quarter of this year.

NG:DEV.TEAM's next Dreamcast (and NeoGeo) game, GunLord, is a run 'n' gun action game apparently inspired by the Turrican series, and is also planned for a 2011 release. In addition, an iOS version of their shooter Fast Striker is available now.

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