Joe Larson, also known as “Cymon” of Cymon’s Games, took some time out today to answer a few questions for me. Joe is probably best known for his work-in-progress project called ASCIIpOrtal.
Entar: Please introduce yourself, in whatever fashion you deem necessary, and describe some of the projects you’ve been working on.
Joe: Hi, I’m Joe. A little over a year ago I started a project called Cymon’s Games that, aside from giving me an excuse to practice programming on a regular basis, is aimed at building a library of source code to help others learn programming. My latest project that started out for that site but quickly grew beyond that scope is ASCIIpOrtal, a game which seems to have struck a cord with folks.
Entar: How did ASCIIpOrtal get started? What inspired you or gave you the idea for an ASCII style Portal game?
Joe: Increpare’s Portile which was released around the time of the TIGSource Demake Competition, that was one source. Another was an online text game called Super Serif Bros. These two kinda came together in my head and became ASCIIpOrtal. And Portal, obviously, for rocking the Casbah.
Entar: Do you plan to add some extra elements to the gameplay that were not seen in Portal?
Joe: With ASCIIpOrtal I wasn’t trying to create “Portal in ASCII” but more creating an ASCII game with portals. Everything that I was going to bring in from Portal (not from Portile) has pretty much been scrapped. The hovering balls and the receivers for them, scrapped. I was going to do the pistons, those are scrapped. I was going to add moving platforms but I decided I’ll do those in ASCIIpOrtal 1.1 if I do them at all. The sarcastic computer is about all that got yanked from Portal. Gameplay wise, it’s really it’s own entity.
Entar: Has Valve contacted you about your use of Portal’s name or concept, or expressed any feedback about the game?
Joe: Um, not yet. But I hear they’re cool folks, so I hope that a C&D order isn’t in my future. I am trying to avoid any mention of what could potentially be copy-right infringing. Yes, it’s obviously an homage to Portal, and I’m not going as far as to change setting and whatnot, but I’m not mentioning GlaDOS by name or anything like that. I totally expect that when I release this I may get a nod from on high – I’d be thrilled.
Entar: I’m sure there are a lot of people that would like to know about a time frame for ASCIIpOrtal – are there any expectations for a release date, or is it just done “when it’s done?”
Joe: It’s getting really close now. I’ve run into a technical hangup because I’m trying to make it work on all systems smoothly and add sound. If I didn’t care about those things I could potentially release it now, but the “free download” community is such a fickle thing that I know if I don’t make it as solid as I can before releasing it to the world that most of what could potentially have been my audience will get bored with it, wander off, and not return when I release 1.0.
Entar: Please describe Cymon’s Games, and some of the inspirations and goals behind it.
Joe: Cymon’s Games was inspired by… well, the way I learned programming was not so much from lesson manuals or classes, but from old type-in books. Books full of BASIC source code that I would read, literally read. It’s from these that I learned to program. But now-a-days there’s nothing like that. magazines and books no longer print source code because disks, then CDs, and now instant downloads have made that, as a distribution channel, obsolete. But it was more than a distribution channel to me and many others who, I believe, make up many of the technical professionals in the world today. Cymon’s Games aims to re-invent that for this generation. The long term goal of Cymon’s Games is a book of modern type-ins. Short term goal is a program and it’s source code formatted for print every week.
Entar: What advice or comments would you give to independent game developers?
Joe: Wow, I’m being asked this question now. It seems weird because before ASCIIpOrtal I was nobody, just a guy who had this website that a few people visited. Here’s the thing, I made this one thing that resonated with people, but I didn’t set out to make something that resonated with people. I found a project that gave me an excuse to do what I liked, to make games. And it gave me an excuse to make those games as simple as I could handle until I could work myself up to something bigger and cooler. Don’t try to be a rock star. Don’t go bragging about your big ideas. If you aren’t producing something, ANYTHING, and sharing it with people you will never be anything. Make something simple. Something basic. Something you can handle. And if it’s not good for anything else (and you wrote it in C/C++) if nothing else submit it to Cymon’s Games and it’ll be the program of the week some week.
Entar: What do you especially like about working with ASCII? Have you branched out into more advanced graphics, such as OpenGL or Direct3D?
Joe: Hah. The plan was for ASCIIpOrtal to be my last ASCII project and then I was going to start fiddling with Allegro and maybe some OpenGL later on down the road. I feel like I’ve gone about as far as I can with ASCII at this point. The thing about ASCII is it’s really easy to work with. Nice big grid, no fine movements or odd collision detection. The limitation is really freeing.
Entar: What are some of your favorite games out there today, independent or otherwise?
Joe: I’ve bugged certain channels with my favorite game of all time a lot. That would be Star Control, and I could go on about it, and would because it’s an obscure title and I feel like everyone needs to know about it. I still play it occasionally today. But on titles that I think everyone would like, one thing I find frustrating right now is how transient our tastes have become. Flash games have trained us to play a game out today, then forget about it because there’s another coming tomorrow. That’s, like, a year’s worth of somebody’s life that we’re dedicating an hour of our time to there. That said, my current “disposable” game is Knightfall 2. I loved the first and the second is just as good. I’m really looking forward to Half-Life 2: Episode 3 as well, but mostly because I still love Half-Life 1 and I just kinda want to be done with the series, but my tastes have kinda moved on from that sort of game lately. I’m currently playing Super Mario Galaxy, and while I know it’s all big, flashy, and corporate, I like it because it’s fun and I can play it while my children are awake. In fact they love to watch their Mom and I play it.
Entar: Speaking of Half-Life 2 Episode 3, what the heck do you think is on that mysterious Aperture boat?
Joe: Heh. After I played Portal I found “Portal: TFV” map pack which was released on the XBox I discovered as “Portal: Still Alive”, only they stripped out all the story elements, which was a shame. They made some seriously bold story related leaps in “TFV”. If you have portal on the PC and you haven’t played “TFV” you should. If you have it on XBox the levels are still really good, but still… As for what’s on the, what was the name of that ship?
Joe: That was it. As for what’s there, I think that the aggression portions of GlaDOS has been learning from all the test subjects who have been running through the chambers, and that ship has a ton of them ready to be implanted into combat droids. An instant army of adaptable robots that can be sent into Xen and used against the bad guys. After all this time I hope they really have a whopper of a cool surprise for us.
Entar: What questions do you wish interviewers would ask, but never do? How would you answer them?
Joe: Oh, that’s a good one. Nice. Know what? That one, right there. Best question ever. You win the internet reviewer award.
Entar: Woo! I’m honored. I… I don’t know what to say.
Joe: Well, hey, you let me plug Cymon’s Games. What more could I possibly want? Well, aside from a full time gig earning >60k a year doing basically what I’m doing already. Or a full ride scholarship while I get my MCS.
Entar: What plans do you have for the future, after ASCIIpOrtal is finished?
Joe: Got a couple of projects lined up. If I finish ASCIIpOrtal in time I have an old BASIC Type-in/Halloween book that I thought would be a hoot to do a total C rewrite for Cymon’s Games in time for Halloween. Like I said I want to start doing Allegro programs and the first is going to be a combination typing tutor/synthesizer/rhythm game called “Keyboard Hero.” I also want to make an allegro version of Osmos, just because it looks like it’s be real simple to do. I’m concerned that I’m not being original, but then I look over my body of work and I think, “Have I ever been original?” But that’s a discussion for another time.
Entar: Any last remarks?
Joe: Just a plug for folks to follow me on twitter, hit the comment form, hit Cymon’s forums and say anything. I thrive on feedback and conversation. And a thanks to Robert Ferron for giving Cymon’s Games a start without which there’d be no ASCIIpOrtal and Erin Robinson for sharing this on her twitter, without which you (being the person reading this now) probably wouldn’t have heard about ASCIIpOrtal. Well, maybe not, but still, thanks, Erin.
Entar: Thank you for your time.
Joe: I hope I didn’t give you too much. I warned you up front. Give me an open mic and I’ll fill it up.