07 July 2022

Developer Spotlight: Todorrobot

This is an interview with the prolific Flowlab game developer Todorrobot. The first of what will be an ongoing series where I talk with game developers from the Flowlab community in hopes of discovering how they think about game development.

Todorrobot is an artist, musician, illustrator and designer based in the US and has been building games on Flowlab for almost 4 years. He was the winner of the 2021 Winter Flowjam with his entry Beard Your Own Adventure. He previously ran his own independent comics publishing company and did editorial illustrations and game design for a local newspaper.

What drove you start making games, and how did you get started?

Growing up in the 80s, any time my mom would drag me to a department store, I would rush over to the electronics section and bask in the glow of the CRT monitors displaying the newest cutting-edge video game tech. Of course, cutting-edge at the time meant the Atari 2600, ColecoVision, Intellivision and the TRS80. I was hooked from the start and was the perfect age to grow up right alongside the new wave of video entertainment.

My friends had gaming systems before I did and I remember being completely inspired by Zork (a text based interactive fiction adventure), Dungeons of Daggorath (a faux-3D, vector based combat game) and Pitfall (the Activision classic). By age 8 or 9 I was already filling up sketchbooks with game ideas – my first being an atari-esque beach game where you jump over the waves while collecting shells.



Dungeons of Daggorath

Dungeons of Daggorath

When a friend showed me the sort of code it took to make even the simplest games (walls of BASIC typed out in magazines that needed to be entered by hand with no mistakes) that was as far as I got.

It wasn’t until I discovered Flowlab – many many many years later – that I was finally able to start going through my stockpile of ideas and start turning them into actual games. Maybe I’ll finally make that beach runner game.

What’s your favorite game you’ve created (and why)?

That’s hard. My first reaction is to say I hate them all because, as an artist and a creator, I’m never fully satisfied with the final results compared to my initial vision. When I look back, all I can see are the flaws and the parts I wanted to get into the game but didn’t or couldn’t. I have a short attention span so once I hit a wall or get a new idea it can be hard to get back into the right headspace. I try to turn the unfinished game frustration into motivation to do better on the next one, so my favorite game is whichever one I’m currently working on.

The brightside is that I have learned a ton from every unfinished game and have improved a lot in the 3+ years I’ve been on flowlab. Being embarrassed by your old work means you’re getting better. As a wise philosopher once said:

Sucking at Something

If I had to pick my favorite “idea” it would probably be Turdris, the poop-themed Tetris clone I want to make. Unfortunately it is too far outside of my current programming abilities. I know if I could make it fun and get it onto an app store, I’d make a bajillion dollars.

My favorite (mostly playable) game is Outpost Omicron which I built for the “Light and Dark” Flowjam. It’s a callback to the old Xenophobe arcade game. I busted my ass for those two weeks especially on the characters and backgrounds, but didn’t quite finish the ending. I’ve always wanted to go back and do an expanded version (Ice Mine Omicron) which would be more like Xenophobe crossed with Rolling Thunder, and have alternate paths and areas to explore, but I’m waiting to get better at finishing games before I tackle that one.

Outpost Omicron

Another success was Sacrifice at Hollow Castle, which I pushed through to get as functional and complete as I could. It is probably my most polished and playable game.

Start small. We all have our massive Magnum Opus ideas that we want to be the next AAA success in gaming, but if this is your first game, don't start with that one! — Todorrobot

You are able to consistently come up with unique and interesting themes for your games instead of relying on tropes. Any suggestions for devs who struggle with that?

I suggest having a closet full of sketchbooks overflowing with 40 years worth of ideas. But really, I draw from every day life. My mind wanders when I’m bored and I try to find ways to make things fun. Even during a simple task like “taking back cans” for recycling (a Michigan-specific chore that maybe not everyone is familiar with) I start thinking of how to make a game where you pick up the cans, shove them in the hole, and wait for the beep. Repeat. Add variables. Add time limit. Add precision. Game. Game. Game. Done.

Other times my ideas come from word play or some dumb pun my brain craps out. I’ll hear (or more likely mishear) a strange combo of words and my brain will shout “I want to build a game about that” and starts bombarding me with concepts. Two from this category are Butter Face, where you shift a pat of butter around to make bacon and eggs appear like eyes and a mouth in a pan, and Charmin Arms, where you have toilet paper for arms and can shoot streams of TP from your hands. Neither of those games went anywhere.

If I’m really desperate for an idea, ill look through the game jams on itch.io and pick one that has an interesting theme or limitation. I really enjoy trying to take a vague concept I have and forcing it through some arbitrary game jam limitations to see if that inspires something new and a two-week deadline is perfect for getting a basic game structure built.

You got stranded on a deserted island, but were able to bring one game with you. Which one did you choose (and why)?

My immediate answer is Minecraft because it is so versatile. You have so many different ways to play and the infinite terrain would be useful escapism from island solitude. I still play Minecraft almost daily and use it to unwind or relax.

However, second choice would be Dungeon Crawl (Stone Soup), an amazingly deep and complex and unforgiving roguelike that would keep me well entertained until rescue. I highly recommend this game. Once you get past the initial learning curve and the brutal perma-death, it’s really really fun.

Dungeon Crawl

Dungeon Crawl

What is the most challenging aspect of game development for you?

Finishing a game. The last 20% of your game takes 80% of your time to complete (or something terribly discouraging like that) and it’s hard to force myself to slog through those parts – especially if I have a hot new idea breathing down my neck. I can reliably get to the “proof of concept” and can usually push that to “barely functional demo” but I’ve really got to be invested to get past that phase. I love solving the game flow and logic problems but my strengths are in art and music and story concepts and world building. Bug hunting, streamlining, integrating all the parts so they work together, math in general, etc. are all parts that I struggle with.

Sacrifice at Hollow Castle - Revisited (my most recent “complete” game and an upgrade from the original two-week build jam version) felt like it took forever to wrap up and play reliably. The finishing touches and cleaning up all the little bugs and distracting bits was a total pain. This game came the closest to my original vision – a callback to the unexplained wandering of the old Atari Swordquest series, which were notoriously opaque. It’s still plenty buggy and the final boss fight is sort of basic, but it checked all the boxes I wanted it to check and came out looking super cool to boot.

Sacrifice at Hollow Castle

Sacrifice at Hollow Castle

Do you have any game in particular that you “cancelled” or abandoned, but would really like to revisit/remaster at some point?

I had big plans this year to go through some of my first games and maybe do a video series of me discussing what I learned from the initial attempt, what got me stuck and what I can do now to make it better with Flowlab’s updates and my accrued experience. I made a few attempts, but nothing has gotten much further than the original game. There are improvements to be made for sure, but the scope creep starts to get me and as always, I’m pushing the limits of my abilities in the new version and tend to get stuck or lose interest again. Instead I made a highlight video, with clips of the various games I’ve made over the years:

None of my games are truly ever abandoned, they just get pushed further and further down the back burner of my monstrous idea stove. The one that hurt the most was Nightfall (an unofficial Pitfall Clone). It was really really close to being done and then I think Flowjam came around or something else and I lost my groove. I spent a lot of time building the engine for that game and now I’ve forgotten how it all works. Since then there have been some Flowlab updates that would make it easier to recreate – like routers with more than 8 outputs, display order control and the ability to leave notes would make this a “breeze.”

I may try to pick up the remake video series in the winter but it will depend on if I think I can actually revisit some of these games successfully. Nightfall will be on that list and here are some others:

Zombie Beach Party: my first “finished” and playable game on Flowlab. Also my first to be featured on the Games page. There is lots I would like to add to this game.

Time Bomb: like Outpost Omicron, there was a lot more I wanted to do with this, but it was for Flowjam and I ran out of time. The code is an absolute nightmare and I’ve been too afraid to go back and look at it, but Flowlab’s updates would make a remake much easier.

Protector of the Purple Dunes: a Crossbow clone I never finished. I got burnt on doing the art and the code was getting out of hand. Then I had a better idea for this game engine and shoved it to the side. This failure lead directly to the color schemes and background ideas I had for Sacrifice at Hollow Castle.

MINIMALL: @tinkersmith and I have started a massive upgrade for this, but dev has stalled for the moment because other ideas have taken priority.

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to get started making their first game, but don’t know how?

Start small. We all have our massive Magnum Opus ideas that we want to be the next AAA success in gaming, but if this is your first game, don’t start with that one!

Do some pre-planning. Start on paper. Sketch out some mechanics and interactions. I make tons of notes on paper while I’m working out an idea. Also leave yourself notes in the flowlab boxes. Especially if you are using messages and mailboxes. Always leave a note in the mailbox reminding you where the message(s) come from.

Watch out for scope creep. That’s where your idea starts small and then balloons to unreasonable expectations outside Flowlab’s limits and your own abilities, or gets snuffed out by a ton of lore and back story and self promotion before there’s anything functional to play. Even the simplest self-contained mini game idea can grow to impossible proportions if your not careful.

We both know the hard part isn’t getting started, it’s actually finishing a game project - any advice here?

If I knew the answer to that, I’d have a lot more finished games on my games page.

Looking over the game list on my flowlab page – out of over 100 game files:

Only 10 could be considered somewhat “finished”

I’ve exported the best of them to my itch.io page. If you are on that site, please pop over and friend me up. https://todorrobot.itch.io/

About 30 of them are semi functional concepts but unfinished. 6 are attempted remakes of prior games and 3 are actively in progress. The remaining 50-odd game files are clones, test files, really basic proofs of concept or outright abandoned.

Game design is hard and solo dev puts all the responsibility on your shoulders and relies on your time and attention to succeed. Learn something from every unfinished project. Don’t feel bad dropping a game and starting something new if you lose interest. Find an idea, keep it small and finish it. Repeat.

Oh! And buy indie - it’s totally worth it.