GamesBeat

Spy vs Spy game creator tells the story of a rerelease nearly 30 years in the making

Richard Spitalny, the founder and president of First Star Software, recently collaborated with app developer Robots & Pencils on an iOS remake of his now-classic creation, Spy vs Spy. You may recognize the titular espionage artists and their infamous rivalry from the pages of Mad magazine. Richard recently took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about the rerelease that’s nearly 30 years in the making and to share some unique insights about working in the video game industry for three consecutive decades.


GamesBeat: How did this project start? What was the impetus behind it?

Richard Spitalny: As is often the case, [projects] can happen any day and often do. Dianne Press, who is in charge of contract administration and public relations at First Star Software, Inc., forwarded an email that had been sent to our general email account. It was brought to my attention because First Star was being asked if the rights to our first Spy vs Spy game were available.

I followed up with an email explaining that the gameplay, story, traps and remedies, Simulvision, Simulplay, and the Trapulator were owned and copyrighted by FSS, but the Spy vs Spy name and the likenesses of the black and white spies were not. We remained in close touch with several individuals at Warner Brothers, DC Comics, and EC Publications, and we felt we could help coordinate things so that licenses for both the underlying rights to the Spy vs Spy brand as well as to our gameplay could be secured.

GamesBeat: Did you have any reservations about bringing back one of your personal projects that is now almost 30 years old?

Spitalny: Absolutely not! Not even for a moment. Seriously! We had been trying for a few years with other third parties and WB, DC, and EC to bring the first game in our Spy vs Spy series to mobile. With the advent of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and faster and faster networks — and more recently Apple’s Game Center — I was actually of the opinion that technology had finally caught up with the vision I originally had for Spy vs Spy: for both players to be active simultaneously without having to wait to take turns, and to really be surprised by booby traps!

GB: This new iOS version features a “Retro” setting that appears to be a pixel-perfect representation of the original. Whose idea was it to include this mode, and why?

Spitalny: There was an understanding by all of us from the very start that there would be a Retro mode. Paul was a huge fan of the original — he played it often with his father, in fact — and there was no way that I was going to let the app out without a Retro mode. There was never a moment’s doubt.

I had learned that lesson the hard way when we previewed a prerelease version of Boulder Dash Vol. 1 for iOS, and fans on Touch Arcade and elsewhere handed us our heads for using the original caves with updated graphics without also including them with the original graphics. Well, we listened to them, and the app sold very well!

Spy vs Spy Retro Mode
GamesBeat: How different was this development experience compared to when you first programmed the original release?

Spitalny: Oh, as different as day and night. When we were developing the game originally, we were dealing with both gameplay as well as technology that had never been conceived nor tried before. For example, when I suggested to Mike Ridel, who programmed and co-designed the original, that we split the screen in half, with one player on the top and his opponent on the bottom — while continuing to scroll both halves of the screen independently — we really didn’t know if he could pull that off or how it would look and feel. Even if it worked on both a software and hardware level, would people be too confused?

We had all sorts of concerns: Would [players] be able to use the map to keep track of where they were, where they had been, and where inventory items were hidden? Would the Trapulator traps and remedies be too confusing? Would people “get it” when they both suddenly appeared in the same half of the screen while the other half went blank?

I could go on and on. The point I’m trying to make is that while working with Robots & Pencils, we didn’t have to worry about any of that. The gameplay proved itself long ago when the game first came out. It was an instant hit, won numerous awards, and sold very well.

So for the reboot, we had new and different concerns. Could the Retro version look and play exactly like the original on the very small iPhone and iPod touch display, and could Paul Thorsteinson, the chief technology officer of Robots & Pencils, and his team program the controls so that players could quickly and accurately tap on the various icons in the small Trapulators? While being sure to provide longtime fans with a pixel-perfect port in Retro mode, what would we do differently, and what would we add to differentiate the Modern mode? What new technologies would we support to bring the game forward?

Hopefully some of those features are obvious: We support multiple players online via Apple’s Game Center, and players can search for one another locally and play head to head that way. In Modern mode, combat is fullscreen with three different attack moves, and the Trapulator expands and retracts. Players can select from five different versions of the theme music, and the new graphics for the Modern mode are gorgeous. We support retina displays and have included an excellent interactive tutorial, a digital manual, and a training mode.

GamesBeat: Did you run in to any specific problems or challenges taking a game from the 8-bit console era and porting it to iOS devices? Were you able to reuse any of your old work?

Spitalny: I touched on one of the challenges above: namely getting the original game — where the Trapulator always occupies just under a third of the screen — to look and work well on the iPhone and iPod Touch screens. Another challenge was to be sure that the Retro version was absolutely identical to the original game. Fans of retro or classic games feel very strongly about preserving the integrity of their favorite classic games, so we took that challenge very seriously.

We did not use any of the original source code or source graphics per se, though the music and sound effects are ripped from the original, and the art and animations were studied very carefully and are identical. I was extremely impressed with Robots & Pencils’ attention to detail and their willingness to put up with my constant nit-picking whenever I found even the slightest discrepancy.

GamesBeat: Do you feel that Spy vs Spy has held up well after all this time? Is it still a fun game in light of modern and more complex titles?

Spitalny: As you might expect, I do feel it has held up very well. I say that because I know how many hours all of us at First Star and Robots & Pencils put into playtesting, and every now and then it seemed someone would comment on how much fun they were still having with it. That’s usually a good sign. Of course, ultimately that is best answered by the players.

One of the reasons I think the game holds up so well is that it is fairly complex. That was one of the things that people really liked about the game when it was originally released. Having to use bread crumbs to find your way back to a particular room and then remember where you had hidden something, reading your own map and watching your opponent look at his to see where he was, learning how to set and defuse traps, the concept that you could only carry a single item unless you also had the briefcase, etc…. These really add a layer of complexity well above that of traveling from room to room collecting items and then finding the exit. Add in the various strategies you can use to win, such as letting the other player do all the work and then trying to beat them up in club-to-club combat or booby-trapping the airport exit door, and you’ve really got a lot to play with…. Pardon the pun.

Spy vs Spy iPad

GamesBeat: The original Spy vs Spy was created during an era when most joysticks or controllers still had only one button. How hard or easy was it to come up with a control scheme that was friendly to the touch-screen iOS devices? Are you happy with the way the controls worked out?

Spitalny: Indeed, because the original Spy vs Spy utilized — sparingly — the single joystick button to engage in combat, rather than move your spy, or to access the Trapulator. It translated very well to touch screen. I don’t think anything could be easier or move intuitive than dragging your finger to move about and tap to do everything else. Combat, selecting items from the Trapulator, opening or closing doors, searching objects, and setting and defusing traps is all done with a single strategically timed and placed tap.

I am very happy with the way the controls worked out.

GamesBeat: Many modern video games feature extended cinematics and professionally crafted storylines that are starting to cause people to draw comparisons between games and the film industry. As someone who also has experience in film production — with Rhinestone in 1984 — what are your feelings on the maturation of the video game medium? Do you think they can or already have become equal to films as sources of entertainment and vehicles to impart a story?

Spitalny: Aha, someone has done their research! Indeed, I majored in television and film and was a movie producer before cofounding First Star exactly 30 years ago with two of my film partners. If by “cinematics” one is referring to cutscenes, then this is not new and for me doesn’t do all that much to enhance gameplay. But your question seems focused around how they contribute to the story, and toward that end they are often very useful. I would also include motion capture. That has done a great deal to advance both very realistic characters, and thus gameplay and story.

Games and movies are definitely becoming more and more similar in terms of emphasizing story as well as preproduction and postproduction. The various departments and personnel you encounter working on one of today’s larger projects at a game development studio are a mirror image of what you’d find visiting one of the major film studios…except for the software engineers.

Aside from a very rare exception — at least for me — the entertainment experience of a movie and a game are still different. However, that’s not to say that games haven’t equaled films as a source of entertainment. I think that for some of us — for certain games — they are equal. I also feel that games can — and some do — impart a story, though I would add that it will still be a while until a game can tell as engaging and as emotional of a story as a feature film.

GamesBeat: Along those same lines, many of your releases came from a time when video games focused more on the gameplay and less on a detailed narrative. Do you think the addition of complex stories into video games is a good thing for the industry as a whole?

Spitalny: I think it’s a good thing because it provides another tool for our toolbox or another color for our palette. Whether it’s because I started 30 years ago or because I personally like them better, I do like games that I can pick up and put down easily — something that I’ll enjoy as a snack rather than a big meal. But that’s very personal and also depends on the hardware and platform. I guess these days I’m more likely to have a tablet than I am to be seated in front of one of the consoles.

GamesBeat: You originally released Spy vs Spy in 1984. Your company has been in business for 30 years. What are some of the major differences between doing business in the video game industry back then versus working in it today?

Spitalny: The differences are huge, or at least they have been up until the last few years — specifically since iTunes and Apple’s App Store, Google Play, and Steam. Let me start with this thought: Just like back when I started in 1982, a single person can program a game; create all the art, sound effects, and music; and get their game published. Unlike 30 years ago — aside from rare exceptions — that individual can publish the game himself and be hugely successful. That’s of course due to 100 percent digital distribution, which is a huge difference between now and “back in the day.”

So even while budgets have now soared — especially those more cinematic productions — sometimes to the tens of millions of dollars, the inventory risk has been reduced more and more, if not eliminated completely. When we used to publish for the Atari 400 and 800 or Commodore 64 — when games fit on a 16k cartridge — we had to order cartridges at least three months in advance and prepay for them. If we overestimated or underestimated the demand, we got hurt because the carts were not reuseable. And if you needed more by the time they could be manufactured, shipped back, and then trucked around the country to various retailers, it was too late. Purchase orders were dated and would be cancelled.

Other key differences, in most cases — setting aside the sole developer or very small companies — are the increased size of development teams and the duration of development cycles. Also, one has many more platforms to consider today. Back 30 years ago, there were only a handful of computers worth supporting — unlike today, when we have computers, smartphones, tablets, handhelds, consoles, and Smart TVs.

Back when I started, everyone was a casual player by today’s definition, whereas today — due to the proliferation of platforms, operating systems, and diverse target audiences, like traditional teenage males, college-age folk, 50-plus-year-old housewives…what a terrible term…commuters, and growing female player base — a developer or publisher has many more decisions to make before they even start to develop a game.

GamesBeat: Given that many big-name video game developers and studios have closed their doors recently, do you have any advice for your peers in the industry or any wisdom to impart from having been in the business for so long?

Spitalny: For whatever it’s worth, I’d say, “Make games you really want to play yourself. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Focus and carve out a niche for yourself. Be innovative and original. Be honest and fair with everyone you deal with — within your company and otherwise. Plan for the long haul and know it’s a small industry. And at all costs, protect your intellectual property, especially when working with publishers and you’re not self-publishing.”

GamesBeat: I played all of the original Spy vs Spy games when they were first released. My favorite part was The Island Caper. Can you give me even a glimmer of hope that the sequels are on the way?

Spitalny: I can say that The Island Caper is also my favorite of our three games in the Spy vs Spy series, and I did just say, “Make games you really want to play yourself.” Does that help?

But seriously, of course a decision like that will be predicated on sales of the first Spy vs Spy game for iOS, so we’re crossing our fingers…and our toes!


Spy vs. Spy for iOS released on Thursday, July 26, and is available in the iTunes App Store.


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