Old School Gamer Magazine chats with (Founder & Solo Developer, National Spork) Tod Powers, who discusses his new retro-inspired game on Steam/App Store/Mac App Store, Hazmat Hijinks: Total Meltdown.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How was Hazmat Hijinks born?
Tod Powers: My nephew Alex and I went trick-or-treating as hazmat guys in 2016. As usual, I’ve got to be as authentic and elaborate as possible – so I bought full face respirators and impermeable, hooded Tyvek coveralls. We thought we were so smart because instead of being cold and shivering, we’d be warm and dry in our industrial costumes – but that Halloween, it was only the weather that was warm and dry. I had to pour the sweat out of my rubber boots. That episode got me thinking about hazmat suits – and I realized that they could be a great mechanic for a game. At that point in my life, I was tired of making utility apps for iOS and had no desire to use my programming skills in a corporate environment – so I decided to go all out on my dream project, which became Hazmat Hijinks.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What is your role in the game?
Powers: My role is to do everything: Programming, level design, graphics, music, sound effects, testing! I hired out localization and PR, where expertise has really helped.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What has development been like?
Powers: This is the longest project I’ve worked on in my life; it’s taken nearly four years at this point! However, I did take some time off to take road trips (and do other things with my life) and didn’t work on any other software during this time. Development can bring a rollercoaster of emotions. Frustration with mysterious bugs that appear at the worst times. Elation when I come up with an elegant solution to a problem. Annoyance when I realize it will take hours of tedious work to implement it. Terror when I realize that the smart people started marketing their games on the day they created the project – not a few weeks before the end. Despair when I stare at my level editor for hours and have zero ideas. Obsession when I get an idea and work on it deep into the night. Happy when I’m finally done with the project. Also, depression when I’m finally done with the project.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What makes Hazmat Hijinks special?
Powers: In a word, integration. I worked hard to integrate music and graphics and puzzles into a cohesive whole, like a Kubrick film – rather than just make some nice levels and slap a story on it. I also added a ton of special content to the game. There are so many secrets and even items that radically change the way Hazmat Hijinks looks. And a real-world puzzle, too!
Old School Gamer Magazine: What games influenced this one the most?
Powers: Chip’s Challenge, of course – plus Super Mario Bros. 3, and to a lesser extent Super Mario World.
Old School Gamer Magazine: Any fun stories or wild moments during development?
Powers: The day I came up with the main character’s name. I wanted it to start with an H so it could continue the alliteration of Hazmat Hijinks. I went through every name I could think of in several languages – Hank, Harry, Henry, Henri. Nothing fit, or was associated with some other famous character – so I changed my approach. What words and ideas are connected with toxic chemicals and materials? And where might this stuff actually be found? For starters, there are Superfund sites. What’s the biggest Superfund site in America? The Hanford Reservation. Hanford. Thinking of that name for the first time, how perfectly it fit, its double meaning, its sound – it was a true “Eureka!” moment. It felt as though the name was dropped into my lap from some other realm. I mean, sure – I get that awesome shock of discovery any time I solve a difficult problem or design something unexpectedly cool. But coming up with Hanford, so simple and yet so perfect, beats them all.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What were the major lessons learned?
Powers: When I started the project, I decided I would go all out and put in every idea I had (as long as it was congruent with the whole). I wanted to push myself to get better in every skill so I could do things that even I thought were impossible. It’s very satisfying to see the results. It was well worth the sometimes insane effort of pushing myself to do my best work. However the game is ultimately received, I know that my skills are better and my experience is broader because I aimed so high.
Old School Gamer Magazine: Do you think preserving older gameplay mechanics in new games is important?
Powers: A lot of those were borne of unique circumstances – hardware limitations, or perhaps someone exploring an idea for the very first time. Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony was such a radical departure from everything that came before it – ushering in an era of expressive, emotional, Romantic music. No matter how areas evolve, certain things Beethoven, The Simpsons or Miyamoto did first… I don’t think preserving those ideas is necessarily nostalgic. Great art is forever; it’s always worth studying and appreciating great ideas from the past – even if modern designers would take a different approach today. Beethoven and Bach entertain to this day. Super Mario Bros. 3 is still the best game ever created. Time alone doesn’t invalidate art.
It is interesting to note that a top-down, tile-based game just happens to be the kind of game a computer from the ‘80s could do well. The limitations of that period create situations that wouldn’t happen today – like 16-color palettes, which you get a glimpse of whenever Hanford dies or you fade into a level. And maybe in some other places, too – but I’m not telling… For me, it’s not nostalgia. It’s fun to play with limitations.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What’s your favorite memory as a gamer?
Powers: This will probably sound clichéd, but it’s absolutely true: playing Super Mario Bros. on the NES. It was the first video game I ever played. I was six years old. I’ll never forget walking (not running yet!) up to that Goomba in 1-1 and touching it and dying for the first time. And the hours I spent thereafter gradually figuring out the strange but consistent rules of that world and finally learning to master that world. It’s a powerful metaphor.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How have your previous experiences in the industry helped Hazmat Hijinks?
Powers: My previous work experience is actually a huge influence on the game. I’ve never had a job – and I never even graduated from high school. I don’t care for hierarchy, status, interpersonal politics – or climbing someone else’s ladder. My hard requirements for a career are that I answer to nobody and I wake up whenever my body tells me to – so in my heart, I’m a bohemian and an artist.
I started programming when I was nine years old – and the iOS App Store opened the way for me to earn a living from it. All my life, I’ve worked on some self-employment venture or other. Preserving my independence, rather than taking an easy path to security or getting rich, was always my goal – but it was very painful that I could never find a career outlet for my artistic impulses. I always went above and beyond in my work in ways that clients (and later, App Store customers) mostly didn’t care about. The kind of work that I care deeply about, that I am willing to work like a maniac on, the way that my personality dictates that I live, and my skills and interests lead me to, for the first time in my life, to a career in which I feel that I’m finally reaching my full potential – that is, if I can make this work. The reality is that I can only devote 100% of my time to making games if they’re at least minimally profitable – but this is the holy grail for me, so it’s worth risking everything to get it.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How do you want Hazmat Hijinks to ultimately be remembered?
Powers: I try not to think about legacies. Some wise writers I’ve read suggest that one should try in one’s career to leave a legacy – rather than just make a pile of money or simply mark time until retirement. I understand the impulse behind that advice – but for me (perhaps because I can’t help but aim so high in my work), considering the possible legacy of my game feels like an exercise in grandiosity. It can lead too easily to imagining oneself as some rich and famous personality. If anything like that comes, I can accept it – but it should never be the goal.
One’s legacy is for others to decide. I just want to stay busy doing the best that I possibly can and to continually exceed my own expectations. For Hazmat Hijinks, I can say that if someone someday remembers having the same feelings of surprise, delight, and joy of figuring things out that games gave me, that would be just fine.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What’s next?
Powers: Well, I’m constantly filling notebooks with ideas. I’ll get out of bed in the middle of the night to write down or sketch out an idea. Don’t ever make the mistake of believing that you’ll remember your idea in the morning! I’ve been working on some vague plans for a couple of different games – but I love the Hazmat universe too much to let that be the only game, and I think there’s more to explore. I want Hanford to have another adventure, but only if I can do really new stuff. I do not want to just release a level pack.
I have some really wild ideas for the next game. I’m sure it will take several years to finish. I’m smarter now, so I have a head start in several areas – including the marketing that I’m still no good at. At least I now accept how important it is! I suppose I’ll find a way to make the next Hazmat game whether or not this one is profitable. There really is nothing else I’d rather work on.
I don’t think I could do freelance programming while also working on my game – it would be too mentally taxing. But what other skills do I have? I could be a professional skydiver – except I really don’t want to do tandems all day. I could fly the jump plane – but who wants to fly in circles around the airport all day long? And, like, sell insurance or something? No. I cannot fake enthusiasm. I think I made a game because I really can’t do anything else! My Plan B is to make my Plan A work.
Old School Gamer Magazine: Anything else you’d like to add?
Powers: Keep your head up in failure and down in success.