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Seth Robinson on the Making of Dink Smallwood

/ Sep 19th, 2017 1 Comment

Indie games have risen in popularity next to their mainstream cousins. Smaller game developers have found a niche by being innovative, entertaining and well-polished. But it wasn’t always this way.

In the late 20th century, independent games were a niche market that paled in comparison to mainstream games. It was extremely rare to witness small-scale game productions achieve the level of success mainstream fare received.

One of the most notable games of this period was Dink Smallwood. Released in 1998 by Robinson Technologies, the action-RPG tells the story of a young pig farmer who becomes an unlikely hero after he saves his kingdom from total destruction. Dink Smallwood has attained a notable cult following and has become well-known for helping bring attention to independent games.

But what isn’t quite as well-known about the title is its arduous development period, a difficult time on the market and the fact that it did not initially net the popularity it enjoys today. This little-known story is best told by the lead designer of the game himself, Seth Robinson.

In light of the increased popularity of indie gaming, Gaming Illustrated contacted Robinson to discuss the development of Dink Smallwood and how it transformed from an obscure underdog to an indie gaming staple.

Seth Robinson Interview

Gaming Illustrated: Before we begin, can you briefly tell our readers about who you are and what you’ve recently been up to?

Seth Robinson: I’m Seth Able Robinson. I’ve been designing and programming odd games for nearly 30 years. I’m 42 and live in Kyoto, Japan with the wife and two boys.

Most recently, I partnered up with Mike Hommel to create Growtopia, a social sandbox MMO. It’s been a top 1,000 grossing app on both iOS and Android for over three years. The game was sold to Ubisoft in early 2017.

I’m now working with my wife Akiko on secret new game projects.

Gaming Illustrated: How did you first become involved in video games and developing them for a living?

Seth Robinson: At a friend’s slumber party I was blown away by Pitfall on the Atari 2600. After everyone else fell asleep, I stayed awake and kept playing all night! I fainted in the street the next day.

We finally got a computer in our own house. My parents brought home a cheapo Commodore 16 they had received as a free gift for watching a timeshare pitch. I quickly bored of the two games I had (Frogger 2 and Clowns) and started learning basic [coding] and writing my own tiny programs.
 

A young Seth Robinson playing on his Commodore 128 (Photo by Kathie Robinson)

Craving my own computer for so long combined with the free time of being home-schooled resulted in many hours of tinkering. I was the “the computer kid” of our family and that sort of became my permanent identity. I really gave zero thought to developing games as a career or the financial end of it; it was just for fun, like playing the guitar or being into Transformers (which I also was, big time).

After upgrading to a Commodore 128 and a 1200 baud modem, I entered the BBS scene. Before the internet, we would call each other’s computers via normal phone lines and play simple games and leave messages. I played many hours of Trade Wars, a BBS game.

I made a lot of crappy RPG type games but it never really occurred to me to distribute them. I didn’t know a single other person who even had a Commodore 128 that could run my games.

After starting my own Bulletin Board System, The Darkside, on an Amiga 2000, I wrote the door game Legend of the Red Dragon purely to attract more callers. I later re-wrote it in Turbo Pascal for the PC because most people couldn’t run the Amiga version.

I did zero marketing. It spread via BBS and word of mouth only. The SysOp who ran the BBS would pay $15 for the game, and callers could all play free. “Free to play” actually meant free to play back then!

I believe a key to its success was that players would beg SysOps for the game by name, pressuring him/her to buy it. A single-player game doesn’t get this viral bonus. When you’re a kid with zero costs, every dollar is pure profit.

Gaming Illustrated: How did both your company, Robinson Technologies, and the initial idea to create Dink Smallwood come about?

Seth Robinson: With LORD’s continued cash revenue proving this was more than a fluke. I decided to go all in. I was able to get a loan to buy the RTsoft barn. A four bedroom house included in the deal remained mostly unused as I preferred to sleep in the barn. Why a barn? I wanted room for a big green screen for video productions.

As the internet began to replace the BBS scene, it was obvious that the sweet LORD money would dry up. I’d always wanted to do a big RPG and, after seeing Justin Martin’s impressive work, I talked him into partnering with me to create the game. I’d already known he was a good guy to work with because he’d created a poster for LORD before that.

The only real employee at this time was Shawn Teal. Other people would just sort of hang out. Some people would come over to use equipment to edit video (Kurt and Jared) and guys like Greg Smith would drop by to learn programming, work on their own game, and also edit levels and scripts in mine.

Both Shawn and Greg are long time friends who lived in the area. So it was just a natural thing to say “this is what I’m working on” and get them to help out. These days geography is much less important for working as a team.
 

Title screen from Legend of the Red Dragon.

Gaming Illustrated: What was it like running Robinson Technologies back during the 1990s? How does running a game development studio back then compare to running one in the 21st century?

Seth Robinson: Looking back, I’d have to say we were not like a “real company” at all. We had no meetings, (nearly) no design docs, no revenue projections. We were friends just making stuff. The way products got finished was basically “force of will” pushing in the correct direction until it was done.

These days it’s easier to learn how to create games. The tools and tutorials are a click away. Of course, this means you’ve got a lot more competition and need to do something amazing to stand out at all. A lower barrier of entry means anybody can experience the joy of creating stuff, but making a living doing it is probably as hard as ever. Harder maybe.

It’s kind of like being in a band — you might not have great odds to strike it rich unless you’ve got something very unique, but hey, you’re in a band doing what you like.

My business was started with the shareware model: distributing something for free and hoping people want more features enabled for a payment. While that part hasn’t really changed, app stores and Paypal have made the distribution and payments work better. I used to get checks in the mail, wait for them to clear, then snail mail back what the customer had bought. Crazy slow.

The secret to staying in business as a tiny indie this long is low overhead and flexibility. I’ve sold software for plenty of now dead platforms; Amiga, DOS, Worldgroup, Windows CE, WebOS, Blackberry OS, Flash, etc. If I had depended on any one of them alone, I’d be toast by now. You can never depend on or trust a platform to help you; you need to make something that players like enough to demand.

Gaming Illustrated: Getting back to Dink Smallwood, can you go into detail about your team and what members specifically did to help create it?

Seth Robinson: Justin Martin did design and art. He did every single piece of art in the game and much of the level design. Only looking back do I realize how incredible that really was.

Shawn Teal worked with me since the LORD times. While I don’t think he worked directly on Dink, except for testing, he helped run things (especially with LORD support) so the rest of us could.

Greg Smith did scripting and level design. His twisted humor shines through in many places, especially Dink’s starting area. He also wrote at least one of the songs in Dink, the disco one for sure.

I did design and programming. I wrote the game engine and the majority of the story/scripting.

Gaming Illustrated: You also had musical contributions from an individual by the name of Mitch Brink. How did he help Dink Smallwood?

Seth Robinson: He’s a talented musician who allowed me to include his .midi music with Dink. My memory is a little hazy, but I think his music was first included with the “Mystery Island” DMOD. It wasn’t in the original game. But then when Dink was repackaged as freeware, he allowed me to use more music as replacements for the missing CD audio. It was unthinkable to have a downloadable game include the audio tracks at that time.

Gaming Illustrated: How was the atmosphere between you and your fellow team members during Dink Smallwood’s development.

Seth Robinson: It was a blast. It was a very relaxed atmosphere with a lot of joking around.

One memory is Greg tried to be like Shawn, the resident hardware hacker, and mod his motherboard BIOS to boot with a different logo and fried it. We gave him a hard time about that for years.

We had amazing LAN gaming sessions. Having six phonelines wired to the Barn for the BBS meant some epic Ultima Online all-nighters.

We made movies. I hope to edit our final movie and release it someday.
 

Robinson (left) enjoys a jam session with his brother David Robinson (middle) and Dan Oliver (right). (Photo courtesy of Seth Robinson and taken by Kathie Robinson)

Gaming Illustrated: What tools were used to create Dink Smallwood?

Seth Robinson: We used 3DStudio Max and Photoshop for the artwork. I was using Visual C++ and DirectX 5 for the programming.

Gaming Illustrated: Dink Smallwood’s story is very surreal and comedic. For instance, it derives a ton of its comedic emphasis on ducks. Why are they so prominently featured in the story and what inspirations did you derive from to make Dink Smallwood so comical?

Seth Robinson: Ducks were the first non-player character that was added to the game and I remember how happy I was when I could hold down a key to spawn a hundred of them. I just had to be able to punch off their heads. I have never harmed a duck in real life, I don’t know where this obsession came from.

My game Teenage Lawnmower allowed you to “mow” the heads off of ducks on the golf course. It’s the very same duck from Dink. I had found Justin’s 3D model and cleaned it up for real 3D rendering.

As for the (attempt at) comedic writing, a big influence was text-focused point-and-click adventure games like Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island from LucasArts.

Gaming Illustrated: How did you feel about how the game’s story turned out when you had finished it?

Seth Robinson: I knew that technically Dink wasn’t impressive next to something like Diablo (or anything made by a “real” game studio) and we needed something to stand out. I’ve never wanted anyone to buy my stuff just because it’s “indie” out of pity or something. Outrageous dialogue that a traditional company would never do was what was going to set it apart.

Coming from a background of text games, I was sure I could write something different. I’d prefer someone hate the dialogue than simply think it was boring or cliché. I used “sick and twisted” as a sales point for some reason.

Gaming Illustrated: What were some notable technical difficulties you encountered during Dink Smallwood’s creation and how were they overcome?

Seth Robinson: The first tests I did ran too slow. I was disappointed that I had to drop to using only 256 colors, but Justin chose a nice palette so it didn’t come out that bad.

Originally I was imagining a more top-view Zelda style, but Justin delivered the artwork as more isometric. I badly hacked my collision system to work with it because it looked so good. Deciding to do a “Zelda-style screen flip” made life much easier for me. I’m glad I didn’t try to do a fully scrolling world.

I was a pretty poor self taught programmer at the time. I didn’t use a single float in the source code because I didn’t really understand what they were, to give you some idea. I’m amazed the game worked at all. I guess being stubborn is more important than having actual skill sometimes.

Gaming Illustrated: Overall, how much money was spent on Dink Smallwood’s development?

Seth Robinson: The development costs over the 1.5 years were insanely low. Nobody was paid too much (in Greg’s case, we just bought him programming books once in a while) and LORD revenue paid for the building and utilities. After Justin finished the artwork on Dink, it was basically myself working full time and Greg doing part time work.

The last six months of Dink’s development were not fun. I was out of money. During LORD’s best times, it wasn’t uncommon to make over $1,000 in a day purely from BBS game sales. Tournament LORD for Worldgroup/MajorBBS sold for $300 a pop. Easy come, easy go.

What did I blow all that cash on? Did I really need a $5,000 video switcher or a $4,000 75mz laptop? I’m sure I didn’t need to spend at least $10,000 on SVHS video equipment I used twice. Why save anything when it’s so dang easy? I had been overconfident. In 1997 it felt like the BBS world had died overnight.

When Dink didn’t exactly take the world by storm, well, I was in trouble. I sold the rights to my BBS games so I could pay my taxes. Recently, I’ve tried to buy them back, but it’s not even clear who the current owners are at this point.
 

Robinson working on Dink Smallwood in 1997. (Photo courtesy of Seth A. Robinson and taken by Kathie Robinson)

Gaming Illustrated: Looking back, was there anything you felt could’ve been improved upon before you published Dink Smallwood?

Seth Robinson: The last 25 percent of the game was rushed. Justin hadn’t been around and there weren’t graphics for a final boss fight, so I used whatever graphics I could find that hadn’t already been in the game. That turned out to be a joke character Justin had done much earlier and a guy rowing a boat.

The overall plot of Dink was built on the fly — sort of on a town-by-town, quest-by-quest basis — so when we got to the end, well, I just did what I could to provide some closure to the story.

We had taken pre-orders and the game was already months late. I was extremely stressed by the delay, every second that passed without a finished product gave people a reason to never trust me again.

In this day and age of games on Kickstarter being delayed by years (cough, Star Citizen, cough), worrying about an RPG being only a few months late seems almost quaint, doesn’t it?

Gaming Illustrated: What was it like trying to market and sell Dink Smallwood when it was initially sold in physical form?

Seth Robinson: I never courted publishers. I was very weary about signing away control and I highly doubted any publishers would accept the text in our game as there was some controversial stuff in there.

Iridon Interactive emailed out of the blue and offered a very simple if modest proposal. They would publish in Scandinavia and we wouldn’t have to do anything extra at all. Sounded good to me. Beyond the initial $3,000 payment and 1,200 boxed copies, I did not receive any further payment from them.

Any real game studio would consider Dink Smallwood a complete failure. I think it sold around 6,000 to 7,000 copies domestically. I guess some people would be depressed by all this, but I wasn’t. A boxed CD-ROM RPG that my company had created? Fantastic! The earnings had barely paid for the development so I counted it as a win.

Gaming Illustrated: How did Dink Smallwood’s performance on the market lead to your decision to stop selling it to instead make it freeware instead?

Seth Robinson: After Dink’s limited success, I sadly found myself doing contract work to make ends meet. I started paying Greg a real salary and we began to earn quite a bit working on various games, the first one being CARnivorous, a 3D game were you hit rednecks and animals with your vehicle.

We eventually ran out of packages of Dink to send to people and, considering the low sales volume, I got Justin’s agreement allowing me to simply make it free.

I’m pretty sure Dink has seen over 10 million downloads over the years and, well, that’s just amazing. I don’t think there is any bigger honor than having something you helped build becoming a happy memory of someone’s childhood.

True story: I once shook hands with personal hero André LaMothe. I learned tons from his game development books. This was before he went nuts with the anti-vax stuff and excitedly told him I had made my own game with help from his books. He shook his head.

“You made it free? Bad. Never make your game free. Big mistake.”

He was probably right. A few years later, digital downloads of larger games started to be a thing. Dink could have had a second life through this method. I wouldn’t change a thing, though.
 

Robinson in 2000 raking leaves outside of the barn used for Dink Smallwood’s development. (Photo courtesy of Seth Robinson and taken by Kathie Robinson)

Gaming Illustrated: You later also made Dink Smallwood open source. Doing so has enabled others to modify and enhance the game freely. Why did you decide to grant people this freedom?

Seth Robinson: It’s sad to see games with active communities rot on the vine because the original developer isn’t doing anything with it. If a game has fans, I think it’s worth the effort to untangle the legalities of an open source release and put it into the hands of people who truly care about it.

Dan Walma [owner of the Dink Network fan site] took the code and released patches and fixes that I was later able to incorporate into my own update. Sylvain Beucler [a fan and developer] brought it to the Linux/GPL crowd as GNU FreeDink, where it flourishes with many translations and ports.

Special thanks to the folks at dinknetwork.com for keeping the game alive all these years with hundreds of mods.  Visit www.rtsoft.com/dink for more info.

Gaming Illustrated: You and your fellow developers at Robinson Technologies also continually enhance and improve Dink Smallwood yourselves. Could you go over some notable enhancements you’ve done and are there anymore we can look forward to in the future?

Seth Robinson: In 2010, Dink Smallwood got a second wind on mobile as Dink Smallwood HD on iPhone and Android. To celebrate 20 years of Dink, I am currently in the process of putting out a new version, open sourcing the HD version, and finally making it free on all platforms.

Gaming Illustrated: What advice would you offer to other independent game developers like yourself?

Seth Robinson: Start small. Dream big. Finish what you start. Make something different.

Gaming Illustrated: Thanks for your time.

 

Jonathan Anson

Jonathan Anson

Jonathan has been a lover of video games since his father brought home a Windows 95 computer. When he's not doing that he indulges in his other passion: writing. Jonathan holds an AA degree in Journalism from Saddleback College in Southern California.
Jonathan Anson
Jonathan Anson

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