Interviews



Interview with Anthony Stiller


Published in Vandalism News #67
Performed by Unkle K


Anthony Stiller, the man with the dulcet tones and collection of elegant top hats has been making waves on the Commodore 64 scene recently. Well known for his amazing Reset64 cover art, Ant also has other hidden talents beyond Dungeons & Dragons and creating innovative SEUCK games. He is also a member of Pond Software, the Commodore 64's own Game Development Supergroup. Unkle K joins his Reset64 group mate Ant for some hors d'oeuvres, a sneaky cocktail and a chat about his second Commodore 64 game - Petunia Pickle's Pumpkin Peril.


Unkle K: 
Haya Ant!! Thanks for joining me today. Can you please introduce yourself to the VN readership?

Ant: 
Hi Kev! My name is Anthony Stiller (but please, call me Ant) and I'm part of the wonderful Pond Software (I make the tea and sometimes games). I've always loved the C64. My first real connection to the "scene" would have be when I had the great privilege to work on Zzap! 107 (and later, the Def Tribute to Zzap!) near fifteen years ago now (yikes!). After a small contribution to Andrew Fisher's C64 book things grew quiet. A few years ago, Kevin Tilley, the lovely editor of RESET 64 asked me to come on board to contribute to the magazine. Soon after I started dabbling in the Shoot 'Em Up Construction Kit in the hopes of fulfilling a lifelong dream of creating a C64 game. Sopwiths & Pterrordons was born, and this then led me to creating Abyssonaut as an entry to the 2015 C64 SEUCK game competition run by Richard Bayliss. While this was a great start I really wanted to earn my programming chops so in a fit of madness and bad timing I decided to enter the RESET 4K game comp three weeks from closing. One crash course in C64 assembly code and some sleepless nights later I submitted Attack of the Mutant Cabbages at zero hour. The extremely talented Vanja Utne provided the music and sound for Cabbages and she seemed to like what she saw and later asked if I would like to join Pond. I jumped at the chance (after literally jumping up and down with excitement).


Unkle K: 
Wait what? You programmed your 4k game in only 3 weeks while learning assembler at the same time? Tell us a bit about that! How did you go making the deadline for the compo?

Ant: 
Yes! I'm not quite sure what possessed me! Now, I had dabbled a very tiny bit in assembly code previously but given I failed my assembly subject at university I'd definitely set myself up with a challenge. Fortunately I had some assistance from some very helpful folks (all fellow Pondies) who pointed me in the right direction and, of course, these days there is a wealth of resources online. I also own quite a few physical books about C64 programming. My wife is very patient and she was very understanding as I spent many late nights trying to hit the deadline. I managed scope quite well and that helped a great deal. Still there were moments I thought my brain would melt out my head. On the day of the deadline I found a game-breaking bug that I spent many hours trying to fix but I had my daughter's band recital to go to so I put all programming aside, listened to my daughter play, came home and fixed the bug in about 5 minutes!



Unkle K: 
Mutant Cabbages placed 7th in the Reset 4k ‘Craptastic' game compo, which was a fantastic achievement, especially for your first attempt at coding an asm game from scratch! Shortly afterwards, you got invited to become a member of Pond. How did that come about and what are the advantages of working within a group such as Pond?

Ant: 
I was extremely pleased with how well Cabbages fared in the competition. As mentioned, Vanja Utne kindly assisted with the audio for Cabbages and once she saw I finished the game within 3 weeks and it wasn't totally terrible she asked to come on board with Pond.  I can sum up in one word the main advantage of being part of Pond: tea. No, wait. I mean, support. Yes, support. All of the Pondies are wonderful, talented, passionate people and there's always someone willing to give you a kind word or a hand with something (we're spread around a bit though so often it's a remote hand). We also have our own in-house playtesting which is great and very handy.  Additionally, being part of Pond continually fills me with inspiration as I get to see what other team members are working on. All amazing stuff!



Unkle K: 
You released a preview of your latest game, brilliantly titled Petunia Pickle's Pumpkin Peril, on Halloween. How did the concept for Petunia come about?

Ant: 
Soon after the RESET 4k game competition was over Vanja and I were chatting about doing a Halloween version of Cabbages, simply reskinned with new graphics and music to suit the spooky festival. Eventually though I felt that I wanted to tackle something a little meatier. Well, "a little meatier" become "a whole side of beef" as I have completely rebuilt the game from the ground up, adding a wealth of new graphics and gameplay. Vanja's also provided some wonderfully atmospheric music and sound effects (she also came up with the title!).





Unkle K: 
Was there anything in particular codewise that you changed in Petunia that you learned from doing Cabbages?

Ant:
Everything! Cabbages was thrown together in such a mad rush that by the end it was an impossible mess of spaghetti. I also wanted to fold in some better programming practices just to make Petunia easier to maintain and enhance. Even routines that I thought I'd reuse as is ended up getting completely streamlined because, unlike Cabbages, I had to consider raster resources and memory limitations. I really still don't know what I'm doing.



Unkle K: 
You're a multi-talented marvel Ant. The graphics you have created for Petunia (and your previous releases, Abyssonaut in particular) are absolutely charming and full of wonderful touches and animations! As an artist, how do you find the limitations of creating graphics suitable for Commodore 64 games? 

Ant: 
You're too kind! Perhaps surprisingly I find the limitations quite liberating. I'm a pretty simple guy and having my options restricted helps reduce my chances of choice paralysis. I also like seeing what I can eek out of the limitations set out before me. Coupling the artistic restrictions with the coding ones just makes things even more interesting. Creating art is all just clever illusion, really, no matter what the platform.



Unkle K: 
Ant, can you please tell us about the process of creating a game. In what order do you create the elements for a game such as Petunia?

Ant: 
I like storyboarding a rough design, and often scratch out some sketches to start fleshing out ideas (Abyssonaut was conceived from a rough sketch of a submarine fighting Cthulhu). I also jot down heaps of notes early on - there are no bad ideas at this stage!

Petunia is built off of my Cabbages game so I had a bit of a head-start there. That said, I did end up redesigning a lot of Petunia.

I then noodle around with sprites and user-defined characters for a while, to help me get a feel for mood and art style of the game. After that, it's time to leap into coding to throw together something as quickly as possible (I'm a huge fan of prototyping). This didn't happen exactly as planned with Petunia because I wanted to rebuild the entire codebase from the ground up and try and make something not completely terrible code-wise.

All the lovely audio came from Vanja so I barely had to think about that side of things (being tone-deaf, this is a big advantage!).

Things then get refined iteratively until something like a game chooses to surface!



Unkle K: 
What about the tools that you use? You have used SEUCK to great effect in the past, but now that you are coding your own games from scratch, are there any particular tools out there that you have taken a liking to?

Ant: 
For Cabbages I used both C64 Studio and CBM prg Studio (each of these are wonderful Integrated Development Environments). However for Petunia I was really keen to try using Kick Assembler as it provides a powerful metalanguage to allow for some neat code. Also, I like doing things the most difficult way possible (this lead to considerable ramp-up time as I taught myself how things worked).

I use Sublime Text as my editor with the Kick Assembler package by Swoffa installed. For the art I use SpritePad and CharPad by Stewart Wilson. I assume Vanja creates the music and sound via faerie magic (or possibly GoatTracker 2 by Lasse Oorni).



Unkle K: 
What else can we expect from the full version of Petunia? Do we need to start saving for a physical release?

Ant: 
There will definitely be a physical release of Petunia so start saving those shekels! And the full version of Petunia will boast more baddies, enhanced gameplay, a cat, power-ups, more art, a story mode and … oh, that would probably be telling.



Unkle K: 
You are also an important (and loved) part of the Reset machine.  Your magazine covers are truly inspired! Can you tell us a bit about how you create the art and what you set out to achieve through the medium?

Ant: 
Awww, I love everyone in RESET too! After the issue theme has been chosen I spend a fair bit of time creating thumbnails as I sound out various ideas on composition. I then sketch out the preliminary linework (either traditionally or digitally). The team usually get to see this to offer advice and give the nod. From there it's all digital using Photoshop: I block in colours, add detail and a background and then refine, refine, refine!

I really strive to provide a provocative cover that reflects the issue's theme. I love painting scenes that have a feeling of action and excitement, attract the eye and draw you into the adventure. I have a lot to thank Oli Frey for!



5 Quick Questions:
Favourite C64 game: Elite will always be my Number 1
Favourite C64 coder: Martin Walker (I still read Walker's Way in Zzap!)
Favourite C64 musician: Rob Hubbard (Thrust!)
Favourite C64 demo: It's old but I adore the Cauldron demo by Resource, The Dreams & Exceed
Most prized C64 related piece in your collection: This was actually really difficult but I'm going to go with my lovely boxed version of Ultima VI, my favourite RPG. Yay for cloth maps!



Unkle K: 
It was an honour and a privilege chatting with you, Ant! Thanks for your time. Any last words/shout outs? How can VN readers get in touch?

Ant: 
Thank you so much for letting me ramble! I'd like to give a huge, heart-filled shout out to all of the Pondies (especially to Vanja who is simply amazing), and of course to the entire RESET crew. I am very lucky that I get to share this wonderful hobby with such great people.

You can pretty much always find me lurking as @AntStiller on Twitter. Please say hi!

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