Terry Welsh used to work at NASA, now he makes videogames. He hasn’t abandoned space completely, though, as Retrobooster channels classic asteroid-shooters. We talk to him about the journey from real space to virtual space.
How long was the idea of quitting your job at NASA in your head before you decided to start working on games, and was the game always going to be Retrobooster?
I was working at NASA for about six years, and I think I had been considering something like Retrobooster for about 10, but I didn’t seriously start developing it until about five years ago. And that was a spare-time hobby project.
NASA was a good job. I was doing visual simulation-type programming, which is very similar to the sort of programming you do for games, except working there, there’s no artistic side. So, I really just enjoyed the artistic side of getting to do that type of programming but with some creativity that you do when you’re making a game.
I know NASA, like you said, is very technical, so how was that transition between strictly programming and then getting into something more creative?
Well, it was pretty easy for me. I have a traditional art background from college, and I have always done a lot of artistic programming. I have a bunch of screensavers I’ve written on the side, and I do other little hobby projects.
So, the type of programming didn’t change too much, but I added model building, texturing, writing shaders, and things like that. I’m just doing a lot more of that stuff right now.
Since you went to college for an art degree, was it a stretch for you to be in something that was strictly technical?
Not so much. I got an art degree and a physics degree originally, but then I couldn’t get a job with those, so I wound up getting a Master’s degree in computer engineering. Computers have always interested me, too. I was much more employable on the computer side.
You probably touched on this already but, what are the main differences between working at NASA and creating a game, and were there any things that you learned from NASA that you were able to quickly apply to creating Retrobooster?
I think my friend Tom said it best when he told me by switching jobs, I’d be implementing my own stupid ideas instead of someone else’s stupid ideas, and that was a fun change to make. The programming side of things was very similar at NASA. The biggest difference is I worked with a lot more people there, and they would come up with experiments they would want to program and I would implement them. I got to have quite a bit of input on those as far as how to implement them, but creativity was definitely lacking, and the artistic side.
You’re doing all the artwork and programming and someone else is handling the music. What’s it been like going from working with so many people on a team to you and just one musician?
It’s a nice change of pace. I don’t know if I would want to do it long term. If I kept making games it would be fun to get involved on a larger project with a few more people, I think. But for now it’s fine.
What games did you draw inspiration from for Retrobooster?
I think I drew more from the old-school cave-flyers and shooters. I played a lot of Asteroids, and Protector and Protector 2 when I was a kid. I think my favorite was Oids. That’s a real classic thrust-ship cave-flyer kind of game. And maybe some Choplifter. I really like the controls in that one. It was really fluid.
I look at games like Asteroids and Oids, then look at your game and it doesn’t look much different, physics-wise. I played the demo, though, and it felt incredibly different. Can you explain some of those differences in the physics between something older like Oids and Retrobooster?
Actually, ones like Asteroids and Oids, they had pretty good physics, I think, but they were slower. Maybe that was the style at the time. I think more modern games that try to be cave-flyer types tend to tone the physics down more. They’ll do things like dampen your lateral velocity so you always fly the direction you’re thrusting, or they’ll dampen your acceleration so you can’t speed up as fast as you’d like. Things like that.
I wanted a real classic feel. I knew that with a game like this, you spend all your time flying and most of the time shooting, as well. So I really wanted to concentrate on those two things, especially the flying. And I just wanted it to be as fast-paced and nimble as possible but still controllable at the same time.