Heavy Lifter: Roger Barr

Flash developer Roger Barr blends nostalgia with parody to keep humor instilled in games on I-Mockery.com

 

The world slips on a coat and tie for work. Roger Barr puts on his pickle hat. The stalwart of sarcasm is better known as -RoG-, the founder and owner behind the nerdtastic humor site, I-Mockery.com. “Dedicated to making a mockery out of all things adored by the general public,” the site sticks to its guns by providing a smorgasbord of geek-friendly articles and video clips about bizarre-o foods, toys that encourage animals to eat their own feces, the best Christmas movie jackasses of all time and anything else that sparks a laugh. The site is predominantly known for its annual two month-long Halloween celebration and wide collection of parody video games, including Super Mario Brothers BP Oil Spill and Human Centipede: The Game.

Barr has solid writing and programming skills—since starting I-Mockery as a Geocities account in 1996, the site has grown to pull in anywhere from three to five million page views per month. His portfolio of games has expanded to include corporate projects like GOON: The Game, a hockey/Mortal Kombat-style game created to market the 2011 Seann Williams Scott film of the same name, as well as jobs with larger development companies like The Behemoth, creators of Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers games.

What really pays the bills though is Barr’s sense of humor. Pushing his love of the irreverent into both writing and game creation, Barr’s distinct style has helped him establish a media brand that allows fans (and employers) to identify his work, even if they find it somewhere other than I-Mockery. His latest creation is no exception. Abobo’s Big Adventure—a free Flash game released this past January that parodies nearly every major 8-bit game Nintendo produced—has garnered major media attention and put Barr in the running as one of the most innovative mash-up game creators working today.

Still, it’s hard out there for an indie game developer. Despite the media accolades and having a major platform to promote from, Barr still struggles with budgets, getting the word out and finding time to do it all. Thankfully, he carved out a bit of his hectic schedule for us.

Get In Media: You dropped out of the College of William and Mary to learn programming on your own. How did you do it without a formal education program?
Roger Barr: … colleges weren’t [teaching basic programming], so you would go on Geocities and learn basic HTML … the best way that I found to do it back then was just viewing the source code of other Web pages. I learned these basic tags. There wasn’t anything like Front Page or Dreamweaver back when we were first starting. Everything was hand-coded in Notepad. I still think everybody who’s going to design a Web page should learn how to do it from scratch in Notepad just because you’ll learn a lot more about what’s going on behind the scenes with it … . Dreamweaver, once you know all the basics and stuff, it’s great because it speeds up the process tenfold. Just making all of those silly little sites back in the day kind of gave me my start with that stuff. I picked up Photoshop as well … I remember there was a Photoshop tutorial site called Wasted Youth back in the day, and one of the founders of that actually went on to create deviantART. His tutorials on there were absolutely fantastic, and that really gave me a real, solid grasp of Photoshop. That’s how I got into Web design for many years before I started doing I-Mockery and the video games more seriously.

GIM: Is it true that I-Mockery has the world’s largest collection of pictures of things puking rainbows?
RB: Yes. [laughs] My old rainbow puke thing. That was a project I started up just on a whim one day, really. I had gone to a Japanese market, and I said that all of the packages looked like a rainbow had thrown up there, and it gave me the idea of doing this site where I could let people submit their own puking rainbows. Within a few weeks, it had become this big Internet meme, and everyone was doing it. Even a teacher at Virginia Commonwealth University [in Richmond, Va.], he actually had all of his students do a rainbow-puking project. Some kids put a ton of Skittles together. Others did all of this crazy paper craft together. It really blew up for a while. That was definitely a fun project to work on.

GIM: A lot of young designers are so concerned about looking professional, but you seem to embrace the racy. Was having that out there ever a concern for you professionally?
RB: I don’t consider our stuff very racy. We’ve never shown pornographic ads or any of that stuff that other sites were doing back in the day. I always try to keep stuff fairly safe for work. At the same time, I believe in free speech and not holding back when it comes to giving people the laughs they want. I think too many people worry about that. It comes down to just being yourself … .

GIM: Whether it’s games or writing, your work is very branded. I can tell it’s your product even if there’s no name on it. Is having that sense of brand important in game development?
RB: I absolutely think so. I see designing video games in the same way that I would approach writing an article on my site. It’s my voice, it’s just a different format … I think that humor is really essential for my kind of video games. I think the biggest influence on that was a game I had played when I was really young. It was called Secret of Monkey Island, and to this day, I don’t think there’s been a funnier game than that. It was made by LucasArts, Ron Gilbert and all those guys did a phenomenal job … the humor in it just is outrageous. It still cracks me up, just thinking about some of the jokes in that game. I guess it’s because that game left such a strong impression on me, I thought if I ever got to design video games of my own, I would make sure that they were funny. I don’t think there are enough games with humor in them … There’s not a lot of games where you’re constantly laughing all the way through. That’s something I always aspire to … as far as branding goes, I do think it’s important to find your own voice and stick to that when you find something that starts to work. If you keep delivering that, you’re just going to keep building up your audience, and work’s going to spread naturally. To this day, I haven’t had to spend a dollar on advertising. I think that’s pretty cool, too.

GIM: It looks like games are moving towards being incredibly complex or developed for mobile platforms. Where did the inspiration for Abobo’s Big Adventure come from?
RB: That was the game of my dreams. It was something I’ve been wanting to do since I first started working in Flash, really … . Abobo was this obscure character from Double Dragon. He was just the angriest-looking thing I had ever seen in my life. He was just pure rage, and he was just nothing but a little mini-boss that was never really mentioned. He was in the Double Dragon movie, and they represented him horribly. I never thought he got the credit that he deserved, so I wanted to make the game about him but, also, a game that would basically exist as a love letter to the Nintendo Entertainment System. I heard a kid actually say, “What’s a Nintendo Entertainment System?” and man, did that make me feel old. So, as a result, I thought by making a game like this, not only would it tug the nostalgia strings of everyone’s heart who grew up on that stuff, but it would also serve kind of like an education tool for the kids of today, who never grew up on those things to show them, yeah, the graphics on all those things aren’t as amazing as the 3-D graphics today, but they focused on great gameplay back in the day … . It’s both this big retro love letter but also something that I hope introduces kids to all these Nintendo classics, and then they can go on Wii Ware and get the original games, because Nintendo has thankfully made them all available.

GIM: With a mash-up game like this, do you run into copyright issues?
RB: No, actually … . It’s all because it’s parody. If we were selling the game, I’m sure we’d run into all kinds of copyright issues, but this is just a huge labor of love, and we wanted to make sure all these old Nintendo fans got to see it finished … Nintendo has always been cool. If you go on Newgrounds, there’s a ton of Nintendo game parodies on there … [Nintendo] never takes them down, because I think they see it the same way we do—it’s an homage or a tribute to all of the classic games, and if nothing else, it’s good advertising. All these old games are still for sale on Wii Ware, so people can still buy them if they’re reminded of them through things like these.

GIM: You guys started Abobo’s Big Adventure in 2002, then scrapped it and started all over again in 2006. It was released in 2012. That’s a long time to be working on a single game. How do you fund a project like that?
RB: You don’t plan on making money whatsoever. When I say a labor of love, that’s exactly what it is. It’s something we did after work. We did it late at night, up til 3 a.m. It’s really just out of sheer desire to see this project through … The amount of time that you put into these Web games versus the amount of money that you make on them, it would be less than minimum wage, so it’s not something that you expect to cash in on. Thankfully, once our game was released, a lot of fans donated to us. That was really nice, so many people showing their appreciation for what we did over the years. The coverage of the game has just been phenomenal. We couldn’t believe [it]. Every single video game site was covering it. It got in Game Informer magazine. It was on shows. It’s just been unreal, the little Flash engine that could.

GIM: What do you recommend for someone who wants to follow your career path?
RB: Honestly, if you’re interested in getting into Flash games or anything like that, the best place to start is on Newgrounds.com. That’s where I really put in all my hours. It’s a great community. There are plenty of young, super-immature people on there, but there’re also some really talented developers and artists … The best thing to do is meet people on there or any other community sites you can find and just work at stuff. Just work hard, and keep doing it. Don’t always think about the money. I think people always focus on money all the time rather than just making a good product. If you make good things, good things will come out of it. Abobo’s Big Adventure wasn’t supposed to be some huge financial success or anything like that. It was just a labor of love, and hopefully, it would open some doors for myself and the other guys … .

GIM: What are the big challenges for indie game developers?
RB: Of course, the biggest challenge is getting the word out there. There are a lot of games being made, but there are things you can do. Submitting them to a site like Newgrounds where you get feedback from the community is a fantastic way to start. There are also game festivals and stuff you can submit it to. You can go to different video game shows or even things like Comic-Con, just put a booth up there … That’s one of the biggest challenges; then, of course, it’s finding the time to actually make the game … it’s a lot of man hours and all that. When you’re starting out, you can’t expect to be making a ton of money on this game. Chances are, you’re going to have to do it after work, or, if you’re lucky, maybe you’re in school, and you’re just doing it after your classes or something like that … .

GIM: What’s the number one mistake that new people entering your field make?
RB: … expecting to make it big on their first game. They’re thinking they’re going to make the next Angry Birds or something like that right off the bat, then they get frustrated when a ton of people don’t play their games. You can’t expect that. That’s like winning the lottery. If you make a great game, and a ton of people play it, wonderful. But, if you make a great game and only a couple hundred people play it, don’t beat yourself up. You’re just starting out. Don’t give up on these things. Just believe in your product, and keep on making new stuff. That’s how you build up a following over the years.

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