Known in the retrogaming community as “Kivutar”, Jean-André Santoni has worked in open-source software and retro console emulation for many years. One of the main contributors behind Libretro /RetroArch, he also created Lakka, the emulation console which can turn a Raspberry Pi into a gaming console. Jean-André was the first employee to join Piepacker and a major contributor to the platform’s architecture. He is now at the head of the Research & Development department, focusing on emulation and game engines.
❓Retrogaming: are we witnessing a genuine revival or a simple passing trend?
That’s a good question…In my opinion, the definition of “retro” has evolved a lot with time and the successive generations of consoles. I was 12 years old when I read about emulation for the first time in a specialized magazine which is no longer edited. I had to wait for the internet to reach my house, about three years later, to be able to find and launch my first ROM in an emulator! We had a lot of fun on the SNES, even though I had my own physical SEGA Megadrive proudly set up in the living room. I also remember the games played among friends on the Wii and the PlayStation 2, which were not considered as retro by the community at the time but nevertheless have become just that as time went on.
It’s not a temporary trend, but a continuously evolving phenomenon which will keep inspiring entire generations of new players. Retrogaming offers the possibility to play games whose gameplay, difficulty level, and codes are different from modern AAA titles. A whole world of new challenges!
On this subject, I notice that retro games are very popular among young children. The games are straightforward, 2D is easier to master than 3D. My son, for instance, loves Kirby on NES, Wonder Boy III and Alex Kidd on Master System, and Sonic on Megadrive. There’s always a transfer going on between parents and their children.
❓What’s your greatest retrogaming memory?
There are so many I could mention, hard to choose… The first game I ever launched on an emulator with a friend during the summer holidays. It was a JRPG never released in France. It’s ancient history, I can call it by its name: Final Fantasy IV. We’d play the game in English, without understanding a word of it, yet it was wonderful.
Another significant moment was the discovery of the SGDK (Sega Genesis Development Kit) which allowed me to create a game for the dusty Megadrive of my childhood that I hadn’t used in years.
A magical experience that finally enabled me to create a link between my profession and the world of retro games — the whole reason why I had started to work as a developer in the first place. I had come full circle and my childhood dream was coming to life before my eyes: a homemade Genesis game, with my own character reacting as I pressed the buttons on a 30-year-old controller. These are the sorts of memories which continuously fuel the passion of so many fans, collectors and associations such as MO5 which strive to preserve and archive an incredible heritage that can still entertain us today.
❓Why did you join Piepacker?
As with many good things in life, it happened by chance. My former employer was closing shop and in my spare time, I was actively contributing to the emulation scene.
Joining Piepacker was the perfect opportunity to work on technologies close to my heart, and apply them to a field I knew very well: retrogaming. As I was the first employee, the risk was considerable. But the vision of making retrogaming classics accessible in one click, for multiple players, from a browser was a tantalizing challenge. As time went on, the team grew considerably, and today we work with many talented emulation developers. We’ve made so much progress technically speaking!
The vision of making retrogaming classics accessible in one click, for multiple players, from a browser was a tantalizing challenge.
What I liked the most about the project was the possibility to reach a very broad audience, an audience beyond that of the core community of purists with which I naturally identify. I also wished to keep collaborating with emulation developers who are, in my eyes, unrecognized legends of the retrogaming world. Working with a team to fix bugs or to add missing features enabled me to increase considerably my technological knowledge: as a developer, I had to learn how a game console works internally. It’s fascinating.
The idea of creating games and game engines was also highly motivating. Piepacker represented an opportunity to stabilize and use on a different scale some of my open source projects such as Lutro, the game engine we used for the game Arsène Bomber.
❓About modern indies/Neo Retro, how does it feel to be working in your field of predilection with video game creators?
It’s one of the most exciting parts of the Piepacker adventure. As the revival of the world of emulation unfolds, the world of retro indie games knows an unprecedented activity. The industry has still not realized the magnitude of this huge wave of talents about to unfurl on platforms.
We can now play with our friends, online, games that were made specifically for several players but with the technologies that were available in the 80s and 90s!
The boundaries between innovation and preservation are completely gone. For instance, I had the opportunity to meet Antoine Gohin, from Broke Studio, when he was promoting his homebrew Twin Dragons at the HFS Play convention. It motivated me to start developing my own Megadrive game. And it also allowed us to begin adding to Piepacker’s game catalogue. Antoine is the one who introduced us to the Morphcat Games team, the creators of Micro Mages.
It’s a very small world: having these two games was a major step in Piepacker’s development as it was still a young startup that was only a few lines of code and a PowerPoint presentation. It allowed us to convince other studios, proud representatives of the retro indie movement, to join us.
❓What were the most difficult challenges, on the technical side?
Emulation in itself is a highly technical field: games are made to run at a very precise rate, and the slightest variation will be noticeable at the audio level.
On another hand, making online multiplayer possible was an even more complex task. The signals from the controllers have to reach the game at the right time, just like the video output — to try to get as close as possible to a seamless experience
The third challenge was to make our games run on a web browser and achieve an enjoyable game experience this way.
Thanks to our community and their feedback, we are continuously working to find the right balance between added latency and irregular execution. Our team is spending countless hours perfecting this equation, to find a middle ground that could ensure fun and fluidity. It’s worth a try!
Of course, resolving these three technical challenges at once was what really increased the final complexity.
❓Has the retrogaming community evolved in the past few years?
The main actors of the community were kids or teenagers when retrogaming started and they now work in the game industry or for GAFAM companies.
Retrogaming is slowly losing its reputation of “pirating” to make its place in a coveted industry. Two factors played a major part, simultaneously: the use of emulation within Sony’s consoles, and the avalanche of “mini” consoles in the wake of the creation of the Raspberry Pi. I think it’s a very good thing: emulation is now part of what the greatest brands of the video game industry offer.
The community is developing more and more maturity and appreciation, even if it takes a lot of time. Its image is also evolving and it is emulation that allowed the preservation of our video game heritage. Piepacker could never have existed without the years of efforts spent on projects like MAME, Libretro, or other less known or more recent emulators. We want to be active members of the emudev community and participate in every possible way: open source contributions, bug fixes, bug bounties. All our changes have been published on github, in keeping with open source licences. We have also started to work on upstreaming our patches in the original projects.
Our open source contributions have, for now, been about the emulators themselves. In the near future, we will contribute to game engines and upgraded retro gaming experiences.
❗One last thing: if you are passionate about emulation, please don’t hesitate to come discuss it with us on Discord!