At PFU America, Inc. (“PAI”) , we always enjoy hearing about how our Happy Hacking Keyboards (HHKB) are being used in someone’s life. Whether it’s composing emails, writing code or typing up the latest school project, we’re glad HHKB is the keyboard of choice for many of you. We recently had the opportunity to chat with Fred Brown, who not only uses his trusty HHKB for his primary occupation, but also uses it to develop and program his own video game!
HHKB: Let’s start by learning a little about you.
Fred: I’m Fred Brown, I’m 32 years old, and I’m from Atlanta, GA. I’m a Creative Director and Graphic Designer at Liftoff E-Commerce.
HHKB: What can you tell us about your background?
Fred: I graduated with a bachelor's degree in Graphic Design from the Art Institute of Atlanta way back in 2012, and I started working for Liftoff E-Commerce’s parent company a couple of months after graduating in 2013. After moving up for a couple of years, I was tapped to be the Creative Director at Liftoff E-Commerce when they branched away from their parent company.
Since I went to college for design, I had no prior knowledge of programming or development, so I had to teach myself everything from scratch!
HHKB: What got you interested in programming?
Fred: I’ve been fascinated with making games ever since I was a child, and I discovered very early on that to create games, you had to build them by programming.
I’ve always had the notion that programming is essentially: “Talking to your computer in a language it understands, but being super-specific at the same time.” Programming is really the only way of getting a computer to do something you want it to do, as long as you have the creativity and the imagination to make it happen. It’s a 1:1 way to communicate with the hardware.
HHKB: How did your journey into game creation begin?
Fred: I started making small and simple games when I was in my early teens.
Starting out, I picked up an engine called GameMaker (which I still use to this day)! I used it to make Crystal Story: Awakening and Dawn of Dusk which featured an integrated development environment (IDE), and other rudimentary tools to create sprites, rooms (levels), etc.
GameMaker also has its own language called GML that’s very similar to languages like C++ and C#.
The interesting thing about this engine is that you can create games with little-to-no programming experience using its Drag-and-Drop system, but if you want to get your hands dirty, you can learn GML to unlock its full potential, which is what I ended up doing.
When I was a teen, I didn’t really get too far with GameMaker, to be honest. I relied heavily on their Drag-and-Drop system, and made a few small projects. I thought it was cool at the time, seeing something I drew as pixel art in MS Paint and then being able to have interactions with it on-screen. But I couldn’t help feeling like I was “cheating” myself out of the true experience.
I was very intimidated by learning programming languages at the time, due to how complex and confusing they appeared to me (also, being around 13 at that time, I didn’t know much about algebra and computers).
So, I decided to “shelve” making games until I was ready to come back to it and learn, in earnest, how to program.
HHKB: How did things evolve from there?
Fred: Fast-forward to around 15 years later as a college grad and already working in the design field, a role-playing game (RPG) called UNDERTALE came out in the indie game scene.
This game was created almost single-handedly by a developer named Toby Fox, and it was nothing short of incredible. I highly recommend checking it out if you haven’t heard of it, and are a fan of RPGs.
Some of the folks reading this might be familiar with the game already, but if you haven’t, here’s the gist of it. If you’re familiar with the EarthBound (or the MOTHER) series, it’s a lot like that, but blends in other elements and mechanics from “bullet-hell” games like “Touhou Project” and other RPGs.
That game has received heaps of praise, and the fact that it was mostly made by one person is what inspired me to try my hand at making Crystal Story on my own, with a similar vision.
So, in late 2018, I decided to give GameMaker another try, and this time, learn how to program in earnest!
HHKB: Tell us about the game you are creating, Crystal Story.
Fred: Crystal Story is an Action-RPG series that blends charming retro-style graphics with fast-paced action, heavily inspired by classics on the Super Nintendo Entertainment Systems (SNES) and other retro consoles.
My goal with the series was to make sort of a “love letter” to older titles I grew up with on the SNES, like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, EarthBound, and a few Square Enix RPGs.
I wanted to try and capture their look and borrow elements from their gameplay, along with other nods to retro gaming.
I’m currently wrapping up Crystal Story’s second game, Dawn of Dusk.
In this series, players take the role of Mina, a young adventurer from the Dawnside, who travels to a strange and shattered world called the Duskside, to save her brother who has been kidnapped by the forces of a great demon named Termina.
In this episodic series, she grows into the role of a knight through her adventures, and learns powerful fire elemental magic called Arts. These Arts allow her to navigate harsh terrain while battling the shadowy foes that stand in her way.
HHKB: How did you get the idea to do this?
Fred: In late 2018, I decided to turn Crystal Story into a game after the release of DELTARUNE. It was a web comic at the time, and I had no idea if I was going to stick with making it a game or not.
Prior to this, I still had no idea how to program, and I hadn’t touched GameMaker in well over a decade. But I decided to give it a shot, since I felt like I was pretty strong with pixel art, and the more I learned, the more motivated I became to stick with it.
I spent 2019 making Crystal Story: Awakening (Ep. 1 in the series) from the ground up, with basically zero knowledge. It was fun, nerve-wracking, and challenging.
When things weren’t working, it was stressful, but when I fixed something, or got a new mechanic in, it was so rewarding.
I remember being ecstatic when I made the initial Mina sprites and was able to get her to light up some lanterns I drew beneath some arches as she walked underneath them, all with the code I learned how to write just a few hours before. (Despite that code being so old, it’s still in the game, and is part of Mina’s original codebase!)
HHKB: How has the reception to the game been so far?
Fred: The reception for the first game really took me by surprise.
I had grown a steady following through Instagram and Twitter, and tried to capture the whole development process of Awakening in 2019 on those platforms, so I had a “slow-burn” kind of growth in followers.
I released Awakening almost 4 years ago, and it’s still being played today. I find that so crazy, since looking back, I can see so many flaws in that game.
I’ve been hard at work trying to make Dawn of Dusk as stable and polished as I possibly can, while setting it as a new benchmark of what I’m capable of as a developer and game designer.
HHKB: Can you tell us a little about the rest of the team that helped you develop this?
Fred: For this series, it’s just me (I handle the game’s pixel art, programming, art direction, game direction, game design, main character design, and script). My wife has contributed character designs and boss/enemy designs, and has helped with cutscene art. I also rely on some talented composers: Holly, from Skittle Girl Sound, Tetrix450, and CQ. (CQ also helps me out tremendously with QA and advice!)
HHKB: What influenced the game’s graphic style?
Fred: Growing up with all my favorite games on the SNES, I wanted Crystal Story to not only be inspired by them, but also, feel like they would fit right into that same era.
Crystal Story’s art direction was inspired heavily by the titles I mentioned earlier, but also, I wanted to set in some strict limits, trying to get things to look and play like actual retro hardware (and trying to use the hardware limitations of those consoles as a baseline).
Most of the folks I’ve heard from love the graphical style and how much it reminds them of games on the SNES and other consoles of that era, and hearing that makes me so happy with what I was able to achieve with the graphics.
HHKB: What inspired you to do an episodic release of the game?
Fred: With episodic releases, I was inspired by Toby Fox’s series, DELTARUNE, and in terms of other media, ONE PIECE was also a huge inspiration (from a world-building perspective), as odd as that may sound.
Also, at the same time, I wanted to try going with episodic releases to better suit my busy schedule and to be able to work around my day job.
The cool thing with episodes is that I can create a whole encapsulated experience for the player, where they can learn a new mechanic or two, or more, and they can play through a complete plot from start to finish.
With typical RPGs, they can take several hours (40 hours being pretty common) to complete, but with my games, I’m going in with the expectation that it will take players about 3 to 4 hours to complete, which hopefully means they’ll see the game through to the very end and it won’t feel like a “chore” to complete.
HHKB: How many “episodes” are currently available, and how many are there to come? When is the next one planned to release?
Fred: Currently, Crystal Story: Awakening is the first and only episode out, and fairly recently, I’ve decided to dub this one as “Episode Zero.”
Dawn of Dusk will now officially be referred to as Episode One. It is much longer by comparison, and it also sets up the bulk of systems and mechanics that were missing from Awakening (it’s a lot more polished, too).
Dawn of Dusk is currently in the debugging stages, with translation and localization happening shortly after. For now, you can wishlist it and try the demo on its Steam page. After that, I plan on making three more episodes, and the series will be complete.
HHKB: As your tweet mentioned, you’ve been using an HHKB Pro Hybrid throughout your programming journey. Can you tell us your experience with that?
Fred: The placement of the Control key, Delete key, and the size of the board have been a major boon to my productivity and overall comfort. I’m able to type for several hours and feel absolutely no discomfort from doing so.
I also really love the way arrow keys are set up, since my hands never have to leave the home row. HHKB’s layout is not only beautiful and almost symmetrical, but it’s also incredibly functional!
The great thing about the HHKB’s design and layout being so tightly-knit together is that I can type more comfortably than any other keyboard I’ve owned, so I can type longer and more accurately. This board feels like an “extension” of me. It feels so natural for me to use, I forget that it’s even there.
HHKB: Are there features that you particularly like?
Fred: Functionality and technology-wise, and speaking for the HYBRID model, I think the keyboard is great as-is. The main appeal of the HHKB to me is the excellent key feel, sound, weight, and construction. The multiple connectivity options, and the ability to switch between them on the HYBRID model is indispensable to me as well.
I know this might sound strange, but I also really love the plastic body used in its construction. The way it feels, along with how the domes feel, reminds me a lot of an SNES controller. I think it gives the keyboard a very “friendly” feel.
On mine, the plastic has “worn in” a bit, much like an SNES controller, so there are some shiny spots here and there, but it gives it character and it feels so nice when using it. It’s a bit like breaking in leather. The “patina” gives me a deeper connection to the product.
Also, a bit unrelated – a lot of folks have mentioned that over time, the domes stiffen up and become more tactile, and I’ve noticed that mine have felt heavier than when I first started using the HHKB, which I think adds to its experience. It really feels like a buy-it-for-life kind of tool for me. I love it!
I use the Pro Hybrid in white as my daily driver, and that’s what I’ve used to develop Crystal Story: Dawn of Dusk.
HHKB: Are there additional features you would like to see added?
Fred: I’d like to pick up a Type-S model soon as I’ve heard so many great things about them. I also saw that there was a revised Snow model out, and I love the look of it. I think the aesthetic changes made to the typeface on the keycaps makes it look consistent with the REALFORCE Mac model, and I’m all for it.
Layout-wise, I love the layout as-is, and I wouldn’t consider changing it, but a feature that I’d like to suggest would be to possibly implement a “Fn lock” of sorts.
For example, instead of a user keeping their pinky finger held down on the Fn key to use the diamond arrow cluster, or having to have the Fn key down to use special functions on the keyboard, they could “double-tap” the Fn key to lock it (or double-tap it again to unlock it), and perform those special functions without having to hold a key down.
I’m not sure how difficult something like that would be to implement firmware-wise, but having it as something that can be toggled on/off in the Keymap Tool (with it off by default, perhaps), might be a nice little QOL tweak.
HHKB: What about aesthetics, keycap customizations, keyboard colors, etc.
Fred: From an aesthetic side, I love the board as-is – the HHKB has its own personality and character, and I wouldn’t suggest any of that should change. Those two “cheekbones” on both the bottom left and right are hallmarks of the HHKB. You see those and you instantly know it’s an HHKB keyboard.
For keycaps, I know a lot of folks in the hobbyist mechanical keyboard scene like to put in custom sliders so they can use MX-style keycaps. I want to say that the REALFORCE RGB uses these as well, but I’m not too much into customization myself, save for my artisan Super Famicom-styled arrow cluster keys, and color-accented keycaps from PFU.
I think having a hybrid MX-style stem would be cool for the folks out there who want it, but I would be happy to see more keycap color options for the Esc and Control keys, and possibly the diamond navigation cluster.
HHKB: Any last thoughts about future options?
Fred: One other option that might be nice to see (but this is mostly food for thought) would be the newly-styled typeface for the keycaps in the Snow model making their way to the Charcoal and Classic White (beige) models, or as a separate option available for purchase.
I love the board color options as-is as well. I will say that I prefer the Snow’s color over the Classic White (beige), but the Classic White colorway has that “retro” appeal to it, so I wouldn’t consider dropping it from the lineup. All three colorways of the HHKB are great, in my opinion.
One last point I suppose I could bring up would be the battery bump on the top of the HYBRID models.
I don’t mind this in the slightest, and I think it gives the board more character. Plus, you don’t even notice it unless you’re looking down at it from above, or you’re sitting across from it.
A lot of folks seem like they’d want to eliminate that battery bump, but to me, if I look at things from a cost point-of-view, considering the process of having to re-design the bottom housing and the tooling, plus the manufacturing and the R&D that comes with it, this seems like it would be a lot of work for such a minor thing.
End of Part 1 Interview
Stay tuned, as we will be sharing part two of the HHKB Spotlight featuring Fred Brown as he discusses more about how he discovered HHKB, how he uses it daily and what his future plans are.
Be sure to check out Fred’s links below:
Twitter (personal): https://twitter.com/bredfrown
Twitter (Crystal Story): https://twitter.com/TheCrystalStory
More info on the game: https://bredfrown.itch.io/crystal-story
You can also check out the demo for Fred’s upcoming new game, Crystal Story: Dawn of Dusk on Steam: