Despite the appearance here on the blog, it’s been a busy 6-7 months, not to mention the last week of E3 insanity.
A couple weeks ago we (Jake, Ben, Sam, & I) announced the other game I’ve been working on besides The Unconcerned. While that may have come as a little bit of a surprise to regular readers of the blog , it’s something that’s been cooking since day 1-ish (actually somewhere between day 1 and day 30, day 0 being when I left EA last July).
Start-ups, and especially game developers, are inherently stupid about risk. There’s two huge risks you take right out of the gate trying to make your own games. First, you have to get on your target platform (both from a technological perspective and a publishing one), and second, people have to hear about you to buy your game.
So when Jake came to me with his idea for what would eventually turn into Skulls of the Shogun, I thought it would be a great first project – get on XBLA with a game a little more in the style of other XBLA games, while bringing a multiplayer, arcade flavor into a great genre that’s bogged down in boring conventions. It’s a fresh idea with a distinct style – an “invigorating cocktail” as Ben called it. Building a relationship with them would then in theory make it easier to convince them to take a risk on something more out of their element, and let us move into full development on the design-risk heavy game with a fleshed out 2D HD engine.
Why XBLA? (And PC, but that part’s easy). Platform strategy is another easily misunderstood piece of the indie game dev puzzle. There’s so many platforms and publishers on many of them ask for timed exclusivity. It’s hard to know which ones to focus on. Thankfully, Simon Carless’ crucially excellent sales stats provide clarity. The fact of the matter is that the easiest single platform to make a living as an indie developer is XBLA.
Because of that, it’s also growing more crowded. Microsoft is getting pickier, and Sony is getting more lenient with its terms for PSN. Each platform typically requires some sort of exclusivity to compete with the other. Then the formula gets more complicated. Do you target PSN first, then XBLA? Go for mobile platforms first, with a much smaller chance of a possibly bigger success? Or partner with a big publisher for distribution, because they have the muscle to ensure you simultaneous slots on XBLA and/or PSN? Of course, that means they’ll probably want distribution rights for PC, which is brain dead simple and is by far best if you do it yourself.
Whatever platform your game is on, people are always ready to tell you it would be better on another. You can gun for a multi-platform engine, but that is solving the wrong problem. If you target a smaller (or more compatible) number of platforms, you’ll have more time to focus on your game and make it as good as possible.
That’s the first thing you’ve got to do to - if you succeed your worst problem will be trying to ensure as many people can play it as possible (now that enough have played/bought it so that you can code from the beach). Never solve the problems that will arise due to your incredible, odds breaking success. It’s a problem that only arises due to your odds breaking success – in other woords, a good fucking problem to have. Don’t waste time on the problems you’ll have only if you’re super-succesful, solve the problems that will keep you from that success.
Oh yeah, and if you’re wondering about something like Unity, they haven’t even released the Xbox or PS3 version of their engine. Never mind their marketing about being on all platforms.
Why XBLA for The Unconcerned? Given the Xbox Live Indie channel is slowly up-and-coming, it could be a more accepting place for controversial content. My goal with The Unconcerned isn’t just to make a game that informs about a serious topic, nor is it just to make an entertaining game (together a fairly difficult design problem). I need it, and the game industry needs something like it, to pave the way so it’s acceptable to make a game like this for a more mainstream platform/marketplace. To that end, it’ll take longer than the many of you who have encouraged over the past few months would like it to take. This is what needs to happen, though – and by grace or by talent over the past few months every single thing needed for the this plan to work has fallen into place (knock on wood).
One of the reasons I don’t talk about the master plan much is that most people think it’s crazy – except for the occasional industry old-timer who would nod respectfully, giving me the rare positive feedback I’d need to stick to the plan.
As Skulls has progressed to the point where we were able to make our big announcement, and now start showing it to publishers, I’ve been working slowly with my other teammates (Dan, Amanda, And Dren) on the Unconcerned. The goal is to progress to a point where we can ramp up & the design and story are solidified – the first concept & development phase finished around GDC, now it’s in the early “first playable” dev phase.
Unlike Shogun, which has benefited from immediate playtesting and rapid iteration, The Unconcerned is attempting to have its story finely woven with it’s mechanics, and conveying lots of story/real world information in subtle ways – which takes much more planning. Dan & I are close to a finished story treatment for the level progression, while Amanda has been working a bit on the first few maps. Then my teammates from Skulls will help out – getting Jake’s help on the animation style (using our custom 2D anim tool) was another key element of starting down this path.
It’s a long, hard, complicated road ahead, and thankfully I have some good company, but time to get back to work.