Developer Interview: Progenitor

Few games on the indie marketplace strive to be truly original.  As the parade of would-be game developers jog leisurely behind the bandwagon, John Getty and his team at Exato Game Studios are exploring new territory by releasing the first MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) ever on a gaming console.  Entered into both the Summer Indie Uprising and the 2011 Dream-Build-Play contests is his game Progenitor: Prologue.  Getty, along with business partner Alex Schlee, have completely self-funded this highly ambitious project.  I sat down with John for his thoughts on the indie scene and why gamers should not ignore Progenitor.

Kairi Vice: The indie marketplace has traditionally not fared well with online multiplayer games and maintaining enough user support.  What can you do to combat this issue?

John Getty: We hope significant visibility and the loyal MOBA crowd will deal with this. There are games that fare well on XBLIG as multiplayer only games. Zombies & Pterodactyls 20XX immediately comes to mind in that area. I haven’t checked their user support lately, but when I last played, it was very easy for me to find a game.

As far as visibility goes, we hope to get a lot of media coverage to make people aware of our game. Then there’s the vast MOBA crowd that already exists. Unlike most multiplayer centric games that die out quickly, MOBA games tend to hold onto their audience for a lot longer. I regularly see ~20k users on at one time in Heroes of Newerth and I read a moderator’s post, a while back, for League of Legends that said they maintain over 50k users on average. This might change with the recent uprising of newer, unknown MOBA games, but we have the edge over them because we are on console. We are relying on that crowd to fill up the initial user-base and keep the support at a stable level while the casual users come and go.

Kairi Vice: Strategy games are not usually successful on consoles, so why bring Progenitor to the Xbox 360?

John Getty: Well I would say we don’t really fall into the category and doom that most strategy games have to deal with (like Supreme Commander, Command & Conquer, LOTR: BfME, etc…). Since we are a MOBA game with strategy roots, I feel our chances of success are higher, especially since our controls are much easier to get used to.

We will also be the first of our kind on any console. We hope that advantage helps us get our game put on the map as well.

Kairi Vice: Obviously the biggest hurdle with any console-based strategy game is the control scheme.  Big name developers with development teams in the dozens struggle to get satisfactory play control.  How has your team handled this burden?

John Getty: Like I said before, we aren’t a traditional strategy/RTS game. In MOBAs you only control a single character, which makes a control scheme much easier to come up with. We utilize a mix of dungeon crawler and RTS control mechanics to make our game as intuitive as possible. Our biggest hurdle has been getting the targeting system down perfectly. We have had both positive and negative reviews about it. I think what we’ll inevitably end up doing is allowing for alternate control schemes or user-made control schemes. The latter depends on how much time we have available to us come August.

Kairi Vice: Progenitor’s trailer really left myself and my friends impressed.  It looks at least like a mid-budgeted title from a name developer.  How important was it for your studio to put a game out that looks like a legitimate commercial game?

John Getty: Thank you. We are always happy to hear people like our trailer. It is actually very important for us to look like a commercial game. Our ultimate goal is to be on XBLA, so we wanted our game to contend with the powerhouses that live in that distribution channel. We are realllllllly hoping we win Dream, Build, Play, and get the XBLA contract, but it looks like Orbitron: Revolution is going to give us a run for our money. May the best game win!

Kairi Vice: XBLIG has a 150MB limit on games, which is the reason Progenitor will be released in chapters.  Do you feel the platform is too restrictive? 

John Getty: I understand the reasons that XBLIG is restricted the way it is, so no, I don’t think it’s too restrictive. We wouldn’t release Progenitor as a full game on XBLIG even if we had an unlimited size limit and could price it at $15. The market just isn’t ready for games priced that high, so we believe creating chapters is a much more reasonable way to get the game out there.

Kairi Vice: Progenitor went through some major overhauls, as it originally started out as a mix of real-time strategy and a tile-puzzler.  This build of the game was met with sharp criticism and you were told that it was too complicated.  Was this a bitter pill to swallow?

John Getty: Yes it was tough at first. There were mistakes made and I know what I would change in order to make the game less complicated, but it was definitely not something we could continue with after the things we were told. No one likes to hear that their game idea wasn’t a good one, especially from the people that matter in the industry. However, in hindsight, we are glad it happened. Progenitor 2.0, as we call it, is a far superior game than our original concept and we are vastly more excited about it coming out than we ever felt about the original.

Kairi Vice: You guys seemed to have taken the advice and recommendations of the gaming community to heart and worked to make a better game, whereas most indie developers just continue to push out their games, broken or otherwise.  Does this alone set you guys above the rest of the community?

John Getty: I’m not sure it sets us above the rest, but I do believe that drawing from the gaming community does help in generating a better game. Some people underestimate the contributions the gaming community can make to a game. They have pointed out numerous things that we never would’ve seen without their help. They’ve been a tremendous asset to our development and we appreciate all their support now and in the future.

Kairi Vice: By my count, Progenitor has a ten person staff working on it, whereas the average XBLIG has less then half of that.  What went into putting your team together, and what advice do you give to other studios looking to put a staff together?

John Getty: Well to be fair, most of our staff doesn’t work full time. We had, at one point, 4 full time staff members, but are down to 3 (not including myself). Those people work in house. The rest are out of state contractors that work only when we need them to.

Easily one of the biggest hurdles we faced when we first hired on people was determining who was qualified. Anyone can make a good resume and get good grades in school, but that doesn’t mean they have what it takes to be in the industry. You really have to do most of the work in the interview. REALLY drill the candidate for questions that only a truly skilled person would know the answer to. Also, don’t cut corners. We’ve had to redo things because we tried to keep our expenses as low as we could. It ended up costing us more than it would’ve if we didn’t try to cut corners.

My last piece of advice would be, if you are brand new to the industry and are looking to make a game at our level, spend the extra money to hire on a veteran programmer. This department is especially important to not cut corners in, more so if your game is in 3D. There are just a million extra things a veteran programmer knows how to do that people without LEAD industry experience won’t and they can help train any new programmers you bring on board. We came to this realization at a good time in our development and to date, it has saved us thousands of dollars.

Kairi Vice: Most speculate that Prgenitor will carry a 400 Microsoft Point price tag.  Indie games at this range have not been big sellers, due to being in direct competition with many Live Arcade game that have all the bells and whistles such as achievements and download content.  Do you feel pressure to price lower and find a larger audience?

John Getty: That is a very good point and one we are struggling with.We think our game qualifies to be sold in the 400 point range, but at the same time, we are a multiplayer centric game, so pricing lower is advantageous in order to get a larger user base, as you said. We’ll have an official price by the end of the month.

Kairi Vice: Progenitor is clearly a very ambitious game.  Many teams working on titles with this level of detail and complexity abandon ship early on when the project becomes too overwhelming.  Has your team had any “we’re in way over our heads” moments?

John Getty: In the very, very early days when Alex and I were completely novice at this whole thing, we had concepted up an idea for a console-level game. However, at the time, we didn’t see it as console-level and we thought it was manageable by a small team of people who had no idea what they were doing. We definitely had a “we’re in way over our head” moment then. That didn’t stop us though. We hadn’t spent any money at that point, so we just shelved that game for a much later time and worked on concepting Progenitor 1.0. Since then, we have haven’t had any of those moments.

Kairi Vice: You’re entered in the Dream-Build-Play contest and in the Summer Indie Uprising, both of which are fast approaching.  Do you feel pressure to maybe release the game before it has been completely finished, or are you guys steadfast in only releasing the game when it is done and thoroughly play tested?

John Getty: With a game like this (and any other game similar), it will never be done being playtested. Balancing will always be an issue we have to deal with and will deal with after release. We are definitely feeling the pressure to release in time for DBP and SIU, but we believe the game will be ready and bug free. In the chance that it isn’t ready enough for a release, we won’t release it. We would never put out a super buggy game that lacks the basic features we intended to put in. That’s not the way any company should work. It will hurt the customer and it will hurt us and our reputation as developers and professionals.

Kairi Vice: Obviously getting attention outside of the niche indie community is one of the biggest challenges for any developer on the XBLIG platform.  Do you feel there needs to be some form of quality control to prevent developers who phone in every game (Silver Dollar Games for example) from saturating the market and bringing everyone else down with it?

John Getty: I do personally wish that we could see less shovelware and more quality games on XBLIG. I think that is part of the reason it doesn’t do as well as some of the other indie channels. People jump into XBLIG for a second to see the new lineup and when they see games that lack quality and polish, they get a bitter view in their mind about the whole of the community. It’s a shame really, since there are so many great games on there.

Kairi Vice: Having a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) on a console is fairly unique.  Why do you feel the genre hasn’t been given much of a shot on consoles?

John Getty: MOBAs are a new genre to gaming. There are very few out there that are actually released and even fewer that are doing well. I could probably count the successful ones off on one hand. Because of this, I just don’t think that there’s been enough time for developers to think about risking a console build, so they play it safe with a PC version.

Kairi Vice: What are your favorite XBLIG titles?  Your least favorite?  Which game is least deserving of it’s success? What is the most overlooked game?

John Getty: I think my favorite XBLIG games are Breath of Death and I Made a Game With Zombies. They are always games I recommend to my friends. I don’t really have a least favorite, but wish people would stop making “massager” games.  I don’t think any game is not deserving of its success. They figured out what XBLIG gamers were looking for and capitalized on that. It’s just good business strategy.

As far as overlooked games, I think just about all of them (laughs). It’s hard to pick just one when the majority aren’t making the kind of money they deserve because XBLIG doesn’t have the market it needs to allow people to make a living off of it. There are obviously some exceptions, but for the most part, a lot of the good XBLIG games are underrated.

Kairi Vice: What are the games you’re most excited to play in the Summer Indie Uprising?  What games got the shaft that deserved a better look?

John Getty: So far my favorite game I’ve played, that’s been up for playtest, has been Speed Runner HD. I love the hook shot mechanic. It all plays very smooth and multiplayer is a blast. There’s nothing like hooking your friend who’s ahead of you and beating them. It’s a great game and I could even imagine it on XBLA. Other games I’m looking forward to are Redd: The Lost Temple and Cute Things Dying Violently. I was surprised by the latter. The graphical style turned me off at first, but after playtesting it, it was a blast. The gameplay is very challenging and the little creatures are pretty funny. (Editor’s Note: Following this interview Mr. Getty contacted me to note that he also feels TEC 3001 is one of the top games of the Summer Indie Uprising).

I would’ve liked to see Last Dragon Standing make the cut. I played the game and it was a lot of fun. Short, but fun. Seems to have a lot of good multiplayer replay value. I was disappointed to not see it in the top 25. 

Kairi Vice: What is the most difficult aspect of working with the XBLIG platform?

John Getty: Nothing so far, but I suspect when we get to peer review, it will turn around. I strongly dislike the 7 day turnaround time between peer reviews. I understand that Microsoft doesn’t want people to just keep pushing their game out there until it gets passed, but it sure doesn’t allow for much improvement on a game up to the last minute, in fear of failing review.

Kairi Vice: If you could change one thing about XBLIGs, what would it be?

John Getty: Achievements. People have said it before and I’ll say it again, XBLIG needs achievements. I don’t think 80 point games deserve them (since we will then just be flooded by “earn easy achievements” games), but 240 and 400 point games should be allowed to have them.

About Indie Gamer Chick
Indie game reviews and editorials.

One Response to Developer Interview: Progenitor

  1. Looks like Progenitor has vanished off the face of the earth.

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