Interview with Adam Spragg – Developer of Hidden in Plain Sight

Three developer interviews in three weeks.  Is this going to be a new regular feature at Indie Gamer Chick?  Maybe.  I consider myself a mediocre interviewer, but I offer interviews as a perk for sponsoring the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard or Review Index.  Adam Spragg, creator of the cult-hit Hidden in Plain Sight, became the second sponsor of my leaderboard when he donated to Autism Speaks.  I couldn’t have been happier to have him aboard, because Hidden in Plain Sight is one of the true hidden gems of Xbox Live Indie Games.  An extraordinarily fun multiplayer experience unlike anything I had played before.  It’s also one of the rare XBLIGs that has had great success spreading by word-of-mouth.  I was anxious to ask Adam how he feels about the response to his game, which is one of the most critically acclaimed on the platform.

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Cathy: More than any other game on my Leaderboard, Hidden in Plain Sight can be defined as a “cult hit.”  It’s the definitive “word of mouth” game on XBLIG. How cool does it feel to have that going for you?

Adam: It’s completely cool.  One of the things I like most about making games is just that:  doing the design and coding of games.  But I think to be a successful indie game developer, you also have to be able to market your own games.  You have to be a salesperson.  You have to actively go out and say “Hey, look what I made!  It’s awesome!  You should check it out!”  I’m really uncomfortable doing that.  So when I made Hidden in Plain Sight, I really just contacted a few review sites, and thought to myself that if the game was good enough, it would market itself.  It’s taken a long while, but it really has spread through word of mouth, and it’s kind of moved vertically through the strata of the gaming industry.  So I’ve gotten magazine editors and TV hosts and popular podcasters mentioning it now, a year after it was released.  It’s been really fun to follow along as more people discover it.

Cathy: What kind of sales has Hidden in Plain Sight done?

Adam: It has over 9000 trials (around 9700), and closing in on 8000 sales.  Unbelievable.  Many of those sales have come in the last couple months, when it was featured on a popular YouTube channel, SourceFed.

Cathy: A lot of my readers will probably be shocked by those numbers, because they sound on the low side.  But actually, Hidden in Plain Sight kind of got off to a slow start, did it not?

Adam: Yeah, it did.  The first couple days of sales, when it was on the new releases list were interesting.  It got a lot of trials, but not many purchases and lots of low ratings.  I’m sure that people didn’t know that it was a local-multiplayer-only game, in spite of my saying so in the description of the game.  But I think “cult hit” is really a good way to describe the game.  It’s taken a while to get a following, and the weird sales graph shows that.  Most sales graphs kind of trail off and hit some horizontal asymptote, but HIPS has these really weird lumps and bumps as various high-profile people discover it and mention it.  I’m not sure if these numbers are on the “low” side or not.  They’ve certainly exceeded my expectations.  Making a local-multiplayer game for me was never about making a ton of money.

Cathy: Certainly not, but I think a lot of people would question use of the word “hit” to describe something that has only sold 8,000 units.

Adam: You’re the one who said it, not me.

Cathy: You’re right.

Adam: Putting words in my mouth.  Shame on you.

Cathy: I’m making a sad face now, I promise.

Adam: Well, good.

Cathy: I guess my point was I think people are unaware of just how low XBLIGs in general, even critically acclaimed ones, sell.

Adam: Right.  Cult “hit” maybe is the wrong phrase.  But it has very passionate fans, and I’ve gotten some really wonderful feedback from it.  One of my favorites was from a dad who emailed me and said he’d just finished playing the game for a few hours with his kids, and they had tears running down their faces from laughing so hard.  This was super rewarding to me.  I had a smile on my face for a week.

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Cathy: I pay attention to the XBLIG, XNA, and various other hashtags on Twitter.  Of all the games I’ve ever seen on the platform, Hidden in Plain Sight is the one that gets randomly tweeted about the most.  I certainly didn’t see that coming, so I can’t imagine how you must feel about that.

Adam: Is that right?  That’s awesome.  I’m not trying to brag, because I really feel I got lucky and stumbled into this game.  But there really is something truly fun about it.  There’s something magical about sitting in the room with friends and sharing a fun gaming experience.  It has such a different vibe than online gaming, which is kind of like multiplayer solitaire, I think.  I get a lot of complaints that not everyone can play this game, because it’s hard to get people into the same room.  I get lots of requests to make it online.  But I pretty much streadfastly refuse.  It just wouldn’t be the same game.

Cathy: Okay, now for an ego buster.

Adam: My ego is unbustable.

Cathy: Of all the Tales from the Dev Sides, you are the only writer that neither had his game trend #1 at Indie Gamer Chick, nor your Tales from the Dev Side trend #1.  Do you think that’s because Hidden in Plain Sight is too niche?

Adam: Hmmm…  great question.  And consider it busted.  I like what I wrote for your Tales from the Dev Side.  I’m not the best writer, but I believed in what I wrote, and I thought it might make for interesting reading.  Perhaps it was too obvious or too “vanilla”.  When I was at IndieCade 2012, I was asked to be on a Game Mechanic panel, and talked about many of the same points as in that article (conflict -> tension -> resolution -> fun!), and people seemed to respond well.  So, I don’t know.

Cathy: It wasn’t a reflection on the quality of the writing.  The column was still well received.

Adam: I guess I don’t know what makes a particular article trend well on your site.  And so I don’t know why mine didn’t.  It probably wasn’t very controversial, perhaps?

Cathy: It’s Indie Gamer Chick.  Everything is controversial.

Adam: A good flame war in the comments probably drives up the hits.

Cathy: Actually, those just cause a temporary boost.

Adam: Is that so?

Cathy: I suppose you could say something absurdly wrong in your Hidden in Plain Sight review comments section.  “I do declare that kittens are just deformed human babies.”

Adam: I was thinking something about Sonic the Hedgehog or Sega or something…

Cathy: You’re too late for that.  After my Sonic 4 review, I noticed that people had started to agree with me.

Adam: Rats.

Cathy: Party games are really niche.  And XBLIG is the most niche platform on consoles right now.  In all honesty, how well *did* you expect it to do?

Adam: That’s hard to say.  HIPS is my third game, after “Bad Golf” and “Battle for Venga Islands”.  I’ve kind of lost the early sales of Bad Golf, but I think it’s sold about 3000 lifetime (since late 2010).  BFVI sold around 1000 copies before I pulled it from the marketplace.  So in making a local-multiplayer only game, I really had no idea what to expect.  Of course, I had dreams of it going viral, but to answer honestly, I don’t think I had a figure in mind.  I try to keep low expectations about these kinds of things.

Cathy: I recently became the, ahem, proud owner of a Wii U.  While experimenting with some of the games in Nintendo Land, I realized that the only XBLIG I felt could be improved on the Wii U was your game.  Have you ever thought about attempting to port it?

Adam: That idea has come up.  I’m totally not married to the Xbox as a platform, but they make it so damn easy for developers to publish a game.  You pay your $99, and you’re in the club.  And, it’s already in the technology that I’m comfortable with (C# and XNA).  It’s much more difficult, business-wise, to get a game on Nintendo or PSN.  I actually met a product developer from Nintendo at IndieCade.  He asked me if I was looking for a career in the games industry, and I said “Nope.”  I think that shocked him.  I think EVERYONE was there looking for a big break, and there I was, just hanging out for shits and giggles.

Cathy: I had said in my review that Hidden in Plain Sight was original.  I then got corrected by, oh, everybody, who said you ripped off one of the Assassin’s Creed games.  Care to respond to that?  Feel free to use “eat shit and die” if you so wish.

Adam: I can say with all honesty that I’ve never played any of the Assassin’s Creed games.  I wasn’t even aware of the multiplayer mode that people are talking about until after my game out.  So that’s total bullshit.  I WAS definitely inspired by Spy Party, and I get a lot of “you ripped off Spy Party” comments.  It was never my aim to straight up clone another game, but I did take some elements from some games that I’d seen, boiled them down to their essentials, and added my own twist to them.  I wrote a complete blog post about it, if you want to link to that.

Cathy: Yea, Spy Party is another one I’ve heard about, but I’ve never actually played it or the Assassin’s Creed in question.

Adam: I’m in the Spy Party beta.  It’s a fantastic game, but it’s very different.  It’s a very intense single player experience.  I made the analogy that it’s chess vs. Hungry Hungry Hippos.

Cathy: Hidden in Plain Sight really is something that can’t be done alone, or even I imagine with two or three players.  You need a full slate to enjoy it.  Were you self-aware that on a platform like Xbox 360, it would be tough to gain recognition for it?

Adam: Sure.  I know that XBLIG’s aren’t the darlings of the games industry.  That’s both a blessing and a curse of the system.  Like I said before, with such a low barrier of entry, you get a lot of crap out there, and that’s probably turned off and burned a lot of gamers from giving ANY of the games much credit.  But from my standpoint, just doing the work and having ANYONE play my game is kind of a dream come true.  I guess it’s all about what you’re trying to get out of the whole experience.

Cathy: Hidden in Plain Sight has no online play, which has caused a lot of requests to flood in.  But, it doesn’t really fit in with online play.  Can you address where you stand on the online stuff?

Adam: By far, the most requested item I get is adding online play.  I fully realize that it’s hard to get people together into the same room to play, and it’s something that I’ve seriously considered.  But there are two reasons against it.  The first is that I really feel that HIPS is a game that needs to be played in the same room as your friends/opponents.  There is a lot of bragging and meta-gaming.  If you were in a room, playing by yourself online, it just wouldn’t have the same feel.  The second reason is that trying to wedge online play into a game after it’s already been made is HARD, technically.  And I just don’t see it being worth the effort.  Even if it means fewer sales, I still think it would make the game worse, paradoxically.

Cathy: There’s a wide variety of modes in Hidden in Plain Sight.  How did you set about deciding which to include, and was there anything that didn’t make the cut?

Adam: It’s easy.  I included every idea I had.  When I play tested the game (which really only happened a few times), different people had different games that they liked the best.  As long as no one game was totally broken, I included it.  What’s been really fun is getting feedback from the public, and everyone seems to like the various game modes.  So, nothing was cut.

Cathy:   Nothing got cut?

Adam: Nothing.

Cathy: Sounds like the Washington Wizards.  How much tinkering with those ideas did it require to actually get them to work?

Adam: Not much.  One major change I added late was adding statues to Ninja Party to provide an alternate path to victory, which added more strategy to it.  Another change I made during playtest was in Death Race.  The original way to aim was to use the d-pad to select up and down, and your cursor would lock on to the previous/next racer.  I didn’t want aiming skill to factor into the game.  I think it was the fellas at JForce Games who suggested making it free-aim (the way that it is now), and I think that improved things a lot.

Cathy: Okay, putting you on the spot: what is the best mode in Hidden in Plain Sight?

Adam: Death Race.  Knights vs. Ninjas a close second.

Cathy: And what is the worst?

Adam: Catch a Thief.

Cathy: Are there any changes you would like to make to Hidden in Plain Sight?

Adam: Hmmm…  I recently patched the game and updated some of the art and font.  I’ve had ample time to update it with any changes, but haven’t felt compelled to do so.  I don’t want to say it’s a PERFECT GAME, but I don’t have any changes planned for it.

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Cathy: I want to say, you kind of nailed the controls.  It plays so well that we had players joining in and dropping out with ease while playing at the office.  How much time was spent tinkering with the movement physics, the crosshairs, etc?

Adam: Thanks.  What made this game so easy to make was that it re-used a lot of code from my previous game (which was a TwickS).  So I already had the concepts of characters moving around and dying and stuff.  The controls seem pretty straightforward to me, so it didn’t take much effort to get things feeling right.  I guess I tinkered a bit with the various characters and their movement rates and how that affected gameplay, but not much time.  It’s not very complicated, as opposed to a platformer.

Cathy: It sounds to me like not a lot of time was spent developing Hidden in Plain Sight or fine tuning it.  I mean, goody on you for getting it right with so little effort, but this might sent a bad example for young XBLIGers.  Next thing you know, you’ll get them smoking and shoplifting.

Adam: Ha.  Yeah, part of the reason why I haven’t made a game since then is that the development process for HIPS was so simple.  I mean, the game is so simple.  There’s a few characters moving around on the screen and some simple game rules.  Start to finish, it took about 2 months.  I’m finding it difficult to recapture that development experience.

Cathy: It’s stunning to me.  I mean that, because I’ve played games that spent more than a year in development, had huge hype, and were utter shit.

Adam: Right.  I spend a lot of time these days thinking about “what is fun?”  How do you make a fun game?  I don’t think you need fancy graphics or complicated game mechanics.

Cathy: You know, ET only took six weeks to build, and the guy who made it was very talented.  Sounds to me like if he had an extra two weeks, ET would have been remembered as an all time great.

Adam: Hmmm…. never played it.

Cathy: I’ve never actually played it either.

Adam: Isn’t that known as, like, the worst game ever?

Cathy: Yea, one of them at least.   The only “worse game ever” contender (excluding a half-dozen or so XBLIGs that would be candidates for it) remember playing is Superman 64.  Which.. um.. I liked.  When I was 10.  *hangs head in shame*

Adam: My God.  And you’re Indie Gamer Chick.

Cathy: Hey, I was ten.  And I was a Superman the Animated Series fan.

Adam: Still.  Jeez.

Cathy: I did go back and play it as an adult, and I fucking hated it with as much hate as I could muster.  If hate was a star cluster, I would be Messier 92.

Adam: I guess kids will experiment with horribleness.

Cathy: Yea.  I’m not proud of it.

Adam: We never are.

Cathy:  I guess Hidden in Plain Sight proves there is no set amount of time for what makes a game work or not.

Adam: I sometimes feel bad or guilty when I say that HIPS took so little time and no money to make, and still has had such a great response.  Like you said, some people spend years and thousands of dollars to make a game that totally flops, even if it’s a good game!  It’s a funny business.

Cathy: Um, well can I at least get some kind of “do as I say, not as I do” statement from you to steer upcoming devs into not releasing their games in eight weeks just because you did?

Adam: No.  The dev time is coincidental to the quality of a game.  Just try to make something original and fun.

Cathy: How about “don’t release a game until its finished”

Adam: That’s fair.  “Be awesome.  Don’t suck.”

Cathy: Since Hidden in Plain Sight went viral, have you considered a sequel?

Adam: I’m constantly coming up with game ideas, and have started actually working on about half a dozen of then.  Not really direct sequels to HIPS, but other ideas that I think are interesting.  But nothing has really grabbed me and kept me motivated.  I’m sure I’ll come up with something, though.  I’d love to get it onto PSN or whatever, but again, that takes a lot of money and time and energy.  Sounds too much like “work” to me.  I was forced to port it to Windows for IndieCade they didn’t have WiFi, and XBLIGs require WiFi), so I cleaned that up and made an official Windows version.  It’s available on Indievania and IndieCity (for-pay-what-you-want-including-zero-dollars).  I try to tell folks in Australia about it, because they can’t get XBLIGs.

Cathy: You would be shocked to hear that the #5 country for reading Indie Gamer Chick is XBLIG-free Australia.

Adam: I AM shocked.  Then tell them they can get HIPS for Windows, although it still requires Xbox controllers and is local multiplayer only.  However, they can hook a laptop up to their TV and have a great time!

Cathy: Well, theoretically, you just told them.

Adam: Huh.  I guess I did.  Groovy.

xboxboxartCathy: So there’s no future games in the pipeline coming from you?  Now I really am making a sad face.

Adam: Dude.  I’ve seriously had about 10 serious ideas, and started coding up half of those.  I’m friends with Mark from Checkmark Games (Dark Delve), and he and I are constantly riffing game design ideas off each other.  But I just can’t get motivated or inspired.  I do think the reception of HIPS has kind of made it more difficult to start something new.  I have a higher watermark to try to beat.

Cathy: A lot of people say that XBLIGs cannot spread by word of mouth, and that getting attention outside of the XBLIG community doesn’t cause a bump in sales.  What do you say to that?

Adam: I’d say that my experience has refuted that.  Through word of mouth, my game was discovered by the editor of the French Official Xbox Magazine.  He then told a TV host friend about it who does a TV show about video games.  They featured my game on their show, which led to thousands of French sales.  There was a mention of it on Reddit and a popular UK website, and those led to sales bumps.  It’s certainly slow going, but there’s no reason why an XBLIG game can’t spread by word of mouth.  It just has to be the right kind of game that motivates people to tell their friends about.

Cathy: Your game has gotten tons of critical acclaim and even award nominations.  How much of that is owed to your promotional work, and how much of that is owed to random word-of-mouth?

Adam: I think 99% of it is word of mouth, because I only spent 1% effort promoting it.

Cathy: So the answer is “make a game that people will want to tell other people about.”

Adam: I think so.  And like I said, I think everyone sets out with that as a goal, but you have to get lucky sometimes.

Cathy: “Hey Brian, there’s this game called Planes Hidden On Sight.”

Adam: It’s on XBLA 😛

Hidden in Plain Sight is 80 Microsoft Points.  Go buy it right now and have a party.

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About Indie Gamer Chick
Indie game reviews and editorials.

10 Responses to Interview with Adam Spragg – Developer of Hidden in Plain Sight

  1. Of all the competitive and/or random stuff I’ve run at the fighting game tournaments here, Hidden In Plain Sight is usually seen as one of the most fun games we’ve played. Considering the 100+ multiplayer games we’ve played over the years…that’s pretty high praise.

    I’d love to see a sequel to this. I’d also love to see this end up on the OUYA, willing that it doesn’t have an online requirement like XBLIG. If this ends up on the OUYA, it’s an insta-buy from me, no question. I really want a way to take this game to events outside of the bounds of an ethernet cord and play it on a TV. The response I usually get to things like the Mario 3 battle game or Kururin Squash (a Japanese GameCube 4-player stick racing game thing, look it up) is amazing, and I know I’d get the same exact response with this.

    tl;dr – Offline OUYA, plz? 🙂 And a sequel, of course. And a pony.

    • Adman says:

      Thanks for the nice comments. You’ve been one of HIPS’ biggest supporters, and I appreciate that!

      Getting it on the Ouya is one of my top priorities, for sure. I don’t know if Ouya will require an online connection for offline games the way XBLIG does. I doubt it.

      You could try the Windows version of HIPS on a laptop, for portability. That doesn’t require an internet connection.

      • I don’t have a laptop…I also don’t have three other wired controllers. And I have the worry that even if I had those, I’d end up with a laptop with 3 or less USB ports. Because my luck is pretty much like that. 😦 That said, I should buy the thing anyway to show my support. Game’s too good not to.

  2. argamae says:

    I believe this kind of game will do very well on the new Nintendo console Wii U. Especially with their commitment to local multiplayer. Maybe you can be motivated into offering it via the Nintendo eShop. And just maybe you could throw in a game mode or two making use of the extra screen in the game pad. Or sell the idea to them so they’ll make one with Nintendo characters in it. Then you don’t need to wrack your brain about it and can live off the royalties. 😉

    • Adman says:

      Thanks! I’ll continue to review possibilities of getting it on other platforms. But remember that this is a hobby for me, and what I do for fun. Anything that sounds like work or business makes me nervous. 🙂

  3. Lots of good points in this. I too feel bad when I see games that takes months or god forbid years to finish do badly on the service while others that took very little development effort do well. Not that I’m begrudging you your success, just that the XBLIG service doesn’t do the best job of promoting good games, so releasing on it is always a gamble.

  4. I played ET on the 2600 as a kid, and I liked it, so don’t feel bad about Superman 64. I still like ET and think it doesn’t get enough credit for the scope of game play attempted on a 2600. I also liked Raiders of the Lost Arc on the 2600 for the same reasons.

    Think of them as 2600’s Molynuex games – big designs that didn’t hold up in execution!

  5. Adam Spragg says:

    Another comment about “word of mouth” that I didn’t mention in the interview. HIPS has had an over 100% purchases-to-trials ratio for each month from July through today. That definitively means that more people are buying it than trying it.

    I *think* we can infer, then, that people are hearing about the game and buying it outright, rather than just browsing/perusing the marketplace.

  6. Pingback: Indie Links Round-Up: Giant Chicken! | The Indie Game Magazine - Indie Game Reviews, Previews, News & Downloads

  7. Joshua Foster says:

    I think it is bullshit that us Australians cannot get it from the Xbox Live Arcade Store 😦 it looks like such an awesome game
    Bloody government

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