Tales from the Dev Side: Screw XNA

The last month on the XBLIG scene has been an interesting one.  Since word broke that XNA would be phased out, I’ve been witness to public mourning, disbelief, and nostalgia.  XNA created a community out of dreamers, some of whom wonder where their future will be.  Others have been looking to the future.  At Indie Gamer Chick, we’ve had the guys behind MonoGame offer their version of a lifeboat to the marooned XNA development community.  This was followed up by a pitch that Unity is the way to go.  DJ Arcas, the man behind the million dollar-generating FortressCraft, is throwing his hat into the Unity ring.  And, almost uniquely among his fellow XNA developers, he’s not exactly grieving for the loss of the platform.

Screw XNA

by DJ Arcas

I’ve been programming for a very long time, and almost all of it was writing games. I cut my teeth on BASIC, went onto compiled Basic, learned Pascal, then started to use x86 assembler, to squeeze every erg of performance out of my games. Mind you, that was on a 486.  There wasn’t a great deal of performance in there! That was the way you had to do it; you sacrificed a control, flexibility and development pace, but gained a lot of performance. That was 1992.

When I professionally entered the industry, it was during the death-throes of the PS1, and the rise of the PS2. For the PS2, everyone was using the new-fangled C++. Many of the old-hands decried the use of this language – “It’s too slow!”. And, in a way, they were correct.

Poorly written, massively-inherited C++ is slower than a sloth covered in treacle. Well-written C++ has a tiny margin of difference. The real difference, of course, is how much you can achieve in the same time frame. We never went back, by the way. C++ stayed. Admittedly, you had to change the way you worked; you gained a lot of flexibility and control, but you were sacrificing performance. Still, the Xbox was a 700mhz machine, and we needed a game written in one year, not three!

I first saw XNA during the development of Burnout 3; there was an amazing demo doing the round, showing a car crashing into a wall at high-speed and crumpling. We were impressed, but dismissed it, as it was a PC-only technology. Microsoft promised Xbox, PS2 and GameCube versions. They never appeared, however.

I started with XNA shortly after the launch of XNA for XBLIG, or “Community Games” as it was called back then.  Can you believe it?  It took me seven days from first getting my hands on XNA, to my game being available for download on XBLIG. FallDown, it was called. I believe it was the 74th game on the service.

screen1

This is FallDown. Rats. I was hoping it would involve Michael Douglas somehow.

From then on, I reveled in C#; whilst I had to use the much sleeker, yet clunkier, C++ at work, at home I could write code at a rate five to ten times quicker than I could at work. C# allows you to create working systems much quicker, but at a slight cost in CPU time. You gained a lot of flexibility and power, but you had to work the way that C# wanted you to. Sound familiar? Of course, there was no way that a AAA studio was going to consider using C# on a AAA game. It’s far too slow, surely? The fact that you could write the same game in half the time; or a game that’s twice as good in the same time; never seemed to cross anyone’s mind.

I released many XNA games onto XBLIG, eleven in total. Some did very well (FortressCraft), and some did very badly (Steam Heroes). But each game was a step forwards; I took what I’d learned in the previous games, and applied it to the next one. Particle engines were written. Wrappers for physics. New and improved shaders. But these things took time, so much time, and weren’t always optimal. For instance, in FortressCraft, I developed a way of drawing meshes on the GPU, as opposed to uploading them at render time; many hundreds of times faster. If I’d known that whilst writing Stunning Stunts, I would have released a much better looking game; or the same game in a shorter time frame. Who knows how much better things might have gotten if I’d spent another four years working with XNA?

And now we move onto the end of XNA. What’s next? Quite unsurprisingly, many people are sticking with what they know, and are moving onto MonoGame, which is basically XNA all over again. When asked why, well, anything more advanced would be slower, wouldn’t it? and you’d lose control, and would have to do it the way they told you? All these things, sound awfully familiar to my ears…

Always been one to try out adventurous new things (You should see the bottom drawer in my bedroom!), I decided, at the end of last year, to try this new-fangled Unity everyone had been going on about. It had just gained Linux support, and was destroying the competition in the mobile arena.

Five days later, AndyRoo and I had put together an underwater deathmatch game, in steam-punk, animated submarines, where you could fire physics-based torpedos through thick foliage, and dive in and out of shipwrecks, in a game that has full configurable controls, massively scalable detail, and would ‘just work’ on almost every platform under the sun.

Now. let’s just write that again. I wrote a game with the approximate gameplay complexity of Doom, with substantially better graphics, in 5 days flat, in an engine I had never seen before.

Now, XNA could most certainly have done that, barring the multiplatform stuff (MonoGame solves that tho), but I really can’t begin to imagine the timeframe it would have taken me write it. And in that timeframe, who knows what Unity would have added? Having a tech team of a few hundred people writing amazing new features for you really does help you stay on the cutting edge!

The real beauty of Unity, to my mind, is that you can try out advanced tech, and see if it fits your game. For instance, should your game have edge detection? In XNA, you’re looking at a few days of different ways of writing the shader, considering normal or luminance-based edge detection, optimizing, and then deciding that, actually, it looks crap.

In Unity, you simply drag the shader onto the camera, and comes fully configurable.. It comes with dozens of shaders like this, allowing you to quickly prototype up how it should look.

So you’re talking about several days of work, played off against several seconds. I already know where my vote is heading…

This is the usual point where people leap in and go “AH HAH! Whilst Unity is better for prototyping, it’s no quicker for writing a full game!”

This sort of comment is really self-evidently false; if you have a fixed timeframe in both systems, you’ll either finish in a 20th of the time in Unity, or end up making something substantially better looking in Unity. The fact that, in Unity, everything inherits from a generic object, meaning you can manipulate everything quickly; re-use of scripts, code and objects in Unity is truly incredible; from having actually used both systems, I can say that writing gameplay in Unity is much, much faster. I’ve never heard this from anyone who has ACTUALLY used both XNA and Unity, mind you.

“Oh, but it’s slower!”

True! Unity is slower. Is a LOT slower? No. A few percent, perhaps. Are you confident that your cascading shadow engine, which you wrote from scratch, is faster than Unity’s one? I wouldn’t be. Will your physics engine be faster than PhysX? Almost definitely not. Will you be able to optimised your graphics engine for the iPhone better than the Unity guys did? No chance.

“Ah, but once you try to do something Unity doesn’t want you to, it’s way easier in an API like XNA!”

I’m glad to say this isn’t true. If you try to do something Unity doesn’t want you to, you end up in exactly the same boat as you’re in with XNA; having to write it yourself, and wishing it was already written for you. You can even interface with C++ DLLs, meaning that, WORST CASE, it takes exactly the same amount of time.

That’s what really does it for me; if I want to mess about with their state-of-the-art lighting engine, I can. I don’t have to spend 3 years writing it first. If I decide that I need to implement some new, hitherto unheard of technique in my game, then that will take the same amount of time; but every other facet of my game will be done faster.

But I think the main thing I love about Unity is that if you make a variable public, a designer can then edit that from the WYSIWYG interface. That right there is a mountain of work in XNA.

For me, it boils down to a simple choice. Do you want to write a good game, or a good engine? FortressCraft was, really, a good engine, designed with the future in mind, and the much more complicated and in-depth Chapter 2.

But I managed to write this in 4 weeks:

And this in a few days :

Why would I want to order a bunch of parts from a garage, when I could pay someone to fix my car for me? Fixing your own car only has 2 real reasons; either you love it, or you’re trying to save money. If your goal is to have a car to actually drive on the road, you’d pick the garage option every time.

And that right there is the only – only – advantage I can see that XNA/MonoGame has over Unity. It’s free. (as the old adage goes, anything free is worth what you paid for it). Mind you, Unity has a free version; you miss out a bunch of the extras, but you can decide it’s for you (Slender was written using Unity Free, for instance)

If your game isn’t going to make $1,500, then Unity Free or MonoGame might be more suited for you. Go for it. Great stuff was written using free tools. But if they don’t work, or you need help? There’s almost  no support for free software, and you need to rely on the community.

If you want to spend a huge amount of your available dev time re-inventing the wheel, go with XNA. Go with MonoGame. Enjoy scratching your head about calculating tangents for reflections, wondering how cascading shadows work, and if you should implement A* or Dijkstra’s for route-finding. Me, I’ll be busy getting on with writing the game.

Fuck XNA. Long live the future.

Advertisements

Tales from the Dev Side: Unity in a Splintered Industry

As word hit that XNA was being faded out, non-developer me was curious where else the community that I’ve downright fallen for with would turn to next to create the games I both love and loath.  And the community has responded.  First, the guys at MonoGame hit me up with a semi-well-received, semi-controversial editorial touting their platform as the next big thing.  While a direct response to that from the mad bastard behind FortressCraft is still coming, industry veteran-turned-indie Scott Tykoski wanted his chance to sing the praises of Unity.  As always, I understand almost none of this.  But Scott’s a gifted writer and not prone to panic, so you should give him a read.

UNITY IN A SPLINTERED INDUSTRY

by Scott Tykoski

As the death knell rings for XNA and my Xbox Indie pals pay their respects on twitter, a question hangs in the air – “Where do we go next?”

And by we I mean the group of developers that got excited at XNA as an inexpensive multi-platform solution. We bet YEARS of development energy on a system that looked so promising, yet let us down in so many ways.

“Where do we go next, now that XNA is dead?”

We also have to deal with the “gold-rush” mentality that has come along with the mobile gaming boom. Indie/Hobbyist game developers are everywhere, and worse, most of them are making very similar games (take hit game, change the theme, rinse, repeat), intensifying player dissatisfaction with titles that don’t push any significant boundaries.

“Where do we go next, now that the world is oversaturated in unsatisfying games?”

And heres another challenge to overcome: our industry is undergoing HUGE, seemingly random marketplace shifts. Phones streaming games to tvs. Consoles putting games on the backburner to focus on movies and television.

“Where do we go next when there are so many platforms and nothing is certain?”

The honest answer? We go away. We give up and we move on.

Goodbye, friends.

 

 

 

 

 

UH…WE’RE NOT REALLY SCREWED, RIGHT?
No, sorry, I’m kidding…we’re totally fine. 🙂

Actually, being in the Indie gaming scene has never been more exciting – even with app stores overflowing with crappy titles (we’ve fought that battle before, right XBLIG guys?). You see, every studio – from the one-man operations to the largest gaming conglomerates – is facing the exact same conundrum: “What platforms do we focus or development energy on?”

This universal need for multi-platform tools means we now live in an ecosystem ripe with ‘Make Once – Play Everywhere’ solutions. Unreal for the big spenders. Adobe Air for the Flash experts. Gamemaker Studio, GameSalad, Stencyl, & Construct for folks unfamiliar with code. And of course the mega-versatile MonoGame for anyone fully invested in XNA (Rest In Peace, sweet prince).

But while all these solutions have their disadvantages, be it price or flexibility, one toolset has them beat on all counts: UNITY.

What once was a fun little tool for prototyping, Unity (now at v4.0) has matured to the point where you can make some pretty amazing games, like the beautiful Kentucky Route Zero or the 4x Epic Endless Space.

Kentucky Route Zero

With Unity, developers can now rest assured that core engine systems are covered and they can focus on the most important task: DESIGNING A GREAT GAME!

But first..

THE BASICS OF UNITY
At its core, Unity is a 3d game engine where the developer can script using C# or go straight into scene creation using the fully featured editor, which feels a lot like using 3DMax or Maya (where you move game objects around in 3S space). While it may seem daunting at first, the toolset gives a great entry point for either artists or developers to start working on their game.

While the amazing editor would be reason alone to use Unity, the real selling point is the admirable cut of its cross-platform jib (ie: it can export games for every friggin’ platform). Titles for PC, XBox360, Wii, Web, Android, and iOS have all been made and released using the Unity, proving itself on multiple devices many times over.

It should also be noted that you can make a Ouya game RIGHT NOW using Unity. That’s pretty amazing cross-platform support, if I do say so myself.  Which I do.  Obviously.

SO MUCH 3D GOODNESS
While modeling, texturing, and animation have to be done in a traditional 3D program (3DMax, Maya, Blender, etc), Unity does all the heavy lifting when it comes to importing and rendering those assets. Lighting, post processing, shadows, and animation are all available out of the box.

I remember trying to get a distance blur effect hooked up for battles in Galactic Civilizations II but it was a huge pain and never happened. In Unity.. it’s as simple as dragging a effect script onto the camera object. Most effects are drag-and-drop ready…it’s simple to the point of sickening.

And lets talk for a bit about asset pipelines. The amount of raw data that goes into defining meshes, bones, UVs, and animations is staggering, and have given rise to third-party frameworks that manage this deluge of data. The fact that Unity makes the asset import and management process a two click process is a testament to the overall ease-of-use the editor provides.

THE JOYS OF C#
Anyone familiar with XNA is also familiar with the beautiful C# coding language. I won’t pimp that here, but Unity uses it, and it’s awesome.

Coding is as simple as writing your code, making a few public variables to use as dials, then attaching that script to your game objects. Those variables can then be tweaked in the editor, so writing modular code is buttery smooth.

The editor also has its own scripting API, so you can easily extend the editing tools as necessary.

THE ASSET STORE
Another notch on Unity’s belt comes in the ‘Asset Store’, where you can buy or sell anything game related.

Lets say you want a ‘Plants vs Zombies’ look to your game and need to animate several of 2D characters. You can go into a separate 3D program, rig and bind 2D planes, export the data, then use a 3D animation object to render your characters. OR you can purchase SmoothMoves, an in-editor 2D animation solution for 75$.

It’s the best 75 bucks you’ll ever spend, I assure you.

Chances are, if you need a game-related subsystem, someone already has a solution available on the asset store: just purchase, plug, and play!

NOW FOR THE BAD NEWS
Instead of a proper point-counterpoint, I decided to bottle up ALL the negative stuff to dump on you at the end. I know…I’m an a-hole.

First and foremost, the cost. Good news here is that a free version can be used by most Indies. Once you start making more than $100,000 a year, however, it’s time to go PRO, which will cost you $1500. Exporting features come in the form of add-ons, so exporting to iOS from the free version will run you $400, from PRO it’ll cost $1500.

Unfortunately, all the R&D testing I did was with a PRO version with a PRO iOS exporter, so some of my exuberance may come from using a super-slick $3000 version. You can dig around in the Unity Store to get some charts comparing features of the different versions.

Also, debugging was a bit more painful than in XNA and traditional IDEs. My testing of the tool was mostly on the art side, however, with a full-time developer testing out the coding front, so my pains could have simply been lack of experience. My fear is that you’ll be spending more time with print statements and less time with breakpoints.

Another issue, for those of us that love our retro graphics,the 3D environment can make 2D game creation tricky. It’s doable, but definitely less intuitive than making a proper 3D game.

The biggest drawback to Unity – as with any third-party engine – is the lack of control you have on the last 10%. You’ll always encounter areas where you want the engine to do something that’s just not possible (for one reason or another). While the main 90% will be smooth sailing, compromising on the last 10% of your vision may be too steep a price.

UNITY & MAKING GAMES WORTH PLAYING
So I started this editorial with that stupid ‘we should give up’ gag. It was mostly for fun, but there’s a legitimate feeling of helplessness that comes when your platform of choice is discontinued. There were too many crunch weeks spent on games using XNA to shrug it off as a necessary loss.

And while it sucks to see an amazing framework put to pasture, we are now drowning in possible alternatives. Alternatives that not only allow you target multiple platforms, but that alleviate the burden of creating the subsystems that your game will depend upon.

It’s for the sake of quality gameplay that I fully endorse Unity, and really any 3rd party engine. The overwhelming majority of your audience could care less about the underlying engine.. all they want is a new experience, something that’s not ‘Angry Birds with Zombies’.

Creativity on the Indie scene is a talk best left for another time , but always remember: originality is your key competitive advantage over the AAA studios. Use it! The less time you’re making engine systems that never excite the player, the more time you can devote to making original gameplay systems that will excite yourself, the player, and perhaps even our entire industry.

Tales from the Dev Side: MonoGame is The One

XNA, which my non-developer readers will note is the development framework of Xbox Live Indie Games, is being put out to pasture.  It’s not quite dead yet.  Put it this way: the family has been notified and doctors are starting to determine what organs are viable for transplant, but the plug is not completely pulled yet.  Although I’m confident indies will exist in a similar (but hopefully better) form on the next generation Xbox, creating games for the platform will be a much different experience.  I’ve been seeking out possible XBLIG alternatives.  MonoGame isn’t necessarily what I had in mind, but the more I read and heard about it, the more I saw the potential in what they offer.

I should probably preface this editorial by noting that I have absolutely no clue what any of this means.  Like traveling in a country with Romance Languages, I’m at best picking out an odd word here or there, but otherwise it’s all Greek to me.  Which is weird because Greek is not a Romance Language and doesn’t fit into the metaphor at all.

Read more of this post

Developer Interview: James Petruzzi – Developer of Chasm

James Petruzzi of Discord Games is an Indie Gamer Chick all-star.  He has two games on the Leaderboard, the writer of the most popular Tales from the Dev Side editorial that’s been published here, and now he’s chosen to sponsor the new (and still unfinished due to laziness) XBLIG Developer Index, kicking in a whopping $200 towards Autism Speaks.  He also happens to have a very interesting looking Metroidvania coming later in 2013.  James is here to talk about his new title, called Chasm, and the trials and tribulations of making games for XBLIG.

chasm_logo_big

Cathy: Chasm is not coming to XBLIG.  Et tu, Brute?

James: Right off the bat, I haven’t decided yet.

Cathy: Oh?

James: It runs on my Xbox 360 right now, and I’m planning on keeping it that way.   But whether I release it or not, I’m not sure.

Cathy: Why not?

James: I’m not going to release it for a dollar.

Cathy: Oh.

James: My only option I feel is 400MSP, but whether people on that market would spring for it, I have no clue.

Cathy: So?

James: So?  I hear you boil developers who release games at 400MSP in oil.

Cathy: As a point of order, I did place Bleed, a 400MSP game, in my Top 10.

James: Yea, but you also boiled them in oil after that.  They’re still in bandages.

Cathy: Good game though.

James: Did the Bleed guy ever release numbers?

Cathy: Um yea, actually I just asked him.  He told me it sold 900 units on XBLIG.

James: Those numbers show the problem with XBLIG.

Cathy: Net gross of about $3,150 for the developer. Sad thing is, can’t prove it, but I bet it would have sold a couple thousand copies at 240.

James: Either way it’s still terrible for a game that high quality.

The awesomely fun Take Arms was a critical hit, but about as well received by Xbox owners as a bagpipe simulator.

The awesomely fun Take Arms was a critical hit, but about as well received by Xbox owners as a bagpipe simulator.

Cathy: What about PlayStation Mobile, where developers have huge flexibility on prices?

James: I haven’t really researched it to be honest, and I’m not sure whats all required to even get on there.

Cathy: It’s supposed to be a relatively open platform.  I don’t know.  Sony had said they would get back to me and never did.

James: So I’m just squarely focused on PC for now, I want to launch on Win/Mac/Linux and then go from there.  But if it makes money, I’ll port it to everything under the sun with a D-pad.

Cathy: I’ll look forward to the NES, Master System, and 3DO releases.

James: Hahaha!  Well, I’d consider PlayStation Network, Wii U,  and maybe 3DS or Vita releases.

Cathy: Take Arms was pretty well received by critics, but it kind of flopped in sales. 48 Chambers was good, but again, didn’t really sell well.  Is that why you’re trying to more traditional game with Chasm?

James: No, I’m actually just making it because it’s the game I’ve wanted to make since the beginning.  If you watch the Evolution of Take Arms video we put on YouTube, you’ll see that started as a Castlevania type game.  We were way too inexperienced though to deal with that much content, so we decided to make it a multiplayer game instead.  Obviously something flopped with Take Arms that’s beyond the amount of content or anything.

Cathy: Maybe it was difficult to articulate that it was a multiplayer game. There’s obviously SOME interest for those on XBLIG, as seen in the success of Shark Attack Deathmatch.  Maybe “Take Arms Deathmatch” sells 10,000 units and has a robust user base to keep it going?

James: Yea that’s definitely a possibility, but at the same time, I think you must have the right product at the right time.

Cathy: I think the big sticking point is the amount of people who play it daily. I reviewed Shark Attack Deathmatch in late December. I checked it last night, and there is still a wide variety of people playing. Then I tried Take Arms and found that nobody was playing.

James: If I would have kept up with content updates we probably could have grown a community or something around it.  But that’s the hard part with multiplayer games, and why I will probably never do one again.  With them, the community of people playing it is what gives the game value.  If you take that away, it’s basically worthless.

Cathy: I would rank my play session with Take Arms against the other XBLIG critics as one of the best times I’ve had since starting Indie Gamer Chick. Do you think maybe some form of organized tournaments might have caused it to catch on?

James: We should have focused on organizing community play dates and doing more  with it, but yeah, I guess we were just done after two years.

Chasm looks awesome.

Only the most secure-in-their-manhood blacksmiths dared to use a pink anvil.

Cathy: Okay, onto Chasm. It looks really good.  You originally intended Take Arms to be a Metroidvania, and now you’re finally doing one.  What made you decide that now you’re ready?

James: Well, to be honest, it was a last-ditch effort.  I quit my corporate job last May to focus on my next title full-time, Tim and I were talking again about doing something, which turned into this sci-fi Terraria-like called Solus.  We worked on that through may and part of June, and Tim decided he wasn’t having fun anymore and was done.  So we parted on good terms, but I was left with a big game to do by myself.  In July I basically decided to scrap it, and started working on the original version of Chasm, which was basically going to be a cash in I guess for XBLIG.  It was going to be a mining game like Miner Dig Deep, but with combat, weapons, some bosses and stuff to fight.  I mean don’t get me wrong, I’ve wanted to do a mining game for a while, but I couldn’t really tell you what I liked about them, but I think I somehow managed to cut all the fun out of it.  At some point by like September I had the engine pretty far along, but I was just hating it, I had completely forgotten why I started doing this stuff in the first place.

Cathy: What about the engine was off?

James: The engine was fine, I just couldn’t figure out a good formula for the game.  Nothing ever felt right, like I was battling it constantly.  And at some point I just began to resent it.  All the fun was gone.  That was definitely my lowest point in a long time.  It was nervous-breakdown type levels for a while.  So I scrapped it all.

Cathy: Do you know how many developers I’ve met since starting my site that I honestly feel would scrap something if they weren’t comfortable with it?  Probably not a lot.  I take it the current build you’re much more satisfied with?

James: Oh my God, yes!  It was like the next day I made a new project, started coding shit all over, and man, I was like in love immediately.

They eyes have it!

The eyes have it!

Cathy: So how far along is Chasm now?

James: Very early.  I started fresh October 25 or 26 I think.  I’m shooting to have it done in a year from then.

Cathy: You guys are on Steam Greenlight.  Most developers I’ve talked with who have listed their games on this have been, ahem, humbled by the, ahem, polite discourse on it.  How has the feedback for Chasm been?

James: Well first let me tell you, I put Take Arms and 48 Chambers on there immediately when the service first went up.  It was free for a while if you remember, so I was like why not?  48 chambers did incredibly poorly, as you can imagine.  I finally took it off there last week after being up since launch and it was at like 23% I think.  Almost every comment called it a mobile game and said it would be perfect on iPhone, which is funny since the entire game is designed around a thumb-stick, but okay.

Cathy: I do get their point, but yea, can’t imagine playing it with touch or tilt controls.

James: Take Arms did a bit better, but not very. At its highest point it was 52% to top 100, 48% when I pulled it off last week.  Now that, on the other hand, was called a “flash game” in a snobbish way.  Apparently there are a couple of flash games that are similar, so everyone on PC absolutely hated it.  I think Alex Jordan got same kinda criticism about Cute Things Dying Violently.

Cathy: Yea.  In fact, he did a Tales from the Dev Side on it.

James: Yea, so PC gamers are very weary of anything that looks like a flash game that they might have once saw.

Cathy: But then you put up Chasm, and it’s doing well to say the least.

James: I put it up just for the hell of it after we put up the new video on the 11th.  It’s now in the top 100 on Steam Greenlight.

Cathy: Very nice!

James: That’s with no major media support whatsoever, its purely from Greenlighters.

Cathy: I’m not major media?

James: Were you pimping it?

Cathy: That’s what I’m doing now.

James: Too late!  I’m top 100 now.  You get no credit.

Cathy: Awwwwwww.

James: I’m not sure where these votes are coming from, we’ve had 20k unique hits since then.  I didn’t realize that many people even rated Greenlight games for the hell of it.  So it’s a little surprising thinking I’m going to have to work my ass off to push traffic to it, when in reality i did nothing, just put a video on and answered people’s questions.

Cathy: I think now that it cost money to list your game, you’re seeing more dedicated, anxious fans, instead of haters and trolls.

James: Ya think?

Cathy: That’s my best guess.

James: So yea, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.  Which is crazy for something only two months into development.

Cathy: It’s a Metroidvania, but it’s also a Roguelike. Were you beat on as a child?

James: Ha ha, no.

Cathy: Hey, I still remember the original build of 48 Chambers.

James: Before you jump to conclusions, the Roguelike influence is more from Diablo than anything.

Cathy: Oh good, so Roguelike for pussies.  Noted.

James: I didn’t say that.

Cathy: The headline from this shall read “James Petruzzi, developer of upcoming game Chasm, calls all Diablo fans pussies.”

James: Are you trying to get me in trouble?

Cathy: Always.

James: I wouldn’t call it for-pussies! I think permadeath is pretty harsh punishment for failure.

Cathy: So when can we expect Chasm?

James: Hopefully late 2013.

Cathy: Come on, 400MSP XBLIG release?

James: Man I still like XBLIG, it’s a love/hate thing you know?  I love it for being an open marketplace, but I hate it for being an open marketplace.

Seriously, James. You've got to come up with more exciting screens than these.  This is your big moment!

Seriously, James. You’ve got to come up with more exciting screens than these. This is your big moment!

Cathy: Hey, some neo-retro games are getting full XBLA releases. Spelunky for example.  Why not try to secure a publisher?

James: Honestly, it’s really nice not having anyone to answer to.  Only problem is always money, you know?

Cathy: Which I hear you’re thinking of solving by going through Kic..kic..kic..

James: Cathy, you okay?

Cathy: Excuse me, you’re thinking of going through Kic..kic..kic..

James: Kickstarter?

Cathy: Yea, that.

James: You seem to have a little bit of blood coming out of your nose.

Cathy: Yea, that happens whenever I hear or say that word.

James: I don’t think that’s healthy.

Cathy: Tell me about it.  After writing that last editorial, my office looked like the Crazy 88s scene from Kill Bill.

James: Yea I’m thinking about Kickst.. that.  I’m thinking about using that.

Cathy: Nice save.  Gives me a chance to clot.

James: I’m also thinking about alpha funding, or even selling out to Microsoft.  I’ve considered it all, and I’m still not sure what the best route is.  We’re going to Game Developers Conference in March to show off Chasm, hopefully get some people interested.

Cathy: Might help to wear a tee-shirt that says “will sell my creative vision for food.”

James: I’m not THAT desperate yet!

Cathy: You’re thinking of using Kickstarter.  You ARE that desperate.

James: Cathy, your nose.

Cathy: Well shit.  Better wrap this up.  I’ve got to go to the hospital again.

Be sure to check out the official Chasm page at DiscordGames.com

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.

Read more of this post

Developer Interview: Aeternum

Aeternum.  I didn’t love it.  Couldn’t even beat the first stage.  So why am I talking to the developers?  Well, because they’re my friends.  And, let’s face it, in this crazy modern world, cronyism is the glue that holds everything together.  Besides, it was late Friday night and after having a nuclear-level seizure, I figured games would be semi-off limits for the weekend.  I needed something to post, and my friends were in to lend me a hand.  It’s enough to make you cry tears of blood, is it not?

aeternum-logo Read more of this post

Tales from the Dev Side: Greenlight, Red Light by Alex Jordan

Although I’ve sworn many times that Xbox Live Indie Games have a bright future, developers are treating the platform like a freshly pruned-by-iceberg Titanic.  For many, the brass ring for distribution is now Steam.  The problem with that is Steam is a tough nut to crack.  And then hope came in the form of Steam Greenlight.  But is it really hope, or is it all smoke and mirrors?  Cute Things Dying Violently developer and Greenlight hopeful Alex Jordan  has a few thoughts.

Greenlight, Red Light

by Alex Jordan

The life of an up-and-coming indie game developer sure is a great one. I mean, think of the perks!  Scant management, vast amounts of creative control, and great appreciation for the finer things in life, e.g. ramen noodles.

And, hey, there’s also the disproportionately huge share of revenue you command!  Unfortunately, 70% or 100% of shit is still shit (roughly “shi” if you’re using the 70% model, including the dot above the i, greedy bastards), so pretty much every last indie developer has had one nagging thing on their to-do list for the past four or five years: beg for distribution on Steam.  Because, let’s face it, it’d be super nice if people had actually heard about your game and maybe would deign to buy it.  If that were the case, you could consider quitting your day job, or at least consider having something for lunch other than rehydrated noodles in sodium water.

And because the only thing out there more in abundance than ramen noodles is desperate indie developers, the guys and gals at Valve who run Steam have had to fend off these Morlocks with a stick.

Pictured: Cute Things Dying Violently creator Alex Jordan and his fiancée.

For every indie game that manages to pass through the Pearly Gates, 100 get denied or ignored. Enter: Steam Greenlight, Valve’s way of saying, “Here! You look at shitty MS Paint art.  We’ll just sit here and make decorative pants out of $100 bills.”

Having had Cute Things Dying Violently rejected by Valve back in July, Greenlight (which was announced roughly three days after I got my rejection email) seemed like a juicy consolation prize.  A community indie games voting site for a large captive audience of Steam users, designed by a developer as canny and talented as Valve? Sign me up!

And I did. Pretty much the moment it went live, back on August 30.  And that’s when the horrible truth set in: Greenlight was. . . decent.  It wasn’t great, it wasn’t terrible, it was just. . . a filter.  Pure, exhausted convenience distilled into a website.

What’s Going Right?

My first 20 minutes with Greenlight were pretty blissful.  It was streamlined and easy to use, and I managed to register CTDV with trailer, screenshots, and description inside of ten minutes.  And pretty much the moment my page went live, the unique page views started pouring in.  The “large captive audience” I mentioned earlier is nothing to sneeze at.  Just by virtue of being on the platform, my game and others like it were getting a degree of attention that was unprecedented just hours earlier.

It’s also marvelously easy to provide feedback on games.  For each game page there’s an upvote button, a downvote button, and a Favorite button.  Additionally, Collections make it easier for third parties like gaming websites to promote a series of games.

What’s Going Wrong?

I’m not going to harp much on the reviewer’s experience, since most gaming journalism outfits have already beat me to it.  The short version is that discoverability is still a problem; talented developers with attractive games are unavoidably lumped together with complete crap; trying to cast several votes efficiently is a navigational cul-de-sac; and, unfortunately, the Greenlight community is full of slack-jawed retards.

“Gameplay looks like iphone appstore level trash” said Cletus Gumtooth of Pine Knot, Kentucky. Jed Toomanytoes of Camden, TN noted “looks like a boring, bad, lazy game thats just like a multitude of other terrible and boring games. also i want to fuk my sistah.”

How obnoxious can they be? Well, many of them didn’t know what Greenlight was for.  They thought it was a way to request their favorite AAA games getting on Steam as opposed to indie games.  Plenty of people who knew what the deal actually was were scarcely better, and each game’s comments thread began racking up scattershot feedback that many YouTube vets would cringe at.  One man’s Cthulhu Saves the World is another man’s crappy RPG Maker clone, and one man’s Cute Things Dying Violently is another man’s “stupid Flash game.”  Ouch.

I’m sure the majority of Steam accounts are held by lovely people, but you can only read so many variations on “Your game sucks” or “Get fucked m8” before the scales fall from your eyes.  After all, these are the people whose votes you need.

Oh my God, I turned out to be a politician anyway.

The Developer’s Experience

Anyway, such delicate interaction proved to be a wee bit of an eye-opener.  The rest of the developer experience on Greenlight isn’t much better.

The most notable aspect of the developer’s experience is one of confusion and withheld information.  Putting a game on Greenlight, with its studied silence from Valve and its schizophrenic community, is like being asked to stand in one place and alternatively receiving either kisses or kicks to the genitalia.

And those are the only two forms of feedback.  Initially, developers (and only developers) got to privately see their game’s percentage of upvotes to downvotes, but that disappeared after a few days when it became apparent to Valve that downvoting – either legitimate downvotes or those by trolls – served no other cause than to drag down a game’s up/down ratio.  Downvotes don’t subtract from upvotes, but, initially, we didn’t know that.  For reviewers, a downvote got the game off their to-review screen.  For developers, it was a sign of dislike for the game and perhaps even a negated upvote, as Valve hadn’t told us otherwise.  We got to suffer in silence for a few days, watching our numbers degrade, before Valve put us out of our misery and yanked that wonderful feature.

And then there’s the “% of Calculated Ratings So Far” bar that shows how far along your game is on upvotes before it gets submitted to Valve.  Well, the fine folks at Valve don’t quite know yet what level of participation the Greenlight community will have, so they’ve erred on the side of caution and set the number pretty damn high.  Even standout games on Greenlight like Project Zomboid have only gotten about 20% of the votes they need, while the rest of us plebes get to hang on to single digit approval percentages.  (Granted, it’s been less than a week, so take my whining with a grain of salt.)  And since developers don’t get to see how many upvotes their games have actually gotten, there’s nothing for us to extrapolate from.  We just get to sit, and wait.  And get kicked in the balls.

Hey, I’ve Done This Before. . .

Despite its shortcomings, Greenlight still presents a big opportunity for indie developers.  Whereas previously Valve would almost certainly take a look at your game and flat-out reject it in the same split second, now we have an opportunity to land a game on their laps with some sort of critical consensus and the understanding that Valve employees will review it with the time and attention it deserves.  Gone will be the days of instantaneous judgment leading to rejection and developer misery.

Thus, Greenlight becomes a plausible shortcut.  Sure, it’s an extra step in the process (you used to be able to just fill out a form on Valve’s website and send your game in), but if your game emerges intact on the other side, odds are you’ll soon be sitting pretty.

Cute Things Dying Violently has seen modest success on various platforms. Which is probably a good thing. If it did any better, you know a certain Silicon Valley mobile company would be right there with their “completely original” physics puzzler “Adorable Creatures Perishing Disturbingly.” Then they would probably sue him for stealing their idea before they thought of it.

But here’s the thing… Greenlight’s voting threshold and discoverability shortcomings mean that the developers still need to do quite a bit of hustle to gain attention and upvotes.  Which is. . . hey! I recognize that feeling!  That’s exasperation, having just realized that this is what we’ve always had to do, and will always have to do.  I don’t think any of us developers were naïve enough to think that Greenlight would be a straight ticket to success, but what we got instead was another chapter in the same story we’ve been reading for years upon years: capitalism is hard, and you gotta work for it, and in the end you still might get shafted for no fault of your own.

That means instead of spamming Kickstarter solicitation emails, now you’ll be spamming Greenlight solicitation emails.  (I’m sure gaming journos will be just as eager to read the latter!)  Developers will still be struggling to worm their way into bundles and promotions, desperate to practically give their game away just to get a little bit more recognition.  Networking will still be paramount and journalists will still need to be schmoozed at bars, but last I checked, I really like beer and I really like talking about myself, so that’s not a problem.

In the end, Greenlight represents yet another dance routine on the never-ending popularity contest that all obscure indie developers have to participate in.  It’s certainly not bad, and dare I say the vetting process still represents a good opportunity, it’s just that it’s underwhelming.  Greenlight’s another queue, another procedure, another form that needs to be filled out on the road to possible opportunity.

It is, in short, the perfect microcosm of the indie developer experience.  Does that look like a raw deal to you?   It shouldn’t.  It may seem like deferred, somewhat unlikely success, but it’s worth a shot, isn’t it?  If it wasn’t, we would’ve given up.  And judging by the growing number of games on Greenlight, that ain’t gonna happen.

%d bloggers like this: