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

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.

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