Our latest interview is something of a rarity. We’re not talking with just one talented individual. This time we’re talking with representatives from three different indie development studios – Jonathan Lee of DaddyPigGames, Jase Wroe of IronReaverGames, and Victor Garcia and Steven Noakes from 1BK. We talk about life as an indie developer, the indie scene in the UK, and the bonds within the indie community.
The Indie Mine: Thanks, gentlemen, for talking with us today. Can each of you tell me a little bit about your background in development and the history of your studios?
DaddyPigGames: I’m pleased to say with very fond memories that my first taste of games programming started way back in the early 80s, my first computer back then being a Vic20. For me personally it was a great time for discovering anything to do with programming and it really felt like a true period of pioneering.
In the early days you just knew something big was going to happen, the potential was just phenomenal.
I can certainly remember the likes of Codemasters (then Mastertronic) releasing their first games for the C64 and ZX spectrum, no different to what anyone else was doing back then and look at them now, it’s truly been a fantastic journey.
Unfortunately I lost touch with the scene once my work career took hold and its only in the last year or so that I really decided to give it another go after recently purchasing an Xbox / Kinect bundle for the kids and seeing what was happening on the XBLIG scene, that totally resparked the desire to get involved.
DaddyPigGames became the moniker of choice (again, thanks kids) and its 100% muggins here doing coding, artwork, sound fx etc… So, jack of all trades and not quite the complete master of any just yet, however after picking up the gauntlet less than a year ago and recently getting my first game out in the marketplace then its still early days with lots still left to learn.
IronReaverGames: First of all thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Since the age of 8 after “looking after” the house computer of a 48K Spectrum “the one with the rubber keys =)” I have always enjoyed programming computers. This interest continued and stayed with me which eventually lead to me gaining a degree in Software Engineering. I am currently in the software development industry and have been working as a professional developer for the last 14 years. In my spare time I often got together with friends to try to develop the next great game idea, often using languages like AMOS for the Amiga way back.
I got into XNA development about 3 years ago after realising I could develop my own games for the Xbox 360 console which seemed like a fun thing to do. My first published XBLIG game Spectrangle360 came about as an experiment with different technologies really.
I wanted to learn Silverlight as a technology and the first thing that came to mind was to develop Spectrangle the board game by Jumbo games as it used simple geometric shapes which could be drawn easily “again I cant draw to save my life”. After some time I realised that quite a few people enjoyed the game and thought it might be interesting to try to develop the game using XNA.
So I started quite a long process of getting in touch with the current IP holders of Spectrangle – Jumbo Games – and asking them if I could use their IP in an Xbox 360 game. To my surprise they got back to me and agreed that an electronic version of Spectrangle would be a great idea as they were currently looking into how they could expand into the digital market.
After a relatively quick time converting the game to XNA I then spent a number of months trying to get Spectrangle360 onto the XBLIG channel and the rest they say is history.
1BK: 1BK was formed by three students to make We Are Cubes as our final year project at university. We had individually developed some smaller games during our time there, but prior to that we had no programming or game development experience. After graduating in 2010, Steve and I decided to publish to Xbox Live Indie Games, but our third member disappeared. We hardly worked on it for a year, but in 2011 we started development again in our spare time. We recoded everything, optimized it to run on the Xbox 360, added more stuff and polished it. Andy, who was our module leader at the time, made the original soundtrack specially for our game. Finally in early 2012, we had finished our first commercial product, although it was mainly a learning experience and personal project to us.
The Indie Mine: Well that leads me into my next question and it revolves around the fact that each of your studios has released its very first game within the past couple of months. What was that experience like in the last few weeks of development? Did everything turn out as planned? Were you struggling at all with trying to build up interest in the game?
DaddyPigGames: That’s a great question! As a first timer I didn’t really know what to expect at all, but one thing soon became clear – social networking would play a big part in spreading the word and getting some attention both for your game and equally important for yourself as a developer.
The first thing you have to appreciate is that the review process is conducted by fellow developers 100% voluntarily and can be a slow process. So you really need to put the word out and get noticed but more importantly become part of this great community and do your own share of helping out as well. That’s totally fair.
After initial Google searching I was lucky to come across one particular name who has helped tremendously in this particular area, Martin Caine of Retroburn Game Studios (big thanks). An in depth reply from Martin soon had me up and running on Twitter and Facebook, and it’s the former in particular I believe that has had the most impact with regards to making contact with like-minded developers and being able to request assistance throughout the peer process.
However, for me one thing I didn’t expect was just how friendly and supportive this whole community is!
The greatest spin off of this whole process for me has simply been making fantastic friends along the way, and I’m very fortunate to include the guys in this interview in that list also.
As for the first time through the peer process, you learn a lot, very quickly! It’s amazing just how prepared you think you are, but as soon as you hit the submit button, any failings in the game soon become apparent once the review feedback comes back in – all in a positive and constructive way of course. So this part of the process became yet another steep learning curve, every problem reported resulted in more research until you had a 100% watertight game to publish.
For me personally there wasn’t a particular dead line that had to be hit for release, it was more a combination of overwhelming desire, excitement and frustration to simply get that ‘first game’ out in the marketplace that had you up every hour nursing it through to a published state. A very stressful process, but looking back now ultimately satisfying!
Another area glaringly overlooked by me was gauging just how soon to approach the editorials, in my case this didn’t happen until the last week prior to publishing. Personally I’m not sure just yet how much of an impact this has on the end gamer. In my experience, if I see a game on the dash for 80 MSP that looks good and reads well and has a trial that pulls me in then I’m OK purchasing it, I don’t think I’ve ever read a review and purchased a game based on it for anything less than a AAA game.
What has been interesting for me has been how well received We Are Cubes has been in the media, with well deserved praise throughout. I’ve seen ‘The Best Indie Game ever’ quoted a number of times (and I wouldn’t disagree with this). However, from the feedback I have had from the guys I’m not sure this has 100% contributed to proportionate sales expected. So I would be very interested to read the guys’ thoughts on this to see just what impact press coverage has had on the gamer at large, and to try to shed some light on where we are at this particular phase in the life of consoles v mobile gaming tech in terms of sales, as all our games are specifically XBLIG titles only.
IronReaverGames: Well as I said before the playtest/review process was really tough to get through. Although it’s pretty difficult to get your voice heard above all the other noise going on in the (MS) AppHub forums it definitely helps if you’re a well-known studio name. Our problems came about when trying to get the game tested by enough people to ensure that it would pass through the review process (you must receive 8 passes by other AppHub members before your game can be published). There were a number of times where our game would go for weeks without anyone really playtesting the game even though I tried to spend time playtesting other games (hence bumping into great people like Jonathan “Snakes gunz and ladderz” and Victor “We are cubes”), so assuming that no one had found any issues, I would then submit the game to review and then another review failing issue would be found. So after waiting another week I would then repeat the entire process again which overall took about 2 – 3 months in the end.
As for trying to build up interest in the game, I didn’t seem to have any problems trying to get reviews for our game. As the game Spectrangle is based on a board game, I think a few people were a bit reluctant to review the game. Also, because again it was my first game maybe people thought the quality would not be that great. However, once people actually gave it a try I got reasonably positive reviews.
However, now as to most games the interest has waned as the game has slipped back in the new releases list and other games are now taking the limelight.
1BK: The last few weeks turned into the last few months due to issues with peer review. However this gave us an opportunity to enhance the areas of the game which we felt gave an overall more professional and polished feel. This has been frequently mentioned in the feedback we have received and we are pleased that we took the time to ensure this was corrected before releasing. We both agree that one area which we could improve is our trial mode, as we don’t feel it gives a true reflection of the addictive nature of the game. The initial interest to the game was hugely positive and in the beginning we had many amazing reviews. However this has been difficult to maintain as We Are Cubes slipped further down the list of recent game releases. It has made us realise that Xbox Indie Games is a good platform to learn on but lacks the exposure level we would one day hope to achieve with 1BK.
The Indie Mine: It’s not uncommon to find the same industry people – devs or press or otherwise – working together and talking together a lot in the social media sphere. However it seems like the three of you were often joined at the hip on Twitter during the latter stages of getting your games out. You mentioned helping each other playtest, but what have been some of the other benefits of finding each other and working together?
DaddyPigGames: I suppose it’s like the ‘first day at school’ effect and you gravitate towards a certain group, start helping each other out and then it just bonds from there. In my case, I couldn’t have hoped to have met two better groups of people to move forward with.
In all fairness the playtest and peer process has to go through XBLIG AppHub to ultimately get approved and get you noticed with the other devs, but if a problem was found then obviously we could try to help each other out, assist with any code issues and just try to capture as many problems up front as possible. I also believe that creating an environment of encouragement also helped to keep everyone’s spirits up, especially as it took us all a few attempts to get through the review process on our first attempt. In fact the pinnacle of this had to be ‘release night’ for me, as both myself and OneBeeKay by pure coincidence ended up releasing on the same night, so that built up to quite a crescendo and the final relief of hitting the publish button was a great moment indeed.
I really hope that moving forward will allow us to bounce ideas off each other earlier in the design process. In my case as a solo developer, the whole concept of the game was already mapped out and in place prior to meeting up with these guys, so there wasn’t really much room for change at that stage but I hope that on future games we can share ideas and suggestions at an earlier part of the process.
Obviously this depends a lot on the direction each of us will take and which platform we decide our future ‘investment’ is best placed.
IronReaverGames: Personally I found the reward of having 2 devs that can test your software with the understanding that you would do the same for them was fantastic. Although the AppHub tries to replicate this same thing via playtesting and reviewing I found that the games simply got swamped by a lot of other people doing the same thing. Also I often found I would go out of my way to playtest a bunch of games and the developer would never reciprocate, maybe that should be somehow implemented in the AppHub, but I guess forcing people to do it would just result in the quality going down.
With only the 3 of us working together we could get the game files to each other and ask to test for specific issues and visa versa, as there where only 3 games to deal with it made the whole process a lot quicker sort of like our own mini playtest\review “circle of trust”.
It also helped when we did see issues. Many a time I would send a rant email to Jonathan complaining about why another fail reason had been found in my game. I would often feel really low and almost felt like giving up but Jonathan would send a great email and really pick my spirits up enough for me to try again and eventually release Spectrangle360. I guess I really owe the success of Spectrangle360 to these 2 guys if I am being honest.
1BK: It was extremely lucky that we went into peer review at the same time DaddyPigGames and IronReaverGames, as they’re both really great guys that have helped us loads in the last months of testing. We helped each other in playtest, gave feedback and independently tested versions of each game quickly which sped up fixing any issues. Another benefit was the motivation -as all 3 of us failed peer review a couple of times- we kept each other going in the rough time that followed a fail in the process.
Having an extra pair of eyes is great when you’ve been working so long on a project, as you may miss things that seem obvious to you. Both DaddyPigGames and IronReaver spotted out glaring issues that we completely overlooked and found bugs that we hadn’t thought of testing. And as DaddyPigGames says, we ended up going for the same release night, and having him help out with that was amazing. After all the issues we went through during peer review it was fitting that we both published our games at the same time. We Are Cubes would not the game it is today without these 2 guys.
The Indie Mine: In our time covering indie games, we’ve noticed that there seem to be a ton of indie developers in the UK. What are your impressions of the indie scene there, and does it seem to be growing?
IronReaverGames: Like I said previously there has been a pretty long history of home computers that have been developed and sold in the UK. Things like the Spectrum which just celebrated its 30th birthday and the Amiga and Atari just to name a few. These home computers have cultivated a generation of bedroom coders and I guess things like XNA and other platforms has allowed those bedroom coders to express themselves in a new way being able to develop games for the Xbox and other platforms. Some have even made a very good living out of it.
However, I don’t know if this trend is continuing. If you read the news in the press at the moment, children are not being taught that kind of stuff these days and they really don’t just tend to sit down and write computer programs. I believe there are plenty of other things to distract them, things like social networking sites being one of them.
But hopefully things like XNA and the recently released Raspberry Pi might fire kids’ imaginations again and create another generation of coders.
DaddyPigGames: As IronReaver says, the UK has always had a healthy game development heritage and I am really proud of what the UK has achieved to date in games development. As someone who has recently re-discovered the gaming development community, its great to see we are still actively producing top titles but I’m still trying to establish just how big the UK scene is right now. I get the feeling that from social profiles and the regular invites for meet ups throughout the country that the scene is definitely just as strong today as it was back in the early 80s when the whole thing exploded.
It’s also a good point raised about awareness in schools. Back in the 80 we had the BBC Micro program that certainly helped build up the scene back then, but not really sure what is being offered to the kids today? I believe that back then coding was perhaps simpler and easier to get into from an early age, but not sure how kids now would react to the coding environments offered now, hopefully they wouldn’t be put off. Hopefully they can be taught that it’s not just about coding and that the role of the graphics artist, musician, level designer, AI etc is of equal importance in today’s game designing. On that point I would just like to give an acknowledgement once more to Martin Caine who I know is also active in this area, visiting schools, giving talks and getting the kids interested. I think that’s fantastic and big credit to Martin for getting involved in that.
This summer there is also a Games Expo being held at Magna in Rotherham geared specifically towards school children. This Games Britannia videogame festival will open up the world of game development to a younger audience by giving them an idea of the work that goes into creating a game and will hopefully inspire them to pursue a career in the games industry.
1BK: I’ve met some truly talented developers here that bring great innovation to gaming. The indie scene in the UK is amazing, and I can only see it growing worldwide. The barrier of making games and getting them out there has been destroyed in the past few years. Services like Xbox LIVE Indie Games, Appstore, Google Play, Desura or even Facebook (to name a few) make it extremely easy for people to play your creation. That ease is what attracts more people to the making indie games: all you need is an idea and the will to invest your time into it.
The Indie Mine: There are a lot of mixed opinions on the XBLIG service. A lot of of people think it’s a waste of time because of the low odds of commercial success. Others argue that it’s an easy way to get your foot in the door. How do you feel about the XBLIG service now that you’ve released a game, and do you think your long-term plans will continue to include it?
DaddyPigGames: For me XBLIG was the natural platform of choice as I only had an XBOX console anyway. It’s been great for learning C# and from what I can see that in itself is a popular language that appears to have a good life ahead of it regardless of the future of XNA. Although frustrating at the time, the tight peer review process and quality control associated with XBLIG also develops a skill set that gets you thinking about all those kind of quality issues and mentally conditions your own quality control, so moving forward it’s been good in that respect also.
I think Snakez Gunz and Ladderz has been a bit like Marmite with gamers either loving it or hating it. One things for sure, as soon as you release a game and start getting feedback you instantly realise all the ‘issues’ within the game, those which perhaps you were a bit blinkered to during the actual coding process.
I am now working on a sequel and based on the feedback I’ve had so far it will hopefully address all the issues in the original, a game concept which I believe is still sound and I just want to make it the game it was always intended to be. After that I would definitely consider looking at other platforms, so for that reason I think XBLIG has proved to be a good prototype ground and given me a good idea as to what works in a game or more importantly what doesn’t!
With regards to financials, I really am amazed at the sales figures the top sellers get on XBLIG. For the rest of us it really is small fry. I think you’ve got to be in the top 10 / 20 tier to make something serious from it, but as long as you bear that in mind and just treat it as a hobbyist platform and a place to showcase your game, then if you do make something in return then that’s great! Moving forward, I’m not sure which platform to target at this stage.
I think the games market is in a state of change again. Obviously the rise of mobiles and tablets have pushed the console back and there’s talk of the next gen consoles possibly appearing within the next 24 months or so. Not sure how it’s all going to settle down so I just plan to use this period as part of a continued learning process, developing my own skill sets etc and then hopefully I will be in a better position to take advantage of new platforms the next time around.
IronReaverGames: To be honest when XNA was announced as being available for the Xbox 360 which allowed programmers to develop their own games in C# this was a no-brainer for me and I couldn’t wait to develop my own game for the platform. I had heard rumours that games on the indie channel didn’t do so well with only a few games that have really sold well, with some indie developers making a very good living out of it.
For me it was more about the challenge of developing something that would be a bit of a challenge to complete, a game that had a proper menu system and a game that if only a few people played meant it was a success in my eyes. However I didn’t want to develop some shovelware massage app or something. I wanted to do this as a learning experience with the view that I hope to expand upon what I learned. This is why I decided to get as many features into Spectrangle360 as I could. I know that even if the game didn’t do that well I would have learned a whole host of techniques which I have never really used before, things like AI and networking etc.
Now that I have released Spectrangle360 I hope to provide an update in hopes to improve the game with a few extra features and fixes. Again I probably wont get any more sales doing this, however I want to make sure that Spectrangle360 is as good as I can get it before I move on. I have had many comments that Spectrangle360 might do well on the iOS market so I might look into that if I get any spare time.
But I guess my roots will always be XNA, so I don’t plan on just leaving it and moving to the next thing. As far as I can tell MS is not completely dumping the platform either and until they say they are I will still try to contribute to the XNA community as a whole.
1BK: People complain about the Xbox LIVE Indie Game service but the fact that you can make anything and publish it to a console on your own is nothing short of amazing. We learnt how to develop a game with We Are Cubes, and in our eyes publishing it was a success on its own. I do believe XBLIG has some major flaws, specifically regarding dashboard visibility and the ratings system, but it’s a great hobbyist platform. Chances are you won’t make much money on it, but you’ll learn a lot and meet some amazing people along the way.
As long as we keep programming in C# XBLIG will always hold a place in future projects. However I’ve been playing around with Unity3D lately and the ability of publishing to different platforms so easily is something that really interests me. I’m currently working on a new XNA game, so there’ll be at least one more title on XBLIG from us!
The Indie Mine: Let’s leave our readers with some food for thought. What advice or wisdom can you impart to them on being an indie developer?
DaddyPigGames: First of all, forget about the big bucks, at least to start with! If you have an idea, then go for it and have great fun developing it and getting to meet loads of great people in the community along the way. At the end of the day, if you do make something from it then consider that a bonus. Try to aim for incremental improvements on each release, but don’t set the bar too high. There’s a lot to learn and you could soon get disappointed if you try to produce COD on your second outing! Indie games are about what you want to create. Have fun, learn something, meet great people and enjoy!
IronReaverGames: If I was to give any would-be indie developers any advice my advice would be at first to aim low with what you plan to publish. What I mean by that is to not aim to create the best game in the world, that MMORP or that 8 player FPS. Aim to create a simple game, something like Tetris or Pong. However you must finish this game to the best of your abilities. The game must have a start, middle and end.
You must polish this game as much as possible and then get that game out for review. You can learn alot from other peoples feedback, don’t take that feedback to heart though. Must people will give you constructive feedback and if it isnt constructive just ignore it don’t feel the need to reply back, simple people simply wont like your game. Use the feedback as a means to improve your craft further.
Finally the only other quality you must learn to acquire is persistence. You will hit many bumps in the road when trying to publish your game to the world. Even when you feel like giving up and not finishing that game you have to learn to pick your self up and keep plowing on with it. Once you have that game out there you will feel all the better having managed to overcome these obstacles and improve open your efforts. Good luck.
1BK: If you’re making an XBLIG game, develop it with the Evil Checklist in mind, it’ll save you trouble in the long run. Put in extra effort into the Trial Mode, it’s the gateway to getting your game purchased. Have other people play your game before you release it, don’t tell them anything about it and take notes on what works and what doesn’t. Allow yourself to take criticism and don’t be afraid to change whole mechanics if something doesn’t work. Market the game well before its release and use social network sites to create a buzz. Talk to other developers and learn from their experiences. Read reviews and play other games to see where they went wrong and fix similar issues in your game. Use the Xbox LIVE services (eg, GamerTags). If this is going to be your first game, make something simple. You’re not going to make the next big MMO, at least not just yet. Have fun developing it, your passion will shine through!
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