The name Stegrasaurus Games may not come to mind immediately, but you’ve heard of Daniel Steger’s previous works. He created Pumpkin Carver, a pumpkin carving app for Xbox Live, and just finished a defense game controlled with guitar controllers called Battle Beat.
In this interview, Steger shares where he got the idea for Battle Beat and how his seasonal apps performed on Xbox Live Indie Games.
How did you get into XNA development?
Daniel Steger, Xbox Live Indie Games Developer: Every year in Toronto, Jim McGinley organizes a 3 day game-making event called the Toronto Game Jam, or TOJam for short. Everyone meets up and works on games for those 3 days. In 2008 I worked with 4 other people to make a game called "The Signal" in XNA. My first lessons on how to use XNA were taught to me by Mark Cautillo, who was apart of my TOJam team and now works as Lead Programmer at FunForged, working on a free to play massively multiplayer strategy game. After that I got a job at a triple-A studio, but eventually left to pursue indie game development returning to XNA for Xbox development.
One genre, I suppose we could call it, are seasonal toys, which Stegersaurus Games makes. Where did you get the idea for things like Pumpkin Carver?
From the flash community. I was inspired by all those cheesy flash dressup toys to make both Pumpkin Carver and Christmas Tree. I thought these kinds of apps were more appropriate for a home console, because they aren’t just toys for kids, but also work as a nice holiday display-piece for a room. Pumpkin Carver even had a hidden screensaver mode where if you didn’t start the game, the logo would fade out and it would cycle through random pumpkin faces.
How have these games sold compared to your expectations?
It’s tricky and to be honest, sometimes a bit random. My best sellers so far have been Tank Strike (an artillery game similar to Scorched Earth) and Pumpkin Carver. Pumpkin Carver had the advantage of coming out before a lot of other Halloween themed games, and has had the best payoff versus the time invested in making it. Tank Strike was just a very solid experience for people, and now, although downloads have slowed down, has a conversion rate of over 50%. People don’t mind paying $1 for a a decently customizable artillery game
Christmas Tree you’d think would do as well as Pumpkin Carver, but oddly it didn’t pick up in the same way. Christmas Tree was a better made app, including more customization, and some fun to play with physics. It even had a better conversion rate, but it never got the same download rate as Pumpkin Carver. I think this may have boiled down to the visual style and overall theme being more child-oriented. Halloween parties where a virtual pumpkin can be on the TV are appropriate for any age group, but Christmas Tree is geared towards children and older XBLIG audiences may not take enough interest in the idea of a virtual Christmas tree to take notice. There was also another Christmas Tree called Christmas Tree 3D which seemed to do just as poorly as myself.
My newest title Battle Beat was a big investment and a shot in the dark. I was hoping to appeal to players with instrument controllers. I put a lot of time into the game and I think it would have done better if I had kept the price at the $1 sweet spot. But, based on the time I had invested in the game I charged $5, and unfortunately it seems that $5 is a really hard to sell price point on XBLIG. Conversion rates of the game have been sub-par and the game is slowly losing new downloaders as it falls off the new releases list on the Xbox.
Do you have any demographics on what type of person is buying seasonal apps?
XNA developers don’t get specific info on who buys what, but I think that Pumpkin Carver worked as an all-ages app, while Christmas Tree likely gets a younger crowd. I’ve gotten feedback from all ages though, from parents of small children to teenagers and young adults who have tried and enjoyed the apps.
If I recall correctly, Pumpkin Carver was featured by Microsoft on the dashboard. How did you pull this off? It’s something I believe other Indie Games developers would be interested in!
I think that I got featured by accidentally not keeping my mouth shut. When October started Microsoft was holding a seasonal event called Shocktober, where they ran a contest promoting a bunch of "spooky" games and movies, including about 5 XBLIG games. All of the games they featured were really pretty old though, and of varying qualities (I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1NIT!!!1 was by far the best and newest indie game being promoted). I had mentioned that it would have been cool if my Pumpkin Carver, as well as another pumpkin app called Pumpkin Chop would have been featured, but knew it was unlikely because Microsoft had chosen what would be in Shocktober long ago. I guess someone from MS was watching because within the next week Pumpkin Carver and Pumpkin Chop were both featured. That gave us both a good boost for the end of October.
Let’s move on to Battle Beat. Where did you get the concept for a defense game controlled with a music instrument?
I liked the idea of gameplay using instrument controllers. A friend of mine at one point made a shooter that used the Guitar Hero controller. I still have no idea how he pulled that off, and had also seen trailers of Fret Nice which is a platformer that uses the guitar. I was honestly surprised that more instrument-driven games hadn’t been put out on XBLIG yet. The first inspiration on where to take the gameplay came from Patapon, but evolved and changed drastically before long. I had gone through a few prototypes with different rhythm gameplay before I got to what Battle Beat uses now. Some of the minigames in Battle Beat are also based on these prototypes.
You mentioned Battle Beat was a bigger project than your seasonal apps. What was the toughest challenge you encountered while developing Battle Beat?
MUCH larger than my seasonal apps. Seasonal apps have a very limited timeframe for sales while games like Tank Strike and Battle Beat can have a long tail of sales. While something like Christmas Tree was a 2 week investment, Battle Beat took over half a year to complete. Because I’m a fairly technical person, I don’t find a challenge in programming new features. It just takes time and effort. The biggest challenge for me comes from design. Making sure everything flows nicely, is fun to play, and well balanced for the average player is a huge challenge. Exploring a new control scheme and trying to convey those controls to players is hard, especially when you only get an 8 minute trial to get them "into" a game enough that they are having fun.
How does Battle Beat play?
At the start of any level, you are told what kind of enemies you’ll be facing. From here you have to choose which "Squads" to take into battle with you. You can take 4 squads all with different attacks and recharge times. You have to first figure out which squads best match which enemies. Once in battle, things look a bit like Plants Vs Zombies. You’ve got your defenses, and unrelenting waves of enemies coming at you. Where it differs from PvsZ is that your defenses only fire when you tell them to, and you can only do this in time with the rhythm of the music. So, you can activate any of the 4 squads on each beat, as long as their weapons are recharged. Activation is simply tied to the 4 colored buttons, whether this be an Xbox controller, a drum kit, or a guitar (though with the guitar, you also need to strum). It’s a really simple activation mechanic which is tied to complex and fast-paced decision making. A lot of the fun comes from finding what squads work in different situations, and figuring out patterns of attack that will best utilize your defense units based on their recharge times.
In terms of variety of units by the end of the game the player has 9 types of squads which behave different in battle. I won’t give them all away, but my favorites are the psychic, sticky bombs launchers, and explosive launchers. They all have important roles and it’s hard to beat the game without using them at least once. Psychics are essential when an enemy gets right in your face and you need to push them back to buy some more time, or to bundle enemies together for more explosive attacks. Sticky bombs will help deal with more resilient enemies, buying you more attack time in a different manner than psychics by slowing them down. While Psychics work better in buying time in an emergency, sticky bombs will slow enemies down throughout a level, but have a weakness of being less effective when there are too many fast enemies to stop them all. They are also ridiculously silly being Pizza Delivery Men launching canisters of cheese. Explosive launchers interest me mainly from a gameplay perspective, as they are the only unit that relies on another unit to do damage. Their bombs won’t activate unless the player also uses lasers, which makes for interesting combos.