Microsoft is about “democratize game development” by introducing Community Games as part of the New Xbox Experience launching this Wednesday. The program gives indie console developers a chance to get their XNA coded games into market via digital distribution and bypass expensive ESRB ratings. Community Games creators, like Xbox Live Arcade developers, earn royalties, split with Microsoft, with each sale.
The Community Games platform is an exciting frontier for developers holding on tight to a dream, but the indie market is difficult to navigate. Only a few indie developers rise to fame. John Baez, a founding member of The Behemoth, is one of them and we pulled him aside to discuss the Community Games initiative and his post Castle Crashers plans.
You were recently in Tokyo for TGS. How was Castle Crashers received in Japan?
Very Well. It was really great to get all the attention because we were one of the very few, very few western developers there.
That’s true, but there were a lot of Western developed games there this year. Did you get any feedback from the attendees like in Comic Con?
Oh yeah! I guess what surprised us most was the presence of so many fans who specifically took time out to come by our booth and say hello. Many of them brought things like cookies, artwork, even origami of the castle knights!
Did anyone dress up in Castle Crasher costumes?
Yeah, there was one guy who made a castle helmet and a huge fan who was dressed up as Kratos from God Of War who came by to play the game with us.
That’s fantastic. Did you originally design Castle Crashers with international appeal?
All of our games are culturally neutral so they kind of move easily across the planet. Castle Crashers is localized into 8 languages.
Is it because games like Castle Crashers and Alien Hominid are intuitive for gamers?
Well, we are old school to some degree, but really it is about pick up and play. But I think the real appeal is the art style since it is not trying to be hyper realistic. The Japanese Xbox community seems to love the game. We were told we are the number one LIVE title in Japan, arcade or otherwise. So, that was cool.
That’s very cool. If part of the appeal, in your opinion, is the art style would you advise aspiring indie developers making Community Games to focus on artwork?
Aspiring designers should have some sort of appeal — if it isn’t new gameplay, then it really needs to be something visual. Not many people will be patient enough to play something that doesn’t bring something new to the table, but that goes for any game, not just community games.
Well, yeah, but we didn’t realize that at the time. We have great game play and great graphics and we just wanted cool stuff to put on our desks.
If you weren’t thinking about merchandise from the start how are were you able to do build the game under budget, probably one of the biggest concerns to an indie developer?
First off, merchandise at best only breaks even. We weren’t paying developer bills by selling t-shirts. But, the combo of shirts, figurines and games, if each can pay for themselves, makes for a better all around game.
Building a game under budget comes from working someplace else before you go out on your own so you aren’t learning on your own dime. If you are indie, you have to be productive the first day you open you shop.Trying to do figures and t-shirts, etc is a big distraction when you are just starting out.
Do you think indie developers will be able to make a living off of selling community games?
Well, one might, but nine won’t.
What do you think makes it so difficult to survive being a community game developer?
Well, from our perspective, being a community developer isn’t much different than being a PC developer and not a whole lot of indie PC devs make a living from it. You can get by, or you can make a great game if you work another job, but anyone making a community game shouldn’t bank on making bank.
At least a good third (yes, 1/3) of a developers time is spent conforming to the requirements of a particular console hardware manufacturer. This is a lot of time in addition to the time to the development time to make a fun game. There will always be exceptions, but I think the chances will be slim of many developers making a lot of money. But community games will be a great way to gain experience of working on console titles, which can always lead to something bigger in the future.
How do you think an indie developer can be successful on the Community Games platform?
Well, it depends on what you mean by successful. If you mean financially successful, I’m not sure the mass of developers who make indie console games will become financially independent. Just look at the tools that indies have had for years, both PC and console. – I think there was only one Net Yaroze game for the PS2 that ever got published. Granted, Community Games on the 360 will have a lot lower entry barrier, but I’m just not sure that it was conceived as a revenue generator for devs; rather, the idea behind the community games might have been to give motivated individuals and small teams the tools to make some cool games and experiments.
I think for anyone on the Community Games platform (or any similar platform) to be successful the devs need to get away from the idea of making money. Don’t quit your day job. Make sure you build that game you want to build, not the one you think will sell well. If you get rich, great, you are lucky, but don’t count on it.
How did the Behemoth get an edge as an indie developer?
The Behemoth was formed out of a group of console devs whose company was closing down. Luckily, Dan [Paladin] and I were working together and he had made the Alien Hominid prototype with Tom from Newgrounds. So, we already had the tech to start the company doing console games. Alien Hominid started at Newgrounds, but the tech came from our previous knowledge.
That’s how you were able to create a new version for console so quickly?
Well, 18 months wasn’t exactly quickly! But yeah, we were able to start working the first day we opened up.
Will you guys ever go back and release a retail product or is it digital distribution all the way?
No need to release on retail any more. Too many middlemen.
Would you say it’s easier for a small developer to work on their own and utilize digital distribution like XBLA, WiiWare or PSN?
Oh yeah, for indie’s any type of digital distribution will always be better than the retail route.
Are you sticking to Xbox Live or are you planning on branching out to WiiWare or PSN?
Oh, well, we are on PSN and WiiWare as devs.
Do you have plans to bring Castle Crashers or Alien Hominid to either of those platforms?
Alien Hominid was already on GCN and PS2, so he’ll stay a classic until the sequel. As for Castle, I can’t really say :-).
Wait a second… Is Alien Homind 2 your next project?
No, we aren’t really into sequels.
Is your next project going to be multiplatform?
Well, we are not sure yet. We are devs for all the consoles.
Do you think your next game will be 3D or are you sticking to high quality 2D art?
Oh, we’ll be doing 2D for a while yet. Still so much unexplored territory.
You mean for different types of genres?
Well, that but with the art too. People look at 2d and sometimes just dismiss it, but like any art form or style, if you are inspired enough, you can discover great things.
Have you seen Vanillaware’s games?
They’re also exploring 2D with lush environments and highly detailed sprites. They did games like Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade, shown at Tokyo Game Show this year. However, it seems like companies are backing off from 2D because it’s expensive to make sprites.
Meh, 3d isn’t cheap. Was the Vanillaware game over in the Marvelous booth?
Yes, that was Muramasa: The Demon Blade.
Yes that was a very pretty game
One last question… about that Castle Crashers patch…
We have sent it off to Microsoft and they are in the process of testing and certifying it. We have no idea how long it will take to release it, but we will hopefully see it soon!
Images courtesy of the Behemoth.