As the developer behind one of the best games available on the Xbox 360 Community Games service, bettering many full XBLA games, there's no one better to explain the ins and outs of indie game development than Novaleaf Game Studios. We caught up with CEO Jason Swearingen to discuss the studio's debut title, Biology Battle, and what it's like making games for the Community Games channel.
VideoGamer.com: Novaleaf Game Studios is one of a growing number of independent developers. Can you tell us a bit about the company, how it came to be and where it stands at the moment?
Jason Swearingen:I think Novaleaf is actually quite unique in the game industry right now. Not only is our choice in technology and location (Bangkok, Thailand) very unconventional, but the company was founded by amateurs, with only myself having any professional software development experience (as a security developer at Microsoft). Currently our studio is starting our second year of existence, and employs 11 people. Based on our success with Biology Battle, I am confident in our abilities to tackle more complex games, so at the moment we are working on a couple of small, experimental titles while we focus on R&D work in the 3D arena.
Since I'm honestly new at this industry, I'm starting to explore collaboration with publishers to get additional funding I'd require for expansion, because like all indie game studios, I'd like to build my dream game, and external capital is pretty much needed for the sort of fast growth I'd prefer. With the global economic crisis in full swing, it will be a very interesting experience when I make my first attendance to Game Connection in San Francisco this March for that purpose. We are pretty fortunate in our ability to self fund, though, so no danger of heart attacks here!
VideoGamer.com: A lot of young people these days are taking university courses in video game design. How did you and the rest of the team learn the trade?
JS: Basically, we learned by doing it. Our first game (Biology Battle) was quite literally my first game ever. For me, I'm a self-taught developer, so I do strongly think that what's needed more than any formal education is the drive and passion for learning, and a method of applying that learning, such as the workplace or passionate hobby projects. Of course, the rigorous knowledge you gain in the academic setting is incredibly useful, and I know that there are areas of deep and fundamental theory in both game design and computer science that I am poorer for not knowing. For my team, the game and software industry here in Thailand is extremely small, so while they had reasonable academic experience, the lack of industry to gain real tangible experience is by far the biggest challenge we have faced.
Because of our inexperience, we spent a considerable portion of the Biology Battle project learning. A lot of mistakes were made, but that's always the consequence of learning something new, and the end results made it all worth it. I think if we did it again, we could complete the game in six months, instead of the 12 it took.
VideoGamer.com: Your first game for Xbox 360, Biology Battle, was released late last year on the Community Games channel. Are you pleased with the reaction and sales so far?
JS: I'm very happy with the game, and the reaction so far. Everyone who plays the game finds it enjoyable, and remark that it's one of the very top Community Games, even beating the quality found on many XBLA games. For sales, not so good. Because the Community Games platform is brand new, we didn't have any good way of determining price. When it came time to pick a price, I looked at the relative quality of Biology Battle, and seeing as it rivals the quality, fun, and experience of full XBLA titles, I chose the 800 point price. In hindsight, that was a mistake, and unfortunately we are prohibited from changing the price. Biology Battle is worth 800 points, but consumers have relatively lower expectations from the Community Games platform, so it's a lot tougher to prove to gamers that Biology Battle is worth 800 points when it's surrounded by games that may not even be worth 200. That said, sales are currently good enough for me to estimate we will break even from Xbox sales alone (I also plan on releasing to PC eventually). Also Microsoft's planned improvements to the Community Games platform, with features such as user ratings, will help prove the game's value.
VideoGamer.com: The game was originally intended to be a PC release. What made you put that on the backburner and focus on the Xbox 360 version?
JS: We were about three months into development of Biology Battle when Microsoft announced that "Holidays 2008" indie studios such as us would be able to sell our games on the Xbox 360 Live platform. This pretty much kicked us into high gear regarding Xbox development, because I wanted to have a game ready for the official launch of Community Games. Also the fact that the PC platform is much more diverse regarding hardware and software, so the amount of additional testing and code changes we have to do for a proper PC launch is considerable.
VideoGamer.com: As an independent developer do you see the Xbox 360 as a more attractive platform than the PC?
JS: Xbox gamers are considerably more "core" than PC (web) gamers, and so I feel that if your game is suitable for that core market, your studio will have greater financial success than if you launched on PC instead. The same of course works in reverse, where I think a more casual title would do better on PC. That said, I actually consider the two platforms to be very complementary. Indeed with the XNA technology we use, we can easily target both platforms. The Xbox does have the added benefit enabling Novaleaf with a very easy self-publishing strategy. Finding the appropriate PC publisher for Biology Battle is still something I am investigating.
VideoGamer.com: Are you able to reveal any specifics on how the Community Games business works? How much freedom do you have to set a price? What cut of the sale price do you receive? Do you have freedom to release the game on other consoles if the opportunity arose?
JS: The Community Games platform gives 70% of the sales price back to the developer, though Microsoft might take a little bit more if they do marketing on behalf of the developer. Freedom to set our own price is a little strange right now, as I mentioned a little earlier. We were free to set our price at either 200, 400, or 800 points; but after choosing our price, we are not able to change it. That's another one of the "business issues" Microsoft has plans on fixing. Community Games is much less restrictive than XBLA, so really we have the freedom to put whatever we want on the platform with no restrictions as to other platforms. Though likewise we receive much less support from Microsoft in terms of marketing and integration (Community Games do not get achievement integration for example).
VideoGamer.com: As a developer for the Community Games channel what kind of dialogue do you have with Microsoft? Does Microsoft take on board feedback from yourselves and other developers?
JS: Microsoft's XNA developers are pretty active on the forums at forums.xna.com regarding technical questions and advice, but when it comes to feature requests and timelines, they are understandably more tight-lipped. There has been a bit of pressure recently to get sales data, which caused Microsoft to disclose more information on their timeline regarding that feature. I assume and remain hopeful that Microsoft is making progress towards resolving other issues that the community has identified.
VideoGamer.com: One of the things gamers have been unhappy about is the lack of Achievements and the rather strict trial time limits. What are your thoughts on this and will the situation ever change?
JS: Due to very vocal criticism, the trial limits have been increased to eight minutes. For me I'm still not super happy with this, but it's much better than the four minutes we were originally given. There are a number of restrictions, including no Achievements, no leaderboards, no dedicated servers and no offline access (you must be connected to Xbox Live to play). I believe that some of these restrictions are technical (not enough time to implement) but also some are strategic: to encourage professional studios to go the XBLA route. The irony is that this restricts and alienates the very developers who are most capable of creating great games for the platform.
While I wish these restrictions would be removed, I have a hard time believing that they will any time soon. Currently Creators Club is "good enough" for hobbyists to create and sell games, which is Microsoft's expressed goal. A goal that they have achieved very well. The parts that lack are for the elusive "indie studio" such as Novaleaf. Indie studios are not elusive, but ones that focus on XNA are, and because of this I don't think there is enough business pressure for Microsoft to justify the additional investments at this time.
VideoGamer.com: Do you see the Community Games channel as a platform for good sales and a successful business, or is it simply a platform to get a full XBLA publishing deal?
JS: I'm still trying to figure out the long-term viability of the platform, but as I do believe Biology Battle will turn a profit, eventually. I say that with the disclaimer that Biology Battle took only $100k USD to develop, so if my studio was based in the USA I would expect costs at least three times higher, meaning that for the majority of studios perhaps the platform isn't commercially viable yet. As my first game, Biology Battle is more of an experiment and a showcase of my studio's abilities than it is a business venture. I do plan on pitching future ideas to publishers for full XBLA titles, so at minimum I see the platform as a great way for new studios to showcase themselves, and at least for me in Bangkok, I do see Community Games as a viable business strategy, abet unproven for the moment.
VideoGamer.com: Have you had any interest from any publishers since you released Biology Battle?
JS: Nobody's come knocking on our doors yet, but over the next few months I will be using Biology Battle as a showcase of our abilities, and also finding a PC publisher for it.
VideoGamer.com: Tell us a bit about the games currently in development at Novaleaf. Will they also be Community Games?
JS: Currently we are working on a couple of experimental titles (a secret dating sim and "Jason Bomb" which is a platform-puzzle game) while we focus R&D efforts towards "ArenA MechA": building the technology we need for more advanced titles. I don't like talking about gameplay mechanics until I have a playable demo, so suffice it to say that I plan Novaleaf Game Studios to focus on games that would fit well on the XBLA platform, and our long-term plans focus heavily on "Action RPG" style play. You can see a little more details on our site http://games.novaleaf.com, and yes I am currently planning all of our future titles to release on Community Games, unless I find a publisher who will put us on XBLA.
VideoGamer.com: Finally, what future do you see for independent developers? Is 2009 the year of the indie?
JS: I think every year is the year of the indie. I think the downscale pressures of big studios will mean more contracts for indie studios, and the continued rise of digital distribution means a more level, long-tailed playing field too, making 2009 the best year ever for indies!
Biology Battle is available to download now on the Xbox 360 Community Games service for 800 MS Points.